Tag Archives: design lab

Baby Boomer

Bridging The Distancing Effects Of Age

As part of Propellerfish’s Coronavirus work-from-home plan, we ask our team members to call their parents and grandparents.

Our projects rarely ask questions about how we can make the world around us more user friendly for our parents and grandparents. This is a big group of people. It’s also a group that, through a mix of genetics and better decisions, we will likely be joining at some point in time. With our team working from home amidst a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the older people in our lives, we asked everyone to call their parents and grandparents. We asked them to check in and listen for insights into the years ahead of us.

The effects of age magnify physical distances.

The physical paths to the things we care about most become longer with age. A short walk to visit a neighbour becomes an investment of a limited amount of energy that needs to be budgeted and replenished. Travelling even short distances comes with risks of falling which limits access to things we care about as we get older. Many of the seniors we spoke to could no longer drive, which transformed small trips into huge distances overnight.

“I can walk around on my own with a walking stick around the house but generally feel breathless after a few steps and then I have to sit down. I’m bored at home, I don’t go out besides medical appointments at the hospital and  functions like weddings. Even that it is a chore to shower and tie a saree and go anywhere.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

The effects of age puts distance between us and the activities that give us meaning.

Seniors talked to us about being distanced from the activities that gave them meaning in their younger years. One grandparent whose primary source of exercise and social interaction came from a regular game of tennis twice a week had to stop after a bad fall. Many talked to us about retirement distancing them from the profession that had given them meaning their entire lives.

Seniors Basketball
“I knew my squash game was in decline, but I didn’t want to give it up. For about 18 months after quitting I was depressed. I realised I was missing something that I’d actually spent a lot of time doing and it was really important to me.” (Tim’s Dad, UK)

Aging puts distance between us and the people we care about.

The seniors in our lives talked about being both literally and metaphorically farther away from the people they cared about. Some had lost hearing and found it hard to connect with the people around them. We heard about how younger people couldn’t relate to their experiences in older age. And obviously, the physical distance they need to travel in order to visit people they care about is harder to travel with depleted energy levels and less access to transportation.

“You can’t hear and it’s frustrating. I’m right there in a room with people and I don’t know what’s happening or what they’re trying to say to me. You’re physically there but you’re still far away.” (Miguel, 96, Miami)
“In the last 2 years especially, I feel more lonely because I’m less mobile. My two daughters live with me but they go to work. I have a helper from India and we talk a lot about the customs and I tell her my stories from when i had struggles.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

Getting older puts distance between us and strangers.

Our seniors felt they weren’t acknowledged by people out in the world the way they were when they were younger. Shop staff are less likely to approach them, people are less likely to make eye contact with them on the street, and they generally feel as though they go unnoticed when out in public.

“A woman I’m in the garden club with asked me, ‘do you ever get the feeling that people treat you like you’re invisible now that you’re old?’ and it’s true. People in stores don’t pay attention to you.” (Retired Nurse, 76, Miami)

The effects of aging create distance between us and ourselves.

Our grandparents talked about feeling distanced from themselves. On the one hand they talked to us about how in their minds they feel like the same person they were in their younger years. On the other, they felt their diminishing physical and mental capacity a constant reminder of the distance between the person they were and the person they are today.

Senior Insights
“Looking at pictures of me 10 years ago, it’s not the same person. If I see pictures on the wall taken 40 years ago, it’s there but I am not there anymore.” (Alex’s Dad, 95)

The Covid-19 crisis is challenging us all to find ways to manage distance from our work, from our loved ones, and from the basic necessities we need to keep ourselves and our families going. As we manage the crisis ahead, let’s think about the members of our communities for whom age has already made the things that matter farther and harder to access. And let’s take a moment to think about how we can play a small part in bridging that distance for them through this crisis and beyond.

Aside from asking staff calling their grandparents, Propellerfish has donated to Meals On Wheels and Age UK who are offering practical support for the elderly in the US and UK during this time. We have also made a donation to Doctor’s Without Borders whose work will become increasingly important as this crisis impacts some of the more vulnerable regions of the world where much of our project work happens.

