Mark Rickmeier shares the specific approaches product innovators use to develop breakthrough solutions.
- The double diamond framework for more effective problem solving.
- How to quickly generate new, original ideas in two ways.
- A handy tool to help you select the most resonant solution.
Mark Rickmeier is the Chief Executive Officer at TXI, a boutique strategy and product innovation firm that specializes in UX research, design, and software development and closes the gap between ambition and reality. Over the past 20 years, he has created more than 100 mobile apps, custom-built web applications, and intuitive user experiences.
- Organization: Future Problem Solving Program International
- Tool: ThoughtExchange
- Book: Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business Paperback by Gino Wickman
- Book: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins
- Book: Rituals for Work: 50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose, and a Culture that Can Adapt to Change by Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan
Mark, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Thank you. I hope I can be awesome today.
Well, I hope you can, too. I have high hopes and I think the odds are great.
Starting off strong with optimism. I like it.
Yeah. Well, we have passed over, well, I guess 50 other people in order to select you, so I think there’s a product innovation lesson in there somewhere.
Now, I’m feeling all kinds of awesome pressure. Yeah, exactly. I love it.
So, I’m excited to talk about innovation, creativity, great listening. And could you kick us off by sharing maybe an extra-exciting fun story about a eureka moment, an aha breakthrough, an exciting creative experience that’s just a very fond memory for you that lights you up?
Yeah. All right, so this is timely because it’s also one of my most poorly timed decisions of all time but still, I think, really important in my life. So, go back a couple of years, I was the COO at the time, and I’d just been asked by our founder, who, he was doing his own self-reflection on his career and his journey. He was recognizing that he was a zero-to-one type person. Loves starting things, being entrepreneurial, but as we were growing the business and expanding it, it was a lot more appealing to me to think about how to grow and scale the business, whereas, he wanted to go back to his entrepreneurial founding roots.
And so, he asked if I would be…if I’d step into the CEO role and help to grow and keep running the business. And, at the time, I was like, “I don’t know,” because I was like already a dad, on school board, and doing some philanthropic work, and this idea of taking on this additional role was both very exciting but also a little intimidating at the time.
And so, I told him, “Give me a minute,” and I took a week off to think about this prospect. And what I often do, I turn to the community to get input from outside my little bubble. And so, I invited nine other CEO-type people to go with me. I found a walking trail in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, and said, “I’m going to take a week away without having Slack, or Twitter, or email, or my family, or my coworkers. It’s just some time to think.”
And I wanted to pick the brains of other people who had done this job, this really crazy stressful job before. And said, “I wanted to ask them about their advice and how to be successful in that role. And rather than calling it a workshop, like we always do in most of our facilitation sessions, we called it a walk shop, because we’re gonna be walking the entire time.
And so, five men, five women go to Scotland to talk about, “What is the job of a CEO? How do you handle that? How do you think about the pressures of the job? And how does that affect your other work-life balance concepts?” It was funny, when we came back, each of us were taking pictures of the trail, and when the trail was really wide, we have good group conversations. When the trail got narrow, we paired off more one on one.
And everyone was talking about this experience that we had. And so, when we came back, on LinkedIn, people were hitting us off with, “That’s a really odd idea, going into the woods for five days. Like, what was that all about?” And people started asking me when the next one was, and I had to tell them, like, “Well, there’s no next one. I got a whole company to run now. What are you talking about? Like, I have a thing, a job I just said yes to.”
And everyone kept asking, so I was like, “All right. Well, I’ll organize another one. I got so much out of it, let’s try the Black Forest of Germany.” And now 18 people said they wanted to go on this to unplug for a week, and have this time to think and to process with other people. And we did a hike for the Black Forest, and, again, when we came back, and everyone was posting stories in that, two people ended up going into business together after that hike. And I got an idea for a thing that became a kickstarter concept, and then that got backed.
And all this creative energy came out of the walk shop that people kept asking when the next one was. So, we did a third, and by that point, when it sold out almost instantly, I was like, “Okay, this is something I want to do and find a way to do more regularly.” So, I’m also the genius that started a travel company during the 2020, brilliant timing, before all that happened.
