Why you need prototypes and Powerpoints: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Prashant Agarwal, the VP of Design at McKinsey Digital Labs. They talk about his career trajectory, from studying business to co-founding a startup to product management to design, and his current role at McKinsey, where he rethinks design challenges at scale. Paul and Rich also discuss content marketing, including this podcast and their fear of small talk at cocktail parties.
Paul Ford: Hey, I’m Paul Ford.
Rich Ziade: And I’m Rich Ziade.
Paul: And this is Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. We build your apps, we build your websites, and we build the big scary platforms that live underneath them.
Rich: And we design as well. And…
Paul: That’s true. When I say build I mean we make it look good and we make it work really well.
Rich: I think one of the strengths of this podcast is we’ve been pretty open about this little baby business that we’ve been growing called Postlight.
Paul: That’s right. It’s a toddler now, it’s walking, it’s on two feet.
Rich: It’s on two feet, and we put the little corners on the table, it’s baby-proofed.
Rich: The house is baby-proofed. Because he keeps pulling the crystal ash tray off the table. It’s a little —
Paul: It’s a little rough. He hits his head a lot.
Rich: Hits his head a lot. And one of the things we’re talking through is marketing.
Paul: Right: how do we get new business and what do we tell to the world in order to get new business?
Rich: Right, and truth be told, by all measures, year one of Postlight, which is pretty much 2016, was a big success. For a one-year-old agency we grew pretty quickly, and we landed —
Paul: Let me ask you a question.
Paul: Do you feel that in your heart?
Paul: I don’t either.
Rich: I am driven by failure.
Paul: Objectively, I know that.
Rich: I’m driven…well, also, I know I’ve also heard it from other people who have said, “You should really pause for a second and appreciate what you pulled off in year one.” Not “you” meaning me, but “you,” this group of people that was able to do what you did in year one.
Paul: And people like think that motivates you but it doesn’t.
Rich: Oh, well, my life and — my brain and my motivations are garbage.
Paul: I just…
Rich: I am convinced that I’m gonna get found out any minute, and that’s just, we don’t need to get into me.
Paul: People say, “Relax, lean back, have a cigar.” And I’m like, “The only reason I can light it is, I’m hanging over a volcano.” [laughter]
Paul: That’s how I’m like.
Rich: It’s really too bad that you and I have the same pathology, rather than actually one of us being the supportive…the one that walks the other off the cliff.
Paul: It’s true. No, I never come to you and I’m like “Rich, let’s just get a great bottle of wine and celebrate the good thing we just did.”
Rich: Oh no. Oh, we’ll go on Slack in a private chat between you and I, and the conversation will start with “We’re done.” [laughter]
Paul: We do our best…we do our best to insulate the people around us from this.
Rich: Correct. And I think, look, deep down we know this thing is going good. It’s just, I think it’s from where we came from, we both came from pretty unstable backgrounds that didn’t provide that cushy stability, a sort of smooth waters first 25 years of life.
Paul: You know what it is —
Rich: Neither of us did.
Paul: It’s just cycles, right? You and I are well trained on a one- to two-week cycle. One or two weeks, I’m pretty sure how that’s gonna go.
Paul: But after that, it’s a cliff.
Rich: It is, it is a cliff. So now let’s talk about marketing. What we found is we hacked marketing year one with this podcast, with the newsletter, with some great Paul Ford articles.
Paul: No, we never pretended otherwise, right?
Paul: We’re like “This is our content marketing strategy.” But we made a good decision, I think, which is just always be pretty clear about where we’re coming from. Here’s a good example: People have asked if they can vet the podcast before we let it go out.
Rich: We will not compromise on that.
Paul: We don’t do that, we have some pretty, we should almost publish a statement of journalistic-ish content marketing ethics.
Paul: Because we hew to a pretty good code.
Rich: And we…I think we’re just trying to stay authentic. We don’t apologize about the fact that we pitch the business at the beginning of the show, it’s almost corny.
Rich: It has a Crazy Eddie quality to it, and that’s OK. But now what we’re seeing is, it’s time to do some grown up things around marketing. And we came to a realization.
Paul: We need help, we need structure.
Rich: We need some structure. Like, we’re actually hiring a marketing person, which might grow into a marketing team. There’s stuff happening that is — we’re putting together all the different legs of the table.
Paul: People may not know, too, an agency this size, without an actual concerted marketing plan and structure and team is pretty unusual.
Rich: It is unusual.
Paul: What it means is that Rich and me feed all the mouths.
Rich: In terms of getting word out, chasing leads, opportunities, and what not.
Paul: Right. So if I have a bad day, the company doesn’t move forward. And the same with you, like, if you and I don’t have a good day, or I’m sick at home, the sales leads don’t keep going.
Rich: Yeah. To be clear, the company moves forward in terms of the current engagements we have, we have great people who are handling —
Paul: Oh, the work gets done.
Rich: The work is getting done.
Paul: But what we’re thinking about is the work coming in.
Rich: We are the business — marketing and business development arm of the company, and that’s painful. I’ll tell you partly why: I like to build stuff.
Rich: I’m technical just enough to understand how stuff works.
Paul: I love to build, I love to program, I love to play.
Rich: OK, but I’m more on the product side.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: I care deeply about thinking through and navigating how a product should mature.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: And we don’t do a lot of that. We are business development today. And you know, as we thought — thinking about bringing a marketing strategy into focus, we came to a realization. That both you and I, generally speaking, don’t like people.
Paul: It’s a little bit of a problem, and it’s necessary that we like people in order for us to do our job.
