Marty Neumeier is a designer, writer, and business adviser whose mission is to bring the principles and processes of creativity to industry. His latest book, Metaskills, explores the five essential talents that will drive innovation in the 21st century. His previous series of “whiteboard” books includes The Designful Company, about the role of design in corporate innovation; Zag, named one of the “top hundred business books of all time” for its insights into radical differentiation; and The Brand Gap, considered by many the foundational text for modern brand-building. He has worked closely with innovators at Apple, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, HP, Adobe, Google, and Microsoft to advance their brands and cultures. Today he serves as Director of Transformation for Liquid Agency, and travels extensively as a workshop leader and speaker on the topics of innovation, brand, and design. Between trips, he and his wife spend their time in California and southwest France.
* * *
Morris: When and why did you decide to write Metaskills?
Neumeier: I started the book three years ago to explore the future of work. The book I’d just published, The Designful Company, was intended as roadmap for business transformation. The premise was, if you want to innovate, you’ve got to design. Design and design thinking are the processes that result in purposeful innovation. These have to be baked into the culture, not bolted on. Any other kind of innovation is an accident.
In writing that book, and in leading a number of workshops on design thinking, I realized there was a missing component—something like personal mastery. When I asked people to imagine a new organizational structure, for example, or sketch out a new business model, many of them would stare back at me as if to say, “We didn’t learn that in school.”
Morris: You call the book Metaskills. What specifically are metaskills, and why don’t we have them?
Neumeier: Well, we do have them, but in an untutored form. The five talents are feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning. Feeling is about empathy and intuition; seeing is systems thinking; dreaming is applied imagination; making is the process of design; and learning is autodidactics, or learning how to learn. Most of us are born with the makings of these, but traditional education has focused more on tactical skills, many of which are brittle, meaning that they don’t easily transfer from one kind of work to another.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Neumeier: Many, many revelations. What’s wonderful about writing a book is that you really stretch your understanding. For example, I learned that over the course of human evolution the hand was highly instrumental in creating the brain, which in turn helps us to extend our biology with machines. I learned that consciousness is a subjective experience, a kind of magic theatre in which we represent the world to ourselves. I learned how aesthetics operates in real life, and why simplicity and complexity aren’t opposites, but partners. These may seem like philosophical nuances, but when you relate them to the workplace of the future, they become key underpinnings.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Neumeier: I first imagined the book as another volume in my series of “whiteboard overviews.” I was planning to call it The Designful Mind as a follow-up to The Designful Company. It became clear after working through the material, though, that this book had wider implications. So I renamed it The Five Talents, using the human hand as a metaphor. In the writing process I came to believe that Metaskills was a more useful title. I was on the fence until the last minute.
Morris: What are the core components of “The Innovation Mandate”?
Neumeier: The premise of the book is that innovation is no longer an option. I see the world as caught in the messy middle between two paradigms—a dying Industrial Age and a new era that we haven’t yet defined. I think it explains why we have so many huge, hairy problems: epic pollution, global warming, failing schools, political gridlock, persistent recession, and so on. And the reason we can’t get our heads around these problems is that we’re using outdated principles. The models and skills we developed for the Industrial Age are inadequate for this next phase of our evolution.
Our new era is not the Information Age. It’s the Robotic Age. Information is to the Robotic Age as oil was to the Industrial Age. By calling it the Robotic Age I’m hoping to capture the excitement—and the implied mandate—of a future in which humans and machines will blend. It’s already happening in thousands of tiny ways, in artificial intelligence, prosthetics, the industrial Internet, self-driving cars, pervasive computing, an always-on mobile culture. Our increasing use of smart machines suggests that we’ll need higher-level skills if we want to remain human and creative.
Morris: What is a “Robot Curve” and what is its special significance?
Neumeier: The Robot Curve is what I’m calling the constant waterfall of obsolescence and opportunity that’s driven by innovation. At the top of the curve is creative work, which is unique and valuable. As creative work becomes better understood, it turns into skilled work, which is more standardized and slightly less valuable. As creative work becomes better understood, it turns into rote work, which is interchangeable and outsourceable. Finally, rote work becomes robotic work, which can be done more cheaply by machines. The Robot Curve is relentless, so the only way to remain fully human is to keep moving back up the curve where the most creativity is.
