As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Kressy.
Matthew S. Kressy, founding director of the MIT Integrated Design & Management (IDM) master’s degree, is an expert in innovation, leadership and product development. As an entrepreneur and founder of Designturn, he has designed, invented, engineered, and manufactured products for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and everything in between.
Kressy believes in interdisciplinary, collaborative, design-driven product development derived from deep user research, creative concept generation, and rapid prototype iteration. He is passionate about the implementation of these elements in the design process. In fact, since 1999, Kressy has co-taught collaborative courses in product design and development at top design and business schools including the MIT Sloan School of Management, Harvard Business School, and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he holds a BFA in industrial design.
Kressy is also on the founding team of New England Innovation Academy, the first middle and high school that prepares innovators to shape the world through human-centered design.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Like many people, much of my success today has been driven by experiences I had when I was young. I have always been an independent thinker, and grew up a bit differently than my peers. My parents were artists and in particular, my mom was a successful apparel designer straight out of Manhattan. She’d design and sew my clothes with a NYC fashion aesthetic and send me off to school in rural NH. As you might expect, this led to a good deal of bullying from my classmates — but beyond that, I also found that I clashed with teachers, who often didn’t like my independence and the fact I often did not fall in line as easily as other kids.
Nevertheless, I graduated and attended Rhode Island School of Design to learn product design. When I graduated from college, I struggled to find a job, and decided to interview for a gig driving trucks for a furniture company. I showed up with my design portfolio, and the person who was interviewing me said, “Yeah, you’re not getting the truck driving job,” and introduced me to the VP of marketing for the store. He found a place for me on the sales floor, where I was able to learn more about customers and what they wanted, and furniture design. I never stopped designing, and I asked if I could sell a kinetic light sculpture that I designed through the store. He said yes and I hung it on the wall and started taking orders. That was my first business.
People saw my sculpture and wanted me to design other things, so I eventually was able to leave the furniture company to begin my own design company. Along the way, I taught at the university level–including alongside many of the professors I had some friction with at RISD–and grew my business on my own terms. (In fact, one of those RISD professors, Mickey Ackerman eventually hired me, and is responsible for my teaching career. He remains a mentor and dear friend today.)
About six years ago, I was given the opportunity to create and lead a brand new master’s program at MIT called Integrated Design & Management, a cross-disciplinary masters program which teaches engineers, business professionals and designers human-centered design.
Human-centered design is the idea of finding out what people need and want before creating solutions for them. At MITidm, we add the idea of performing the process with an interdisciplinary team. We call that combination of human-centered design and an interdisciplinary team Integrated Design. Human-centered design is an interdisciplinary, collaborative, design-driven approach to product development derived from deep research, reactive concept generation and rapid prototype iteration. But for me, it is really more than that: human-centered design holds a higher purpose of fostering empathy in everyone who goes through the process. It can be translated beyond product design and into experience and policy. It is thoughtful and compassionate, and my mission is to create leaders and innovators who understand its power across sectors.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I believe that in every person that I meet, I find something valuable that I can learn from. I could give a long list of mentors, but in that sense, really everyone is my mentor. The people I’ve learned from the most–the ones who really stand out in my mind–have been the ones with credentials to give me confidence. So in a sense, I too need to be validated by those in power. In those cases, their opinion of me was an informed opinion.
I’ve also been inspired by the farmers I grew up with in New Hampshire and the mechanic in Plymouth that works on my old truck. Everyone is brilliant and inspiring if you make the decision to find it in them.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Like many product designers, I started my firm, Designturn, to design, invent, engineer and manufacture products for companies that range from startup to Fortune 500. And we’ve done that. But you’re right: being purpose-driven really does facilitate success. That’s what I learned when I recognized the power of the human-centered design process in developing empathy in the people who use it. I began to realize it was a mistake to exclusively center human-centered design on product design.
So, my vision shifted. As the founding director at MITidm, I developed an admissions process that focuses on character and “love” above all else. The first thing we ask our candidates is to express their dreams and aspirations and explain how MITidm will empower them. Many of our candidates say that our admission process is completely unlike any other admissions process or job interview they’ve experienced because our goal is not just to develop great entrepreneurs and product designers, but to create innovative leaders that can bring us into a future that is centered on empathy for our fellow humans.
I’ve continued to pursue that purpose by being a Trustee and Innovation Advisor for New England Innovation Academy, which is the country’s first human-centered design middle and high school. As we bring MITidm’s philosophy to younger students, I’m acutely aware of the opportunity that we have to create students who are independent thinkers and better equipped to handle the complex world ahead, and that is my driving purpose.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I lead the team at MIT Integrated Design & Management master’s program (MITidm) and like many university programs, we faced a tremendous challenge when the pandemic shut the school down. This was particularly hard on us because we have a hands-on, experiential curriculum. We had to adapt our program overnight, redesigning our students’ experiences, as well as the experience of our faculty and staff, to give them the tools and resources necessary to make this happen.
Because my entire philosophy is centered around human-centered design, the first thing we did was have a meeting with faculty, staff and students to get their opinions, feelings and needs. Then, we talked about the needs of our students. We know what our curriculum is and what it has to deliver. We wondered how we could deliver the same learning value and level of enjoyment that they get in person in a virtual environment.
We explored the tools available and then we redesigned many of our project topics to lend themselves to using digital tools instead of physical tools, and to create digital products instead of physical objects. We developed a way for students to collaborate online to a very high degree.
