Ulrich has an intense passion for design thinking and chats to us via a Zoom call for this episode. He is an experience designer at McKinsey and is the founder of Leftfield Lab. He shares his perspective on how creatives need to be more collaborative in working to solve problems, and the need to change corporate mindsets to accept creatives in the strategic decision-making process.

Ulrich talks about how important it is for corporates to become deeply immersed and interested in customer behaviour without a solution bias. We talk about this in relation to the African context and the ways in which it should be used to solve real problems.

Ulrich shares his opinions on the current landscape of corporate South Africa, where design thinking fits in and the pitfalls of how it is currently being approached and implemented. We also talk about how design thinking cannot be a template-based approach, but should rather take into consideration the bigger picture.

We talk about global versus local maturity levels of design thinking, as well as the reasons for this disparity and how we can help local design thinking practices mature.

Ulrich talks us through three design thinking projects where he employed the full process and why this was so hugely successful, as well as the challenges he and the team faced.

Prototyping and rapid testing again come up as a hot topic, important in the spheres of product development.

Ulrich expresses his view on the future of design thinking education, entrepreneurship and leadership in South Africa and what he sees this looking like in the future, based on what he is currently experiencing.

We also talk about the future of work, and how corporates will need to adjust to a new reality in the not so distant future. Today’s high paying jobs may no longer exist in a few years, which stresses the need for businesses to rethink their structures and operations.

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 terminologies.

The conversation with Ulrich

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.


Today I got to do a Zoom call with someone who has a passion for design, Ulrich Meyer-Höllings, currently an experienced designer at McKinsey and the founder of Left Field Lab. He shares his perspective on how creatives need to be more collaborative in working to solve problems. We also discuss the need to change our corporate mindsets to accept creatives in the strategy decision making process. 


S: I’m sitting with Ulrich today. Thanks Ulrich for your time, I really appreciate it. I came across you and Ian back in the day, a couple of years ago now. When you were associated with Future by design. And when I met you in person, you came across as a guy who is really really passionate about design. And solving real problems using design. That led me to think you would be a great person for me to have a chat with and just share like the insights, that you have around design. But I think before we get into that maybe just give everyone a little bit of a background on like where you came from, how you came across design thinking and what’s its brought you to today. And then dig a bit deeper with that.


U: Great. Thank you so much guys. Yah i think it’s a very topical and meaningful conversation. We are at a crossroads as design thinkers with all the shifts and the changes that are happening. So my journey came via the innovation side. That was my academic foundation and after looking at innovation in large organizations in corporate I bumped into some design thinkers in Scandinavia so I finished my studies abroad and that was a company in Denmark that had taken a very human centered approach to invasion which was something the Scandinavians are very good at. So they are very good students of human behavior and they design products and systems and services and businesses around people’s needs, Cause it’s more like a cultural value thing in Scandinavia. And this business has been very influential I think in shaping how I look at design. 


So that was my entry point back then. In a normal project we would spend as much time as possible with the people up front. And I think that’s a practice that I have kept going. There is one of the really famous German designers that I admire called Dieter Rams. He is  very famous. From Apple, Jonny Eye copied most of the design principles that he had. He said the biggest sin that we designers often make is that we design for ourselves, our friends and for people that are normally not represented. This has been my mantra all through the years to say it always starts with who I’m designing for. And I’m not designing for myself and I shouldn’t make assumptions about what people need. And it’s been a battle, I think, to this day to convince clients to become deeply deeply immersed and interested in people’s behavior without a solution bias. And I think that’s where as much as I’m ecstatic about design and having a seat at the table is where we are currently, that is still my main battle to actually make sure that the voice of the customer is not lost. And not overridden by other voices. Normally then, money or technology. Or other voices that provide a very strong bias.


To make the long story short i think specifically as a design thinker in Africa I think it’s a very specific context. And I think the world is looking to us actually to create more human systems and more systems that are in sync with nature and with humanity and I think that’s very important for us to develop our own approach and not copy what other people are doing.


S: In your own opinion at the moment are you finding that design thinking as a method of solving problems particularly in the corporate space in South Africa is growing or do you still feel like there is resistance and lack of understanding of what power this kind of process could have . Where do you see it in the landscape currently? 


