Business is not always innovation

Nathalie Brahler design strategy interview

A talk with Nathalie Brähler, an innovation business strategist at 3sixtyfive, an artificial intelligence (AI) and influencer marketing agency.

Welcome to the [Design Strategy Talks] series. Here you’ll find different perspectives and insights from my colleagues around the world. The goal? To learn and improve your design process!

Nathalie Brähler is an innovation strategist that experiments with AI. This is a fascinating field we haven’t really touched yet, so expect something a bit different, but no less interesting and insightful.

Without further ado – here’s the wisdom of Nathalie Brähler.

Who is Nathalie Brähler?

As Nathalie is working with AI, she lets a GPT2 transformer (a text generator) introduce her.

Nathalie Brähler is an anthrop that is trained to play. She is an artist, who has worked for a long time and has been working with AI to experiment. Being an anthrop, she has to practice to make sure that she can play.

It’s not a bad summary actually. The Greek root-word anthrop means “human” and she is looking for the human angle in the business and tech equation.

She likes to play with new technology and to think of possible new business models, especially in the creative field. She ran an agency specialized in designing reality gaming for brands for ten years, so the ‘play’ is quite accurate. Furthermore, she has creative roots, having worked as a copywriter and conceptual creative in global advertising.

She’s not sure if she would call herself an artist but if an AI does so, she takes it as a compliment and doesn’t object.

Nathalie says her passion for design comes from purpose and play.

On design and innovation strategy

A strategy has to be workable if it wants to be successful

A successful innovation strategy is a strategy that is born out of a shared belief and one that’s workable. If that is the case, it will most likely not end up on a shelf collecting dust.

Nathalie

I’ve seen so, so many Design Thinking sessions being held with the promise of a workable strategy outcome in the end but eventually it was just a range of lively and nice sessions with the only outcome: a pile of post-its fading ink in someone’s drawer.

If a strategy is not workable, if you cannot explain it to the workfloor in three actionable sentences, it’ll probably not have a successful ending.

Nathalie thinks that you should be open to pivot your innovation design strategy, based on valuable feedback from the audience, market, and employees.

Nathalie

Take some time to digest the feedback, don’t pivot lightly. If the pivot is changing the essence, the DNA of your ‘baby’, reconsider.

A community-powered strategy approach to blockchain and AI

In Nathalie’s startup they’ve been combining AI and Blockchain technology for the last two years. That might sound super complicated to combine in an innovation design. However, if what we call ‘Fair Data’ is something you want to be at the core of your innovation, Blockchain is a logical choice.

For Blockchain Nathalie applies a simple rule: blockchain doesn’t add value, people do.

That almost immediately leads to a community-powered or audience-powered approach.

This audience-powered approach is part of their AI strategy as well: Nathalie sincerely believes people should get a Return on their Data and there should be consent about sharing data.

Nathalie

The audience who made the AI smarter, should be rewarded. That principle is at the core of our AI backbone.

Reward doesn’t necessarily mean hard cash, it can also mean attention, personal interaction or even love – to affect and be affected. There are some interesting ideas in this light from a philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi.

On innovation design strategists

The many faces of an innovation design strategist

An innovation design strategist’s role is not yet universally defined and changes with the size of the company. Nathalie talked us through different aspects of it.

In ‘job application’ sense:

Nathalie

The innovation design strategist sets the strategic direction and vision of innovation.

Nathalie

We e.g. fractionalise our Virtual Audience Influencer which means the dedicated followers hold a token, as a share, in the influencer. They also have voting rights. Which then means they’re incentivised to do the right thing or else the influencer marketing will go south.

In ‘jargon’:

Nathalie

We guide disruptor squads working on innovation projects and leverage champion networks. We break silos, leverage and navigate expertise across the innovation architecture.

Since innovation strategists need to track innovation outcomes and value delivered, business sense and some kind of data literacy is wanted.

In bigger organisations, there’s less ideation and more maintaining ongoing programs, dialogue and idea flow.

In smaller, startup, organizations there’s more ideation and iteration. Things move faster but can also pivot faster there. Go-to-market propositions are essential.

‘Skills’ at bigger organizations:

Nathalie

An innovation design strategist provides design thinking, data literacy, business sense, agile delivery, experience in leading a transformation.

‘Skills’ at smaller organizations/startups:

Nathalie

An innovation design strategist is there for a deep sense of what’s going on out there in terms of innovations, promising (tech) startups, knowing how to build an ecosystem and how to think in Tribal AI and/or API’s.

In ‘creative human’ sense:

Nathalie

Innovation strategists should dare to not make sense in order to find the real why (the why behind the why) to unravel unconscious motivations. Be irrational and rational. Make people feel more than make people think.

Be an alchemist: someone who transforms things for the better.

You should be ethical at your core

Nathalie

As an innovation design strategist, you should be ethical at core. Not because it’s the new black but because it’s your DNA – it will hunt you in the next phases if you design for the quick money.

The Data Ethics Canvas is a good starting point to at least have a conversation about Fair Data with the team. Nathalie uses it as a tough checklist.

Nathalie

It’s my conscious-canvas if you will, haha.

The benefits are:

  • a better product,
  • better PR,
  • the better and more creative story,
  • better and more creative content,
  • tighter community,
  • deeper exchange of engagement and
  • filtering out the investors that want to make quick bucks.

On innovation and business

Let pilot projects guide you

As an innovation design strategist in a risk averse company you can use the magic ‘pilot’ word. E.g. “Let’s pilot this thing in an XXS version, alright?”

