Defining Innovation Podcast | #004 Stephen Gay

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A podcast for innovators, creatives and the madly curious—featuring Stephen Gay.

Stephen Gay is a design strategist and innovation catalyst at Intuit where he leads business teams through the early phases of design thinking and identifies new opportunities for mobile and platform products (follow him on Twitter via @stephengay).


Show notes / timestamps :
00:00 Intro / innovation in terms of Stephen’s role
01:32 Intuit
02:22 Internal innovation catalyst programme / Design for Delight
03:46 Identifying champions
04:53 Training / professional development
06:07 Mobile scavenger hunt with executive team
10:29 Investing to grow
12:01 Time devotion
14:14 Systems and models
15:58 Developing toolkits
17:41 Next steps
18:52 Inspiration: persuasion boot camp, The Will Power Instinct, Business Model Generation – Canvas.
20:11 Thanks / outro

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00:02 DK: Welcome to the fourth episode of Defining Innovation pod cast series. This is DK. I’m interviewing this week Stephen Gay. He’s the design strategist and innovation catalyst at Intuit where he uses business teach in the early phases of design thinking and identifies new opportunities for more violent platform products. I start the interview as I always do asking what innovation means to him and defining it in terms of his job.

00:32 Stephen: Sure. I work for a company, Intuit. I’m actually a design strategist and I lead a small team that I’m actually innovating new products for the company. What does innovation mean? I think the real interesting question is why innovation? So why do we innovate at Intuit? It’s probably two main reasons. I think the most important reason is we want to solve real customer problems. And by going broad and coming up with new ideas to solve these problems, we can take these things that are ambiguous or all tangled up and make them tangible and much more desirable. And the second reason, which is probably the biggest business reason, is it’s a competitive advantage. It’s been proven time in and time out that driving and championing innovation programs in our organization leads to competitive advantages, our stock prices go up, we build better products and our customers are happy. And when you bundle those two together you do some amazing things. And that’s why I’m in it. That’s why I love it.

01:32 DK: That’s brilliant. So tell us a little bit for any one who’s been living under a rock for the last ten years what Intuit is.

01:39 Stephen: Sure so Intuit is a US based company but we’re actually global as well. And we focus on personal finance for consumers and individuals and small businesses. So our two real core products pivot around personal tax and business tax and also small business solutions like payments, accounting, pay roll, and a whole bunch of other products.

02:05 DK: And you’re not a small outfit are you? Just give us a sense of scale there with Intuit.

02:09 Stephen: Yeah we’re about 6,000 or 7,000 employees right now.

02:14 DK: Wow.

02:15 Stephen: We have offices all over the world right now but growing.

02:22 DK: Fantastic. And I came across you through your site and through the work you’re doing there and I Google people doing innovation. And we had a quick chat. So tell us a little bit about how you drive innovation internally around the specific areas about creating champions internally.

02:42 Stephen: Yeah so we have a great program here. It’s called Design for Delight and we basically have a program in place where we train up individuals across the company, they don’t have to be designers. They can be product managers or architects or engineers and we train them up to be called innovation catalysts. And basically these people are champions and given a tool kit of different techniques and facilitation and running workshops to sort of drive innovation around the company. And we lately have been moving this towards a more coaching and embedded model where we ask these innovation catalysts to partner with teams throughout the design process or the billing of a product to go broad at the beginning, to really think about the customer empathy and what the customer is really feeling and then a huge component is rapid experimentation. And over the last six years on this journey the company has seen some amazing results. In fact our founder Scott Cook believes that D for D, Design for Delight is our number one secret weapon to drive innovation and to grow as a company.

03:46 DK: That’s fantastic you have a CEO who already sees the benefit and champions that. And I’d love you to unpick (phonetic) a little bit about how you identify those champions internally.

