A mindset shift

Sep 24, 2021 · 7 min read

“Why do I need to change? Lean works. F*** off.” — ANONYMOUS CLIENT

By Kwame Ferreira

There are many places where any work is good work. I know, I’ve had to work, i.e. help create products, that have done little or nothing to better any life, human or otherwise. I remember my first job was as a product guy in the adult entertainment industry. Well, not that glamorous, I was making websites for a guy who was running an undercover bordello in Lisbon. I lasted a couple of weeks. That’s how long it took me to understand what was going on, that there are massages and there are massages!

I’m aware that under a market economy, I was getting paid for my work because the product was selling — therefore, I was bringing value to customers. I was having an impact, even if only economical. I was being paid decently and from a United Nations perspective, I was even fulfilling a 2030 Sustainable Development Goal. Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth. When I discovered it wasn’t decent, at least there was economic growth to hold on to.

Why be more critical? Work is work. But is it? Really? Do we not have a choice? What is that choice? How much do we have to change to have an impact beyond economic growth? And if we do change, how do you measure the impact of the products you’re creating? How do you know that the change is positive?

Without measuring there will be no change. Especially under a system where everything is exclusively measured financially. Imagine if the creation of a piece of furniture or an app could be measured in children killed.

Can we get all of the world’s new products to be using 50% recycled and recyclable materials by 2030?

Measuring will be critical if we are to change the current product development mindset and its planetary impact. Measuring product impact, as we will see, is not straightforward, and that fact has more bearing in the present planetary course than most other factors. How do you measure the impact on individuals, community and environment at large of a web service, a spoon business or an app to book a table at vegan, gluten-free restaurants?

We argue that a shift in mindset going into the creative process through which we create products, will have a positive impact in reaching our goals of a more balanced planet.

We can’t wait for governments to implement top-down legislation that will lead to the necessary change. At the time of writing this, no government is on track to meet their 2030 carbon goals and not much progress is being done on all the others.

As we navigate the planet we are faced with a myriad of problems. We find them ourselves or we get hired to help solve them for others. We solve problems by creating products that become businesses.

Under the lean methodology, popularized in Silicon Valley, people must be willing to pay for those products from the very start. All our energy goes into making sure that is the case. Only then can these become impactful businesses. Our thesis is that the product, which sits between problem and business, is, if successful at scaling to a business, a very efficient vehicle to have a measurable planetary impact and meet global goals. Think of it as a Trojan horse concealing the solution to more than just a visceral customer problem. A horse that once within the walls of a growing and burgeoning city, will take it over. For good.

Our core focus is therefore changing the way products are tackled and created. How we create products reveal what problems are being prioritized and how we look at the the citizen/planet relationship. Products mirror very clearly our ability to care for something beyond profits.

Products come from our direct relationship with the planet and people within it. When we get to a business, we are one layer above products, that’s two above planet. Because businesses are abstract relationships between people. We find ourselves further from the reality of the biosphere. We start playing in a people-economic logic with rules that change like governments. In this setting, the furthest removed we are from the planet, the more negative impact we are likely to have on it. Do not attribute to malice that which can easily be attributed to carelessness.

I met a gentleman on a flight to Peru who had been controlling a small logging business in the Amazon Basin mostly remotely from his office in Florida. I’m not going to paint him as careless for he was aware of the impact of his activity, but his day-to-day distance to the operational reality on the ground made decision making more prone to carelessness. Had that operation been in his backyard, the relationship would be more direct.

The mountains where I grew up in the south of Portugal were plagued by Eucalyptus trees. People had fled the interior of the country to go and work in the coastal cities. They looked at a way to monetize their abandoned land. Eucalyptus seemed perfectly harmless but are prone to catching fire quickly in our dry seasons. The business decision was made remotely not taking into account the potential impact of the product. It sounds far-fetched to deem Eucalyptus a product, but for the purposes of the argument they are, selected, bred, easily replicable and with pull from the market.

Because of our ability to control from a comfortable abstract business layer we can easily disconnect from the supply chain and its impact. We can easily become careless. As we put more and more layers of artificial abstraction between ourselves and nature, the more we are likely to treat the planet as a resource rather than home. Most products created in the last couple of centuries reflect that.

It’s easy to see why the ‘Let’s just do the product and offset later’ or ‘Let’s donate some of our profits to a charity when we get some profits.’ has become the most convenient option for most product creators. However, it’s the journey from the customer’s individual needs outwards, towards global goals, that will change the way we create products and find balance on our planet. That is the journey we invite you to take.

For the longest time I pitched our work at Impossible as creating products that have a positive impact for the planet and humans. I’d like to think that for the most part that statement is true. More via way of madness than method.

As we applied design thinking methodologies we couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing built into the method that considered the planet in the creative process. At the same time (and that hasn’t changed) we were getting paid by people, not the planet, so very quickly we dove into a sprint of work to test initial assumptions and formulate a product hypothesis. We took pride in satisfying our clients (we were the clients a lot of the times) and the most efficient short-term way to do so was to provide user-centric solutions. We surrounded ourselves with users, individuals, and stayed in human land.

There was no methodology out there that gave the product creator creative freedom to navigate global goals, and see how these could align with the product at hand. So we just focused on the customer. And why wouldn’t you, in an environment where product success is purely measured financially? One easily defaults on who is willing to pay for the product.

We couldn’t start the creative journey to get to a product by starting with planetary problems, because for the most part we are confronted with human problems on a daily basis. But we did want to start a conversation that included the planet very early on. As conversation lies at the heart of the product creation process, we found a way to take an initial product pitch or hypothesis and confront it with the global goals. Initial product conversations are very visceral: “Bob, you need to try this app. You press this button and a taxi will be at your door in three minutes and they are cheap.” It solves my individual problem of getting from A to B. What other problems can it solve, beyond individual problems? Can that initial product conversation solve bigger problems or will it just add to them and offset in the end?

It turns out that that product can solve far more than individual problems from the outset. The fact that you as the product creator, want it to solve more than the individual customer needs, sets you up for a journey towards planet centricity. In that conversation, how do you enable and reward car pooling, electric vehicles, job security, gender equality, optimize for less fuel consumption…? If that conversation included just one of these, it would signal a change.

Unrealistic? Maybe. The product would not have scaled as fast as there aren’t enough diverse drivers or electric cars. Its impact would’ve been limited. Under a lean methodology all these are barriers to adoption. You would be discouraged to think of anything but the customer.

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Photo credits: Henry Be, David Clode and Toomas Tartes


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