Design Mind frogcast Ep. 24 – Transformation Never Really Ends

Our guest: Nathan Weyer, COO, Philips Experience Design

On this episode, we’re talking about transformation: one of the most commonly tossed around buzzwords in business and consulting–and arguably one of the least understood. To do this, we’re joined by Nathan Weyer, current Chief Operating Officer of Experience Design at Philips. Nathan has a long history with frog, first as a frog himself, then an alum, and now a client. He’s here to share more about what he’s learned about leading transformation initiatives in big organizations, managing creative teams and using Agile methods to align on a vision in the face of constant change.

Listen to the podcast episode and find transcripts below. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotifyand anywhere you listen to podcasts.  

Episode Transcript:
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 24: Transformation Never Really Ends
Guest: Nathan Weyer, COO, Philips Experience Design

[00:09]Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood. 

[00:24] Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about one of the most commonly tossed around buzzwords in business and consulting–and arguably one of the least understood. We’re talking about transformation. To do this, we’re joined by Nathan Weyer, who is currently Chief Operating Officer of Experience Design at Philips. Nathan has a long history with frog, first as a frog himself, then an alum, and now a client. He’s here to share more about what he’s learned about leading transformation initiatives in big organizations, managing creative teams and using Agile methods to align on a vision in the face of constant change. And, a bit about how his own career is in a state of transformation as well. Here’s Nathan now.

[01:07] Nathan Weyer: The best kind of transformation, and where we’re getting to at Philips is a sort of constant change. I would always say getting everyone really comfortable with being extremely uncomfortable all the time. And that doesn’t mean, you know, fearing your job, or not knowing what you should do. But this idea of constant evolution and constant change.

[01:31] Nathan Weyer: In any program where you want to change over time, it’s about communication and leadership, and most importantly, the vision. So if you have a vision, which everyone can identify with, and see where we’re all going to go together, then you need to communicate it, you know, ridiculously. Be very transparent with everyone and have good leaders that support it–have great leaders that help their teams continue to navigate change.

[02:00] Nathan Weyer: Hi, my name is Nathan Weyer. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Experience Design at Philips.

[02:06] Nathan Weyer: Honestly, you know, I announced myself as Philips, but I’m in a transition. So what really my biggest passion right now is figuring out what’s going to be next for me. I may be writing myself into the ‘Great Resignation’ story. But I think a lot of people, creative people, you know, financial people are really reflecting upon what they really want to do for the next 10 years or the rest of your life, whatever it may be. And, for me, I’ve been investing a lot of time in just thinking that through. What would it look like? What should we all really be doing if we could connect to our deepest passion? You know, it was a great experience at Philips. But yeah, I guess I’m being selfish. I’m investing in myself right now and starting to think about what’s next.

[02:47] Elizabeth Wood: Nathan’s career took off in an unlikely way–designing deep technical manuals for NASA. It was one of his first lessons in using creativity to navigate constraints.

[02:58] Nathan Weyer: My origin story, if I could be, you know, a Marvel character, I’m basically a split between brains of engineering and creativity. My father was a NASA engineer for 30 years, and my mother was a writer, a painter, but ultimately ended up in the industry of NASA as well, managing and writing huge, 500-page manuals on how to launch a rocket. And so in the mix of all that, I obviously had some creative DNA and started tinkering with Photoshop at a very young age. I think it was my first paycheck being hired to–probably, you know, through my mom or something–got these gigs of basically engineers from NASA would come with something they had drawn out, whether I don’t know, for a satellite or I have no idea what it’s for. And yeah, using really what would now be very antiquated three-button mouse systems to design those workflows. It was a lot of fun. But understanding how to work with engineers, I mean, I guess that’s what I learned from all of that.

[03:56] Nathan Weyer: It led me to where I am today at Philips. And, you know, really connecting to what is important for creative people. That’s really been the arc across my career: being super passionate about people in the design industry and what the impact of design can do, whether that’s been at Philips, whether it’s been at Huge, or at frog, of course.

