Podcast Transcripts

Ela Ben-Ur, Design Thinker & Social Entrepreneur, on Innovation through Imagination


Colin Hunter 0:08
Hi, folks, and welcome to another episode of the leadership tales podcast delighted to be joined by Ela Ben-Ur today; she is head of a business called innovators compass, which is a socially-focused organization looking at putting out the concepts around how to get unstuck in the world, based around her work with the idea and design thinking, based on her work and her early exploration of design at MIT. In the fascinating conversation today, we will go into many different things in terms of her journey and experience of her work with David Kelly, one of the founders of design thinking, and we’ll start to get it down to simple principles that she uses and thinks about it in that space. And I love particularly that moment where she says that every moment is a project no matter how small, and how do you tackle that? And how do you take on board some of the learnings and principles? How do you access some of the questions that can powerfully get you unstuck? So I’m looking forward to getting you to listen to this and for you to pick out just as I did a whole load of information and ideas from that. Enjoy.

Colin Hunter 1:23
Hi, folks, and welcome to another episode of the leadership tales podcast. Delighted today to be joined by Ela Ben-Ur, who is a fellow design thinker, and a social entrepreneur, which I love as well with us going in this year into the 500 projects around that, but I’m delighted to have her here today. tell a bit about her background story, which is fascinating to me, Ela, welcome.

Ela Ben-Ur 1:44
Thank you. I am excited to be here.

Colin Hunter 1:47
For the listeners, Ela, Why don’t you just go into a bit of your background, a bit of a story about where you’ve been? Because it is fascinating to see your journey and where you’ve ended up. So yeah.

Ela Ben-Ur 1:57
Thank you. Journey, You know, I think there’s the concept of 2020 hindsight. So it now looks like this journey. Oh, I totally understand where it came from, but I couldn’t have seen it, I think, you know, in the beginning, but I think looking back now, I’ve been propelled by this question, how do we make things better? How do we get things unstuck since I was a kid, and as a child of immigrant parents, and a sister to a physically and cognitively disabled sister, and going to school in a very underserved area? And so, I saw challenges around me. And I also said wonderful things around me. And just wondered, I think already, then how do we make things better. And both of my parents are people who started in like the physical sciences and are really handy and may do with whatever was around them to sort of literally make things better to fix things to make things as we needed. And I think those are what took me in my first steps to MIT, where people really, really make things better, quite literally. And from there, it’s been an ongoing journey from things to people. So there, you know, working on surgery simulators, and things like that, but caught on to this thing, this design thing while I was at MIT, and my first couple design classes, I loved it. And that’s where I chose to focus. And from there went to IDEO, where people make lots and lots of very different things better IDEO; when I started there, she was an intern in 97. And started full time in 99. He helped design a lot of really physical things before my time, including the first commercialized Apple mouse. And during my time, we worked on the cockpit of the future and ways to dispense dog food, I mean, just about anything, but it grew during my time there and my 13 years there to do that, and a lot more services and strategy and less tangible things that we were thinking about how to how to make better. And I also grew up my role from coming in as a product design engineer to doing more of the front-end design research with people and landing with my sweet spot leading projects from start to finish. But my own personal kind of strength, you know, people would bring me in for we were couple one was being sorted of dubbed the framework Queen-like when things were really complicated I lead a lot of the most complicated projects as well. But when there’s just, you know, a roomful of observations, and we’re trying to make sense of it, and a sense that we can use that is powerful going forward, to be able to come in and listen to all of that and like all of it and draw somehow it’s simple, but the powerful picture that is used to find your strategy forward and to come up with ideas to follow that strategy and have meaningful conversations and decisions around. Do you discover things in your new roles? That was when I discovered and also rapid prototyping another.

Colin Hunter 4:54
Framework queen is lovely.

Ela Ben -Ur 4:56

Colin Hunter 4:56
It’s fascinating, particularly the area that you talk about, which is Many of the people that we work with struggle from the observations, the insights, and holding. Now, you mentioned that piece in there. And that’s when I visited IDEO; that was one of the key areas that we wanted to really geek out on was how the hell do you do this?

