Issue 16 Summer 2018 | Catalyst Interview
Mauro Porcini is Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo – the first to hold the position – where he oversees the diffusion of design-driven innovation across the organization. As one of the pioneering voices helping to elevate strategic design to the level of the C-suite, he has worked closely with PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, to strengthen the corporation’s sustainable and strategic advantage by design. In this interview, Porcini shares how he is changing the organizational culture to be more receptive to design, and what that means for developing and maintaining a thriving organization. Prior to joining PepsiCo in 2012, Porcini led design at 3M, working with their brands to produce innovation and growth through an “experience-driven” approach. Earlier in his career, he co-founded and owned the design firm Wisemad SrL, where he worked with clients in the technology, multimedia and entertainment industries. Porcini is on the Board of Directors of the Design Management Institute.
Catalyst: What are some of the lessons you have learned over the years in your role as Chief Designer within large organizations?
Mauro: One of the best lessons I have learned is to pay attention to the phases of innovation. This is key for understanding how to socialize the strategic value of design within any organization. When companies begin an innovation process, they often don’t even realize they need something specific and they often don’t even see design as essential to the innovation process. I would call this first phase denial.
The second phase is when someone at the top of the organization begins to understand the innovation need. Typically, nothing changes until the CEO grasps the need and introduces a new team, approach, process or project to the organization. If this isn’t done well, it can build what I call hidden rejection. I can say this from personal experience. To your face, most of the organization will claim “we are with you,” but as soon as you leave the room they will “go back to doing serious stuff”. This behavior is very dangerous, because while you think you are making progress you are actually losing months of precious time. Large organizations are not patient. They give you months or a year to show results. So, hidden rejection and the time it costs can put your innovation strategy at risk.
The third phase can overlap with the other phases, especially in complex organizations like PepsiCo. Innovation requires the occasional leap of faith, finding willing co-conspirators within the organization. Co-conspirators are key employees in middle management who are responsible for projects, brands, businesses and have the power to make things happen. They need to be experienced enough and have a level of credibility inside the organization to be entrusted to take risks and do things differently. I would often find co-conspirators in directors or presidents graduating to a new role. They were hungry to prove themselves at their new level, and my goal was to help them use design to create impact in ways that were different from their predecessors. Employees at the end of their career also make good co-conspirators, because they have fewer inhibitions and less to lose. When I started at PepsiCo, I looked for co-conspirators inside the organization. We assigned them to high potential projects where design could really make an impact and deliver short-term results for the company. The goal was to create really tangible proof points.
However, proof points alone are not enough. The fourth phase of innovation is what I call the quest for confidence. While the business world has realized design creates value, many organizations struggle to integrate design processes within the organization. When a company hits a roadblock in innovation, such as timing, costs, or manufacturing capability, they often give up. Pressured by the market, they often default to lower-risk projects. Or, they invest heavily in consumer research only to realize it does not tell them what they need to do. The only way a company can truly embrace the risk-taking required for innovation is to have the emotional confidence, as a leader and a brand, to believe in the right thing to do. The final phase of innovation spreads this emotional confidence in a holistic awareness throughout the organization, where every employee becomes a part of the journey.
Catalyst: Does that confidence build on some special knowledge, expertise, or experience, and where does that expertise sit in the organization?
Mauro: I think design thinking can really help. Some might say the term design thinking has lost its meaning due to its over- or misuse, but I would argue that it has been absolutely essential to getting our foot in the door. Without it CEOs and executives would never have generated any interest in a design approach. It is up to us to use the term wisely. I view design thinking as a connection between empathy (deeply understanding needs and wants of people, essentially what it’s relevant to people), strategy (deeply understanding what it’s relevant to your business), and business (deeply understanding the business model, manufacturing, process, and culture of the organization).
Some might say the term design thinking has lost its meaning due to its over- or misuse, but I would argue that it has been absolutely essential to getting our foot in the door. Without it CEOs and executives would never have generated any interest in a design approach.
Let me give an example. If we discover a need in society, and it is a good match for PepsiCo, then there is business strategy relevance for an innovation. I can then design an innovation to address the need in a way that makes sense and leverages our assets, manufacturing and processes. However, companies must also be ready culturally to innovate or take risks. A powerful design strategy must make sense for the business model, manufacturing, process and company culture.
