Paying Customers are the only Experts when it comes to Idea Validation

This blog post is based on the session on vision and validation that I gave as a mentor for the Founder Institute Berlin. Watch it HERE.

Whether you are a brand new founder or a corporate startup, I will show you how to include your customers in the making of your product, using systemic tools. This will both help you drive sales from the start and make customer care a whole lot easier.

Slides 1 to 10 are about vision. Slides 11 to 22 contain actionable validation tools.

And I began..

Slide 1

I am here to show you how to do both customer and team development using systemic tools.

What does systemic mean?

Regarding customers, it means that I do not do 1-on-1 interviews for my clients. Instead, I invite diverse sets of customers at a time or an entire customer team if I am in an existing organization.

Regarding teams, it means that I work with the entire team at the same time: designers, growth hackers, founders, developers, even investors.

And I also work with those sets of customers and the team at the same time.

I engage all these populations in structured processes using markers on the floor.

Why do I do that?

For three reasons:

  1. The high complexity of today’s problems.

In systems theory, the darkness principle says that each team member or customer only has one mental model of the customer problem. By inviting all those mental models to the table, you can make data-driven choices and better choices.

2. The number of products that we are building today has grown exponentially, there is no such thing as the Ford T model that everyone wants to have and that you can replicate millions of times. Today you need to involve the customer because each one of them has a specific set of needs.

3. Working systemically while involving the customers is a way to begin thinking about sales from the very start of your business.

Slide 2 — Sonsoles using a systemic tool in real-time in the biotech industry

What does working systemically look like?

In the picture you see me working with a client in real-time. Designers, growth hackers, customers, and founders move across a blue grid that I marked on the floor. Everyone moves across the grid while answering strategic questions around the product. The quality of the questioning determines the quality of the outcome.

I work in this way because when it comes to idea validation, paying customers are the only experts. You want to identify your early adopters as quickly as possible because they are the ones who will be driving your business model. Only then can you build your product.

Slide 3

When I ask entrepreneurs about their value proposition, they say things along the lines of we want to be the best iPhone app for filters on Instagram. Or even, we are just going to build stuff and see what happens, right?

No. That just won’t cut it.

If Instagram disappears, you’ll still want to exist. Technologies, social networks, trends, etc, all come and go, and as a company, you want to stay relevant regardless of what happens around you.

That’s why you need a robust vision for your business for years at a time. It will help you with that relevance.

See here the vision of three different businesses.

Slide 4

Notice how Google doesn’t mention searches, Amazon doesn’t mention books, and Twitter says nothing about apps or tweets.

This is long term thinking. You can’t base your company around current technologies, trends, or other companies.

A vision is big, it is aspirational. It takes the obsession with product building away so that you can focus on what you are doing for your customers, whether that is being the pulse of the planet or organizing the world’s information. That’s what the vision is about. That is what Twitter and Google are truly doing for their customers.

In the same way, a vision will sustain your pivots over time.

Slide 5

Because, here comes a hard truth about startups, challenges will arise, but the key is to see them as opportunities to pivot instead of as an insurmountable brick wall.

Instagram started as a local-based social network competing with Foursquare. Flickr started as an online game. Twitter started as a podcast. Groupon started as an online petitioning website.

A long term vision has allowed them to stay in business for long by pivoting to something else.

I want you to think about the vision as your protection, it gives you air cover in the long term, making you flexible and adaptable.

Slide 6

Which is important even in small teams.

A vision helps you understand what activities are beneficial and which ones are valueless distractions. It tells you when to say no, and when to say hell yes!

Slide 7

If you look at the pyramids, when you have a vision, you can set clear goals.

And for each goal, whether it’s ‘10% in market share’ or ‘100K users’, you can plan a strategy for achieving it.

That strategy lets you choose tactics, that is, different ways you can go about achieving it.

And each tactic lets you pick your activities, the actual work to make it happen.

Slide 8

Let me use myself as an example of a business with a vision.

On the left you see me performing complex music on the stage with an ensemble. I am also the producer of those performances, complex projects involving algorithms to trigger visuals and soundscapes with our instruments.

