What Is Design Thinking?

This post is a follow-up to some earlier posts about my recent participation at Stanford’s Design Thinking Bootcamp program. I want to reflect on what I think I know about the “design thinking” approach. I am not an expert or a scholar and I haven’t even read any books on the subject! This is my attempt to process my experiences, not to be authoritative.

As I now think about design thinking, I believe it is really three things:

  1. a specific process for generating new product and service ideas centered around “user experience” (ie, emotion)
  2. a general approach to being creative and innovative, particularly when working in a team
  3. a mindset, attitude or philosophy of psychology which addresses known cognitive biases which prevent people from accessing their natural creativity

I want to tackle these in reverse order.

The Design Thinking mindset

Everyone is and can be creative.

When I say design thinking is a mindset, I think about how much of what I’ve learned centers on the idea of putting oneself into a creative frame of mind. We seem to have both a creative mind, which is open, limitless, imaginative, fun and even a bit wacky, and a critical mind, which is narrow, realistic, fear-based, serious and deeply rooted in the known and knowable.

Design thinkers talk about the “Yes, and…” attitude, taking ideas offered by others and building upon them, rather than trying to shoot them down or explain why they’re wrong or off target. They separate the act of generating ideas from the act of evaluating ideas. They emphasize how we need to understand failure as an opportunity to learn, and to let go of control or thinking you can predict outcomes.

This is really a different way of experiencing life psychologically from what most people know. It’s not just about being positive, though the professional design thinkers I encountered were more positive on average than most people I know. It is an entirely different way to process one’s experiences and infer meaning from them.

Most of the time, most people are trying to avoid making what they perceive to be mistakes, and are looking for the quickest, cheapest way to accomplish a specific goal. But design thinking sets that aside. Mistakes are a part of learning and are to be embraced. It’s not that one purposefully makes mistakes, it’s that what a mistake is is not certain until it’s made and when it’s made, it is accepted as valuable data that shows us what doesn’t work.

And it’s not that design thinking looks for the longest, most expensive way to accomplish a specific goal, it’s an attitude that the destination is not obvious at the outset and so some serendipity is required to make the journey. When I was working on a design thinking project with a co-worker upon my return from the program, they were baffled by my line of questioning in some of the user interviews we conducted– we know what problem we’re trying to solve and how we intend to solve it, so why aren’t we asking people about that? I was taking the conversation anywhere but there, because as I understood it, the problem and what we think is the solution is just a place to start, but the true mindset we want to create is one of open consideration that we’re actually trying to arrive some place very different than the land we think we know.

A general approach to creativity

The mindset mentioned above is indeed a major component to the general creative approach design thinking represents. Without putting yourself into the right mental state, you have little hope of generating the breakthrough creative leaps the design thinking approach is known for.

A related concept is paying attention to space and materials when engaged in creative work. If you want to do different work and think different thoughts, you must physically work differently. Don’t sit at your keyboard, stand up in front of a white board. Don’t keep the ideas you’re ruminating about in your head, write them on colorful sticky notes and splatter them all over the walls so you and your compatriots can fully consider them. And don’t, by any means, think you can find all the answers in your office or traditional workspace– you absolutely must go into the field and talk to real people to find out what they think, rather than assume and guess at the thoughts, experiences and emotions of demographic strawmen.

I might have put this into the mindset area but another important principle is the “bias toward action.” This means not overthinking things and instead trying things. Come up with an idea, and then play with it, try it out on people you come across, see how they react. It rejects the idea that something must be perfectly engineered before it can be shown to other people. Seek “good enough” to get the major point across and go from there.

Design thinking certainly seems to offer tools and value for the individual designer, yet I think it emphasizes teamwork. There is an embedded belief that the individual is never as creative by himself as he is being creative in front of other people trying to do the same thing. Using that “Yes, and…” attitude, a group of people working creatively can work themselves into a motivational frenzy and the energy and random nature of exchange and +1 can take them to territory they don’t otherwise have a map to reach. The path isn’t clear and it isn’t contiguous.

One reason design thinking advocates doing and trying is that it’s a cheaper way to fail, and failure is seen as inevitable. Because humans are not omniscient and are extremely unlikely to come up with the perfect answer the first time, it is easy to predict that it will require multiple attempts at creativity and implementation to get to the final form that works as a solution (if even the problem itself isn’t transformed and reinterpreted along the way).

As a result, there is an emphasis on failing quick and often and not building a lot of cost into failure. Design thinking says that crude mockups and models of intended products or feature sets and the use of play-acting or imaginative role play is enough to try an idea out, get feedback and change. When you’re new to it, it seems a bit ridiculous, a bunch of grown adults essentially playing dress up and putting on a show for one another. Even more ridiculous is trying to get perfect strangers on the street to play along.

But this frugal approach allows you to try a lot of ideas quickly and cheaply. And if you get interesting or unusual reactions, you are gathering the exact data you would’ve wanted to get from focus groups, market surveys, etc.

An interesting aspect of all of this play is that it is highly experiential and is used as a tool to connect with people’s past experiences. That is what design thinkers are after– what is a real experience someone had in the past, and how did it make them feel, and how can they make them feel that same way with a new experience they’re trying to design into a product or service?

A specific process process for generating user experiences

So that is some of the philosophical ideas behind design thinking. What we learned was also a specific process with 5 main steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

The first step involves conducting live empathy interviews with “users” a euphemism for a person who might ultimately be the user of a product or service offering you are thinking about creating. Using a “probe”, which in our case was a set of flash cards with a variety of emotions and a prompt such as “Think of a time when you last X, sort these cards in the order of how strongly you felt each emotion”, the design thinker has an excuse to begin talking to strangers.

It’s easy to fool oneself into believing that the conversation is about the probe/prompt, or about the design problem itself, but it’s not. The goal of the conversation is to get people talking about themselves, sharing experiences and specific memories along with the emotional states they triggered. When those experiences are found or those emotional states are identified, certain transitions can be used to keep digging deeper, such as “You said you were feeling Y, can you tell me about another time you really felt Y?” or “You mentioned Z, can you tell me about a specific time you did Z?”

