We had the pleasure of hosting Rob Kellis, a design-thinking consultant with Future World and a program lead at the D-School.

Rob’s journey into design thinking began during his MBA at the University of Cape Town and was further refined during a four-month stint at Rotman. He specializes in using design thinking to reshape education and corporate strategies, with the D-School even extending its reach to high school levels. Join us to explore the transformative power of design thinking with Rob Kellis.

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 Rob: 

SM: Welcome to this episode of our webcast and podcast. I’ve got Rob Kellis with me today. He is a program lead at the D-School and he also is a design-thinking consultant with Future World. It is Future World, right? I have the name right?

RK: Yes. That’s right. Thanks Stuart.

SM: And Rob has got extensive experience in design thinking. Particularly on the education side and we are going to dig a bit deeper with that today. But Rob, just to start off, could you possibly give us a bit of background in terms of how you got into design thinking. I know you’ve travelled a bit and how that connected you to design thinking and the process of design thinking and the D-School.

RK: It’s great Stuart to be here today. So I think my journey was a bit haphazard. I was introduced to design thinking on the MBA program at the University of Cape Town. And then I spent four months at the Rotman which is where Rodger Martin was Dean. I didn’t actually meet him there but I actually met him here. And then when the D-School started at Cape Town University, I applied and the rest is kind of history.

SM: So Roger Martin is associated with D-School, is he?

RK: Yes. So I think early proponents of design thinking you have the guys from IDEO from the one side and you also had Roger Martin who was pushing it from the sort off, you know that the whole idea of the D-school was that it was that it was opposite to the B-schools, the business schools.

SM: Oh okay, I didn’t actually know that.

RK: Yeah. So Roger Martin was the Dean and he really liked this framework and he was very he worked quite closely with the guys at IDEO as well. So they were the early proponents of like 2008. They were out there.

SM: So was he one of the founders of the D-School?

RK: No. So the guys at IDEO, they were really the founders of the D-School at Stanford and Roger Martin just took his own flavour of that and was doing that at the Rotman School of Business. So they got a creative destructive lab. So they do apply some similar methods there.

SM: Yeah yeah and now the D-School, that part of it that you are working with is at UCT in Cape Town. Which is awesome because we now have access to that same calibre of education the guys are getting in the States here in South Africa, I assume.

RK: Yeah. Exactly. It’s a bit of a long story but the guy that founded or funded the D-School at Stanford was Hasso Plattner and he obviously is the founder of SAP. So he funded the D-School at Stanford on the condition that they help him build one in Germany. So it was one now there’s one in Germany in Potsdam. And Hasso Plattner’s daughter actually went to UCT. He’s got a connection with Cape Town he spends and his daughter spends quite a bit of time here. When they were thinking how do we bring design-thinking to the African continent, the University of Cape Town was a natural entry point. 

SM: You have been working with him for quite a number of years now. Am I right in saying that?

RK: With UCT?


RK: Yeah. I mean D-school in Cape Town started in 2016 end of 2015. But I started there sort of February 2016. So I’ve been there since the beginning and it’s kind of been like a startup. It’s been interesting. We have had to find our way and I mean you know as well design thinking it’s taken a while for it to get a following in South Africa. The concept was in 2016 was still quite new and businesses didn’t really see.

SM: Now there is still this uncertainty around what design thinking is. It’s obviously becoming more well-known or people are hearing about it. But I still think there still is uncertainty of what is design thinking? 

RK: I think in 2016 you still had to say no it’s not design and it’s not about thinking. It’s like doing stuff and so is a really confusing conversation for most people. But now we’re starting to see organisations approaches and typically that’s in the financial services. I see there’s a lot of interest there. Financial services insurance and then the other space is in from HR departments which was also interesting.

SM: Ok. But HR is associated obviously with employee experience design and design thinking plugs nicely into that. And then you know customer experience is a you know on the other side of it and the financial institutions in South Africa are in a very competitive environment and so they are constantly looking for what’s the next best thing and we can offer our customers. So I can understand why those two are on the top divisions within those organisations. 

RK: Yeah Exactly a financial institution, they got a problem, they need help with solving a problem and HR departments are looking at how do you upskill your staff to be relevant in the next 5 to 10 years.