[04:18] Nathan Weyer: Learning how to work with creative teams, and understand how to motivate and be inspired by the creative process. And being able to articulate that to clients in a project setting when making difficult decisions. And, you know, that’s consulting. It’s understanding, of course, how to read a situation and work with clients. And that’s basically your constraint. And I saw that oftentimes at frog, which was great, the design team, if left alone will have its, you know, quote-unquote, war room and spread out amazing visionary ideas, but they ultimately need to be able to land in the constraints of of a business of a P&L, of a product roadmap. And so learning how to work with creative teams and find that balance. Everybody wants their idea or their concept to be able to land and turn into something. So finding that balance.

[05:14] Elizabeth Wood: While at Philips, Nathan has been leading a large, complex team across a portfolio of different products during a time of massive change for the company.

[05:24] Nathan Weyer: At Philips, it’s been, like I said, a great experience for nearly four years. And there, I think the mission is different everywhere you go, but there, for me, the mission was definitely about building a great team: being human, listening to the people–to the designers, the employees–and building a great culture. It was a pretty large-scale role. I was managing upwards of 500 designers across 13 different locations with a huge amount of diversity, you can imagine, not only in craft, but backgrounds and cultures. And it’s a challenge in a super complex environment to bring all that together. So I became sort of a people and transformation graduate student, I would say, over the last four years. And so what I’m most proud about is having an impact on that.

[06:16] Nathan Weyer: The story of a company like Philips, and for the listeners, Philips is known very much in Europe, less from a consumer sense in the US. But, Philips has been a diversified conglomerate for most of its 140-year history. And the last 10 years, it’s nothing short of a massive transformation towards a healthcare technology company. And that’s actually putting solutions, equipment, products into clinical settings that people are relying on. It’s been a huge magnet for talent, of course, whether it’s an engineer or designer, but particularly for designers to know they’re coming to a place where they can really impact people’s lives. And that’s been Philips’ mission, or stated vision, to touch or impact the lives of over 3 billion people on the planet. It’s really meaningful. And I think a lot of people join for that.

[07:06] Nathan Weyer: But, man, going from, you know, it’s kind of like, for US listeners thinking of General Electric, a completely diversified conglomerate selling everything from light bulbs to jet engines. Philips, over its course of the history was really no different: everything from hair dryers to car radios to MRI machines. And what it’s basically done is focused extensively on the move to healthcare, and aligning teams like the design team behind that vision. So it’s been a beautiful thing to watch. There’s some dirt on it, as you can imagine. It’s really complicated for a company to shift its focus, really, in that short of a time.

[07:42] Elizabeth Wood: The role of design has evolved considerably over the last near century at Philips. For Nathan, one of his biggest responsibilities has been in bringing multidisciplinary teams together to do their best work.

[07:55] Nathan Weyer: The design team at Philips is 95 years old. So coming in, in many respects, I was like a social ethnographer archaeologist, just uncovering, you know, amazing layers of history and experience and capability in a massive team and a big company. But there was a great shift, which our Chief Design Officer Sean Carney led, which was a simple change, adding the word ‘experience’ into design because it was a much better reflection, as I think many corporate design teams have gone through, but a much better reflection of that broad capability that design brings to the table.

[08:30] Nathan Weyer: When you’re around 95 years, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, the design guys, those are the ones that make things look nice. So let me bring them in to help me with my presentation.’ That’s the worst case scenario. Or, you know, ‘Hey, this physical object, you know, this shaver needs the right design team behind it.’ And of course, it massively evolved, even prior to me being there, to much more about being in first conversations. So, being in the room with the engineers or the product managers, thinking about changes to the roadmap and how that affects the user experience. So strategy, service design, data design, you know, even algorithmic designers working in AI. All those kinds of extensions make you add that word ‘experience’ in there and it was great to see.