When doing empathy work, the DTBC recommended the following:

  • Engage with the probe
  • Notice surprising decisions, awkward pauses, facial expressions
  • Follow up and ask “Why?” about the things you notice
  • Seek stories and ask about another time they felt or behaved this way

By capturing strongly felt emotions and the real experiences that generated them, the design thinker is able to move to the second step in the process, which is to Define the user. This is different than what is commonly done in standard market research by studying demographic data, because demographic data is broad, general and based on averages, whereas the design thinking “user” is specific, real and quite limited in their profile. An example of a user definition might be something like this:

“We met Paul, a graphic designer living in the city who fantasizes about running his own dairy farm whenever he eats cheese, his favorite snack”

Paul here is not a demographic profile. He’s a real, quirky dude (that I made up) with a strange contradiction between where he lives and what he fantasizes about, for example. Defining the user typically follows a process called Point of View, which looks like this:

  1. We met… (user you were inspired by)
  2. We were surprised to notice… (tension, contradiction or surprise from their interview)
  3. We wonder if this means… (what did you infer?)
  4. It would be game changing to… (frame up an inspired challenge to solve without dictating what the solution is or might be)

Whether you had a specific design problem when you started, the Define step and the Point of View process can either help bring more clarity to what your problem might really look like, or it might uncover an entirely new problem you had never actually thought of solving before.

The next step is to Ideate. Ideation is the brainstorming part of the design thinking process and most calls for teamwork. You start with a simple prompt, such as “How could we X for Y so they can Z?” You then start coming up with ideas and “Yes! And…” each one as they’re created to add to it or add another idea it inspired. The goal at this stage is not to critique or rationalize ideas but to simply create as many as possible. You’re not after “one idea” you could implement, or the one that is the final solution. You don’t know what that would be, and coming up with only one simply means you have a high chance of discovering later on you’re wrong and picked the wrong horse to bet on.

One technique for coming up with greater volume of new ideas is to use constraints. The constraints could be real but are usually arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, such as “Each idea must cost $1M to implement” or “Each idea must involve technology to implement”. By focusing your creativity tightly around a special constraint you can actually be more creative within that specific domain because your mind is forced to think about the problem from a new angle.

A similar technique is to think about the emotions involved for your user and think of people or organizations or places that those emotions are strongly tied to, then to ask yourself “What would that person/organization/place create for this user?”

When you come up with a large quantity of ideas, you can then move to the next step which is to prototype one of them. As discussed earlier, prototyping is crude. First, the DTBC recommended a role play. Take your idea and set a scene, define the roles involved in playing out the scene to demo the solution selected and improvise within the role play as you try it out multiple times.

Once you’ve role played, you can actually create a crude prototype and other props to do the role play with users. You want to test one key function at a time, so your prototype includes the following information:

  • Product/service name
  • Target user (the one you defined earlier)
  • Intended impact (what does it change for the user?)
  • One key function (this is what you’ll demo/test in the field with your role play)

Materials like cardboard boxes, construction paper, glue, saran wrap, markers, pipe cleaners, PVC tubes, etc. are all sufficient quality for the purposes mentioned. What’s more, they’re cheap and just about any physically able person can design with them.

You’re now ready to take it to the field and Test. But here’s the trick! The Test is really the first step, Empathize. And the prototype is really your probe. It’s all an elaborate ploy to get people talking to you some more, but this time with a slightly more concrete circumstance and with the goal of eliciting that precious experiential and emotional feedback in connection to a real product/service you’re thinking about creating.

Over these 5 steps, which can cycle with as many iterations as necessary to find a worthwhile problem to design for and an exciting solution to create (as defined by user feedback), the innovator is going through what the DTBC refers to as “flare and focus”. In the first step, you flare out your ideas and thinking in new and unusual directions, remaining open to new possibilities and experiences you had never thought of or encountered before. When you begin defining your user, you are focusing on something specific about them you’ve noticed, something concrete that can inspire your design. When you ideate for that user’s dilemma, you’re flaring again, trying to get wildly creative with the belief that no idea is a bad idea. Then you select an actual idea you’re excited about and focus again by developing a specific prototype to demonstrate it to the user. And when you test, you flare out and open up to new reactions and possibilities and begin the cycle anew.

Throughout this flaring and focusing you want to keep your eye on your alignment assessment– how close is your “frame”, the way you’re thinking about a problem that needs solving, to your “concept”, the specific solution you have in mind for solving the problem? Your frame and your concept might both change or only one change as you iterate. You might find your frame is sound but your concept is off the mark, or that you actually have a really interesting product or service but you haven’t quite found the right user who would benefit from it.

Some hallmarks of frame and concept alignment in the form of user feedback are:

  • “Thanks! Is that all you need from me?” indicating the problem or solution do not seem relevant or inspiring to the user
  • “You know what you guys could do that’s a REALLY good idea?” indicating that the user is experiencing relevancy but doesn’t think what’s being offered would work the right way
  • “So is this available for purchase? What does it cost?” indicating that the team has a frame and concept which are closely aligned and verging upon being ready for market

Conclusion

I think there is something to Design Thinking and I am interested to learn more. I am trying to internalize some of the attitudinal or mindset ideas which I think can be helpful in many domains beyond that of creating new product or service ideas specifically. I like a lot of the general processes, tools and techniques for generating creative ideas and tackling solutions to problems from unique angles. I especially like the idea of questioning whether you have the right problem (frame) in the first place!

One application I am considering is using design thinking principles within my family. How might common family problems be resolved differently with design thinking principles employed? What kind of family life or activity could be designed with design thinking?

The concept of designing for a specific user is also challenging for me to consider. As is focusing on real, past experiences rather than future hypotheticals– design thinkers throw out as unusable any speculation about how a person WOULD behave or WOULD feel in a given anticipated situation because it isn’t certain, whereas how they did feel in a specific experience from the past is known.

I plan to read a bit more on the subject and try to rethink some of the organizational problems we face in our business from the mindset of design thinking. Despite my initial failure to complete my Post Program work, I want to use Design Thinking to find a breakthrough, game changing solution rather than find some kind of incremental progress. If our future and existence as an organization truly hangs in the balance, incrementalism can only delay the inevitable, whereas a paradigm shift could offer not only a survival strategy but a way to actually thrive.

Reflections On My Time At Stanford’s d.school

I’m reflecting a bit on my time at the Design Thinking Bootcamp at Stanford’s d.school. I plan to follow up this post with my thoughts on the question, “What is design thinking?”