SM: We recently had a conversation, in fact it was as recent as yesterday; We had a conversation around schools and preparing children for the future and design thinking. Or at least giving them the mindsets and principles of design thinking. I mean that’s something that’s close to our hearts as Tenaka. 

We have done a bit of work with some of the schools and it would be awesome to see a workforce of the future that are problem solvers. Have you had any sort of experience with that you’ve got some opinions on it?

RK: A lot of the work that I do is either at the university level or with corporates and I know the D School has done some work at the high school level. But at this and I was very keen to explore that further. But not too many projects that I have been involved with directly. 

The kids are so curious. I mean they take it so much just faster. And they love to prototype, they love to ask questions they’re just naturally curious. 

They don’t mind but you know they don’t have that same kind of anxiety around the ambiguous or the uncertain they’re like oh okay let me figure it out.

SM: Or like judgement on your idea. I think the older we get, we get concerned about what other people are gonna think about our thought process, how we arrived at a conclusion rather than when you were younger and as a kid because then you don’t really know so that it’s gonna take a stab in the dark they would have.

RK: And status wasn’t important right?

SM: Yeah with the D-School the programs you guys run there, do you see the possibility of more of those kinds of programs finding their way into other degrees within the organisation that are outside of the possibility of D-School and now become part of the curriculum for other degrees?

RK: So that’s exactly I mean that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. So initially it was and we still run external programs. So students are the first couple of years we run this foundation program. So students from any discipline could apply for 12 to 14 week program. 

That was the model that we adopted from the school in Potsdam. And that’s great because you getting this collaboration and multidisciplinary teams and one space. and you’re bringing the project partner like if it’s the WWF and they want to understand how to tackle single-use plastics in Cape Town for example. 

Then that’s quite a nice ecosystem to set up. But we are doing a lot of work to try and work with departments and faculties to co-create programs with them. 

So then the design thinking becomes the way of instruction. But the content the lecture still brings in. So we’ve already run a couple of programs with the mechanical engineering at UCT and in the commerce department there have been one or two as well so we are exploring that actively.

SM: But at this stage, it’s kind of like a plugin to the curriculum that they’ve got is not a permanent component right now is it?

RK: With mechanical engineering, with some of the engineering courses we are in our 2nd or 3rd iteration. So that’s been a lot easier. And so the first time round you’re both learning from each other but the third time like okay now we understand how we can make this work more efficiently and what the students are gonna get out of it yeah. 

When Covid comes along, you have got new challenges. 

Now you have got to do everything online.

SM: So I mean have you been doing a lot of your classes and that online and prototyping and testing and that kind of stuff?

RK: So I know the guys that were working on the mechanical engineering program started face-to-face and have finished online. So we are we have shifted and we know that UCT probably won’t certainly the D-school won’t be open for face-to-face classes this year. So a lot of us have pivoted in most of our work online.

SM: Yeah, interesting times. Makes sense to have engineering as being one of the faculties that seems to be adopting this first because I mean design thinking when you look at it online and research it, it’s very much product oriented although it can be used across even just the general service industry and things like that. 

It does seem to be quite product focused. I don’t know if you have an opinion on that?

RK: Yeah, I think so. Certainly how it started at Stanford as well. The D-School was positioned next to the School of Engineering. And I think the vainish design ladder talks about the evolution of design. So you start with products and then you evolve to services and then you are involved to systems. 

And I think the D-Schools in Germany and in the US have had the luxury to start with challenges from the product and then a service orientation. With this we found when it came to South Africa a lot of our clients or projects or project partners went straight into systemic issues. 

So now you are designing for you know, how do you address violence against women and children? That’s not a product, that’s not a service, it’s a wicked problem.

SM: It’s interesting because it could result in the development of a product and to help with solving that specific problem. At the same time it could be a policy change. I think you mentioned in a previous conversation that one of the projects that you worked on was on policy changing. You were working with, I think, the reserve bank. 

RK: Yeah. I think two points: It is so difficult for students to learn when you tackle it from the systemic level or to learn the basics of design thinking. So working with tangible products we are talking about prototyping and testing physical tangible products. 

It’s a lot easier to learn the basics when you start from that product focus but not impossible to do with the systematic focus with the example that you talked about, the we worked with Future World with a team at the Reserve Bank. 

And they were looking at a policy document that they wanted to put out. And we worked with a group of about 13 employees at the reserve bank. 

