Human-Centered Design for Leaders & Problem-Solvers

Click here to read the first post in my series on expanding my education through MOOCs.

In Hyderabad, India, a team of foreign engineers spent many months developing a clean water delivery system that was healthy, safe, and largely affordable. Yet many households did not use the service -- and continued to risk water-borne illnesses -- because the engineers were oblivious to a simple fact of life in Hyderabad: The service's mandatory water jugs could not be carried comfortably on the hip or head, as most local women preferred.

This was one of a dozen compelling case studies in IDEO's Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design. The course introduced how a human-centered approach to design (sometimes referred to as "design thinking") can be used to develop innovative and sustainable solutions for poverty reduction. Human-centered design is iterative, collaborative, measurable, empathetic, and focuses on the real needs of the target population -- rather than their needs as imagined by foreign consultants.

While taking this course, I also read Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock. As Senior Vice President of People Operations, Bock develops creative approaches for improving life at Google -- determining financial incentives for top performers, reducing food waste in cafeterias, and standardizing hiring interviews, for example. Each approach is piloted in small teams or offices, and the results are thoroughly measured through interviews with employees and applicable data. Many approaches fail, sometimes spectacularly, but those with the greatest impact on employee happiness and productivity are implemented throughout Google.

IDEO and Bock share a fundamentally similar outlook on leading and problem-solving, and after completing the course and book, I feel energized to approach my professional development with new insights. Here are a few:

  • Don't assume you know the solution. Design, test, measure, and repeat.
  • Expanding on that thought, I once believed that strong leaders were born with the right answers, and they could conjure up an innovative solution simply by brainstorming hard enough. Instead, strong leaders ask smart questions, are receptive to feedback, experiment (or in Silicon Valley's preferred terminology -- fail), and bounce back from mistakes with resilience and grace.
  • Creative people are highly observant. Creativity comes from noticing relationships between seemingly disparate topics, and from applying novel approaches to existing areas. For this reason, creativity often emerges from multidisciplinary people, such as a web designer with an understanding of social psychology.
  • Look to the margins -- a top-selling employee, or a family with healthy children despite living in extreme poverty -- to find the variables that determine positive outcomes.
  • To gain creative confidence, you must stop self-editing. (This is a tough one for me!) Everyone has terrible ideas, but if you remain silent out of fear of failing, you will never grow.

Next up, I'm taking the Digital Analytics for Marketing Professionals course on Coursera. I'm also looking forward to a user experience course from UC San Diego, and will continue to explore the world of information-communication technology for disaster response.

Introduction to Marketing (Coursera)

Click here to read the first post in my series on building a business education through MOOCs.

I'm no stranger to marketing trends. I'm a voracious reader of Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review, and I closely follow the social media presence of innovative brands like Warby Parker and Everlane.

In my own job, I also use marketing principles -- overseeing design and branding for big conferences, crafting social media messages, and selling our success to donors.

However, I've never enrolled in a formal marketing class, and I've been hesitant to describe my skills with that term. Because honestly, the term "marketing" has been a little shrouded in mystery to me -- isn't it a field of slick "Mad Men"-types bent on selling me overpriced juice and yoga gear?

So, two big thumbs up for Wharton's four-week Introduction to Marketing on Coursera! It did a great job of outlining the basic concepts, and I've come to understand that I would greatly enjoy a career focused on marketing, especially for a socially responsible, "double bottom line"-style company.

The course was divided into four modules:

1. Branding: Marketing Strategy and Brand Positioning 2. Customer Centricity: The Limits of Product-Centric Thinking 3. Online-Offline Interaction & How to Find Lead Users and Facilitate Influence and Contagion 4. Branding:  Effective Brand Communications Strategies and Repositioning Strategies

While much of the material focused on product-based companies (rather than non-profits or development agencies), a few lessons struck me as universally applicable:

Messaging

Develop a mantra that defines your brand in 30 seconds or less. Simplify, inspire, and be consistent.

Typical Development Agency Message:

"We engage in ex-ante recovery planning and leverage and inform medium- to long-term recovery and reconstruction projects."

Better Development Agency Message:

"We help governments prepare for disasters before they strike so they can break the cycles of poverty and impaired development.”

I notice a tendency within the development world to use the most complicated terminology possible -- are we hiding behind jargon? Not confident in letting the results speak for themselves? Whatever the reason, it's time to think more like the private sector and develop clear, informative messages about the "products" we deliver -- poverty eradication and environmental sustainability.

(Of course, there are also non-profits that are all fluff and no substance. Messages must always be backed with data and results!)

Referrals and Brand Ambassadors

More and more, I see companies on Instagram partnering with local "brand ambassadors." And it works -- I'll see a stylish D.C. resident photograph a new coffee shop, and inevitably, I'll head there myself that week.

The connection to global development is more tenuous here. But it does make me re-think our social media approach. Is it worthwhile to tweet your latest publication at the hundreds of other development agencies that make up your followers list? Or should you instead target a few influential individuals -- respected politicians, journalists, or representatives of countries you serve -- who can share your success stories with different and larger audiences?

In other words, who are the most influential figures in your community? Can they generate referrals? And how do you make social media less like a lecture to an empty room and more like an engaged conversation? Sometimes I suspect the social media presence of D.C. think tanks and development agencies is exclusively made up of interns tweeting at each other...

Next Steps

Now that I have the theories, I plan to dive deeper into digital marketing analytics. Coursera will be offering several relevant courses in the next couple of months, starting with Digital Analytics for Marketing Professionals.