03:57 Stephen: Sure. So there’s not a secret formula. It’s really driven on people’s passion for design thinking, driving innovation, and helping other teams to succeed. So at the beginning of D for D was really self selecting. People just volunteered. I think there was five people to begin with and then it grew to 20 and then to 40. And now we have a huge wait list for people who want to be an innovation catalyst because the current person who runs the program only has room for two trainings per year but we really now are encouraging people to go to our website we have internally, That’s internal to the company. And they can learn about the techniques, watch videos on how to do them, partner up with innovation catalysts. We actually have a buddy program right now. So the idea is to get basically innovation in their DNA and that’s really our vision for D for D.

04:53 DK: And you talk about the toolkitsthere, obviously you’re going to be training these innovation catalysts up, but what’s the tool kit? How does that break down? Is that a digital one or is that literally just a suite a resources they can tap into?

05:06 Stephen: It’s both, so we have the training classes where we hand out guidebooks and presentations too really (inaudible). So we very much believe at Intuit to learn through doing, through experiential learning. So the tool kit has that hands on element but we also have a website to go to. And for example some of the elements are things like brain storming, leveraging two by twos to narrow, story boarding and concept sheets, we have even modules that are extreme inspiration. So I worked on a product that was geared towards voice interaction and one of the extreme inspirations we did was we went out and talked to people who lost the ability to hear. So how do they interact with technology when they can’t hear? How do they interact with technology with they’re blind where using voice is even that much more critical. And that gives you feet back and inspiration to how to build your product. So we have a whole gamete of different tools and techniques that we leverage.

06:07 DK: Wow I love that phrase extreme inspiration. That’s just awesome man. And tell us a little bit more about the mobile scavenger hunt project. Now when we chatted earlier I got really excited by this so please share with us how you got everybody involved in this mobile scavenger hunt.

06:28 Stephen: Yeah this was a great project. I think in 2010 the world was really moving fast. It was definitely moving towards mobile and I think it was probably moving a little faster than intuit could keep up. And we saw this opportunity that we potentially were missing and we saw that there were potential threats coming from start-ups who were adopting this mobile platform. So we didn’t want to wait too long and our leader Karen Hanson, she wanted to create a real immerse of experience. So how the cadence works at Intuit is we have Brad Smith who’s our CEO. He has his CO off site and then it moves to a leadership off site and then finally cascades across the company to an all company wide plus site. So Karen used this (inaudible) as a — the platforms are really championed this sort of mobile first mindset. Brad obviously, our CEO and our founder and the whole company was really excited about this. But to really sort of reinforce this mobile first we came up with this idea of a mobile scavenger hunt. So the idea was that instead of just sitting in a meeting room and seeing power points or looking at data, it’s how can you really understand the mobile world? Some of these executives were still on Blackberries. They didn’t have access to the app store. Obviously Blackberries didn’t have things like GPS tied to an app with a camera phone and all these different features and functionality that these new devices offer. So we kept this concept of a mobile scavenger hunt and what that entailed was we gave all the executives iPhone and Android phones and we hosted in San Francisco and for about two hours we sent them on this scavenger hunt to find three clues that would lead to a final destination. So for example the first step would be to use your phone to let’s say go find a bakery. So you’d use Google Maps, you’d go to the bakery, and then in the bakery the executives would have to use a translation app to ask for a fortune cookie in Mandrin. And again this real time translation only could be done with the phone. And once they got the phone they’d crack open a custom fortune cookie, which would have one of the clues. And they did a series of these steps. The next one was they went to Geocache where they would scan a key word code and that would launch to YouTube. And so on and so forth. And through this action and competitive nature people rushed through the course in context understood the power of mobile. When they got to the end they were really energized. They had no idea the phone could do this many things in real life, getting around the city, finding things, interacting with physical objects, locations, it was just amazing and it really highlighted that. And it created the sense of energy and urgency around the products.

09:24 DK: And what were the results around that then?

