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Pete Overy

Become – High Profiles
September 17, 2015

“Hi, I’m Pete,” says a smiling, strapping, shiny bald-headed man in a navy blue blazer, black round neck tee, dark denim jeans, and camel brown shoes. A turtleneck might be a bit too trite and overdone, but black seems to be the prerequisite colour for creatives. Pete Overy answers the door himself, as the Front Door Concierge at IDEO Singapore is nowhere to be seen. As he leads me up to the mezzanine, I hear raucous laughter and incessant chatter below. Peering through the glass windows, I see a workshop taking place with participants apparently learning how to unlock their creative confidence.

There is a light in Pete’s eyes when he talks, brimming with excitement at how IDEO can create value and impact through design. He serves as a reminder of the fundamental adage by Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

He hands me a red book – it has a soft velvety-like texture and its debossed title:The Little Book of IDEO seamlessly blends into the background without giving too much away. “About 18 months ago, we decided to look within ourselves to determine what our value system is. And this book communicates to people about our culture, values, and the work that we do.” Pete recounts fervently. To drive home the point further, he takes me through each of the 7 values:

1. Be Optimistic: IDEO is a place where possibility meets tangibility, and that is what our clients are asking of us – they are asking us to be optimistic about their future, believe, as optimists do, that doing good begets doing good.

2. Collaborate: We’ve all sat in studio lunches where work has been presented, and realised at some point that nobody has actually used the word “I”. Instead, every single person, without exception, goes out of their way to acknowledge everyone around them, using the word “we”.

3. Take Ownership: Take responsibility for your bit, own it, and resolutely follow through on it. Individual ownership supports collective responsibility.

4. Embrace Ambiguity: Imagine you and your teammates are in a rowing boat, on a lake, and it’s foggy. You need to collectively row together, not knowing when you will hit land, but knowing that eventually you will.

5. Talk Less, Do More: Nothing is a bigger buzz-kill than over-intellectualising, theorising, and postulating when drawing, making and building can tell a much more powerful story.

6. Learn From Failure: Nobody ever got fired from IDEO for trying, or for being reflective about why something didn’t work out and learning from it. What we do is really hard, we are constantly going into uncharted territory and if we were not trying new things that failed occasionally, we wouldn’t still be in business.

7. Make Others Successful: When someone else, without asking, goes out of their way to make sure that you are seen, helped, acknowledged, and recognised – it’s powerful stuff, and like Christmas, is as good to give, as it is to receive.

Conversations with Pete Overy

Managing Director, IDEO Singapore
Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

WY-LENE YAP: Did you grow up in a creative environment?

PETE OVERY: Not particularly. My father was a cab driver and my mother was a civil servant in England. But from a very early age, I always liked drawing and sketching. So right at the beginning of my education, I remembered having a conversation at Grammar school: You’re really good at Art, but you’ve got 8 GCSEs. What are you going to do? They told me that the creative path wasn’t necessarily the path I should follow because I was very good at chemistry and geography. Luckily, I met a teacher in the art room who said, “You have a good way of thinking and applying your skills to the creative arts. You’re not an artist, but I think you’re a designer.” I had no idea what it meant – I was fourteen, fifteen at that time. But he helped me figure out what type of design discipline I belonged to. I ended up doing an Art foundation course during my A levels, and thereafter, I became the youngest person to graduate with an Information Design degree at Nottingham Trent University. I was lucky that I had someone who has been a massive influence in my life.

WY-LENE: You studied Art and also took an Art foundation course. Is there a difference between the two?

PETE: Art foundation is a year’s study of all things that centre around helping you become more creative – not just the output of your work, but the thinking behind it, which allows you to gain confidence as to why you’re doing it. At that time, I was constructing colour variations: so taking what Monet did, like painting a haystack in winter, and figuring out what that meant if I was say, doing up a poster for an advertisement. Could I construct something that could differ at various points of the day or even the year? And would that be appropriate to engage someone and make them buy it?

WY-LENE: I am aware that you have a keen eye for typography. Which has more power: words or images? Or both?

PETE: Either, depending on the context. Using typography as a way of expression can be impactful – for example, when words are big and in capital letters, it is clear that you’re making a bold statement. Whereas for certain images, you might think you know what’s going on, but in reality, the image doesn’t necessarily portray the true meaning of what you’re trying to get across. You can convey emotions, but often, the context can be wrong. That being said, combining words with images can be incredibly powerful.

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WY-LENE: Do you have a favourite font?

PETE: Actually, I do! Akzidenz-Grotesk – an old German font from many years ago, which I use a lot. I don’t use it much at IDEO though because a huge part of what we do, are expressed in different tangible forms.

WY-LENE: Before joining IDEO, you co-founded Marshall Overy, a London-based branding and interaction design consultancy. How has that experience helped you in your current role?

