A conversation with Kevin M. Hoffman, author of “Meeting Design For Manager, Makers, and Everyone”

Kevin will be speaking at our upcoming event — Control the Room: The 1st Annual Austin Facilitator Summit! Taking place at Austin’s Capital Factory on May 23, 2019, learn more and get your tickets here.

Kevin M. Hoffman is an author and design executive who credits his career success to a willingness to be open to teaching himself anything he could learn related to making stuff. Whether it’s the creation of his upcoming podcast, making punk rock music, or solving business problems, Kevin focuses not only on the mechanics of making but also on the underlying human needs in a given pursuit. Kevin’s latest role with the U.S. Digital Service has given him the opportunity to apply his design expertise to services at the Veterans Administration.

Kevin M. Hoffman
Kevin M. Hoffman

Finding the right recipe for innovation

When it comes to innovation, Kevin believes there’s a lot of value in slowing down. “People are in a hurry. I’ve seen some larger corporations use the phrase ‘design thinking’ as a black box expecting to just slap some design thinking on something to make innovation babies. I don’t always see people willing to invest the time in the longer term conversation and ‘slower’ learning necessary to really understand human problems in a particular space. Those solutions will be about as effective as the amount of time and effort invested.

When I asked him about how he suggests finding a balance between analysis paralysis and acting on too little research, Kevin shared that it’s less a balance and more a recipe. “Using the concept of balance as a mental model for what you’re making creates this false belief that 50/50 should feel good. Whereas, wherever you are in the process, that’s what should feel good. If we’re very close to launching, it’s not a good time to do more research. If we think we have a good idea, it’s a good time to do a little research to make sure the idea has some legs.”

Kevin looks for the right recipe of research and making that allows teams to achieve their specific mission. Figuring out the recipe for each project involves frank conversations about topics like confirmation bias and acknowledging that there are multiple pathways to a shared successful outcome.

Kevin M. Hoffman

Success & innovation

“In organizations, human beings are driving all this stuff, and everything they believe is a human construct. Even quantitative things are a human construct. Nothing is a guarantee of success. The more comfortable people are with becoming learning-minded, the happier everyone is and the better things go.”

“The more comfortable people are with becoming learning-minded, the happier everyone is and the better things go.”

For Kevin, innovation is about using technology and a deep, strategic understanding of human needs to solve problems. He challenges the notion that innovation itself can be pursued at all. “I think we can call something innovative after it’s happened. We can look at it and compare it to what was there before and after the change and say it was innovative. I’m always interested in the relationship between the future and the past. If you think about innovation as a pursuit in and of itself, it is bizarre worship of something that you can’t really know until it’s done.”

Kevin M. Hoffman, author of “Meeting Design For Manager, Makers, and Everyone”
Kevin M. Hoffman, author of “Meeting Design For Manager, Makers, and Everyone”

Kevin believes the key to innovation is to: “Enter the room with genuine curiosity. Leave the room with love.”

Measuring innovation

Measuring innovation requires embracing the many pathways it can follow with a focus on learning about problems in a deep way. “Measurement should be done in multiple ways so as to triangulate towards meaning. It should ultimately be driven by learning and impact.”

The underlying value driving innovation is a clearly-defined problem. Much can be learned from asking: How does our attempt at a new solution to a problem help us understand the problem better? “All innovations are temporary; problems will always be there. Clearly defining the problems a team is trying to solve and how those problems relate to an organization’s larger mission are the two essential ingredients in telling a good story of innovation.”

“All innovations are temporary; problems will always be there.”

Kevin is a fan of Spotify’s squad model for structuring how people work together and maintaining the autonomy of small groups to try things differently. He believes a key quality for any innovation program is constant reflection with a focus on risk and learning while paying little attention to whether something has the innovation label. “Are we open minded enough to each other’s expertise to see opportunities when they arise? They could be viewed in the past as innovative, but we’re not pursuing them for innovation sake. We’re pursuing them because we believe it could be better.”

Kevin looks at companies like Netflix as an example of innovation coupled with consistent long-term strategy and vision. “They always had the vision for what we now know as Netflix — original content, digital streaming — from the beginning, but mapped a disruptive way — DVD rentals — to get there.”

The expansion of design thinking

Kevin and I discussed how the practice of design thinking is permeating all aspects of organizations, expanding beyond technology departments into areas like human resources. With this expansion, I see the potential for design to bifurcate into roles focused on internal and external products and processes.

Kevin is among authors like Aaron Dignan, author of Brave New Work, who have taken design thinking philosophies and methods beyond client work and into the day-to-day functioning of organizations. Kevin’s book, Meeting Design For Managers, Markers, and Everyone, uses design principles to create creative and productive meetings that help teams make the most of their time together.

Kevin with his book Meeting Design.
Kevin with his book Meeting Design.

“I think that people and organizations tend to exist between this emotional and rational space.” Kevin reflected on experiences in the earlier years of his career: “The way we met, the way we ran meetings, the way we structured our organizations, and then structured meetings around organizational structures was pretty primal and bizarrely instinctual.”

It often seemed to Kevin that decisions were made in meetings because someone in a leadership position felt a certain way about a given strategy or was by driven by some negative or positive experience they had in the past, rather than actually defining why the time was being set aside.

“What you’ve seen with the growth of the scientific method or design thinking is the rational being applied to what was formerly the emotional. It’s saying: ‘It needs to be well-designed, but it needs to be well-designed for a reason.’”

The evolution of design

Kevin likened the evolution of design to the evolution of writing. “Being able to write well, being able to read, being able to form a cohesive argument used to be a specialist role. Now being able to write well or having good communication skills seems like table stakes, but you still see that specialization in certain spaces in our life. We still have jobs like a lawyer, and we have lawyers for different reasons. But one of the fundamental requirements of being a lawyer or a judge or anyone in the legal field is being able to craft very specific, clear arguments and being able to defend those. Design is becoming more of a table stakes skill. What form it takes is going to be a slow evolution.

“Design is becoming more of a table stakes skill. What form it takes is going to be a slow evolution.”

Like writing, design is also expanding into new realms. Kevin has explored the use of design in defining company culture through the work of Dave Gray and Edgar Schein. “I’ve seen teams that put too much emphasis on aspirational culture without dealing with the difficult parts of their actual culture.” For teams or leaders looking to explore these ideas further, he recommends Edgar Schein’s book, Humble Inquiry.

As the role of design expands, accessibility to design expands, too. Kevin shared his thoughts on this expansion through the availability of website software. He has observed the trend of creating and sharing information through websites; it originally started within the academic and military spaces but has expanded — now anyone with a credit card and an internet connection can spin up a website through Squarespace or WordPress.

“That is fundamentally moving more and more decisions into the hands of the users. I think if you look at the history of technology and writing, the printing press, digital type, computers, and so on, we’ve slowly been moving the ability to learn to write and read into the world at large instead of being isolated to where it started, which is more in the clergy and academics. It’s going to be interesting to see what we define as table stakes design skills, and what specialization looks like, and what a chief design officer really looks like too.”

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.