But as far as a fun, creative experience, one of the best things I do as a gift for myself is, at least once a year, try to shut down away from the day-to-day kind of experience, and get away from what otherwise a very sedentary job, and be on my feet. Quite literally thinking on my feet. This year we’re going to the Algarve in Portugal.
So, 12 of us are going to be hiking, talking about this year, “How do you lead organizations in remote situations? Like, how do you really involve yourself in remote leadership?” Since a lot of us are coming from a place, not that long ago, of running organizations are being involved in a lot of co-located scenarios with team members all side by side, and now we’re living in much more distributed and remote kind of worlds.
And so, there’ll be 12 executives are going to go hiking through Portugal with no distractions and technological interruptions to have those dedicated time together to dig into this kind of stuff.
That’s great. And can you orient us a bit to what is TXI and Product innovation?
Yeah, TXI, so it stands for technology, experience, and innovation. So, the three things we care about most. And when we talk about product innovation, it is being able to help our clients think about new ideas for their business that will drive them forward, and then having the designers and engineers that can take those ideas off of a slide deck and make them into reality. So, building a chatbot, or a mobile application, or a web app, or wearable products, like some kind of digital application that can then provide business value.
So, half of our brains are thinking about, “How do we build something right?” which is all the agile background and technological background to build something that scales well on a good tech platform. But beyond that, also, “How do you build the right thing?” which is where we get into some of the design thinking and product innovation, helping clients unlock some value in their business by coming up with new concepts that can then become a digital product.
And a core skill to doing that well is listening a little better than the average professional, I dare say. Could you make the case for how listening makes the difference and how you listen differently?
I think it’s two things. I think it’s both finding how you, like the actual skills of active listening, very, very important, but also what you’re listening for. And so, I can give a story here to maybe provide a concept. So, a client came to us, this is in maybe 2015, 2016, just as I was learning the difference, I would say, between custom development and product innovation.
This is a research university in Texas, and they said, “We want to build a mobile app.” And, honestly, up until that point, I would’ve said something silly, like, “Great, we’re really good at building mobile apps. We call them, these products, like MVPs, our minimum viable products.” So, you’re going to give us requirements, we call them stories in agile, and in a few short months, we’ll knock that out, we’ll build you a mobile app.
And, thankfully, we had, at that point, been working with a number of designers that are required to design team in building out more of this design-thinking framework. And the team said, “We hear that you have this idea for this mobile app, which is wonderful, but back up a second. Don’t tell us about the solution. Rather, tell us about the problem you’re trying to solve. Let’s start there.” And that was confusing because, at the time, they’ve talked to a lot of other companies and everyone was doing the same thing, “Tell us about your mobile app, we’ll write a proposal and then you’ll pick the cheapest one.”
And the team said, “Really, just humor us. Who are your users? Let’s start there. Let’s better understand that.” And the case they were making is that “Custom technology is really expensive. To build a custom mobile app could be a quarter to half a million dollars, and before we go do that, let’s just make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
And in their case, their users were their students. They were trying to figure out how to navigate the four years at the university, how to pick a major, how to build trust with an adviser on the administration side, and the team said, “Great. Let’s go talk to some students before we assume that the mobile app, which could cost half a million dollars. That’s an awful lot of money. Let’s just make sure this is the right path.”
So, we spent a few short design sprints, talking to them, getting a better sense of their challenges, what their goals were, doing some rapid prototyping and validation, and came back, after only two weeks, and said, “I don’t think this is what you want to do. Think about if you were student, it’s been a week-long of frustration and anxiety, it’s Friday afternoon, you don’t know who to turn to, what to do, so the first you’re going to do is go to the App Store. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“Like, you probably want to talk to a human as soon as possible. And while we could build you a mobile app, and it’ll go live on time and cost half a million dollars, and we don’t think anyone is going to use it, or something that acts more like a chatbot, where if you ask and answer a few certain questions, we can partner you with the right person. That probably we can do in about four to six weeks.”