PETE: It has definitely contributed to my ability to lead. As a designer, business acumen was not taught at all. It often fascinates me – I have a friend who is a chef. And chefs can kill people if they screw up the logistics. It’s very important that you understand how to order, budget, store and the food that you send out. Thereafter, the creative part kicks in. But you have to learn all those other pieces. In design school, they don’t teach you all those other pieces. Design over the years, especially for graphic design, is incredibly subjective. Most people can design things themselves using application tools and that can be democratising, but it polarises your ability to have a conversation about why you should do something in a particular way: the skills you were taught or how to craft typography. I always wanted to have my own business, and put my stamp on the world as I strongly believed in it. At that time, I met my then-partner, Susan Marshall, and she was different and older than me. I was the creative force and she was the stabilising business force. But she taught me a hell of a lot – like how to have empathy, organisational excellence, getting ideas across to consumers, etc. As a whole, I think that allowed me to develop a business sense, and made me realise that collaboration is important in order for things to happen. Before I joined IDEO, collaboration was a big part of my ethos, so when I discovered IDEO’s multi-disciplinary world, it just fitted really well.

WY-LENE: How did you end up at IDEO?

PETE: When I left Marshall Overy, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to work for someone else. Furthermore, at that time, we weren’t as creative as I would have liked to be although we made money. So I ended up freelancing for the people who ran the lottery – it was highly political with an in-house design team. I also happened to meet someone called Jessie Cutts who worked for IDEO London. A few months later, she said: “You should come and work at IDEO. We help businesses construct value through design.” I was intrigued and started as a freelancer. My first piece of work was for a 350-year-old Italian insurance company. They were incredibly risk-averse, and were looking to construct new products and services for millennials. During that period in Europe, they were looking to change the legislation – so instead of going through a broker, people would go directly to the insurance company. However, there were no direct mechanisms in place yet. I entered a world where effectively, you can create the same communications internally, and structure yourselves accordingly to get the best possible outcome and impact.

WY-LENE: Which year did you join?

PETE: 2007.

One of my superpowers is recognising people’s talents and strengths, and amplifying them.

WY-LENE: You have also worked in IDEO Shanghai previously. How is it different versus working in Singapore?

PETE: It has been a journey. IDEO London introduced me to a world of innovation. It was a buzzword that was used and bannered around in England. But IDEO London helped me frame what innovation actually means for organisations, how to use design to create new products and services, implementing design strategy to establish the right potential outcomes, and finally, the toolsets to achieve this. That was the beginning of the first piece, which unlocked a hunger to explore more beyond England. I was also super interested in how Asia was evolving, and they were so many stories about China being the ‘next big thing’. So I wanted to see how China would become an economic superpower – it was exporting a lot of goods at that time, but what about designing for China, and helping China design for itself? I fell in love with that and I was given the opportunity to go to the Shanghai office. I often describe it as: Everything that is hard in England is easy in China. And everything that is easy in England is hard in China. Banking is a good example. I was only there for 2 and a half years, and I saw the local market rapidly iterating and changing itself constantly, which was fascinating. That could never happen in England or in Singapore – there are too many rules and systems. In China, it was cheap to rent a shop in certain areas, or set up a manufacturing goods business. When I came to Singapore, it was much more westernised as compared to Asia and the language barrier was removed. I could connect with my clients and it was easier to get my point across.

WY-LENE: What is the hardest part of your job?

PETE: Sometimes as a designer, we get very excited by our ideas. One of things that design thinking does very well is it enables you to test your ideas. So the hardest part is trusting the process and not worrying whether your intuition is right or wrong. I often use intuition, but not to hold onto my ideas. Making sure I can let go enough to construct the right path towards success is very important, and instilling that in others – especially for young designers.

WY-LENE: And the easiest part?

PETE: One of my superpowers is recognising people’s talents and strengths, and amplifying them. I find that easy and it feels like it’s a part of my DNA.

If I fire off an email saying: Hello IDEO Brain, I need some help with “X”. I will get 20 or 30 replies telling me all sorts of wonderful or inspirational ideas.

WY-LENE: How is IDEO’s organisational culture like? Do people come to work with a spring in their step?

PETE: Yes, I would say so. I think we’re very lucky. IDEO is a culture of people who inherently want to help you in any way, shape or form. If I fire off an email saying: Hello IDEO Brain, I need some help with “X”. I will get 20 or 30 replies telling me all sorts of wonderful or inspirational ideas. When you step into IDEO, people realise quickly that every project or internal initiative is set up for everyone to collaborate with one another. In terms of how we are constructed, we come from different design disciplines – we have communication designers, interaction designers, environmental designers, architectural designers, organisational designers (occupational psychologists), business designers, and even doctors. So all of us come together with a purpose to try and create disproportionate impact in the world through design. And part of our DNA is to construct the enabling culture with one another.

