Alan Pio is from Curious. We discuss how prototyping has changed how he does business, its relevance to organisational culture and the effect it has on collaboration and innovation.

Alan was introduced to innovation in business school, and has since done a lot of reading and attending events to strengthen his design thinking knowledge. He’s passionate about the education arm of design thinking, especially in entrepreneurial and school environments.

In the past, Alan would spend enormous amounts of time and money on creating perfect, hi-fidelity prototypes. Design thinking has shown him how quickly one can dirty-prototype an idea – that it doesn’t have to be perfect or expensive and that it’s okay to fail. As long as you learn. We explore the benefits low-fidelity prototyping can have for the prototyping team and the client.

We discuss how empathy – a key principle of design thinking that we tap into when creating and testing products or ideas with potential users – pops up in everyday life, and how you can use this in your personal life to make life better for those you interact with.

One topic we touch on is people and their performance in organisations: people who are connected give better results. But how do we design these positive, collaborative cultures? How do we create and foster a culture of innovation in large organisations? Alan describes the design thinking process he applies to change cultures within organisations by starting out small for big impact.

Alan shares some of the tools that have helped him to start culture change. He notes the benefits of the Business Model Canvas as a starting point for a team to map out their shared vision and get aligned and takes us through what he experienced while implementing it.

If you are unfamiliar with design thinking, listen to episode 1, where we discuss the methods and mindsets of design thinking and clear up some of the terminology.

Welcome to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Where we investigate design thinking, the challenges, the successes and the problems it solves. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of design thinking, check out episode 1. Be sure to subscribe so you get the newest episode as it’s released. Great minds design think alike is hosted by Stuart McDougall, owner of Tenaka, a leading Design thinking consultancy in Johannesburg, South Africa and is proudly brought to you by Mac media.

The conversation with Alan:

This episode I’m talking to Alan Pio from Curious where we discuss how prototyping has changed how he is doing business. And also touch on culture within organizations. And the effect it has on collaboration and innovation.


SM: Ok today I’m sitting with Alan Pio. I met Alan through the design thinking meetups here in Johannesburg. We have done a few projects together. We have been to a few workshops together. And Alan is someone who I think has come into design thinking at quite an early stage in his career. So i think Alan just go ahead and tell us a bit about where you have come from? How you found  design thinking? What you are using it for at the moment?


AP: Ok great. Thanks Stu. Thanks for having us here. Yeah so it kind of started about 2 years ago. I was just going on a little bit of a change in my career. I was working for a long time, like corporate gifting and promotional gift business. And a lot of the production and prototyping, a lot of the principles that we use in our work now there is a lot of relative stuff that I was working with already. Just going into a space of business school. There was a class on innovation. I think that was the first real seed kind of planted what design thinking was about. And the possibilities of innovation and what we can use  it in different tools within our work. And just after that it kind of snowballed into a little bit of effect where I started buying the books from sprint to lean startups. You know the finder of ideas book. Those just kind of built into a whole new world for me. I have family that works in innovation as well. That’s when conversation got deeper, got more connected. And just connecting with Terry Behan on one specific occasion and he just kind of took me through a one on one over a cup of coffee. And I just decided to go really deep from that point. And that’s been an amazing journey, you know. 

I kind of, every time I reflect back on the work that we had been doing in the entrepreneurial trenches for all those years. All the tools that we work with now, could have just been abducted and we could have  moved a bit quicker or faster. And it’s nice to see those measurements. It’s not something that I knew at that time. It’s like how can we use these tools now to help people educate about them from entrepreneurs to schools, to all different areas and we can see how we can just integrate them and see where they fit in? And make people’s lives better in certain areas.


SM: So in that process of going through this and speaking to these mentors and reading these books, what would you say was one fundamental thing that got you saying wow this is amazing? How did it make you feel?