And on the right, I am helping a customer with a complex business and organizational goal.

What helped me with my pivot was my vision, making sense of things, especially if complex or complicated by thinking differently and challenging the status quo. That’s what I do for my clients, just like Google organizes information.

Slide 9

The hexagon at the bottom of this slide is a graphic score, music notated visually as a grid. It is a serious game, a one-pager that helped us modern musicians organize an efficient collaboration.

Right above it and to the right, what you see is markers on the floor, a systemic tool to help stakeholders with modern collaboration as well.

In other words, a graphic score and the blue grid on the floor are the same thing. They help an ensemble and a team respectively, organize around a goal.

I too pivoted my business. To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, I used my lemonade stand skills to start a hamburger and hotdog stand. And my vision, making sense of complexity in simple ways is what helped me support the pivot.

How did I interview potential customers to validate that they had a problem before actually pivoting?

I became member of two business networks while still in the arts. For 5 years and while still a pianist, I attended dozens of events in corporations in the Netherlands. It gave me the opportunity to see my future clients and their problems.

Slide 10

So, let’s talk about validation.

You don’t want to be a Juicero. That was a solution without a problem, a business fail.

Instead of putting your money into building a product, use your money to do as many experiments as it takes before you put a product out there. If you are going in the wrong direction you want to know it as quickly as possible, so you can pivot. And if you are going in the right direction you want to know it as quickly as possible as well, obviously, because then you can grow quickly.

So yes, validation, whether positive or negative, thank you very much!

When going out the door to execute your experiments and test your MVPs, don’t despair. As a founder and entrepreneur, you are an artist. You are going to create something that doesn’t exist yet. I want you to think of yourself as someone who goes back and forth several times inside the why-how-what (or vision-strategy-product if you prefer) spiral of creation on the left of the slide.

Let’s now look at my tools departing from some of the questions that founders ask me most.

Slide 11

How do I conduct interviews to validate the problem?

What I see in the market is a lot of 1-on-1 interviews.

My approach is different. I interview sets of customers at a time, and the interviews are embedded in my tools.

One such tool is Anthropology On Steroids.

The goal is to learn from the customers, to be taught something by them that we don’t know. The skill lies in the questioning, without leading the customer or offering feedback and using a lot of active listening.

Picture your team and the set of customers. Just as in the picture on slide 11, I designate an area on the floor for each group and another empty one. I then initiate a process in which the different populations get to visit each other’s space, much like we do when traveling as tourists.

An example is Xtreme Technologies.

They build IoT solutions to guarantee that medicines arrive at the right temperature and that patients have taken their medication. They put loggers on shipment containers, medicine bottles, and even single pills.

They have built their products by engaging key customers and suppliers in the development process.

Slide 12

What are other techniques to research customer problems?

Another one of my tools is the Customer Selfie, which I would have used if working with Tinder to test a risky assumption with a single-feature MVP, left-right swiping.

Picture 3 rounds with a paper in the middle of the room containing 3 different questions: how concerned are you about the convolutedness of dating sites? How much would you like someone doing something about it? How happy would you be if someone implemented swiping?

Customers position themselves close to the paper if the question resonates with them or further away if not. From there, my work as a facilitator centers around the question, why are you standing where you are standing and what is that like?

Slide 13 — Sonsoles wearing Google Glass during EU’s Innovation Fair

Here’s another question and another tool.

I often get asked, how do you identify a viable customer problem to build your business upon?

You don’t do this beforehand, you have to test it, which is why you want to use the money that you have for experiments, your pivots, not for building a product.

However, there is a hack that you can use to measure viability upfront. It is called picnic in the graveyard.

If we take Google Glass as an example, Google Glass failed, but we did discover that they were onto something. There is a need, it was just the wrong product.

Therefore you can now focus on building something better. For that, I would use a tool called Deep Robin, which has two steps, a Round Robin and a positioning exercise in space to further qualify the harvested results.

An example would be Vuzix Blade AR

Picture a Round Robin around What should Google have done better? to build an MVP.

