Exploring new options: an interview with Chris Conley

by New Idiom


Chris Conley teaching

Chris Conley is currently on sabbatical from his position as Associate Professor and head of product design at the Institute of Design. In 2009, Chris will leave that position, to focus on writing a book on innovation among other projects. But we’re not saying goodbye anytime soon: he plans to continue teaching occasional courses at ID, and of course to be involved as an alum (he holds a Master of Science from ID and a bachelor’s in engineering from IIT.) As well as an educator, Chris consults for a plethora of clients including Samsung, OfficeMax, Unilever, Cricket Communications, Goodyear, and Zebra Technologies; and he’s an entrepreneur: he co-founded the innovation consulting firm Gravity Tank with fellow ID alum Scott Ternovits. I spoke to Chris in the early summer of 2008, to get his reflections on his academic career and hear about his future plans.

Was there a moment when you thought to yourself, “I really want to teach”? What drew you in?

What drew me in was when I started tutoring math and physics my sophomore year of engineering school. I didn’t consider myself very good at math and physics, but once I started tutoring, I got really good. I realized that teaching is the best way to push yourself to learn more about something and see the world in a new way, because you’re forced both to explain things and have a point of view about them.

I’ve been teaching at ID since 1992 — since before I finished my Masters. I started teaching Foundation as an adjunct, at the same time [I was founding] Design Research Associates, my first consulting company. So I’ve always taught, my whole professional career. There were only two years I took off. And I think I will always teach.

But if you mean what drew me in to [joining the full-time faculty], I was always intrigued by the possibility, and in fact had applied once before, I think for the opening that went to John Heskett. I didn’t get that because it was, well, John Heskett. [Laughs] The reason I finally joined was that I thought the product program had room to be developed in a much more significant way. When ID set up its new [Master of Design and PhD] program [in 1991], they essentially just added lots of planning courses. They left most of the product courses that were already on the books, but didn’t add any new ones.

I thought that left a glaring deficiency of substance in the current market, both in product and communication. ID wasn’t supposed to be just the old product and communication programs plus planning; I felt it was intended to be a NEW kind of product program, a NEW kind of communication program, and a new kind of strategy or planning program.

When I came on board I had this real joy of building the program and introducing New Product Definition, Research Methods For Product Development, Economics Of Product Development, Intellectual Property. All of those courses I fought for; others would say “Intellectual property? This isn’t a law school.” And I was like, “OK. But we’re not proposing teaching the law. We’re teaching innovators, who always have a question of intellectual property.” My intellectual property attorney meets with engineers and designers all the time who don’t have a clue. Before you even hire an attorney, there are things you should be doing, and that’s what ID should teach: how to do a disclosure, how to do a patent search. Same thing with economics.

We have the advantage [as a design program] of being able to take whatever [topic] is useful and [adapt it to] make it good for us. You couldn’t do something like this in, say, a finance program. It’s like when people say [about user research] “You’re not teaching real ethnography” — well, that’s right. And we shouldn’t. We’re teaching ethnography for design. Or finance for design, or whatever.

That was the great joy of my first couple years, putting those new classes on the books and bringing in new adjunct [faculty] to teach them, getting new blood into the school. And then having a class [of students] come through who really wanted to start RecruitID [the job placement program], helping fight for that. Starting topic sponsorships — that was another point of my joining, that I thought there should be more corporate involvement at the school.

For a long time the policy seemed to be, “Corporations can’t be involved unless they give us $250,000 and they don’t ask us what we’re doing with it.” When I joined, Texas Instruments was calling, Mattel was calling, asking if we could do something … like $20,000 to sponsor a course. I said “Sure, let’s try that” — and was reprimanded [for exceeding my authority to negotiate pricing]. Even though there would be little, if any operational overhead; I could handle it in my course, only instead of me making up a topic, we would use Texas Instruments’.

The seeds for my eventually leaving were actually laid there, in the sense that at some point, you’ve built enough new stuff that you no longer want to fight to build it, you just want to keep building. And ID is only so big. I mean, [individual] faculty can do new things, but it has to be kind of off the books. And then if it’s successful, it has to undergo the [transition into the status quo system]. There’s some cynicism in that, but there’s also a lot of reality.