AP: Well, there are so many of those. Just at the top of my head would be the prototyping areas. You know it’s just rapid prototyping and building prototypes. I come from a world where I would spend months developing prototypes, hours on it. And a lot of that time and that effort  being built into that, we show a whole bunch of prototypes to a big bunch of clients and they are just not even interested. And just a lot of work that went into that.


SM: And those prototypes, I’m assuming they were high fidelity then?


AP: A lot of costs. A lot of flying them into the world. Getting manufactured in different parts of the world. And the cost was extremely high. You know when you have something projects for big projects going. They can range anywhere from R15000 to R50000 before you even push play on a job and that just happens in a very quick space, where understanding the principles of prototyping and quick rapid prototyping could be used if we had done sketches just even to start those conversations with a client. And just saying this is the idea, where we are going. We used to go around it by using very good markups, like digital cares and all that sort of stuff. And that definitely helps a lot. But there is a difference in feeling and touching a product rather than an image on the screen. That kind of, you got to go that route on a pretty big order. You know, whatever is on the pipeline.


SM: So this element of the low fidelity prototype versus the high fidelity prototype presentation to the potential customer that’s going to buy it, how do you feel? Because my feeling is that the mindset of somebody who is taking something to somebody who is gonna buy it from me, is a more high fidelity I can make it, the bigger opportunity I have for them to be convinced that this is the right solution for them. Whereas design thinking doesn’t really work like that . give us a bit of context with those experiences because you have been there on both sides I assume.


AP: I think with the low fidelity side, you become like a story. And that becomes your storyboard that you talk around the low fidelity and where its gonna go and you storyboard around that. With the high fidelity it’s polished, and that story in your mind is already been told. You don’t wanna venture down that route. You are like I’m just gonna present that on the table and I’m expecting them to take it. It’s an expectation that you’re gonna let down in many areas. And the low fidelity gets you a little bit more in tune with what that product is gonna do and you can talk about the story from its users to where it’s gonna go. And that story you can kind of tap into your customer’s mind a little bit more deeper. And you can get their immediate feedback. It’s like actually no, I’m not thinking like that. My story is very different to your story. So put your story down on the table and we can start discussing. You know having that and opening up those sorts of discussions you have already ironed out so much of that already.  Its just like people like to present these high fidelities in many ways because it makes them feel good. They feel good doing it but you don’t need to do it. You can get around by doing a low fidelity. And save yourself a ton of cash. And rather spend that cash on other resources to buffer up and to fix the areas of the customer.


SM: Yeah so I mean, what you are saying is that and our interpretation of this has always been like the lower fidelity version of the prototype that you can present, means you as the producer of that prototype are less precious about it. The person you are interviewing can give feedback without feeling like they are destroying something that has already been created to a finished product. It almost like welcomes this way to say destroy it, tell me what’s wrong with it. Give me candid feedback and honest feedback. 


AP: It’s like saying, “the better bad ideas go to die the better the world will be.


SM: And it’s that failing forward again which is the principle of design thinking it’s like don’t be too scared to fail because at a low prototype version of what you are presenting. It costs you nothing anyway. Move on to the next version.


AP: It comes with that personality over being overly optimistic. The culture and mindset of a designer that says keep failing, keep being optimistic about it, keep the customers in the room let them be the deciding point when you tell them you are actually onto something. And that kind of a nice balance of always keeping those different mindsets on the room. And that kind moves things forward quite quickly.


SM: So you are coming from this innovation space. The empathizing part of design thinking and obviously going out there and first uncovering the need or want of the person that you feel like you are gonna be solving a problem for. Have you had much experience that before even getting to the prototyping stage?


AP: No. Two days ago, I lost a very nice gift that was given to me. I was given a pen by a friend. I went up to the place where I was sitting and I asked the lady on the counter, did you see my pen? And she was like nope. She did her own thing, she was like sorry. You know just this whole, kind of made me realize how much work I have had to do on empathy to understand something like that. Before I think I would never picked up on that. It wouldn’t be a thing to see, maybe that’s just someone having a day or that’s just their culture aspect, or that’s just how they work. But now for me that’s it’s almost like something I can deeply enjoy in my empathy. It’s like ok I see that now. And it’s almost like how do I kind of learn from that and just keep making it better. 


