Bringing Design Thinking Into Technology with Douglas Ferguson

By Published On: January 15, 2019Categories: Blog, Podcasts, The CTO Studio

Our guest today has reinvented himself by bringing design thinking into technology. Douglas Ferguson has been a CTO and an engineer as well as a software architect and development manager. But today his primary focus is design thinking and design sprint facilitation via his workshop agency Voltage Control.

On today’s CTO Studio, you’ll hear how and why he made this transition and reinvented himself as well as one of the processes he takes teams through during his workshops. Hear those subjects and more on this CTO Studio episode with Douglas Ferguson.

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • How and why to ensure everyone’s ideas have equal value.
  • How do you know if you truly have a diverse workforce?
  • What is the difference between complicated and complex?
  • Why you should attend a conference outside of your domain once a year.
  • How can you utilize liberating structures in your organization?
  • And so much more!

We begin by talking about ways to collaborate online before talking about the link between music and tech people. In my experience tech people are often very into music or are musicians themselves, and I was curious to know if Douglas has a theory about that connection.

Douglas thinks about it as structure. There is a process and a structure – there is math to music. People who really get inside of that concept and embrace it, their brain is more inclined to do tech work. They are more drawn to it.

Next we talk about the heart of today’s how: his reinvention. He’s gone from CTO/lead engineer/VP type roles into design-thinking and design workshops. With that in mind, I asked him to explain what design thinking is and what draws him to this concept of design.

He says we have to think about what design means. A lot of people hear design and immediately go to graphic design or UX design or UI design: visual types of design. But he remembers when the tech world used to have design meetings to talk about software, something that isn’t heard often today.

You can design anything and his favorite designers have industrial design degrees.. He believes this degree  is an amazing way to teach people how to think.

And that is the design he is really motivated and excited about: industrial design. If he thinks about the path that he has been on he can see that his life has been dedicated to creating solutions. He is addicted to solving problems and that is the common thread he sees in his work. When new opportunities come his way he looks at where the challenges lie within those opportunities. He is looking for challenges that truly present a chance to find unique solutions.

Which is why his workshops are based around guiding established teams through a process to step out and embrace the design side. He thinks that sometimes we are not even leaning heavily on the word design in some of his workshops, but there is an element of it that is tailored into the process of these workshops.

Ultimately these workshops help people move past bad behaviors and make good decisions, and also not belabor those decisions. They learn to make a decision that is good for right now, and to understand it doesn’t have to be perfect. They understand their decisions don’t have to be permanent either, they can be put in place and worked around rather than endless debate and circular conversations.

Also on today’s CTO Studio I asked Douglas what role do CTOs play in those scenarios? The CTO role can very drastically. In some organizations, the CTO is the spokesperson and in other places the CTO is writing code. And there’s a lot of varieties and combinations of the CTO along this spectrum.

At some larger companies they might be the sponsor: they might see the gap and the need in their team to bring this workshop into the company. And in other places they might be the decider and might be participating in the workshop. They may be the one who takes the work from the workshop and brings into everyday company life after the fact.

In other situations, the CTO is there for logistics. A lot of times these workshops look at desirability and imagining the art of the possible, but understanding limitations and constraints are also needed and the CTO can provide that from an operational standpoint.

Which leads to my next question: should the CTO be able to navigate their team out of this sticking point or impass or should they just know people who know people? Douglas says yes to both: there are moments that just happen in the office so having some facilitation skills is valuable as a CTO.

In fact, the design sprint process something built in to help CTOs do this in real-life. The way it would work is if you have 30 minutes or 60 minutes to solve a problem. You might be looking at a design for a database model or some architecture change you want to make and, to do so, you want to bring the whole team together. Rather than just being the CTO and mandating what your team will do, you bring the team together to collaborate.

But if you just stand up in front of your team with your whiteboard and marker there’s a chance everyone will play follow the leader and they’ll go along with whatever you suggest. The way this alternative process works is everyone spends the first half of the meeting working on individual work and flushing out their ideas. There’s magic created when you have everyone doing this on their own while still being in the same room together, he calls this “working alone together”.

Then in the second half of the meeting everyone shares their ideas and the facilitator makes sure they don’t sell it or pitch it. They are only to talk about what they are proposing, not why it will work. After everyone proposes their work then there is a session of voting and everyone reveals their vote.

Also on this episode of CTO Studio, Douglas and I converse about several other topics including the necessity of diversity, complexity theory and how to find local solutions to global problems.

We finish the show with a quick overview of Jake Knapp’s book Make Time and time management/productivity. Join us to hear more on today’s CTO Studio.

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