I let the customer set write down in a piece of paper the 3 most important features they think the new glasses should have in order of importance. I open by asking one person to tell me the number 1 on their list. I ask the rest if anyone has that on their list as well, regardless of the place. I count the total. That feature gets a score of 6 if 6 people have it on their list. I move on to the next person and do the same thing. By the end of the exercise, everyone’s features will have been harvested and ranked in relation to the group, not their individual ranking.

Working in this way would yield the new features for the Vuzix Blade AR: display and power source need to fit within the frame, lower in price and has Alexa integration.

To further qualify the results, I would then put those features on pieces of paper on the ground and have the group position themselves in space in relation to those features.

Slide 14

Another question I get asked often is, how do you determine that you are uniquely qualified to pursue a customer problem?

You do! You are the entrepreneur! No tool for that!

And if you can’t manage, you surround yourself by a team who can help you.

Because remember the darkness principle?

Slide 15

How do you know if the customer problem is large enough to pursue?

You test it!

And you decide with your team what you consider a success metric.

Picture a line on the floor with percentages on it. I ask team members to stand on the percentage they consider a success. If everyone is on the same spot, that’s a clear go. Otherwise, it is an opportunity for healthy debate until deciding on a metric. Then you are ready to build your MVP. For instance, a website to test the conversion rate

That’s what my business partners and I did with SevenSense.

Slide 16

This Walt Disney quote is the case for a systemic customer and team development approach. The information to build your product is in your team members and in your customers.

What I do is, by the way, comparable to Design Sprints. I also help customers put an MVP out there in just a few days.

Systemic work is qualitative, turbo customer and team development by inviting many mental models into structured processes, so you can make both data-driven decisions and better decisions.

Slide 17

What other experiments can you use to gather information from your customers?

Slide 18

With a Comprehension Test, you are testing the understanding of your value proposition, not whether there is interest in it.

In order to come to the value proposition ‘Save money. Live better’, Walmart tested it by writing down their value proposition in a couple of sentences, showing this to participants for a few seconds, just enough to read it, and then taking it away and asking the participants to explain it in their own words.

Slide 19

Zappos started by purchasing shoes as needed from local shoe retailers and shipping them to the customer, instead of stocking their own inventory. This is called Imposter Judo. It allowed Zappos to test their idea fast and cheap, before investing in their own inventory.

Slide 20

With a Wizard of Oz, you make customers believe that the infrastructure is already in place with someone being the man behind the curtain simulating the functionality of a fully built product.

This is what my business partner Larry Cornett did with Voicekick, a video app that created a slideshow of your photos with music and your voiceover.

The very first prototype was built in Keynote and loaded as an ‘app’ on a phone with Larry uploading the clients’ voiceovers manually.

Slide 21

With Pre-Sales, you gauge interest by testing willingness to pre-order.

Pre-sales allow you to present your product to potential customers and convince them to pay for it before fully building it. You have two options: installing a ‘pre-order’ button on a landing page or directly talking to customers. This second option, even though less scalable, allows for more qualitative insights by seeing customer reactions first hand.

Slide 22

Before you go, here are 5 things I want you to take with you:

  1. Never build a startup that fixes a nice-to-have problem. People will use it but won’t pay for it. Involve instead the customer as quickly as possible and make something that the client really wants and wants to pay for. In that way, you will be doing sales from day one.
  2. Building a product is not about you, you want to make data-driven decisions. You don’t create a product and then find the market for it, but today, you create a product for your customers with your customers.
  3. At the start, use the money you have for your experiments, your pivots, not for building a product
  4. Experiment to test the riskiest assumptions, something that is probably wrong and that is important to the core of your business. To give you an example, Trevor Owens from the Lean Startup Machine wanted to develop electric Vespas only to discover that those who drive a Vespa are not concerned with the environment but with looking sleek. He had to pivot.
  5. Love your early adopters because they will drive your business model. If you can’t find them, nobody wants your product.
Sonsoles using a systemic tool with founders

* * * *

Sonsoles Alonso

Misfit helping CxOs and Founders Build Highly Efficient Happy Teams in 6 Months or Less with the Right Hires. Also virtually.