Of all these things you accomplished, which are you most proud of?

Wow. I don’t know — I’m not proud of any of those individually. If I’d only done one of them — I’m a hybrid guy, I believe everything has to be multi-dimensional, systems oriented — so that means doing a little for the students with RecruitID, doing a little for the curriculum, recruiting a wider group of adjuncts. None of them is necessarily ground-breaking, but doing them all adds up to an institution that’s better off than before.

Actually, maybe the thing I’m proudest of is getting the first NSF [National Science Foundation] grant given to a design school. I remember the guy [in the IIT accounting office] asking if I wasn’t too young to be getting an NSF grant!

There’s this attitude [at the university] of scarcity of opportunity. When I first started going after that [NSF] grant, I invited over other faculty from the university [to collaborate with], and they would hesitate: “Well, I’m pretty busy, what do you need from me?” And I’d say, don’t worry, I just need your endorsement, I’ll write the proposal and you just tell me what it’ll cost to have you involved. Another guy in the research office, he goes, [in his most serious voice] “Do you understand what you’re embarking on here?” I said, yes, it’s a $100,000 planning grant. It needs a two page description and a detailed budget. And he was like, “You really need to get going on this if you think it’s going to happen!” But when you go to NSF, you know, they’re normal people. People think it’s this big important governing body to impress, but it’s not. They just want interesting new research. And design has a real advantage in that as long as you’re not proposing a project to help design. It has to be design helping something else that exists in the world. in this case it was the undergraduate engineering curriculum.

One of the advantages of all my consulting work and entrepreneurship is, it’s made writing grant proposals relatively easy. The latest [W.K. Kellogg Foundation] grant, I wrote in a couple of days, passed it by Vijay [Kumar, the co-investigator], to make a few changes. The staff said “it looks good”. There was no going into a room and debating the thing ad nauseum. We sent it in and the [grant officer] said, “This is good, I just need this and this detail,” I made those changes and added importaqnt details, and it went through. And this was a big grant [$375,000], and it took me less than a week! That’s because I’d had 15 years of proposing initiatives to clients, of empathizing with what they want and shaping my work to be meaningful to them. There is a skill in knowing how to do what you want, while providing value for someone else.

You learn so much by working on a new client project or by creating a new class — I really don’t like teaching the same class semester after semester, in the same way. One colleague told me, “Just get your notes down and then you can give your lecture and not have to prepare so much,” and I’m sitting there thinking, what can I do different this time to keep ME learning? That ability, to shape and reshape your own content and work, is a real benefit.

So what you’re saying is, you enjoy innovation?

That’s - yeah. Yeah! The blank page!

Entrepreneurs always get chided for not letting go. There’s this interesting paradox for business owners between [their employees asking, on the one hand] “What exactly do you do around here, anyway?” and [on the other hand] “Why can’t you let go and let someone else step in?” It’s a hard thing to let others come in and lead, especially if you wouldn’t necessarily do it that way. But if it’s at least on a base of principles that I established and value the way of working remains, it can grow, even if I’m not there all the time doing it myself. Which is why… it’s time for a book!

I’d like to talk about your book in a minute. But there’s an interesting parallel there with what happens when you raise children. Since you joined ID full-time, you started a family and now have two kids.

….Having kids is unbelievable. [Laughs] I was telling my colleagues a story just this morning; my wife put some shorts on Cilia — she’s one and a half — with a pocket on them. My wife points out the pocket to her. And then she’s walking around with her hand in it going “Pocket! Pocket!” She was experiencing the concept of a pocket for the first time, just totally enamored by it. For me, that’s what it’s like to experience a client’s world for the first time, or a student’s question, in a way that makes the thing fresh and new. You could think, well, of course it’s a pocket, or, aw, isn’t that cute… but to really understand what she’s going through, and see it in a new way [yourself] — that’s what you’re constantly striving for in innovation. Thinking to yourself, “Gee, what are the characteristics and essence of a pocket?” Spending sometime to think about the everyday in new ways leads to new, valuable ideas.

Can you tell me more about the “New Options Initiative” you’re working on right now with the Kellogg Foundation? How did it come about, and how has it been going?

