Let’s talk about paper

It’s been a week of talking about paper. Specifically, organisations that continue to insist on printing & sending information to customers, whether they like it or not.

In 2018 there’s really no excuse for doing that. The common refrain is, “well, we’ve always done it like that”. However that doesn’t mean you should be.

Last weekend I recorded a video about accountants posting financial statements to their clients for signing, without any explanation of what these statements mean. It’s a practice that many accountants have used for decades, but what we found in our research before we launched Ashton McGill was that clients really dislike this. They often don’t understand what they’re being asked to sign, it feels cold and impersonal, and there’s no attempt to explain or educate.

That video generated a lot of interest and people shared their individual stories with us. We got a bunch of enquiries on the back of it, and so for we’ve won 3 new clients as a result. There’s a message there for the luddites who insist on continuing to send stuff out in the mail……

The second example this week was a local college whose finance department insist on posting paper invoices out to customers. This seems to be a practice that many education institutions still use. They also expected us to phone them to make payment. I mean, really?!? Their process couldn’t have been less customer-friendly if they had tried.

And yet we see this sort of thing time and time again. Systems designed around the needs of the organisation, without any thought for the user or customer. Systems that are never reviewed, they just do it that way because……..well, because that’s how they’ve always done it.

Surely we can do better than that? You have my email address, you know my name, company, and our physical address (because you insist on mailing stuff there!), so why not email me a copy instead? It’s costing you money to post documents to me. Not only the paper cost, the ink, the envelope, the postage, but also the cost of someone’s time to do this.

Then I’ve got to do something with the paper documents. I’ll sign them if I have to (assuming I understand what I’m signing!), scan them, then email them back to you (see the irony there?) before shredding them. What a waste of time.

So, come on. If you’re the recipient of this type of behaviour, then insist they change (unless you like receiving mail!). And if you’re printing, stuffing envelopes, sticking on a stamp, then mailing them – ask yourself why? More importantly, ask your customers what they want.

We don’t need to print. Not only will it save you time, it’s also better for the environment. It’s time to be better.

Where do good ideas come from?

I had lunch earlier this week with an old colleague. He currently works for a global business, gets paid well, but feels no joy in the work. He’d love to setup his own business, but doing what? He just doesn’t know.

We spoke about different ways to start the idea generation process. When I worked at the University of Dundee a few years ago, we did some work with Stanford’s BioDesign programme. It’s designed to create new businesses in the healthcare field and at the time their process had created over 120 new ventures.

The first stage in the BioDesign programme sees students being immersed in the clinical environment (Stanford University Hospital), where their only job is to identify problems. Over a six week period they are tasked with finding 200 ‘needs or problems’. Things that don’t work, where staff or patients are experiencing frustration or worse.

They are taught not to think about solutions, simply to find things that don’t work. In the Design Thinking model this is what we’d call the Discovery stage, where empathy is vital to understanding how others experience a situation.

So I shared this story over lunch. My friend loved it and has decided to start noticing things that don’t work and writing them down. I suggested creating a Google doc or Evernote file so that these ideas are captured and can be shared. You see, idea generation is rarely a solitary endeavour. It involves conversation, sharing ideas and collaboration. The more diverse the people you share them with the better.

The other thing I’ve done recently, with thanks to running coach and writer Mario Fraioli, is create something called a Spark File. Not only do I use it to capture needs or problems, but also interesting articles or ideas for blog posts.

The notion that you can’t be creative or come up with ideas is a fallacy – it’s just that many of us don’t know how. The creativity that we had as children has been taught out of us, so we think we can’t. But maybe we just need to be shown a different way?

How do you come up with ideas? Any tips you’d like to share?

Mind your language!

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day working with two of the world’s best designers. It was an inspirational day, learning from people at the very top of their profession. In sport it would be like being able to spend a day training with Lionel Messi or Eliud Kipchoge (one for the runners!).

During my years of working in and around the design profession, I’ve noticed that with the best designers, everything they do is thoughtfully done. Right down to the words they use.