And so, in this case, it wasn’t just listening to what they were saying, because, again, if we had listened to what they said they wanted, we would’ve built them a mobile app, which would’ve gone live on time but not actually met the need. It was listening for what the real need was and helping them to understand the desire of, like, fall in love with the right problem before you get too attached to a solution.
In this case, they came in with a solution because they really thought mobile app would be the best way to engage students. And, in this case, helping them to listen better was getting them to step away from the, I guess, the solution they were already kind of excited about, and go talk to some students, and go talk to them about what their issues are, and what really will help, and really try to identify the right problem first.
So, the beginning of design thinking, the beginning of product innovation is always seeking to understand and trying to do as much of that before you get too attached to a potential idea. There are lots of ways this is going to scatter. There are lots of apps you could build, or digital products you could build. In this case, it was helping them to realize there was maybe a better problem to focus on, and a cheaper solution to build that would give them a better outcome.
And when it comes to this active listening and doing it better, do you have sort of a step-by-step or a few key principles? It seems like one is just getting oriented to, “What are you really trying to achieve here? What is success look like?” And taking a step back, zoom out, getting that broader view as oppose to just getting off to the races.
Another principle is engaging with the folks who are actually affected, impacted, going to be using the thing, and to see what their scoop is. What are some of the other favorite principles, or steps, or tips that you find make a world of difference to upgrade your active listening?
So, some of it is mindset things. So, when you’re working with an organization, I mean, a lot of people come in with already pre-baked ideas of, “This is what’s going to work. This is what’s going to be successful for us.” And to some degrees, especially if you’re looking to do something rather innovative, you have to be willing to invest in a little bit of what we call unlearning. So, yeah, there are things that may have gotten you at this point, but you may need to let go of some of those to be able to make space for a new way or working, or a new approach you might take.
And so, there’s a concept, there’s a mindset of unlearning, of getting rid of maybe old patterns and old ways of doing things to be able to be open to new concepts, and that’s very important. Also, as we said, going in with the mindset of you really want to be open, and so this is where you follow a framework called the double diamond. But if you think about the ways a diamond is drawn, the very first thing is you go wide, and it’s called diversion thinking. You’re trying to get as much exposure to new ideas and outside perspectives as you can.
And then from there, you consolidate down to a point which is identifying what the core problem is. And it’s from there that you can explore and go wide again, and say, “Well, now I know what the real problem we want to solve is. Now, let’s get really creative. Let’s come up with lots of ideas of how we could solve that problem. There are tons of ways to solve problems.”
And then from there, we consolidate down the ones we think are best. And so, it’s important, as we go through that process, to be able to explore different ideas. And then, and this is the hard one, I think, to make sure you’re listening to the best idea, which is not always the most loudest voice or the most executive voice. It’s really helping the best idea to win.
And so, part of the challenge, I’ve always been encouraging that unlearning aspect of letting people to let go of old ways of doing things, but also making sure that, like a single part owner, or a single executive, doesn’t be like, “And this is what we’re going to do,” that you really want the data and the insights to be able to guide the product.
Well, it’s so funny, as you walked through that double diamond, I’m thinking I was involved in a club in high school called Future Problem-Solvers, and we did exactly this, and I had to pull it up. Step one, identify challenges. You listed like a bunch of challenges. Step two, select the underlying problem. Step three, produce solution ideas. Step four, generate and select criteria. Step five, apply criteria. Step six, develop an action plan.
So, indeed, we’re diverging and converging, and then diverging and then converging. It’s like, “Whoa, okay.”
“I’ve heard this before.” What’s funny though, how many people think about this jump in at the second one, they’re like, “Okay, let’s start brainstorming. Let’s get some ideas going.” And it’s really hard, you got to back up, they’re like, “We hear you.” And there’s a lot of enthusiasm for generating ideas but are we solving the right problem? Like, let’s back up.
Like, identifying the right problem, way more valuable. Asking the right question, way more valuable than generating a ton of ideas. Like, in this case, how do we brainstorm a whole bunch of great mobile app concepts? It would’ve been fun to do but it wouldn’t have solved the problem what they were looking to solve with the student engagement, so it is hard.