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

The most clever people in business have a talent for thinking forward. They reframe problems in ways that bring clarity to the beginning of a strategy process. They distill user needs down to precise opportunities. They design solutions that address those needs perfectly. Thinking forward is every consultant’s comfort zone. Thinking forward gets you to a perfect solution.

Unfortunately, perfect solutions struggle in an imperfect world. They are often divorced from the imperfect realities of implementation. They ignore the imperfect personal politics of big organizations. They ignore the very practical imperfections of new markets. Reality eats perfect solutions for breakfast.

If thinking forward gets us to perfection, thinking backwards helps us design for the imperfect reality ahead. Thinking backwards is about starting with end game realities in mind. Its about engaging technical people from the start. It’s about starting at the shelf and working backwards from a retailers point of view around stocking something new. It’s about prototypes sitting on a real shelf during a pilot. It’s about working backwards through every stage of the commercialisation journey ahead of your ideas to ensure those ideas become something real and impactful in the world.

Great innovation is designed for an imperfect world by keeping the full journey to market in mind.

In a world that celebrates the journey to the summit, most of the fatalities on Mt. Everest happen on the way down. Successful teams think the climb through not just to the summit but to moment a climber returns safely to base camp. Innovation teams have a habit of focusing on the summit at the expense of getting back to basecamp safely.

The least popular people in businesses tend to think backwards.

Thinking backwards early on can make you an unpopular voice in the beanbag circle. When it comes to innovation, organizations overemphasize the art of thinking forward. They emphasis is on new ideas as the antidote to business as usual and often shelter innovation teams from the imperfection of the real world. The result is usually a team focused on the summit with no idea how to come down.

Great innovation teams pair the creative vision to think forward with the operational and commercial awareness to think backwards so solutions actually get to market. They are like time travellers with the ability to operate in both the present and the end of an innovation journey at one time. They can think forward to a solution and backwards through implementation at once. They use constraints drawn from thinking backwards as springboards for thinking forward.

Organizations need to equip innovation teams with more holistic commercial skillsets. Put people with a complete view how innovation happens at the start of your journey so teams have more impact to show for themselves in the end.

Innovation Lab

Successful Innovation Labs Have Something Obvious In Common

Innovation labs within large companies have a spotty track record of lasting more than 24 months. What separates survivors from the teams that fold is an ability to align what they’re doing with problems and opportunities that matter to the organization. If you’ve been charged with setting up an innovation team, our one piece of advice is to start there.


“Our innovation lab built a good sandbox of technologies that are the future of this industry but the organization was too slow to adopt any of them.” – Head Of Innovation Lab, Financial Services


All organizations are slow, but while they may be slow to adopt solutions in one area they’re probably busy implementing things with urgency in another. If you’re in the slow camp, you’re either (1) working on something transformational with the support of a future focused leadership team or (2) you’re working on something nobody genuinely cares about. If you’re in the second camp, it’s time to reprioritise.


“The team had 15 priorities when I arrived. We picked five that had teams needing to implement urgently. We had a launch in 18 months. That impact fuels support and engagement on everything else.” Head Of Innovation, Consumer Goods


Start by understanding the organization’s priorities. Too many innovation labs start by ordering 3D printers and looking for startups to hang out with. The successful ones start by understanding the areas of the business that need help and align their efforts with what these areas need in order to move forward.


“We didn’t start with startups, we took time and seconded our team to live and work alongside the different functions within the bank. We learned exactly what each team needed and are now incubating startups that solve those problems so the solutions become bank ready.” Innovation Lab, Financial Services


Land quick wins. Understanding priorities can help you understand where the quick wins are. You’re going to need some of those in order to have enough momentum to carry you over the longer term. Have some stories to tell sooner rather than later.


Finally, realise that success in this role could look a lot more like “mission accomplished” than “job for life”. Successful innovation teams have a tendency to do themselves out of a job. Always look ahead to what a successful innovation lab will set you up to do next.

If you’ve found yourself setting up an innovation unit inside a large organization, check out our article on How To Build A Successful Innovation Centre.