Design gone soft: lessons learned from P90-X



We’ve all been there – waking up slightly hung-over on a Saturday morning and turning on the TV. You already find yourself making the most important decision of your day. Will you watch the local Bollywood channel this morning, or perhaps a Pokemon-like cartoon? As appealing as these options sound, you discover another glimmer of hope in this moment of confusion: an awesome infomercial showcasing the latest fitness fad that promises unbelievable results with minimal effort. Before you know it, you’ve already heard the infomercial go through three loops, and at this point a part of you – not that you would ever admit it publically – starts believing in the theory of it all. But of course you could get a six-pack if you shocked your stomach with electrical signals.

And then you snap out of it! You come back to your senses and put this latest fad in the context of innumerous crazy fads that you have seen fail over the years. You know deep inside, through years of built-up wisdom and cynicism, that you cannot reach exceptional results without hard work.

And then one Saturday morning in 2010, you hear something different on TV. There’s a guy trying to sell you a DVD fitness program called P90-X. The tone sounds strangely unfamiliar for what you think is yet another fitness fad. It still promises amazing results, but only if you are willing to push yourself as hard as possible. You hear the dude with the huge muscles (aka Tony Horton) tell you that P90-X is not for everyone. The message is coming out loud and clear – if you want an easy shortcut to fitness, P90-X is just not it! The competitor in you appreciates the challenge, but you are still skeptical about the whole thing…that is until a year later a friend of yours tells you about how awesome the program has been for him. Your friend looks transformed, mentally and physically, and your skepticism quickly turns into curiosity. Before you know it, you make the jump and join your friends for a group session of P90-X. And that’s how I was initially introduced to the P90-X program. The first few sessions were unbelievably, and almost laughably, difficult. The dude with the huge muscles on the DVD was asking us regular folks to do things we had never imagined doing before. Say what? You want me to do jumping push-ups, are you out of your mind? Well, fast-forward a few months (and hundreds of jumping push-ups later), I am still a firm believer in the P90-X program.

If you’ve made it that far, you might be wondering why I am writing about fitness on a design blog. Having spent the past decade deep into the world of design innovation, I have witnessed a significant pendulum swing in the world of design – one that moved the design process out of the shadow of an elitist craft to the main street of the innovation world. The democratization of design thinking has been an amazing phenomenon that has inspired a larger group of people and organizations to rethink how they innovate in a highly complex world. Exciting times for design thinkers…finally, the world gets us! Or do they really?

As with any pendulum swing, there is a risk of going too far. In the spirit of democratizing design thinking, we, design practitioners, have had to simplify – and at times over-simplify – the craft of design to make it more accessible to as many as possible in organizations and beyond. This broad movement has been very successful in terms of fostering creative and imaginative conversations in the most unexpected places, but we are now at a moment of truth where thinking breadth and craft depth need to realign to truly unleash the power of design thinking, which is ultimately about bringing desirable and viable solutions to life in the pursuit of tackling some of the most challenging and exciting opportunities of our time.

So the question I ask here today: has design gone too soft? In our effort to enlist more people to follow our philosophy, are we conveying a message that is similar to the Saturday morning infomercial that promises a six-pack with minimal effort? Are we promising innovation in exchange for an artificial mindset shift? Of course, I am not advocating for a P90-X tone – it would probably scare most people off. However, I do believe that the tremendous market success of P90-X can teach us a few things about enabling true behavior change that will lead to tangible changes in organizations. .


1.    Meet people where they are…and don’t stay there

Muscle confusion

As with most fitness programs, P90-X taps into existing human motivations to first get your attention (e.g. losing weight, looking good at the beach, fitting in your favorite pair of jeans, etc.).  However, as you go through the program you quickly realize that the program is more than about getting in shape. The program constantly pushes you beyond your limits. From personal experiences, whether as a designer or a former Rugby player, I truly think that personal transformation happens when you get past tough roadblocks and feel the pride on the other side. The P90-X program switches things up by providing 12 different workout routines that focus on different muscles to make sure you that your muscles do not get used to same old routines – Tony Horton refers to this concept as “muscle confusion.” Innovation muscles – at the individual and organization level – are built over long periods of time through hard work and tough organizational decisions (i.e. do not expect electrodes in a belt to give you a 6-pack in less than 30 days).

How might we keep people engaged in innovation work in the long run?

 2.    Allow people to rise to the challenge

Bring it!

P90-X presents you with a clear challenge – can you make it through 60 minutes of fast-paced physical pain without hurting yourself? The DVD program shows you what good looks like and does not attempt to make it look easy. They recognize that not everyone will be able to immediately get it right, but they still make you strive for the best of the best. I am a true believer in people’s ability to step up in the face of adversity to challenge the status quo. The reality is that innovation is not easy, so we need to respect the complexity of the task at hand.