Intuition, Futurism and Changing the Script

This year I gave two talks during the Women Economic Forum Slovenia 2020 at the Grand Union Hotel in Ljubljana. One on Intuition and Futurism, the other on Teamwork.

This article is based on the first talk on Intuition and Futurism.

I am going to tell you a story.

For 17 years and until 2012, I was a famous pianist of contemporary music giving concerts in the Netherlands and abroad. My colleagues and I used algorithms to alter the sound capabilities of our acoustic instruments and trigger visuals.

During those 17 years, I saw policymakers do two things with great eagerness: every 4 years they’d fiercely shrink the budget for the arts and redefine the types of projects that would be funded. The arts had to be profitable and self-sufficient at all costs, the government was not willing to chip in anymore. My observation — I have always been an observer, was that such tightening and redefining of the artistic policy was way too extreme.

And I observed something else happening at the level of society as well. Society was finally buying into the character assassination of artist musicians initiated by politicians back then.

My intuition was telling me that it was time to pivot to a different industry. My intuition was telling me that the system of the arts was going to collapse. Colleagues and the music industry at large were shocked by the scenario that I was anticipating for the arts and thought that I was out of my mind.

In 2012, I was the first and only musician in the Netherlands to pivot from the contemporary music arts to the domain of team and business transformation. And today, I run an exciting consultancy with clients all over the world. But I did it all alone with no moral support from the environment.

It was 5 years into my consultancy when I received an e-mail that read: Sonsoles, you were right, and you were ahead of the times. Imagine the emotion, tears racing down my cheeks, the transition had been such a lonely path.

This story is important for several reasons.

Being able to anticipate the future can be a very lonely place. You have to follow your hunches, but you might have to do that all by yourself until you find a supportive tribe.

But also, the story shows that to be intuitive, at least three ingredients are necessary:

  • Following trends and societal developments
  • Being able to spend time on your own, away from the noise
  • Taking a step back to connect the dots in new ways while seizing new opportunities.

In my case, I did so by joining two business networks 5 years before my actual pivot. It gave me the opportunity to attend innumerable events hosted in corporations, allowing me to see them from the inside. Standing with one foot in the arts and the other in the business world made it possible for me to start seeing parallels between high performing teams and high performing ensembles.

Ahead of my talk in Ljubljana, I did quite a bit of research and some experiments on Facebook. I can tell that intuition is:

  • Relied upon by uber-successful business leaders

Jeff Bezos is such an example. ‘All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart and intuition’, he says. In other words, his intuition is an asset, not a weakness.

  • Rejected by others for a number of reasons. For some, ratio wins from intuition. Others during my Facebook experiment pointed out that the existence of intuition is denied by those who don’t have it themselves.
  • Misunderstood by many.

You should see some of the answers I got during my Facebook experiment.

On Facebook I had asked two things:

What is intuition? and Why is it not appreciated by some?

I got the vaguest answers, including ‘it can’t be explained’. Now, imagine someone is selling you a car or a vacuum cleaner. You want to be told the exact specs because unless that happens, you won’t buy. And the salesperson says: it can’t be explained!

So, if we are here to change the script and have intuition be valued for the asset it is, the first step is being articulate about what intuition actually is. Otherwise, nobody will buy.

By the way, it made me laugh that when I asked, Why it is not appreciated by some? that nobody said, well, because nobody knows what it is!

So let’s go, here are 5 ways to change the script.

1. Be articulate

What is intuition?

If I go back to my opening story, a very pragmatic definition would be — superior pattern-recognition based on years of experience, observation, and experimentation.

A more elaborate definition would be: an ongoing process unconsciously blending and cultivating 4 elements simultaneously: recent data that you’ve analyzed, past experiences, your future ambitions, and the possibilities.

Intuition is about synthesis, quick synthesis, an essential skill for success in the 21st century with its accelerating change, interconnected global challenges, and information overload.