First, I recorded some items on some note cards handed out to us at the end of each day to aid our memory and reduce our many thoughts and experiences down to the essential items of action or questions for further consideration. Here is what I wrote on each card.

Day 1

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Creating an attitude where failure [of new ideas] and disagreement are acceptable and encouraged
  • Rejecting the vanity of requiring omniscience before action can be taken

Day 2

Today, we did this:

  • faced rejection and awkwardness to find complete strangers who were excited to tell us about their experiences and themselves
  • accepted feedback gracefully as an opportunity to improve our offering and refocus on what problem we’re really solving

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

  • Stop worrying about surveys, start speaking directly with our users
  • Focusing on emotions conveyed through story-telling
  • Emphasize breakthrough solutions, not incremental improvements

A question I still have:

  1. What’s the best way to break the ice with a user?
  2. How to know what experiences matter before the problem is known?
  3. When to abandon an interview versus dig deeper?
  4. How long does this process take to cycle through to a solution?

Day 3

Today, we did this:

  • Built low-resolution prototypes
  • Took them into the field and used them as excuses to have conversations with strangers about feelings

A key behavior I want to take back to work:

find reasonable excuses to have deeply personal discussions with our customers

A question I still have:

  1. How do I identify the right problem to work on?
  2. Who is going to help me with this?
  3. How often should we be doing this (design thinking work)?
  4. How long will it take to reach a conclusion?

Now that I’ve shared some of my daily reflections, I want to make some notes about my overall impressions and reflections of the experience.

As I discussed with one of the coaches at the d.school, I believe we are standing on a “burning platform” in our business due to technological and competitive dynamics and it’s imperative we take these risks seriously by thinking about radically different ways of doing business, up to and including finding a completely different business to compete in. Therefore, I had one over-riding goal in attending the Design Thinking Bootcamp: gain a toolset that would help our organization think about the challenge we face differently than we think about it now, and design a radical solution.

Along with that larger goal came many smaller goals about specific areas of our existing business where we perceive an opportunity to radically innovate.

Going into the program, I thought that the program was going to mostly revolve around these specific business challenges and I would be working, almost one-on-one, with design thinking coaches to learn how to apply design thinking to our challenge. I imagined that what I was primarily gaining was an individual insight that I could hopefully share or train our larger organization on as needed when I went back to base.

I had done some research ahead of time and was aware of some of the things we’d be doing in the course of the program:

  • going out into the field to do interviews with “users”
  • working on a design challenge for a sponsoring major corporation
  • doing team-based thinking games to explore different aspects of design thinking

I was apprehensive (in a “good” way) about the interviewing because it is one thing from my previous operational management experience I liked least or felt least comfortable with– actually talking with our customers. Most of my interactions with customers were defensive in nature, trying to calm down someone we had pissed off through process failure or other failure to live up to their expectations or our commitments. I didn’t have much experience or confidence in just talking to people to try to gather insights about how to make business better in a proactive sense. This was a skillset I very much wanted to gain and was ready to do uncomfortable things to master.

Another thing I was concerned about on a personal level was sustaining my energy throughout the program, especially when considering the suggestion that food might be hard to come by. Some of the early material I received in preparation for the week seemed to imply that meals would be light and limited and we’d often be on our own. The Wolf was concerned for me, and the first question she asked when I checked in after Day 1 was “Are they giving you enough to eat?”

I am happy to report that the experience was much higher touch than I would’ve thought. We were fed ENDLESSLY– breakfast, lunch and dinner with oversupplied snack stations throughout the day and dessert offered at lunch and dinner. The food was high quality and diverse from a local catering operation and the snacks were gourmand. I never went hungry and it was clear the program coordinators put a lot of time and attention into this specific detail, not to mention all the others. “Class sizes” were small, typically 1 coach for 5 team members, plus other support staff and coordinators. We had a group dinner scheduled in San Francisco one night and had nice tour buses to shuttle us back and forth when we went out into the field. Overall, it was an extremely comfortable experience from a material standpoint.

The instructors were amazingly high energy and genuinely interested in their students and their learning. That was actually one of the things that was most challenging for me. Design thinking seems to require a lot of emotional energy, and by the time I got home I was drained. Imagine being super excited about everything for 12 hours a day for 4 days. Imagine sustaining this energy with people you’ve never met (I mean the strangers we interviewed, not just the team members in the program) and conveying the sense that the wacky stories they’re sharing are SUPER exciting and SUPER interesting as you interview them for twenty minutes at a time.

Maybe some people can sustain that for weeks, months or even their entire lives, but I can’t. I crashed when I got home, hard.

On the Monday after my return I was to begin my Post Program Design Project. The idea was that between 8am and 12pm, Monday through Wednesday, I would attempt a small design project from start to finish: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. There were 2 team calls scheduled for 1 hour at 9am on Tuesday and Wednesday to check in and support one another in creating ideas and processing feedback. Otherwise, in 4 hours each of three days you were expected to interview your own customers/users, define a test user to design for, come up with ideas that might make their life more wonderful, create a crude prototype and then role play using it with more customers/users.

I ended up doing the interviews but found it was a lot more challenging to do when the people in our organization that I asked to assist me weren’t really bought in and didn’t really understand how the approach “works” like the people I had teamed up with at the d.school. The interviews went okay despite that, but when it came to defining, ideating, prototyping, I lost my motivation and decided to “quit” rather than make excuses as to why I couldn’t get my project done.

This is probably the most frustrating part of my experience at the d.school, and the biggest lesson I could learn! It was frustrating for me because they made it quite clear before we left that making excuses and not getting the Post Program work done was for losers– in developing a “bias toward action” it is important to jump right in to trying what you learned in your own business, even if you end up sucking at it or it feels funny. This didn’t seem to give me much room to maneuver once I hit some speed bumps and started wobbling, so I just fell over.

On the other hand, experiencing a painful failure and getting back up on my design thinking bike (as I plan to, anyway) helped me think about the other important principle, which is that failure is okay and is part of learning. I now realize I need to sell what I’ve learned a lot better than I did and can’t assume people will rally around this approach just because the organization sent me off to a training program for a week. I also understand that I CAN do what I thought/think is uncomfortable and speak to real “users”, and I have some confidence in the idea that there are real insights we can gain from that effort if we work diligently and find the right people to design for. My initial failure has been a good reminder of the meta-principle of design thinking, which is that everyone can get better by iterative improvements.

