For this edition of FFS, we're delighted to be joined by Kevin McCullagh, founder of product strategy consultancy Plan.
Kevin is also hosting our upcoming Leaders in Change breakfast on the 5th December on redesigning work in an age of automation.
Aimed at leaders driving big changes, his talk will explore how AI enabled automation has the potential to unlock economic growth and fuel innovation. Get in touch if you'd like to attend, spaces are limited.
If you're new to FFS – otherwise known as Futureheads Five Stories, this is a regular interview series where we speak to people who have interesting stories to tell. We aim to find out more about their career in the digital world, and the lessons they've learnt along the way.
And we couldn’t resist the acronym.
What’s the story of your career so far?
I have a Catholic background, with a big and small ‘c’. I did time as an engineer, a designer, an academic researcher and lecturer, a design manager and social forecaster before settling on product strategy. I find working at the intersection of technology, business and culture really rewarding.
In my previous role as a director at Seymour Powell, one of the UK’s leading product design consultancies, I set up one of the first design research and strategy teams outside of a large organisation. The founders, Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, encouraged me to experiment with a mix of design, user research, product-planning and foresight methods. We grew the team to provide the initial scoping stage for many projects in the studio.
In 2004 I founded Plan as a pure-play product strategy consultancy to help in-house innovation teams bring clarity to the early and ‘fuzzy’ stages of their work. I then found myself in the position of an accidental entrepreneur. I'd never aspired to be one nor had I put enough thought into it before taking the plunge. Leading a business is like a never-ending experiment – the learning is continuous and multi-faceted, from finance to HR.
The first half of my career was dominated by the rise of the mobile and then smartphone, and figuring out how they should fit into the culture. I now focus on the ever more intersecting areas of mobility, tech and cities, which I find absolutely fascinating. The level of change and the magnitude of the challenges in this space suggest that there is plenty to keep me occupied for many years to come.
When you've been around as long as I have and worked in different industries, you develop a nose for hype, BS and the confines of ‘echo chamber’ thinking. I like to develop and test new ideas through writing, speaking and chairing conferences.
What advice would you give yourself when you were just starting out?
Spend more time getting to the root of the problem, setting it in a useful context, working out which parts of it to tackle, and hustling to get the right people on the team. Spend less time obsessing about methods, techniques, tools, and processes.
Also, sketch and write more. I was a terrible writer until my late twenties. Two people put me right. Bryan Lawson, the author of How Designers Think, got me over my fear of writing, by drawing a parallel with sketching. As all designers know, getting ideas out of your head and onto paper is a reality check. The same goes for writing: it externalises our thinking, so it can be interrogated and refined. More of today's design challenges are hard to capture in sketches and visuals, and writing is an extra way of capturing and developing early ideas. The second influence on my writing was my ex-boss James Woudhuysen. When I complained about how much writing he expected me to do when I first joined Seymour Powell, he taught me that writing – or more accurately editing what I’d written – is an exercise in clarifying your thinking. He also taught me to stop writing like I thought I was supposed to write, and instead find my own voice.
What do you love most about what you do?
When I wrote the first business plan for Plan, I described our mission as ’Do great work, with great people for great clients’. I honestly feel that I spend a lot of time in that place. Plan is still small enough for me to lead some of the projects and get my hands dirty. I've never been as proud of my team as I am now. We have also managed to find clients who ask us fascinating questions and who are (largely!) a pleasure to work with.
What’s the most important lesson you've learned over the course of your career?
Tactful bravery is critical to success and integrity. Whether it's questioning a team lead, challenging a client's assumptions, raising an issue with a boss, making a staffing decision or committing to a strategy – ducking the hard calls is never a good move in the long run. But doing the right thing tactlessly can also blow things up. It's what you do and the way you do it.
Like many things in life, learning this lesson is one thing – always having the judgement and cojones to apply it is another.
What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge in our industry over the next five years?
Articulating a well-judged, compelling and nuanced case for human strengths in an era of AI-based automation. I’m optimistic about the potential of this technology, as long as it’s applied wisely and work is redesigned to maximise the technology’s benefits and our own human potential. As the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett puts it, ‘The real danger… is not machines that are more intelligent than we are … The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.’ The challenge for designers will be to champion human strengths in an age of AI.
A little bit more about Kevin
Kevin is the founder of Plan, the product strategy consultancy. Plan helps mobility and consumer tech companies explore the early stages of the product and service development. Their clients include Ford, Toyota, Yamaha, Deutsche Telecom, Carl Zeiss, Microsoft, and Samsung.
Kevin writes, speaks, and chairs conferences on design, innovation and society; and has been published in: The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, FastCompany, Unherd, Icon, Blueprint and The Design Management Review.
Want to take part in our FFS series? Say hello at email@example.com.
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