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WY-LENE: Is it challenging to get all these people with diverse backgrounds to work together?

PETE: In the IDEO context, no. But it has taken a lot of work to design and achieve that purposefully. When we construct a team, there are considerations, and it depends on the outcomes that we’re trying to create. Each person has inherently a certain set of core skills. We call them “T” shapes. There is a core discipline, and using myself as an example, it is branding and communications. At the top of the “T” is how they collaborate, have empathy for others (including clients), whether they are curious, and how they adapt their working style and background to solve more complex problems. As people grow in IDEO, they develop that “T” in many different ways: they become more leader-like in their ability to empower and enable. There will always be a project leader, and as such, projects are constructed around those who have the required core skills. Although we are brand agnostic, company agnostic, and domain agnostic, we have expertise and knowledge in many different areas around the world. As a location, there might be twenty of us, but we’re part of a bigger network that we can tap into which allows us to collaborate on a team level, and at an organisational level too.

WY-LENE: When hiring, do you place a lot of importance on someone who has design and graphic background? What do you actually look for?

PETE: Not necessarily, no. What’s important is that person has to be curious and refers to him or herself as “we” not “I”. When someone is talking about what they did on their own, we know from the work that we do, that it takes several people to get things to market. It is a collaboration. Another crucial factor is humility – how they talk about themselves and how they articulate their work. Coming back to point on having curiosity, we have people who have strange and diverse interests. For instance, Eric [Tan] our Finance lead, keeps and raises stingrays. He is incredibly passionate and also has a fish farm. On weekends, he invites us to go and see his stingrays.

WY-LENE: A colourful personality helps.

PETE: Colourful is one thing. These people are not misfits, but they are looking to try different things. If I were to use you as an example, you said you used to work for the government, and now you’re doing this. So that makes me wonder: Why are you doing this? When did that change? What influenced you? And if you can talk about your influences, and articulate your journey and the changes that have happened… all of those things are very powerful because you can see someone grow. There are some people who are very craft-oriented and there are others who are very strategic. And as long as they are optimistic and excited about what they are doing, it will be apparent when they talk to people.

If someone is capable of expressing who they are within their own ideas, that makes them standout.

WY-LENE: How tough is the hiring process?

PETE: [laughs] We have a billion-dollar brand, and around 650 people worldwide. So when we have job vacancies available (particularly in certain areas), we get thousands of applications. There is definitely rigour and we do have many levels of conversations with people to try and filter the right person to hire. It also depends on how deep their craft is, and their seniority. Over the years, we have given people things that they can express back to us; like who they are as a designer. And if someone is capable of expressing who they are within their own ideas, that makes them standout.

WY-LENE: How big is the team in Singapore?

PETE: We have 18 people and 1 regional person – he is a talent director who is based here, but works for the entire region.

WY-LENE: Is your portfolio Singapore-focused? Or does it span across the Southeast Asia region?

PETE: We started out primarily with a public sector portfolio, which helped us ground our understanding of Singapore in terms of the social fabric and cultural narrative. We are passionate about building creative confidence in Singapore and unlocking that in organisations as well as in individuals. Over the years, we have managed to expand what we can offer to the private sector and have also worked across the region mostly for MNCs in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Australia.

peter_L3

The word “management” in itself, makes me shiver a little bit because you tend to conjure up various connotations. I prefer the word “leadership” because it’s about constructing the right vision and helping others understand how we’re going to get there.

WY-LENE: How would you describe your management philosophy?

PETE: Even though I’m a managing director, I see myself as an enabler to the people in the studio as well as my clients. I adopt a nurturing mindset and try to construct the right amount of permission and exploration for people to execute their projects. Along the way, I offer guidance to achieve the intended outcome. In addition, as an organisation, I try to ensure transparency around the decisions we’re making – so rather than it being top-down, it’s about having a conversation with them. As a leader, I don’t have all the answers, but we try different approaches because we may be passionate about it or have some form of evidence from market research that supports what we are doing. We have another internal mantra: Ask for forgiveness, not permission. The word “management” in itself, makes me shiver a little bit because you tend to conjure up various connotations. I prefer the word “leadership” because it’s about constructing the right vision and helping others understand how we’re going to get there – that includes everyone from the senior management at IDEO, our clients, the kids in school, to the talent that we meet who are not necessarily interested in working for us, but with us. All of these people matter in our journey.

WY-LENE: What is your most successful project?