Morris: You discuss Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” What is its relevance to the development of metaskills?
Neumeier: Maslow believed that individuals tended to work their way from physiological needs such as air, food, and water, at the bottom of the pyramid, up to self-actualization, including spontaneity and creativity, at the top of the pyramid. He also envisioned the pyramid operating at a societal level. The Industrial Age, it seems to me, brought society to the brink of self-actualization. The Robotic Age has the potential to lift us the rest of the way. The Greeks called it eudaimonia—the joyful fulfillment of one’s potential, or the pursuit of higher-level goals.
Morris: What are the six drivers of change in “the workplace of tomorrow”? How do they differ most significantly from the incumbent drivers?
Neumeier: This comes from The Institute of the Future. Its experts predict that the workplace of 2020 will be driven by (1) extreme longevity, suggesting we’ll have more jobs in our lifetime; (2) the rise of smart machines, accelerating what I call the Robot Curve; (3) a broad computational infrastructure, populated with sensors and processors to make the world “programmable”;( 4) a new media ecology in which people will need design skills to create and communicate; (5) superstructed organizations, meaning that social technologies will spawn both very large and very small business units; and (6) increased global connectedness, calling for increased adaptability and diversity in the workforce.
I think the most significant take-away is that workers in the near future will rely much more on design thinking and creativity. We’re already seeing this in Silicon Valley, and we’ll see it soon in emerging countries like Chile, Brazil, and China, which aren’t saddled with the baggage of the Industrial Age.
Morris: What are the most significant differences between traditional business thinking and design thinking?
Neumeier: Traditional business thinkers make decisions in a two-step process: know and do. They know something—from a case study, a previous company, a past experience—and they do something. Quick and simple. But always too timid. After all, anything you already know is also known by your competitors. There’s no way to innovate using know-and-do thinking.
So design thinkers insert a step in between knowing and doing, called making. Instead of accepting knowledge at face value, they say: “Do we really know what we need to know? What if there’s another way of approaching this opportunity that hasn’t been tried before? So they imagine, prototype, and test new ideas that weren’t on the table before. They start from a position of not knowing and end in a position of knowing. There’s no purposeful innovation without making.
Morris: I was surprised, frankly, when I encountered your discussion of “the uses of beauty.” What specifically is beauty’s relevance to the development of metaskills?
Neumeier: I use the word beauty in the broadest sense, meaning a state of wholeness or order. I’m not talking about prettiness or style. And not just objects, either, but ideas, systems, experiences, behaviors, and so on. Man-made beauty is the result of aesthetics, whether we employ it consciously or unconsciously.
Morris: You discuss three layers of aesthetics: content, form, and associations. What is the “single most important” issue to consider about each? First, content
Neumeier: Content is what the object is about. This pile of wood and plaster I’m sitting in is a single-family house. Now, I may like single-family houses on general principle. So that’s the first level of aesthetic appreciation.
Morris: Next, form
Neumeier: The house’s form is its shape, the way it’s constructed, what it looks like, and how it expresses its “houseness.” The way I feel about the form of my house will depend a lot on my aesthetic education. Maybe I can appreciate the stately flow of rooms, the interplay of light and shadow, the juxtaposition of one material against another, the integrity of the craftsmanship, and so on. Or maybe I can’t. The more I know about houses, and “formal” elements in general, the better I’m able to appreciate them.
Morris: Finally, associations
Neumeier: Well, the associations I have with this house, which are based on my experience with other houses and other expressions of aesthetics, are peculiar to me. Maybe my house reminds me of the house I grew up in, or the kinds of houses being showcased in trendy magazines. Maybe it has a musty smell I associate with Sundays back in St. Louis. My associations could be so strong that the content and form don’t matter so much in comparison. This is the layer of aesthetics that really matters to people, the one that causes us to say beauty is in eye of the beholder. It’s actually in the emotions of the beholder, and requires no education at all.
