Believe in Better

On Saturday evening we went to hear my good friend Lauren Currie speak at the University of Dundee. Lauren is one of the people who’ve inspired me on my journey in the world of design over the last decade, so it’s always a delight to see her.

When she introduces herself on stage she’ll typically say, “I’m Lauren Currie and I believe in better”. It’s a simply phrase, but one that sits at the core of everything she is and does.

Lauren has this ability to make you look at the world in a different way, to see the things that aren’t working, and then to do something about it. All with a focus on social change and making our world better.

It’s become a mantra for me too over the past few years. It’s why I do what I do. Why I get involved in the things that I do. It’s a question I ask of myself each and every day – are you really making things better today?

Let me explain.

My world is the world of business. It’s where I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life. For several years I’ve been trying to find my ‘thing’. Where can I make most impact; how can I help people the most?

It was staring me in the face, and it was my son & business partner Andy who helped me to see it. You see, I’m an accountant. Always have been and always will be. An accountant with an ability to communicate often complex things in an easy to understand way. An accountant who’s embraced the world of design and who believes in better.

That’s why we setup our accounting business last year. We could see that the world of accounting wasn’t delivering what customers needed. Accounting needed to change and we were up for the challenge of leading the way.

We’re now 9 months into the journey and I believe that we’re making a difference. But there’s still lots to be done. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Do you believe in better? How can you use your skills and experience to make a positive difference? I’d love to hear your thoughts….

Hitting the reset button

First up, a happy new year to you! I’ve been offline quite a bit since the end of the year – a conscious decision – so this is my first post in a while.

I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but recently (around mid-December) I realised that I was wasting too much time on pointless things like TV & social media, and when I sat down and really thought about it (actually, this probably happened on one of my morning runs!), it became clear when this slow drift started to happen.

You see, before I began marathon training in June of last year, I had been meditating daily for well over a year. The practice of meditation helped me not only quiet my mind, but also focus my time and energy on things that mattered most.

As anyone that’s trained for a marathon will know, the training becomes all consuming – it takes over your life – and the only way I could fit it all in was to find more time in my day. And so my meditation practice slowly faded away.

With the marathon well out of the way, a new business launched and going great guns, and a realisation that my mind was getting back to being really busy and thinking about the future, in mid December I decided to start meditating again. I’m now on day 28 and feeling much better for it.

There’s a few other things I’ve started doing too. First up, I’m back to journaling every day again – something else that stopped with marathon training. Now my morning routine consists of getting up around 5.30am, meditating (I use the Headspace app), exercising – usually a run – then making breakfast, brewing some delicious Sacred Grounds coffee, and journaling.

This was my routine before the marathon, and I really feel that it’s beneficial for my physical & mental wellbeing. The other addition this year – and for this one credit goes to my good friend, and recent podcast guest, Chris Marr – is that each morning I’ll read from the Daily Stoic and reflect on that day’s reading. This stuff goes back to Roman times, but it’s as relevant today as it was back then, maybe more so!

I’ve introduced a couple more ‘hacks’ designed to make my life better. In no particular order these are:

  • All notifications on my iPhone are switched off, other than a couple of apps we use as a family to communicate. To be fair, I started doing this back in the summer last year and it’s amazing the difference when you’re not being distracted by social media or email notifications. I’ve gotten better at not checking email or twitter, although I could still be better. That’s a work in progress; and
  • I’ve deleted Facebook off my phone & iPad, so I can only check it when I’m on my MacBook. I’ve been using facebook less and less, so deleting the app was the next logical step. This weekend I missed a couple of messages, which was a little annoying, but nothing too important. I’m wondering what else I can delete?

So at the start of 2018 it feels like I’ve hit the reset button. I’m more present, more in the moment, less dependent on that damn phone screen.

Are you making any changes at the start of the year? I’d love to hear what your routine looks like in the morning!

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!

How might we travel in the future?

Over the past couple of months I’ve been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus. It’s been a fascinating deep-dive into our past, present & future.

One of the things it’s made me question is how we use transport – in particular the car. Joanna & I are no different to many families today in that we have two cars. We live in Inchture, work in Dundee, and in my case I do quite a bit of driving to and from meetings. But is owning two cars really necessary? Let’s think about it.

Our two cars spend about 90% of their lives sitting unused. Overnight they sit in our drive. Then we use them to drive to work the next morning – usually a commute of between 15-25 minutes, depending on the traffic. Whilst we’re at work all day they sit idle, before making the journey back home at the end of the day.