Ela Ben-Ur 5:15
Yeah, well, a theme throughout all of this is understanding that everything, all of our challenges, all of our ways forward through them. Everything is about people, right? This planet would be just fine without us. And the more that we embrace that, and all of the capacities of people, like we can draw pictures, the whole picture’s worth 1000 words, thing, you know, everyone hates being asked to draw, but there’s a reason for it. And for me, that turned out to be a superpower. When I draw things, I, you know, a lot, it shuts down what overworks all the time, like your brain and your words, right? In my workshops, I want to try one other tool you have on you, besides your brain and your words, because we know we’re going to use those. And you know, we have other processing tools; we have our heart and our gut. And when we start to go faster or draw, it taps into those, and that’s why we brainstorm quickly to write is to sort of shut some of these things down. And we have our eyes and our ears and our hands and our bodies like a lot of that during my idea time; I think I would have thought was like when you talk about it that way. But then, when you look at it, look at an ideal project space. And it’s full of sticky notes everywhere. The reason that sticky notes have started Take Over is that they engage our hands and our eyes to move things around our bodies were like I think that’s a big part of it. Right enables us to think two-dimensionally and engage ourselves in ways. So for me, pictures that make sense of complicated things, and useful ways, were just one of those ways of tapping into the way more things we can use than we normally do every day. So all the things I just mentioned. And we can use our words; we can also use pictures, we can use, you know, all the stuff and things around us. I’m also one of my other things, there was rapid prototyping, and just like I got my parents, right, like whatever’s around us. But to answer this question, let’s make something let’s do it. And then the last thing that grew there early on, actually, even at MIT, there’s something just really empowering, unleashing releasing, about design and design thinking, and I just immediately wanted to pass it on. So already at MIT, the college student, I’m working with high school students, or MTA, you know, anything to pass on design, and trying to do it in a way that actually passes on. And at IDEO, I was always mentoring people, coaching teams, and coaching clients; I also got the workshop Queen at some point. But a workshop, you know, came in was like, there’s a lot there were many queens and kings of many things in the studio, but those were a couple of mines. You know, it just takes many. It takes a village to do the kind of work at that place does. And so it’s a village of many wonderful, different people. And so that was those were my couple, and that the last one started to really drive me; I found that I loved coaching and mentoring and workshopping just a little bit more than leading and doing projects, something about enabling other people to do those things to release a lot of the pressures that really can shut down our creativity and tap into powerful simplicity, whether it’s with, you know, my drawings, or their own ways of just, you know, making sense of whatever it is that they’re trying to make better for our clients. And so that started to just be much more appealing to me. You know, it was realizing that was where my energy was; it didn’t really matter what the project was; I didn’t care really what we were working on all that much until I started to care more about what we were working on. And the sort of the transition was for me was, especially when I had kids, I started to care a little bit more about what I was working on because I had to step out of the house every day and leave this kid to do it. And the other thing that was percolating for me was, this was IDEO, so inspiring a wonderful place, pretty even place, you know, as corporate environments go, that uses design thinking, which is a way of finding our way through problems. And I was really interested in transferring it, obviously, to other people, as I talked about, but I started getting more interested about transferring it to different situations, because I would notice, you know, for myself, there were times when I certainly wasn’t able to apply it to navigate my own challenges my stress, as you know, a leader of a project that’s got people all around the world. Andy talked about this in the last one, right about like you are, yeah, but all hours because you’ve got clients and team members all over the world, you know, so moments like that, where I’m not able to navigate it and feeling like a boy, this human-centered is I think, probably should be able to work but I can’t access it at this moment. And then teams, you know, having difficulties or their client being kind difficulties, and sometimes we’re able to apply it sometimes we’re not. And it wasn’t necessarily even explicitly talked about to just, hey, let’s design think our way through it. And so there’s something about that because the projects and their success was really only the people in them and our ability to apply, you know, our own human centeredness and in our own creativity to all the layers from individual to the team to the engagement with Want to, of course, engagement was sort of the world of people that are affected by this project. It had to be able to add all those layers, and something wasn’t quite reporting in a way that I would have liked. So these kinds of questions about how do we

Colin Hunter 10:13

Ela Ban-Ur 10:13
You know, really unleash, not teach. But unleash this stuff with more people. It’s more about like taking off a lot of the shackles to our curiosity and creativity than it is about adding anything. And how do we get it to just apply to more moments? So I left after 13 years? Well, I got the URL for my new place three years before that, but it took a while to actually leave. It is a great place.

Colin Hunter 10:38
Is that side hustle? Isn’t that they call it a side hustle? I was gonna do something else. Yeah.

Ela Ben-Ur 10:44
I did. And I mean, I really believe in experimentation. And so I was, on the side, coaching some non-profits to see how it felt. And it felt fantastic. You know, so fortunate to live with the name. And then at work at both MIT and IDEO, which really helped, you know, I felt like I could leave pretty comfortably, and it was going to be okay. And so I left as an independent consultant and coach, mostly, but my world got so much bigger. It was not just corporate anymore, so much, but everyone from educators to people, leading non-profits, searching for different people. And that really pushed me in this, these crazy ways, coming out with some of the terminologies that I was used to, and having it just crash really, really hard,

Colin Hunter 11:28

Ela Ben-Ur 11:28
Especially in both education environments, and what does that word mean? Or, you know, what do you mean by that? In the social sector, non-profit sort of settings for people? Oh, people’s challenges are not opportunities. Can we not use the opportunity statement here, or, I mean, in many of these things, the design thinking world is already discovered, like the perils of that might we statement, which is amazing. It’s just done so many great things in the world, and it has some challenges. So just going out and just relentlessly wanting this mission of making ways of making things better, or ways of getting unstuck accessible for every person at the moment, lingo aside, right? Like, how do we make things better, and making that accessible to every person at the moment, just really drove me, and I just kept feeling like, I never want it to see here, and what are we doing right now?