PETE: I think it depends on how you would define “successful”. When I was in China, we came over to Singapore to help the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) think about how they can become more citizen-centric in their service delivery. The last 5o years of modern Singapore has its challenges, but it is still a pretty amazing country if you take into account what Singapore has built and created. So for MOM, we were able to help the ministry redesign their Employment Pass Services Centre and instead of waiting for an hour, now it takes people only 15 minutes by appointment. We have also done work for other government agencies like the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Health. That aside, we have OpenIDEO (an open innovation platform) that has a social enterprise outlook and we have 80,000 people on this platform. There are 29 challenges with over 6,000 ideas, and more than 300 ideas have gone to market. A great example is how a woman designed the Ebola Survivor Corps to fight the outbreak, and now her idea is even on indiegogo too.

WY-LENE: Is design thinking similar to integrative thinking?

PETE: What is your definition of integrative thinking?

WY-LENE: The ability to exploit opposing ideas and constraints to create new solutions.

PETE: When I talk about design thinking, it often gets mistaken for a process that you follow in a linear order. Design thinking for me, is a toolset. You know Lean, Six-Sigma, but we have expanded people’s toolsets for creating new ideas. And design thinking allows you to look at the world in a human-centered lens. When Tim Brown did a talk in Singapore, he was asked: Can people learn design thinking? And he said, “If you have one music lesson, you would not expect the person to play like Mozart. It takes dedication, time and hard work to get to a level where you can play like Mozart. Design thinking is similar to that analogy.” It is a journey, it needs practise, and slowly, you build confidence as well as your skill set.

WY-LENE: How much of it is product design and how much of it is innovation?

PETE: That’s an interesting question. Product design is about designing physical things. But in our context, when I talk about products, I am referring to service products – there are many layers to the word “product”. At IDEO, it’s less about products, but more about making an impact on this world. And impact can be manifested in various forms like a product, service, policy or even behavioral change elements. Innovation can be incremental – existing things that you already do, but you’re doing it in a slightly better way. Innovation can also be evolutionary – you’re doing an existing thing, but you’re constructing it for a new market or set of people. Or you’re doing something brand new, for an existing set of people. Lastly, Innovation can be revolutionary – you’re doing something brand new for a new set of people. Some things can be highly disruptive, and others less so. For example, when Apple first launched the iPod, people saw that as highly disruptive, but there were a lot of mp3 players in the market. It was an evolutionary idea, in a revolutionary space.

WY-LENE: As the founder of IDEO, David Kelley argued that “we moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers.” What is the fundamental difference between a designer and a design thinker?

PETE: I get to sit in board rooms where CEOs are worried about creativity and productivity. Are people doing the same thing over and over again? Design, as a construct, is about aesthetics and form. But we are shifting that perspective so that design can be seen as a strategic tool. I think people are confused with the two because there is a layer of design at a craft execution level. That being said, design thinking can elevate what design can achieve for organisations and tackle problems that the world faces like obesity, ageing population, etc. What happens if you marry Hyatt’s hospitality with the skill set of a local caretaker’s home? They will have great expertise in hospitality and a better understanding of how to look after the ageing population. What is the potential outcome of that? We get super excited by such possibilities because design thinking can have a highly impactful outcome.

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WY-LENE: How do you deal with traditional companies that have a more analytical approach?

PETE: When we design workshops, we help people to see the benefits of adopting new ideas and ways of working, and how that can create a different kind of impact. There are some who don’t, but the majority actually do.

WY-LENE: Do you agree that in theory design thinking is wonderful, but the implementation part is the hardest? And that is why companies fail?

PETE: It is important to recognise the journey of innovation. When things aren’t working for clients is because there has to be an alignment with senior management when new products or services are created. Sometimes, they are not ready, or they are not interested, or it’s too different and new. That’s often the challenge for organisations. Over the years, we have become practitioners, enablers, and stewards of design thinking. With Launch to Learn, we physically construct the experience for customers. Each stage is important and we help clients understand that journey before they embark on it.

We deal with failure by having a learning mindset.

WY-LENE: In Silicon Valley, “fail fast, fail often” is basically the mantra. Whereas in Singapore, failure tends to be frowned upon and carries a negative connotation. Why do you think Singaporeans are scared of failure?

PETE: In Singapore, the education system has taught you to have the answer. I think “failure” is a big word. When something fails in an Asian context, it’s not a good thing. When you tell your mother that you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, she says, “Yes.” But when you want to be an entrepreneur, she says, “Really?” Nine out of ten start-ups don’t survive. We deal with failure by having a learning mindset. You need to figure out the iterative cycle – you can take something that was failing, and make it work. Historically, I have seen this before whereby people pilot things, then bin them. Instead, they should be figuring out what pieces aren’t working and iterating it through various cycles.

WY-LENE: Finally, how is Tim Brown like?

PETE: He’s fabulous and I get to work with him on a monthly basis. Tim has set up an emergent culture whereby not all the ideas come from him. He constructs the stage, and we’re the people who act out the play. That’s from a managing director, to a director, to a designer… everyone has a part to play. We are extremely lucky to have a CEO who has the foresight to think this way.