U: I would really agree with your last statement. I think companies have not experienced the full impact of design thinking in the way that it’s a mindset. I think  sort of 80% of the current practice that are looking at is still people that are downloading  templates, filling out  templates. So using a very templated generic way to apply design thinking and not developing a way of looking at the world which is the big Aha moment. If you become a design thinker that’s the ultimate transformation. This point in time and all of us that were independent design thinkers we have been eaten up by the management consultancies. So all of them have discovered this tool now but they are packaging it. And they have a very clear agenda because what they actually selling is not design thinking but software deployment. It’s always hidden or bundled into another agenda with a very clear outcome. So then the design thinking phase becomes a precursor to massive digital transformation projects, it really loses its impact and what makes it special. Then I think  this is where they go  wrong, corporates get this delusion , and say listen , I have tried this design thinking stuff, it doesn’t work. what they try is not the real craft of design thinking. That’s where the current practice lacks foundation, lacks depth and is often very superficially deployed. And the one thing, as you know I’m very passionate about human behavior and understanding that. And I’m amazed that when we do work in corporates where they wanna cut short the infographics research which is where all the magic happens. Then they will spend lots of money on figuring out if a button on an app must be green or blue for the drop down menu. They spend so much money testing. So you have actually decided that an app is already the solution so you have narrowed down your innovation portfolio, you have excluded 90% of the other solutions to your challenge. And then you go crazy on research to find tune, the small little sliver of the solution. That’s what a lot of corporates are sadly doing and being deployed at the moment.


S: Yah it’s almost like they are trying to force something that they have pre decided to work, you know.


U: Yes and I think the tension I’m finding with other practitioners in the space currently is that it’s very difficult keeping afloat as an independent design shop and I think this is a global problem. If i should name, the only really large scale independent design thinking company is IDO. Globally that has not been acquired or integrated into a management consulting or creative services company. There is so much value in independence and independent advice that  doesn’t come with an ulterior motive. But it seems as if currently, Obviously we are not as mature in our practice, we would follow global best practice. So currently in South Africa what I’m seeing coming back to your initial point is a very superficial application of design thinking has become the norm.


S: I had an interesting conversation recently with somebody in the financial services sector where they were saying they don’t even refer to the process as design thinking anymore, they refer to it as design and because they have taken the principles in the mindsets of design thinking , they created their own process. He says it’s almost like what you can teach at a workshop level as the fundamentals. But when you start to unpack it in a way where it can make a big difference, you have to customize it and make it a bit more bespoke for your environment.


U: Yes. That’s obviously someone that practices at a higher maturity level. If you look at design maturity levels globally, there is that ladder normally from where you practice, you know basically as a tool kite or as a set of services or exercises. And I do think what’s very interesting for us as design thinkers is also how do we elevate the conversation, the craft because what makes design thinking quite powerful at leadership level is essentially creative problem solving skills, and I think design thinking can be relevant for any part of the organization. And normally it is deployed in an IT context which is odd but that is currently what happens. It could be very relevant to HR to marketing you name it. I think design thinking is an interdisciplinary approach so it leaves of the fact that you solve problems collaboratively with multiple mindsets. And I think that would make it very powerful for a designer to be on an exco and to have that role. That’s the other thing that we haven’t had, i think globally companies are very comfortable with cheap design officers, or these kinds of roles. Only ABSA tried it but it was more because they had a role like that globally. He is not around he left for Canada, but we had 1 or 2 chief design officers locally which then gives design thinking much more leverage to impact other parts of your organization.


S: In your sort of expertise, I mean you have been using this now for a number of years. Is there any particular project for you that stands out like a really big success in terms of using the full process of empathizing, ideation and making it real?


U: I think initially one of the projects I was quite proud of was when we worked with MTN many years ago. And one of the initiatives we worked on resulted in Tyme bank. So that still exists and that project was really fueled. The founder Coenraad Jonker left  Standard bank because he couldn’t do what he could in t corporate. The constraints that he was under were deeply committed to customer centricity to the effect that our whole office was decorated like a township informal settlement context. We were forcing ourselves to look at the will in the eyes of our customers. And it came from a very deep passion that he had for unbanked people and lower income customers and I think Tauriq Keraan who is now the CEO, he comes from an informal settlement. He comes from the Cape flats. His dad had taxis. So he is deeply aware of the customer context within which we deploy. 


I would say probably what made that one a bit tricky was that it was happening within the constraints of a large corporate. So that was one case study. What was happening at that time was that MTN was bold enough to say “I think we are going to lose out, our core business is dying”. The CEO said it, he said we have to create alternative businesses because voice and data is dead. And that’s very bold. It shows vulnerability of saying we don’t know what we can do. They created an engine with a lot of green field ventures, with health and media, insurance and a lot of them were tried. So we had a space to experiment. But I think it was also having a founder that was extremely passionate about customer centricity and that didn’t have to call it customer centricity. It was just saying it’s who we are designing it for. And I think they made that core in every meeting and every decision was good.