Intuitive thinking organically adds meaning to our perceptions of data, linking seemingly unrelated things — like ensembles and teams, and engaging our whole brain.

And because it improves with experience, people who are not open to new experiences will not be able to develop their intuition. Intuition is therefore inherently related to fierce curiosity.

Authentic intuition is characterized by intense clarity in mind, a strong feeling sense, and a working together of the left and right brain.

And because feelings play a crucial role in intuitive decision-making, we have to develop our emotional intelligence so that we can recognize and understand our emotions and decide on our next move.

Intuition keeps us safe from harm, whether personal or from the market, like it saved me from a market that was crashing down.

As you see, intuition is not something mystical. It can be explained, and therefore sold, like the car or the vacuum cleaner.

Scientific experiments have confirmed two things:

  • Analytical ability produces better outcomes for simple choices
  • Complex decisions involving multiple simultaneous variables are a different ball game. They are better served by subconscious deliberation while our attention is directed elsewhere

Intuition lives in the place where that deliberation takes place.

In today’s world of business volatility and constant change, intuition is an invaluable asset. And one that is often dismissed in a workplace setting even if the world’s most brilliant leaders are known to have leveraged it to create substantial financial gain for their organizations.

Intuition is broadly misunderstood and often lacks context. But I don’t want to get ahead of my narrative.

2. Tell stories

Like I told mine.

What is your story? When did your intuition serve you in business?

Tell that story!

3. Give examples of influential business leaders

CEO Satya Nadella, who in just three and a half years generated $250bn in market value for Microsoft says about himself: ‘I am pretty intuitive.’

Former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, who tripled Best Buy’s stock value in 2013 with his Renew Blue transformation, touts: ‘to make strategic decisions, the only way to feel what was needed was to be in the store and trust my intuition.’

4. It is time to clarify those misconceptions.

Intuition is not the opposite of rational thought. Intuition is grounded in experience and knowingness, as we saw in the fifth slide. It is mindful of our intellect and thereby analytics.

Instead of a tug of war between data analysis or intuition, we can say that:

  • It is useful to be aware of the different styles of decision making and to take advantage of the one that’ll better serve us depending on the situation we are in. You can take a mental step back and judge if the choice requires the counterintuitive or the counter-analytical.
  • Whole-brain working produces higher quality leadership and faster decision making that will be very useful in our fast-paced market.

In other words, it is ‘and and’, not ‘or or’.

5. It starts with awareness

Whereas analytical ability is great for understanding the past, intuitive ability is great for anticipating and building the future.

And right at this very moment, we are transitioning from a linear world used to looking to the past for solutions to a non-linear world that senses and co-creates the future in interdependence with different stakeholders and world events.

Intuition is non-linear, and therefore a perfect match to our times.

That’s what I meant with context earlier in the article. Today, intuition is an asset that helps successful teams and their leaders navigate uncertainty and complexity in a world that is global, uncertain, volatile, and networked.

Within that context, intuition is a gift, a superpower, not a weakness. In a world that is round and impacted by constant new variables, we can not respond linearly. It doesn’t matter how much data you analyze, you will be taking a risk anyway because variables are changing all the time. If after an exhaustive analysis of a course of action for a new strategy, product, investment, or hiring decision, you still feel that something is off, then something probably is. Trust it.

Intuitive leaders reposition their organizations in anticipation of market change. Just like I repositioned my business in anticipation of the collapse of the arts.

I am writing as we are on lockdown due to the coronavirus. Extreme upheaval like this one is not the moment to develop your intuition. Intuition develops when things move relatively slowly over a long period of time, giving you the chance to be very curious and lean back to observe.

Extreme upheaval is the time to leverage your intuitive superpower if you already have it. This article aims to give you ammunition to defend your case.

Nevertheless, anticipatory leadership can definitely be developed and honed over a long period of time. And I am going to tell you exactly what skills you need to develop.

Based on my work with teams and their leaders, I can tell that intuitive team members and leaders consistently display 4 skills that you too can develop and hone.