Rich: I think, as a baseline requirement…
Paul: That’s a little redundant actually. I really do like people.
Rich: Me too.
Paul: I just have trouble, I’m not an extrovert, and I find dealing with lots of people, I need to recharge after. It’s not even that it’s exhausting, I just, I need a minute longer than anyone might expect.
Rich: Yup, yup.
Paul: And so I don’t always feel like I have control over the relationships and the outreach, because I don’t get that reset time. I’m just moving.
Rich: I think that’s right. I think — and look, to clarify, if someone wants to talk to me because they’re having a problem, or they have a particular need, whether it be a prospect, or actually anyone else, and it’s — there’s some intimacy to it, I will lean forward and really get into that conversation.
Paul: That’s a conversation.
Rich: Here’s where I’m not good at. Or not that I’m not good at, I just don’t…I don’t enjoy it. The sort of fluttering from circle to circle at the cocktail party.
Paul: The room full of lanyards is tough.
Rich: The room full of lanyards is tough. Because —
Paul: I can’t do the subtle eye motion downwards, to see if I know the person or their company.
Paul: I’m just like “Hi, how do you do?”
Rich: It’s not our game. It’s just not our game. I mean, we’ll do it, and don’t get me wrong, if you see us, you know, at a cocktail party, at a conference, we’re not in pain. But it’s really not our strength. It’s really not what we’re about. So —
Paul: Here’s what I would say, it’s almost an activity, I can do it a couple times a quarter. I can’t do it every week. Some people can.
Rich: Some people thrive in that setting, in fact. They actually enjoy it. The love meeting new people and that’s how they connect. And that’s…I don’t…it’s just not me.
Paul: No, I just —
Rich: It’s just not us.
Paul: Enough of us crying like children.
Rich: Enough of us crying like children. So we’re gonna plug those holes. That’s the plan. I think we could have so many strengths in terms of, how do we take a conversation along, but then there’s, how do you get the word out? And also, this is a brand. McKinsey — we’re about to meet someone from McKinsey — is a brand that stands on its own. If you’re inside there, nice to meet you Jim or Nancy, but you’re McKinsey.
Paul: From McKinsey, and there’s a kind of low whistle that goes off in your head.
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: Whatever you think about the consulting industry in the world you go, “Mmmm. OK. OK.”
Rich: Yeah, exactly. And we are one year old, and we’re Postlight. I have to say, I’m very proud of how we’re perceived out there.
Rich: But we are one year old.
Paul: No, if I go walk up to somebody on the street and I say, “I’m Paul Ford with Postlight.” They go, “…OK.”
Rich: Do you need — what are you waiting for? Why are you standing there?
Paul: It’s the same. We’re going to a conference in about a week and a half.
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: In San Francisco, what is it, between the sixth and the ninth?
Rich: Sixth and the ninth.
Paul: Sixth and the ninth. It’s the Shift Conference put on by our friend and client John Battelle, and we’re going specifically to meet valuable people and tell them about how we’re valuable people.
Rich: Yeah, introducing the business and ourselves to a new audience.
Paul: And the experience there will not be, “Hey you! I know you.” It will be “Tell me about what you do?”
Paul: And we’ll go, “Well, we build websites, apps…”
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: “And we’re top-to-bottom engineering company, but we’re also very design driven.” I’ll tell that story.
Rich: Yeah, exactly.
Paul: And I’ll practice it.
Paul: I’ll practice it in the mirror.
Rich: Yeah, that’s right.
Paul: That’s kind of where we’re at.
Rich: Yeah. And in a way, I sort of wear it as a badge of pride, that’s the strange part of this. Like, the fact that I want to get to know you in a meaningful way, I don’t want it to be artificial, I’d rather really have a drink and talk, just you and I and understand what’s going on, and I think that’s a strength. But in learning —
Paul: It’s weird to be…I mean, we’re not kids, we’re in our forties. It’s weird to be still figuring it out. I thought I would kinda have this on lockdown —
Rich: No, we’re not gonna figure it out.
Rich: What we’re realizing is that we are not unicorns that can just provide all the different colors of the rainbow for the business to hum. There are gonna be other pieces that are gonna make it work.
Paul: That’s right. And we need to step back and let other people come in and help us there.
Rich: That’s right. So we’re gonna meet Prashant Agarwal.
Rich: He’s the VP of design at McKinsey Digital Labs.
Paul: Great, OK, wait: before we talk to him.
Paul: What is McKinsey?
Rich: McKinsey is one of the most powerful management consulting companies in the world.
Paul: So management consulting. So I’m a manager somewhere, I have a team of like 500 people and I make running shoes.
Rich: Yeah, they pretty much advice on the strategic level.
Paul: So I call McKinsey and I’m like, “Hey, I need to get my running shoes into Ecuador. Because I think that…because Nike is down there, we gotta compete.”
Rich: Yes. “And I need you to help me come up with a battle plan.” So I’m thinking about the competitor, I’m thinking about the landscape, I’m thinking about the customer, all of it.
Paul: So McKinsey comes, they send some very well-dressed people.
Rich: Very sharply dressed.
Paul: They open up Excel, they open PowerPoint and they say, “Let’s solve this.”
Rich: They open up various type of software, yes.
Paul: Except that this is the VP of design.
Rich: That’s right, he is the digital VP for McKinsey Digital Labs Design Studios. That’s a heck of an acronym.
Paul: Are there any colons in there? How does that work?
Rich: It’s MDLDS. Do you say MDLDS Prashant?
Prashant Agarwal: No we just say MDL. We have experience designers within MDL.