[09:16] Nathan Weyer: Essentially, bringing together all the capabilities from different, diverse backgrounds. You know, generally from the design field, I mean, ultimately in a meta-sense multidisciplinary team is the magic of bringing together 20 people or 30 people from engineering to marketing to design, and they can build a product quickly and failing along the way

[09:35] Nathan Weyer: Multidisciplinary, actually, to me means where the disciplines bleed into one. When I joined Philips–and I’ve seen it in other companies–it’s not commoditized, but siloed, It’’s ‘Okay, we need one service designer, we need one visual designer, we need one UX designer, we need one data scientist.’ But actually, you know, no one’s learning that way now, either in university or on the job. So it’s about the team, basically: finding that perfect balance of a team that has a really clear purpose, which is hard to get to and saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to build something, we’re going to build the next generation of this interface for this MRI machine. What do we need on the team?’ Oh, we’re missing some ethnography, we really don’t understand what’s going on in the hospital so we need to get a designer that has really good experience in those kind of customer interview situations for example. Or,, there’s going to be some really interesting data that’s outputted in this device. Do we have someone that has experience with design data? It seems like that’s where it’s going. You know, it’s that ultimate idea that everyone should just be called ‘designer’ rather than the labels because, ultimately, it’s about the hybrid skill set that resides within that individual or team. And I’ve seen it happen. I mean, everybody knows that it’s like back in school, when you have the perfect study group, where there’s not just the one person that like always orders the pizza because they really don’t want to do anything. It’s the same with a multidisciplinary team. Everyone needs to carry their weight and bring unique skills into it and align across a goal.

[11:01] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Nathan will share more about the recent collaboration between Philips and frog to support the company’s transformation strategy.


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[11:43] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to Nathan Weyer, outgoing Chief Operating Officer of Philips Experience Design.

[11:50] Nathan Weyer: I brought frog in on two major efforts in my time there. The first was really more of a DesignOps-focused program, which was really successful in terms of simplifying our access to talent and working with freelancers and contractors, and setting up a global structure to support that. Because in any business, and I think most internal design teams have this now, there is a flow to the work. It’s not constant. So the ability to have your team centrally expanded, or enhanced with great talent like from frog really helped. And then the second thing was really helping support the Agile transformation with this XD Next program.

[12:32] Elizabeth Wood: To Nathan, Agile methodology is an invaluable tool for transformation projects when it comes to setting goals and building team rituals that keep momentum up and a clear vision in sight. But it can’t be an excuse to put process over purpose.

[12:46] Nathan Weyer: I mean, in any big company, Agile has been kicking around for a while, right? And it means so many things to so many people. What is happening at Philips, and what was happening particularly at the beginning of my time there, was seeing a lot of trends of, you know, engineering teams–whether they’re based in Bangalore or Boston–starting to work in Agile, but still in a waterfall context. And having a pretty complex internal organization that is not really putting together a dedicated team, but one part of the team is sort of working in Agile, basically.

[13:18] Nathan Weyer: And we launched a transformation program within Philips called XD Next, which was really targeting the next level experience for Philips. It was about the design organization, if not being in the driver’s seat, certainly being in the front seat of the car as the company is coming up with new products and changing, you know, going through its own transformation–rather than the backseat role of taking a brief and then working on it, much like an internal consultancy would, or a consulting firm would.

[13:48] Nathan Weyer: Agile for the design team has meant bringing together that multidisciplinary team–the big word again–and integrating it with the various partners in the business, which sounds sort of easy. I think if you have 50 designers and a 5000 person company or a couple-thousand person company, it may be a little easier, but yeah, given the huge breadth and depth, and the thousands of products that Philips has, it’s a real challenge to get there.

[14:16] Elizabeth Wood: While Agile can be used to tackle the day-to-day tasks that come with reaching major milestones, like launching a new product feature or maintaining a platform, it can also be used to take on big, complex efforts, like reorganizing a business or implementing a new strategy. But, there are common pitfalls to avoid.

[14:35] Nathan Weyer: Agile, in essence, is culture. It is mindset. And I think the big pitfall that you see is jumping really heavy into the process first, the rituals. It’s like, ‘If only everyone can just learn those then we will have be agile.’ And it’s actually the opposite. It’ss super baby steps, training wheels. We’ll just start having an agile mindset. And the rest sort of follows. And it means massive changes for companies. And then I’ve benchmarked and talked to 20 companies with, you know, either in-house design teams or whatever, to get to that point to set up that transformation program.