Colin Hunter 12:16

Ela Ben-Ur 12:16
Or how am I gonna apply this to my work, or do I feel like I’m more confused? And I came in like anything like that. I just couldn’t like zero tolerance for anything like that. And so just experiment and experiment. And at the same time, through all of this was getting the chance to jam with a lot of other people who are not design thinking people by, you know, wouldn’t call themselves that they are people from adaptive leadership, or agile development or Appreciative Inquiry, from the more social sector side, or, you know, all these different things, people who really focus on reflection and education practices. And at the same time, I’m a parent, I’m reading parenting stuff, and I’m reading like teamworking stuff, and, and leadership stuff. And like, all of these things are starting to sound a little bit similar to me at some level. And they resonated with some of the same ways that we got unstuck and made things better at IDEO. I mean, I know there’s like hundreds of ways that irs design thinking has been expressed, forgetting all of them again, lingo just really being able to move back and forth between really seeing what’s happening now in new ways, and seeing what could happen in new ways. From details to the big picture, I felt like we were always kind of bouncing back and forth between what is really seeing the present in new ways, seeing the future in new ways, and bouncing back and forth between the details and the big picture because you need both. And that was what kind of felt like, and over a lot of experimenting with ways of expressing that in ways that people could just use immediately not have to learn but apply at the moment wound up with what is now innovators campus, it was named by a history teacher of all people, but five questions that are kind of the essence of design thinking but a lot of other things, ways of making leadership better or making science better or making reflection better or making circuits better. In essence, they’re all asking us the same questions that I think we know to ask when we remember, when we’re at our best when we are getting unstuck when we are making things better; remember, I draw pictures, right? So, in the beginning, there is this person in the middle because it is human-centered, whatever design or leadership or whatever people are at the center. There wasn’t originally a question to center until I realized that it was the most important one, which is who’s involved and seeing them not in the lens of like, whatever problem you have, but just like people, right, first and foremost, it was involved with and for those people, what’s happening now and why whether you’re observing or you’re empathizing or whatever you’re doing, you’re looking for real details of what’s happening now and why in the world and seeing it in new ways, looking not to just confirm, you know, confirmation bias of how we already see things but to be surprised by the upsides it’s Appreciative Inquiry, right like to notice and appreciate the assets, and then the positive things that are going on that we maybe didn’t notice before, as well as the challenges, but simply to just surprise and question ourselves, you know what’s going on? So what’s happening? And why? What matters most about all of that? So we’d like seeped in all these details. And this is where, you know, you were saying, like, this is something the hardest part, sometimes you went looking to IDEO for help is, how to see what matters most about all that. Where are there levers I can pull? Right, just as powerful as to throw you know, again, to question surprise ourselves. If anyone you know, listening to Andy, as a leader, as a parent is a person to be able to say, doing this perfectly today, and then go Wait, the perfect question mark at a question mark there or today. Question mark. Like, oh, my God, life-changing.

Colin Hunter 15:45

Ela Ben-Ur 15:45
But on a much, much bigger scale. Right? How do we

Colin Hunter 15:48

Ela Ben-Ur 15:48
you know, in our lives and our organizations in our world also explore simply what matters most. And when I say explore, I mean, like, look at it in new ways.

Colin Hunter 15:57
It’s difficult for people to do that. Because this piece about what’s happening now, even what’s happening now, can have filters on so Andy and these Lee, who were talking about it, it was on the first podcast episode was so focused on things that he was missing, the bigger picture. So even just thinking about extreme users in that circumstance, and thinking wider than that, is really helpful. So I think this is where going back to a couple of points you made before, I think people don’t understand the power of design thinking, and even now, people say, Oh, the design thing is past. And I’m like, really. Honestly, I don’t think many people are applying it effectively at the moment they say it. You and I probably aren’t. In many things, we tackle each day that we could be using more for it. So yeah, so those two first questions are really quite powerful. Yeah.

Ela Ben-Ur 16:46
Three, right. Who’s involved, and extreme users come in there to look wider?

Colin Hunter 16:51
Yeah, Sorry.

Ela Ben-Ur 16:53
No worries. Well, yeah, that one was discovered in a second-grade classroom when I was doing the rest of these questions with these kids.

Colin Hunter 17:00

Ela Ben-Ur 17:00
Wait a minute; we need to name and see the human beings; we were talking about the redesign of a chair. Who would you design it for?

Colin Hunter 17:07

Ela Ben-Ur 17:07
And I was like

Colin Hunter 17:07

Ela Ben-Ur 17:07
And I erased the big human I had drawn in the middle of this circle and made space, and then we wrote, then they started telling me Okay, yeah, the kids, right. And then sometimes the teachers sit down on chairs. Okay, sure. And then sometimes the parents come in, they sit down, we wrote that in the janitors have to pick them up and move them around. Okay, let’s write them in there. Of course, that was not discovered standing in front of like the US Conference on AIDS. No, it was discovered, fortunately, before that, in a second-grade classroom, so that was the first question who’s involved, seeing them in new ways, seeing what’s happening and why and new ways, seeing what matters most in new ways and exploring the things and then Okay, once you’ve seen what matters most we can maybe get stuck in each of these places, right? You can not see people; you can get stuck not seeing what’s happening and why fully, or like you said, with the blinkers on, you can get stuck, not able to pull out and see what matters most about that and be, you know, stuck in the weeds and overwhelmed, you can get stuck having a sense of what matters most but not seeing a way to do that, or more than one way, stuck in one way. Right? That is not working. When you look at what’s happening, it’s not working. So seeing what ways more than one plural ways are there to do what matters most. What matters most of the big picture question. And what ways are there was a big picture question to like, look around, like see all the ways more than one? Before you dive back into details, right? Let yourself just kind of dream and worry about the details and not worry about deciding just that space to see multiple ways.

Colin Hunter 18:34
I love the dream and love

Ela Ben-Ur 18:35
Yeah, I’m verbally describing this campus that has pictures associated with it as well. And that’s when it’s like the puffy cloud because you are up here in the big picture. And you are able to dream, and they can be fuzzy and soft. They don’t have to be detailed at this stage. And then finally, what’s a step to try? That’s not a general way. No, like a concrete step. These are no longer fluffy clouds. They’re like concrete, actual hard blocks. And they used to be standing up straight. But my then four-year-old said, but experiments aren’t like that. They don’t work; they should be falling over. And I can’t tell you like when I first tried to make these blocks fall over sideways. In my diagram of, you know, this compass, it was like, Oh, my God, oh, that’s so hard to look at. That’s the point. We have to be able to look at the blocks falling down and be like, that’s an experiment, isn’t that could totally happen. And that’s why it’s a small step.