As an intuitive pro you are:

  1. A futurist who follows trends and societal developments guided by fierce curiosity
  2. A strategist who like a designer, reframes business challenges by creating new meaning for investors, customers, suppliers, and employees. You actively hone the muscle of seeing opportunities whenever there is a market shift.
  3. An integrator of ideas, beliefs, and emotions who aligns people and resources towards co-creating innovative products and services. When nothing is certain, everything is possible.
  4. A whole-system thinker who looks at teams, product lines, organizations, industries, markets and societies as interdependent networks.

In other words, you transform volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity into teams and organizations that are vibrant, uplifting, creative, and abundant.

* * * *

Sonsoles Alonso

Misfit helping CxOs and Founders Build Highly Efficient Happy Teams in 6 Months or Less with the Right Hires. Also virtually.

The Return of the Renaissance (Wo)man — Part II

This is part II of the talk on multipotentiality and the transfer of skills that I gave a few months ago during Stichting Hoogbegaafd!’s (The Gifted! Foundation) Symposium in the Netherlands. I originally gave the talk in Dutch.

Before I continue my story where I left it in part I, I would like to say a word about the design mindset.

The design mindset is the love I didn’t know I had. I only found out that there was a process to outline my way of thinking when I had already completed my career transition and everyone had started asking me how to orchestrate their own career transformation.

Looking for a way to describe my process, I found the design methodology.

What is a designer?

Whereas most people at a crossroads would ask themselves — what am I going to build? a designer’s question is — what is possible? and goes on to expose herself to a variety of experiences to inform many prototypes. A designer prototypes, leans back, observes, gathers feedback and goes back to work until the challenge becomes an execution issue after several iterations. A designer is curious and moves across domains to connect the dots in new ways.

Here are the experiences I had been exposed to prior to my career transition:

  • Traveling
  • Global experience: studying, living and working in different countries
  • Speaking several languages
  • Remember those 36 jobs I mentioned in part I?
  • Different roles within the domain of the arts (pianist, actor, advisor, board member, lecturer..)
  • Membership in Business Networks
  • Experimentation with colleagues in the arts using acoustic instruments and algorithms
  • Experimentation with different styles within Contemporary Music. Modern music is not just one style
  • Many personal interests
  • Working with different ages
  • Working with different nationalities
  • Working in different domains before my first career had taken off (call centers, record shop, bank, government agency..)

In design terms, my life and work had been a big exercise in diverging.

How can you intentionally force diverging?

The exercises that I provide below will help you diverge and prototype your way through your career transformation.

Vitruvian Woman by Tyler Lamph with Filter

And I continued..

There is nothing wrong with you

So, let’s say you too want to do what I did.

You are not excited about your current job, perhaps you are even bored, you don’t fit the mold of recruiters, you simply have more than one interest, or you just want to try something new. That’s all ok. In spite of what you might hear around you, there is nothing wrong with you!

We have made ‘work’ an engineering problem, a one-fits-all path that is supposed to lead us from student life to professional bliss in increments along a straight line. But that is no absolute truth, it is just a construct of our time. It has its origins in Henry Ford’s Industrial Era when every worker was only allowed to know a tiny bit of the assembly line. And you know what they say, ‘how you do anything, how you do everything’. So we extrapolated the linear assembly line to the design of our organizations and departments, and to recruitment even in this day and age that the workforce consists of mainly knowledge workers, not blue-collar workers.

In the Renaissance, on the other hand, it was the most normal thing in the world to do different things at the same time or to have several careers.

My advice? Own your multipotentiality, and look for and reach out to other multipotentialites so that, systemically speaking, you can feel strong in a world that doesn’t understand you.

Stop trying to change that world and focus instead on what you can do. Doing, that’s the word.

A useful question to ask yourself is: what action can I undertake right now that will get me moving and engaged? And not: what possible new diagnosis could I stick to my forehead? Trust me when I say that there is nothing wrong with you.

If you want to work by design, and I have said it twice now, a ‘bias to action’ and joy as a compass are your best friends.