A couple of evenings a week we’ll have stuff on; stuff that requires us to travel back in to Dundee or sometimes to Perth. And of course we use them a bit more on the weekend.

But most of the time they sit there unused. Then there’s the cost! The cost of ownership, of fuel, insurance and servicing. It adds up.

If these were business assets, as an accountant I’d be seriously questioning their worth. Yet because we own them personally, and it’s kind of what humans do, then we don’t have that conversation.

We should though, shouldn’t we? Are there different ways we could travel to work? How might we re-design our working days so that only one car is needed? Or none? How will car ownership work in the future?

If you live in a bigger city, then you can already make use of services such as Zipcar where you hire instead of own the car. Not only does it cost a lot less, but it’s also much better for the environment.

How many cars sit idle for 90% of the time? I’d guess around 90%. That can’t be sensible in anyone’s book.

It’s time to reinvent the way we travel. So how might we do that?

Why are you still charging by the hour?

When I worked for Ernst & Young back in the early 90s, we had to account for every 10 minutes of our time. Each hour equated to 6 units, and we had a weekly target of billing a minimum of 75% of chargeable time.

In reality, most of us were billing over 100% of our time – working 70-80 hours, that was how you got on in the firm back then. Time was our currency.

The legal profession worked on similar principals, charging clients for the amount of time spent. It was a model that worked really well for the Professions – you could plan with certainty and huge profits were made.

Little has changed over the past 20 years.

So why do I have a problem with charging for time? Quite simply, it rewards inefficiency. The longer you spend on something, the more it costs me as the client. Where’s the incentive for you to innovate, to think out of the box? No, it’s easier just to load time onto the client.

But the world has changed. That kind of behaviour is no longer acceptable.

However the majority are still doing it and that’s where the opportunity lies. Modern firms think like businesses. They’re designed around the needs of the clients, not the needs of the firm.

Pricing is fixed. As the client, you know exactly how much you’re paying and what you’re getting for that. It’s much fairer. If you can innovate and find more cost-effective ways of delivering your service, then that’s absolutely fine. As long as both parties recognise the value that’s being delivered, at a fair price, then no-one will have a problem.

The days of the accountant & lawyer dictating terms are over. For those that don’t adapt, it’ll be a bleak future. Put the client front and centre. Focus on delivering value.

It’s what every other kind of business has to do, now it’s time for you to think like a business too…..

Edinburgh’s Trams are not a good User Experience!

We went to Edinburgh yesterday. When we go at the weekend, we tend to make use of the park & ride at Ingliston and take the Tram in to the City Centre. It saves paying a ridiculous amount for parking, and it’s a lot less stressful.

Over the past couple of years I’ve observed the process of buying a ticket for the tram. It’s terrible, and it seems as though no thought has been given to the passenger – particularly if they’re from overseas. For many people arriving at Edinburgh Airport, the tram will be their first experience with Scottish hospitality, and it’s not a good one.

First of all, there are signs saying that you MUST buy a ticket before you get on the tram. However, if you’re not a native English speaker, then there’s a good chance that you’ll miss these, and then run the risk of a fine (or on-board ticket as the website calls it) of £10.

The number of times we’ve arrived at Ingliston just as a tram is pulling in, and been unable to get on because we haven’t got a ticket yet, must be into double figures. In the winter, when the wind whips through, those 10-15 minutes can be awful. So cold!

I’ve noticed visitors from Japan & America struggle to pay with their cards – which don’t have chip & pin – at the ticket machines. The little keyboard that you’re meant to enter your PIN on is also too low – unless you happen to be 5′ 2″.

Today, on our way back to Ingliston, we witnessed a ridiculous situation. A young German girl had got on at Princes St without a ticket. The ‘Ticket Services Assistant’, to be fair to him, didn’t try to charge her £10. Instead, he gave her change so that she could get off the tram, buy a ticket, and then get back on the next tram. Is that really how we should be treating visitors to our country?

I think the trams are great, let’s get that out there. It’s just that NO THOUGHT has been given to making this a simple process for the user. It’s been designed entirely with the needs of the Tram Company at the core, and in my view that’s COMPLETELY THE WRONG WAY AROUND. It needs to be designed around the User’s needs – make it easy for them.

Have you used the Trams? What’s been your experience? Let me know!