My experience at the d.school was wacky and weird, fun and tiring, engaging and challenging. At one point it felt like being back in kindergarten, making macaroni art and playing make believe as we constructed these goofy prototype scenarios and then played them out with each other, with strangers on the street and for our fellow d.school teammates for feedback and evaluation. In the short time I was there I did not come across any “profound” solutions to burning platform business challenges (my own or others) and I realize I can’t expect that kind of resolution from a week long program or from my amateur tinkering with this new found knowledge. Design thinking isn’t a miraculous process, it’s an innovative process.

I’ve got a bit of travel ahead of me over the next few weeks, so I won’t get an opportunity to “do” much design thinking in the meantime. But it is rooted in my mind now and I am thinking differently than when I left for the training. My plan is to try to identify a lower-difficulty challenge our organization could work on and find a few people who are highly motivated to learn and practice a new approach with me. From there we can further test the principles and hopefully design an implementable solution that will be the tangible evidence of value needed to bring it to a wider organizational audience and signal that it is time to move on to bigger challenges.

What Are Friendships For?

Lately I’ve been wondering, “What are friendships for?” This is something I thought I had a good answer to until recently. Now, I am not so sure.

How I used to make friends

My first “friends” were other toddlers in the Mommy and Me program I attended around 2 years of age. I think the “friendship by circumstance” model did not change for most of my childhood and adolescence. I became friends with whoever was around me, or at least tried to do so. Who my classmates were and who was on my sports teams largely determined who my friends were. There was little intentionality about it.

How did we even identify each other as friends? Probably it was best described as “random”: liked the clothes we were dressed in, or laughed at the same joke, or just kept getting put together by our parents. Who knows for sure? I simply don’t have any tangible memories of these first encounters nor why the friendship stuck afterward. There are probably many friendships that didn’t stick, that I don’t even remember, that I can not compare them to as a result.

What I did with my friends

The things I remember doing with my friends seem trivial looking back. Part of the triviality is because we were children and the antics of children often appear trivial to adults. Part of the triviality is because they were trivial. There was no purpose other than to entertain ourselves for the hours we were together. There was no “productive” end to our get togethers other than to kill some time and keep being friends.

Bike rides around town. Making food and eating snacks. Doing homework together. Listening to music. Playing (video) games. Going on trips, occasionally. Swimming. Playing in the sand at the beach. Much later, playing poker late into the night, or grabbing a burger and a milk shake across town (no, this wasn’t the 50s).

I don’t remember a lot of direct sharing of ideas or philosophies, although this likely happened indirectly in the course of other conversations or embedded in the meta of our choices and behaviors and topics of chitchat. I did not have political friends and did not sit around arguing politics. I hung out with a pretty straight crowd so there was no doping or inebriating, and most of my friends weren’t musical, nor was I, so no jam sessions.

We came together either for a proscribed time (dictated by parents) or until we got bored of not being bored together (when we were older and self-mobile) and that was it.

When my ideas of friendship changed

There were two points at which my ideas of friendship, and how to select friends, changed. The first was attending college. What was the same as before is that the friendship opportunity set was largely dictated by who was in your dorm, at least freshman year, and who was in your classes. Or, if you studied abroad, who was on your trip. Nobody was making friends in the hallways of class.

But one thing that was different then was that you had to be much more intentional to make friends. Some people joined student groups or other social clubs that selected by intent. Even in class, you were mostly there for your own purposes and there were few group projects in lecture hall, so to make a friend you had to make an effort to chat with people you saw in class. And you started meeting more friends of friends, who might be attending different schools or not even attending school but simply living in the area.

The other point was when I entered the business world, and began relocating around the country for career reasons. You come across a lot of people in business, within your organization, amongst your customers, vendors, etc. It requires on the one hand more chance and on the other more intentionality to make friendships happen. People are at work for a reason– to get things done and make a pay check. Not everyone’s looking to plug in to friend networks.

When I started moving around the country, I started uprooting and cutting the cord on existing friend networks. It became more complicated to stay in touch. And I had to be even more intentional about making friends with people in new places. My friendships started being dictated less by circumstances and more by intentionality– what kind of interests did I want to intersect with potential friends on?

Why I’ve become selective about friendships over time

Looking back on a lot of earlier friendships, I have many happy memories, even when I am no longer friends with certain people, but the overriding theme that comes to mind is “waste.” A true waste of time. I was getting nothing done with these people! Just trying not to be bored. But not living with a purpose, and since there was no purpose there was no way for them to be a part of a purpose that I didn’t possess.

I have a lot more purpose in my life now. I’m not perfect, I still waste time, even with my friends. But my life is now largely guided by various purposes with specific goals at different points in time and my friendship intentions have been strongly influenced  by this fact. Now, I select friends who I think share my purpose, or are invested in supporting me as I attempt to live my purpose. It isn’t enough to just “be” with someone, killing time. We are being together for a reason and we’re aware of what we’re working on, either explicitly or in the background as the context of our life and thus our friendship.

I still get contacted from time to time by old friends, who still operate on the “killing time” principle and still want an opportunity to do that. I find I have little patience and even less interest in such outreach. It is not that I judge them or actively dislike them, though there are some people who I think are no longer suitable as friends based upon their habits or values in life. It is more that I see my time as scarce and I don’t want to spend it with people who aren’t actively supporting my purpose.

Where I have been frustrated in friendships– crystalization

In college, I read a book called “Bel Ami” for a course on La Belle Epoque literature. There were a number of ideas buried in Bel Ami, but one that we spent some time analyzing was the concept of crystalization in romantic relationships. The idea is that in every romantic relationship there is an imbalance of power based upon one partner crystalizing some ideal in the other partner and worshipping it. They live to serve this crystalized ideal and lose sight of themselves and their partners humanity. It breeds a sense of neediness that ultimately destabilizes the relationship and destroys it.

It’s an interesting theory, and it may be true of some romantic relationships, but it has never described mine. That being said, I think of it in broad terms when I think of some of my most frustrating friendships, former, current and potential or hoped for. Without getting into the idea of embodying an ideal, I have gotten a sense at times that I want to be friends with a person a lot more than they want to be friends with me. This creates an annoying (for me) instability and ongoing tension that usually resolves itself in the relationship failing completely. I don’t know if this is something other people experience, ie, it’s part of  being human, or if it’s part of my unique psychology. But it drives me nuts when it rears its ugly head!

