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Berlin 21-23, Oktober 2015: Good design helps to organize a highly complex world. Many of today's designers create whole concepts rather than just putting their ideas into pretty little shapes. Professor Alejandro Lecuna teaches at the Design Akademie Berlin. He teamed up with his students for a project supporting a French international retail group that strives for customer-friendly designs. A fun workshop with pink balloons? Hurray! Pseudo-creative bubblegum science? No thanks.
"Innovation is not a model, it's a struggle," Professor Alejandro Lecuna with a conspiratorial smile and rushes up the stairs. "It took three scientists 20 years to invent blue LED lights. They never gave up. And thanks to them the whole world can save huge amounts of energy now," says Lecuna and peels an improvised red tape barrier off a doorframe to let us enter the next room. "None of them would have imagined to be given the Nobel Prize in the end. They just wanted to invent blue LED lights. That's it. I admire this kind of devotion." Whoever meets Professor Lecuna senses his enthusiastic nature immediately. The design expert has gained a lot of work experience managing creative projects all over the world. Today he specializes in the field of Strategic Design and is currently in charge of an international workshop here at the Design Akademie Berlin. The French retail empire Auchan Group consulted him to help them experiment with their ideas. They’re planning to establish a more modern and convenient customer experience at their stores and malls.
Young, unbiased, dynamic. Alejandro Lecuna sees great advantages in working with students, especially in the process of innovation. They have not yet experienced the boundaries of normal working life. They focus on the main goal and naturally ignore possible obstacles. "In big companies, most of the time you are told: 'No money, no time, no chance!' But if you want to change something, you have to see the bigger picture. Change has to be initiated on all company levels. Therefore it may certainly be helpful to work with the vivid ideas of design students during the process of innovation," says Dominique Ducoux. The CEO of Auchan Company in Hungary and came to attend Lecuna's workshop in Berlin as a main sponsor. "We decided to consult Professor Lecuna and his team after we were dissatisfied with the agency we were working with back in France." Ducoux pauses and adds: "Besides, Berlin is a vibrant city for creation and innovation, exactly the kind we were looking for. I am very happy with the spirit of the city. The people are so open-minded. It took us a while until we realized that we did not have to look far away for ideas of change. We only needed to go to Berlin."
While Dominique Ducoux dreamily finishes his sentence, Professor Lecuna sounds the bell for the next round – well, literally. Sitting on stage he rings a Tibetan gong, to win the crowd's full attention. He talks a bit about the upcoming tasks and presentations before he is rushing back to us leading the way to his colorful lab of innovation. It's time to speak about the benefits this fancy world of Strategic Design Thinking might offer. And why on earth are grown men passing us by carrying pink balloons and Lego men? We stop in front of a big board. "This is an idea arc,” Professor Lecuna explains with sparkling eyes. "This figure illustrates what the current problem is and how we move the user into a happier future." Professor Lecuna points at a picture of a little Lego man enthusiastically lifting its plastic arms up. "The Auchan Group wants to improve the paying systems at their shops and malls, for instance. They also plan to offer healthy food and drink alternatives their customers can prepare directly at the stores. Quick, transparent and simple, just as required today." Lecuna dramatically lowers his voice, pauses for three seconds and triumphantly continues: "In Strategic Design it is not about the product itself. That is just what you usually expect when talking about design: nice shapes, pretty colors, pieces of art. Whereas here you rather try to design the whole experience with a product or service you offer the customer. It is all about the value: making people happier, giving them a better experience when shopping groceries, for instance. If the change doesn't bring an improvement, there has been no innovation after all,” Lecuna shrugs. "Whenever I had the feeling clients wouldn't be able to share this view, I declined the job. It's as simple as that. You need a common basis that you can start working from.”
So obviously it is just great when a big company is willing to follow new paths of innovation. Even though the method requires adults doing arts and crafts with vegetables and cardboard boxes in a crazy Berlin design workshop. However, the Auchan Group has always been very open-minded regarding advancements in its different product lines. It is the expertise the Design Akademie Berlin offers in the field of survey and interviewing methods that they appreciate so much. "We've already gained great new impulses after the first two days of this workshop," says sponsor Dominique Ducoux while we are standing in front of a big table. There are piles of fun things you can usually find in every well-equipped day care center: colored paper, cardboard, dough, pencils, markers, paper streamers, balloons, glue, scissors, and tons of yellow Post-its. Furthermore, there is a collection of apples, carrots, onions and potatoes – well, Auchan is looking for innovations being useful in their supermarkets, after all. Professor Lecuna tells us that there are even three board members attending his workshop, along with other employees from different areas of the company. That has always been special about the Auchan Group, I've been told. It is said that they give their employees a voice. So Butchers, secretaries, and top managers – they are all working together in little groups here at the Design Akademie Berlin. They bring ideas and creative impulses, but they are also encouraged to offer criticism. "The interpersonal aspect is the most valuable thing I have experienced during our stay here in Berlin," says Catherine Favreau, Corporate Learning Director and founder of the Learning Institute For Excellence at Auchan Group. "Our wonderful team got along so well with Professor Lecuna and his students. Here at the Design Akademie Berlin we brought employees from ten different countries together working collectively on one project.” Catherine smiles happily and continues: "Innovation has always been part of our company's DNA. Now the Design Akademie Berlin supports us to become more efficient and to transfer our ideas into models, sketches and prototypes. These models we can test under real life circumstances and approach possible customers with our conceptions. We are very pleased with our week here in Berlin," says Catherine, giving Professor Lecuna an appreciative pat on the back. To find out what all of his students have done so far, Lecuna approaches them with a few questions regarding their progress. Marco, an outgoing Italian employee starts to comment while he is halfheartedly peeling a carrot. "In the beginning we were trying to figure