Colin Hunter 19:21

Ela Ben-Ur 19:21
And it’s one that, you know, we try to make a safe step, but a step forward. So what’s a step to try because you don’t want to get stuck up there. And like a dream, the idea is you want to be able to try something. And so you have to make it small enough that you’ll try it but also specific enough that you will try it has to have who, what, when, where, and how. Otherwise, like, yeah, Let’s cooperate more. That’s an awesome idea. That is not an experiment. But it’s not a step that I’m going to try. So and then you have to come back to you know, what’s happening and why for everyone involved. Otherwise, you know, it’s like this open loop, and you do not own what actually happened when you tried something. And we can get stuck there too. Right? Like yeah, like the linear representation,

Colin Hunter 20:01

Ela Ben-Ur 20:01
I think most are gone of design. But we’re right.

Colin Hunter 20:05

Ela Ben-Ur 20-05
And then we did it. We implemented it. Great.

Colin Hunter 20:08
That’s done.

Ela Ben-Ur 20:08

Colin Hunter 20:10
What I love is a couple of things. One is the fact that it seems to be in school, school kids, and your kids who are actually coming back and getting you grounded on the who’s in the center. And then the knocking the blocks and shaping the blocks.

Ela Ben-Ur 20:24

Colin Hunter 20:24
And domestic is great because I do think they’re big teachers. What else I just want to say is that what I love about design thinking is that the desirability lens, the cloud analogy works, really works. To me, it’s staying there for a while. And I think too often nowadays; we get into the pragmatic viability and feasibility too quickly in our lives around what could be possible; I’d love to take us back to the MIT side. I mean, when I walk around MIT and Harvard, firstly, I tend to have my absorbing, trying to get some intelligence into me as I walk around. But there’s a bit of intimidation for me around MIT and its brand. But it sounds like it was a really quite formative place for you to learn and experience design thinking, tell me what it was like as a culture there and how they used it? Yeah

Ela Ben-Ur 21:14
Well, first of all, I don’t think that the term I know the term Design Thinking has not been popularised yet. At that point, it had been coined, I believe, but not popularised yet. And so I took design classes, they were designed, we designed things like designing, you know, a machine that will play a game or designing a product with a team. And that first team-based design course is the one that really flipped things for me. Because it was more open-ended, it wasn’t like a game; you had to define the problem, you had to decide what you were gonna design and whom you were designing for; it was all really open and did that with other people. And so the people part just like, you know, exponentially just grew. Because the people we’re designing for, and the people that I’m designing with, and whom all made it way harder like I thought I was able to pull all-nighters at MIT until I took this class, and then I couldn’t anymore, I had to actually be like my whole self. And I couldn’t be, you know, sleepless and be able to do this class. And it was harder too because it’s not like a right answer, or you like, Oh, yes, I scored 10 points, it’s, you know, there’s not quantitative,

Colin Hunter 22:19
Interesting. Yeah

Ela Ben-Ur 22:19
it’s much more open-ended. And yet, it was really, really compelling that openness is also just a space for so much creativity. And so these were quite literally design classes. And we learn to design process, you know, I think, design thinking when whether it was named or not, and how the ways it’s been articulated, have so much intent in common with each other, as well as, like I said, lots of other things that are not called design thinking. So it doesn’t matter. I mean, I think people who are at school for other things and designing better social systems are also, you know, who went to school for that are probably also coming away with design thinking that you would know to call it that. But that ethos of going into the world not even with a problem, like with just how can we have any make things better, but in an authentic way, like not just throwing stuff out at the world, but it really has to fill a meaningful purpose and an even like, need-finding, you know, I know, I was really influenced by Amy Smith, at MIT, who her work the D lab is a big design, development, dissemination. I think it’s been a long time, but about doing work in the developing world. And she was really, really reactive to things like, you know, need finding and like, well, you know, these people, like, they’re fine, actually. People are all behind. So just making it meaningful. And then, and going at it, right. Like, you know, MIT doesn’t want you don’t give up right like you just once you find that there is something that you can do to make things better than to just figure out how and if it’s technically difficult. Well, that’s okay. Like, that’s what we’ve got to do. We want to make this thing happen. So that that grit that like, Well, that didn’t work, but let’s keep going because this mission matters. I think that that is something else I came away with from MIT that, like, well, of course, we’re gonna find a way we must.

Colin Hunter 24:08
You talked about prototyping earlier on. But when you walk around MIT, and you have a look through the window, you see all the machinery you’re seeing. So you’re going back to your parents, you know, they in terms of working on the practice pieces in the prototyping, and a lot of people miss that they think, oh, design thing must be just it’s the brainstorming. Suppose it knows. But actually, a lot of it is the prototyping, getting early feedback. The feedback loops are a powerful thing to see. Yeah.