My current theory of friendship

As my life has changed, my understanding of friendship and what it’s good for has changed. I now think about the principles of friendship as fraught with more meaning than I did in my prior periods of non-intentionality. What follows are some major concepts I find important in friendship today.

Improvement

One of my main purposes in life is to grow, to change, to learn and to get better. I define these things in terms of myself and whatever I believe is my potential or capability. Self-improvement is a theme. I value friendships that help me get better. I also value friendships with people who are clearly trying to do the same. I find I get frustrated with people who are happy with how things are, who are stuck in a rut, or who actively resist change and focus on tradition and the past. I intentionally select for an improvement mindset in my friends and I lose interest in people who either don’t seem to care about it or aren’t making progress.

Loyalty/bond/security

Loyalty isn’t everything, but it is certainly something. I seek to build an intentional community of people and a community doesn’t last long if it can’t support itself.

That being said, I look at loyalty a bit differently than most. When I think of loyalty, I think about the commitment a person makes to their friends not to be by their side without question, but to provide questions and feedback! To me, a friendship that is secure is one in which the friends feel comfortable to point out what could be improved, and how. I expect my friends to be open to feedback and to be willing to give it to me as well. Some of my greatest upsets have been friendships that try to paper over what is obviously not working, or which end abruptly without explanation of what wasn’t working.

Entertainment, relaxation

Of course I enjoy entertainment and I need relaxation. I do think “just hanging out” should be a good enough reason to get together with friends. But whereas in the past I was killing time when doing this, now I see the purpose in “just hanging out” is an opportunity to get a check in, to download what’s been going through one’s mind or what they’ve experienced of life recently, and to have a sounding board for processing troubles, thoughts, concerns or challenges.

I find that getting together to share entertainment and relaxation can often be a jumping off point for these kinds of deeper exchanges.

New ideas

I purposefully select friends who have some different ideas than me. I usually don’t select friends who think the opposite of something I think is a sound truth. I am not looking for a fight or to have what I consider true and valuable assaulted. But I am also not looking for a fellow sportsfan, so to speak, someone who agrees our team is the best team and all the other teams can die and that’s all there is to life. I like to be around people with different experiences, different skills and knowledge, who can introduce me to things I otherwise would never have thought about.

Exposure to good luck and opportunity/serendipity

This is something I’ve come to appreciate only recently, but one purpose to having friends is to be exposed to the luck they bring with them. It could be as simple as inviting you to a get together when you’re otherwise by yourself, or more profound like proposing a mutual excursion across the world. It could be buying you a drink, or buying you a meal, or buying you a gift. It could be making a connection to a person or idea that proves to be enormously valuable to you.

Friends bring with them all kinds of opportunity that can’t be predicted or understood ahead of time. And I think certain people have a higher serendipity curve than others and you can intentionally select for it.

Motivation to achievement and encouragement of the same

I now think that one of the most important aspects of friendship as I understand it now is the motivation friends can provide to greater achievement, and the opportunity they can give to be giving in the same way. It feels really great to help people get what they want from life and having friends who are bought in on you being bought in is a way to achieve that satisfaction.

A friendship built on trust and respect in my mind should lead to a concern with seeing each person achieve what they want to achieve and a sense of being invested in helping them get there.

Inspiration, lifestyle modeling

Taking the idea a step further, selecting friends who are especially good at achieving in some domain or in living the life they want in general is inspirational. It can give us ideas about how great our life can be and it can give us encouragement to make our life the way we want it to be. I try to select friends who are actively striving to get what they want in life, and succeeding, who can model for me what such achievements would like like if I were to do the same.

No one friend has it all

As a closing note, I think it’s important to realize that not every friend has it all. While I hope for some minimum level of competency or capability in each of the areas mentioned, people are unique and the distribution of such qualities is uneven amongst friends, potential and actual. You can get a lot of value out of your friendships even when each of your friends isn’t a superstar in every regard if you’re willing to meet that friend where they happen to be in life.

That being said, friends who don’t come close to some kind of “minimum standard” in some of these areas, or who actively work against my purposes entirely, usually don’t last long in my life.

Some Takeaways From My Time At The D.School

I’m back from Stanford’s d.school and have a few ideas I jotted in my notebook while I was there:

  1. Learn to celebrate failure; watch how you react to it
  2. Let go of your desire to control outcomes; with humans involved, nothing ever goes according to plan
  3. Try things, practice, iterate
  4. Don’t build expense into prototyping; the more it costs, the harder it is to iterate and change and the less you can learn from your failures
  5. Don’t make insight generation complicated
  6. Where is the burning platform? Look for that place and work on the problems involved
  7. Innovation is the outcome of a process, and innovators are the people who do it
  8. The design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and back again
  9. The answers are not in this building
  10. When empathizing, spend 15% of your time engaging, noticing and following-up and 85% of your time seeking stories
  11. The purpose of your empathy research is to capture emotion; what is it? where does it come from?
  12. Gravitate in your empathizing and your design thinking process between flaring and focusing
  13. When defining, start with an observation, make an inference, then form a hunch that can carry you to insight
  14. Solve one problem at a time
  15. POV essentials: preserve emotion and the individual, use strong language, sensical wording, non-obvious leaps and generate possibilities that lead to problems the team wants to help solve
  16. 5 users are sufficient to capture 85% of usability cases
  17. Tail-end users have explicit needs and better represent the implicit needs of median users
  18. The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed
  19. Trusting relationships are the foundation of generative work
  20. Learn how things fail before it matters, not when it does
  21. You can only learn by doing, not by planning
  22. Match prototyping resolution to idea certainty to allow yourself to hear the inevitable critical feedback
  23. Testing = empathy; your prototype is your empathy probe
  24. The value is in the user and their emotions, not in the prototype or experience model itself
  25. The goal is to develop empathy with the user, not the make the prototype perfect; seek understanding
  26. All action aims at advancing the frame and the concept towards convergence
  27. What do your users say about the concept? The users’ reactions and excitement indicate proximity to convergence and likely next steps
  28. 3 elements of storytelling: action, emotion and detail
  29. 100% of people who succeed, start
  30. Struggle and learning are complements; there is no learning without struggle, and the more one struggles, the more one has opportunity to learn; you can not master new knowledge from a place of comfort

Some or even many of these are probably difficult to make sense of or place without further context about the design thinking process.

