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How Design Thinking Helped Me Innovate Myself

Sep 17, 2021

What the heck was I supposed to do now? Everything I had worked so hard for seemed to be crumbling down. There I was, standing alone in a home that would now become my isolation chamber. All of their things were gone except for the remnants. A nursery full of what had been my three-month-old daughter's things. An empty closet with empty drawers where my wife's clothes had once been. They were gone and were never coming back.

What brought you to Tokyo?
I’ve been getting this question for the last five years. The answer usually comes out as something like, “oh, my wife’s family needed help on their business.” And yes, that is true, but it’s not the complete picture. In reality, the truth is much deeper than that.

As a Program Manager in the Aerospace & Defense Electronics industry supporting military applications, it was my job to keep things in order. My typical day seemed like a stream of firefights. The day-to-day details consisted of repairing fractured customer relations, overcoming engineering setbacks, ironing out manufacturing defects, negotiating supplier deliveries, and troubleshooting environmental test failures. And when I wasn’t putting out fires, I was writing business proposals to win new projects.

All the problems I encountered became puzzles that needed to be solved.
After years of juggling, I got really good at connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated activities. This unique ability allowed me to spot issues before they happened. Most of the time, this was good. But I often came across like Tom Cruise from Minority Report trying to prevent crimes that even the perpetrator didn’t know they would soon commit. I felt like I needed to control everything, and this would ultimately become the problem that I would ultimately need to solve.

When things didn’t go my way, I would get anxious. How was I going to make up for all the issues that kept popping up like whack-a-mole? I did well at keeping my anxieties bottled up at work. But when I got home, I would boil over—pacing back and forth, analyzing every moment of the day, planning for the next. I had become someone that even I didn’t want to be around.

In the grand scheme, the problems I was solving didn't matter. But I had allowed them to consume my life. And almost all of these issues were mere symptoms of more significant issues within the organization(s) I worked for. Because the bigger problems were left to fester, they created this giant ball of chaos that executives hired me to handle. 

When I finally realized that I needed to make a change, I began searching for answers.
One day I took an assessment as part of a program on design thinking. Design thinking is a framework for innovation based on creativity to identify and solve strategic problems. The assessment was called the Basadur Innovation Profile. After taking the assessment, I received my results. I fell into a "Generator” category, and I was on the far end of the spectrum. 

The generation stage is the activity that initiates the creative process. It is disruptive because it entails proactively and deliberately seeking and discovering new problems and opportunities. Often called opportunity finding, generation results from a restless discontent with the status quo. As a result, generators are in short supply among industrial and business organizations.¹

My Basadur Profile Results

According to the profile, generators excel at getting things started by analyzing fuzzy situations, gathering information, and defining the problem. These activities allow generators to imagine many possibilities and quickly identify opportunities and pitfalls. However, generators are often less interested in the day-to-day activities associated with detailed implementation.

The real problem that needed to be solved was that I was doing the wrong work.
In juggling multiple projects, I was drinking from a firehose of potential problems. I jumped from problem to problem because I could see all of the issues as a whole, where others only saw fragmented components within a system.

 Thinking back and speaking to others, I did my best work by figuring out vague situations and setting projects up for success—not managing the day-to-day implementation. I would get bored and start creating new projects that needed to be solved. I needed to re-channel my energy more productively by focusing on the bigger picture strategy.

Asking the strategic question, “What would have to be true?”
This question is an often overlooked framing method used in design thinking. It’s a strategic question designed to help innovators generate better solutions and eliminate less than desirable ones through the process of ideation. Ideation involves writing down several possible solutions (diverging) and then narrowing the options down to a manageable few (converging). It took a conversation with an executive coach for me to activate this line of thinking. When I told him about my situation, he said I needed to find out “what would it take for me to have a healthier balance” (a variation of the strategic question). And this question kicked off one of the most grueling yet rewarding experiences of my life.

In December of 2015, I left for the holidays to visit my wife and then nine-month-old daughter in Tokyo. They had left six months prior to stay with my in-laws while I finished my MBA program. By April, I would be finished and have more time to provide support. But things in Tokyo were different. My wife had a better support network, was more comfortable, and had a less stressful quality of life. And she did not want to return to the hustle and bustle of living in LA anytime soon.

The answer to my strategic question was that I would need to make some drastic changes. The whole plane ride back to LA, I thought about the actions I needed to take. During the flight, I also began to read the book “Choose Yourself” by James Altucher. And in that book, one particular passage stood out to me.