Especially, when people are really jazzed and you’ve got stakeholders really excited about, “Let’s get to the whiteboard and start sketching out apps.” You’ve got to find a way to back them up a bit, and say, “We will get there but, first, let’s talk to some users and make sure we’re identifying the right problems to solve.”
And so, that’s the broad overview framework perspective for how you’re proceeding. I’m curious, once you get into some of the steps, are there any key things that help you generate more ideas, or key questions that help get to the root of things super effectively?
Yeah. So, one of the things we’ll do, let’s say we have identified that right problem, and now we all are thinking about the same thing, we like trying to find ways of, again, diverging to get new ideas without being too heavily influenced or kind of biased by a single concept. So, one of the things we might do is ask everyone, it’s a really easy exercise, take a sheet of paper, A4 paper, and fold it in half, and then fold in half, and fold it in half again till you get like a series of creases on the paper that looks like a series of eight squares on a normal paper.
And then within each one, we ask people to draw out concepts. They don’t have to be high-fidelity graphic design. Just draw concepts of what you’re thinking might be a good solution to this problem. And people go about doing that independently, so we don’t have people influencing each other’s ideas or stealing each other’s creative thoughts. We just go diverge there.
And then we do a series of dot-voting where people can go through, they’re walking through, and say, “I like this concept. I like that concept.” And dot-voting is where you put a dot on the idea that you think is most valuable, most interesting. And we found that to be…those two practices to be very effective because, one, everyone can sketch. Sometimes there’s this misconception of, like, only designers can come up with ideas. We like everyone being involved in the ideation side. So, developers, designers, product people all doing some high-level sketching.
And then we also really encourage this practice of dot-voting because what often happens is sometimes, like we said, the most expensive paid person in the room, which is called the HiPPO vote, the highest paid person, or you have an executive will come in, like, “Ooh, this is the right thing,” and then everyone says that. Dot-voting is a nice way for everyone to independently say, “This one really caught my eye. This could be really valuable.”
So, there are techniques that we use in our facilitation to try to get everyone to be part of the generative process, but also find a way to eliminate bias from some of the discussion is kicking around ideas, so that the best idea is not the most executive voice wins out.
Okay. So, dot-voting is one mechanism by which you’re doing some narrowing and selecting. Do you have any other favorite approaches or criteria?
One of the things I’ve done, actually, this goes back on the generative side, is getting people to think about like a new way of working. And sometimes, as we say, like, unlearning is very difficult. You have to think about a new way of approaching something. And so, have you ever heard of escape thinking?
Do tell us.
So, imagine you have a process, and it’s a process that you assume everyone follows, so everyone does it the same way, and we just assume this is the way it’s done. So, if I were to ask you, like, “How do you go about a typical restaurant experience?” Most people would say, “Well, you get met by the greeter, and then you’re brought to a table, and the waiter brings you a menu, and you order. The waiter brings you your food, you eat. The waiter brings you your receipt, you pay, and you leave.”
And escape thinking is you map out a process that everyone understands, everyone assumes to be true, “This is what it looks like to go to a restaurant,” and you say, “Okay. Table one, we’re going to take this one core component that everyone assumes has to be true. Remove it, and you have to have the exact same outcome.”
So, table one, you have no menu, how do you handle that? Table two, you have the exact same process but you have no waiter. How would that happen? And then you start getting some really creative new ways of thinking, like, “How would I go about doing that if I didn’t have a waiter? Well, I probably would have to have some kind of kiosk at the table or some kind of mobile menu option. Or, if I didn’t have any, if I just walked out of the restaurant, I never paid anything, like with an Uber, you just walk out the cab, how do I still pay for things? How do I organize this?”
Escape thinking for us is an interesting way to facilitate a new kind of ideation to get people to think about new ways of engaging in a process, especially if they’ve been doing it for a long time, and they’ve been following a process that’s, “This is always how it’s been done.” We find that things like that will allow people to try new ways of working and thinking about things in a slightly different way. So, it’s a way of thinking about a process to encourage creativity and allow them to go wide and think of new ways of doing things. And so, it’s a kind of facilitation pattern we can use.
