Design Thinking Forum: Randy Salzman on reinventing capitalism

Former communications professor at the University of Virginia and the Co-author of “Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector”, Randy Salzman will attend the third edition of Design Thinking Forum, on 19th of September, in Bucharest. A long-time broadcasting, film and journalism professor, “Salz” began writing about, practicing and teaching design thinking and empathy a decade ago, as the best method for merging qualitative and quantitative analyses in problem-solving. With primary expertise in communications, creativity and storytelling, Salz fosters deep insights into human behavior and managing ambiguity in the design-thinking process. Noting that “stories are the soul of data,” Salz addresses common interpersonal issues – like confirmation and single-actor biases – while merging intuitive thinking with analytical assurance.

In an effervescent interview with Randy Salzman, he detailed why Design Thinking works, how diverse audiences, from farmers to political leaders, can apply it successfully and why this discipline is worth studied by every single class of the business hierarchy.

  • What is the difference between Design and Design Thinking?

To me, the difference is primarily in the audience.  In design, one generally builds products and makes them “sleek” as the audience at that moment sees whatever product, but in design thinking practitioners dig very deeply into the lives and mind-sets of human beings to discover “needs” and “desires” – often services — that the human beings often don’t even know they have. Most times, we, humans cannot describe why we did whatever yesterday, much less what we might do tomorrow and, hence, digging into unarticulated “needs,” while difficult, is the key to design thinking. The incredibly brilliant painter, Picasso, said something like “Good artists copy, great artists steal” and based all of his work on becoming the world’s greatest artist as defined by art critics and other painters/artists. So he studied especially the Masters, like Valesquez, and “stole” a ton of ideas, putting his personal stamp on them. When his personal stamp, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” — heavily influenced by African art and a “pre-feminism” mystique — was too far ahead of other artists and they instantly rejected it, he hid the painting for a decade.  If he’d have been doing design thinking, he’d have worked hard to truly understand what the audience needed before spending a year on the monumental work (now considered the greatest artwork in centuries) and would have moved the audience with him – not waiting for it to catch up.

  • You are focusing both on business and social sector for your Design Thinking interventions. Could you give us and example for each category, where empathy and relaxed brainstorming / co-creation made all the difference?

I love the MasAgro story, from our book -“Design Thinking for the Greater Good”, which encompasses both public and commercial.  MasAgro is a Mexican non-profit who truly understands often illiterate subsistence farmers and brings them the benefits of high-tech science in ways they will accept it.  Rather than “tell” farmers what to do, MasAgro communicates with them, allows each farmer to make the decisions, seek the farmer’s inputs on everything, especially soil conditions and climate, and insists the farmer do whatever his way and shows farmers – literally – what happens when one combines the traditional with the scientific. MasAgro moves the private farmers towards more productivity and profit by meeting them where they are and illustrating “why change isn’t as terrifying as many think it is”. If one is a subsistence farmer that basically means a failure of any year’s crop, it means you – and your family – have starved to death.  Hence, subsistence farmers are reluctant to try anything which might disrupt what they know has worked for generations. MasAgro does things like hire a farmer to plant, on its land first, a few rows of crop and use the traditional methods and a few rows with what the farmer and MasAgro agree are a combination of traditional and scientific and then ask farmers from all over to comment on and study the differences.  They then do the same thing with a farmer willing to turn over part of his fields, so that the subsistence farmers themselves become, in effect, the marketeers for newer, and usually better methods, which utilize modern tools and ideas, but don’t denigrate the traditional.  Each time they do a planting, MasAgro is in effect prototyping and co-creating, two very powerful aspects of design thinking.

  • What’s your perspective on the “Saving Capitalism” idea? Do you resonate with it? Can capitalism be saved? How?