09:27 Stephen: So I would say for that one particular day we had executives coming up to us and saying, “Wow I had no idea how powerful these phones were. I had no idea it could do this.” And the most skeptical of users before came back to us and said, “Wow I knew the phone could do some of this stuff but you showed me one new app that I was totally blown away by. And one in particular really highlighted was an app called Word Lands (phonetic) where you would hold the phone up to Spanish translation printed and it would real time translate that on the phone screen into English. So it was real time, using augmented reality. Just even one app could get that level of insight and that level of excitement. And I think after that — again the mobile scavenger hunt was a component of that but I think that whole two days really changed how people perceived mobile and over the next two years it went from really negligible revenue in mobile to over 70 million dollars. So we saw a big financial shift in the organization in just two years.

10:29 DK: That’s incredible, the outcomes of that right there. You know got a dollar figure that’s 70 plus million, which is just amazing. So that’s — it’s just so inspiring fellow. I love the words you were using about energizing and emerging to drive people’s thinking about this stuff. I want to for a minute take a perspective, how much did you invest in that program?

10:53 Stephen: Yeah that’s an interesting question. I think from a time perspective, I think that’s a real interesting area. You know to carve out at the executive level two days for executives focused on just that is pretty amazing to itself but as this program cascades, it goes from the CEO level down to the leadership level and that’s 100 people going through this exact same scavenger hunt for two days. Then we go to a company wide level and for that internal company wide conference is everybody really focused on this new initiative. So from just a resource perspective and commitment of the company to really invest in that transformational change, the dollar amount, I don’t know what it would be but it’s really about that level of commitment to innovate. And it’s something you just don’t do in the part time or as an after by product. It’s about really investing in your people, really driving that transformational change and that’s what gets the big results I think.

12:01 DK: It’s fascinating because you have the innovation catalyst program there, then you have projects such as that mobile scavenger hunt. How much of your time is kind of split between those projects that you devise to drive ideas and questions through the company versus the catalyst program?

12:22 Stephen: So right now from a catalyst perspective we’re asked to give ten percent of our time to doing D for D in the every day. And as a designer I’m leveraging that tool kit and that mind set in my projects really every day. But when you’re asked to do that ten percent it’s really volunteering not just for your projects but for other projects. And we bring D for D not just in Intuit. We actually bring it outside of Intuit. So I’ve taken the time to help organizations outside of Intuit champion innovation and understand the tool kit of Design for Delight. And in terms of the transformational change work and I’ve shifted from that team recently but when I was working within that group we would regularly spend cycles to spend time building these really immersive projects. Like the scavenger hunt alone, it sounds really easy but when you’re talking about 100 executives and you’re asking them to go out in the city and do all these different things, you don’t just need one bakery and one Geocache. You need three Geocaches and you need three bakeries and you need three restaurants and you need people at each of those stations sort of standing there to make sure if there’s a problem they’re getting the help. The last thing we wanted was to have an executive lost in San Francisco not being able to move forward. So the amount of detail and effort that’s required to do it right, we prototyped it about three times just to make sure we had all the I’s dot and the T’s crossed to make sure it went off really seamlessly. And the reason why is so they had that moment of insight. They had that real big mindset shift so we could all move forward.

14:14 DK: It’s such a delicious project and thanks for sharing. I want to take a more strategic approach to the questions now and ask you what models or systems or processes you use there when it comes to driving innovation. Do you have steps like that?

14:29 Stephen: So the Design for Delight program has three key principles. And I think a lot of organizations that drive design thinking innovation program probably are very similar but these are the ones we use. It’s really, one develop deep customer empathy. We believe that is one of the three pillars to drive innovation. If you’re not thinking about your customers, walking a mile in their shoes, really building empathy for them you’re not going to be successful. So that’s really pilar number one. The second pillar is really generating broad ideas and then narrowing. We have sessions dedicated to really getting all these great ideas out, on the table so people can have conversations with them and then really narrow based on key criteria. And I think that’s one of the pillars that we know you don’t just jump to one solution immediately. There’s probably a whole bunch of great ideas you need to get on the table to really discuss. The third principle is really conducting rapid experimentation with customers to learn. We’ve been in the last few years really focused on experimentation, building key hypothesis to experiment around to get the warnings as fast as we can to then move forward. And we figure these three pillars are really the key to driving innovation and building delight. That’s at the high level. And then when you get to these lower levels then you can use the whole series of different toolkitsto make these three pillars happen.