Okay. And any other perspectives on the convergent, the narrowing down and selecting?
One of the things, and this is where we get into listening. I find this really interesting. I was trying to experiment with this, especially as we had more remote team members. Obviously, there are tools like Miro. Like, Miro, you can use for facilitation and for things like dot-voting. But I was trying to think about a new way of hearing from people when you don’t have everyone all co-located, and to make sure that there wasn’t more, I guess, influence and bias.
And so, there’s a new facilitation technique I learned about during the pandemic, which I’ve really fallen in love with. It’s a tool called ThoughtExchange. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. But it’s an interesting way of being able to get to specificity around the concept when you’re trying to hear from lots of different people.
So, an example, when I would run our all-company meetings, I might ask a question, like an AMA, “Ask me anything. What do you want to know about next week?” And then I would assume, when we’re all together, I’d just bump into people in the kitchen, or I could ask them in the hallway, “What do you want to talk about?” Well, I no longer have that as an option during 2020. I did what I thought was next best, which was to do a survey, and say, “What do you all want to talk about next week?”
And then I would assume that the most-frequently mentioned things were the highest priority ones. And so, I would say, “Okay, five people, ten people all mentioned office space. Let’s talk about office space.” A different way of doing prioritization is doing a thing called a ThoughtExchange, which was something I’ve never heard of before.
But the basic concept is that you ask an opening question like this again, “What should we talk about next week?” And then everyone anonymously answers that question. Afterward though, they also then get to see everyone else’s anonymous responses and can up-vote or down-vote, and be like, “Ooh, I didn’t think of that but that’s a five-star idea. This other one, meh, one-star idea. Much rather agree with that.” And you get to all interact in each other’s suggestions.
The reason why that’s really important when you come into prioritization is that if you’re doing a survey, like I would’ve done in my old world, again, I would assume that the most frequently mentioned things, the highest responded are the most important because they kept getting mentioned over and over again.
And so, when we did this, for example, all kinds of responses of like, “Do we need an office space?” “Are we going to renew our lease?” “Are we going to get a new office space?” All these questions about space, and only two people, probably very brave people, were saying things like, “God, I’m going through a lot right now. I wish we could talk more about mental health and anxiety. Like, that’s where I just am feeling really burned out. I wish we could talk more about that.”
But when I saw frequency of mentions, I was like, “Oh, only two people said this. Ten, fifteen people said space, ‘We should talk about space.’” When we did a ThoughtExchange or whatever happened, was that people saw each other’s responses, and everyone anonymously say, “Ooh, you know what, I didn’t think of that, or maybe I wasn’t willing to put myself out there and say that. But now that I see that, I’d much rather talk about burnout and mental health than I would about physical space. That could be in email. Let’s use our precious to give our time to talk about this thing instead.”
And so, we changed the access to say, “Don’t show me frequently mentioned. Show me highest voted,” and that totally changed the prioritization matrix. And now we look at that mental health went from only being mentioned by two people and being like second to the bottom to being second from the top, like one of the most highest voted concepts. Even though it wasn’t frequently mentioned, when people saw it, they’re like, “That’s the thing we should spend our time on.” And it became a much higher priority for our company for discussion.
And so, this idea of a ThoughtExchange where people can interact with each other’s ideas and up-vote them and engage with them allowed us, in six minutes, to get over a hundred interactions on each other’s ideas and stickies, and allow other ideas to bubble up at the top, which would not have happened had we just done with a survey-type approach.
And when you’re engaged in conversation, maybe you’re doing some one-on-one user research and interviews, etc., are there some key questions you found that just tend to yield cool insights over and over?
It depends on the nature of the problem we’re trying to solve. I always like, for open-ended things, I like ideas, if we’re talking about the company experience, ideas of what keeps you up at night. Or, if you’re working with someone, what advice would you have to work with me? If someone was working with me for the very first time, what advice would you give a new person for working with me? Like, there’s interesting ideas can always come up from those kinds of questions.