What Is Austrian Economics?

I was recently invited to give a talk to a group of local investors about Austrian economics. The presentation ran about 2hrs w/ questions. Below is the slide show I shared, which I believe also has slide notes attached that explain the contents of each slide. The material, while lengthy, is not comprehensive. This is supposed to be a holistic flyover. Also, while the intended audience were investors, really only the last few slides pertain to things investors would want to know and the majority of the presentation should make sense to anyone interested in learning more about (Austrian) economics.

What is Austrian economics? Praxeology for practical (value) investors
In preparing this presentation, I found two resources helpful. One is a “top 10” list of what Austrian economics is about according to Eamon Butler from the UK. The second was from an article I searched for which I think I found on Mises.org called “What is Austrian economics?” which I then distilled down to the summary concepts from the larger narrative of the article.

Eamon Butler

  1. Economics is about individuals (micro vs. macro)
  2. Economics is not like natural sciences (no experimental method; in economics cause is known, effect is unknown, in natural sciences effect is known, cause is unknown)
  3. Subjective value vs. objective value
  4. Prices communicate meaningful info about value and cost
  5. Competition is a process of entrepreneurial discovery, not deterministic perfection
  6. Private ownership essential to price formation and exchange (can not get prices without exchange, prices show us what is most valued versus least valued)
  7. Production is an entrepreneurial act that may result in malinvestment
  8. Money is not neutral and inflation distorts the economy
  9. Spontaneous order vs. central planning
  10. Govt intervention involves social guesswork and has real costs

What Is Austrian Economics?

  1. First job of an economist is to tell govt what it can’t do
  2. Methdology of the “thought experiment”
  3. Economics is not about amassing data, but verbalizing universal facts and exploring their logical implications
  4. “Marginalist revolution”
  5. methodological individualism; science of individual choice
  6. uses deductive logic
  7. emphasizes universal fact of time preference
  8. normal rate of profit = interest rate
  9. heterogenous capital w/ time dimension
  10. economic growth = capital intensitivity and longer (roundabout) process
  11. regression theorem; money originates in the market
  12. ABCT (application?)
  13. socialism permits no ownership and exchange of capital goods; creates calculational chaos
  14. deductive method; praxeology, logic of action
  15. monopoly theory; welfare & utility; theory of the state

A Theory of Corporate Governance

“Good managements produce a good average market price, and bad managements produce bad market prices.”

~Benjamin Graham, the Dean of Wall Street, “The Intelligent Investor”

Introduction

In the world of value investing, which fundamentally concerns itself with securities trading at a large discount to indicated or intrinsic value (the Margin of Safety), one thing investors are always on the look out for is the value trap. A value trap is a company that looks really cheap but turns out to be cheap for a reason, ie, it’s actually fairly valued at its present price. Companies in general become mispriced for a variety of reasons, and while value traps are no different in this regard, one reason stands far above others in generating its unfair share of value traps– bad management.

This essay will explore in greater detail the genesis of bad management value traps via the principle that “corporate value is a function of owner agency.” Companies with bad management tend to demonstrate the least owner agency, sometimes approaching an effective zero. As of the present, the principle of owner agency can be explored across separate 8 sub-domains pertaining to the company’s corporate governance standards.

The 8 Sub-domains of Corporate Governance

Whether a company realizes it or not, it can and must make a decision about its corporate governance policy in at least 8 different areas which affect owner agency and thus corporate value:

  • The Board of Directors
  • Company purpose
  • Communication standards
  • Capitalization/capital structure
  • Reporting
  • Fairness
  • Competence
  • Barriers

Each of these sub-domains and the choices involved will be explored below. At the end, we will summarize the “official positions” with regards to what good corporate governance looks like in light of the theory promulgated in this essay.

The Board of Directors

In a company with a diversified ownership structure, the Board of Directors exists to represent shareholders and direct the behavior of management according to their wishes. In other words, the BoD is the primary tool of agency for shareholders of the company who, without official titles or positions of management themselves, have no direct way to influence the conduct of the company, its strategy or policies as owning individuals. The BoD is similar to a “house of representatives” in an elected republic– the representatives exist to serve not their own interests, or the government’s interests, but the interests of the individual voters who put them into power.

The BoD should have broad authority to put in place an overall competitive strategy for the company (what do we make or sell? how do we do it? who do we compete with?) and to hire and fire key, C-level managers (CEO, CFO, COO, corporate comptroller or treasurer). These managers should be fully “answerable” to the BoD and thus, the shareholders, whose property they are responsible for utilizing and safeguarding in the course of business.

In modern public companies, it is common for these top managers to be represented on the board, for example, the CEO is also often the chairman of the BoD and presides over its affairs. This is an enormous conflict of interest, because the CEO can not hold himself accountable as a member of the board, and the purpose of the board is to be influenced by the shareholders, not the hired management. This is especially problematic when the CEO is not a substantial shareholder himself.

Another common state of affairs in public companies is that the BoD does not represent significant shareholders. Individuals legally important stakes (5%+) or significant economic stakes (10-25%) often do not get offered representation on the boards of the companies they own and sometimes nominally control due to the distribution of share ownership in a company. If the Board of Directors doesn’t include individuals who represent the interests of shareholders, it serves no purpose other than to rubber-stamp the initiatives of the management, which means it serves no purpose at all besides the propaganda value of pretending the company has functioning corporate governance through the existence of a Board of Directors.

Company purpose

Why do companies exist?

Historically, companies were formed for the benefit of their owners in order to turn a profit. Some of the first joint stock companies were engaged in material manufacture or entrepreneurial discovery of new lands and trading routes. Long pre-dating formal joint stock companies of Europe in the early 1500s were numerous merchant combines across cultures and the ages which were formed to pool risk in long-distance hauling of cargoes. Because the owners were the only people who put capital into the company, it was the owners who were the only people expecting to derive a direct benefit from the operation of the company in so far as it generated profits– the agents of the company might earn salary and bonus according to the terms of their employment contract, and of course the prevalent State often wished to interest itself via tax, but otherwise the issue was pretty cut and dry.