Ela Ben-Ur 24:35
I’m really glad you brought that up. And it’s not just a feedback loop with other people. It’s yourself. Even if it’s a service like anything, anything, just things in your life, like we know we can’t see these things, but like there’s stuff all over this house that has been made to make things happen. Things that are not tangible things like being able to get at the door on time. There’s a little like music that plays that calls on snuggle fest. We all like it. We’ve whatever things we’re doing like, you know, one daughter is lost in Legos and the other one’s reading a book that they need to get out the door on time. So this causes everyone to snuggle fest like it took many iterations to, you know, my youngest daughter came with this one idea. But it’s like a little music right on my phone.
Colin Hunter 25:15
Ela Ben-Ur 25:15
Nothing happens without a thing that makes it happen, even most intangible things. So there are so many things you can prototype. Anyone can put on a date or experiment with anything in their lives. And when you try it, you get feedback from yourself. Because once you start to do things, you start to sense, but you never know until you try the cliche in English for a reason.
Colin Hunter 25:35
Ela Ben-Ur 25:35
It’s true. So I just think it unleashes our own creativity; I know that I can get stuck in my head. And then as soon as I just start, as the expressions at IDEO, to either think to build or build to think, you know, you play back and forth with those. And sometimes, you just need to go building to think no matter what it is that you’re doing. And I do. I mean, sorry, MIT was an idea. Were both places where it was easy to do that there was like, space to think with your hands, no matter what it is you’re working on, whether it’s a whiteboard or physical stuff.
Colin Hunter 26:05
So the storyboarding and other things are one but just the prototype; I love that story of the people working with a surgeon, the surgeon, I had an idea of a surgical appliance. And
Ela Ben-Ur 26:14
Colin Hunter 26:14
And they went off, and they got the market pen, and they created something says this, ya know, a bit of the Tweak in here. I do think sometimes it combined some of the skills because, you know, I was running a class in design Thinking early this week; I said, How many people like hanging out in bars and restaurants or cafes and just people watching? Yeah, and they all hands up, like, Okay, well, part of the design thing is just observation. So go out, you know, get out there observe things that people do, how they interact. But the key thing is, once you’ve got something is prototyping in the feedback loop, and I think, you know, having written the book be more wrong, there are so many things that you get so wrong, but as long as you’re learning and the feedback loops there, so Okay, find another way. Yeah, let me tweak it. Here you go exists. No, let’s throw this all away. And let’s start with something. So I love the background. You’ve gotten that.
Ela Ben-Ur 27:04
And it’s all related. That’s right. I like to see it all together in one compass, which is that when you try something, and it doesn’t seem to work, you discover where the wrong was? Was it like, oh, well, I actually, oh, that’s what’s actually happening. I saw it was happening in a different way than what was actually happening, right? or oh. That’s what matters most. Oh, right. They should be focusing over here, or, Oh, that way doesn’t work. But here’s a different way. So they’re all related, right? Like, so when you try and experiment, it can give you a new observation, I can give you the new principle about what matters most I can give you a new idea that any of those places, you know, a change in any of those things. Those things don’t change as easily until you try something right until you actually are wrong. That’s when you start to really see things differently about what’s happening, what matters most, or what ways they’re right. You can really, really marry any of those until something until you are proof that it’s not right. And the more we do that, as you said, we more realize, well, of course, they weren’t right the first time around. I mean, of course not. Are we not all-seeing? Can’t we be all-seeing, right?
Colin Hunter 28:10
Ela Ben-Ur 28:10
Of course not like to expect otherwise; it’s ridiculous. I like to say that life is sticky. Like that should be the expectation, life is sticky, stuff happens, and you just expect to be on sticks, and everything is gonna be easier.
Colin Hunter 28:23
So what I love about your MIT story is this piece about it; it’s not about getting the 10 out of 10. You know, you could pull all-nighters to do that. But once you got into design, your energy levels needed to be different. And I think the energy it takes. I think a lot of us fall almost fall out of our education without creativity. But what I love is that story of education where So Ken Robinson is talking about the child drawing at the back of the class, and the teacher comes up and says, What are you drawing? She says I’m drawing a picture of a garden; the teacher says nobody knows what God looks like. And he says, Well, give me a few minutes. They will. I love that creativity, that cloud moment, as you describe it, that just goes into that. But that takes a certain mindset and certain energy to be able to do that fascinating. Moving into IDEO. I tend to be around Tim Brown and, you know, bowing in front of them because the whole concept of IDEA design thinking changed my business, my life in there, but it was interesting, you were talking about how you wanted to share it and coach it and lead it, and you’re the queen of frameworks and then the queen of projects or workshops. So for me, there’s a piece about the democratizing design thing they had. But I think the biggest issue that he said himself once is putting that into organizations; a lot of the time, it fails because they’re not structured and projects. Yeah. I wonder what your thoughts are on that.
Ela Ben-Ur 29:46
Yeah, that’s really interesting, and a lot of the terminology and sequencing of it is born of a project-based client-based organization in the way that it was initially conceived. And yet the pieces of it I think that’s one of the Since we’ve all gone are different ways to describe design thinking or just how to make things better, right? Well, again, I, to divorce it from just design only. And so people talk about mindsets, for example, as a way to get away from what you can use a mindset in any situation project are not my own bars actually even further, which is, I do think those are lovely. And I’ve also seen that, you know, in our toughest situations, our mindsets are slippery, we build them, for sure, we keep building them, the more you build that muscle of a mindset, the more are you more empathic, more experimental, whatever. And, you know, at two o’clock in the morning, after 20 years of human-centered design, when my daughter was screaming downstairs, and I was going down the stairs and like, starting to scream back, oh, my God, I know, I know that I know better than this, and I cannot access it right now. Right. And so that’s my bar. And it made me feel better that, you know, I’ve seen leaders that I do, and other leaders have other amazing practices, not being able to access their own practices at this moment. So maybe feel a little bit better. After that two o’clock in the morning episode, and many others like it, we’re human. And so, you know, I went at IDEO, especially early on, like, just worshipped our own leaders, and like, oh, my gosh, I’m talking to, you know, as a liberal person at PepsiCo, or GM or whatever.