These three layers—content, form, and associations—give us three ways we can agree or disagree on matters of taste. We find it pretty easy to agree on content. We start to differ on form, because an appreciation of formal elements takes effort and training. But where we have the most scope for disagreement is on the association level. “I love zebra rugs!” someone might say. “They remind me of the safari I took in 1987.” Since I’ve never been to Africa, I don’t have the same associations.
There are two reasons aesthetic skills are important. First, they determine the level of delight we’ll find in our world; and second, they can be used as tools to help us create delight for ourselves and others. In the realm of business and branding, for example, aesthetics can create a huge amount of value.
Morris: Of all the contents in the “aesthetics toolbox,” which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?
Neumeier: In my experience, people seem to have the most trouble with contrast. Big vs. small, dark vs. light, slow vs. fast, rough vs. smooth, old vs. new, loud vs. soft. When you play these opposites against each other, you can create drama or wit or surprise—any number of useful effects. Contrast can make the difference between getting attention and boring the heck out of people.
Morris: What is a “granny knot”? How many types are there and which seems to create the most serious problems? Please explain.
Neumeier: That’s my way of explaining the traps that we find in systems. For example, take the trap of addiction, where a short-term fix creates a long-term problem. Granny would just say, “The cure is worse than the disease.” I explain nine different traps and how to get out of them. This is part of systems thinking, the metaskill I call “seeing.” It lets you see the big picture instead of just the parts.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a strategic pyramid? What is its primary function?
Neumeier: In my strategy workshops with executive teams, I discovered a lot of confusion around the words mission, vision, purpose, and goals. Sometimes these terms were being used interchangeably. The strategic pyramid is a simple way to explain each of these terms and show where they fit.
Purpose sits at the top of the pyramid. It’s the reason a company is in business beyond making money. It’s true north for the organization, and it never changes. Below that are mission and vision. The mission is a medium- to long-term goal, and the vision is its unidentical twin, an illustration or picture that describes the endpoint of the mission. For example, when Microsoft was founded, its vision was “a computer on every desktop and in every home.” You can visualize it. Goals sit at the bottom of the pyramid, serving as short-term steps in completing the mission and realizing the vision.
If you’re interested, you can find a downloadable slide of the pyramid on our website in a section called “Steal This Idea.”
Morris: What are the core principles of “the art of framing”?
Neumeier: The frame of a problem is its boundaries. In the book I outline five steps to drawing a frame: (1) View the problem from multiple angles, (2) develop a succinct problem statement, (3) list the knowns and unknowns, (4) play around with the frame to see what happens, and (5) make a simple model to understand the problem better.
Morris: What specifically does correct framing help to accomplish?
Neumeier: The way you frame a problem determines its outcome and the process you’ll use to get there. For example, right now the country is caught up in the problem of gun violence. You could frame the problem by asking the question, “How can we stop the private use of battlefield weapons?” Or you could ask, “How can we protect our second amendment rights in the face of liberal challenges?” Or, “How can we improve gun safety so our children are protected?” Or, “How can we ensure that gun owners take full responsibility for their rights?” There are many, many ways to frame the problem, each of which is likely to produce a different answer. The first step is to agree on the frame.
Morris: What are the most serious consequences of “incorrect” framing?
Neumeier: You could end up solving the wrong problem, or only part of the problem, or solving it in a way that creates a much bigger problem for the future.
Morris: You observe, “The frame of a problem forms the dragon pit.” Please explain.
Neumeier: The dragon pit is my characterization of the space between “what is” and “what could be.” It’s an uncomfortable place, so most people want to get out of there as fast as possible. They either choose the first solution that comes along, or a temporary fix, or they just give up and go back to comfort of “what is.” The problem is that innovation is all about “what could be.” Designers and design thinkers typically spend a lot of time in the dragon pit, knowing that there’s no gain without pain.
Morris: Here’s another of your observations that caught my eye, on Page 170. “the sweet spot of idea creation lies and the intersection of desiderata.” Please explain.