It came about through Jeff Harris, who’s an alum, formerly at e-Lab and Sapient and now co-founder of Matter. He contacted the faculty to see if anyone was interested in collaborating. Matter is Kellogg [Foundation]’s strategic design partner on the New Options Initiative, and are basically responsible for guiding and integrating the work overall. Vijay and I were both interested, had a conference call with Jeff. At first we thought Matter might [subcontract us] as an ID topic sponsorship out of their own budget, but Elizabeth Collins [corporate relations director] encouraged us to think bigger. So I roughed out a proposal that was basically two semester-long topic sponsorships, Vijay doing one and me doing one, plus a focused summer project in between — a year-long project. We sent that to Matter, who said “Yeah, too big for us,” but they thought Kellogg would be interested in funding it directly. So Jeff shared it with Kellogg and they did fund it.

The New Options Initiative seeks to provide a way for out-of-school youth (high school drop outs) to gain credentials and enter a meaningful career. They want to bring youth and business together more directly. Currently, society’s impression of an out-of-school youth is that of a bad person. They might be a drug dealer, gangbanger, or just a dumb lazy person. But that impression is mostly wrong. While some of the youth are into trouble, many just have a challenging home life or are simply bored. More importantly, out of school youth are not a small minority. In many large cities the percentage is approaching 50%! And in suburbs is around 20%. Many people are starting to wake up to this reality. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is showing great leadership in addressing this challenge.

They found our proposal intriguing for two reasons.: we would actually engage of the users of the system, out of school youth and businesses; and second, we would prototype ideas we came up with.. I felt like the great work we’d seen so far from Matter and Kellogg needed to be made tangible. Most of it was descriptive — “It would work like this, here’s a diagram of how it would work.” But a prototype is something you can TRY, and experience viscerally. Of course there was a question of, should we be doing anything tangible yet? But I know the benefits of prototyping and thought of course we should be. It would help us analyze what would be feasible.

I was absolutely captured by Kellogg’s vision. I’m a huge advocate of what they’re doing. A drop-out is no longer just a statistical fact. It’s the kid next door. It’s your brother or sister. Not finishing school is a national epidemic, but a silent one. The main reason people drop out? The Gates Foundation found it is boredom! Kellogg’s insight is that there’s an untapped talent pool, not a troubled population. Yes, some of them are troubled, but there’s a troubled population that stays in school, too. Many of them, even the ones from marginal backgrounds, are still talented and productive people. It’s just that high school is a bad model [for them] to realize their potential.

[Kellogg] doesn’t say it outright, but basically, the world has changed, and high school has not. Is there an alternative? A different experience and credential we can give these kids to tell them, you’re worth it, you’re talented, why don’t you consider doing this kind of [career]?

I immediately went and bought a book by one of the community-based organizations Kellogg is working with, the Manchester Bidwell organization [ADD HYPERLINK] in Pittsburgh, written by Bill Strickland, called Making The Impossible Possible. Very early in his career he received a grant from the Presbyterian church, bought an old row house, and created a pottery studio for kids off the street, and had them throw clay. And he started transforming kids’ lives. They would make something, and all of a sudden get this sense of accomplishment. People would come in and compliment them, they’d do a small show and sell their work, and the kids would be transformed. They would start being productive. I immediately thought that the studio model, the design model, which is no longer valued in high schools, is a way to open kids to learning and advancement. Arts programs are cut; if you’re making something in wood shop [for example] it’s “vocational”, it’s devalued.

I read that book, and realized there is a scalable model here that’s completely in line with our expertise: creating a studio environment to solve a problem. The education world jdoesn’t know how to scale project-oriented learning. How do you control it? How do you do testing? This is very related to the MacArthur Foundation [Digital Learning Initiative], and the fact that MacArthur was funding work [at ID] already proved to Kellogg it was something we could do.

You’re on sabbatical for the coming year, and are going to start a book. Are you going to finish it this year?