The modern era has brought with it many innovations in the area of an answer to that question, but none of them seem to be any good. Today we hear talk of “stakeholders”, where a stakeholder seems to be any economic or political interest, such as customers, communities, employees, vendors, foreign nationals, labor unions, governments, etc. who isn’t an actual equity owner in the company. We hear of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) which is just another way to plead the case of certain “stakeholders” with regards to the deployment of a company’s capital. In vogue since the late 1980s and still popular today is the idea that long-serving management of the company should be the real beneficiaries of the existence of the company and that they should accumulate a lion’s share of the value the company creates because of the key role they play in making the company capital fecund in the first place.

Yes, it seems today that companies exist to serve everyone but those who own them.

Regardless of the answer to this question, it is important to simply have an answer. It becomes a standard of value that a company’s management and employees can be held to in observing their choices and behavior. It can serve to answer the simple question, “Are they doing a good job?” from which many other questions and decisions might emanate.

Without a stated purpose, it is not only impossible to agree to where everyone is going but it is impossible to govern the corporation so that it gets there. Certain purposes exclude certain ends and certain methods while allowing certain others.

Communication standards

With regards to how the company and the Board of Directors communicates with shareholders, there are also certain standards that can be implemented to guide action.

A common policy seemingly in place at many companies is clubsmanship and secrecy– executive management is unwilling to provide basic answers to shareholder questions and requests for information, often going so far as to put up unnecessary obstacles to proving they are in fact a shareholder in the first place. And the Board of Directors, captured by the management, facilitate this by refusing to assist the shareholders in their requests, to bring pressure upon management to provide the information (legally) requested and often times they will even make themselves unavailable or unresponsive to shareholders entirely.

The opposite pole would look like this: the management of the company assumes a goodwill posture and provides answers to any (legal) information request made. If the company is of sufficient size and scale and it is fielding a lot of such requests, it may make a special individual (such as an IR agent) available to help source answers. It might also look for a scalable solution, by putting commonly requested corporate documents (financial statements, records of ownership, minutes from board meetings, etc.) into the public domain via its website, and to also offer an FAQ session for answers to repeated inquiries.

As such information is legally due to shareholders anyway and can’t really harm the company by being shared, it makes sense to offer it to anyone who asks, shareholder, potential shareholder or simply a curious stranger. It is not a redacted espionage memo and it doesn’t require any special classification system or hierarchy of security clearances to access.

The Board can facilitate this process as well by being in regular contact with larger shareholders to understand their needs and concerns for the company they own, and to communicate these thoughts to management in board meetings and report back their findings to shareholders in the process.

Capitalization/capital structure

Public companies are in a unique position in terms of their ability to raise capital and finance their projects. Because of their public nature, it is a relatively simple affair to do a rights offering and issue new shares, debt or other securities. Even more important, if ever the market treats the company unfairly, they have the opportunity to buy back their shares from concerned shareholders at a discount to intrinsic value. The company is always in a better position when it is owned by people who believe in the vision and direction of the company, which can be achieved by buying back shares from those “distressed” sellers who have lost confidence.

One role of the BoD and corporate governance is to determine what the best capital structure is at any given time in a company’s life given its future plans and strategies. This means making high level decisions about the debt to equity ratio, if applicable, and also about the issuance or buyback of shares more generally.

Another thing the BoD can facilitate as an act of corporate governance is being efficient with the company’s capital– dividending it out when the company has more capital than projects, and issuing rights to bring capital back in when it has more profitable projects than it has capital to deploy on them.

This is not a one-time decision. It is something a company should be examining on a periodic basis– either quarterly, annually, or any time a major change in its market price or project pipeline occurs. Companies that hoard capital they don’t need do their investors a disservice because they forgo the economic returns available on the surplus capital, which could be deployed at higher rates of return in other enterprises. And companies that refuse to expand the share base in response to important project opportunities make a similar mistake but inverse.

Reporting

Markets move on information. Without information about a company, investors are left with nothing to make a decision off of and so they can not act rationally. They become forced to gamble and speculate. For a company that is not in a hyped industry, the gamble is often made in fear– shareholders sell out at any price to avoid association with a “black box.” It is a critical aspect of corporate governance to have a consistent reporting policy in place to update shareholders on the performance of the company’s strategy over time and to explain key financial data to them.

This kind of reporting requires: transparency, honesty and articulate capabilities. The chairman, being the head of the Board of Directors which represents the shareholders, is the most likely individual to communicate with shareholders about the state of their company. He might append letters from the CEO and other key executives as well if he so desires, but each of these individuals has an incentive to patronize their reader and focus on what went well. The chairman, having no duty to anyone but the shareholders and reality, is in a better position to see the whole hog and not just the lipstick on the pig.

For reporting to be meaningful, it must take into consideration the entire strategy and how the operations worked to achieve it or fail it. Glossy PR brochures highlighting the charity and good works of the management or employees, of the high level successes that did not translate to the bottom line, or to a stylized, marketing view of the company and its operations that does not drive to the key objectives and how they were met or missed, do not do shareholders any good.

While it’s true that the annual report is a key “marketing” piece in attracting knowledgeable shareholders, its primary purpose is to inform, not to sell. It must focus on the good, the bad and the ugly, not the positive or the bright side.

Fairness

Tied up in the ideas of representation and company purpose is the idea of fairness– are all shareholders treated equally? And are all managers and employees treated the same with regards to their duties to the shareholders?

There are two separate but related concepts of fairness at stake. One is the fairness of decisions between majority and minority shareholders, aka, “taking minority capital hostage.” The other is the fairness of decisions between shareholders and agents of the company, aka, “being subservient to loyalty or tradition.”

It is a sadly common sin amongst many public companies with decisive majority owners, especially owners who are insiders and part of management, that they find ways to employ the company’s capital or govern the company which benefit them at the expense of the passive, minority shareholders. An example of this would be a majority shareholder who is also a manager, who is earning an outsize salary and delivering a subpar return on equity compared to the industry or market, who refuses to “fire” themselves as a manager or scale back their pay. The minority shareholders are in effect subsidizing this poor performance with their capital, which is trapped in the company controlled by the majority shareholder.