How might we frame innovation as inspiring challenges, not corporate goals?

3.    Respect the speed limit

P90-X worksheets

In the process of democratizing high-octane fitness, P90-X recognizes that different people come in with various levels of fitness. To help people work up their learning curve, the program gives you lots of freedom to adjust weights and number of repetitions, as long as you track these details over time. The idea is that initially anything is better than nothing, and that you will only seek to push your limits as you get stronger and become comfortable with the routines. Repetition is the key to learning, and if you create the right framework for people to constantly improve they will feel more confident in pushing their own limits. Innovation is not a destination, it’s a transformative journey that results in an obsession to constantly push the boundaries of the possible.

How might we empower people to adopt new behaviors at their own pace?

4.    Strike the right tone

There’s a fine line between motivating and discouraging. The P90-X dude with the huge muscles does an amazing job of striking the right tone. He challenges you while keeping it humorous and playful, qualities that are essential to keeping design thinking fun and engaging. A failure to do so would only result in frustration and insult, and ultimately disengagement. You can find some of Tony’s funniest lines here. Though design thinking and innovation are serious business, we should never take ourselves too seriously. Play is a key component to a culture of innovation.

How might we create an environment for serious play?

5.    Tap into the power of community

P90-X together

As it was the case for me when I started P90-X, there is something very powerful in sharing this ambiguous and uncomfortable experience with friends and family. There is something very powerful about going through pain and fun together. I remember watching a video on Youtube, titled “A family that does P90-X together, stays together.”  In a group setting, you feel accountable to do your best and push yourself. That experience also creates a shared language for the group that goes beyond the gym room. I believe the same is true in organizations. There’s nothing lonelier than being a change agent in an organization.

How might we foster a sense of community amongst your budding innovators?

As always, I am looking forward to hearing from you. Bring it!

Leadership by the window



It ‘s not often that a designer gets to use Borat as an example for how organizations behave, but this might just be the case for me today. Don’t worry I will NOT reference any of the vulgar jokes that make up about 99% of the movie.

For no apparent reason other than doing the Borat accent with a colleague at work, I decided to watch the DVD a few weeks ago. To my big surprise, I had completely overlooked one of the most insightful scenes the first time I watched the film: Borat’s interpretation of leadership – well, at least my interpretation of Borat’s interpretation of leadership.

In this scene Borat associates the access to a mundane hotel chair with the authority and power of a leader. He sits on the chair and immediately takes on the personality of a demanding king. And then it hit me! Leaders in large organizations have their own version of Borat’s chair – it’s called a window.

I have had the opportunity to work on a few space redesign projects over the past few years. The design briefs are always about transforming cube farms into more open, innovative spaces that foster collaboration and innovation. As with any design project, you first engage key stakeholders in establishing the hard constraints. Well, when it comes to most organizations, the constraints are pretty simple:

  1. x number of people need to fit in this space
  2. the location of the restrooms cannot move by much because of plumbing
  3. every senior leader must get an office by a window

While I can live with the first two constraints, I have always questioned the rationality of automatically giving a window to the leaders at the top of the corporate ladder. If the purpose of the space is to foster collaboration and innovation, shouldn’t it be designed to facilitate such interactions and behaviors for the majority of the occupants? I can’t recall the number of times my team and I had to stay clear of the space’s “prime real estate” (i.e. the corners where two windows intersect) because it was reserved for the highest ranking (and mostly traveling) leaders in the space.

As a result, the buildings of most companies are filled with empty, well-lit offices for the “kings of the castle”, and dark cube farms for expected-to-be innovative and collaborative minions.


As usual, this blog is not about throwing stones at the status quo. It’s important to recognize the symbolic meaning of having a window. In most organizations, the window becomes the tangible manifestation of one’s successful career. That said, it is also important to balance that reality with the fact that traditional workplace models are being challenged in a rapidly changing environment. As designers, it is our job to challenge the third constraint by engaging leaders in co-designing and exploring alternative configurations. Here are three principles that have helped me and my teams get key stakeholders (facilities, architects, occupants) to think beyond their existing assumptions about leadership and status:

1. DESIGN WITH, DON’T DESIGN FOR – It is amazing how easy it actually is to break taken-for-granted assumptions when you get occupants (including leaders) to co-design with you. We have often built full-scale foam core models to immerse key stakeholders in the design process. By building together, occupants develop empathy for one another and open up to new win-win possibilities.

2. GET LEADERS OFF THE BENCH – Good leaders want to be part of the action, and not just via email. Many leaders actually miss the daily face-to-face interactions with their teams. Unfortunately, the office by the window reinforces the gap between leaders and their teams. We often hear the term “leading from the front” or “leading from behind”, but we never hear “leader from the bench”.

