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!