25: Experience Design with Mike Wittenstein

Mike Wittenstein is the founder of StoryMiners, a consulting firm in Atlanta, Georgia. They help businesses translate strategies into customer experiences. Previously, Mike was a media personality and spokesperson for IBM. We discuss how StoryMiners utilizes design to create value for customers and the frameworks behind their processes.

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Experience Design with Mike Wittenstein

Our guest is Mike Wittenstein, who is the founder and managing partner of Story Miners. Story Miners in Atlanta, Georgia, what a great place to be on January 5th. It turns strategies into stories and experiences to be implemented at the human level. So, Mike will tell us a little bit about that. Previously, he was with IBM. He was the media personality and spokesperson on IBM for two years, and he helped IBM design McDonald’s digital drive-thru and Wingate’s deskless check-in. And prior to that in the 90s, he was the co-founder and CEO of one of the first digital communication agencies in the world called Delia. He’s also a global speaker, a coach and facilitator. So welcome Mike to the show.

Thank you for having me, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here and I can’t wait to see what unfolds.

It’s fun to have you on the show. Mike, let’s start with kind of the regular question. How do you get here? Tell us a little bit how you become an entrepreneur and how did your journey take you on this long and winding road?

You know, I had to write some notes because I knew that question was coming. And here are some of the things I’ve done since I was like nine years old, because that’s when I had my first sales experience. You know, I did babysitting, yards, restaurants, manual labor, office labor. I worked as a travel agent, a multilingual guide, a teacher, a cabinet maker. And then I got serious, a consultant, a little bit of work in real estate, more management consulting, the digital agency that you mentioned, e-visionary for IBM. And now I’m a strategist and a designer. That’s a lot of steps, but that’s where I am today.

Yeah, but the last 20 years, you were pretty much doing story miners, right?

Yes, story miners is almost 20 years old. That’s right. And IBM was a few years and the digital agency, was about eight years before that. So, you know, a respectable professional career.

I’m glad I’m where I am. Job jumping and job hopping all the time.

No, not at all. Not at all. That’s a sport for the young.

That’s right. Okay. So it’s interesting because you started out as an entrepreneur, you did this digital agency, and then you went into IBM, which is like a big corporate job. And I almost said career, but you only were there for two years, and then you left and became an entrepreneur again. So tell us what happened there.

Well, one thing happened. The dot com became the dot bust, and everyone was out on the street. So I would have stayed longer, but, you know, it wasn’t in the cards.

Okay, fair enough. So what did you actually learn at IBM that you could put to use in your entrepreneurial?

What a great question. I learned so many things about working with people about how business is done, about how promises are made and kept how to organize big things how to move fast. But the two things that I learned from two amazing people I’ve used forever since professionally. The first one was from one of my mentors, Steve Heckel, who was the director of central planning at IBM until he quit because he said central planning no longer works.

Made a big statement back then to Lou Gerstner, I believe. He wrote a book called Adaptive Enterprise, which is the actual mechanics of how to make a business agile. Now, we all know how to make a software department agile. You run sprints, you have reports, you have burndown sheets, but you can actually make an entire company work like a software team. He wrote the book on it and it’s influenced my life greatly ever since. Steve is still with us, but he’s retired. I also met Lou Carbone, the founder of Experience Engineering.

He taught me about customer experience design. An old ad guy, he figured out that it’s the experience that someone has that creates value for them and also begets the cycle of word of mouth marketing. So he taught me how to design experiences. Steve taught me how to design the backend and I put those together. And what we do for clients today is help them make adjustments to both the front and the back end at the same time, because most companies don’t do that.

They have a founder or a department head who’s all about engineering or all about soft side communications and marketing, and they push hard and they try to get the other part of the business to work with them, but it’s kind of like, you know, it doesn’t work. It’s like our House of Representatives and our Senate. It’s like not designed to work together. But if you introduce the idea of an agile business and you make your experiences focused on customers, then you can get both parts to work together and you can create huge changes very quickly. So I’ve used that magic to create about $2 billion for clients in the last 25 years.

So, experience design, can you explain it to me a little bit how that works? So how do you design these experiences and what is the process there?

Okay, what’s your background Steve? Are you an engineer? Are you a business guy?

I’m an accountant actually.

An accountant, okay, now I know how to talk to you. And is your audience similarly minded? You know?

Hopefully not.

Okay, all right.

So yeah, so I’m an accountant, turned banker, turned investment banker, entrepreneur, business coach. So I always had a longer mind in the road.

