Strategy for the Digital Age Part I—Getting to Strategy

March 20, 2017 in Notes from the Field
Greg Gibilisco
Product Lead
Derek Lasher
Senior Product Manager

I’ve always been fascinated by systems. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the garage. At 12, I repaired the engine on a mini-motorcycle. At 15, I got my hands dirty on an old Jeep CJ-7. I replaced the engine, learned how frustrating drum brakes can be to put back together, and tried my hand at body work. I always had the guidance of my dad, helping me along the way.

A few years later I bought a deteriorating 1967 VW Beetle. It didn’t run when I bought it, but I was able to completely restore it. I made a lot of mistakes and in the process touched nearly every aspect of that car. I found it to be an elegant machine; a simple air cooled engine, iconic and recognizable from a distance, and a lot of fun to drive. There’s something beautiful about how all the little pieces and parts worked together.

My parent’s garage in Omaha, Nebraska. A place I spent a lot of time growing up.

In retrospect I see that I was practicing design before I knew what design was. I was learning through trial and error and collaborating with others who see the world differently than I do. I was transforming an existing situation into a preferred one. The preferred situation was transportation. Maybe transportation in style… it would be crazy to assume that I would only consider one aspect of the whole, like the paint job, as the real work to be done.

A collaborative effort. Working on the VW with my dad and grandfather.

So, a few years later, I was working as a designer in a corporate setting. I was learning a lot about branding, interaction design, digital strategy, and, importantly, how to navigate the complexity of a large organization. However, I was often at the end of a long string of coordinated handoffs. I rarely had context for why certain decisions had been made or who made them. I was hungry for more and wanted to expand my impact as a designer.

When I joined MAYA almost 10 years ago, it was a sharp contrast to the conservative corporate environment I’d been accustomed too. Whiteboards everywhere! Messy work spaces, littered with post-it notes! Small, mostly autonomous, interdisciplinary teams were assembled to work on big, complex, projects. It was overwhelming and energizing at the same time.

From day one, I’ve been involved in almost every aspect of the work to bring a new product or service into existence. From actively involving users throughout design and development to the fast paced iteration of design solutions. But it didn’t come easy. I had to break old habits, change my mindset, and learn new skills. I found my appreciation for systems, coupled with an ability to make them visible were just as important as rendering a user interface. I found the basic patterns, or approaches to problem solving, could be applied consistently at different scales. I’ve learned that no detail is too small, but that there is an appropriate time to focus on details and an appropriate time to look at the broader situation.

And now, my time and energy is still focused in the same direction, but like the Eames Powers of Ten video, I’m shifting between scales even more broadly than before. From the design of products and services to design of businesses and organizations. I’m collaborating with amazingly talented people trying to figure out how to truly affect enduring change. The problems we’re trying to solve are complex and constantly stretching me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. There are moments that I long for the elegance of that VW Beetle, but then there are days where I feel like we’re truly pioneers on an expedition into uncharted territory. I’m excited to share our story.

— Greg Gibilisco, MAYA Strategy Practice Leader

I studied biology and music in school, and after a stint doing research in South Africa’s Kruger Park, I realized that as much as I loved ecology, the work was about describing problems, not solving them. I was, however, completely hooked on the scientific method of starting with questions, forming hypotheses, and designing experiments to find the answers.

And that’s the essence of a good design process, too. It’s critical to describe the shape of a problem before you earn the right to design the shape of a solution to solve it.

But my path wasn’t nearly that direct.

When I came back from South Africa, I got a job answering phones and emails at a startup that sold pants on the internet. While I didn’t have any hard business skills yet, this role gave me the opportunity to pick them up on the job while relying on my people skills and good writing to earn my keep. I worked my way deeper and deeper into the operations of that company, where I ultimately focused on building teams and solving problems that spanned across the business.

Then I read a couple of books that changed how I thought of the world. They were Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, and they explained design in ways I’d never been exposed to before. I was completely taken by the notion of repeatable design patterns in architecture and started looking for similar patterns in other systems. It was at this point that I stopped passively consuming and accepting the world around me and started thinking about how I might redesign things to improve them based on those patterns.

After flirting with the idea of architecture school, I instead found a like-minded startup in San Francisco focused on kids’ education and cold emailed the founder.

To convince him to hire me, I proposed an ecommerce business to sell project kits, built a prototype, and mailed it to him. It was a kit to teach kids to build a table lamp and after getting the components from the hardware store, writing the copy, drawing the illustrations, and designing the experience and packaging, I realized I was having more fun than I’d ever had at work.

It was my first real experience with an iterative design process and I loved it. Plus it worked! They flew me to California to meet the team and I had a job offer within two weeks.

The prototyping tool sets I made to help kids learn skills.

The next big realization came a couple years later when I was trying to pivot into pure industrial design. I moved back to New York and started consulting for a design engineering studio. We struck a deal where I’d help them with some business operations and strategy ideas and they’d teach me the ins and outs of designing objects.

After a few months learning the ropes, a client chose one of my designs for a product he was developing. It was my first (and only) product in market and I am even listed as an inventor on the patent. I was honored, but also realized that the problems I was interested in solving tended not to be solved in plastic.

Which is when I found strategy—a discipline that uses the design and research methods I’d come to love to solve the amorphous problems of business. It’s a field that appreciates diversity of experience (which I’ve got), has strong opinions about process (which I’ve also got), and has access to some of the most interesting problems in the world.

– Derek Lasher, Senior Strategist at MAYA

MAYA’s been solving the problems at the intersection of humans and technology for more than 25 years. In that time, we’ve realized that the most fulfilling and interesting projects have always been the ones where we’ve had access to the company’s DNA. When we were solving deep problems that fundamentally affected the way their organization worked. We’d start with people, by asking questions, doing research, and ultimately building a solution for them.

Then, a couple years ago, we started noticing some major changes in the world. Everything seemed to be becoming more and more connected, and it was leading to levels of complexity never before seen. This digital disruption and the resulting complexity fundamentally altered the context businesses were operating in. In the 20th century, organizations thrived when they got good at making things right, and in the shifting context of the 21st century it looks like the key challenge is going to be making the right thing.

As a company we’re captivated by the problems of complexity and have made it our business to find and invent frameworks and architectures to bridle the power inherent in them. From the beginning, MAYAns have been applying it to technology, and now that software is eating the world, it makes sense to start applying it to everything touched by technology.

This is part one of a four part blog series. Stay tuned for Part Two: “Everything is Changing”.
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