Colin Hunter 31:15
Ela Ben-Ur 31:15
And just realize that
Colin Hunter 31:17
we’re human
Ela Ben-Ur 31:17
people are people; we’re all people. And every moment is a project
Colin Hunter 31:24
Ela Ben-Ur 31:24
At any given moment, in a classroom, in a conference room, in a boardroom, in a lab, stuff is happening that is a challenge that you can, you know, apply this stuff too, and it will make things better, right, because of the same questions that are asked for making parenting better, and the same questions for making leadership better and making communities better and services better the same fundamental questions. And so, you know, I love project-based learning and education. It’s awesome, it’s great. And, you know, that’s like that sliver, the 15 minutes, they get a day to do that. I mean, it’s awesome. And every moment is a project, right? Like, these kids, just one of the most common uses of innovators compass. I mean, for all the different amazing, like things that happen in the world, I think, like if I was to just to count the number of incidences to solve playground conflicts, you know, and also conferences, that’s another really big use, like a bunch of doctors are together, and they need to solve, like how to support AIDS patients, and they use it, that’s another really big one, but like, conflict with another one, or, you know, I do use it every morning to just sort of unstick my day and make it as big as it can be. So you know, everybody plans stuff, right? That’s the moment you plan, your day you plan, an important meeting, you plan, your strategy, all these things, these are all of these moments our projects in their own way that their challenges that you can meet with this stuff if the stuff meets you there. And that’s where the challenge of making it accessible, every person in a moment came in and being able to say no matter what’s going on being able to pull out some of these questions like, okay, seeing who’s involved, seeing what’s going on, right, like what’s going on his I’m yelling right now, and I’m actually really tired and really hungry. And I think she’s really hungry too. And, or even in a really big right, going zooming all the way across to like the organizational level, right? What is happening? Who are the people? What’s happening for all of them? What matters most? What ways are there? What’s it step to try like that, you know, if you look at, you compare it to things like CPR, when you need to resuscitate someone, like those are really, really concrete steps, or the one we all learned if you’re on fire, stop, drop and roll. You know like
Colin Hunter 33:33
Ela Ben-Ur 33:33
Things You can access at any moment under any, you know, stressful conditions. Like, they will come back to you because they’re that accessible, and yet they have to work, right? If stopping, dropping, and rolling doesn’t put the fire out, then you’re not going to. You’re never gonna use it again; we probably don’t get the chance. But the same thing goes for these, you know, so that was what was so hard for me was it like you had to keep making it more and more accessible. And yet more and more powerful. Every time I learned about a new practice, like appreciating creations because like, Oh God, I really want to understand the essence of this and make sure that it’s represented in this thing I’m putting out in the world. And so I kept trying to pull all these things into it and make sure that these what ended up being questions they weren’t originally represented the essence of all these powerful processes out there. But then, if you use the word process, there was actually a time at IDEO where, at least in our studio, the word processor was kind of banned. Because as soon as you force an order or a duration to these things, that’s when it becomes like the project. The words process and projects will turn a lot of people off. Oh, well, that’s a project, but rather just these are questions in some of the challenges of the high level. We’re going to pursue them for a long time. And for other moments, we’re just going to pursue them for a moment, right? Like what’s going on, right? There’s a fight on the playground; you don’t even have to use all of them, right? Like, okay, what’s going on? Does somebody have a better idea than what’s going on right now? Like, hey, you know, you can just use a couple of them and go right, or just for me, I didn’t have a chance to do a full like this before I came into this call because I came right out another one. And so here it goes, I’m gonna show I’m showing something to call in, which is,
Colin Hunter 35:11
Ela Ben-Ur 35:11
All I was able to write was just a what draw was a what matters most, which is a little heart and raise coming out of it, which is simple, powerful from the heart.
Colin Hunter 35:20
Ela Ben-Ur 35:20
It’ll be fine. I have no time to think about anything else. That was my design thinking, which was really tacitly going, I’m going into a podcast, and it’s me. And Colin and his leadership audience, and, you know, I’m coming out of things, everybody else is coming, you know, to listen to this out of a lot of things. And what matters most is just keep it simple and powerful from the heart, and it’ll flow fine. It’ll hopefully land fine. It’ll hopefully be meaningful, you know, to some people, and I didn’t have time to think about ideas about how that would potentially happen or go further, but I just like left it at that and trusted that the ideas would flow. And it would be an experiment, and it’ll be totally great. So I just walked through, you know, a bit of innovators compass right there. That’s, to me, the portability of being able to scale it and the flexibility to use it in different ways. There’s a picture that I use that people really like; again, I draw a lot of pictures, but I call it the squiggles. And it’s everyone’s favorite slide or picture on my website. And it shows like this backdrop of these five questions in this compass format, and then lines on top of them. So there’s one, which has what I would consider traditional design thinking and almost any process out there, which is you do a big sweep of like, okay, who’s involved, good observations, what’s happening and why let’s then figure out some principles or design principles about what matters most. And then let’s do the brainstorming. And then let’s try and experiment, and then let’s start to iterate. That’s one very common process. And then there’s like agile in this kind of rapid, iterative, incremental development processes with like; you have an idea. Don’t like, go back and do a tonne of research, necessarily just find a smart way of testing it that you’ll learn a lot from without breaking the bank, you know, and it’s quick, learn quickly, and just, you know, build measure, test over and over and over again. So that’s a different kind of process. And then there’s tinkering and improvising, which is mindful but messy, right? Like, I do something, and I see what happened, I do something, yes, it would happen to do something and see what happens. And once in a while, it’s like, oh, the big epiphany, the oh, that’s what really matters. Oh, that’s a better idea. Right pops out. And so it’s like this really messy bunch of squiggles.