Designers are more likely to use open questions. Instead of saying, “do you think we could do X?”, they’ll say, “How could we do X?”. It’s a subtle but important difference. The answer to the first question could easily be “No”, whereas the second question invites discussion. Good design is about conversation.

On that day in question, there was a word & phrase that our world class designers kept on using. They were even committed to print on our agenda! What were they? Let me tell you.

The phrase was “How might we…..”. Every question or discussion was prefaced with these three words. How Might We is an actual design technique developed by IDEO to turn challenges or problems into opportunities for design. Each of these words is there for a reason:

  • How invites us to be curious, to be inventive and to imagine
  • Might suggests there could be multiple ways to solve this problem
  • We encourages collaboration

So from now on, whenever you’re faced with a challenge or a problem that needs solving, use these three words. How might we…..

The other word that was used a lot, particularly in the breakout sessions in the afternoon, was Argument. After being set the challenge “How might we…” do something, we were then told to ‘have an argument’ about it within our groups. Not a discussion, but an argument. I’d never seen this approach used before, and will admit that when I run workshops I ask my groups to have a discussion.

I guess the reason for telling us to have an argument, is to encourage people to speak up and have different views. Often a discussion ends up being led by the strongest of the group. I saw this happen at a workshop we did at the University recently – you’re left wondering what ideas weren’t shared and about the possible solutions that never emerged.

However, giving us permission to have an argument, to share our views no matter how diametrically opposed they are, makes sure that we get everything on the table. It was incredibly clever, and I’ll be stealing it for my own workshops. In fact I’ve already tried it a couple of times!

In our busy lives, it might seem inconsequential to spend time thinking about the words we use. However, until the robots take over then we’re designing with and for humans, so using the right language in every situation will make a big difference in the outcomes we achieve.

Do you ask open or closed questions? How might we help you change? Let’s have an argument about words in the comments below!

I’m back!

Well, that’s been two weeks away from blogging, and what a busy two weeks it’s been!

The first week was the Design Sprint at DJCAD, where Louise and I worked with 80 amazing students during an intense, emotional rollercoaster of a week. This was one of the most rewarding weeks of my working life.

I’ve been recovering over the past week if truth be told, and acclimatising back to the world of business after my week as a design lecturer. Oh, and getting new furniture – you’ll hear more about that in this week’s Vlog, which will be online at 8am on Tuesday.

So what have I learned over the past couple of weeks? Firstly, my time at DJCAD (I was also teaching there on Friday) confirmed my love for teaching that I wrote about recently.

I also learned a huge amount from Louise about how to plan, manage and teach a module. I loved that we had a structure that allowed us to adapt to the needs of the students, a fluid and dynamic approach that I hadn’t encountered teaching in other parts of the University. It put the students front and centre and I liked that. I liked that a lot!

Going forward, I’m going to be doing more teaching. I’m really excited about that. It’s a nice balance to the commercial work that I do.

We’ve also won some great new business at Ashton McGill over the past fortnight, and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into several exciting projects. I’m also looking forward to having Andy with me in Dundee soon.

I’ve left the most exciting thing until last. I’m going to see Simon Sinek speak in London in May! I managed to get tickets along with several friends from the Content Marketing Academy. Simon has been a huge influence on me over the past several years, so I can’t wait to see him in the flesh!

I love teaching

A few months ago I was pondering what it is that I really love doing. I spent a Saturday morning freewriting and mind mapping, and by the end it had become clear – teaching! I’d been talking about the fog I’d had around this with my friend Caroline McKenna earlier that week, so I excitedly messaged her as I was getting the bus into town that morning to tell her about my breakthrough.

Her response? “We all knew that Ali – it’s obvious!”

Sometimes others can see the things that we can’t, no matter how hard we look.

For most of my life, my teaching has been done in the world of business. I’m always excited to learn new things, and as a regular speaker, I spend a lot of my time helping others to learn. It makes me happy, and I get a huge sense of achievement when people who come to my workshops and talks tell me how much they’ve learned.