This makes it clear that you can’t simply buy design thinking and innovation from agencies. Agencies won’t understand the cultural depth of the organization and are not integrated inside the processes of the company. They are not there every single day to fight and protect the essence of an idea. While agencies are important, it is critical to have an internal team that acts as the steward, interpreter and facilitator of design thinking across the company. This is particularly important when working with traditionally powerful departments. Learning how to differentiate and collaborate with Marketing, in particular, is a requisite skill. Designers must learn to articulate the unique strategic value they bring to the table.
Catalyst: Have you found that today’s designers are equipped for this task?
Mauro: I look back at my own journey as a designer. When I started out, I never thought I would end up helping large organizations unlock their full potential through a culture of design. After my studies in Milan, I continued to develop my thesis project about wearable technology and exhibited my creations in museums such as the Louvre. In the process, I created a name for myself by working at the intersection of wearable technology and music and caught the attention of 3M. When they offered me a job, I jumped at the chance for a new adventure. I have been able to thrive mainly due to my healthy optimism, a relentless desire to dream big, and an openness to being uncomfortable and learning new skills. I believe these traits are important for every designer today.
In the field of design, it is so easy to get pigeon-holed into a specialty. Much of this is a product of our design education. Today, the business world needs design generalists integrated into the organization. There is a tendency to protect ‘creatives’ in large companies by giving them a contained space to indulge in their messy creative processes. However, the last thing designers need is to isolate the value of design in an organization. Designers must start to feel comfortable connecting enterprise conversations around strategy, business, operations, and organizational culture, and step up to the role of creative leader. Even wardrobe choices can be intentional. I dress to show that I fit in but also make sure to differentiate myself. Like brands, designers too must fit in and stand out in a well differentiated way that creates value.
Catalyst: In our programs, we elevate the conversation around design from the production of goods to a strategic partnership that drives innovation and creates value. How did you introduce this mindset at PepsiCo?
Design at the strategy table—this is key to real innovation.
Mauro: My journey began during my ten-year tenure at 3M. 3M Design was born in Italy out of an initiative piloted by the Executive VP of Consumer Business Worldwide and an Italian Executive. Six months later it was brought to 3M’s US headquarters, where clients such as Target were looking for mores design-focused partnerships. It was a perfect match between the need of the client and what we were doing at 3M internally. I worked with the US team to create design expos where the customer’s employees provided early input on 3M prototypes. This helped diffuse the value of design-based processes within 3M. The more we co-created successful product lines, such as post-its, scotch tape, video projectors and many other everyday items, the more the entire organization began to embrace design as a partner.
Similarly, Indra Nooyi, our CEO at PepisCo understands that design is about much more than the production of goods and packaging. She was on a quest to find a strong internal design leader who could partner with senior leadership to define what the company needed. Every year, the global presidents of key functions, including Marketing, R&D, and Sales, as well as the CEOs of North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia meet for a week-long strategic planning meeting. Now, Design is also at that table defining the strategy of the organization. Design at the strategy table -this is key to real innovation.
Catalyst: How has your design leadership unsettled or shifted the organizational culture at PepsiCo?
Mauro: Design is a really powerful cultural influencer. Our ability to prototype – to propose, create and translate ideas in very concrete and tangible ways brings value to an organization culture in several ways. The first one is alignment. As an example, if a group of people are discussing a new design for a knife, everyone will have a different visualization of what the knife might look like. However, if I show a prototype of the knife, now suddenly we are all aligned around the same picture. Whether it is a sketch, a presentation, a 3D model or a wall of post-its, it visually clarifies what we are thinking and aligns everybody around that idea. It seems obvious, but large organizations are like other complex cultures attempting to innovate. People can waste time and energy due to a lack of clarity in the nuances and interpretations. Because of their position in the culture, different positions bring different perspectives. Staying with the analogy of the knife, the marketer might tell me the brand on the blade is not big enough, the scientist could tell me the blade is not sharp enough, or the ergonomist might tell me that the handle is not comfortable enough. That feedback is not only constructive from a design perspective, it is culturally essential. Through the exchange of knowledge, know- how, feedback, and input from the different functions, I am cultivating the second value, co-creation.