“The learned man aims for more. But the wise man decreases. And then decreases again.” ²

First, I would need to leave my job so that I could focus on finishing my school work.
To save money, I decided early April was the best time to leave. Allowing myself a buffer gave me time to save money. Given several projects under my management portfolio were in critical stages, I decided to give my boss six weeks’ notice. It would take time to get someone up to speed, and I didn’t want to take on any new projects knowing that I would soon be leaving. So in mid February I gave notice, which turned out to be a poor decision. 

Before then, my boss and I had a great relationship. He had recently been promoted to the role of General Manager for our business unit. And I knew he was a bully. He would often berate other PMs. But we got along well because I put extra on the aspects of my role which mattered most to him, i.e., financial projections, risk management, and revenue recognition. However, my resignation would leave a hole within the organization. Suddenly, he began to set his sights on me. 

Lesson learned: Work for someone that mistreats employees and it’s only a matter of time before they set their sights on you. A standard 2-4 weeks notice exists for a reason, so stick to those guidelines.

Second, I would need to sell a condo that I owned in San Diego.
When my wife and I moved from San Diego in 2011 we rented our condo to a trusted friend, and in that time, the value of the condo had appreciated. Because, we were keen to get someone to move in quickly, we didn’t ask her for a deposit. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse when it came time to her  know that we were selling the condo.

I called to explained the situation and give thirty days to vacate the property. She was already two months behind on rent and I told her not to worry about the money. When the thirty days were up, I called to ask her to leave the keys for the real-estate agent. What I found out next was shocking, to say the least. 

She had subleased the condo to a coworker without telling me.  To make matters worse, she had recently fired him due to performance issues at work. Needless to say, she had already moved out. And on top of that, he had three dogs that ruined the carpet and walls. “Have fun getting him to leave,” I recall her saying as she hung up. Luckily she gave me his number. After a few days of calling without success, he finally answered. The lease termination was news to him, he cried. Before the eviction process could even start, I needed to send him a certified eviction notice. And that would only start the eviction process which could drag on for months if he fought it in court. However, with enough money, I could expedite his exit. Then it hit me, some guy I didn’t even know was living in my property for free and now he was extorting me. 

I needed to come up with a plan. Luckily, an extra-large friend from the Marines still lived in the area. He was more than willing to help this guy make a swift exit. He would even help him pack. He didn’t do anything illegal. All he had to do was show up unexpectedly and carefully explain the situation… The next day, I was free of the problem. Repairing the condo would cost thousands of dollars, but after the repairs we made, we quickly found a buyer.

Lesson learned. Never rent to friends and family, and be sure to secure a deposit. And always have a big hammer available in case someone tries to extort you.

Third, I would need to manage the sale process of my home.
A guy that I worked with had a real-estate license and offered to help with the listing. It would be an easy sale he assured me. Unfortunately, the sale process didn’t go smoothly. We received a total of zero offers after more than a month on the market. He couldn’t dedicate enough time to manage the sale process, given the hefty workload that consumed his time. It turns out that good real estate agents have a much more involved job than most would think. 

Luckily, my accountant introduced me to one of the best in the area. Almost immediately, he let me know we would need to make some repairs. Without the repairs, it would be harder to find a buyer willing to pay top dollar. When I asked the strategic question variant, i.e., “What would it take?” His reply nearly floored me.  When it was all said and done, the repairs took about five weeks and cost around $40,000. The house ultimately sold in the first week on the market for about $60,000 more than it would have otherwise. 

Lesson learned: Expect projects to take longer and cost more than expected.

Fourth, I had to get my dog Brian to Tokyo.
Getting my adopted dog Brian to Tokyo became one of the most challenging aspects of the entire ordeal. Japan requires a rather costly rabies vaccination and testing process for dogs to be allowed into the country. And after the testing is complete, there is a six-month quarantine period which does not guarantee entry. I would need to find someone to care for him while I was making the transition. I could fill an entire book telling the story of how Brian finally got to Tokyo. 

Lesson learned: Don’t adopt a dog without making a lifelong commitment. No matter what happens.

By the end of November I had officially:

  • Left my job as a Program Manager
  • Finished my MBA Program
  • Sold my San Diego Property
  • Sold my home and belongings
  • Found an Apartment  in Tokyo
  • Gotten my dog Brian to Tokyo safely
  • Begun working on a startup idea

1. Basadur, M., & Basadur, T. (2011). Where are the generators?. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5(1), 29.

2. Altucher, J. (2013). Choose yourself: Be happy, make millions, live the dream. Lioncrest Publishing. 

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