And that was a lot of fun but I didn’t take the consequences from this side. I mean they thought they were just going to learn design thinking and use this methodology to get to an output which was this policy document. 

But some of the other value was the communication and the collaboration that happened in the team. Bear in mind that this team has never worked together before. 

They were coming from different areas of the Reserve Bank. And then the transparency of which the process enabled that allowed them to collaborate and get information from provide information to other departments across the Reserve bank. 

I think when we presented the final policy document at their strategy conference we had about 200 people and I’d say at least half of those we had attached in some sort of short workshop during the sixth month of the full month process. 

And by that I mean the level of buy-in that we got from as a result. Because it wasn’t the team of 13 that started and presented this document at the end like I said, almost a hundred people had touched the project in some shape over those four months.

SM: Which is kind of some secondary benefit that you get sometimes doing a design-thinking project that there is this buy-in from you know the people that you possibly empathised with, maybe tested the prototype with. 

They feel like they’ve had some sort of input into the final results.

RK: I’m curious like when you are selling design thinking what do you what are you selling? Like if people say why should I do design thinking what is the answer you give them?

SM: Yeah I mean it is ambiguous. It doesn’t have like straight line. It’s this messy thing in the beginning. And then you get through this process to get to a final result. 

And I think the difficulty is particularly the corporate environment. 

I have got to invest my money in you doing this scrambled egg version right at the beginning. 

Then to finally see if you’re gonna come with a result that’s actually gonna be decent and solve the problem.

RK: That’s it. We certainly find that’s a challenge when you start in that first conversation. Are we providing training around a process and particular tools and methods, are we rewiring the brains of your team so that they adopt the mindsets associated with design thinking, are you getting a tangible output a physical thing that’s going to enable you to do things differently?

SM: Cause it touches all the people.

RK: It can do but I think I’ve learnt that I need to be explicit up front is which is your priority? So if for example if your priority is about training the team to adopt the mindset then I’m not going to choose a project or a challenge that’s too close to your heart. 

Because then you’re going to be stuck on the content of the challenge and you’re not going to really adopt a practice because that’s what we wanna do. 

We want to practice the methodology and similarly if you if the product is gonna go then yeah I might explain the process and the tools and methods but I’m gonna act more forcefully as a facilitator to push you through the process to get to that output. 

I think I always try to have that conversation up front to make sure that  there is a trade-off and you need to choose one or the other. If you try and do both, sometimes you get neither.

SM: I mean you make a good point there. We’ve actually been in similar situations where we’ve done workshops with corporates and they’ve insisted on putting a problem of their own.

RK: They always do.

SM: And even then you get some people in the workshop that are bought in to solving the problem and so they are really engaged. 

And then you get other people who are not, like I don’t really want to solve this particular problem and so there you struggle to keep them engaged. 

And then like you say they are not really learning then. 

They are more focused on solving the problem rather than actually learning the mindset and the principles. I agree with that. 

So I mean from Future World’s perspective, you guys are involved with some really really big clients here in South Africa. Have you seen an uptake of design thinking human-centred design into these organisations? 

Are they running with it themselves or do you feel like they still continue to need the consultant help and the facilitators help to guide them on this process?

RK: So I think from Future World’s perspective, there are three pillars. It’s understand, design and create the future of your business right. 

And you can use design-thinking at any one of those stages. 

We use design-thinking to understand what is the challenge that you may be facing. Or the design is an obvious one or the create sort of second phase of a double diamond for your ideating prototyping and testing. 

With all the projects we start with two elements as the basis for that work. 

One is an introduction to design thinking so that people understand the methodology that we use when we go into the working on projects. 

And the second thing that we introduce is what we call the new as it works. Which is the combination for organising teams. 

The sprint methodology, regular reporting. 

So how do you create that system that provides a cadence that the team can work on? So it’s those two things that we introduce project teams usually explicitly and occasionally implicitly if the client isn’t comfortable with the idea of design thinking or but it’s always an application more design doing. 

How are we going to use a combination of common sense, tools, methods that we have seen work out in the industry? How do we apply those to this particular client’s everyday needs?

SM: Ok Yeah .And with the work you are doing, with Future World, is there a particular industry that you are seeing that is utilising design thinking really really well? 

Or there industries which as Future World think should be using it and they haven’t really embraced it at this point?

I most speaking about you know South Africa and the future of South African and where design thinking can probably play a massive role.