There’s no reason not to do it fairly quickly. I know a lot of writers agonize over their books, but I’m going to try to get this done fast. It might not become a best seller, but I’ve talked to enough writers who agree that your first work, it has so much pent-up content, there’s this raw quality that is good and shows through. I’m also inspired by the consultant Alan Weiss, who has a series of management books about client-centered value creation. He has this chapter called “How To Write A Book”. He’s very matter of fact about it: you have a lot of experience and a lot of things to say, and this isn’t Shakespeare. It’s not a work of art; it’s getting what you know onto the page, organizing it, bringing in stories from your clients and others. If you treat it as a project, like any other client project — you constantly get tremendous amounts of things written for clients, in a very short amount of time: thousands of words of thoughtful advice. You edit those things and try to make them right, but ultimately, they have to be done. He puts that in a way that makes you go, “Yeah, that’s right! I can do that.”

What is the book?

I don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s about everything from innovation culture, the innovator’s behavior, to EEMP [E-mail, E-mail, Meetings, Presentations], “Stop talking about doing something new and start doing it” (EEEMP, which is a part of a presentation I make that gets a huge response, is a possible title). The book will show that it doesn’t matter what you’re working on or what your idea is, it matters HOW you’re working on that idea. It doesn’t matter who you have in your organization, it matters HOW those people work together. So the book will be about the values, beliefs, principles, ways of working, environments and spaces that lead to successful, productive innovation. Another possible title is “Shape” — it’s about how you shape ideas over time to make them innovative or valuable, versus just having an idea.

I write about how the current model of the innovation process is wrong: the funnel diagram, which says, start with lots of ideas, evaluate them, eliminate the bad ones. Don’t start with ideas! Start with a point of view about the world. Start with a story, a framing, saying “I notice this about the world” or “I notice this about the user,” or about the organization. Point of view is the starting point of innovation, then you ideate towards that, bring different disciplines together, prototype things, and always ask, is this really solving for that original [point of view] and bringing value to customers?

If you’re [a musician] going to start a new album, you have a point of view about that album long before you’ve written all the songs. What you’re doing is shaping: “this album is about….” It’s the difference between how marketing thinks about product development, and how design — very broadly — does it. Marketing asks, what features are going into this product. A designer tries to have ideas about what this product “wants to be”. What is it about? Just like [a musician asks], what is a song about, and not, what chords are we going to use? You do end up talking about features, sure, but it should be about whether those things help the idea come alive. Without a point of view, a story, there’s no sense in having ideas.

How Pixar embodies a story through dialog, characters, framing, movement, or how [Apple] embodies an MP3 player, matters as much as what the story is, or just the idea of a portable MP3 player. Which is why people who embody ideas better can come to market late, and win. Google was not the first search engine, iPod was not the first MP3 player. People like to say the idea of the iPod was great design, or a large hard drive, or a simple interface. That wasn’t the idea! The idea was, “your music library in your pocket”. How they shaped the solution to fit that mattered way more than the original idea.

With Pixar — would you say the story of a rat in Paris who wants to be a great chef is a good story? Nah, pass. Toys that come alive? Been done before. But it’s all in how you do it.

Every story has already been told.

Right. The entertainment world knows that. The business world has no idea. No clue. They think we have to come up with something that’s never been done before. But how you tell a story can be original. How you embody a chair can be original.

Students will come to me and ask, what about this idea? And my response, which they usually don’t understand, is, it might be a great idea. People have the mistaken notion that if the concept is right, they’ll work on it, and if it’s not right, they won’t bother. But you don’t know! You have to shape it [first]. I’m now asking in my presentations about the difference between the idea or story, and the embodiment. Nobody distinguishes that, we think-think-think-think-think, and then execute. We don’t make anything up front because we think it’s a waste of time.

Tell me more about the book.

I have a few ways I’m thinking about the chapters. Like, the Culture of Critique. We’ve completely lost, in business, the idea of, here’s some iterative work, give me lots of feedback, and I’ll go make it better. Instead it’s, here’s some work, and if you’re negative about it I’m calling HR. [A chapter on] Prototyping that emphasizes experimentation and how prototypes improve the interaction of a multi-disciplinary team. A chapter on the Studio environment — how you use your space does matter, and what it is about a studio environment that fosters ad hoc conversation, explicit and persistent sharing of ideas. Companies have basically lost the ability to craft new things. They can derive new things through marketing analysis, but it’s incremental, either a big bomb or too obvious — oh boy, there’s a blue version now, or a cinnamon flavored version.

