A Conversation with Doreen Lorenzo
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the end of this article for links to others in the series.
Doreen Lorenzo is helping to shape and educate the next generation of design leaders. The former president of frog and the start-up Quirky, Doreen is now the Assistant Dean in the School of Design and Creative Technology at the University of Texas-Austin. “Knowing that I wake up every day and go to work to support young people, our future workforce, is the absolute best motivating force in my life,” she says.
“Knowing that I wake up every day and go to work to support young people, our future workforce, is the absolute best motivating force in my life.”
I’m personally excited that some of our largest institutions of higher education are truly embracing the new economy of design, creativity, and innovation. We’re lucky here in Austin to have Doreen leading the charge at UT.
Doreen’s list of accomplishments is incredibly long, so here are some of the highlights: she is a co-founder of mobile video insights firm Vidlet, as well as a board member and advisor of several other startups, and a columnist for Fast Co. Design and Medium. She’s a recognized thought leader on business and design issues and speaks publicly about her signature leadership style and the power of empathy to drive business results. She has been featured in ABC News, Bloomberg Radio, Fast Company, Fortune, The New York Times, and many other media. She served as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies and Emerging Multi Nationals.
Since Doreen has been part of the game since digital product design became a “thing,” I was happy to chat with her over the phone recently. Here are some of the top nuggets of wisdom that I took away from our conversation.
Improving the Knobs
Asking someone to define innovation isn’t always easy. But Doreen answered my potentially-annoying question with incredible succinctness: “Innovation is when something new and necessary is created. Innovation can be big or small.” If there has been a common theme so far in my interviews with innovation experts, it’s that innovation is not necessarily what we think it is. It’s not always the giant moments or mega shifts — the Ubers, the Teslas, the Googles.
“Everybody thinks innovation is some ‘aha!’, earth-shattering moment, like you’re doing the Hyperloop or you’re sending some rocket into space. It’s really not that. Sometimes it’s just improving the knobs on a piece of electronics or changing the interface.” I love Doreen’s sentiment — innovation can be in the details; we shouldn’t overlook it because that belief impacts how companies approach innovation.
Doreen believes in what you might call the “bite-sized chunks” mentality of innovation: “Often organizations think innovation is really big, as if they’re going to go in there and get massive change [right away.] It never works that way.” Instead, she’s is a proponent of taking the products or experiences we need to innovate around and breaking them into smaller bits, so that change is more doable, more gradual. “People rally around success. And, guess what? it grows. In no time you can see these ‘bigger innovations’ happening, but that’s because you started in the place that’s less threatening to a lot of people.”
“In no time you can see these ‘bigger innovations’ happening, but that’s because you started in the place that’s less threatening to a lot of people.”
The F Word
I asked how companies can build excitement around success while embracing failure. Doreen stopped me right there: “Throw out the word failure.” As someone working in higher education, where the concept of succeeding or failing is baked into the grading system, it’s no surprise that she’s particular impassioned about this topic: “In my world, I say I never use the ‘F-word’. We need to teach everyone to always be in a continuous learning mode.”
“I never use the F-word. We need to teach everyone to always be in a continuous learning mode.”
She likened the idea that everything doesn’t work out the first time to baking: “You have a 50–50 chance that it’s going to work out or not. That that’s OK because you learn — ‘The temperature should have been higher or I should have put in more flour. And we want people to think about it like that because it’s very rare that you’re going to do something so egregious that you’re going to tank a company. Nobody has that much power.”
Know the Problem
Something closely related to failure (I mean, continuous learning), is prototyping. We talked about when and how a company should prototype. Of course, Doreen’s a big proponent of prototyping, but she offered wise words on the right way to go about it: “Don’t prototype something until you know what the problem is you’re trying to solve and who you’re trying to solve that problem for. Do your homework. Go and do your insights… Because 80% of the time it isn’t the problem you think you’re solving for.”
“Don’t prototype something until you know what the problem is you’re trying to solve and who you’re trying to solve that problem for.”
The importance of identifying the right problem and being open to customer attitudes goes beyond being able to prototype and design the right thing. It helps companies see market shifts and allow them to react. Doreen likened it to how the taxicabs were surpassed by Uber and Lyft even though they were in the prime spot to do the same thing: “They had all that technology. They had GPS in taxicabs. That was all available to them. All they had to do was take it one step further in terms of being able to do everything via your mobile phone…”
We Need Ninjas
I also picked Doreen’s brain about how large corporations, who probably can’t restructure their entire organization in terms of design thinking skills, might succeed in the innovation space.
She spoke about the type of commitment you need at all levels of the organization, from leadership to middle management: “You absolutely need buy-in from the top to make that happen,” she said. “You also need to ‘retrain’ the way people are doing things.” Yet, she doesn’t believe that every employee attending a three-day boot camp in Design Thinking is going to change everything: “..muscle memory comes back and they’ll just keep doing things the same way. Just because you learn some terminology doesn’t mean that you’re able to do it now…”
“You need experienced people that know how to get through the big hairy problems.”
What organizations truly need is what she calls the ninjas: “The designers, the people that are experienced in how to then take [change] to the finish line and do all the work that’s necessary to make this stuff happen. You need experienced people that know how to get through the big hairy problems.”
Without these skilled people, there’s considerable risk of the F-word: “There’s a large chance that the organism is going to reject it. You need people who are experienced and understand how to take people through that process…”
The Magical Magic Band
Doreen shared her favorite innovation success story — the Disney Magic Band. (Her former company, frog, played an integral part in its design.) Some of the reasons she loves this product is its scale and simplicity: “It really impacted hundreds of thousands of people in a really positive way. It just made everybody’s life super simple…”
“What I really love that about Disney is that they don’t rest on their laurels. They are always looking for continuous improvements and that’s why something very small turned into something very big.”
The other takeaway, for companies especially, is that Disney was willing to see beyond their original vision of using RFID in wrist bands for fast passes and embraced that the Magic Band could be so much more. They understood what a larger, end-to-end experience could mean for their guests and weren’t afraid to embark on a huge, daunting, and lengthy project. Furthermore, Doreen admires Disney’s relentless drive to make things better: “What I really love that about Disney is that they don’t rest on their laurels. They are always looking for continuous improvements and that’s why something very small turned into something very big.”
When I asked Doreen what she is most excited about right now, she said “higher education.” It’s an industry that is incredibly ripe for change and in the midst of a major shift: “They’ve taught things the same way for hundreds of years, but they’re realizing now that things have to change and that you have to innovate in how things are done and…introduce new ways of learning to students… Otherwise, we’re teaching them a curriculum that is 20 and 30 years old. And that’s not going to help our students.”
I know I’ll be watching to see what the students that come out of Doreen’s program do next. With her as their fearless leader, it’s got to be good.