MITidm is also known for a sort of connectivity and intimacy in our program that students highly value. Many were concerned that would be lost as people connect online, in many cases from around the world. So we did things online to create the kinds of moments and experiences that would foster a deeper emotional connection among the cohorts.
In the end, the principles I faced this with are similar to what I do with any leadership challenge: listening to the people who are involved and working to find solutions that meet their needs, testing those solutions and being open to tweaking them as we go to make it work for the entire team. I should add that I have little to do with this success. It’s the collaborative work of all: the faculty, the staff and the students. If they did not approach the pandemic with passion, drive and a commitment to take care of each other, we would not be where we are.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I consider giving up one of my strengths–I’m very good at it. Every day I wake up and ask myself if I should keep doing what I am doing, or if I should give up. It’s an exercise in cost/benefit analysis. My life, the time available to me, is finite and my most precious commodity. How I spend that time is one of the most important decisions I make.
And so whether to give up is a complicated recipe: a combination of whether it will pay the bills , move my career forward, and bring joy to other people. Interestingly, my joy largely comes from bringing joy to others.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader’s role is to listen, to empathize, and to transfer that empathy to their larger team in order to drive forward solutions and action. There’s a myth that leaders are born, but I believe that the best leaders are built through the human-centered design process. It requires that you begin by listening to the people affected by your products, decisions or policies.
Your role as a leader is to intimately understand the needs of the people you serve and to bring that understanding to the team. When times are challenging, re-centering on meeting the needs of stakeholders is the only way through.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I’m not what a lot of people would consider a “cheerleader” but I do make it a point to make people feel appreciated. I do that openly and frequently, and it’s not always easy to do. It can be a little uncomfortable. As a manager you always worry if that will change someone’s expectations of how they are treated by an organization or how they are compensated, and that’s always something in the forefront of your mind. But I try to express appreciation in various ways, from buying lunch for everyone to sending emails that just thank an individual for what they are doing.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I’m a direct person. When news is difficult, I address it head on. In an email, the news comes in the first line and the rationale and more information comes afterwards.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Part of the human-centered design philosophy centers on rapid iteration: coming up with many concepts, narrowing them and then iterating on them, bringing them back to your stakeholders and repeating the process again. When the future is unpredictable, it’s time to go back and listen. What do people need? How can you best serve them? How can you evolve? Where is your empathy and understanding of the people that you are serving? Make new concepts and test them to figure it out.
Plans may be difficult to make when things are unpredictable, but following this process is not, and it can keep guiding you and moving you forward so you evolve with the people you are serving, constantly focusing on their needs and designing with what they need at that moment in time.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one focus is on the team and togetherness. If you’re taking hits repeatedly but stay together as a team, then forward motion will continue. If the hits break the team apart, then forward motion stops and in some cases can even destroy the organization.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The biggest mistake I see organizations make is unilateral decision making instead of focusing on a human centered design approach where you talk to everyone first. By taking a human-centered approach, you’re informed. You’ve spoken to many people who will in turn feel invested in your decisions and be aligned.
But when we get scared, we make quick decisions. Turbulent times and fear often change the way we make decisions and that can alienate people.
Another mistake I see leaders make is being too reactive. The trick in extreme times is to modulate your reaction. When COVID hit, for example, I noticed a lot of people freaked out. Some wouldn’t talk to anyone, wouldn’t leave their homes even to buy food. Then you have other people who weren’t worried at all. And the right answer is in between those two: use logic and rational thinking to evaluate what the right kind of behavior change should be.
Polarization in any circumstance is problematic. If we could all modulate our thinking, our stress levels would come way down.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
As a university master’s program, the past year has been a difficult one, but I’ve been constantly amazed by the way that our students have been able to adapt to a remote or hybrid learning environment. One of our larger projects is to team up and design a product from scratch, undergoing the entire human-centered design process. Normally during that project, students use the lab and the tools we have to create prototypes, but, unable to come in, one team sourced their prototype from an overseas factory.
They learned an incredible amount about the manufacturing process having to go down this road. And as program leaders, we learned that while some things may have been lost this year as we adapted to COVID, many other things were gained. Constantly putting ourselves in the shoes of our students, listening to them, understanding their challenges and seeing how they turn them into opportunities has helped us continue to make MITidm a successful program and to grow our reputation among graduate students, even as many universities face challenges.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or how bad times are, there is beauty that you can find, appreciate and celebrate. If we allow fear to be too much of our thought process, it’s like wearing a blindfold to beauty. For example, we are all working at home. There’s an opportunity to spend time with our families, to have more beautiful cooking experiences, to create a blended working and family home life that is really well designed and is an opportunity for improvement that could make you incredibly happy.
- Look forward. If you keep thinking, “This is not what it once was, it’s not as good,” you’ll never start thinking in a way that is creative and allows opportunity to design a new way of being, existing and working.
- Communicate clearly and directly. Be transparent and allow your team to understand what is happening and what the next action steps are.
- Listen to your stakeholders, particularly your team. When a crisis hits, leaders are often reactive or unilateral. A good leader stops, listens and understands where his or her team is coming from so that they’re not only making better decisions, but they have buy-in from the team.
- Don’t go to extremes. Our fear reaction is to take one extreme action or another, but it’s important to stop and understand that the right answer is usually somewhere in between the two poles.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
- Roald Dahl, The Minpins
I believe that the world is full of magic — we just need to look for it, believe it is there, and we will see it. When I’m interviewing new students for MITidm, this is what I focus on. I believe if we have more people who believe that there is magic and beauty in the world around us, then the world will actually become more magical and beautiful, and that’s a better place for us all.
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