Another section might be, Bipolar Concept Disorder. New ideas companies tend to support are either freaky-weird, or else it’s not that innovative but it’s something you’re comfortable with, something you’re sure the market will adopt. People have a problem with the middle ground, the most-advanced-yet-acceptable solution (the MAYA principle). That’s where you want to be.

Where do you want to be in seven more years?

[Jokingly] I never thought about that before! [Pause] I want to be helping organizations, important initiatives, people, to establish and work on things in the world like I’m doing now. In a studio environment, with the right people — basically I want the rest of the world to be working like Pixar, only on a wider range of challenges and opportunities. I want to tear down the cubicles, at least in the sections of the company where they should be torn down. I don’t want the people who are charged with doing something new to be “comfortably dysfunctional” anymore. I want them to feel the joy, the thrill, the fear, the accomplishment of innovative behavior, a studio environment, strong critique, making your work better, being pushed to do something you’ve never done before, learning new talents, incorporating new ideas, finding new experts to bring something to the table. To be making prototypes that get other people excited about what you’re working on. To be working like that, all the time!

The Wisdom Of Crowds is one of my key influences right now. For good decision making, the principles are diversity of thought, independence of thought, and decentralization — that the people advising on a decision draw knowledge from diverse sources. And then a method to take into account and aggregate differences of opinion. But most organizations strive for similarity of thought, alignment of information sources, and a single decision-maker who only listens to what they want to hear.

Going back to the studio culture and great designers. They love to find out things they hadn’t heard before, they thrive on diversity of thought. It inspires them. I’m currently studying Bob Dylan’s early career — the guy totally imitated Woody Guthrie. He was obsessed with Woody Guthrie. He recognized the thoughtfulness in the folk singers whom everyone else thought were old news — but he saw them as singing about life in a way that’s still relevant. Dylan didn’t come out of the womb being original. He had to go through a period of obsession, of copying content he thought was excellent, and through that found his own voice. Picasso obsessed about the impressionists, he mastered that [technique], but then broke through and said, “What is today about?”

I think design today is fundamentally as corporate and rigid as what it used to [criticize]. We used to call out focus groups as being non-creative, but now we’re doing observational research in almost as surface-oriented a way. We’re not embracing other disciplines, we’re criticizing them. For me, design’s true value is respecting any input and integrating it, rather than dismissing it. I see the next generation of design being much more artistic in nature — art can be highly methodological, but it’s more collaborative, it’s more open to influence, more visceral and insightful than what design has become. Design has become too many cliches, and the appearance of insight, the appearance of creativity. It’s about a formula for looking insightful and creative: Go do some observation, come up with some criteria, present them in a slide deck.

The venture capital community is ready to start thinking this way. They’re wondering if there’s a way to help their portfolio companies be more innovative, or if they can shape a new business in a different way besides waiting for an entrepreneur to come ask them for money. Whether I’m working with investment capital, or foundations (which work like investment capital, except with less managerial oversight!), I want to keep starting these kinds of initiatives. I’m sure I’ll be tending towards work with foundations and eco-, or green, or solar, or environmental sustainability. I’ve always been intrigued by youth and marginalized populations. Imagine creating a mechanism, something like 826 Valencia, whereby [people from] corporations come to volunteer two hours of their time, because it helps them, as well as making a difference in some kids’ lives. The aggregate of this would be a teaching environment, unlike high school, that makes people blossom. We can’t just pay teachers more, we can’t scale that; but the volunteer model [Dave Eggers at 826 Valencia] is on to is unbelievable!

It’s less about money and more about experience, reputation, connection….

…Meaning.

…In a way, those are becoming scarcer goods than material prosperity.

I was at Black & Decker recently, talking to a group that makes Black & Decker branded products. I talked about innovation culture, gave my Pixar spiel. They thought it was great, but they were talking as if other people in the company wouldn’t get just as excited about it. One of the things we should be doing is exposing these ideas to lots of other people. I told them we should work on a little project together to get a small win, to get some momentum going. So they called me this morning: “Come do a workshop for 40 more people.” That’s what I want to be doing. I want to change them so they’re not in this comfortably dysfunctional corporate mode of e-mail, meetings and presentations and cubicles. That’s it!