In 2014 I started working at the University of Dundee as Head of Enterprise & Entrepreneurial Strategy. Once we’d designed the strategy for the University, I quickly found myself in a position where I had to design the content for an academic module, and then deliver it. For someone who never went to University, this was kind of a big deal and I threw myself into it with gusto.

Resources were tight, so I didn’t have a great deal of support. Not having an academic background turned out to be an advantage – I tried things that someone with more experience wouldn’t have. I was rapid-prototyping, iterating on the move. We got the module designed and delivered, with high energy and interactivity. It wasn’t what they were used to. But I always had a sense that we were getting through by force of personality, and that the academic rigour wasn’t as strong as it could be.

Fast forward to the winter of 2016. By now I’d moved on from my role at the University (although I’m still the Entrepreneur in Residence), to focus on growing my business. Dr. Louise Valentine from DJCAD got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in helping her deliver a module called 21st Century Designer to 80 second year design students. I jumped at the chance.

We’re two days into a seven day module, the first two days being on consecutive Tuesdays, with a five day Design Sprint taking place next week. I’m having a great time, and as well as helping to teach, I’m learning so much! I’m learning how to plan, organise, communicate, teach, and provide support.

Teaching in an art & design school is more dynamic than in the more ‘traditional’ subjects that I’ve taught on before. I’m learning that you need to be resilient, authentic, open, adaptable, and prepared to expect the unexpected. I’ve also realised how far out of my depth I was before, and still am at times. But this time I have the support of not just an amazing, inspiring, professional colleague in Louise, but also by a wonderful group of students who are teaching me as much as I them.

Next week we enter the sprint. 5 full-on days, working together on a social innovation challenge. I’ve never done a Sprint before. I’m excited, it’s going to be intense, emotional, fun, challenging, and I’m going to learn a lot about myself. I’m ready to lean-in to my discomfort.

I also couldn’t have a better group of people to be working with, all 80 of us. Bring it on!

Marketing 2.0

I spent a fun evening yesterday delivering a workshop for students on the Enterprise Challenge at the University of Dundee. I love teaching, and take every opportunity to get in front of a group of people to help them learn new things.

This week I’ve run three workshops, as well as a full day of teaching at DJCAD. That makes me happy.

Last night I’d been asked to talk about marketing. I designed a very interactive session – it’s much more fun for all of us that way. We had some great discussions, debates, and learned from one another in a fun way. The two hours passed in a heartbeat.

What impressed me last night was how switched on the students were. They asked some really insightful questions, and often got to the answers to my questions quicker than I expected. They’re also really switched on when it comes to using social platforms for business. When I asked the question, “Which platforms should you be using?”, the answer came back straight away – “The ones where your audience are.”

I’ve asked that question of business people often, and rarely do they answer it so quickly.

I did manage to get them on two counts however. No-one in the room had heard of Gary Vaynerchuck. That surprised me! Secondly, only a couple were familiar with the concept of Content Marketing. That also surprised me.

So, dear students, make it your business to know this stuff. If you came to me for a marketing role, and couldn’t give me chapter & verse on content marketing, or talk to me about your opinion on GaryVee, then we wouldn’t be taking things any further.

Still room to up your game 🙂

Be More Human

Yesterday morning I spoke to 80 design students at DJCAD about communication. We talked about the importance of writing or creating content regularly and how the more often you do it, the easier it gets. We spoke about the need to reflect, to think our own ideas, and not just write about what we did.

Kevin Anderson from The StoryEdge joined us for the afternoon, and after some Northern Soul (wait until you see next week’s vlog!), Kevin delivered a spell-binding talk about how to write with confidence. We were all luck to be there.

I’ve just been scrolling through twitter, and the vast majority of what I’m seeing is just soulless content. Content that’s written for SEO benefit, but not to get humans to engage with it! Which is why none of us do.

Mark Schaefer talked about it when he spoke about Content Shock – the sheer volume of content now overwhelms us.

So when you write, do what Kevin says and take your time to plan it. Write that Ugly First Draft. Share your thoughts and feelings, tell your story. Write the piece that you’d want to read.

Be authentic, be honest, be open, and be you.

Be. More. Human.