Neumeier: Desiderata are the features you want in your outcomes. Before you begin a creative project of any kind, you start with a wish list of features. Maybe you want the solution to be inexpensive to produce, simple to maintain, elegant in its form, and consistent with previous projects. These would be very general desiderata, but still valid if they gave you what you needed for success. The place where all these desiderata overlap is where the best answer lies. If you don’t know what kind of results you’re looking for, your conscious and subconscious minds can’t do their work. You won’t know when you’re done.
Morris: For those who have not as yet read Metaskills, how best to test the nature and extent of originality of an idea?
Neumeier: In my experience, originality is the product of imagination and knowledge. If you don’t apply very much of either, the best you can do is copy an existing idea. If you have a lot of knowledge, but not so much imagination, then you can probably adapt an idea from another domain. If you have a lot of imagination, but not so much knowledge, you can come up with an idea that’s at least new to you. But if you combine a lot of imagination with a lot of knowledge, you can come up with an idea that’s new to the world.
The book offers six questions to help gauge the originality of an idea: 1) Is it disorienting? 2) Does it kill ten birds with one stone? 3) Is it so fresh it needs to be proved? 4) Is it likely to force change? 5) Does it create “affordances,” or new possibilities? 6) Is it simple enough to be summarized?
Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: How best to develop the skills that accurate measurement requires?
Neumeier: Read the book! And practice, practice, practice. There’s no mastery without practice.
Morris: What does “the discipline of including” involve and when is this discipline most often needed?
Neumeier: Humans are really adept at adding. When we’re creating anything, we love to add features, variations, decorative elements. We pile it high with lots of stuff. However, we’re not so good with subtraction. Removing features seems counterintuitive when we’re trying to create. But taking things away is exactly what a disciplined designer does. “Uncluding” means removing every element that doesn’t pull its weight until all you’re left with is the essence of the idea, the most efficient expression of it.
Morris: On Pages 194-195, you include a “Reality Check.” What’s that all about?
Neumeier: One of the questions of the design process is, “How do I know when I’m done?” So in the book I break it down into ten smaller questions, a set of criteria for doneness. The questions include:
“Is it surprising? Are the underlying assumptions true? Will it be valuable beyond the near and now? Is it as simple as it could be?” If you can’t answer these questions satisfactorily, go back to the drawing board.
Morris: I think some of the most valuable material in Metaskills is provided in Section 5. Here are a few questions it evokes. First, what is the “joy zone” and how best to locate and then remain in it?
Neumeier: This relates to the notion of “flow,” a model proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. When you’re in your element, working happily on a project that’s neither too difficult nor too easy, you’re in the flow, or what I would call the joy zone. When a task is too difficult it produces anxiety, and when it’s too easy it produces boredom. In the middle is the zone where time just seems to fly. Most people find their way to the joy zone through trial and error. The best way to stay there, though, is by following your passion. You speed up your learning by working on projects you love.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “magnetized mind”? How best to develop one?
Neumeier: Your mind becomes magnetic to information as soon as you focus on a mission. For example, if you decide to become the best guitarist of your generation, you’ll start hearing things differently. First you’ll become alert to the work of your contemporaries, then you’ll start listening to earlier recordings, then other kinds of musicians, then the sounds of traffic, shoes skipping down stairs, crashing waves, birdsong, beat poetry, and so on, in search of the tiniest inspiration that can give you an edge or add nuance to your music. At that point you’re on the path to mastery.
Morris: In your opinion, to what extent can “formal education” help a person to achieve metacognition? Please explain.
Neumeier: Traditional schools are still stuck in the facts-as-knowledge model of education. Rote learning has its place, especially in the three Rs, but the Robotic Age is replacing some of the need for memorization with what I call the “fourth brain,” a shared store of knowledge in the digital cloud. As information becomes ubiquitous, it frees our brains to do more creative work.
Today’s schools are certainly aware of the need for creativity and metacognition, but there’s a belief that metaskills, or soft skills, are the inevitable by-products of acquiring facts. A second belief is that everyone should be learning the same thing with only minor variations. Traditional schools were designed as much for their administrative convenience as anything else. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sort with the need for students to make learning personal.
Morris: Of all the “12 timeless principles” one can “borrow” to construct a framework for a theory of learning, which seems to be most “essential”? Why?