SM: So it filters into other areas of how you work or how you think and how you do things.


AP: It’s popping up. You are somehow like aware of it. There are so many areas in your work, I love Brene Brown’s quote around it is that “empathy is the connection to it in an emotion that underpins an experience”.  And what she writes about in her book is that empathy is one thing where we are standing in somebody else’s shoes and that becomes a way that people like to define it. She is taking it a little bit of a step further, is like the part about standing in somebody else’s shoes is when you are in that emotion with somebody, Instead of being pulled down. You know when everyone gets in that emotion like yeah man I’m so sorry about that. You both struggle about that emotion and it pulls everyone down. No one is moving forward and that’s a stopping point. That’s actually where she takes it a step further; it’s about standing in somebody else’s shoes but not being in that emotion and being pulled down.

So you are in that experience but you are still pulling them forward. So it’s almost like that was a bit of a change for me and empathy. It’s like when something is like a prototype goes a little bit south whatever the case is it’s like I can see it but I’m not gonna get pulled down. I’m not attached to it and you can actually move forward pretty quickly of that and all these types of situations where empathy keeps popping up its like that is the new attachment. So you’re kind of in the middle somewhere. It’s not just like I’m standing in somebody else’s shoes trying to figure it out with them or their situation. You are kind of standing in their shoes but you are also standing in your own space to move them forward. 

When you start looking at building products from that perspective it can change quite a lot. And you know, you are definitely pivoting and moving things a lot quicker than just always kind of being stuck, like ok what are we going to do now? Should we try another sprint, whatever it is. If you got a couple of people in that mindset you can actually move quite quickly around that.


SM: I noticed that you are moving into the cultural space in organizations. And talking about design sprints and designing obviously cultures in organizational design. Give us a bit of information about that. What is that entailing, how do you see that rolling out for organizations?


AP: It’s a topic that keeps coming up and people and performers have been a deep passion of mine for a long time. It’s just something where I believe that there is a lot of power in the room where people are truly connecting on the same level. And the dialogue is happening between people in the right spaces. And It comes down to the dialogue and its just managing those perspectives from everyone else in the room. But we are living in times where you hear the word toxic coming out in many different areas of discussions. And people are truly struggling to innovate without having people in the same same room being able to work at their best and highest potential. And for me you can innovate and you can create all these great products but at the end of the day at some point it comes back to humans. It comes back to the actual physical person. For me it’s having that physical alignment with culture and innovation in the same room. And having it at the forefront of every discussion has become an even more important topic for me personally to drive it. 

Just looking at Netflix have a very interesting culture. Penny McCord who was heading HR for like 12 years. She refined that program so many times. She even knew her space was not gonna be there forever because they have a culture of really high performance. And they treat their employees like sports stars. Like a baseball super league sport star. And they train them like sports stars. And it’s a very interesting mindset. It’s just like kind of when you are going on and you are training a team to do a job and when the team is not jelling or it’s not working it’s likely to be moved because you are out to win. I think when you start shifting the mindset around that, they get all these interesting areas of having responsibility and freedom as part of the culture. It gives people a lot of room to move really quickly. And I think that’s where my inspiration is. It’s not Netflix per say, it’s understanding all the different cultures of organizations from Zappos who got like a very friendly environment. And seeing how we can mesh them up and understand what tools are available, and just get people talking you know. We have got all these different levels in organizations. You get guys that have been in banks for 25 years. They understand the culture. They have seen the change and develop but they are not integrating with the new younger generation. Everybody else is coming in and it will be amazing to really get those conversations going. How can we get that experience passed on to the younger generation? Cause I think there is a big detachment in many areas there. We are losing a lot of good talent because of that. The knowledge transfer that is a possibility of that.