You’re used to looking at the numbers. I get it. You want to see how things work. Okay. Thanks for letting me know about that. So experience design is the art of creating interactions with your customers that create value for everyone. When you go to Six Flags, which is an amusement, a theme amusement park, you go there for the rides. When you’re waiting in line, you’re standing. Sometimes you’re standing in the sun.

Sometimes you have a handrail to hold on to and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you walk by smelly garbage and sometimes you don’t. That’s been my personal experience. Great company, lots of parks. I’m not complaining about that. I’m just drawing a comparison. Go to Disney World and compare the waiting experience. When you’re waiting to go on Space Mountain, one of the signature rides that Disney World in Orlando opened with in 1971, you get an air conditioning waiting area.

You get themed entertainment, stories, movies, interactive exhibits, a stainless steel handrail that’s smooth to the touch. You get more music. You get to see what other people are doing on the ride. That stuff didn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t like one person in the architecture team said, let’s just do the line like that. It was the result of all kinds of people coming from sales, marketing, story, design, theater, electronics, mechanical, figuring out the best way to create an amazing experience because that’s what the client’s coming for.

Customers want a really good experience. So if you design it for them around their tastes and desires, they’ll feel like they got a better value and they’ll start telling stories about it. So there is an art to serving coffee like Starbucks versus getting it out of the convenience store automatic dispenser. That stuff is done on purpose.

Utilizing the principles of experience design involves creating customer interactions that generate value for both parties, fostering word-of-mouth marketing and long-term loyalty. Click To Tweet

That feels different. Definitely. So how important is design? an entrepreneur and he told me about three or four years ago that design is becoming the thing and it’s kind of becomes the primary market for people to actually purchase stuff if it’s fair design and they are predisposed to buying it even if they don’t know what it is like an iPad. So how does that really work with the design and how do companies design stuff, having design first and foremost in their mind?

I don’t think that design is manipulative in its purest form. It’s not like advertising, which is designed to sway people’s decisions. Design is first and foremost a problem-solving tool. One of the oldest forms of design is architecture. When people in Egypt or in Central America 10,000 years ago had to figure out what to do with their space and what that space would do for them, they found the highest and best use in architecture. That’s one of the main themes.

Design is about making sure that everybody gets more of what they want. It’s one of the few tools that we have that lets you optimize for everyone rather than someone. Let’s compare design to the game of Monopoly. Have you ever played that? You know, the board game where you go around and pay rents and stuff. To win Monopoly, everybody else has to lose completely. The end state of the game is one person owns everything. It’s interesting. That’s the design of the game.

Better design, not that Monopoly is designed poorly, but good design would be what my daughter figured out when she was in fourth grade. We were playing a game and everybody had built hotels on all of their properties. There was nothing left on the board. So it was just a guessing game to find out who would run out of cash first based on the luck of their roll. My daughter said, Daddy, why don’t we stop paying rent and just go visit each other? Different end state for the game.

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a great hotel and just enjoy that? So design is about figuring out what systems need, what businesses need, and what people need. It’s about finding the logical, the profitable, the valuable, and the profoundly human balance that makes it all work. Design is used for complex things like cities, ecosystems, HVAC, defense missile systems. It can be used for ordering a cup of Starbucks. It can be used for software design.

But design is really important because what we have now is not wide open spaces where anybody can do everything like we had in the old West when people would march West and run their cities and their farms and their ranches any way they wanted to. We’ve got a fully populated world and everybody makes an impact on everybody else. So design is this way of thinking that incorporates what everybody needs and wants so that things can grow, so that people can thrive. And yes, you can make better money with it too. It’s just a, instead of a single optimization, it’s a simultaneous equation. That’s the entirely of engineering.

Design is about figuring out what systems need, what businesses need, and what people need. It's about finding the logical, the profitable, the valuable, and the profoundly human balance that makes it all work. Click To Tweet

Very interesting. So it’s a great segue to the next question I want to ask you because you read in your introduction, and which really struck me looking at your LinkedIn page is that you make this connection that you take a strategy and turn it to a story and experience. It feels a little bit similar to what you just explained about the design that you make that strategy more digestible for people and more relatable. So, how does that work? What is the process for turning a strategy into a story. And again, I’m asking too many questions. Is the story then an embellishment of the strategy or is it just a different presentation of it? So can you talk to that a little bit?