Neumeier: If I had to pick one, I’d recommend cultivating “The Big Want,” as my mentor Robert Overby used to put it. The Big Want is a burning desire to succeed, which can’t be extinguished with failure, lack of sleep, lack of money, or loss of friends. I’m not recommending that you focus on your goals to the exclusion of everything else, just that you fan the flames of your passion.
Morris: Please explain the reference to “climbing the bridge.”
Neumeier: Imagine the path to creative mastery as a bridge, and the various disciplines as spreading columns that hold up the bridge. At the top, all the disciplines are connected by a kind of universal mastery. But the only way to get to the top is by working your way up through a single discipline, because it takes deep learning to develop mastery. Once you have it, it’s easier to move laterally to pick up other disciplines, because you already have the skill of learning something deeply.
Morris: I agree with you that, during the pursuit of mastery, “there are no straight lines” during that journey of personal development. What can serve as a compass or some form of GPS?
Neumeier: Your GPS, I guess, lies in finding a purpose, choosing a mission, and setting short-term goals to execute it. This doesn’t have to be daunting. A career is a journey of discovery, so there’s no sense getting hung up on perfection. The main thing is to work wholeheartedly at whatever you do, and not regard it as a placeholder until you find something better. You can extract useful lessons from any kind of work.
Morris: Before concluding your book, you offer “a modest proposal” that recommends seven steps. To achieve what? Why?
Neumeier: My “modest proposal” is a list of suggestions for educators. Traditional education is on the verge of major disruption. Whenever you see the cost of an essential good rising to the point of unaffordability, you can be sure that innovation is around the corner. The change will undoubtedly come from technology that enables a more personalized type of education a lower cost. Like all disruptions, most people will label the new education inferior, but as it improves they’ll say it was inevitable.
Morris: Which of the seven “steps” seems to be most difficult to complete? Why?
Neumeier: I advocate that we “advance beyond degrees,” meaning that we stop relying so heavily on test scores, grades, credits, and rankings. In an educational system where learning is important, being at the top of your class is not an authentic goal. The best place to be is somewhere in the middle, happily engaged, working in the joy zone. If you’re at the top, it means the material is too easy. This in no way alleviates the need for measurement. But the measurement systems we now use aren’t very good gauges of learning. We need to redesign the metrics. I think this will be a big challenge, but also an opportunity.
Morris: Of all that you learned during your own personal journey, starting from when you began to think about writing this book until it went to press, what did you learn that you think will prove most valuable to you in months and years to come? Please explain.
Neumeier: I learned that every problem can benefit from creative thinking. As a brand consultant I used to save my creative muscles for “deliverables.” Now, after writing the book, I see how every part of my work—and my life—can be improved with a more conscious deployment of metaskills. I’m hoping my readers come to the same conclusion.
Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Metaskills and wants to establish a workplace culture within which the five skills can most effectively be developed. Where to begin?
Neumeier: In my experience the best place to start is with executives and managers who already have an inclination toward creativity and change. Some of these will be at the C-level, and others will be in areas such as product design and marketing. Those are the people who not only will “get it” first, but will be able to help spread change more quickly by virtue of skills like visualization, prototyping, and communication.
Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Metaskills, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.
Neumeier: Small companies are in the best position to innovate, and, in fact, may require innovation to compete with bigger companies. So I’d say that the metaskills of dreaming and making would serve them well. The Robot Curve dictates constant innovation, which is more difficult for larger companies. Smaller, nimbler companies have a natural advantage. I recently spent time with the founders of Air Bank in the Czech Republic. They’ve flipped the conventions of retail banking upside down. Customers love it, and they’re growing fast. I was thrilled to find out they built the company on my brand principles.
Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
Neumeier: Well, here’s the question I feared you would ask: Why is an innovation/design/brand consultant talking about evolution, consciousness, and aesthetics? I can’t give you a logical answer for this. I just had an intuition that it was necessary to paint a bigger picture.
* * *
To read Part 1 of this interview, my first interview of Marty, and reviews of his books, please click here.
Metaskills book site
Strategic Pyramid site