Williams is best known as the creative director of frog design’s New York studio. He now consults and presents on frog design’s behalf as a Fellow.
Over the last five years, Williams has also been working as Adjunct Professor of Innovation at the Stern Business School at New York University. At Stern, he has created the curriculum for a graduate MBA course called Innovation and Design.
“The school wanted to introduce more innovation in their marketing curriculum and they approached myself and frog for assistance,” says Williams.
“The course is quite different to the structure of other MBA courses. It doesn’t follow a case study model. It is all about codifying design for business and giving business students creative confidence.”
Williams is passionate about giving business people the confidence to conceive and execute creative solutions. He calls this process Disruptive Thinking, which is the basis of his book.
“Disruptive Thinking stems from a process I developed at frog design called frogTHINK,” said Williams. “At frog we noticed that there was a shift happening. It used to be that design agencies would get a brief, go away and work their magic, then come back to their client with their ‘solution’.
" However, what we were finding at frog was that clients wanted to be a part of the creative process. They wanted to collaborate. This was because many of the client enquiries we were getting related to more complex and more systemic issues.
" We were getting requests like: ‘We don’t know what product we want, but we know we have to do something. So can you help us figure out what that something is?’ So clients wanted to be, and had to be, involved,” he says.
“These big-picture projects normally require a lot more input from different areas of expertise. There was no way a consulting agency could acquire all of the necessary expertise in a short amount of time for these projects – with such complex issues.
" When you are discussing where a company’s future is going, what products, services and business models they should be introducing, today it’s no longer good enough to make improvements and changes to existing products and services.
"You always have to be re-thinking the game, even at the height of your success – that’s where disruptive thinking comes in,” says Williams.
“What I noticed, when I was exposed to the innovation processes of many clients, was that their systems were extremely rigorous – stages and sign-offs were paramount and many stakeholders were involved. As a result, their innovation efforts would take a long time, and often the market had moved on by the time they had reached viable or tangible solutions they could start prototyping.
“The way we worked at frog, on the contrary,” he continues, “was extremely intuitive, agile, fast and flexible – very quickly getting into small-scale experiments and prototyping. Our background in product and software design meant it was natural to apply this to business strategy.
"frogTHINK combined the two ways of working – the client process and the frog process. If we had twenty people in a room – we had to make the most of the time we all had. So the client had to be prepared to forfeit some structure and really get into a fast intuitive process.
"And on the frog side, we needed a little more structure in a collaborative session. So frogTHINK worked to balance both camps.
“frog design has clients in virtually every business sector and of every size, from startups to Fortune 100. With such a diverse group, we had to make the process accessible to everyone, regardless of educational and professional background.
"We also had to make it easy for clients to hit the ground running, to understand, participate in and contribute to. It has been tremendously successful,” Williams says.
"In the book I start off by talking about the old adage – ‘differentiate or die’. This has been the key mantra of business competition for a long time. It’s imbedded in everyone’s psyche.
"Companies have been obsessed with trying to gain an edge on the competition by making incremental changes to their existing products and services – either adding features or making slightly different versions of the same product targeted at different people,” he explains.
"This pattern of behaviour is particularly common in successful companies operating in mature industries. They embrace incremental change because it supports their current business model.
“Reluctant to spend a bunch of money modifying their existing operations so they can make new things that will compete with their old things, these companies become complacent and stop innovating. Big mistake,” says Williams, “because when a business makes only incremental changes, they find themselves on a path that gets narrower and narrower.
" Eventually, they reach the end of the path and, by then, their customers have forsaken them for a new offering that nobody saw coming. In cases where companies do take disruptive risks, it’s often because they’re backed into a corner and there’s no other choice.
“Disruptive thinking is about making significant changes to the way you think about competition and the business you’re in, to figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do. It’s a way of thinking that surprises the market again and again with exciting, unexpected solutions.
"A way of thinking that turns consumer expectations upside-down and takes an industry into its next generation. It’s not about how to spot and react to disruptive changes in technology and the marketplace,” says Williams, “it’s about how to be the disruptive change.
“The story of Little MissMatched started by Jonah Staw (a colleague at frog) demonstrates this perfectly,” continues Williams. “Jonah was sitting around with friends one night discussing disruptive ideas. And somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if somebody sold socks that didn’t match? Who would do this?
"Jonah, for some reason, couldn’t get the idea out of his head. Some months later her was on a trip in Vietnam and he de-signed a jacket, got it back in a couple of hours, for very little money.
