The Only Way to Do It is to Do IT.Is innovation a mystical event that occurs in a flash of unexplainable brilliance, or is it a process? More so, is it teachable and repeatable process? This was a question at the core of my exciting journey last week. I just did something I haven’t done previously in more than 15 years. I took four, consecutive days away from my day job and worked on developing a new skill.

I attended Stanford University’s Design Thinking Bootcamp. This is a program delivered by Stanford’s legendary “D School” (aka d.school) to get a group of executives looking ramped up quickly on d.school’s way of thinking. I was nominated to take this class by the Citrix Customer Experience (CX) group, and had little idea what I was getting into. It turned out to be a game changer for me. These four days have changed the way I think about my job. Let me try and share a bit of the experience with you.

Getting to attend Stanford, even for a few days, was special for me. My dad is a Stanford alum and I grew up in Palo Alto. In fact, I went to high school right across the street from the Stanford campus. Walking down the pedestrian friendly streets with my tiny shoulder bag (and no laptop!), while gazing up at the Hoover Tower really got me in the mood to learn something new. And, it’s a good thing I was in the right mood because we jumped right in!

Hoover Tower on Stanford Campus
Hoover Tower on Stanford Campus

After a short introduction to what we’d be doing for the week, they told us about our project. We were going to be working with JetBlue Airlines to redesign San Francisco Airport’s International Terminal “experience.” And, we were going to start RIGHT NOW. We got relatively little direction on what “redesigning the airport experience” meant, but we were told that the only way to learn was by doing it (this is a recurring theme for the week!).

We grabbled a notebook, a short hand-out on “empathy” and loaded onto a bus to SFO. Once there, we were told to go start talking to people. And, we weren’t talking about taking a survey, weren’t given a stock list of questions. We wouldn’t be asking “what do you like about the airport.” Or, “what don’t you like about the airport.” We were supposed to ask them deeply probing, emotionally charged questions to get to the core of how they were feeling about their experience with the airport. Let me tell you, walking up to strangers and asking them emotionally deep questions is way, way, way, way, way outside my normal comfort zone!

Fortunately, I was paired up with a great partner for this exercise. Amy, a leader from a San Franciso-based, non-profit organization focused on African education, and I set off to poke at people about their airport experience. The first hour was tough. People didn’t want to talk to us. And, those who did mostly described their experience as “fine.” That’s not exactly the kind of deep emotional connection we were looking for. We were a bit dejected. We went back to our program mentor Rich (a former full-time Fellow at d.school who recently relocated to Seattle) and he gave us some tips and encouraged us to keep trying.

Rental Car Counter
The crowded rental car plaza at SFO

We moved from area to area, getting little bits, but never feeling like we were getting the kind of info that was going to help us to “redesign the airport experience.” Eventually, almost out of desperation, we decided to hop on the intra-terminal train and go to the Rental Car plaza. This is where things got interesting.

There were a lot of people here, and they didn’t seem to be going anywhere fast. We walked up to several people and got really raw, actually emotional responses. Some of them even involved harsh language, so we knew we were getting somewhere! We found people at the end of all-day journeys, who had been waiting for an hour to pick up the car they’d reserved. They were quite happy to spend time with us, since they were already stuck waiting, and tell us in detail how this made them feel. Now we were getting somewhere!

After a couple of hours of this, we piled back in the bus and headed back to campus. Then, over what I figured would be a routine dinner service, was one of the most poignant parts of the week. We got to meet Doug.

Doug Dietz
Doug Dietz from GE

Doug is a product designer at GE who had taken this class a few years back and was now a mentor in the program. He was going to talk to us about empathy. Doug designs Magnetic Resonance (MR) scanners. I thought it was a little crazy that a guy from GE was going to teach us about designing products with empathy. In my previous life at Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy had adopted Six Sigma from his friend Jack Welch at GE and it felt like it squashed all the emotion and creativity out of a whole range of activities. Let’s just say I was skeptical.

It turns out my skepticism was badly misplaced. As Doug told his own, personal story about product design, the audience was rapt from the start. He talked about going to see a GE customer (a hospital technical) and learn how they were using his product. After all, talking to your customer was supposed to be really important! He said the technician had all kinds of pleasant, constructive feedback for him about controls, cable ties and such. Doug was feeling pretty good about his design prowess.

Doug with problem statement
Doug shares how he attacked his problem

However, Doug’s attitude soon changed dramatically. As he left, he watched a family with a small, sick girl go into the room with his machine. The little girl saw the machine and panicked. Doug’s creation was so physically imposing for a small child that she had to be sedated by an anesthesiologist before she could be loaded into the machine. Doug realized he hadn’t even known who his real customer was. His customer wasn’t the hospital technician. It was that sick little girl, and he felt deeply that he had failed at his job and let her down.

What Doug talked about next was amazing. After a period of depression, he decided to use what he’d learned at d.school to fix this. He put together a rag-tag group of people with different expertise, including hospital social workers, employees from the children’s science museum, and actual kids, to help him design a new experience for his customers. Doug found that up to 80% of small children needed to be sedated before being scanned. It wasn’t just that one little girl — it was everyone! Armed with a more complete picture of his customer’s needs, and his new, extended design team, he completely reframed the problem he was trying to solve. It wasn’t about better scan resolution, or better technician controls. His team asked what it would mean if they could:

Capitalize on a child’s amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive, memorable adventure

Doug showing his solution
Doug and a pirate ship MR scanner

Now, that’s a problem statement that seemed worth solving, and Doug’s team attacked it with passion. What happened was magical. Doug and his team picked apart every part of the experience. Sight, sound, even scent and completely redesigned the experience. Instead machines that looked like a “giant car crusher”, they designed machines that looked like pirate ships, space craft and canoes.

Now at hospitals with Doug’s new machines, kids are almost never sedated before a scan. In fact, they often ask if they can come back again for another! Needless to say, Doug had us all fired up and ready to learn how to do this. We left the first day and were ready to come back and attack day two.

On day two, we started by meeting in groups to “unpack” all our observations. Our group of six students shared several accounts of people they met in the airport and we were challenged to pick a single one of these users for which to redesign the airport experience (much as Doug had designed for that scared little girl). Our group selected “Raging Ray,” an upset man that Amy and I had met while he waited in the rental car plaza. We were then challenged to reframe our problem from the original “improve the airport experience” (an amorphous, practically un-actionable statement) in the same way Doug had done. Our mission became to:

Make the act of renting a car into a way to release the stress of your journey and to welcome you to your destination

It was a tall order, and we didn’t know how we were going to do it, but it was a problem that seemed worth solving.  We spent much of the next two days brainstorming, prototyping and testing idea.  I’ve done all these activities many times before, but I feel like I picked up some serious new tools with which to attack these better in the future.

Brainstorming with Sticky Notes
We used a lot of sticky notes last week

I’ve brought home techniques that I’m dying to try out in my own work on the Citrix Cloud Computing product portfolio.  The broad adoption of these techniques is going to make Citrix a more empathetic, customer centric, fast moving and successful company.  And, I’ve become convinced that these techniques and process really do push us in a direction where innovation can be a repeatable practice.

There are many more stories for me to share out of my trip to bootcamp, and I’m happy to write up more of them if people are interested to hear them.  Leave me a comment if you’re interested.

There's Only Make
A Final Thought