We spoke with Aldo de Jong and Rich Radka, co-founders of Claro Partners (@claropartners) about their current and future practices. Claro Partners is based in Barcelona and was launched by Aldo and Rich two years ago. They work at the intersections of social science, experience design and business strategy to help companies transform understanding of people, marketplaces and technology into value for society and business.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation and we will feature the full story in our book.
Tell us about Claro Partners and why you do what you do
Aldo: We describe ourselves as a business innovation firm and we partner with clients to transform understanding into value. So what understanding? And value for whom? When talk about understanding, we talk about:
- Understanding of people – understanding their needs, struggles, desires
- Understanding of markets – to uncover opportunities created by understanding people’s needs
- Understanding of technologies – because they are the enablers that can create new experiences for people
When we speak about value, we have to define what type of value for whom? First and foremost it is about value for society. We have the conviction that if we create value for society, then value for business must also be possible. People will be willing to pay for real value. We don’t start by creating value for companies, because we could create value for company without creating value for society – and in such cases the businesses will fail.
Rich: Once we are sure that there is a clear value proposition for society and for specific individuals, we can play with the different levers of a business model to figure out what role our client can play in delivering value, and we can identify if the client has the capability to do so. These new business opportunities are increasingly participatory rather than being managed via a top-down, heavily company-controlled approach. These new opportunities are networks which may not have to do with transfer of ownership but more about access to experiences.
Aldo: How do we transform understanding into value? We do this by bringing together capabilities, techniques and methodologies from three key domains that we believe are essential for successful innovation: social science, experience design and business strategy. We are not saying that we are the ultimate domain experts of all details within each of those areas, but we are working at the crossroads of these three areas by pulling together a team that comes from all those backgrounds.
Rich: We are very conscious of how we are building Claro’s culture. We consider not just the individual skill-sets but also how able and enthusiastic people are to grow in non-traditional ways. We are looking for people from different kinds of experiential backgrounds and also from different cultural backgrounds, because the problems we are solving tend to be global. We really need to have a broad set of perspectives from people who have worked and grown up in difference places; some times the way they see things is shaped by cultural elements such as their native tongue. On one side, it adds complexity in our business in terms of communication of nuance within our teams; on the other hand, it also provides the nuance that allow us to deliver richer insights in our projects than if we had a more homogenous team.
Aldo: To give you an example of the diversity of the team, we have 20 people in Claro and out of the 20, there are 17 different nationalities. So almost every person is from a different place. Not to mention our global network of domain, culture and implementation experts we bring into projects.
Rich: Assigning staff to projects is a thoroughly organic process. We really want to maintain the balance of the three disciplines to ensure that no one perspective overwhelms or dominates the process. There are no “researchers” vs. “strategists”. We all “think” and we all “do”.
Aldo: We talk a lot about the “T-shaped” designer. In a traditional design innovation firm, they look for people who are very good at one specific skill. For example, they look for excellence in interaction design, graphic design or product design. So in this model, you get very long legs on each “T” and if you form a multidisciplinary team, you end up with a lot of tall skinny Ts who find it hard to stretch their arms out to effectively touch one another. That’s why these types of firms always need an additional management layer to make those connections artificially. At Claro, our people have shorter vertical stems (legs) but longer horizontal stems (arms) so they are able to connect amongst themselves and do not need a lot of management above them to make these connections – its about breaking down the silos and reducing overhead that is not only costly but incredibly inefficient and disempowering to the individual.
Rich: Continuing this idea… the other side of this – looking for long armed, short-legged people means that we are not so defined by skill-sets. As a result our solutions aren’t defined by our skill-sets but defined by what needs to happen and I think it makes our teams much more flexible and our solutions much more pragmatic and dynamic. Increasingly in the future, you are not going to see so many large-scale firms like in the past. This is due to the fact that small small organisations that are more nimble are much more adept at augmenting their core with outside expertise in an ad hoc and impermanent basis for a single project, rather than trying to be all things to all people. This model is the future of complex systems problem solving.
From what we have observed and from the people who we have spoken to, designers need to be able to speak the different languages of the different disciplines.
Rich: Part of the job descriptions of designers and social scientist is to be translators of the needs and experience of the end consumer but ironically these folks are often uninterested or unsophisticated when it comes time to understanding the needs of their clients or of the areas of the organisation that they work in. This seems to be a ridiculously big blind spot because design is all about translations – in order to translate effectively you need the understanding of the transmitter (consumer) as well as the receiver (business). It’s all about scheduling solutions to problems and creating the desired reality in place of the current state. The only way you can do that is to get a 360-degree view of a problem space from the inside as well as from the outside.
So what do you think are the key characteristics of a designer, social scientist or a business person who can speak others’ languages?
Rich: It is important to be inquisitive, open to learning new things and wanting to constantly experiment and improve your process and perspectives. I think that is the most important characteristic to have for any group, not just designers. It’s really important not to be scared of the unknown as well as not to be overly confident of one’s own importance or that of the practice/tradition that one comes from. No matter what you know, it’s just a starting point on a never-ending journey of learning.