Rich: OK, McKinsey Digital…
Paul: We need to | bit by bit.
Rich: Yeah, hold on. McKinsey Digital Labs is a part of McKinsey.
Prashant: That’s right.
Rich: So we’re gonna get into McKinsey and its parts a little later, but first, Prashant, we want to talk about you and how you got to where you are today.
Rich: I looked you up on LinkedIn, and when I look people up on LinkedIn I go into incognito, because I don’t need my face being sent to them an hour later.
Paul: You can turn that off in a setting.
Rich: Can you do that?
Rich: I like going into incognito.
Paul: All right, fine.
Rich: We all like going into incognito.
Paul: The little guy in the hat, do you like the guy in the hat? He lets you know you’re doing something wrong.
Rich: I have this image of that guy in the hat sort of nodding disapprovingly.
Paul: Shaking his head. Shaking his head.
Rich: As I’m in incognito, just shaking his head in disgust.
Prashant: You feel like a private investigator.
Rich: It’s like a private investigator. [laughter]
Paul: So Rich, this isn’t what you look at in incognito mode or in Chrome web browser. [laughter]
Rich: So, Prashant has a bachelor’s in business administration, which is…doesn’t make me think design out of the gate. That’s where your background education started.
Rich: So, take us from there.
Rich: You’re out of school, through your career, that puts you eventually in McKinsey.
Prashant: Yeah, so definitely…good observation. I don’t come from a traditional design background, I think I fell into design. So we’ll talk a little bit about how I got there. So right out of college I went to work for the Wall Street Journal, and I worked on wsj.com, so it was just when that was launching, back in, God, ’95?
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Prashant: Yeah, long time ago. So I started my career really in online media, entry level, just a kid college, I was interested doing something in the internet. I thought I would end up in, I was looking for jobs at advertising agencies, because at that time I lived in the East Coast, that’s kind of what seem reasonable.
Paul: Silicon Alley.
Prashant: Silicon Alley. I remember going to Cyber Suds meet-ups.
Paul: I remember it.
Prashant: You know those?
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Prashant: Yeah, it was long time ago.
Rich: Cyber Suds?
Paul: It was bad. [laughter]
Rich: Were there bubble baths together?
Paul: There’d just be weird events at the Puck building for everyone to network, and you were in your twenties, you don’t know what to do.
Prashant: I had no idea what to do.
Paul: But you know you’re ambitious so you go.
Prashant: Yeah, exactly. But I quickly realized that while working at WSJ was cool, Silicon Valley was where it was at. So I ended up moving to San Francisco, like a lot of people at that time. And I ended up working at CNET. I did a bunch of different thing at CNET, and from there I got pulled into some startups, electronic software distribution, I was an analyst, I was doing some biz dev, and then I actually eventually did my own startup, as you kind of have to, and on the side I got really interested in two things: instant messaging and mobile. So I did a startup that was about instant messaging for teens on mobile devices, subsidized by location-based advertising in 1999. So we were like…20 years too early. [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, exactly.
Prashant: Like we know, startups are all about timing.
Rich: I gotta ask you the name.
Prashant: It was called Stick Networks.
Rich: Stick Networks?
Paul: That’s good, that’s good.
Rich: Not a bad name. I thought I’d be able to make fun of it.
Paul: It could have been called Teen Jam.
Prashant: It could have been.
Paul: Like there was a high risk in 1999.
Rich: It could have been much worse.
Prashant: Could have been called Teen Jam, but we luckily gave ourselves some space to not get stuck in that.
Rich: Did you raise money?
Prashant: Yeah, we raised money, we had a bunch of angel investors and we actually have a computer company that wanted us to use their PDA platform for our device. And we wanted to do device, software, the whole thing.
Paul: So you were gonna do hardware too?
Prashant: Yeah, yeah, we had hired industrial designers. And that was probably my first exposure —
Prashant: To working with traditional designers. We had designers on our team.
Paul: How big was this company?
Prashant: We were probably, God, like 15, 20 people.
Paul: So a real startup?
Prashant: Yeah, a real startup.
Paul: A real, very ambitious, gonna change the world, big plans.
Prashant: Yeah, and at that time we saw a couple things. We saw AOL was king. IM was this massive platform. It would become the IM wars, you know, interoperability and all this stuff. And then in Europe we saw another thing which was prepaid text messaging just taking off like crazy with teens. We’re like, there’s something here, how do we combine these two things? Which was great for me, because it actually helped me build on my interest in IM, but also dive into something, which was mobile. Which at that time was very early, and mobile at that time was super interesting, because it was telecoms versus the internet.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Prashant: I think we know who won in the end.
Paul: Well, so far.
Prashant: So far. It’s a sickle. And eventually…that startup didn’t go anywhere, it was too early. But eventually, I ended up working for Yahoo on their comms products, I moved to London. I ran Yahoo Mail and Messenger for Europe, and I did a bunch of other stuff at Yahoo, kind of in Europe, kind of get some international exposure, working on different platforms, did some more stuff on IM, and mobile search.
Rich: I just want to stop you to understand what you were doing. Specifically, were you just sort of general manager? Touching everything from deals to product?
Prashant: So as a product manager, my focus was more on rolling out products.
Rich: Got it.
Prashant: It wasn’t general management but it was more about how do we work with the teams in Sunnyvale to align our product road maps and roll things out in Europe.
Rich: While you’re focusing on Europe and their particular requirements and needs and all that.
Prashant: Yeah, all the businesses were slightly different. We were competing for different features and functions. In Germany versus the UK, we had different competitors in some cases.