Capitalism, in my opinion, MUST be saved, because none of the socialist or communistic economies haven’t been as successful in feeding their peoples and provided them with decent lifestyles. I am ecstatic that the American Business Roundtable recently agreed that capitalism is in trouble, because it has created massive discrepancies between incomes of upper-level managers and incomes of workers. I think income inequality is forcing the moneyed class to understand that capitalism is in trouble. Since the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping’s “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” concepts brought state capitalism to communist China, capitalism has faced little criticism and it fell out of balance in society because government quit levelling the playing fields of industry and commerce. I follow the writings of Canada’s management guru Henry Mintzberg and Ed Hess, an entrepreneur – and lawyer – at UVA’s Darden School. Both have long called for capitalism to be reformed, noting, for example, that Milton Friedman’s “shareholder value” is incredibly removed from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” ideal because shareholders literally have no value on Main Street or in day-to-day life.  All shareholders tend to know is whether stock is increasing or decreasing in value and, due to mutual funds, often don’t even know what companies they own stock, in while in Adam Smith’s day exchanges took place between buyers and sellers who looked each other in the eye and knew each other’s reputations. Ed Hess calls for capitalists to practice “humility” again and recognize that no matter how successful an entrepreneur might be, he or she doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know and the only way to learn what one doesn’t know one doesn’t know is to be willing to listen to very diverse thinkers. True diversity on a design-thinking team is a requirement and, even then, design practitioners recognize that bringing in “beginner’s minds” for sense-making, brainstorming and concept development helps assure truly innovative thinking. Unfortunately, for my country, the United States, we’re now led – and I use the term loosely — by someone who continually tells us he “knows more than” the experts – “the generals,” “the diplomats,” “the economists” – and that “I, alone” can solve whatever issue.  Not recognizing one’s limitations is the mark of an always bankrupt businessman, someone who can’t empathize, a stupid individual and a failed leader. Sad for me, and for my country.

  • The most spectacular transformation a company went through, with consistent financial results, that you know of.

I don’t follow companies’ financial performances as I don’t own stock. Our long-term funds are in real estate, housing rentals, where I get to know personally the people who live in our houses. But I’ve read both the McKinsey and Forrester evaluations of design thinking’s return on investment in private companies which show between an 86 and 301 percent ROI. I don’t claim to understand the analytical models which Forrester or McKinsey devised to illustrate ROI – and am not attempting to certify those efforts — but I doubt that whatever models include the “mindset change” which so many design thinking practitioners undergo; a mind change which helps them empathize more deeply; which allows them to listen to, and co-create with others who think differently than they do; which nudges design practitioners out of our individual silos. I like to think about the New Zealand nation where the government now has design-thinking consultancies in every major ministry. Being “cut off,” so to speak, from major world economies, New Zealand is forced to grasp innovation as its economic engine.  And, with a “Disruption by Design” mindset, the country – under both liberal and conservative governments – has chosen design thinking as its method for overcoming the massive distances between it, and other world economies. One national concept called “Better Public Service” infuses design in all the nation’s bureaucracies, by helping political and social advisors provide better guidance to politicians. Using human-centered design, and its tremendous emphasis on understanding the unarticulated needs and desires of clients and customers, the government basically operates under the concept of “helping Kiwis do the right thing.” Begun by accountants in the tax office, New Zealand has discovered, for example, that understanding why folks don’t pay taxes leads to higher collections of taxes, both in outright dollar amounts and in percentages, than in years of heavy punishment aimed at curtailing tax cheaters. In addition, a project called the “Results Program” required agencies to get out of their siloes and work together to address one of 10 big Kiwi problems.  And instead of, for example, police battling social services battling economic development for budget dollars, the three agencies had to cooperate on an array of services which addressed each specific problem – or all three agency ministers would be sanctioned. One small part of NZ’s multiple efforts to address child abuse is an example I use in the empathy workshop, because it helps middle-class, driving, college-educated social workers step into the shoes of a child abuser – almost all of whom are “none of the above,” — and, therefore, be better equipped to devise programs which distraught parents can and will use.

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