Colin Hunter 37:21
Love that
Ela Ben-Ur 37:21
And then the last one is, you know, the subconscious, where you just have this amazing idea that comes out of nowhere, but you didn’t write like inside. There’s a bunch of observations and principles and ideas that have never been experiments that had percolated before that one popped out or you’ve been noticing.
Colin Hunter 37:36
Ela Ben-Ur 37:36
What’s happening, you’ve been noticing what matters, or that wouldn’t have happened, right? You wouldn’t have had that idea.
Colin Hunter 37:41
Ela Ben-Ur 37:41
And they’re all great.
Colin Hunter 37;42
Ela Ben-Ur 37:42
I don’t care. What I’ve come to come away with is like the essence of all of these things, as they are reminding us to just remind us to ask more often, you know, and see in new ways, who was involved? What matters most? And why? To see in new ways, who’s involved, what’s happening, and why. What matters most, what ways are there to do that, and was except to try so that I can again, see, you know, what matters most, it took a long time to get to that like,
Colin Hunter 38:05
Ela Ben-Ur 38:05
You know, a decade, but that portability is what I was hoping for, and it does not replace anything. It doesn’t replace design thinking or adaptive leadership, or anything else. Those are amazing. They are what inspired this. But one thing that David Kelly told me, the last time, I think we spoke actually, which is regrettably, probably about four or five years ago, which was, first of all, can you finish this, like just put it out there, stop iterating because people need a bridge to these things, right? Like, again, the accessibility every person moment, not everyone is used to like pulling out a process, you can pull out a whole process in every moment, the essence of this thing is this, you know, will serve a lot of situations hopefully get us out of the bigger challenges. But when it doesn’t, and when there are bigger challenges, then it’s a bridge to all of those in between all of these different amazing things that are so siloed right now, to make, you know, things better in our lives, and work and world, those are actually really, really, really, really, really interrelated. Right? Like, we know that as leaders, everything we do is just the sum of all the human beings that are doing them. And so you know, if we, as a leader, are not able to navigate our challenges, that’s going to percolate all over the place, but everybody within them too. And so being able to I draw this onion, just like the human, you know, individual human, the center, and then like for the team, my students and people like Coach teamwork, like individual and then the team, you know, being able to apply the same questions to how we’re doing as a person, which affects our teamwork affects our families, everything else, and what’s happening in our families, you know, comes back and affects us and then will affect our teams, right?
Colin Hunter 39:38
Ela Ben-Ur 39:38
What’s happening as a team using these same questions. You know, what’s happening with us as a team, what matters most wrestled seeing what ways are there to work better as a team, certainly at the project level, that’s the famous use of it, but also beyond right at the organizational level and so on to see that it needs to port back and forth between those things because there is you know, there isn’t a success of the project or the organization or the dream without being able to use it.
Colin Hunter 40:01
As the love that peaceful,
Ela Ben-Ur 40:01
You know, from the individual level to the global level and from the momentary level to the bigger one, we just have to be able to ask these questions in big ways in little ways.
Colin Hunter 40:09
I love that last piece here because, for me, it’s flipped; it’s changed the mindset that I’ve held for a while now; it’s in the moment. It’s that stuck, whether it’s playgrounds, the altercation, whatever it is that we’re talking about, but it’s the questions we’re asking ourselves at the moment; we have to find a way. But what I loved is this provides a bridge to the other tools yup that potentially could be used at that moment. But I also just loved what you said earlier on, which is it’s the practice and a lot of the times we don’t practice, we don’t practice being in that moment, you know, and we’ve got a good friend Leon Levy, who writes the book called the good fight, but she talks about being positive in conflict using conflict, you know, in a good way to generate and it’s the same thing when you’re in that space. What are the things that come to the mind and your mindset, but also your mood set will affect what’s going on there? So I just do love that, that bringing to life there. Now, you talked about you being a social entrepreneur? How are you bringing this, and what you’re doing to the social entrepreneur piece? I’d love to finish on that. Just to hear a bit about what you’re doing? Yeah.
Ela Ben-Ur 41:23
Yeah. So on a couple of different levels. One is this work itself. So making our best ways of making things better, or our best ways of getting unstuck, accessible for every person and moment is the mission of innovators. compass.org. So what that has become has been sharing these five questions in a wide variety of formats that have been used from preschools to global conferences, too; I mean, if you ever told me at MIT, I would be making a colorful sticker, I would have been like, you are talking to the different person like this is not me, innovators Come to that Org, is very virtual. It’s a community of people around the country around the world who have helped to evolve these questions, be like, hello, that does not make sense. Proposed all of these formats like this, the unsticker that gets you unstuck, definitely not my idea. Thank you, Colin. For that one. All of these things that people have contributed, these ideas come in, and I create them. And I put them back out there, and people use them. And the deal is, everything is free. But you do need to share back your experiences because those stories are really what move my work forward, and it moves the world forward. So that’s kind of the premise of the work, and people are out there changing their lives and schools and organizations and the world with these five questions. And if they’re finding that they need something else to do that, hey, can you make little postcards where each one is one of these questions? Yes, we can, So all these wonderful ideas.
Colin Hunter 42:52
Of course, they can.
Ela Ben-Ur 42:52
Yes, Oh, we sure can; if that will help it reach more people, then, by all means, you know, can you create backdrops? Once COVID came? Okay, I need we need to make backups of people’s screens so that they can quickly drop it into Miro or mural or Google Slides or jam board or whatever it is they’re using, you know, and people ask for these things. And we just do it. And after so long of consulting and coaching everybody else’s products and things. This is mine, right? Like it has been