SM: So how are you bring the design sprints or design thinking into changing these organizations’ culture? What is your process? If you can just give us just like an example of how you go about doing that.


AP: You know there is a treasure and mouse as Gray and I used to call it. It’s around the lean principles and MVP (minimum viable product principles) which I’m using a system called MBO which is (minimum viable organization). So it’s almost like treating a point in an organization of what we are gonna work on. And that’s where the mouse  kind of goes in. And from using it, it’s also a very low cost way of testing. Testing culture as an organization. We can do it and test with paper. And all these things for a low fidelity prototype. We can do that in all organizations and cultures as well. And go in there and actually get those discussions going. And start testing different workshops with online programs etc. But what can be done on a low cost area and what’s working in terms of where, I think it’s a lot to do with your vision mapping and getting executives on your vision alignment and you know, working around those types of areas. And looking at ways to scale from that. When you start plugging into a culture where the teams are aligning and they are moving really quickly. You can start mapping out all the triggers that are happening within the environment. And start looking at opportunities of how we are gonna scale that. Yeah there is lots of new interesting tools that we keep reading about every day. I think that is probably a confusing point for a lot of people.


SM: The choosing of these kinds of tools. Is there a process that you go through or is it a case of testing and refining iterating on your side. What is the ideal methodology or tool to use in any particular case or particular organization?


AP: Being a people person, I like talking to people. It’s like I’m stuck and this is the situation, what would your ideas be? And having those conversations with a bunch of senior heads around  the table or maybe some people have worked in some of the situations they can expand the tools of what’s happened. And that can also be a testing phase you know. The nice tools to really start at some point the business model canvases and stuff like that. Really just to map the environments really well. And that’s a good starting point. You can start seeing your value proposition very quickly. Where understand the businesses are very synthesized versions. Then look at the tools to scale on top of that or where to test in those areas on the canvas. But you know every job is different right. It’s like you are kind of looking at which ones we should use, I suppose. 


SM: And nature it into that sort of problem that they are experiencing or what’s gonna give them the best result or interpretation of the data that they can give you.


AP: Yeah. It’s like throwing in the cultural discussions like I had a bunch of architects, a small team of very highly progressive traditional architects and it was like the way we can start it is let’s just throw in a 16 personality test like a minus bricks test for example. The reason I did that is because the team has been working together. They have had this company for like 10 years. Sometimes you get too close and your personalities change and a lot changes over that time. And doing that test, even though those tests were not proven to be perfect. It gives you a talking point of where your strengths are. And it was quite a nice way to do it, you know. It was kind of going there and saying we are all around the table, we are all adults. Let’s talk from a place of what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. And sometimes even working together for 10  to 12 years. A lot of the time we haven’t spoken about what we are not good at. It’s like sometimes it just needs to be expressed to us. That just got the team jelling. There was some tension and stuff going on but. You know with the time we mapped up the business mobile canvas, everyone was like ok we are all on the same page now. I have kind of learnt who you are as a person, not entirely but I have learnt something new of where you struggle with. Maybe I will step in next time instead of expecting you to hold on to it. You know. I think it was just like, that’s not gonna change everything we are doing but it’s a start of the journey, you know. And it’s a nice place to start sometimes. So I think every job and every personality it’s like, I like to talk about people first. Really get to know what’s going on. Maybe from a personal perspective what are their personal struggles, where are they going? Do they have certain objectives? What are they trying to achieve in the long term? And those fall into the sprints kind of areas. But it’s kind of good to know some of those. Sometimes the personality thing can shift people into a stronger gear. And sometimes these can come together quite nicely and work pretty fast.


SM: I think getting the team in this particular case to do the business model canvas together, also gives that alignment. So everybody is singing off the same hymn sheet now. There is no one like going off in one direction different to somebody else and another direction. Because you have all compiled the business model canvas together. Am I correct?