The other one that I liked, I started the journey with Kagiso Media. And also looking at all their assets. One of them was a legal publishing company called Juta. And another interesting case where I think design thinking is very powerful if you can start off the blank slate. So Juta had a very traditional old school legal publishing business and it was coming to an end and they didn’t know what they could be doing differently and we actually then also created a business design challenge to create a new business from scratch but build it on design thinking principles. So every structure, every process, design element, every value proposition was built on design thinking elements and I think that has survived up until now, I think it’s under threat. Other factors have come into. So that one I’m really proud of. And i think the only other one i wanna mention is when Cape Town became real design capital, we were given a lot of opportunity to reinvent the public sector. And public sector service delivery through core creation with citizens and that was very impactful. So for a period of more than a year. We deployed a core creation methodology around service delivery pieces of the city of Cape Town. That was also very impactful. 


So I think a project can be quite successful if you can  live comfortably and you can see that the lights have gone on. People are operating differently. They have changed the way they look at the world and the business. And the role they wanna play in people’s lives. Then you know you have achieved a fundamental impact. So they have been successes.


S: So some of those projects that you are speaking about. You have taken them through to that level where it’s made real and it’s in the real world. People are using those products or services. From a Tenaka perspective is we always see as it needs to be an ongoing support to constantly look for iterations, prototyping, and testing the market going forward. Is that something that you have also tried to employ? Because obviously the success of that product or service is ongoing into the future.


U: I think the pendulum swings in different ways. One of the options that we have explored is setting up design capabilities inside organizations. So creating mini design studios that become the go to place and equipping those people. That’s what many financial services companies have embarked on. Thinking that they can also save money from external service providers. But I do think there is value in a more sustainable ongoing refresher kind of mechanism. Just to make sure that you are still reading the signals right. That the customers are giving you. And create an ongoing engine that produces stuff. 

I also think to the first part of your question. The other big problem we have  is getting a product on to the shelf because very often conceptionally the prototype is amazing. It sort of falls flat because it’s competing for a business case. Or some other investment. Then many things don’t even make it through. Frustratingly, often the more destructive innovative things often don’t get implemented.

And what I have done now in my latest iteration I have created a venture design studio. Where I have taken IP. Literary products that customers decided not to pursue. And I have said listen, can I then do something with it? So the concept reverted back to me. That’s what I’m going to try now. To actually incubate all the domained prototypes. That are actually sitting there, and I’m trying to find a model of how to create new businesses around this IP. Because very often the constraints of a large corporate just kills a lot of good thinking because of how they are structured.


S: So there was  something you touched on earlier which was the head of thinker in the boardroom and the executive committee in the organization. And then again you mentioned now that in order to create this ongoing cycle of understanding the user and product innovation development you are building a team in the organization then becomes a tool to do that. How do you see then the education of design thinking and design coming into the picture? What do you see the future landscape being like?


U: This is an interesting conversation. In my mind, looking back at the practice over those last years, you come to a point where deploying design thinking within the constraints of a large organization, currently in our markets, banks and insurers. They are the ones that are spending money on design thinking. Due to the nature of what design thinking is, there is always a limit to the impact that you can have. There is something quite liberating of taking some of those design thinking projects and running them outside of the corporate. I think it’s something that takes time for people to nudge to do. The other thing I’m looking at globally which hasn’t happened here is that designers are actually very successful founders. If you look at some of the very successful global businesses they are started by designers. They do very well, because I think creative thinking and thinking creatively about business is a very important leadership skill. I guess instead of having one person in the boardroom sort of talk creatively, why doesn’t a creative person decide to start his own business.

Because I think all the other functions are so commoditized, like HR, legal, accounting. It’s very easy. Those things are not difficult to do and they can be automated


So the actual magic would be, there hasn’t been examples of this locally but globally I know of a lot of very famous businesses that designers start, then you can bake in design into the DNA of the company. Air bnb is a very famous example where they will never stray from that purpose because the founders and the people that have created a culture, they have baked in to design thinking at every level. It just creates an amazing place where you wanna work because it is people centric, customer centric, human centric to the core. And I think that to me would be something that I’m hoping to get to. That creative people can assess funding, that there is more funding available. In the USA there are probably about 50 large venture capital firms that fund design centric companies. There is a whole discourse in the venture capital space. I even did a talk at the South African venture capital association probably 2 years ago. To local about some of these trends. There were a lot of question marks. They would rather invest in an accountant, CEO, a lawyer, an engineer or something proper. They dont trust us with large cash. So we have to still see the final death of the current model.