Rich: Got it.
Prashant: So eventually I went from being kind of like an undergraduate business person who’s interested in technology, media, to being a product manager.
Prashant: So I definitely think of myself as a product person.
Prashant: Which is actually how I fell into design. Because doing product at Yahoo, and doing mobile product, I got exposed to working with really great designers and kind of all these interesting trade offs you have to make when you do mobile, right? Because mobile, designing for mobile is like, product manager is all about prioritization in a lot of ways, and mobile is ruthless prioritization.
Prashant: And along the way we hired this gentleman to run mobile at Yahoo who came from Nokia. And he really exposed me — Nokia was a very design-centric, design-lead company at that time — really exposed me to the power of design and how you leverage it and said like, “Hey I think you have a good sense of this. You should spend more time doing this.” It kind of inspired me. So when I left Yahoo, I ended up working for a design consultancy, called Fjord, which started in London, it’s been around for a while. Ex-Razorfish guys, and I was the first product person to join what was a completely design-lead professional services business.
Rich: OK, so this is interesting. You’re not a designer.
Prashant: I’m not a designer.
Rich: And you’re coming into…I’ve heard of Fjord, which is a very well-regarded design firm. Explain the mindset about bringing in a product person to a design firm. Like, what is your — designers report to you? Did they give you dirty looks?
Prashant: No. I mean, they didn’t report to me. We worked, you know, on small teams on projects, and everyone had a role, expertise and a perspective to bring. I did find it super collaborative, because I was worried about the very thing.
Prashant: Is, “Who is this guy? Why is he in here? He can’t sketch, he can’t draw. He doesn’t know anything about UX.” But it’s like, well, I’ve launched products that were out live in the market. So that gives me a certain amount of respect and other perspective, you can’t do everything.
Prashant: But you are able to represent, kind of balancing as what product manager is sent to do is the business side of it. We have to understand a bit of the technology and more importantly, you have to really think about the customers, the end users you’re serving. So there was common ground there with designers, but then the business and technology part was something that depending on what kind of designer you were might be a little bit alien, or, like, I don’t know how to do that, so it helped me put that in perspective. So I wanted to become a better product person by learning how to work with designers.
Rich: And you have a respect and appreciation, obviously, for great design.
Rich: Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone down the path.
Prashant: Absolutely. And I think…in evolving, kind of as a product manager, what I realized was, I think product managers — broad brush strokes, this is my personal experience — really were good at bridging the gap between the business and the technology by being the evangelist or the representative of the customers. What kind of occurred to me along the way is that the business and technology part was interesting, but increasingly there’s a missing part, which was the experience. As you can do anything with software, how do you choose, like, what do you want to do and why do you want to do it. So in a way for me, experience became the new product, and bridging the gap between designers and creating experiences into the business and technologies world is kind of what I thought product manager, management would be about. I think we’ve seen that play out a little bit when you think about startups and the way that teams are structured now in that, you know, you got a business person, you’ve got a technologist, you probably got a designer.
Prashant: Kind of have a leadership role.
Paul: How do you bridge that gap, when you’re working with the designer and you’re trying to get them over into your world. What do they need to know?
Prashant: So I think what they need to know is kind of, like, what to be precious about, and what not to be precious about, and how one, present their work as well, and who your audience is. So I think designers are really, really good at thinking, kind of empathizing with the people they’re designing for. That’s what they’re trained to do, and they’re trained to imagine solutions for them. I think sometimes they have a harder time, the challenge is communicating what you think is important, why it’s important to technologists.
Rich: To any third party.
Prashant: To any third party, exactly.
Rich: Right. Like, “What do you mean? I’ve bonded with the user, we are one, and who the hell are you?”
Rich: So I think there’s a tension, not a tension, there’s almost the distance there in terms of, “Oh, you’re the unsympathetic manager over on the left, and I’ve got it sorted,” right?
Prashant: I don’t think it’s actually much different than any expertise, in a way that developers probably have the same challenge. The biggest difference now I think is that we don’t work in an assembly line, waterfall way within teams that build things, or even companies and partners that work together to build things, we’re all building it together, and so everyone was there together. And that’s a slightly uncomfortable thing for designers, or for anyone really, right? And so just being part of that conversation is a big part of it. And kind of going back and forth, knowing what to give and what not to give.
Rich: Yeah. OK, so you’re at Fjord.
Prashant: Fjord, yup. I’m working as a contractor, and they’re like “Hey, you’re doing a lot of work with some of our Finish clients. Do you want to go to Finland?”
Prashant: So I moved to Helsinki from London, I worked with one of our big clients there, you can guess which one probably at that time.
Paul: Finish Fisheries Council.
Prashant: Yeah, exactly. [laughter] And six months in, Fjord’s like “We want to open an office in the US. You’re American, what do you think about that?” So I ended up moving to New York and set up shop at Fjord, up the street from here, actually.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Prashant: So first person in the US, this was an interesting change for me. I went from someone who wanted to be a better product manager to starting to set up shop.
Paul: So it’s just you in the office.
Prashant: It’s me in the office.
Prashant: Without an office at this point.
Rich: This is what year, where are we?
Prashant: So I moved here in 2009, to New York.
Prashant: But you know, we had a team in London, so we found some projects, we bootstrapped it with folks in London and we bootstrapped it with people we knew in the network here. Eventually started hiring people full time, ended up working with a lot of financial services companies, media companies, some technology companies, set up shop in San Francisco, expanded our customer base. So we had two studios in the US, we had a bunch in Europe, and then we got bought by Accenture.