Aldo: To build the bridge, we need someone who is inquisitive and open-minded without a huge ego. However it is also important to talk about empathy. It’s so important in our business because you need to develop empathy for our clients, not only for our clients as an organisation but also to consider each individual client as a person. We need to have empathy for the end-users/consumers and empathy for different disciplines and different ways of thinking. We need to know that we are each only as important as others; this philosophy is something that we always push for. We value equality in viewpoints and the right to comment even upon areas in which we may not know a lot. This right to ask and suggest is key to seeing things in new ways.
How do you see design or design thinking fitting in with what you do?
Rich: Our projects are about framing a problem, scanning to discover solutions to the problem and then communicating out to achieve some consensus to move forward. For some, the communicating out and achieving consensus may be the last stage of a project, but in fact, for us at this point the job is only half complete. Here is all the work that we have done, and the challenge is how to create a narrative and visuals that communicate the stories independently so it can go viral inside the organisation. So I think this is one way in which we bring a design mindset to the way we put together our deliverables, how we transfer knowledge and how we tell stories through scenarios. We are talking about future states that don’t yet exist, and getting people to understand how an ideal world might look like from a consumer as well as from a business perspective.
Aldo: Due to the fact that most of our projects are mainly focused at a strategic level, their outcomes almost always require a transformation of our client’s organisation or business model or a combination of the two. So when you think about transformation, you can’t avoid the idea of change management and leadership. You have to lead the organisation into change and we have to help our clients achieve this. So we have to give them a whole array of tools to allow them to manage their change which ranges from convincing the leadership, to convincing the employees and getting them to work towards the same goal. Therefore the solutions that we deliver, at the very least, have to generate excitement but also credibility.
Rich: And so the tools and the ways we communicate the message are really important. We have to turn complex things into beguilingly simple ideas that are easy to understand, so that we are providing the information at the right level for both the individuals and the organisation. Design is uniquely positioned to turn a set of boring bullet points into a really interesting and compelling narrative that will get people excited – you need to address both the head and the heart, but you must start with the heart.
What are the current drivers of your practice?
Rich: I think we have talked a lot about the internal practices of Claro, but there are still a lot of external factors that we have to keep adjusting to and that is because the nature of the problem is changing for our clients; for example the way value is moving from products to service to experience. We have had to take clients on a journey that they may not necessary want to be on. Often we have to deliver a lot of “ghost” deliverables; we have to over-deliver in a lot of our projects. That over-delivering is the absolute context that they need as an organisation to be able to understand what we are suggesting as a solution to the problem.
Aldo: Building on that continuum that Rich was mentioning, from product, to service to experience, there is a next step or a parallel step, which is networks. We have realised through our deep research that more and more businesses are really hubs in a network. The value is created not by the individual employees of the individual organisations but by the collective effort of the individuals in the network. An example is ZipCar (http://www.zipcar.com) which is a US car-sharing scheme, and we feel that a lot of the companies of the future will adopt this type of business structure. One of our most advanced types of projects is designing and running these networks. This type of activity is not evident in any current understanding or education in design, but you do need to figure out how to design it, to define how these networks should be set up and how it is all going to work. These types of networks have to happen organically, yet need to be facilitated and managed to create win-win-win value propositions.
What excites you about design at the moment?
Rich: I think based on what we have been discussing so far, it’s the concept of rapid prototyping and lean methodologies to get things done quickly and to really use design to sort out thinking through doing. It’s about letting the right audience play with the idea and collectively collaborate to develop the idea. It is about involvement with end-users, not just the customer side but also the business side to test the idea rapidly in order to get quick feedback. So it’s really about giving up control but still coordinating the process with a direction through shared ownership. It’s our job to shepherd, orchestrate and bring as many people in who can help us as much as possible.
Aldo: What also really excites me is the area of business design. I am not talking about business model design but being able to conceive a new business from the ground up which involves product, service, experience and network design. We have been experimenting with this through the Service Design Jam, where people who are interested in service and using a design-based approach to problem solve will meet all over the globe for 48 hours to design a new service based on a shared theme. We have agreed to support groups – who have successfully developed a credible value proposition during these 48 hours and have met our minimum criteria – by offering to help them create businesses out of their ideas. So we are now supporting some of these groups through a number of partners through a programme we’ve developed. This is what I call business design. What Rich was describing as rapid prototyping goes beyond just the physical product or service prototyping to envelop the business ecosystem, value propositions for all stakeholders, and network generation and development.
What do you think the future practices of design will look like and why?
Rich: For every trend, there is a counter-trend. So while we will see more and more design being seen as a philosophical approach to problem solving, there will also be a greater need for different ways to apply specific technical skills. The question is: do you want to design solutions yourself or simply execute the ideas of others? Especially now when we are about to be hit with a huge data explosion over the next 10 years, there is a huge need to make sense out of things. We need generalists who are able to move comfortably across different disciplines but we also need specialists who are able to use design to make use of the data. So it’s not an either/or proposition – you can’t just be a thinker or a doer – to have real impact you will have to be a designer who can also tell a story. It involves looking at the data, understanding the story to be told and then deciding how to tell the story, rather than just being a stylist. There is going to be less and less need and value to just being a stylist. So for people who really want to bring added value, they have to be able to extract information from the data and know how best to convey this information.
Networks are fundamentally changing the landscape that designers design in, so designers have to understand how networks work in order to be able to design for them. Designers have to ask themselves, how does this effect my practice and how does it affect my route to market? Those two things are great and really empowering questions for designers. It’s a very exciting but confusing time for designers at the moment.