In South Africa, Gabbs does this report every year. The majority of CEOs have very traditional degrees and are not creative at all. So if someone is not wired to be creative you can make them into being creative. I think that’s the other method with creative leadership that people envy us designers but they actually don’t know how different we are wired to them because just wearing jeans and a funky t-shirt doesn’t make you creative. Businesses currently, i  definitely see this with McKinsey which in its case is a leader. They are very keen on creativity because they have realized that anything that is excel based, or math based, or formula based can be done via machine. And I think that very very big Aha moment. Which makes me optimistic that maybe people will find us at some point when they have exhausted all the other traditional MBA tools. And hopefully they will give us the right kind of brief not just make this pretty, or put lipstick on a gorilla. But that fundamentally rebuilds my organization. Those are the kind of design challenges that design thinkers excel at.


S: So you were saying something now about the fact that particular people have the skill or That creativity, do you think at the levels of schooling and the lower levels of schooling and the way that the schooling system is. What if we were to look at that and change things at that level, which will be a challenge because obviously there is a lot of creative people coming through the system?


U: That is quite an interesting challenge because over the years. We have been involved mostly in high school, secondary or tertiary education where design thinking does get taught at universities, but I take your point that it can start much earlier. One of the trends, we did a project last year for a big private school company that also wanted a different school curriculum. What we were very surprised by, and this is quite interesting. Is how popular the word wall school system is. Which is one very traditional school system. It does encourage individual creativity, unconventional thinking and I was surprised. This was probably a year ago. The trend continues. Definitely where I live and some people that I engage with. Many of them are looking for  creative alternative schooling systems . There is still that one school of thought that coding skills are still important but there is definitely a very strong undercurrent. And also in the USA. That was when we were looking at global trends. So the more creative world of type of systems are on the app. You are right, maybe that will create and make us as a society more creative at some point.


S: From an opinion factor for the future, do you feel like, because you are alluded to the fact that the companies and the corporates are the people that use creative thinkers would potentially start to look outside of the organization rather than trying to learn these skills internally. But if automation takes over a lot of the other skills within the organizations. Would it not be still in their best interests to then employ more creative people within their organizations.


U: This is a fascinating discussion around the future of work. And I think the large corporations are really in an industrial age. The way organizations  are structured they are largely bureaucratic. Jokingly I was engaged in a conversation with a friend that’s in a service design space. We always naively think private organizations are more effective than the government. But I think engaging with your average bank is just as bad as going to home affairs. They are built around their own systems and structures and it’s a terrible experience engaging with them. So the best way would be to let that die a slow death and rebuild it from scratch with a very different organizational structure.

I think that is where big birds like We Work are coming in. I was quite surprised with all their drama about their IPO. Their business model is fundamentally based on the fact that the largest tenants will be corporates. Add up a potential head office. Some of them are still building glorious buildings in Sandton but I think the next iteration is that traditional corporate structure will become much more decentralized than flexible. So that already will change. I think people that are creatively skilled, that have more agile minds, that are more open to different structures will excel in this new model where you are forced always to adapt to a changing environment and to read where things are going. 

So I can see large traditional corporate structures slowly dissolving because of new talent, new staff wanting to work very differently and I think the risk that large corporates have that don’t adapt is that these people will just start their own companies. And I think it’s never been easier to start your own business. And many of these businesses are built on fundamentally different principles that are very much people centric. That excites me in a way because it does talk to the fact that organizations will have to work harder, to think about things beyond profit and throwing money at the problem. I think that’s reached its limit and there is another whole generation or a whole movement coming. Cause I think capitalism will implode in this current form it’s just too exploitative. If you think about today’s climate protests happening all over the world. I think we are tangibly aware of the limits of growth. And all these exponential singularity profits its just BS. Growth is not endless and there is no endless  abundance, there is not a law of nature that we living very much on scarce resources and the more creative you can manage the vital skill. Maybe in at point in time we don’t have to give it a name like creativity or design thinking it can be just the way we are in the world because we are sensitive to once happening around us. We don’t have that corporate structure or scaffolding or we cant immunize ourselves. Corporates are quite immune because of their power and their sizes to some of these trends. Maybe that’s eroding, maybe there is eroding.


S: Yah I hear you. The We work example that you brought up is an interesting one because they are looking to the future from the perspective of understanding that the workforce of the future doesn’t want to go into a job at a specific building. Wants you able to work remotely, wants flexibility, wants certain luxuries that a corporate can potentially  provide. So the organization is designing this whole environment around many different experiences that the workers want. Not the industrial version of the workforce of the previous.