And if it’s very product-focused, then I think it depends on the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve. But I think one of the best questions I like thinking of is, “What is the worst way you could solve this problem?” because that always gets interesting fun answers. And you try to get to the worst possible scenario, and that generates a whole bunch of new creativity. You can say, “All right. If we didn’t do that, what would be a way we could fix that? Or, what will the one small way to tweak that?”
But, generally speaking, if you ask that question, “What’s the worst possible way we could solve this problem?” ultimately, what people do when they answer that is they will bring up some of their latent fears or maybe like things they’re nervous about. Everyone has some concern about maybe a direction a product might go, or a direction an organization might go. And when you ask that silly question, it’ll give them freedom to be like, “Oh, man, I could see it going really horribly down this path if we’re not careful.” It allows them to maybe say the thing they would otherwise be unwilling to say or nervous about saying.
So, I like exploring both, like, the positive direction as well as the kind of the anti-pattern, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” because even though, hopefully, you’d never pick that path, it gives people the flexibility and the freedom to talk about what would otherwise maybe be unspoken concerns.
Okay. Cool. And I like that question with regard to what would be the worst way. Could you share with us what are some worst ways to approach innovation, problem-solving, listening, or common mistakes people end up making when they are taking things the double-diamond way?
Well, the worst thing we’ve seen is that people jump right into the brainstorming, “Let’s get some ideas on the table of the thing we’re going to build,” and we really have to bring them back, to be like, “Let’s talk about the problem we want to solve first.” Like, that’s the first critical mistake, is that people jump in on the wrong foot, on the wrong diamond.
Or, when they actually get to identify what the problem is, that they don’t actually involve the users who will be impacted by the product to be influential in the ideation process. And so, again, you have a top-down product design or executive-driven ideation session. Those are frustrating. When we’ve asked questions, like, “What’s the worst way that this will be solved?” or, “What’s the worst way that this might be rolled out?”
It’s really funny when people would be like, “Oh, we’ll build out a product and we won’t do any training whatsoever.” And then you start thinking about, “Well, how will we solve that?” And you start thinking about, “Well, how do we design something that’s so intuitive, it doesn’t require a lot of training? Maybe we don’t need a product that comes with weeks and weeks of training for people to understand how to use it. What would be the best way to solve that? Maybe it isn’t having more training time. It’s more intuition, like a better intuitive unique way of experience, so we should talk and validate and do more testing on the experience we’re designing.”
So, anyway, as you’re going through and thinking about ideas, you can keep asking that question over and over again about ways you could optimize something. I just like when you are able to take a little bit of levity and humor to it, because humor can often bring out other things people might not be willing to say.
And when you’re listening to folks, and they are saying stuff, are there any key signals or things you look out for that often surfaces gold?
I look for, I think, making…so, if we’re doing a good workshop, I like looking for everyone participating, making sure you get input from everyone. We mentioned that, we kind of glossed over it, but when you’re doing this kind of discovery, it’s valuable to have insight from the users, from designers, from developers.
Like, from example, even though an engineer is not a designer, they might say like, “There’s this API we can use. There’s a dataset that we could leverage that’ll make this faster, or maybe a cheaper way of building this. And it’s valuable to get technical info even at that early design stage.” And so, I think one of the things we’re looking for is making sure that no one is too quiet, that everyone has an opportunity to participate.
Even when we’re doing those sketching sessions, because we’re sketching, it’s such a low-fidelity way, I think a lot of people, when they hear that, they’ll bow out, they’re like, “Ah, this is the designer’s job. I’ll step out of the room now.” We really try to encourage that level of participation from everyone to make sure that we get those well-rounded ideas and input.
So, one of the things we’re looking for is just participation, and that people are willing to jump in and be part of that ideation side. I feel like that’s really helpful when we’re doing discovery work to get input from not just a single source.