Let me answer your last question first. Does a story embellish strategy? It can. Most strategies are presented in a way that is very numeric, very hard and cold. It’s very factual. It’s all about proof and numbers and things that you can measure. When you turn a strategy into a story, you add new dimensions to it that make it easier for people to understand. When you tell somebody a story, oh, Steve, let me tell you a story.

See how you just kind of naturally leaned into that? People want to hear stories because we’ve been hearing them for 100,000 years, some researchers believe. When you tell people a story, they get to participate as opposed to just swallow the PowerPoint presentation that you give them. They get to bring their past experiences, their questions, their feelings and emotions. They get to bring their desires and their ideas. So when you tell people a story and you start it off with, imagine it’s 10 years from now, all five of our major software programs are done and we’ve got distribution in these three new markets.

Now the world is asking for blah, blah, blah. And I can paint that picture for you just like a playwright would set the given circumstances up for a theatrical performance. And then I can engage you. I can say, what do you think about that? How does that feel? Do you think you could do your job the same way in this new environment or a different way? I’d like to hear your ideas. And by the way, can we adjust the story so that it allows the strategy to be implemented?

It’s a way of interacting, sharing, winning support for, and strengthening the strategy all at the same time. It’s participative. do is let the old-fashioned boss say that everything is his way or the highway. It doesn’t work for those kinds of people, but it does work in a world where design rules, where you’re trying to figure out what makes everything better for everyone because a story lets you bring your imagination to the table and it gives people a chance to try on that new position that they’re going to be in or to see the new way that cars are going to get charged while they’re waiting at red lights or whatever it is.

It lets them have a moment to find out what does that mean to them personally because nobody likes to be changed. Whenever you hear strategy, most people hear, oh, I have to change again. I don’t want to do that. The older they get, the more they dig their feet in and they become resistors. So you’ve got to use the story to kind of revive them and get them to go, this is exciting, this is cool, here’s the good part of it. Let me ask you the next question for you. What do leaders have to do differently? What they have to do is let everybody get involved in what’s going on and not make themselves the company or the products the hero.

The hero of the story has to be the person who’s reading it. They have to find a way to become relevant and central to the execution. And that’s how you go from having an idea to earning buy-in. And we think at Story Miners that story is a fabulous tool because it lets everybody play and it works really quickly. Usually you get to version two or three of your business design in the same time it would take a normal company to get to version one. So it’s less expensive and more efficient.

So, I just want, because I’m kind of, I always interested in behind the process behind the idea. So I just wonder how this works. So is this a formulaic process where you have a neat number of approaches to turn a story and an experience, it’s like the hero’s journey, most Hollywood movies are kind of lead you around the hero’s journey because it’s a tried and true recipe and people resonate to that emotionally. Is this the same in your business that you have some formulaic approaches and you have a strategy and then you can just mold it into that shape, you tweak it, you kind of formatize it to the client, you put the experience next to it and you kind of package it all together? Is this how it works? Or it’s simplified?

Not usually. And without sounding rude, I don’t mean to do that at all, but there is no best practice for the future. When you’re talking about strategy and you’re building something for the very first time, by definition, there’s no best practice. So what we do is we have a whole series of frameworks that we use at Storyminers, which are kind of partly finished designs that help our clients accomplish certain things, like which market are we going to play in? What services might we offer? How can we listen to our customers differently?

How do we design our services so that they become experiences? How do we differentiate our brand? So what our smart consultants do on the front end when they’re talking with clients is really understand what’s going on in their head. We listen actively and deeply to find out what’s being said and what the client sometimes aren’t able to articulate because everybody’s got things that just don’t come out of their mouth. We will dig hard for that story, miners. We’re digging for that story all the time.

We’ll validate that we’ve got the next step in the process is to validate with the client what we heard. We’ll usually repeat that back to them. It’s as simple as a conversation. Sometimes it can include a little bit of research or some drawings and concept diagrams and things like that. Once we’re clear on that, we talk to some of the people that will be affected by it to see what they think and feel. Now, what we’re doing is not just creating the strategy, but this is an approach that helps you win adoption and implementation, which is worth a lot more than having a strategy.

It’s like focus groups that you presented to them and you see the reaction and you can tweak it?

A little bit like that. Usually, it’s a combination of internal people and some customers. One of the things I don’t like about focus groups is they can be hijacked by one of the more vocal members. One of the challenges in that design study approach is that one person with a strong temperament can sway all of the others. Kind of like what we have in our government today. We have strong personalities that are now swaying many minds.