Rich: How big did you guys get before you got bought?
Prashant: So Fjord was about 250 people.
Rich: Yeah, at Accenture.
Paul: Accenture’s about 40,000. It’s a big old company.
Prashant: I think Accenture is like 300,000.
Paul: 300,000? OK.
Rich: Is that true?
Paul: It’s totally possible.
Prashant: When I was there —
Rich: All human?
Paul: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: All right, so…
Paul: What is it like to be acquired by a 300,000-person company?
Prashant: I think that we, I think we were very lucky that our founders were very sensitive, so like, we’re a super small, little design company being acquired by this massive technology-driven company, for the most part. And so think they’d fence us off, the Fjord brand still exists.
Rich: To this day?
Prashant: To this day.
Prashant: Accenture’s kept it.
Paul: So it’s a little more like advertising holding companies, where it’s, you know, “We’re an Accenture company, as opposed to being…”
Rich: Yeah, it’s in the footer.
Paul: The design division.
Prashant: I think in that particular case that’s how that one worked out, so…
Rich: Smart on their part.
Rich: It would have disintegrated otherwise, probably.
Prashant: Yeah, and people wanted to come and hang out at our office. [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, sure.
Prashant: So it was an interesting experience, and it was really the first time where I got an inside look of what it’s like to be at a large consulting firm that operates at a completely different scale…
Prashant: Than we do, which is pretty fascinating, right? Because we sat either downstream from very strategic management consulting firms, the work we did at Fjord and the people who we worked with, or we sat upstream from kind of a technology integrator, right? So now we’re kind of in a large remnant, there’s a little bit of both.
Prashant: And that was fascinating, because we got to see kind of how much focus there was on making stuff, and scale. This is all about scaling, helping large businesses do massive things at a massive scale. Which you know, was a neat thing for us.
Rich: That’s interesting to hear that it was viewed as neat versus, “Oh lord, here come the corporate overlords and they’re gonna crush our creative freedom.”
Paul: I’m sure there was a little of each, right, I mean, that’s life.
Prashant: Yeah, I don’t think it was that clean… [laughter] Paul, I think you’re right in the sense that there were definitely people like, “OK, this is gonna change exactly what we do.” And you know, to be honest with you, I was there for a year, and there was a lot of, you know, everyone learning what does Fjord really do, what does Accenture really do, where are the common grounds. And I think there was different levels of traction in Europe versus the US in those first years just given the position of the companies.
Prashant: So there’s a lot of, like, with any, I think, acquisition or integration, you’re learning about each other.
Rich: Sure. How big was US when the acquisition happened?
Prashant: I think we were 60 people.
Prashant: 60 people, yeah.
Paul: What was it like? So one day you’re selling, you know, fairly mid-sized engagements to clients, and you’re a design-focused shop, very creative, exciting, cool offices. And then, now, Accenture’s sending you out on bigger, weirder engagements. What was the difference? Was there one? Did it feel different to be working for a giant consulting firm?
Prashant: Yeah, well, I think for me what was interesting was that sometimes it’s like, what’s the design part of this?
Prashant: Whether it’s actually designing a digital product, or even like how do I apply design thinking to this. Because it’s like, “What are we actually here to do?”
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Prashant: That part was always — that part was the biggest thing. I think it’s one of the insights —
Paul: So you just go to a meeting, and about an hour into the meeting you’re like, “Wait a minute, what’s happening?”
Prashant: No, it’s a little bit more structured than that. It was more like, once we got into doing the work, and I think we were this cool new capability, and it was a side that people were like “Oh, you have this now, this is neat.” It is useful, how do we bring it —
Paul: Take it out, take it out for a try.
Prashant: Take it out for a try, yeah. So I think that we were learning as we went along, but the insight was a lot of the times like, we focus on the process and the outcome. Where in design you’re like, we’re good at process and methodology, we’re good talking about that. But the whole process and methodology is actually discovering the outcome and understanding how to balance that message. I think it’s something we still are working on as we as designers work with consultants every day.
Rich: I’m gonna go out on a limb and say, if it was 1988, Accenture would have never acquired a design shop.
Rich: 1993 —
Paul: Well, Accenture didn’t exist but, yes.
Rich: It was Anderson Consulting.
Paul: They got in a pickle and names have changed, it’s all good.
Rich: It’s a good name. I like Accenture.
Paul: Everything’s fine now. [laughter]
Rich: Which I want to get into, is the fact that McKinsey has an emphasis on design now.
Rich: I think it’s interesting. But keep going. How long did you stay at Accenture?
Prashant: I was there for a year.
Rich: OK. Why did you leave?
Prashant: I was just ready for a change, I think I was ready to do something different. I’d been at Fjord for a long time, I’d done a lot of stuff.
Prashant: I worked on great clients, I’d opened an office, I mean, it felt like I’d done everything I could do there and was ready for me to try something different. I got this call. “Hey, we’re interested in spending up a design team. We have a small design team, we want to make it bigger, at McKinsey, are you interested?” I was like, “Whoa, that’s interesting.”
Paul: It’s an unusual…I think for the listeners, too, why is that an unusual call?
Prashant: Well, I think, one is someone who had been on the tech side and then in the design world for a bit, the idea of working at a place like McKinsey just seemed really alien. You think of people going to, like, business school, then going to McKinsey.
Prashant: And here is like an opportunity to join as an experienced hire, kind of later in your career, so that in itself was interesting.
Paul: This is true, they usually just graft people straight out of Harvard MBAs. “Come on down to the big office in New York City, and you will be the consultant’s consultant and go and do, you know, run spreadsheets about concrete distribution in Egypt. That will be your McKinsey job.”