U: To me why I was so keen to study the CEC filing, if you look at the customer base it’s not startups that use We Work its corporates. You can see in Joburg many banks engage with many coworking providers to set up new environments. So it’s the beginning of the end of the traditional corporate structure. And I think the way design thinking is so powerful in this context is that it can take things apart and put them together again. So a design thinker looks at something as being constructive and then it can be deconstructed like Lego blocks. So I think design thinkers can help with the transition from the current system to the newer system. It brings me to another discipline which is the design of systems. I think it’s an undervalued skill. It’s very often now that we loosely talk about ecosystems and we throw the word around, but if you are conscious of the power dynamics and the way systems operate. As a design thinker because you have the empathy to do this. You can look at different actors in a system and understand much better what the relationships are between these people, how to design these systems to be more impactful, more purposeful and whatever you are looking to do.

So I’m hoping all stays as. One of the things is the notion of design and design thinking will expand far beyond  products, services ,organizations to systems. Because I think that will be one of the design maturity models. Thats a day in age design ladder it goes through these 4 phases where ultimately you wanna design systems and ecosystems. I think if we can hone our skills and get better and ready at that it would be a key contribution to manage this transition from the current system to the new system


S: Yes. Ulrich thanks man. I really really appreciate your time. I mean your knowledge and skill is extensive.


U: If I can maybe add one final piece Stuart that I’m quite passionate about.

I think one of the things I’m grappling with at the moment is how we as design thinkers can create collaboration models. We have often spoken about it, that allows us to have the impact without the constraints of having concern to conform to a corporate of a consulting context and i think if you wanna lead this, i think there needs to be a movement locally of designers coming together to elevate the impact and the percentage of the value of design thinking because if i look at the world of business and my clients currently, as design thinkers we are the last line of defense before the robots take over. And i don’t mean that frequently but there is a serious risk of singularity profits of doom that are doing very well currently. That are selling a view of the world that is positively evil and that gives machines more power than humans. If we have an opportunity as design thinkers to create a counted narrative to be technology centric view of business, I think we have to do it and we have to make our voices heard and use our creative thinking to create this very powerful counter narrative to the current innovation narrative that’s being around everywhere, cause I think our voices are not strong enough.


S: Yes, I hear what you are saying. I think what you suggest always brings back that balance that’s required between what the singularity suggests against the human side of things and empathizing with people and understanding people. There needs to be that balance between the two.


U: Being very self critic also. Often we give up, we don’t push hard enough for the companies to invest in the human part of the process. But look at the most traditional design thinking model which has desirability, feasibility  and viability in there. The desirability thing is key because not every knowledge is desirable from a human perspective. We can do a lot of them. We can throw ourselves make a machine work for us, but what is actually desirable and I think we have the discipline and a tool kit to make a call on that. Often in projects we don’t push hard enough because the client has not allowed enough budget, time or effort on desirability. They want to jump straight into the app prototype without spending enough time there but. If all of us change the paradigm and fight a little bit harder to give us more opportunity on the desirability side I think it will be in the benefit of all of us.


S: I agree with you. Ulrich if people want to follow you, make contact maybe, what sort of channels to get hold of you?


U: I think the best way I would direct people currently is they must go to a website called houseofbeautifulbusiness.com all in one word. This is the community I’m most active in and I run the local chamber which they will find under leftfieldlab.com. So those I would direct them towards that’s where I do my stuff. And one of the models I’m very keen on is to work with entrepreneurs. So people in corporates that are in their early 40s have reached a point  of frustration and they can’t innovate. What I want to do more is to create an environment for them to actually set up new ventures for them outside their current jobs. Work with them. I have a whole environment  at leftfield labs to help them do that.


S: That sounds excellent. Thank you so much, appreciate your time and I look forward to chatting to you in the future because I know that you have a lot of exciting things on the go and you will have new and interesting things to share with us.


U: Thanks Stuart I appreciate it and obviously please include me, whatever happens with these podcasts. I think these conversations deserve to be amplified. I don’t know how we do this but these are very important things. Many of us we still fight against each other this scraps, for all the business but there is more value in us coming together to build a powerful platform so I think if we can get to that more collaborative space it’s also an important lesson for us.


S: I agree. Have an awesome one.


U: Ok guys have some beers or whatever you do on a Friday now 


S: Cool we will chat to you soon hey.


U: Thank you so much. Ok cool 


Thank you for listening to great minds design think alike. Give us a call to discuss how you can take design thinking into your organization to make life better for your customers or employees. Visit our website at Tenaka.com. Look out for our next episode where we will uncover more or simply subscribe. If you enjoyed this episode, share it.