Nathalie

I will make sure there’s one person per most important department involved, either as a creator or a reviewer and we give it X months to reach results.

If the results are promising, the team creates PR around our innovation. If results are mediocre, they either optimise or learn from the experience. E.g. during a “F**k Up event” to celebrate failure, though these types of nights are not always wanted in a risk averse environment, which is a shame.

Pilot projects can help you with what’s most important – letting go of your position and focusing on the innovation that needs to be born.

Play it first and see what it is later

Quite essential, though there’s no causality: business is not always innovation and innovation not always business.

Miles Davis apparently said: “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”

Nathalie

I think sometimes, especially in startups, it works like that: there’s a great, inner idea that needs to get out. After first validations you will know what it is; if it can be a business. Sometimes it cannot be a business but it can be a great non-profit or movement.

On innovation design teams

A team needs a shared belief and shared energy

In a team there needs to be a shared belief + a shared energy (it’s the sum that counts) and a true mix of people from different disciplines.

Nathalie

I believe in global teams and I am fiercely against any form of ageism, be it ‘too young’ or ‘too old’. There needs to be a right balance of experience and fresh thoughts. And no, fresh thoughts don’t always come from young people. I don’t believe in hiring young people just because of their age or their lower pay rate, I look very critically at their belief, energy and what they’ve accomplished accordingly over the years other than ‘I finished my studies’.

She’s also very much against offering internships as a job role to juniors ‘to gain experience’: if you want to hire someone, pay someone.

The way she connects her team to the rest of the organization depends on the size of the organisation and its culture.

To align the team in a startup is fairly easy, as long as you keep the meetings short and sweet. In bigger, more conservative or ‘excel minded’ organisations it’s good to show where the innovation team ticks boxes for a department. It’ll be an easier segway to start a collaboration.

Distributed, even decentralized teams can work

Nathalie is waiting on the first Design DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization). A C-less company that’s run by employees in a distributed manner, online.

She has run some workshops over the years where they’ve piloted a creative agency as a DAO: what kind of rules would you apply, who would have more tokens (or not) and more voting power (or not) etc.

Nathalie

I used to work for 60 Layers of Cake Worldwide (having an advisory role now) which was at the time one of the first distributed agencies (back in 2007 it was called a network agency). I’ve seen how distributed teams can work very well, I also learned that you need to have some casual time too, to avoid turning every contact into a goal oriented meeting.

On advice and mistakes

Nathalie’s one piece of advice

 

Do the reality check.

Always do the reality check.

Which doesn’t mean that you should skip the creative and irrational part.

 

Bad advice Nathalie hears a lot

“The best innovations come from Silicon Valley, follow those pitch templates and that kind of reasoning.”

Shocked reaction

M-Pesa, the Kenyan money app, spreads not only through Africa but also to eastern Europe, Afghanistan, India and beyond. Almost half of the leading AI companies in the world are Chinese. Europe is attracting more capital for startups at seed stage than any other region in the world and In the last five years, the value of European tech companies has quadrupled.

It’s dangerous to only look at the USA for good examples because you miss out on what’s happening at speed in other continents.

It’s a mistake to blindly follow the ‘laws of Silicon Valley’ without being critical of their actions on humanity and inclusivity. We now see ex CTO’s of big tech companies turning against the so called monster they created themselves. When Silicon Valley turns against Silicon Valley, something serious is going on.

That said, let’s not rule out the amazing innovations that were born there.

A mistake you should avoid

Nathalie

Don’t allow people in the team or higher up to try making innovation a quick fix for business loss during an economic crisis. When people are fighting for their salaries, it’s very hard to resist the pressure.

I learned you can approach that route as a side pilot project and usually it blows over. As it turns out: panic is never a good advisor.

Nathalie’s favourite sources of knowledge

The otherinter.net articles never cease to impress her.

The relatively new DEUS humanity-centered AI podcasts are usually quite good.

Non-fic:

the works of Jaron Lanier, Zygmunt Bauman, Kevin Kelly, Douglas Rushkoff, Jane Mcgonigal to name just a few and she doesn’t do justice to all the great writers that she’s not listing here.

As for fiction:

Nathalie’s an omnivore. As long as it’s well written she can digest any book.

She hardly plays games anymore but she does watch a lot of films in cinemas and online. There’s a Dutch docu TV series: if you want to keep up with what’s next, watch Tegenlicht. If you want to understand complicated technology or concepts, watch the Dutch children’s series Klokhuis. Playful, fun, theatrical education.

Tools Nathalie recommends

The Data Ethics Canvas as mentioned before.

There are many available, sometimes even free, AI’s to experiment with (if the privacy policy is o.k.).

No coding, dApp building tools to understand the many hoops people need to jump through.

The 3-bullet recap

That was a fascinating talk. Hope you enjoyed reading about some new subjects and how they’re connected to design. Thank you so much for your time and wisdom, Nathalie!

Alright, let’s do our usual 3-bullet recap:

  1. A successful strategy is born out of a shared belief and one that’s workable. You have to be able to explain it.
  2. Use pilot projects as a guide and especially to innovate in risk averse companies.
  3. Be ethical at your core and use The Data Ethics Canvas as a starting point.

 

If you haven’t had your fill of design knowledge quite yet and want more, more, more, sign up for my design strategy crash course. It’s been made with curious folks like you in mind. 😉

Reach out to Nathalie

🌐  Linkedin        🌐  Website        🌐  Advisor’s page

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