On this episode of the Design Mind frogcast, we’re joined by John Leonard, Technology Director in frog New York. He’s here to share three pitfalls organizations fall into on their way to innovation—and how to avoid them.
Innovation is a state of mind. And part of getting into the right innovation mindset is preparing yourself for what can go wrong. John Leonard has spent his career bridging the gap between design and technology, which has made him a big believer of prototyping and experimenting his way through a challenge. Here, he shares his advice on using technology as a tool for design and what companies can do to avoid three major pitfalls of innovation.
Design Mind frogcast
[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 [EW].
Today on our show, we’re going to talk about the Holy Grail—innovation. Companies are always trying to innovate, whether it’s launching new products, changing the way they work or disrupting whole industries. There’s a lot at stake…and a lot of pressure. On this episode, you’re going to hear from John Leonard [JL], Technology Director in frog’s New York studio. He’s spent his career bridging design and tech, guiding teams in using technology to realize innovative designs. He’s here to share his perspective on the three common pitfalls that teams face in their pursuit of innovation—and how to avoid them. Here’s John now.
[01:02] JL: Looking back to the late 90s, early 2000s Internet: if you wanted to design for the web, you did need to span that design-technology gap. Even if you wanted to just dabble around on your MySpace, right? That was sort of the joke of MySpace is that you had to get in there and you can do whatever you want. It was a little bit of a baby with a revolver. And then you’d have all these like glittery backgrounds with too many animated gifs and all of that. But along the way, you had to do it yourself. There is a do-it-yourself mentality.
[01:35] As sophisticated as these platforms are today, that spirit is still true. I think a lot of the modern design tools are building in prototyping as part of the capability. Designers are naturally finding their way into some workflows that are starting to span into technology, span into coding, and I think that’s a great thing.
[01:55] My name’s John Leonard and I’m a technology director in our New York studio.
[02:02] The way I think about technology is it’s a tool for design. The practice we have in the studio, most of the technologists are ‘Design Technologists’—that’s the role. You’re meant to be someone who can span those two worlds. You think like a designer, you have the passion of a technologist. You can use your technology to help solve design problems.
[02:21] There’s plenty of opportunity for designers to become generalists in technology. With online training and platforms like CodePen, which is designed for doing small sketching and code for the web, where people can pick up a tool and start to put it to use very quickly. There’s a big difference between going for a Master’s in Computer Science, and being able to pick up technology and put it to use for what you want to do.
On His Tech Origin Story
[02:50] EW: John’s a big believer in experimenting with technology as a designer now. But his own interest in tech began in an unlikely place: art school.
[03:00] JL: I am from Hackensack, New Jersey. It was you know, a typical suburban town. Hackensack is famous for one of the Superman movies in the 1970s. I think Lex Luthor was going to hit it with a missile. That was our big claim to fame when I was growing up as a kid.
[03:15] I came to technology through art school. I started in school in design. And then very slowly, this was the time when the 1.0 version of the internet was happening and people were starting to experiment with digital art, I started getting more excited about how to complete the work, how to make it digital, how to experiment with that as a medium. It was very new and fresh at the time.
[03:41] And then you know technology is its own rabbit hole. So I just started finding my passion and craft was in technology and just got deeper and deeper into it. But always in the spirit of being close to design.
[03:52] I think if you go back in design, there was a moment where I felt like the major friction or conversation is, you know, ‘design versus art.’ And what are the boundaries of those two things? But I think today, the trend has really been design pushing to assert itself as a business function. As design has a seat at the table at many companies, and you have the Chief Design Officer role, as you’re building Centers of Excellence that are incredibly effective—I think it’s definitely something that’s specific to the company, but you need to figure out a way to ensure that what connected designed to art is still true and is still there. That there’s still a place for craft. There’s still a place for some specialization, intuition.
The Consultant-Client Exchange
[04:44] EW: During his time at frog, John has worked on many multidisciplinary teams to solve design challenges. For him, the fun of being an outside collaborator is bringing insight from different worlds to new client challenges—while also fully immersing in the client’s space, too.
[04:58] JL: In my experience at frog, the way we work is you change project teams and programs regularly. So as an individual, I’m always going to work with a different mix of people in the studio—some I’ve worked with before, some are new. And we’re going to work with a new client in a new problem space.
[05:16] As an outside collaborator, there’s a lot of exchange with our clients. You see folks who get on to a new program and slowly over the first few weeks you see the books starting to pile up on the desk, and they start getting lost into the space where the client is. You really latch onto that space so you can be an effective collaborator. There’s just enthusiasm for jumping into a new world and learning something.