Besides, ask for help. Your life is not a piece of art, but a fantastic design. Let me explain.

Mozart wrote symphonies all by himself but a designer can not design a new product or service in isolation. A designer needs input from others in their team, and from the users. I want you to look at your life and work as a Tesla, a fantastic design, not a piece of art. A fantastic design is something that we co-create with others hailing from different domains through radical collaboration.

Why different domains? In systems theory, the Darkness Principle says that each one of us only has one mental model of the challenge at hand. Therefore, to truly solve a problem, whether that problem is a new career or a new anything, we need to invite to the table as many of those models as possible so that we can pick the bits and pieces that can best help us forward. That’s why I recommend that you go out and talk to as many people as possible. See them as your ‘team’, each one of them will provide you with a piece of valuable information.

The reason why I did so many cool experiments is that I was lucky to be working in an ecosystem of curious and interesting people. Such an ecosystem is what you need to design a new career as well. Today you don’t create a job by just thinking and by doing so in isolation. Today you create a job by taking action and talking to as many people as possible.

What else do you need?

The right attitude, a focus on the right problems, and ideation techniques if you are stuck and would like to unstuck yourself.

What follows is a set of tools to help you get unstuck. From a design perspective, you choose better if you have many possibilities to choose from. The idea, therefore, is to never just choose the first solution to any problem.

Besides, if you are bored now because your job is not challenging, I can guarantee you that by doing these exercises, you’ll be busy for quite a bit.

Come up with as many possibilities as you can. Remember the field of possibilities in part I. Said differently, think of diverging. The more options you have, the better equipped you’ll be to make good choices. Why? Because on your way up on the creation spiral the environment/the market will teach you something. You’ll learn something that’ll allow you to converge, to materialize your end product or service.

Therefore, the design mindset is perfect to loosen up if you are stuck.

Wayfinding is a designer’s attitude.

It is the art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your exact end destination.

What you need is a compass — energy, engagement, joy, and a direction, not a map. And then you pay attention to the clues in front of you. You follow the joy, what engages and excites you, what brings you alive.

That’s the spirit when it comes to your life and work.

Wayfinding is also a journaling exercise.

Log your daily activities for at least three weeks, preferably daily but in any case twice a week, and keep track of how engaged and energized you are during each one of those activities. Put your Sherlock hat on and look out for patterns, insights, surprises, and anything that is a clue about what works and doesn’t work for you.

You will gain a clear sense of what activities are worth pursuing and which ones aren’t.

Make a clear distinction between gravity problems and wicked problems, and focus on the latter, problems that are actionable.

What is a gravity problem?

In the design mindset, a gravity problem isn’t even a problem. It is a situation, a fact, a force majeure, something that you can not change.

An example? Recruiters only hiring those with x years of experience doing the same work in the same domain. That’s just the way traditional recruitment works.

The highly sensitive have a tendency to sink their teeth onto a problem until it is solved. In the end, solving problems is a sensitive person’s raison d’être. But some problems can’t be solved, they are not even a problem because they are not actionable and one can’t change the situation. Traditional recruitment is such a gravity problem, it is not actionable.

But if you must insist on going through the recruiter mill, by the way, I give you some pointers in The War Against Talent.

Another example? The Dutch performing arts. Even though I had always known that there was more than one career inside me, it was the collapse of the arts in The Netherlands about 8 years ago that worked as a catalyst for my career transition.

I learned that the best way to manage through massive upheaval and disruption is to disrupt yourself, not to change the world. I think reinvention is going to be the one skill that we’ll all have to have in our skill set in order to survive and even thrive moving forward.

And how do we recognize a wicked problem?

There is no clear problem definition, solutions are not right/wrong but better/worse, and they are multi-causal, multi-scalar and interconnected. An example? Your life, your work!

I am going to give you ideation techniques so that you can build many different prototypes for new jobs or business acts.

One such technique is mind mapping, a great way to get unstuck. It is visual and therefore bypasses your logical/verbal sensor.

You can depart from many things for a mind map, but I would like you to put your journaling to good use and reuse the content of the journaling exercise.

