Those of us who have read Marty Neumeier's The Brand Gap (2003) and/or Zag (2006) realize that he has a tough act to follow: himself. In these previously published "whiteboard overview" books, he shared his thoughts about the gap "between logic and magic," and then zoomed in to help readers "build a sustainable competitive advantage." He explained how and why, when focus is paired with differentiation, supported by a trend, and surrounded by compelling communications, "you have the basic ingredients of a zag"--in other words, a point of radical differentiation. In his most recent book, Neumeier briefly reviews these and other key ideas before shifting his attention to the challenge of organizing a company for agility by developing a "designful mind": that is, a perspective that enables decision-makers to invent the widest range of solutions for the "wicked problems" now facing their company, their industry, and their world.
Neumeier is president of Neutron, a San Francisco-based firm, that designs and facilitates culture-change programs that spur innovation. In co-sponsorship with Stanford University, his firm conducted a survey to identify "wicked problems"--problems so persistent, pervasive, or slippery that they seem insoluble. Ten are listed on Page 2 and range from "balancing long-term goals with short-term demands" to "aligning strategy with customer experience." In this book, Neumeier explains how to establish and then sustain a culture of nonstop innovation, one that is guided and informed by a discipline of design so that it generates nonstop solutions to whatever wicked problems it may encounter. (Note: The solution process must be nonstop in response to constant changes of the nature and/or extent of each problem to be solved.)
According to Neumeier, a designful company inserts "making" between "knowing" and "doing." Its designers don't actually solve problems. They "work through" them. They use non-logical processes that are difficult to express in words but easier to express in action. They use models, mockups, sketches, and stories as their vocabulary. They operate in the space between "knowing" and "doing," prototyping new solutions that arise from their four strengths of empathy [i.e. understanding the motivations of stakeholders to forge stronger bonds], intuition [a shortcut to understanding situations], imagination [new ideas are generated by divergent thinking, not convergent thinking], and idealism [an obsession with getting it right, obtaining what is missing, making whatever changes may be necessary, etc.]. One of Neumeier's most important points is that any organization (regardless of its size or nature) needs designers at all levels and in all areas of its operations. "To build an innovative culture, a company must keep itself in a perpetual state of reinvention. Radical ideas must be the norm, not the exception...Companies don't fail because they choose the wrong course--they fail because they can't imagine a better one."
As is also true of two predecessors, The Brand Gap and Zag, The Designful Company is a "whiteboard overview" rather than a traditional book in terms of both its design and content. Although Neumeier's unorthodox approach will no doubt irritate some people, I think his approach is both appropriate and effective. To those who are thinking about purchasing this book, I presume to offer several suggestions. Keep in mind that the presentation of Neumeier's counterintuitive ideas requires the format and illustrations selected. He offers a briefing on options to consider when designing and then building a culture of nonstop innovation. It remains for readers to work their way through the material in whatever order works best for them. Read all of the customer reviews of it that Amazon features. (FYI, I never read other reviews until after I have submitted my own.) This is not a book for everyone, nor does Neumeier make any such claim.
If you read the book and then decide to act upon several of his suggestions, be prepared to encounter what James O'Toole has aptly characterized as "the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom." Radical ideas and their advocates are perceived to be--and they are--serious threats to those who defend the status quo. Neumeier has much of value to say about the power of effective storytelling when attempting to engage others in change initiatives. He correctly observes that stories aligned with key messages should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional. (Please see Pages 88-95.) I also highly recommend books on business narratives written by Stephen Denning (The Leader's Guide to Storytelling), Doug Lipman (Improving Your Storytelling), and Annette Simmons (The Story Factor).
As these brief remarks indicate, I think this is Marty Neumeier's most important--indeed his most valuable--book thus far because he addresses issues that are relevant to an organization's entire culture whereas, previously, he focused on a specific organizational imperative such as bridging the distance between business strategy and customer experience with five interconnected disciplines or using the first and most strategic of those disciplines to achieve radical differentiation.