Paul: So getting a call saying, “We’re gonna have this focus on design,” is pretty intense.
Prashant: Yeah, and I think that, at least my perception at McKinsey as an outsider at that time, right, was like “Oh, these are the guy who’re like the CEO whisperers.”
Prashant: And they have a lot of influence, you know, in determining the strategy of companies.
Prashant: So wouldn’t it be really cool, I think as designers, we see, we see companies like Apple, putting design on the radar. It’s like, “Oh wow, I can actually have a seat at the table, with maybe that level of influence.”
Rich: You get to whisper, too.
Paul: Well, because I have a friend who used to work at McKinsey, and he had a great line. He was just like, “I loved it there because we ran the world.” And he wasn’t being ironic, it was, there was a point where McKinsey kinda ran the world.
Paul: So OK, so they had perceived that design was suddenly, or not suddenly, but had become important at the highest levels of…
Prashant: Yeah, I think what had happened was the McKinsey Digital Labs team had been around for a while, I think even at this point the Labs team had been around for three to four years.
Prashant: And they’d been doing amazing work and really bringing tech — like, making stuff within the firm. Developing tools, digitizing products, bringing agile capabilities and methodologies to client work. And I think the realization was, “Oh, we probably don’t have as many designers as we need.” And that design could be a bigger part of that, and maybe even a stand-alone piece. So it definitely was with the lens of designers as part of MDL, I think our ambition has always been like, there’s a bigger role for design to play. And I think that is kind of…as you know, as McKinsey has made a lot of acquisitions, you guys probably heard about LUNAR, we bought a firm called Veryday. We’re now 300 designers globally.
Paul: But when I think McKinsey, I think blue background PowerPoints and spreadsheets. So what are you actually designing?
Prashant: Yeah. There’s still a lot of spreadsheets, there’s still a lot of PowerPoint, but we’re not designing those things.
Prashant: We are actually working with clients to, across the board, I’d say we are designing digital products and services within MDL.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Prashant: And within McKinsey, or Digital McKinsey. We do have industrial designers, and they’re actually working with clients on physical products.
Paul: So these are consumer products, not just, like, I was kind of assuming it might be more analytics focused, or dashboards or ways to…because McKinsey usually delivers strategy, right? So it’s, what I was assuming might be things that would help the customer, who in this case would be an executive, deliver on that strategy. But it’s actual things the consumer or user —
Prashant: Yeah, I mean, LUNAR’s has made headphones, I don’t think we’ve done that project, but LUNAR has —
Rich: That is an example of a type of consumer product.
Prashant: Has done that stuff. But I’d say, Paul, to your point, we’ve done those things —
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Prashant: Where it’s like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be better if this was a dashboard versus a spreadsheet?” Right?
Prashant: We’ve done those things, we’ve done data visualizations, but we’re helping clients launch a new digital business from scratch.
Prashant: There’s a role that design plays in that, which is going off and doing customer research in the field, prototyping, co-creating, mocking things up in InVision, bringing it back to customers, helping them make decisions about road maps, and what you’re gonna make. And we get pretty close to the MVP level in that process, so we’re making things. So, whether it’s concepts or MVPs.
Rich: Right. It’s not just a deck.
Prashant: It’s not just a deck, in fact I would say that the role that we play as designers, and I’d say at MDL in general is that, I think with digital force people realize is that the recommendation is good, and it can be very well thought-out and very fact based, but it needs to be tangible.
Prashant: Right? So I think that was the genesis of the idea is that, how do we take what we are recommending to clients and actually make something that they can actually experience? We’ve tried advocacy at that just shows how complicated it is and the value it creates for your customers, whether they’re B2B customers, internal customers, or external customers.
Rich: I mean, in a sense, it’s another communication tool. I mean, you can hire that architect and he can tell you the building’s gonna be that big, and he can sketch it for you, but then they do that small-scale model so you can walk around it and better understand and appreciate the challenges and why it’s beautiful, and why it’s worth it.
Paul: I mean, we find that. Big companies come to us to do prototypes, not because they want to even necessarily get them to market faster, but because they have to tell a story internally.
Paul: And if they can get that in three months, they can get buy-in, whereas if they 18 months of proving it out in terms of a budget, no one, no one will actually go for it.
Prashant: Yeah, and I think that there’s a three-stage process to this. One is the recommendation: what are you recommending? Two: it is about making it tangible, so people understand it from every degree possible, and that actually makes it more actionable, which ultimately I think the larger size business you are, that is actually the hardest thing. It’s actually driving that action.
Paul: So how do you advocate for a prototype to get built? In one of — these are big companies, lots of people around the table, there’s a lot of reason why people don’t want to get things built, they like to talk about them. And you’re coming in and saying, “Let’s build a prototype.” What happens? Do they go “Yes,” do they go “No,” — what happens?
Prashant: So there’s definitely two trends. One is, either the project is actually, you know, the prototype is at the heart of it, it’s actually about how to validate what we’re building.
Paul: Building the new business.
Prashant: Building new business.
Prashant: Building a new experience, you know, that kind of thing. Because it’s like “Well, no, this is part of the fact base.” People touched it and at some level and we’ve gotten some really good feedback, so we understand what’s good, what’s bad, what we need to, right? The second thing is you don’t really talk about the prototype as an outcome, and you say, “Well our role here is to drive capability building.” So you can’t actually understand how to do this unless you actually get your hands on it.