You don’t get always the best results that way because what you’re looking for are the value creation points. You’re looking for what are the things that our new strategy needs to deliver for clients so that they’re better off. That’s usually the part that a lot of leaders miss. They look at how do I make more profit? How do I cut costs? How do I please my shareholders? Everything else is secondary. When you’re dealing with a design-based approach, which is all we do at Story Miners, you have to look at your customer. You’re in business to create value for them. So we find what that value and those values are.

Sometimes they’re hard and measurable, like units per week, pounds per bag, completed transactions per hour, dollars per quarter, but a lot of times they’re not. Just like in that Disney example, what’s the difference between waiting in line in the air conditioning or out in the hot sun where bugs flying around the garbage can? Two experiences that I’ve had. How do you put a value on that? But still that’s what people decide on. Turns out, I’m taking a little sidebar and I promise to come right back. It turns out that most people, including business people, make decisions emotionally. And the Nobel Prize winning economist, I think it was Kahnweiler, I hope I got the name right, proved to the Nobel laureates. Say again?


Kahneman, yes, Kahneman. I have a friend named Kahnweiler, but it’s not her. Okay. So, he proved to the Nobel Committee’s satisfaction that yeah, people do decide with their hearts and their emotions first, and then they justify with the economics. The same thing’s true with customers. So a really good strategy has to resonate inside of people, not just be clear to the logical side of their heads. Nobody gets excited inside of the business about creating one quarter of a percent more profit for shareholders that they’ll never meet. That’s not very motivating for them.

A really good strategy has to resonate inside of people, not just be clear to the logical side of their heads. Click To Tweet

So, a really good design is one that will float all those different boats. Mike, sorry to stop you, but I really don’t want to lose this. So you mentioned that there are frameworks and I’m really big on frameworks in this podcast. Mainly these frameworks relate to how to build a business, how to systematize it, how to make it more of a strategy. But you did mention frameworks, and I wonder if you could talk to a little bit about how these frameworks operate.

So you get a client coming to talk to you, and they have maybe they have a consulting business, and they want to grow their business, and they want to energize their people, they want to energize their market with this story, the strategy to be turned into a story and an experience. What kind of frameworks do you have that you can take off the shelf and kind of parameterize around that?

Okay, well, we have six core tools that we call the story mining process, that lead to a very strong foundation for helping a company to become agile and helping it to deliver more value to its customers. And there are six parts to it, and I’ll tell you what they are since you asked. Nobody usually asks that question. The first one is to determine the reason for being for a business. What does it exist to do? It’s not to make money for shareholders. We will push back on that.

It’s usually to create some kind of value for customers in a certain way so that customers can thrive in some way that’s important to them. We know how to get that down. Once you get the reason for being, you go from we do all of these things to we’re all about this. Now, Nike has a really interesting brand, just do it. But they have a real armature, they have a whole understanding and culture underneath that. Zappos, the same thing, Four Seasons Hotel, Disney, Apple, Coca-Cola, a lot of good brands.

Some Italian restaurants in my city in the Atlanta area have the same deep-rooted understanding of their purpose. The second thing is to be agile. The people on the front lines of your business have to be able to act autonomously. They can’t always come back to you. If you design your business so that you are the choke point, your business will have a much harder time growing and you’ll have a harder time hiring, especially your replacement. So governing principles are the rules of the road for how the business is going to work. You can think of it like bumper guards that come out of the bowling alley and give people a really clear sense of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

The third thing that we do, we look at the soft side. We look at emotions. All businesses are multi or omni channel now or multi channel. We’re dealing online and mobile, invisible electronic payments on the Web, in physical presence, on Zoom meetings. What people are looking for from their brands is to be recognizable and to be consistent. And that consistency doesn’t come from the backdrop that you have behind you on Zoom. It comes from how people feel.

So no joke about your background. It’s just that that doesn’t determine how people feel. It’s the way you are with them. It’s the friendliness of your collection letters. It’s how easy it is to navigate your website. And there are no ultimatums that are true for all brands, other than be nice and don’t steal and the 10 commandment types of things. But each company can have a signature, an emotional signature, so that it feels different. Like, we use the Six Flags Disney thing. Six Flags feels a lot more adrenaline like, it’s all about the rides, it’s a little rougher.

It’s, you take care of yourself. Disney is more pixie dust, safety, et cetera. The other thing that we do is we create, and this is so important, we create a promise map. And I learned this from Steve Heckel, who I mentioned to you before, from IBM. And the latest incarnation of it is by Clayton Christensen. He’s no longer with us, but he wrote a technique called Jobs to be Done, where you break your work structures down into the jobs your customers need, all the way back to the people inside the business.