“This was a key insight for Jonah. We had been working on projects for Disney electronics at frog, and the prototyping and pre-production process for their products was very long. All of a sudden Jonah could see how the barriers to entry in the apparel industry are a lot lower.
"So this gave him the confidence to put the ‘socks that weren’t matching’ hypothesis into action. He got samples made and decided to sell socks in threes – none of them matching. Little MissMatched socks have been a huge hit with tween girls. It’s been phenomenal,” says Williams.
“I explain in the book how Little MissMatched went from hypothesis to opportunity, idea and solution. So this is an example of starting the process with a disruptive hypothesis: What if socks didn’t match?
"At the hypothesis point of the process you don’t know whether this crazy notion has value. So you have to go out and find the opportunity to put the hypothesis into action.
"As Jonah searched for an opportunity he discovered that tween girls are at an awkward point in their lives. They are not quite children and not quite adult so they want serious sophistication of the adult world, but they still want to have fun.
"He also noticed that there were socks for adults and socks for children but nothing really in between. So that was his opportunity to put his hypothesis into action. He got samples made and then started pitching the idea to retailers,” he says.
"Jonah tells a great story of when he was pitching the idea to a department store senior buyer. She basically said, ‘That is ridiculous! Why would anyone want socks that don’t match in sets of three?’ Fortunately, Jonah was quick-witted enough to ask her whether she had kids.
"She said she had a couple of girls aged eight and ten. Jonah asked her to take some samples home to see what they thought of them. She rang back the next day and placed a huge order – because her kids just loved them,” says Willams.
“The ideas section of my book talks about the three main stumbling blocks of teams not being able to be creative and come up with disruptive ideas. One is the reliance on traditional brainstorming, which has been around since the 1960s, and was developed by an advertising executive for the advertising industry.
"In brainstorming you are working with what’s on the top of your head, which happens to be every product, service and business model you have experienced recently – so it’s all clichéd stuff,” Williams explains.
“The second stumbling block,” he says, “is thinking about the product, service and business model as isolated entities. But the distinction between these components is becoming blurred.
"We now need to think in terms of a blended hybrid. The iPhone is an obvious example – it’s not just a product – it’s a product, a service and a business model.”
“The third is that most ideas don’t get articulated. They are nothing but water-cooler conversations. I walk through a lot of client offices and they say, ‘We don’t need any more ideas. We have more ideas than we know what to do with’. And I ask, ‘Can you show me the ideas?’ And they say, ‘Well, we don’t have them written down or anything but we talk about them a lot’.
"That’s the problem in a nutshell right there. Just talking about ideas leaves them at a vague level.
“So, if you are getting together for a group activity it’s about getting past these three stumbling blocks and making sure that you are documenting and articulating the ideas – in the right way,” continues Williams.
“In a way you can see how they play with your target market. Without testing your ideas with prospective end users and consumers, you are in danger of coming up with some really terrific ideas that will completely flop when they hit store shelves,” he says.
“Because it’s not enough just to come up with something disruptive; it has to be disruptive in ways that are valued by users.
“Then there is the pitch. How do you pitch a disruptive solution to somebody? It’s an important question, because people often react badly to things they don’t understand or that they aren’t familiar with. But, that doesn’t always mean that your solution is without merit.
"So, your pitch needs to tilt the playing field in your favour by controlling the associations your audience makes. This gives you a far better chance of getting the reaction that you want rather, instead, of leaving it to chance.
“Here I talk about the nine-minute pitch. To be concise – a structure that takes nine minutes – nine slides in nine minutes. Giving yourself a nine-minute time limit forces you to be precise in your thinking and organisation. That, in turn, will help you pack as much meaning into those minutes as you can.
"Your being precise also makes your audience pay more attention to what you have to say. In the first three you build empathy: Why should I care about this? In the next three you build tension – making your audience curious: Where is this going? Then in the final three – it’s the pay-off: Where they believe in your solution and the value it can offer,” Williams says.
“The process in the book is about learning to think about what usually gets ignored, learning to pay attention to what’s not obvious and learning to create disruptive solutions in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years.
"There’s no esoteric jargon or complex charts and equations. But, also no brainstorming with water pistols, beanbags and other supposedly creativity-stimulating methods.
"It’s a fast, agile approach to collaborative innovation that maintains the right level of tension between fluid intuition and logical rigor.
“By the time readers are done,” says Williams, “I want them asking, ‘Why hadn’t we ever thought about our business and industry this way before?’”