[05:42] I do find today clients come to us when they’ve hit certain thresholds. They are ready for innovation. They’re ready to do something new. A client may be in the middle of a migration to the cloud, or transforming the way they’re doing their data warehousing. So they’re building up new capabilities. That’s new capabilities in tools. That’s new capabilities in processes like design thinking. The infrastructure is there, there’s been some investment in tooling. And it’s just that outside collaborator to help them orchestrate or help them put it into action.
[06:20] You know, there’s a lot of pressure on innovation. And some of that is treating innovation like it is a project or it’s that unique moment in time. And almost the end goal is to innovate so you will have innovated. This sounds like something I like would paint on a piece of driftwood, but innovation is more of a feeling than a moment in time.
[06:45] The easiest way to burn out is to not think about all of the small, continuous improvement that needs to happen while you’re doing this innovation. If you’re trying to work in a new way, you have to give that as much attention as the attention you’re giving to your products. And what can happen, especially if you’re a company that has many products, and you want to transform many things at once, is you spin up all of those product redesigns or redevelopment efforts at one time. And then everyone’s just running on features trying to speed to big release moments.
[07:18] When you look at innovation, I think there’s a change in mindset that needs to happen between innovation being that moment in time versus innovation being a commitment to transforming the way you work long-term. To me, it’s as much about making the better products, it’s really more about getting better at making products.
Design Systems as Testing Ground
[07:44] EW: John talked about his experience creating design systems. Design systems are that kit of parts: this interconnected, reusable set of patterns, practices and components that help teams bring new product and service experiences to life fast. They’re both a source of truth and a testing ground for innovation.
[08:06] JL: After we build a system, we’re always thinking about the design operation around it, and how are we going to propagate the system out to all of the digital touch points. So even at frog we’re very much in a mindset of scale, adoption and how do we govern this thing that we’ve just created that has so much power? And there’s that exciting flipside to it of, “How do you put it to work right away? How do you use it and get messy and sketch with it and conceive of products in a way that’s completely different than before?”
[08:33] One of my favorite client relationships that I’ve had maybe ever was early in my time at frog. They came to us and said, “We have this design system and we want you to come to the workshop and do live coding.” It’s familiar to work we do in the studio, but I’d never had a client come and ask for it, especially during a workshop. So I had to figure out: How do I participate in the workshop? How do I sketch ideas and track along with the conversation? And that’s really how I did it. I treated it almost like the sketch artist in the courtroom, right? I was sort of listening to the conversation—not interfering and not doing too much to put the technology in front of them.
[09:13] Towards the end of the workshop, we had a working interactive prototype to them. At the end of the day, they brought it up on stage at this event where the executives were in the audience and that was the showpiece. It was a great moment for me because the system was really intended to build product. And then the client was immediately asking us to take this design system and bring it into this space that is about sketching and forming ideas and really not getting too attached to anything, which is very different than the way we think about technology. Technology is “the commitment.” This was more about, like come and be generative.
Pitfall One: Analysis Paralysis
[10:33] EW: Part of getting into the right innovation mindset is preparing yourself for what can go wrong. Here John shares the three pitfalls teams have the tendency to fall into in their rush to drive change. First up: analysis paralysis.
[10:50] JL: At the same time that you’re starting innovating on the product itself, you’re changing yourself and your process. So that’s definitely a moment where you have to make the commitment if you are doing something brand new, to tune it along the way.
[11:02] I mean, the first thing that’s going to stifle innovation is going to be analysis paralysis. There’s a lot of impatience around innovation and a lot of pressure to have innovated, to have the new product or service out in the market. And that comes with usually very aggressive time commitments, or a very bold commitment as to what the new product or the next generation is going to achieve. And that makes you feel that everything has to be perfect.
[11:30] Language we use, like ‘launching.’ Launching software is already a stressful word. We use these NASA words to put a lot of pressure on things. You have a software launch, launches come with these stressful go-no-go meetings. Everything is building up to the launch. And by doing that you’re shortcutting around everything along the way that you need to do to learn and iterate and experiment.
[11:59] Someone had a great way to flip the language and talk about it more like smaller test drives or like a drive around the block. Like, you’re leaving the comfort of home, you’re going for a little spin around and then you’re coming back to see what you’ve learned. The spirit of that is better than the big stressful launch day.
[12:17] The idea of working on something new is naturally exciting. The terror of getting it wrong is what comes shortly after if you’re not careful. So it’s very easy to get into analysis paralysis. It’s very easy to get caught up in the obsession with lining everything up perfectly. Sometimes I think that comes from a place of, “We’ve all been here before and it’s gone wrong, so we’re going to plan our way out of it this time.” I’m a firm believer that sometimes you need to experiment your way out of the problem at the same time that you’re planning.
[12:53] This is my technology lens, but I think you have to be bolder than just experimenting with your designs and clickable prototypes and the low fidelity assets that we can generate. I think you do have to get into the technology. There’s a fear of starting too soon. And that’s really a fear of over-committing, but over-committing or going in the wrong direction is very different than working in small batches to do controlled tests of an idea. And you have to do that.