15:58 DK: And are the toolkitssomething you’ve put together, commissioned, brought people within the company together and say how do you design? Let’s take a little bit of that compared to how these guys design?

16:10 Stephen: Yeah I think — Intuit’s main office is in Montague, California, which is Silicon Valley. So I think as we hired people we brought in some amazing people in house to learn from what they’ve been doing. I know originally Karen Hanson and her team had gone out to look at how other companies were innovating. So we did our homework to figure out what would work best for Intuit and we really figured out a bunch of toolkitsthat would work well for us. So we kind of took existing patterns in the real world, invented our own, and created it in the Intuit way. And I think that’s kind of really important for businesses to drive innovation is to really figure out how these design thinking innovation toolkitsfit within your own culture. You know extreme inspiration may not be great for all companies but for us it really resonates. And that’s tied to empathy. And then we have these ideas of dune journey lines (phonetic) with customers where you sit down with them and map out their journey. We just did a session recently with ten amazing customers who were focused on a real pain point around managing money. And we sat and mapped out their journey and got into the details. A real classic one that we pulled from externally is the empathy map and that’s a great one to really walk how the customer’s thinking, saying, doing, and feeling. And that we use to capture that. So these are all really powerful tools to get to real big insights, which lead to innovation.

17:41 DK: I appreciate you brining up all that. Those are some absolutely, incredible models there that people can go, and we’ll try and link that up in the show notes. So what’s next for you in terms of your focus around the core products and the innovation cycle?

17:56 Stephen: Yeah so I spent a lot of time at Intuit my first few years really focusing on kind of thinking about the next generation of product, so sort of driving innovation for the next two, three years. And also focusing on these transformational change initiatives, for example one being mobile. In the last year or so I’ve been really getting into the products, working within the business units to build products that are coming out tomorrow. So this has been great for me because I get to really apply all my learnings and lead a team who are driving a whole bunch of new products for this particular business unit. And a lot of that pivots around coaching and mentoring and helping define great visions and even building design principles on how to move forward in a good way.

18:52 DK: Cool, so to close out this interview, like we do with all our pod castees, tell us who is impressing you out there around innovation whether that be a model or brand or organization? Who do you steal your ideas from?

19:07 Stephen: You know it’s interesting. I’ve been pulling a lot of my inspiration from a non-traditional design area. I think a local person, BJ Fogg he hosts a persuasion boot camp here in California and he talks a lot about behavior design. And his work is phenomenal for anyone who wants to understand why users do particular behavior and how can you influence that behavior change? His boot camp I would highly recommend. And I think Kelly McGonigal and Jane McGonigal are both great sources of inspiration for me as well. There’s a great book, The Will Power Instinct and it really talks about again what is motivating these users to do things or not to do things and it all ties into willpower. That’s a tremendous read. I’d highly recommend that. And I know there’s the business model canvas tool (phonetic) is another great way to tie innovation into the business model. That’s another great book as well, another great resource.

20:11 DK: Those are all great stuff and we’ll definitely link those ideas and those links and those resources up so thank you Stephen for giving up your time to talk to us and share, absolutely fantastic insight, so really appreciate it.

20:24 Stephen: Yeah it was my pleasure.

20:28 DK: So that was Stephen Gay, design strategist and innovation catalyst at Intuit. You can follow him on Twitter @StephenGay, that’s S-T-E-P-H-E-N-G-A-Y, that’s Stephen Gay and you can also follow him on his dot com as well. Please leave a comment or review us on the iTunes page, subscribe to our blog, do all those funky things to make me smile. And if you think that we should be interviewing anybody in the innovation space to define it better, drop us a line at

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