So we have a way of describing that, that we call a promise map. And here’s a picture of the promise map for story miners. This is available on our website. If you’ll go to the footer and look for DNA, you’ll see it there. But if you look inside here, you’ll see that we don’t have departments per se, we have capabilities. And each capability inside the business is responsible for delivering only one outcome to another capability. And by carefully laddering these together, we’re able to deliver the kind of service consistently that creates value for our clients and gives them that same feeling about working with story miners.

So, it’s similar to a process map, but it’s for the experience?

It’s a process map of outcomes. Let me give you an example. A process in IT to keep the network up and running might include every week, upload all of the, update all of the widgets, do a security check every month, run a bandwidth test, you know, every five days automatically, have an outside security company come check with you. That’s a process. And if it breaks, oh my gosh, we have to figure out what’s wrong. That’s one way to run it, okay?

And imagine if something goes wrong, telephone calls, emails happen, everybody’s contacted because it’s just this hierarchical organization that’s responding. If you were to have that same issue in an adaptive enterprise, one that’s based on outcomes and accountabilities, when something goes down, you wouldn’t go to the IT department, you’d go to the uptime capability, which person is responsible for keeping the network up and running, because that capability owes the organization 99.999% uptime.

So it’s their job to manage all the process, put the relationships in place, understand the business rules that lead to really good operating, and to keep maintaining that and keep it fresh. Usually, when processes are laid down, they’re forgotten. In an adaptive enterprise, not all the time. I know there’s continuous quality improvement, lots of metrics and things like that, but often, it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Would you admit to that? Absolutely. All right.

So in an adaptive organization, your design is based on an open system. So you’re continuously receiving information in, you get telemetry back. So the people or the person or the software algorithm that runs uptime is constantly aware of the right information so that uptime can stay up. It’s not about designing for failure, it’s about designing for staying up all the time. Totally different design. Does it make sense?

Yeah, I can’t tell you that I completely can visualize how it works, but as you said, it’s not my job. So, I thought you were here.

Yeah, but there is a common sense of what we’re all here to do. There’s a culture that allows certain conversations to happen and a common understanding of how the organization is actually wired so that everybody understands who’s doing what to whom. In a large corporation, you don’t know that. There’s power, decision-making authority, politics, communication, security, all these things often get in the way of people really understanding what the business is all about.

And those things happen for good reason. I’m not saying that’s evil or bad. It’s just one way to grow. We live in changing times. We don’t live in the 1950s where you’re trying to put a new restaurant at the intersection of every new highway. We’re doing all new things. Everybody, every company has to create brand new value in new ways for new customer needs. So we need to be good at architecting and designing and not as good at process sizing too quickly. Process is important, but I think it comes to support design.

Interesting. So one of the ways that I see big Pfizer tech companies and making sure that people understand what everyone else is doing, they have this process they call objectives and key results or OKRs for short. And John Doerr, who is one of the venture capitalists behind Google, he wrote a book about it. It’s also a concept that they use in EOS, the Entrepreneurial Operating System that I worked with, they call it ROCKS, pretty much similar concept. The idea is that-

I’m lightly familiar with that.

You are? Yeah. So the idea is that you have the leadership of the organization come together at least every quarter, sometimes even more frequently, and determine what the major priorities are, and then communicates that these major priorities, these OKRs or ROCKS, that can be for the next quarter. Typically it’s like an agile system, next quarter or sometimes shorter period, next month. And that we communicated that, okay, these are the big ideas, the big initiatives for the company and let’s rally our resources behind that.

So in one example that Doerr brings up in his book is when YouTube went to 10X, it’s download speed. And then the whole Google organization, everyone was behind, okay, how can we contribute to that? The other part of this process is that it’s not just the main company-wide ideas that we share, but everyone shares their OKRs or ROCs with everyone else. So they have a repository and people understand who do what and what the major initiatives are. But I guess this is also a design element. We can look at it as a design element.

I think it is. And I think if you and I were to share a client, it would be absolutely phenomenal because we get the best of multiple kinds of thinking. I have a couple of clients who run on EOS and they love it. And it’s working really well for them. The place where I blended in with them was around the design of the customer experience, the way they told their stories and identifying some new metrics to pursue. Can I jump on that for just a second?


Yeah, one of the things that I’d like to see more companies do is extend their measurement capabilities into their clients’ companies. Because if you can measure what’s generating value for your clients, as they consider something valuable, you can fine tune the way that you work so that you can deliver more value for them. A lot of companies have an imaginary wall between, oh, you don’t share data, I’ll have a conversation with you, but I’m not gonna share any telemetry with you.