Pitfall Two: Insufficient Tools and Processes
[13:22] EW: The second pitfall in the pursuit of innovation that John identifies is being stuck with the wrong tools and processes. Changing the way you work is hard—and it’s made even harder if you don’t have the resources you need to accomplish your goals.
[13:36] JL: I think companies are impatient and cynical about innovation. The immediate friction is we need new tools, we need new infrastructure. There can be that clash between management and your design teams. And there’s always that moment of, you know, “Prove to me why you need this tool.” There’s this mindset that especially technologists always need the newest thing. And there’s some resistence to buy into that.
[14:05] Honestly, over time, if you aren’t innovating and refreshing, especially with tools and processes, the problem is that more and more of your work, you’re building debt, and more of your work over time is just actually maintaining old tools and processes. So your your day-to-day is actually like less and less about the work you should be doing. And it’s actually propping up a system or a tool chain that just isn’t working for you anymore. I think if you’re doing something new, you do need to look at the tools and processes that are getting you there.
[14:36] The thing with tools is tools are always changing. That’s true for the design tools we use today, absolutely with technology. So there’s always this pressure to change. And it is hard sometimes to keep that commitment going in an organization because adopting tools requires training and getting individuals specialized to maintain and extend those tools.
[14:58] We do find as an outside collaborator a lot of what we’re doing is coaching around the tools that we’re using and helping make the case for adopting. And we’re agnostic. So it’s not like we come in the door with a prescription and we’re set on it. We do spend a lot of time and it takes a lot of work to convince organizations to change and adopt tools because usually the people that you are trying to convince may be a few steps away from being inside the design room.
[15:27] Especially for teams that have been maintaining a product for a long time, and now there’s this transformative moment where you’re pivoting into the next generation or new product development, it is a great time to stop and look at the processes and the tools you’ve been using. What we see is that taking even proven methodologies like design thinking or Agile development, it requires practice. There are books written, there are playbooks, there are coaches that you can bring in for all of these things. But you do have to internalize it. And you do have to make it work for you. So you know, that takes a while.
Pitfall Three: Lack of Empowerment
[16:04] EW: According to John, the last pitfall organizations tend to fall into during their rush to innovate happens when teams don’t feel empowered to activate real change, or at least not at the speed they need. Here’s where he says a shared vision and clear communication can make all the difference.
[16:20] JL: People may be empowered in their day-to-day of the job. But if you’re getting into something new and innovative, I think the speed of how you’re making decisions and how you’re collaborating probably feels very different. It’s probably a lot faster. I think a lot of empowerment comes down to ensuring that there’s a shared sense of vision, and making everyone feel that there is a genuine commitment to doing things in a new way.
[16:49] There are constraints in an organization. It’s not like you can let every individual decide their own way of working. But it is about coming together. And in the beginning, getting everyone together and listening and making a real commitment to change. You know, I think for the leads on a program especially, the onus is on you to keep the empowerment going. And using things like the retrospectives to really listen to the team, like, “What isn’t working?” or “What could be doing better?” and making space for that even, you know, even if it’s dedicating time and resources. And that’s hard, especially when you’re on a big commitment to get something new out the door that’s gonna be big and transformative.
[17:29] I like the Toyota Production System—the idea that if you see something going wrong on the factory floor, or you see an opportunity for improvement, there’s a way for employees to stop things immediately, and get a manager over and talk about a new idea. There should be a continuous runway of refreshing, bringing in new ideas, doing optimizations for technology, thinking about automation. What are the things that are tripping you up all the time? What are the things slowing down your releases? What’s the friction between a designer and a developer collaborating? And just zero in and work on those relentlessly.
[18:14] If we slow down, there are 1000s of decisions to be made in any given day. There’s just so much detail and decision-making that needs to come together. And you need teams that are empowered to make those decisions. If you’re the right person to make the decision, then it’s your decision to make. And that’s not about being tyrannical. It’s not about a grab of power, it’s that it is more important to make a decision, bring it to the group and check the box. You’d be surprised how many of those you can just speed through and build trust as a team, if you let everyone go off and make some decisions and bring them back to the group. Then you start to really orchestrate the team, right? When everyone’s empowered and everyone understands, it’s a very different dynamic.
[19:02] I think things are going to get more experimental. In this design-technology space, where you have more designers experimenting with technology, I do think all of these efficiencies will lead to a place where as we’re cleaning out debt, things are start are going to start getting more experimental. Teams are going to get better at not only iterating, but playing with intuition a bit.
[19:26] EW: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a global design and strategy consultancy. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. We really want to thank John Leonard, Technology Director in frog New York, for outlining the pitfalls of innovation—and sharing his thoughts about how to not fall into them. 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, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.
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