Prashant: And actually you’re involved. So like, the client’s teams are involved with us and I’m sure you guys have seen this, you see one, do one together, and then do one with some hands-off guidance. And it’s the same thing that we think about. So it’s either a capability building, or it’s actually about making that recommendation. And sometimes they go together, but I wouldn’t say we sell prototypes, right, we would never think of it that way.
Paul: OK, understood.
Prashant: They’re an artifact that helps drive action…
Rich: And sometimes validate, right? Sometimes you forgot data behind the prototypes, like, “We went out, we user tested, we field tested this, the numbers are good.” There’s some real…it’s not just taste at play here. They’re still a quantitative facet to this.
Paul: So we like to say, this little company trying to be scrappy, Postlight likes to say we build prototypes, not PowerPoints, but McKinsey Digital Labs is saying, “You can have both.”
Prashant: You can have both. [laughter]
Prashant: Actually I think, we would say that you kind of need both.
Paul: I think especially at scale, right?
Prashant: Yeah, at scale.
Paul: A big company needs all the communication it can get.
Rich: And you gotta walk that thing around.
Paul: You do. And if they can see it, like, I feel that InVision and prototyping tools are really starting to really change that up, because just that little gap where it’s actually on a phone and people understand…InVision’s done a very good job of implying what’s fake and what’s not.
Prashant: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: So it’s really easy for people to grasp, in a way that wireframes were never able to do.
Paul: So you use this little prototype on your phone, you move your fingers around, you’re like “Oh, OK, I get it.” It’s very, very powerful, and that didn’t use to be the case. That’s only the last couple years we’ve had that opportunity.
Rich: I gotta tell you, the URL, InVision kicks off with a URL.
Rich: And to me that was the leap from video being a clumsy, six-step thing on the web, to YouTube auto-playing a video when you hit an URL. The fact that you can give an URL to a 53-year-old executive, and all of a sudden they’re experiencing the thing, I think is a very big leap.
Paul: That is a big deal.
Rich: It sounds trivial, but it is a very big leap.
Prashant: Yeah. On their phone with very little support, it’s not the IT guy who’s setting this up.
Paul: No, it’s true, they’re home on their wifi.
Paul: The fireplace is roaring —
Rich: “This is great.”
Paul: And they’re like, “Oh, I got this email from McKinsey.”
Rich: And let me tell you, a 56-year-old grey-haired executive with a $200 million budget getting excited while he’s on his porch on a Saturday afternoon changes things.
Paul: It does.
Rich: They start sending emails, “I wanna,” like “Let’s talk, I want to brainstorm on this Monday morning.” And next thing you know, this incredible pivot — I mean, ultimately humans, and some of us are knuckleheads, are the ones, they are the points in that map that get you to the destination.
Paul: We’ve spent 20 years trying to explain why digital stuff matters to executives with their heels dug in.
Paul: And this is one of the things that actually can jump that gap. Like, suddenly they go “Oh yeah, this is great, this is like the other thing that I use.”
Paul: And suddenly you can have a conversation.
Prashant: Also, I think for them, you guys experience this as well, we always think about who’s setting the expectations of your customers, and it seems like it’s everyone else setting the expectations of your customers.
Prashant: And so when you’ve got something like a prototype, they’re like “Oh, we can do that too.”
Prashant: And that’s really eye opening for them, and they’re way more excited, to your point, like, “Let me send you this prototype that the team built,” versus, “Let me send you the PowerPoint.”
Paul: That’s right. “Mike’s gonna come out and show it to you, and you’re in the Hamptons, we’re putting him in a car.” That’s not as good. That’s not as good.
Paul: So you’ve got a team at McKinsey. How big is this team? What do they do?
Prashant: So…within the digital practice and experience designers, I think we are over a hundred people, globally.
Paul: Big old team.
Prashant: Yeah, and these are all digital designers. So we’ve got people in North America, Europe, Asia, now South America as well. And they all come from kind of the usual suspects, they come from the Frogs, the Fjords, IDEO, Smart Design. So very experienced design practitioners. They’ve all had, for the most, part lots of experience doing digital products and services.
Paul: And they understand agency work.
Prashant: And they understand agency work. Yeah, exactly. And what we do is, we actually partner with our consultants, colleagues, so we are on projects together. And it’s everything from “Let’s go and help build a new business,” to, “Oh, can you give some quick expertise on why we think they need this app?” “Our website design is not working and how do we make it better.” It’s the more tactical, like, we’ll do that as a favor kind of thing. So it’s a whole range of things. And you know, I think that what’s really interesting is the fact that increasingly clients want to see, not just from designers, but clients want McKinsey and consultants to bring expertise.
Prashant: I think a big change has been the generalist consultant model, smart people who can learn lots of things and dive into the business, is great, but digital kind of goes, “You need to go deeper than that.” And we’re seeing that across a lot of different expertise.
Paul: So they need practitioners.
Prashant: They need practitioners, yeah.
Prashant: And then practitioners bring credibility.
Paul: How long, if you’re on a client, are people on your teams with that client for a year? For a month? For years?
Prashant: So it really ranges, I mean, I think the typical project is anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks long.
Paul: Oh, that’s short.
Prashant: That could easily turn into a program.
Prashant: Where you’re doing back-to-back projects that are running for a year.
Paul: But still, so 3 months is a typical engagement.
Prashant: Yeah, coming from a design world, what we do in 12 weeks feels very fast.
Paul: That’s very fast for McKinsey, too, for any big consulting firm, they tend to take longer.
Prashant: For McKinsey it’s actually pretty normal.
Paul: Oh, really?