[15:12] Nathan Weyer: What I’ve seen the power of it being is reorganizing the flow of the work so that individuals, designers and engineers all have a common purpose and goal. So that’s the time-bounding. Yes, you can do Scrum. Yes, you can do sprints. All that process, Agile stuff. But it’s just having a crew. It’s having a team that’s on the same thing and all with the same goal. And you can actually do that probably without calling it ‘Agile,’ but I think some of the rituals of Agile really do help because they start to train the behavior: the stand ups, the reviews, you know, the Kanban. But the way we did it at Phillips was we started a number of teams to set up a very simple Kanban in Miro, everybody’s new favorite tool–it’s not even new now. You know, that’s where it started: being incredibly transparent, where everyone can see each other’s work and what they need to achieve. And I think, yeah, of course, it is suited better for things that are more structured, like creating a solution or product, but we’ve seen it work in research. Philips Research is using Agile so it works in other contexts as well.

[16:21] Elizabeth Wood: During our conversation, Nathan warned that getting too hung up on seeing transformation as having a final, perfect end state can be detrimental to the process of creating lasting change. Instead, he offers different ways for measuring success.

[16:35] Nathan Weyer: There’s no magical expression of tracking change. I think it, of course, totally depends on the context of the team or the organization that is going through the change. Just again, that loaded transformation word, it does imply that there’s an A to Z, kind of pre and post that you can look at and say, ‘Wow, look where we got.’ And by the way, you need to find that to keep people motivated through the change.

[17:03] Nathan Weyer: At Phillips, which is probably common for in-house, or corporate design organizations is complexity. So showing that you reduced complexity, and we would explicitly find ways of showing that. That was huge in a complex corporate environment, like I said, with lots of hero silos of individuals scattered doing different things. That’s all great if it’s like a business discussion. And we did talk to the CEO of Philips and explain what we were going to achieve and show him after what we were achieving. But it’s more for the designers because essentially, it reduces the BS time in their week, which I learned all the way back from frog if you can reduce that BS time, it’s more time to be creative, and even work on side projects. Or, to just try something completely new, do desk research–I don’t know, walking around the neighborhood and looking at things, you know? And measuring that became really critical.

[17:57] Nathan Weyer: Before we’d done the transformation program, we’d sort of wedged in a purposeful hours block where it’s like your oxygen, we call it ‘collaboration time,’ but basically your oxygen time to work so it’s about increasing that essentially. So, maintaining the same level of productivity while finding more time for designers to be creative, to be a part of their teams, to learn, to try new things, And so that became the the classic–along with, you know, surveys and engagement and more balance sheet budget efficiency kind of things–but bringing it back to the creative that was the most important.

[18:33] Elizabeth Wood: Like many organizations, the pandemic did have a dramatic impact on how Nathan views collaboration and knowledge sharing, both things he feels are essential for nurturing a culture of experimentation and creativity.

[18:46] Nathan Weyer: The pandemic, of course, changed everything in ways that honestly we don’t understand yet. Because we were all panicked that, ‘Oh my gosh! You can’t put designers virtually together and have them be inspired, productive.’ And of course we proved that wrong, like, instantly with tools like Miro and others. But I don’t know what the long to midterm effects of that are. I’m still worried. Because I know we’ve all had that moment where we feel like our soul is being eaten because we realize we’ve been sitting in front of the same screen for eight hours or whatever.

[19:16] Nathan Weyer: What I’ve seen at Philips is that bringing people together really matters, preferably in person, because of the serendipity of understanding what everyone’s working on. And it’s like a very accidental learning that happens. And we created formal learning; we call it ‘Dare to share.’ We basically instituted a global time where we would get together, have fun, but also talk about interesting topics not related to work. It creates a culture of learning that’s essential. What I’m saying is you have to have that embedded culture that says, ‘Hey, it’s okay, to experiment with a new application or a new tool or try a new part, or just, you know, work on visual design if I really am not a visual designer.’ Just, like, experiment. You have to create a culture of experimentation, but also create the space for it.