3. LET THERE BE LIGHT…FOR EVERYONE – Light is energy. Light is inspiration. Light is fuel for innovation. Light is a reminder that there is a world outside of our buildings. That’s the same world where our customers live and breathe. Capitalize on the “prime real-estate” available to you by making them hot spots of collaboration and innovation.


As Borat would say, “Dziekuje” [thank you] for reading my blog, and as always I hope to hear from you!

The Paradox of Design


In a recent moment of transition in my professional life, after spening the past four years working with large organizations in the private and public sectors to design change at scale, I took some time to reflect back on past experiences while anticipating upcoming ones. It turns out that most organizations I have been working with are seemingly asking the same question: How do we become a more innovative organization to serve our “customers” and stay relevant in a rapidly changing world? So, I started sketching…(click on mind map to enlarge image).

Over the past decade, many organizations have embraced Design Thinking as a key approach to innovation. Design Thinking puts customers at the center of a highly iterative process to create new offerings that people need and desire. In the process of adopting this approach, organizations have learned two things: 1) Design Thinking is more than a process — it’s also a mindset and a craft — and cannot be codified to death, and 2) most organizations are not structured to deliver on offerings that deviate from existing innovation portfolios. Although many organizations have been relying on more nimble design firms to boost their innovation portfolios over the years, many have taken more significant steps towards building internal capabilities to make Design Thinking a core organizational capability. What better way to change large human systems (i.e. organizations) than to use the tools and principles of Design Thinking! Indeed, it is a very exciting time to be a design thinker (and more importantly a design doer).


The mind map above reflects my thinking process as I spontaneously mapped the various dimensions of organizational change through the lens of human-centered design. The point of the exercise was not to be thorough (or even correct), but rather to visually acknowledge the complexity of designing change. Here are my 3 key takeaways from this exercise.


As complex as this mind map looks, it barely scratches the surface of the deeply rooted dynamics of an organization. It is easy to fall into a problem-solving mindset and think of these system nodes as a laundry list of problems to solve for. It is in our DNA, as designers, to be optimistic about the possibilities of change…and optimistic we should be, to a measured degree. That said, there is no such thing as a perfect organization and we need to embrace imperfection over idealism. Don’t lose perspective; constantly challenge your assumptions for how you think the organization “should” behave; and lead with opportunities, not problems.

Linear problem-solving will not take you far in changing complex human systems: that’s where Design Thinking comes in.

“Don’t lose perspective; constantly challenge your assumptions for how you think the organization “should” behave; and lead with opportunities, not problems.”


Organizations tend to think of change as a destination – as a series of initiatives that add up to a desired vision (i.e. a strategy). I strongly believe in the value of setting a clear vision and crafting a strategy to move the organization from point A to point B, but only in that these create a shared language for how an organization might want to change. When it comes to shifting large systems, I’m sorry to say that we actually have little control over the destination, point B, since 1) things will never work as planned (i.e. there will be unintended consequences along the way, whether positive or negative), and 2) the world is dynamically asking different things from the organization as it’s trying to change itself. Thus, the best thing designers can do is to learn from the implementation journey and constantly evolve the strategy to keep change relevant. Designing change is not about defining point B, it’s ultimately about recognizing that the journey between A and B might lead you to C. And that leads me to my third provocation…

“Designing change is not about defining point B, it’s ultimately about recognizing that the journey between A and B might lead you to C.”


Driving organizational change is ultimately about scaling new types of behaviors to the service of an organization’s aspirations and purpose. The mechanics of scaling change are seemingly structured (training, new incentives, structural changes, etc.) – giving designers a misleading sense of control. Systemic change is much more chaotic and complex than designers (or anyone else for that matter) can predict. Change is ultimately about emergence, a sequence of seemingly random and unpredictable events and behaviors that come to life over time, sometimes as part of the system’s natural evolution and sometimes in response to the designer’s interventions. Unfortunately, emergent change requires time and patience, so traditional, short-term metric won’t do when trying to evaluate the impact of your designs. Start a bunch of small fires and see which ones grow over time; measure what matters when it matters; and always track the pulse of the system while being open to surprises. As the name of this blog suggests, designers can only design for change, and not change itself. The paradox of using change and design in the same sentence is one that we, designers and change agents, need to acknowledge and embrace at all times when experimenting with different levers in an organization.

“Start a bunch of small fires and see which ones grow over time; measure what matters when it matters; and always track the pulse of the system and be open to surprises.”


Thanks for reading my first blog! I hope that this initial post helps frames the intent of my blog: D4change is a platform for “organizational doers” to share, reflect, learn and push the boundaries of Design Thinking. I have intentionally allowed comments on my blog because I truly believe that it will take a village to change large, complex organizations in our rapidly shifting environment. In the spirit of this mission, I would love to hear from YOU!

  • Have you personally experienced the paradox of design?
  • What does emergence mean in your organization? How is it fostered? How is it prevented?
  • What are examples of metrics you have used to “measure” emergence?