Prashant: I would say for the kind of word we do speed is important.
Paul: And what’s just one example — somebody is calling you in, what are they asking you to do? Like, right now what are the kinds of things that people need you to do?
Prashant: I’ll talk about a study, you know, we had a client who is, they’re a B2B player, they manufacture things, they’re like “We think there’s an opportunity to do Uber of X.” Can you help us figure out what that could look like? And our role, was everything from —
Paul: You kept that very vague, PR is gonna be happy with it. You’re gonna be OK.
Prashant: It’s a common request, right? So we do everything from going off and talking to customers, the end users and try to understand what are their needs. So a typical discovery process, but with designers in the field. All the way through doing…prototyping a whole new business, coming with a business plan, making that business…having the prototypes, like “This is what your users are actually gonna use.” To helping them present that at the board meeting.
Paul: Got you. So people come and say “We think, we have a hunch. Help us.”
Prashant: Yeah, and you know, along the way, you’re like “It’s not quite what you guys were thinking. We’re think it’s over here and not this.” So helping them navigate those pivots.
Rich: So one last question. What do you consider really great design today?
Prashant: So I love this concept that Amazon has rolled out, Amazon has built a convenience store in Seattle.
Rich: I’ve seen this.
Prashant: Yeah, can’t really name the concept. But it’s basically a store you walk in with your phone, you shop, you put stuff in your basket, you walk out and it’s charged to your Amazon account. I think that is phenomenal design, and I think it’s kind of ironic, because people don’t think of Amazon as someone who does great design based on looking at amazon.com, but I think that…
Rich: You just walk out with your stuff. You just grab your cheese, you grab some milk and then you leave, and everything’s taken care of.
Paul: So there’s no bottleneck. There’s no waiting.
Rich: No. No.
Paul: It’s just as fast as you can get in your hands.
Rich: It feels like shoplifting. I think it’s called Amazon Shoplifting. [laughter]
Paul: Amazon Shoplift.
Rich: But it’s really cool, there’s a concept video, have you seen this Paul?
Paul: Yeah, I’ve seen it. Amazon Five Finger is the name of the… [laughter]
Rich: That’s not the name of it, I’m pretty sure is not the name of it. But yes, very, very cool. Kind of mind blowing a little bit.
Prashant: Yeah, I think it really speaks to —
Prashant: Addressing. Yeah, it’s great experience. It dresses like a consumer shopping habits.
Prashant: A kind of unmet need, it speaks to leveraging really interesting technology, but making it completely invisible and working for you versus you working for the technology. I think it’s redefining what the retail experience could be like to someone who comes from the online world but brings that perspective to the physical world.
Paul: It beats those self-service check outs. Those are terrible, those are absolutely one of the worse experiences.
Prashant: Similar intent, very different execution.
Paul: Yeah, just disaster.
Rich: It’s really rough, right? It’s like the in-between there is just tough.
Paul: You’re just waiting for someone to come help you all the time. I’ve had very bad luck with those. Well look, thank you so much for coming in.
Rich: Yeah, this was really great.
Prashant: Yeah, it’s fun. Thanks guys.
Rich: Really insightful.
Paul: Good to learn what’s going on in the big world. Thanks.
Rich: Paul, I felt humbled a bit as a little tiny shop here in New York City, at 101 Fifth Avenue.
Paul: Yeah, this is…
Rich: I love name dropping our address by the way.
Paul: I do too, I’m very proud of this address. Look, it’s a big world out there and there’s a lot of big companies, and they need big company things.
Paul: It is interesting to figure out where we fit in a world like that.
Rich: It is, and it’s interesting to hear about design at that scale.
Paul: The thing is, the fundamentals are the same, it’s about getting something in somebody’s hand where they look at it and they go, “Oh, that’s what I wanted.”
Rich: “Do it.”
Paul: “Yeah, let’s go, give me your prototype. Give me something like that.” But it’s a different scale, there’s more meetings in his world than there are in ours.
Rich: Oh yeah. It’s a political tool.
Rich: The design artifact is a political tool in many ways.
Paul: I mean, it only —
Rich: Not in a negative way. It’s just, you have to navigate human beings to get the thing moving.
Paul: It always is. We do some work like that where the things that we do take months to play out before we can truly get to what we would call work.
Paul: But we’re not classically consultants in that way. In general we want to get to be building something as quickly as possible.
Rich: Yeah, but a part of that process is concept, is design, is prototype. And it’s interesting to hear how it’s become sort of the center of a lot of business thinking.
Paul: Because this was a company that really dealt in strategy and numbers, and now it deals with rectangles and grids as well, and industrial design and…so that’s a big part of the world that’s changing. It’s not visible because the things that they do in that world gets shipped by other companies.
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: But it’s a change. Things are changing. And that’s why this podcast is called Track Changes.
Rich: Such a good name.
Paul: It’s the official — Rich named it, which is why he just said that. [laughter] It’s the official podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio here at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. If you want to get in touch with us…Oh God, I forget. What’s the address?
Paul: Hello@postlight.com. That’s an email address, you just open up your email client and send us a note.
Rich: We love getting emails by the way, you don’t have to just say, “Hey, great podcast.” If you’ve actually got a question about anything. Or answer. We’re generous.
Paul: Or really, just the crazier the better. We like a good crazy email.
Paul: Whatever you got, just shoot it over.
Rich: We’ve gotten some good ones too.
Paul: Check us out, postlight.com, we are glad to talk to you about anything. Rich, let’s get out of here and get back to work.
Rich: Have a great week everyone.