AP: Yeah. And just getting everyone. And engagement. I think it’s kind of where understanding going to the left side of the business model canvases is like your partnerships and all of that area. And you know, that can spark innovation. Leveraging partnerships. And It’s like before they knew who they were. It’s just when it’s put into a small block just on the left hand side it gets a different discussion going. And it’s because it’s new. Even though these teams have been working together in  their own ways, just traditional values of how they have worked. And there is nothing wrong with that. This just shows you a different way of working. 


SM: Changes perspective.


AP: Exactly, it’s like Slack came in to take down email for example. They haven’t taken it down but they are just showing people a different way of how to adjust and how to share information. And that’s what kind of this is. It’s like you are looking at it from a different perspective. Saying this is one way to work now, what can we build on that? And  keep those discussions going. I quite like, especially on the executive and director level. It’s like talking about books. I think there is a lot of books and my time is precious as well. It’s kind of understanding what books you are reading in a space that they are trying to achieve. And if I have read it I will talk about it. If I don’t it’s something I wanna go on a journey with the team and try and understand it from what they have learnt. That area of the nab whatever it is or what we are talking about.


SM: Right now what book would you be recommending people to read? Because I know you are an avid reader.


AP: I’m reading quite an interesting one now it’s: The Rebel Playbook of Engagement and its people engagement and its how like rebels have been able to actually get a lot of traction going and become influencers and leaders in organizations. Because they get across the bridges much quicker than everybody else. Bridges have been built in, either they break it or they will take it in a different way. So of the stuff it’s been like the easy reads which you know a lot of the stuff already. It’s just wow ok that’s why you can move really quickly. And you can actually build race from teams. Generally rebels are empathetic. They break a lot of the rules and they step outside the drawing lines. And you know they are generally in trouble a lot of times and they get it really well. They know what it’s like to be an outsider sometimes. And that generally when your team is struggling they can step in very quickly and they actually help everybody out. So that’s really a great read. Another one is the Patagonia book that I just finished reading. The clothing ground and a little bit off topic but they got a lot of philosophies. And design thinking is a philosophy. So it’s like how we could take them, they have a whole bunch of production  philosophies, design philosophies, they have become like the most socially aware company  on the planet. Their clothing, the ethics that they built their company on are incredible. It’s just like we can learn so much from that. And there is so many areas that I learnt in my personal footprint of what I’m doing. It’s like how can I adapt similar kinds of mindsets or philosophies into the work that I’m doing. Make decisions based on some of the kind of assumption around it. That was kind of an interesting read around it because it, they had all the cards stacked up against them. And no one’s gonna support a company that’s trying to do good. You know. Trying to over charge when you are paying R4500 for a jacket or everything is made out of organic cotton.

Just all seems kind of fairy, but when you read what the purpose behind it is. GMO cotton is doing to the environment around the globe is crazy. It takes you a few steps deeper into it. It just got me thinking just in terms of how we should be living and what we can do to make it better.


SM: Awesome. So Alan, the kind of work you are doing at the moment, the kind of work you are looking for, the kind of clients you would like to engage with. Give us a little insight into that. And then at the same time where people can get hold of you or find you?


AP: Yeah. So my perfectly aligned world is doing sprints. From problem framing to growth, then to running a full design sprint. And that’s where my passions lie. And actually building a high fidelity prototype at the end of the process. That’s become quite a specialist area. So anyone who is interested they wanna get talking. We do lightning decision jams which is a one and a half hour process you come in and just teach a few of the principles and mindsets about running a sprint and its a quick problem solving exercise. And so you can come in and we can choose a topic. Just do a random topic just to get a feel for it. And go in and actually we resolve something. Something tangible you will be able to see what it’s about and the biggest sprints where we kind of plan out where we wanna take it a little bit deeper. My company is called Curious and you can get me on


SM: Thanks Alan, appreciate your time.


AP: Cool.


SM: And we will catch up again soon.


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