Okay. Well, tell me, Mark, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think, at the risk of beating a dead horse, I think how you facilitate a room and getting them to really explore the problem set before they get too attached to a solution is the difficult thing to do. And thinking about the group dynamics within the room, also very challenging. I mentioned earlier, when we’re on that hike together through Germany, we had an idea that ended up becoming a kickstarter.
It was thinking about a game we could play within workshops to be able to encourage the right level of discussion. And from that game became a kickstarter which actually became a product that people started playing around, “How do you facilitate really inclusive meetings so that the best ideas are heard?”
And you know like when you’re playing soccer and you hold up a yellow card when someone does the wrong thing? We started looking out for patterns of, like, “This person is interrupting this person, or speaking over someone,” so there are like interaction patterns we wanted to call out as negative interactions in the session.
There were different kinds of penalties we’d hold up a card for. If someone was beating a dead horse, or saying the same thing for the 15th time, or getting so technical they were losing their audience. And then we started thinking about new facilitation techniques, like escape thinking, that could encourage people to try a new way of engaging.
Anyway, we made these series of cards around facilitation patterns and anti-patterns people could follow in discovery and, on a whim, put it out for a kickstarter, and it got backed, which cracked me up. So, in addition to building digital applications, we also built a very analog card game. But it’s been fun to think about when you’re working with a group of humans in a room, how do you get the best out of them? And what are the kind of common patterns to look for or things to think about when facilitating a group?
And I think it’s harder when you’re distributed because you can’t read body language, but all the more important that you’re thinking about, “Who’s interrupting each other? Who’s really being open to ideas? Who hasn’t spoken in a while?” just to make sure that everyone really is participating in a healthy way.
Okay. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Yeah, “Not all who wander are lost,” is a favorite quote of mine from JRR Tolkien. I think a lot about the value I’ve gotten from being able to step away from my desk. Doing that long hike, like I said, at least once a year, I try to give myself like gifts of time, of dedicated time away, but even if you can’t do a five-day hike through Scotland, just an opportunity to step away from your desk, go for a walk.
So much of what we do is sitting down at a desk and typing, and I find that not only is it beneficial for your physical health, but the mental health of getting a break. Doing more walking one-on-ones, doing more walking breaks is particularly something we have to think about in Chicago where it’s freezing and cold outside right now but I think always worth it, so I’ve always loved that quote. “Not all who wander are lost.” That wandering time, let your minds and your leg wander. Both valuable.
And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I think some of the best research we’ve done recently, this goes back in the last couple of years, we’ve been thinking about for even our own company, we often ask our customers about how we’re doing, and we found that sometimes customers are more willing to talk to a third party than they are to you directly.
And so, we did a thing called brand insights. We brought in a third-party firm to talk to us about our own experience. They also talked to some of our longest customers, and then talked to people that we did not work with but maybe talked with us early on and chose to go in a different direction, to get a kind of unique perspective on what the customer and employee experience of TXI really is.
And I feel like that third-party insight is really, really valuable, something that sometimes we don’t always think about doing as having someone else help you see yourself. And so, I highly recommend that kind of opportunity to talk to your own customers, but also talk to people who did not work with you, and get insight around your business and your own experience of how that can be shaped. So, that kind of what we call brand insights has been really, really valuable for us. We do it every couple of years.
All right. And a favorite book?
There are two. One is really boring. One is really fun. Which one do you want?
Let’s hear both.
Okay, the boring one. Well, I should say impactful but dry. It’s a book called Traction. It talks about EOS, or the entrepreneurial operating system, if you’re familiar with that. It’s, basically, if there are books out there that tell you how to run agile projects, how to help you run a project or a program at work, EOS is about, “How do you help run a good company?”
And it has a lot of borrowings from things like Good to Great. Just taking a lot of good principles around running a healthy business that has, well, traction, and that’s why the traction the book is called. So, Traction is all about, “How do you set up a leadership team to have good accountability, good traction in your business, and run a more resilient organization?” It’s dry but I found it to be very, very helpful.
The other book that I really like is a book called Rituals for Work, and it is this pattern of maybe like 50 different rituals you can use within teams, within the entire company, or for individuals. And they talk a lot about how to get the best out of your teams in, like, moments of conflict, which has been a topic on this podcast in the past, moments of ideation and creativity, recognition and reward.