But imagine how cool it would be if you’re delivering flowers to a florist and you knew how many of those made it to corsages and how many fell into the garbage can and what kind they were and when they were delivered and what the shipping history was and the temperature control, you could figure that out so much better. And then your clients wouldn’t be competitive shopping because your flowers are dying and they’d be able to serve more of their customers’ requests for the special pink corsage for prom night. So the more you share information about the value you create with others, the better.

The more you share information about the value you create with others, the better. Click To Tweet

So that sounds fascinating. So please allow us a peek into your kind of behind the curtain of StoryMiners. What are your core processes that you use in your business to serve your customers, to get your customers, to keep everything together?

Are you talking about on the sales side? What do we do?

Well, the core process of the business. So obviously you have the accounting process.

Oh, sure, sure, sure.

Standard. But what are the unique processes that are particular to your business?

OK, so if you’ll take a look on the screen over here, the things that are unique for us are on the, let’s see, which one? The client experience personalization. It’s inside the orange rectangle on the right-hand side. That one’s really unique for us. Inside of that, we’re doing a lot of our creative work and helping people to see that they’ve already got capabilities that are underutilized. So we’re just being creative about applying resources and staging things a little bit differently. You’ll notice that we have outside of the circle this notion of clients, customers as to the right-hand side. We’ve got our client, third ball down on there. I don’t know. Can you see my mouse over here?

No, I can’t.

Okay. All right. Have you found that one? It just says clients. It’s got more arrows going to it than anything else.

Yeah, that’s fine. Got it.

All right. And if you look to the right, it says clients, customers. All right. So the outcome that our clients owe to their customers, we label generically as outcomes of value. When we have, when this document is for a real client, we’ll label it more specifically. Sugar delivered on time, happy brides with big, beautiful engagement rings, whatever it is. But if you’ll notice on the return arrow, it says repurchase.

Got it.

And if you look to the right, it says referrals. So our secret sauce with all of our work for story and experience design and business design and all these cool things that we’ve talked about is that we keep our clients goals in mind and their clients goals in mind and that gives us the opportunity to optimize our Designs for our clients because we know that they don’t just need the outcome of our process They need to use it to build something of greater value.

That’s important to somebody else So I make sure that every one of our consultants, designers, subcontractors, anybody that we work with understands that when they’re asking questions, when they’re writing reports, when they’re dealing with customers, that they need to be thinking about a couple of outcomes down. That information, that mindset trickles back in and helps people make wiser decisions. It’s one thing to get real excited and get a lot of stuff done, like you’re fighting a fire. Oh, the fire’s burning. We have to fight the fire.

But when you start thinking out a little bit, you become more like Smokey the Bear, who’s the mascot for the United States Forest Service and teaches kids to prevent forest fires. Because just because you’re good in a firefight, doesn’t mean that we need to have that role playing all the time. That’s crazy. That sucks the energy out of an organization and it draws attention away from the things that really do create value.

It’s often more about ego, prestige, and pay than it is about delivering value for clients. We try to teach them to be Smokey the Bear so that they can maintain a stasis that continues to add value over time. But it’s not done by a series of individual decisions that people just think are right. Because, you know, back to that Kahneman thing, we think we know what’s right, and we often tend to forget to look at the data. So that’s probably the most important part of the secret sauce.

So, Mike, can you give me an example, one or two examples of interesting projects that you work on where you are bridging that going from the strategy to the story, to the experience, and how that unfolds?

I can. If you give me a minute, I can even pull up a little video example of one of those two. One of my favorite projects was Transitions Optical. Transitions, based in Pinellas Park, Florida, made the glasses that kind of change color and UV light. They get dark. And they only sold through optometrists, opticians, and B2B. So they would sell directly to Pearl Vision or some other retail outlet. And they were thinking, you know, it would be kind of cool if we could go to direct to customers.

So they call that initiative adding retail to their marketing mix. So we helped them figure out how to extend their brand from being B2B to being B2C. We created a reason for being, principles, emotions. We did an extensive store design for them that started off with very simple program charts, which are basically blobs of paint on top of a floor plan that say, you know, you see the doctor here, you check in here, you’ve picked your frames here, they install the lenses there, it’s just that kind of a thing.