It is the designers’ responsibility to co-create and to shape tangible, good enough designs as soon as possible to help marketing, R&D, and organization leaders actually see what is possible with our knife. But, to do this we need to have the courage to create things even if they’re not perfect because it empowers all the other functions in the room and in the organization to co-create with us.
The last thing designers need is to isolate the value of design in an organization. Designers must start to feel comfortable connecting enterprise conversations around strategy, business, operations, and organizational culture, and step up to the role of creative leader.
Once you’ve co-created internally, prototyping can add value by creating external worth. When you take that knife to the consumer or to other influencers inside or outside of the company, it can help you drum up support, funding and sponsorship. CEOs, funders and decision-makers love toys to touch and feel as much as anyone. It is human. They receive requests for funding every minute of the day, so to excite them with something they can touch and feel is very powerful. This is what I call The Power of the Shiny Object. I’ve seen it so many times. The first thing they’ll ask is “how soon can we get it to market?”
All of these different aspects work to create confidence within the organization. Every day, vertical experts in different areas of the organization are creating with you and endorsing what you are doing along the way. The consumers also participate and give you feedback about what to tweak, so by the time the product gets to market, you feel confident you are doing the right thing.
Catalyst: Have these new design-led processes re-defined what you consider success as an organization?
Mauro: One thing I started to work on at 3M and continued at PepsiCo was to define our ROI in design, or our return on investment. We use a framework to help us measure the course of design’s business success, including top line, bottom line and market share. We don’t just look at the project level, but at its impact on the entire business over an average of three years. Imagine if Apple had one good product and packaging in a mediocre portfolio, the full experience of the Apple brand wouldn’t be as we know it today. So, it is not enough to measure what three designers are doing. You have to measure what the company is doing with the three designers. Design is intricately connected to brand equity, customer engagement, the speed and success rate of innovation, and the cost of goods and processes. When you try to detach it, you betray the very nature of design. This requires a commitment from the company to develop a roadmap for a full redesign of the whole business portfolio.
Catalyst: PepsiCo embraces the performance with purpose ideal. How does this factor into your decision-making and help to create a more thriving world?
Mauro: Performance with purpose works in three different areas – sustainability, social purpose, and product. PepsiCo has shared very concrete 2025 targets with shareholders and the media, so we are very committed to this. If a company’s mission is to create a more sustainable world, from an ecological, social, emotional and intellectual standpoint, I believe you need design. The journey to sustainability is a deeply human endeavor and requires people to thrive. Since designers are academically and practically trained to deeply understand the needs and desires of humans, I often define them as people in love with people. We want to do the right thing for them. The moment you define design only on aesthetic value, you betray what design is really about.
For that reason, I believe our social purpose is especially relevant. We are advocates for people. For customers, we have worked hard to move the relationship from a poor functional transaction to a strategic partnership. We aren’t just designing products anymore. We aspire to attract, engage and enliven customers in ways that you can see, feel and measure. In our new Pepsi Spire drink stations in stores, hotels and public spaces, making a drink becomes a moment of entertainment as the customer can create any number of healthy base drinks and flavor combinations. At the same time, we are collecting that data, which will eventually lead to new customer-inspired product lines and innovations.
These designs not only promote co-creation. They also prioritize the experience of joy, pleasure, wonder, and play in our relationship with the customer. By tapping into these emotional dimensions, we can more meaningfully connect with people on a human level and in ways that enrich their lives. Helping PepsiCo design for thriving, a corporation that reaches billions of people in almost every country on the planet, is a richly rewarding journey to be on.
If a company’s mission is to create a more sustainable world, from an ecological, social, emotional and intellectual standpoint, I believe you need design. The journey to sustainability is a deeply human endeavor and requires people to thrive.
Learn more about the current work at PepsiCo | Design & Innovation
Giving ‘creatives’ a contained space to indulge in their messy creative processes only isolates them from the rest of the company. Find ways to integrate them physically as well as strategically within the organization.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
>> LEAD performance by connecting product, sustainability, and social purpose.
>> DESIGN plays a role in spurring social and economic development in communities around the world.
>> DELIVER value to internal stakeholders as well as user groups and they will enable design strategy.
The Interview conducted by:
Richard Green, Professor Arts and Cultural Management and Design Management, Pratt School of Art
Irene Di Bartolo Molina, Design Management, Class of 2019