[20:03] Nathan Weyer: At least, I don’t know how it is in frog culture these days, but in Phillips, it’s, like I said, the machine can be cranking and you feel like, ‘Well, I can’t do that because I have a deadline,’ or ‘I have this, and I’m so many hours on this project’ or whatever. And so you just have to fight that and create the space to encourage learning. People won’t just learn from prescription. That’s like your classic compliance training you have to take or something. It’s like, ‘I have to every year watch this video about export compliance’ or GDPR or whatever. Like. that’s a low level of learning. It has to be like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a couple hours and somebody just sent a link on this really interesting course and I’ll just do it because I have the time.’

[20:40] Elizabeth Wood: Though born in Texas, Nathan has spent much of his career living in Europe. From his home in the Netherlands, and any time he travels, he’s always looking to zoom in on the design principles that underpin different cultures–mostly, so he can see how he can bring what he’s observed into his own work.

[20:57] Nathan Weyer: Individuals should definitely push themselves to be exposed to other cultures, preferably by living in them. And it’s something everyone should do in their life, full stop. Whether that’s a business culture or a working culture or just a creative culture–whatever the broader culture, like, do that, please, everyone. It’s just, like, perspective. It is absolutely perspective. So, yes, if I’m on a train in Mumbai and vaguely calling that research, and then you pair that with, yeah, just living abroad all these years, it just gives you a perspective. Because the classic thing is you encounter something and your first reaction is, ‘Well, that’s not the way I do it. That’s an internal voice, or that’s just, you know, something really, really foreign to me. And your brain is telling you, ‘That’s kind of stupid.’ But what you quickly realize with perspective is, ‘Wow, I want to understand why this culture does this.’

[21:58] Nathan Weyer: It’s similar with a career. I think when you switch contexts between corporate and consulting, so in-house and consulting, you gain some of their perspective. It’s not really different. It’s the same part of your brain that is looking through those patterns, the kind of people you meet, the kind of projects you work on, the challenges you have. That’s all somehow in there, at least in my head. But, at Phillips, I would definitely coach people to examine their career on a global, cultural dimension if it’s possible because it gives you huge breadth of experience.

[22:32] Elizabeth Wood: While the next phase in Nathan’s career journey is still to be determined, he’s looking forward to finding his way while enjoying his time boating on the canals in Amsterdam, where, admittedly, it’s not always so simple to change directions.

[22:47] Nathan Weyer: Two years into living here, I partnered with a former frog, actually, Oliver Schmitt. He was operations in Europe and then New York. And, anyway, so we own this boat together. Now I own it with somebody else. But that’s been, that’s great. But it’s also the worst thing to own a boat.

[23:00] Nathan Weyer: It’s called a sloep. S-L-O-E-P. Sloep. And it essentially is a bathtub that floats. Well, bathtubs should float, but it’s very difficult to steer. And what they do with a lot of boats here is they get an old lifeboat,like from a cruise ship or a tanker, which doesn’t usually doesn’t have a motor. It’s just a lifeboat. And they basically refit it–they drop an engine and a little, tiny propeller, and they put the decking, and that’s what I have. It’s a very common style of boat here. And it’s like a 15-point turn when you’re in the canal and there’s like a tour boat coming straight at you. And you could slam it in reverse and nothing happens. It’s kind of like (making slow motor sounds). I mean, all that said, it’s a lot of fun. Zen and the Art of piloting a sloep in Amsterdam canals. Definitely. Yeah, it’s definitely zen (laughs).

[24:04] Elizabeth Wood: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation.

[24:16] Elizabeth Wood: We really want to thank Nathan Weyer, outgoing Chief Operating Officer for Experience Design at Philips, for joining us to talk transformation, navigating change with agility, and steering floating bathtubs.

[24:29] Elizabeth Wood: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and  Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.

Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing
Elizabeth Wood
Elizabeth Wood
Host, Design Mind frogcast & Editorial Director, frog Global Marketing

Elizabeth tells design stories for frog. She first joined the New York studio in 2011, working on multidisciplinary teams to design award-winning products and services. Today, Elizabeth works out of the London studio on the global frog marketing team, leading editorial content.

She has written and edited hundreds of articles about design and technology, and has given talks on the role of content in a weird, digital world. Her work has been published in The Content Strategist, UNDO-Ordinary magazine and the book Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America (Bogotá International Press).

Previously, Elizabeth was Communications Manager for UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague. She is a graduate of the Master’s Programme for Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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