And that went all the way down to actually designing the fixtures, the wall coverings, the furniture, the floor covers, all that kind of stuff, as well as several kinds of cool adaptive technology. And one of them I can demonstrate for you here. If you wear glasses like I do, and you’re walking up to a rack of frames that don’t have lenses in them, you’re looking along and say, oh, that’s a really nice one. So, you take it off, and you put it on, but you know what? You can’t see what you look like because the lenses aren’t in the frames.


So, we created this technology for them where you put on a trial pair of glasses and you turn your head this way and that way, and the computer is taking pictures of you. You put that one down, you put another one on, and you do that as many times as you want. Then you put your own glasses back on and you push the button on the kiosk, and it shows multiple copies of your head going like this with all the glasses on. So now you can finally see.

That’s an example of how design makes people feel more comfortable, gives them better information, more certainty about what they’re gonna purchase, and guess what else it does? It teaches the company what people are interested in and what they chose. That’s like rocket science in marketing. That’s so expensive to figure out in an aftermarket study. So being able to study the habits of people inside the store became one of the reasons for designing the store. It was also used as a training center and other things, but the store was filled with all kinds of innovations. It was like the Apple store of retail. So I really enjoyed that project a lot.

So how do you transmit this idea of experience design? I mean, I think few people actually understand it at any great depth of what it means. How do you sell an intangible concept like that, that most people don’t even know they are missing it and they don’t understand it?

Well, you get on podcasts like this one and hope that people will ask you. No, seriously. Once you found an interested potential buyer, what I usually do is just have a very authentic conversation where I listen. I don’t try to sell anything because nobody likes to be sold. I think people like to buy. So, it starts off usually with a very keen conversation about, with keen listening intent. I’m filtering all the things that I hear from a client about what’s going well, what’s not. I’m running through some of our different frameworks to kind of see what fits.

I’m thinking about the case studies that we’ve done to see if there’s something that I can share. Usually a client has a pretty good idea of a problem and they also have some ideas. Story Miners is less of the problem repair company, and we’re more of the idea reinvent or reintroduce company. We’re not forensic accountants. We’re not problem-solving engineers in that sense. We’re not the ones to look at the numbers first. But when a company says, you know, it’s COVID, and you know what? It might last.

We’ve got these new virus strains going on, so my people might be at home for eight more months. You know, we’ve already used up our runway of new product innovations and new service ideas. I still want to grow. I see some opportunities here, here, and here. Mike, how can you help us? That’s when we can lean in. That’s the wonderful, that’s the great question to hear is I’ve got some ideas, where do I go from here? Because most people that are running companies right now are good at running them up to the point they are, and they’ve often got a mishmash of skills to carry them forward.

Looking ahead into the future, synthesizing various options and how they might work out, testing the experience with live human beings, changing the marketing messaging and quickly adapting it while it’s still in the laboratory before you launch it to customers, figuring out what the new economics can be. We’ve got three clients right now that are looking at what are our new economics gonna be? And they’re coming to us, not to accountants, because the accountants are just gonna carry them on that same trajectory.

This is what they know, that’s where they’ve been. These are the numbers. We project your budget here. We project your sales there. Do something different. I don’t know how to tell you how to do something different, the accountant might say. Not that all accountants are like that. I know many very creative accountants, not the mafia kind, but just good creative people. But when you’re pushing out into the future, people need a little bit of guidance. So they’re willing to ask for help.

They’ll ask questions about what would it look like? How will it affect my people? Will I be able to make enough money? How do I sell it to the board? So working with their ideas and building on them is the way we sell because people want to buy their own ideas succeeding. One of the principles in our company is that we try to help our clients see their ideas become real because you know we’re all about joy and love and caring for family and a lot of those things, but business people also want to see their ideas brought to life. That’s kind of their legacy.

Architects like to see buildings. Business people like to see their ideas come alive. So once we find what those ideas are, we’ll match up our skills, our talents, our different frameworks and processes, and we’ll see if there’s a fit. If there’s a fit, great. If there’s not a fit, we’re the first people to say that. We don’t know anything about this kind of photosynthesis you’re trying to do with artificial intelligence and petunias. But I know somebody who is, and we’ll go that way. I hope that answers a little bit.

So is this a little bit like when you invite the big company, invites in McKinsey and Company or Bristol Consulting Group, and they know that they need to make some changes because their strategy doesn’t work anymore, but they don’t know what to change to? Then is it like this, that they come to you and you have them figure out how to think outside the box?

