Method's Method for Building Breakthrough Products

My favorite presentation at the 35th annual DMI conference in Providence, RI., without any disrespect to the many bright folks on stage, came from Joshua Handy. He's the vice president of design at Method -– the upstart soap company that showed how green can go mainstream. In a presentation called the "Method Method," Handy lays out in plain English the secret to Method’s success. Rather than offer a series of commandments distilled from years of learning, Handy framed the company's principles by walking the audience through the development of one of their newest products. Here’s what they’ve learned: 1. Define your problem. Asking the right question is a crucial step toward finding new innovations. Careful definition leaves plenty of room for fitter solutions to evolve. Method’s definitions seem to approach problems from the point of view of the consumer and the requirements of environmental sustainability. Framing the problem correctly led Handy to think differently about laundry detergent: How might we create a less messy and wasteful approach to getting the right amount of detergent in the washing machine? This question led them to packaging detergent in a water-soluble pellet, like a super-sized Tylenol capsule. 2. Design out loud. Everything about Method, from its floor plan to its 360-degree whiteboard surfaces, supports a kind of extroverted experimentation. Ideas are quickly converted into prototypes that are shared, tested, revised, and left lying around. Failed ideas, therefore, are always available as fodder for future ideas. Method couldn’t get the laundry pellet to work for a variety of technical reasons, but the prototypes kept the core problem constantly on the designer's minds. When a colleague walked over to Handy’s desk (Method's offices have no walls) with a new kind of pump bottle idea, the two of them married the laundry problem to this new solution — and invented the easy-dose pump for laundry. 3. Express beautifully. The products Method produces are designed to be put on display. Their hand soap doesn’t come in designer bottles, yet it looks better than any decorative crap you get from legacy soap manufacturers. And this beauty isn't merely applied at the last step. The company has a commitment to aesthetics at every step. The prototypes Handy showed in his presentation already contemplate how they might be viewed on the grocery shelf. There is no separation between the idea of Method products and their brand. It’s a core value that makes it easy for them to knit together a cohesive product family that is dramatically different from the competition. If this had been a turnaround story about a failing soap company that had used this approach to reinvent itself, we’d have called it "design thinking." In fact, that phrase –- design thinking -– echoed through the rest of the DMI conference as a solution to the big problems that face companies and countries alike. But at Method, it’s just what they do. They don’t even seem to label themselves designers, and yet, everything about them -– from the open floor plan, empathy for the consumer, commitment to sustainability, and immersion in prototyping in the search for breakthroughs –- is design. And it’s working quite well for them. How did they infuse this kind of creative approach throughout the company? It’s not about training or best practices or process. It’s about having a high enough goal and then hiring the right kind of people: creative folks up for a challenge, ready for ideas to come from anywhere, questioning the status quo. (Designers, hybrid thinkers, T-shaped people, ambidextrous brains -– whatever you prefer to call them.) As Handy admitted at the end of his talk, the greatest threat to Method’s successful run "might well be the next 100 people we hire."

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