out what problems our customers might face at the stores. So we wrote down questions that we could ask random people on the streets of Berlin. The whole idea of Strategic Design Thinking is by far not as abstract as one might think at first. It is rather practical and highly efficient to achieve a certain goal." Marco puts the carrot in a cardboard box and picks a new one. "Today we approached possible customers and presented our prototypes, meaning the models we were building here,” he uses the carrot to point at a poorly engineered pile of paper and glue. "We were listening to their comments and had to accept that they did not find all of our ideas useful," Marco shrugs. Professor Lecuna nods approvingly and starts talking while Marco is taking a deep breath. "Companies like the Auchan Group want to find out if they are really heading somewhere with their ideas and visions. If you are experienced in the field of Strategic Design you know that it is part of the job to develop prototypes, and to dismiss your own ideas right afterwards. Worst case scenario? You do it over and over again until you have a proper result. That's how you learn. As I have mentioned before: innovation is a struggle. The students found that out today facing the real world outside," he smiles warmly. Now it's time for Marco again, who is getting quite emotional about the customer topic. Well, he's the expert in that field. "I'm so glad that we received honest answers to our questions. The food store owner thought they knew everything about the needs their customers might have. Except they don't! How could they know anything about it? They don't ask the customers. The board always says it is all about the customers. Well, go out and talk to them please!" Marco finishes his monologue and finally puts down the potato peeler. Professor Lecuna nods again in approval. "To me it is all about real improvement. About some kind of sustainability. I want to change the world," his eyes sparkle with determination. Then he pushes a large round clock in the middle of the table for the whole group to see. And we start walking again.
The setting is fancy, whereas the idea behind the project might just be about the pretty normal experience of pushing a shopping cart at a grocery store. Except you may do it more conveniently one day. This doesn't sound glamorous at first. But just like the blue LED lights it might lead to bigger improvements. The Auchan Group wants to be more transparent, to support people leading a healthier life, for instance. All in all they plan to become more customer-friendly. "And that is the value," Professor Lecuna sums it up. By the way, what has been his favorite project so far? "One of my former students here at the Design Akademie Berlin wanted to improve signposts in hospitals. But we learned that we did not have to focus on the signs as such. They were okay. We did a research and found out that it was the experience that led people to get lost at hospitals. How do people perceive their environment when they are under extreme stress? That was the question. When patients come to the hospital their brains seem to immediately starting to save energy because of the pressure they are undergoing. That sounds logical but it was that piece of insight we needed,” Lecuna points at his idea arc again showing the first, the sad Lego man. "Consequently, we encouraged the hospital staff to be more empathetic towards their patients. Even though it might mean that they have to tell the same thing over and over again, staying super friendly doing so. At first the employees at the hospital were also complaining about the impatience of the visitors and patients. So they were given a certain training that eventually led to a better experience for everyone involved. As you can see, this process was not about designing better signposts or anything visual. It was the interpersonal quality that needed a redesign. Well, each problem is different,” Lecuna says with a roguish wink.
So far so good. But those who have some outsider experience with classic Strategy might be prejudiced against this shiny new method. With all the arts and crafts equipment it might rather look like a children's birthday bash or worse. Something like a painting by numbers event for top managers on their sponsored weekend journey to creative enlightenment. Thanks, but no thanks. Professor Lecuna, who once even worked as a designer for David Byrnes record label in New York City, does not speak to you from cloud nine when it comes to the real deal of Strategic Design Thinking. "If you teach Strategic Design Thinking seriously, it does not drift off into a company event for men in business suits who learn how to play with Post-its," Lecuna laughs provocatively. "To me the process can only be successful if there is a change of thought in the whole company or organization. From bottom to top and back. When I agreed to work with the Auchan Group I told them plainly 'I am not a Design-Thinking-extremist!'" Professor Lecuna laughs thinking of his rather unconventional approach towards the big company's board members. "For 20 years now I've been working as a designer. I've had projects in London, New York, China, Switzerland – you name it. There are agencies trying to convince people that this fancy Strategic Design Thinking method will achieve anything. Nonsense! It is not enough to keep the participants entertained with arts and crafts, while after the workshop nothing changes. We should never trivialize the design process. Never. It is quite something to create a strategy that can actually bring about real change." This sentence fades theatrically while Lecuna smiles and silently moves on. It is said that one of the most important requirements of Strategic Design Thinking is the gift of empathy. Plain and simple. If you are able to put yourself into somebody else's shoes, you might be a good strategic designer. Whereas those multidisciplinary teams, that are so highly praised lately, need a certain basis in order to work properly. "In multidisciplinary teams success always depends on the individual members of the group. You can bring people together that are experts in the most interesting subjects and still fail big time. It is the ability to reflect on your own actions, on the process as such, to value the other members with their own opinions and thoughts. Otherwise multidisciplinarity is just a whole big nothing," he shrugs. Lecuna's wit, enthusiasm and expertise made the board of the Auchan Group perform standing ovations when he was given the job a year ago. Fun fact: the presentation he gave back then had nothing to do with any well designed strategy. Due to unfortunate organizational circumstances he had not been informed about the task and was to act spontaneously. It might be true that innovation is a struggle. But with a lack of empathy for people and their ideas – do not even bother to start fighting. Professor Lecuna says good bye and returns to his students. His example shows that you cannot separate design from thinking. Without people like him, who strive for brilliance and logic, Strategic Design Thinking would probably be nothing more than an arts and crafts adventure game for everyone who wants to join.
Text: Christine Stiller