They have all these really interesting rituals you can adopt within your company, within teams, or just for individuals. So, different kinds of rituals and different kinds of levels, and they also just rewrote a new version of the book for what rituals you can adopt within hybrid or remote teams. So, a fun read and a very different kind of book. One is very workshop and practically focused.
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Well, we talked a little bit about it. I like to cite this tool called ThoughtExchange that allows me to see different kinds of data that I won’t otherwise see in a survey. If I’m trying to get input from a large number of folks and have them interact with each other’s ideas, it’s one of the most innovative things I’ve seen that I’ve been able to use. In addition to the tools we use, like Miro, to get good facilitation exercises, ThoughtExchange provides unique set of insights I wouldn’t have otherwise. So, I’m a big fan.
And a favorite habit?
Walking. I try to do it all the time. I try to spend at least an hour a day where I’m away from my desk. There was a great quote, someone was doing interview with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and they were asking them about, these two captains of industry, “How do you spend your time? What does your week look like?”
And Bill Gates held up his weekly planner, it’s full of all these things he was doing, his fingers on all these different parts of the business. And then Warren Buffett had like half hour on Tuesday and a half hour on Friday, and the rest was just time for him to consider to read and to think. And his famous quote from that little interview was, “Busy is the new stupid.”
You can spend so much time doing so many things, you’re not giving yourself the time to really think, and giving yourself that space. It’s very hard when you’re jumping between meetings and invoices and emails to be really productive and have meaningful thought about the direction of your product or the direction of your company.
So, the habit I’m trying to instill, especially in the new year, despite the cold, despite the dark, is to get time out of doors and to do those walks where I can really think about where I want to be going, what I want to be doing, and using my time as productively as I can. So, I take it to extremes by doing these long hikes together with other execs. I really find that to be valuable.
But even in a one-hour a day thing, I feel like that habit, and reminding yourself of that, “Busy is the new stupid” mantra, it’s really productive to give yourself that space to think.
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that seems to really connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
I think that one, I think “Busy is the new stupid.” It gets quoted back to me quite a lot. I talk about it quite a bit. I even tried to put a block on my time on my calendar that says, “Busy is the new stupid” so people know not to block that time when I’m just thinking and giving myself that carte blanche time as a valuable use of time on my calendar, that I should not be interrupted. So, that one gets quoted back to me quite a lot.
And if folks are looking to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?
Certainly, the TXI site, TXIDigital.com. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn and talk about the work that we do, also about this upcoming trip we’re going to be planning to Portugal. That experience is called Walkshop. you can find that on walkshop.io. But, also, I’d say I’m mostly active on LinkedIn these days.
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
I think too often people are in a rhythm, I’m certainly guilty of this myself, where you have all the stuff to do. And I think when you fall into that rhythm, you fall into a cadence, not unlike when we’re talking about on the product innovation side. There’s a way that you’re operating and to step back and to unlearn old ways of doing things, to give yourself the flexibility and time to consider a new way of working.
It’s hard and super, super valuable. My career has changed dramatically since I took that first long hike with other execs to get ideas from. And I think that’s why I’ve intentionally been carving out that space every year to be doing that kind of experience. So, I think people who are looking to really be awesome in their job and thinking about what they’re doing, give yourself that gift of time to step away from your day to day and think about what part of your job you really enjoy, what part of the job you would want to change.
And I think there’s a great book called Prototyping Your Life. It talks a lot about how you can take the similar design-thinking concept, this double-diamond process, to your day to day, and think about, “What problems I really enjoy solving? How do I want to solve them? How do I want to be working?”
And I would say you can’t figure that out in between meetings. You can’t figure that out when you’re running around doing all bunch of emails. You really need to take that dedicated time to consider where you want to go. So, get out, go for a walk, and think about what you want to be doing. Give yourself that time and precious time to consider where you want to be this year.
All right. Mark, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and innovation.
Thank you very much, sir. Appreciate it.