This is not “fair” because it doesn’t treat the minority and majority shareholders as economic equals– the majority shareholder enjoys a special benefit or subsidy that the minority shareholder pays for. If the company did not exist, and this arrangement was being proposed as a condition of forming the company, no rational minority shareholder would agree to it. If they wouldn’t agree to it de novo, they can’t be thought of as agreeing to it as part of a going concern. This would be similar in a political system where some citizens are treated as “second class” by the law and discriminated against to the advantage of the privileged class.

The other sin amongst public companies is holding on to operating units or employees or managers who are underperforming in their jobs by some agreed upon, objective standards. These units are typically retained out of a sense of tradition (“We’re an X company, we’ll always be an X company”) or personal loyalty (“Y has been with the company for so many years, we can’t put them out on the street now”). Clearly, these kinds of decisions could easily conflict with a stated purpose such as “To maximize profits to shareholders.” They again represent subsidy. And the fact is that no company has infinite resources or can afford to engage in charity without limit; and if it can’t afford without limit, it can’t afford WITH limits, as the economic consequences are the same– the company is wasting capital on ineffective means.

Adhering to loyalty or tradition at the expense of shareholders means turning the business into a charity. Charity is a private virtue and a public vice and it has no place in a public company in this sense.

Competence

Modern companies are complex organizations with extensive economic resources at their command. The average public company, regardless of market price, has millions to tens of millions of dollars of shareholder capital involved in ongoing operations. There is too much to keep track of, and too much at stake, for a company to allow incompetent people to manage this level of responsibility.

Corporate governance serves another function here in setting standards of value for managers and employees in terms of the competence required in their positions of relative responsibility. Importantly, the Board of Directors can set standards in specific areas, such as financial or economic concepts which have an important bearing on the company’s risk position or the stability and profitability of its operations over time. Internal capital allocation, that is, the determination of how to deploy the company’s capital (buybacks, dividends, the raising of finance, or the investing of capital into operations or liquidating of capital so employed), is a seemingly simple discipline which nonetheless has a magnified impact on the company’s operations and its wealth as a whole– it requires a specific level of competence in the basic concepts and dilemmas involved for a person to add value. Many companies are run by people who do not understand capital allocation, have never studied the issues involved and often aren’t even aware of the momentous decisions they are making with regards to it, instead letting personal prejudice or momentary whim be the arbiter of decisions costing millions of dollars with long-lasting consequences for the company into the uncertain and unknowable future.

The Board of Directors can strongly influence the competence of the company and its management by researching and instituting relevant standards of competence needed in key decision-making areas and working to educate and provide resources to the company’s agents employed in these areas.

Barriers

In economic and business literature the concept of “competitive advantage” often revolves around a related concept of “moats”. A moat is a barrier to entry in a competitive market that preserves the value of incumbent firms by allowing them to spend resources on deploying their business model rather than spending those resources on defending it from competitors looking to do the same.

In the world of corporate governance, a similar phenomenon exists: “shareholder defense” tactics aimed at preventing “takeovers.” However, there is a subtle difference in the nature and virtue of each.

In the business competition sense, moats which provide competitive advantage usually exist as a structural part of the industry– they are embedded in the nature of the economic activity itself or the incentives competitors would face that are innate to margin structure, human behavior, etc. They usually can not be constructed or developed purposefully. Not so with takeover defenses. These are things that a company can or can not choose to employ and which the law often gives power to, implicitly or explicitly.

Competitive advantages protect companies from other companies. But shareholder defense mechanisms do not protect shareholders from other investors– they protect managers from their shareholders!

The actual effect of takeover defense mechanisms, when employed, is to drive a wedge between the people who own the company (the shareholders) and the people who control it (the management) by limiting the authority and control the shareholders have over dismissing or countermanding the management’s decisions.

Staggered boards, for example, help to ensure that change at the board level happens slowly (if at all), rather than as quickly as shareholder ownership changes. If there are 5 board seats and all are held by “insiders” and only 2 come up for bid every few years, then it may be 6 or more years, for example, for a shareholder who manages to obtain a majority of shares of the company to see his majority influence reflected in the composition of the board. That means a long period of time where existing management can work against the shareholder or at cross-purposes.

Poison pills, another common strategy, work to similar effect. A poison pill provision essentially neuters the voting power of a shareholder who manages to accumulate a substantial fraction of the company’s outstanding shares. If the provision says that any shares owned over 10% will vote at 10%, it prevents any specific shareholder from obtaining voting control, which protects the management from being told to change their tune or from being thrown out entirely.

It seems counter-intuitive, but removing barriers to entry for ownership of the firm is an important piece of corporate governance policy to work out. And much like the popular theory of democratic politics or republicanism, reserving the “right to vote” or the legitimate authority of the voters over their political appointees results in a situation where the appointees behave irresponsibly and often build up power and prestige at the expense of the people they were hired to represent.

“Official Positions” of Good Corporate Governance
Outlined below is an attempt at an “official” good corporate governance doctrine that any concerned company, its Board and shareholders could adopt to improve the corporate governance situation at the company. In so doing, it is believed that the company will attract quality, long-term oriented shareholders willing to pay a fair price for a properly managed and profitable enterprise. The items elaborated on below serve to maximize owner agency and with corporate value being a function of that agency, they should also serve the maximize the value of the company.
  • The board of directors should represent — meaning, be constituted of — significant shareholders and/or their agents
  • The company should be run for the purpose of maximizing the present value of expected cash flows to shareholders
  • There should be a constant dialog at the board level which includes larger shareholders about the best way to achieve the stated purpose
  • When the opportunity for capital/equity is low, money should flow out of the company; share buybacks and dividends are the way for money to flow out; when the opportunity is high, capital should flow back in; a rights offering (with transferable rights) is the cheapest and fairest way for money to flow back in
  • The annual report should have an essay or letter by the chairman (who is ultimately responsible for achieving the stated purpose) reiterating the objective, discussing the level of achievement in the prior year and outlining the strategy that has been agreed upon to pursue it going forward
  • It is unfair for a majority or manager to retain employees or operations for sentimental reasons unless they satisfy the purpose of maximizing the present value of expected cash flows to shareholders
  • Anyone responsible for achieving the objective should have the necessary grounding in finance and economics to understand how to carry the work out (study an agreed upon bibliography)
  • Management/corporate “shareholder defense”/takeover defense mechanisms such as staggered boards, poison pills, limits on shareholder meetings and proposals, secrecy/lack of disclosure, etc., destroy shareholder value by driving a wedge between ownership and control