RK: That’s a tough question. I’m not sure if it’s industry specifically but I think certainly at my time at the D-School we saw financial services be a lot more aware of design thinking. 

But that was on a problem focus. Now he’s starting to see I’m not too sure on that one.

SM: I think you had a conversation with somebody recently. I had assumed that the sort of mining and engineering, I mean in South Africa that’s one of the biggest industries. 

I had assumed that they haven’t really been utilising this. And then I got corrected. 

They said no, there is quite a lot of work going on from the innovation perspective in mining.

RK: Absolutely I mean a lot of the work that we do at Future World, we’ve seen a couple of the mining, we have worked with a couple of the mining houses. But it’s a little bit different there. The focus for them isn’t about design thinking, specifically its what is our business of tomorrow going to look like? 

So there it’s really on innovation. Looking at what are the signals that we can see currently in the world and how it’s going to influence our business in 2030. 

So there’s one client that’s come to us and said you know our mine has a lifespan of maybe 10 years. So I mean after that there’s no more that we can take out of that mine. So what kind of business are we going to be in after that? 

So they’ve given themselves sort of a 10-year window to redefine and recreate themselves. Which is a really cool project. 

Again you think that the mining Industries are a bit more conservative but my experience with the mining houses is that they are very sharp, very curious about how they can do things differently and very open to trying things.

SM: Ok that’s interesting, the perspective from the outside is definitely not that. You know. We see it as this really cumbersome industry that sort of, the cogs are just turning and from a layman’s perspective looking in they are sort of doing things in an old way. It could be improved. I think also with those sizes of industries to make change is quite a challenge hey.

RK: Yes and no. I think they sit with you know, I mean I don’t know the complexities of mining. I don’t wanna overshoot here. There are sort of wicked problems that are tied into mining as it sits in South Africa. 

On the one side of labour and how do you manage your workforce and on the other side it’s technology. 

So you’ve got these cutting edge trends but sometimes those are in conflict with what you want to do with labour. 

So I mean with stuff like AI and machine learning, autonomous robot things like that. That would be a natural fit for mining. 

But at the same time do you want to take that? Are you going to get pushback from the unions etc. so I don’t think they have got an easy job.

SM: There is definitely a challenge in our environment and our country. I was having a conversation with James from Investor about this as well. And I mean his answer and it’s obvious answer is that you could take a lot of the capacity of those people skill them in a way where they can obviously start to be instead of in the mining case below ground rather about ground, what do call maintaining and and fixing the robotics or the machines and that kind of thing rather than actually doing the physical mining?

Example of logic but at the same time you’ve got the powers that the behind unions that control at what pace that kind of development is gonna happen or that Innovations is gonna happen.

RK: It’s a conversation I was having last week with a colleague. And you know with the future of robotics, machine learning and AI in particular. We have seen you know factories been completely overhauled. 

Look at like at Amazon or Tesla where most of the work is being done by robots. And you can start to see that in white collar work as well where contracts are being drawn up by machine learning algorithms.

SM: I heard about this bot that’s now writing content for your website.

RK: Yeah. There is a bot that writes news articles. There is a story of an AI that is on the board of directors of a large organisation. And so the question is like yes there is going to be this for the miners for example but let’s we can extrapolate that into white collar work as well. In that what does the world of work look like for humans? 

And you can start to see a lot of countries are start talking about a universal basic income. And I saw the topic and I saw that in the news locally this week as well. 

And it makes a lot of sense to me. If technology is going to displace a lot of the workforce then how do you give them purpose and make sure that they’re not thrown into abject poverty? 

SM: Interestingly enough with Covid you brought up Amazon a few minutes ago. With Covid I also saw something where they have just hired 100,000 people. But it’s because online shopping has just exploded over the years.

RK: Absolutely. We are talking to each other on Zoom. In December Zoom had about 10 million meetings. In April they had gone up to 300 million. So the online world has definitely boomed. So what is this going to mean for it has accelerated a lot of changes that were bound to come?

SM: Yeah, definitely. But from a design perspective, I would think that a lot of the decisions that are being made right now which are forced decisions because of the environment that we are in are based on a lot of assumptions. 

And so what is the impact of those decisions that are gonna be made at the company’s level business the financial aspects of the business. How much money have they filtered into that? You know from my own perspective, if they had followed the design thinking process and empathised and prepared themselves efficiently for that change, then there’s more certainty behind the solution they are putting in place and that digital landscape that they’re going to be operating in. 