  1. Choose engagement, energy or joy
  2. Make the mind maps, several for each category
  3. Make secondary connections with random associations of words. Don’t think too much, just jot words down. It doesn’t have to be practical and it doesn’t have to make sense to recruiters or employers. The idea is to expand the possibilities.

5. Pick 3 and write a job description for each one of them

6. Name the roles and draw a sketch for each on a napkin or post-it

A very powerful way to (re)design your work is to design as many jobs as possible, to diverge, to broaden your perspective before you make a final choice.

Here come the Odyssey Plans:

Invent 3 possible job scenarios for the upcoming 5 years.

A. What you already do or that cool idea you have been chewing on for some time

B. What you would do if A suddenly wouldn’t be there anymore

C. What you would do if money or image were not an issue

Each one of those plans is plan A. They are all you, all equal in value, and they are all possible.

Use 3 A4 sheets or bigger, one for each scenario and make 3 one-pagers containing 3 sections each:

  1. A visual timeline. Include everything you would like to experience both professionally and personally in those 5 years. Give each scenario a 6-word title
  2. 2 or 3 questions that arise out of each version and that you are going to explore. As a designer, you test assumptions to discover new insights. In each timeline, you will learn something about yourself and the world

A dashboard to gauge resources — do you have the time, money, skill and contacts to make it happen? likability — are you excited or not? confidence — are you feeling confident that you can do this or not? and coherence — does it make sense on itself and does it fit the bigger picture of how you want to live and work?

When you are done, present your 3 one-pagers to another person. Pay attention to your energy. Remember that energy is your compass.

The best jobs are not found via recruitment. Therefore, stop using the internet to search for job vacancies. Use it to connect with people whose professional stories interest you and that you want to get to know.

A Design Interview is a prototype in the shape of a conversation, a prototype conversation.

You are going to reach out to your network and your network’s network to learn what it is like to perform a certain job or role. The purpose is to find out if you would like to do that work yourself at a later stage.

You should aim for as many of those conversations as possible because you are a designer and therefore diverging will put you in the best shape to make a choice.

During such a conversation, you are not after a job, you are searching for the story.

If you do this well, from a place of true interest in the story and the connection with the other, it is very possible by the way, that people will ask you — we are looking for someone, is this something you would like to do?


My life story is proof that life is not a work of art, something that you get right once and for the rest of your days. Work is instead, a fantastic design. And it is my hope that I have set you in motion not only by sharing my story but by also having given you practical tools to help you along.

Considering the complexity of the current market, you’d do well by embracing your multipotentiality. If there has ever been a time in which agility and reinvention are desired, that is today.

Before you go, I would like to give you one more tool.

I often get asked, how can I merge two fields?

Honestly, I did what I did because I did it. And when I realized what I had done, I was as surprised as you are. A designer stands back and observes until seeing parallels between domains, understanding. Perhaps football genius Johan Cruijff was right, ‘je gaat het pas zien als je het doorhebt’ — ’you see it when you get it’. I had merged teams and music.

And I liked it so much that I made a conscious hobby out of it.

So, here is what you can do.

(Un)likely Pairs

Make pairs of seemingly unrelated things and find out how they are similar instead of different. Once I made it a hobby, I wrote bizarre blog posts in that way. For instance about leadership and cats, to give you an example. Because.. music and teams, what the heck do those two have to do with each other? A lot, it turned out.

To finish, keep these two thoughts in mind wherever you go.

1. Focus on real problems instead of holding on to things which are not an actionable problem. You don’t have to change the whole world, don’t allow your sense of justice to mess you up. The world is the way it is, and when it comes to working, the only thing that you have to do is take your next step, your next action.

2. Go out and connect with people, and keep the Darkness Principle in mind. Work is not something that you solve by thinking and doing so in isolation, it is something that you solve in interaction with your environment, the market of life.

And now, go go go, do!

* * * *

Sonsoles Alonso

Misfit helping CxOs and Founders Build Highly Efficient Happy Teams in 6 Months or Less with the Right Hires. Also virtually.