Yes, yes. Yeah, very much like you would do with an IDEO or a Frog Design or, you know, any other agency. Lots of folks are touting their abilities at innovation. I think having, there are many companies that do innovation process management way better than we do and we’re willing to partner with them. And I can name a bunch of them here in Atlanta and around the country. There are very few people who can look at things, very few companies that can look at the world from a customer’s perspective, tell the company what clients would like to have as value and show them how to deliver that. That’s kind of the process that you were looking for. I think that would be it in a nutshell. So thank you for helping me surface that. That’s the difference.

Yeah, I think this is very exciting. I always thought that the only reason Boston Consulting and McKinsey could do that because they were so much revered as being at the top of their game, that people entrusted them with their strategy. I think it is a really hard step to make for an entrepreneur to outsource their strategy.

It’s not outsourcing. You can’t outsource your strategy. I have a belief that I’ve had for a long time, but I really locked it down last year when we had to suffer through this pandemic thing as a world collective. It’s now, in my opinion, the leader’s responsibility, not just to say what the new target is, but to show the design for how to get there. It’s heinous for a leader to just say, give me 10% more, when the team doesn’t know how to do that. If they do more of the same thing, they’ll lose money faster. But the boss just says, give me 10%.

The boss needs to say something like, we’re trying to grow sales 10%. So what I wanna do first is figure out how we can deliver 30% more value to our clients. I’m willing to go internet, I’m willing to go VR. I think we should look at partnerships with other companies. And I think we could get rid of this old thing that we have. I’d like for you to do this, you to do that, somebody else to study this other thing. In two months, I’d like feasible options on my desk. That’s the kind of directive that we need from leaders.

They can’t say, give me more numbers. That’s just not, that doesn’t go anywhere anymore. It’s a, I’ll be very direct, it’s a sucker strategy. Because by the time you hit that number, the world’s moved, it’s going too quickly. And the outputs are different tomorrow than they are today and definitely than what they were yesterday. So folks that are too informed by ROI and try to bring that forward without looking at the new needs in the marketplace, without re-listening to what matters and how to create value, at best they’re gonna hold water.

Usually they’re gonna sink a little bit unexpectedly. And a lot of companies are due to go out of business soon because they’ve been obviated. But the heartening thing for me is that there are so many things that the world needs right now. We have more needs as governments, as countries, as companies, as individuals, as neighborhoods and communities than we ever have before. We just have a lack of people who can address them. So the focus, in my opinion, needs to be partly on what’s new and what’s next and what’s the best way to get there.

And with that mentality, I think a lot of the leaders today are gonna find that they enjoy their jobs even more because they won’t have to spend all their time about worrying what they’re losing. They’ll be able to think about what they’re building. And that kind of hope and inspiration is what really engages people to move forward. Because everybody that’s working in your company is having an experience. They want to be transformed. They want to make a difference. They want to leave their mark, just like the owner does. So that’s my two cents. You got me all lit up there, Steve.

All right. Okay. So people don’t like to change, but they want to be transformed. And that’s true. That’s true. So, Mike, if someone would like to learn more about what you do, how can they get in touch with you, connect with you, get resources, you mentioned the Promise Map, which is downloaded from the website, storyminers.com. So, go to storyminers.com, check out the Promise Map, and I promise you that it’s going to be much more legible on Mike’s website than on my screen. What else can you offer them?

We have a very rich blog that talks about most of the topics that we’ve introduced today. Check out the blog, it’s organized in a very efficient manner. If you’ll just search for story miners, you’ll find pages and pages of interesting resources. Since I imagine most of your audience is at the beginning stages of looking at design as a problem-solving tool for their business, that it might be interesting for them to just search for story miners or search for Mike Wittenstein and see what comes up at random, because a lot of our content lives on partner sites or other companies as well.

So that’s an interesting way to go. We have resources on Pinterest, a small community on LinkedIn. We publish regularly, lots to know. But the thing that they can do that would be the most interesting, I think, would be to go to our contact page and look for a little video of me. And I’m in a little round circle and I’m kind of talking, okay? Push the play button. Listen to me say, hey, push the play button, because you can leave me a video question. Go there, ask me whatever’s on your mind, and that’s what gets everything going. Wherever you are is a great place to start. We’ll start somewhere, we’ll go everywhere and we’ll figure out something that adds value to you. And that’s even before you hire us.

All right, that sounds good. We’ll definitely do that. Please definitely do that and stay tuned. Next week, we’ll have another exciting entrepreneur, hopefully as interesting as Mike Wittenstein with us. Thank you, Mike, for coming on the show and have a great day and don’t read the politics tonight.

Cheers, my friend.


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