RK: It’s the empathy side and the creative capacity of humans. I think we can’t underestimate that is the one thing that we’ve got an advantage over machine learning or AI right and so we’ve got a creative capacity.

And design thinking encourages that if it’s ideation or prototyping let’s understand who we’re working with. Who we are co-creating with and then let’s design and develop something for that person or community. 

So I think that kind of for me is the role that we play in bringing that creative capacity to challenges to problems.

SM: I have done some of the IDEO courses. I found it was a lot of emphasis put on to the empathy and lesser on the creativity and then even less on the testing of the prototyping. I don’t know how does the D-School sort of deal with it in terms of keeping that balance right between the amount of time that it is put into each of the different phases of the process of design thinking?

RK: I think that certainly in the program that I have taught on. Similar time is given to each of the bases in that process. I think the reason why IDEO puts so much emphasis on the empathy phase is because if you can understand the problem and if you are in that early-stage of exploration. 

If you can understand the problem and really understand the needs of the person that you’re trying to solve for, and not put yourself or design for yourself you are designing for someone else. And that’s difficult. I think they put a lot of emphasis to try and get that right. 

And then I think also I’m sure you’ve had experience with lean startup other methodologies. The prototyping and testing I think that’s the easier part because we’re more comfortable with that.

SM: No you are right. When you go into the empathize, I mean when we have done our workshops and we say to the guy, ok we are going out to the shopping mall now. We are going to speak to real people.

RK: They are like what what! No. What are you doing?

SM: People suddenly go what. They go pale and they are like scared to step out of their comfort zones. I mean it re-iterates your point. I think the empathy portion of design thinking is probably the more difficult part of it. 

And it’s probably the most important part because it can make you know the next steps and design thinking a lot easier if you really understand what the problem is.

RK: Exactly. It’s tied in with that not only do I have to go talk to humans. So I have to leave my comfort zone like my space of authority behind this desk. This is where I’m the captain of my destiny behind this desk. And then you go out and talk to humans. 

You have to shift your mindset like it’s ok not to know the answer. 

That’s why I’m going out to speak to this person because they might help me find that answer.

SM: I actually find when I have done work in that space, I find it quite liberating. Because there’s always this sort of  internal fear that you have to put yourself out there into a comfortable space and get in front of people. And once you’ve done it and you really realise how open people are and willing to share their experiences and what they feel that there was like liberation that goes on you almost feel like wow.

RK: I was working with a bank in Joburg and we had the COO in the room. A gentleman of the Vaal. He was about in his 50s and doing a workshop with an introduction to design thinking. And we said okay you gotta go down into Rosebank and you gotta go talk to strangers on the street. And he was outraged like this is ridiculous like how do you like it’s just so rude to go outside and outcast people on the street. Eventually one of his colleagues convinced him to go and do the interview. 

And he came back and he was a complete convert. He was like that was amazing. Just like you said, I was so willing to share their experiences. And it was such a moment of insight for him that you can actually go and engage with people. 

I think the other side of it is because you’re taking a genuine interest in who they are and what their experience of the world is.

SM: And it comes from a place of we want to improve it. We wanna make it better for you. So they are like more interested in sharing and saying I don’t like this, I don’t like that.

RK: Often the case is that people are reluctant to start talking to you. But once they realise that actually you are listening and you are not listening to respond, you are listening to understand, then they open up and they are like okay now I’ve got more to tell you. 

SM: Yeah it’s amazing. So from the D-School’s perspective do you guys follow the sort of the same thing then in terms of their emphasis then on that empathise phase and cracking people’s egos and outer shells to enable them to to go and do really productive deep research?

RK: Yeah, I have done it two ways. Once we had a client they said you know let’s say let’s start with ideation. So we are not gonna start with understanding the problem, we are gonna go straight into the solution. And we kind of gave a brief, it was at the Waterfront. And so we started with ideation. 

We were quite certain what they were building prototyping and we also very certain that they’d been very confident that they got the right idea. So we gave them this challenge of how to improve the situation for security guards at the Waterfront. And they built these elaborate cafeterias with pool tables and table tennis tables and they were so proud of their work and they couldn’t wait to go out and test this paper cardboard prototypes with their security .

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