Colin Hunter 43:16
Ela Ben-Ur 43:16
A journey of just like, of having to use it on itself to make it simpler, but also to navigate to ask to really own what’s happening and why with it. Is this thing out in the world actually helping people make things better? Are they getting more stuck? In the beginning, I made people way more stuck than unstuck.
Colin Hunter 43:32
Ela Ben-Ur 43:32
So having to really own that, and figure out what mattered most, that powerful simplicity, that everyday accessibility, and come up with another idea and keep trying things, what’s it doing in my life, a few sets of principles that have really come out for me, because I have to use those every day in order to navigate this, just like any other leader, right? One has been this hierarchy of mission first, and then means of which one of those means is money. But there are other ways there had to be because I’ve had to resist funding in order to be really, really, really, really, really agile. And so that’s where the whole barter system of like people like helping to create things and, and how to use a whole community has come from so. And just everyday like just navigating and being able to make these decisions for me with my family about what really matters most and what doesn’t, I’m really grateful that we’ve been able to decide that we have enough for me to be able to do to go off and do this. I’m really, really grateful to have a husband who went. My name is me on that. And, and then to have a portfolio of, you know, I still do corporate workshops and things like that, that that offset the tremendous amount of pro bono work I put into the world. And so that kind of creativity having to be able to apply, like what ways are there we are determined to do what is right for this work. We’ve got to find ways we’ve got to be creative. So just having to use it in order to move forward has been really powerful, and I use it every day to navigate my own. You know that’s, I think like any leader, it’s been really, really so challenging. You know, I pulled more all-nighters, actually I back into those actually, as a social entrepreneur than I did I do. And MIT combined easily, like way over, you know, when someone needs something, they’re gonna do something amazing with it the next day, and like, we can do that.
Colin Hunter 45:12
Oh, yes, we can.
Ela Ben-Ur 45:13
We got them. So just compressing every day and coming away with the principles like to really pick what I’m doing what matters most, and then be positive about that and be present to it. Make it powerful, not perfect. That’s one of the daily
Colin Hunter 45:28
I love that
Ela Ben-Ur 45:28
things that have come out of my daily compasses when I every day every morning, who’s involved in my day, what’s happening and why. And I’ve also learned another set which is love, listen, laugh, learn, let go. So that set works really well with my family and with the people that I coach, and myself. My journey as a social entrepreneur has been going back to what we said at MIT, like, when you believe something that needs to happen, there’s gonna be a heck a lot of stuff along the way. And just, you know, when things go wrong, I should end up telling myself. Usually, my kids end up telling me, or my mom has told me, to use my own compass, Ela, you need to stop and use your own compass, going slow to go fast.
Colin Hunter 46:08
Eat your own dog food.
Ela Ben-Ur 46:10
Yeah, eat your own dog food.
Colin Hunter 46:10
Drink your own champagne. Yeah,
Ela Ben-Ur 46:13
Yeah, to be able to sense the biggest lessons from all of this, for me are like to be able to sense stuck and stuck doesn’t mean that you’re stopped, it might mean that you’re spinning, you could be sliding backward or going sideways, trim your goal or they can feel it could just be stuck, not moving in a great way forward, to be able to sense that early and start on sticking, expect to start and sticking and start doing it. And so that has really been a journey as a social entrepreneur, and that it’s really, really all about people embracing and unleashing your own creativity, letting yourself do those things in your own humanity, that you aren’t gonna be perfect, and you’re gonna get stuck, and letting people in letting people help to let people give you I think this is so true for all organizations that hold the people in them and all of their customers are the organization of the organism, they can all contribute on the ground observations, they can all contribute ideas, they can all be back on the ground with their hands, trying the experiments and so the more that you embrace, in my case, my community and for organizations, their whole, you know, every their whole community in their organization as one kind of organism and allow it to generate and evolve their portfolio of observations and principles and ideas and experiments, the more powerful they will be, and I tried to eat that dog food.
Colin Hunter 47:31
Yeah, sorry, I gave you the dog food was probably wasn’t the best analogy. Yeah. Drink your own champagne. The principal is Costing was the person who introduced me, and each has to us, and I, for me, I’m grateful because firstly, I’ve learned a lot today, and I’ve learned that journey, that story behind it, but also for people listening. There’s a passion about doing something that is real learning, the failure and how you’ve learned, and you heard the feedback loop throughout that, but I love the part by David Kelly saying just get it out there. You know, it’s the there’s a piece about democratizing and getting it out to the world to allow people to be part of your community. And I’m glad to say that I am now, which is fantastic. Thank you for being on today. Yeah
Ela Ben-Ur 48:18
Thank you so much for having me.
Colin Hunter 48:19
Yeah, if people want to get in contact with Ela, how would they do that?
Ela Ben-Ur 48:22
You can find me at ela@innovatorscompass.org all one word, or go to innovatorscompass.org. On the website, you’ll find all free resources that have been used and contributed by people in all kinds of settings, though, and you’ll find me there as well for on the #innovatorscompass
Colin Hunter 48:41
Superb Ela delight. Stay well, stay safe. And I look forward to catching up with you soon. Thank you.
Colin Hunter 48:55
Well, I was super Thank you to Ela for coming on today, the energy, the enthusiasm for her work passion for her subject. And there’s a lot in her to chew over. If you’re anything like me, I’m probably going to sift through more parts of that conversation again to think about what we take out of it. But there are a couple of bits that really make sense to me. And one is the power of questions. And I know people will say that, but it’s the practicing of the ability in the moment to think in a different way to ask the questions. So as she’s talked about there, rather than getting passionate and irate in a situation, how would you stop, pause, reflect and engage in a different way with the power of questions. So innovators compass is part of a community, so you can get involved and engaged, delighted she could join us today and share her journey and be delighted to have you join me in another episode of the leadership tales podcast. Looking forward to taking care