The man who redesigns death also had to cheat it

Interview by JF Bouchard, Chairman & Curator – C2 Montréal / CEO - Sid Lee

Meet Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Director, IDEO 

I first came to know Paul last summer in Montréal. He blew me away while presenting his team’s design-thinking projects, which included, and I kid you not:

– Redesigning a country’s interactions with its citizens. (What?!)

– Redesigning some of Judaism’s rituals and iconography. (It looked A-M-AZ-I-N-G. I’m considering converting.)

– Redesigning American prisons to improve the juvenile detention experience.

– Redesigning how we experience death. (He sort of became Mr. Death Designer in the media for a while. True story.)

There were at least four or five more projects, but I felt so tiny in front of this big, totally huggable and brilliant man who was changing the world so profoundly that my mind wandered to my own pale-by-comparison achievements. Hence, Paul’s other equally mind-bending projects remain a bit of a blur in my memory. Long story short, I was deeply impressed. It’s shameful, I know, but my competitive nature was positively annoyed. I told myself: “Okay, the man is brilliant, genuine, nice and all, but thank God, at least he has a beer belly.” Pathetic perhaps, but hey, it’s an accomplishment I can be proud of not claiming. Cosmic justice worked its wonders!

Then, less than a year later, the bastard lost 50 pounds. Belly, gone.

Paul has achieved the ultimate designer’s challenge: he redesigned himself. And for a great reason that trumps mere vanity…

It all started last fall when a doctor told him he was “a ticking bomb” ready to explode into a diabetic meltdown. At that pivotal moment, Paul knew he had to be the subject of his own transformative medicine – or else. The donkey – his description, not mine! – must turn thoroughbred, or die wheezing in the field. With that, Paul started to eat better and quickly earned the coveted title of SoulCycle’s #1 Worldwide Fan. I can only assume Paul gets paid by the word for his torrential Facebook posts!

Paul’s multitude of friends can’t miss his daily status updates with quotes from lyrics that blast into his skull as he pedals excess poundage into oblivion. Fast-forward a few months: we’re all way on top of our ’80s and ’90s classics game… and Paul’s doctor described his medical improvement as “miraculous.” Paul shall sing and live on.

Paul Bennett

Today, Mr. Perfect is still nice n’ huggable, completely brilliant and svelt… I have to gracefully deal with the triple blow.

Actually, you’ll all have to deal with it too since C2 Montréal has invited Paul to speak this May. Paul will share the stage with his long-time partner in crime, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. In a nutshell, the duo will speak about their friendship and how it influenced their work and IDEO’s approach to collaboration. It should be a lot of fun, in a brainy, inspiring kind of way.

I sat down with Paul at his office in New York last February for a brief interview. 

JF: How do you define what you do?

PAUL: Well, I’m very lucky to be one of those people who are tasked with inspiring other people, and help them inspire out in the world. So what I do is help keep ideas in orbit, you know? Find new ideas in the world – whether they’re personal ideas, or things I see or experience when I travel – and bring those ideas to work, into projects, to clients, to designers, and help keep us in flow. I think of myself as sort of an “Energy Management Consultant.” That’s what I’m in the business of. I help energy, ideas and optimism flow around this organization.

JF: Has the definition of your work changed over the years?

PAUL: The definition has changed, but mostly the scale has changed. I still treat the things that I went into this industry to do the same way. Which is to create things that matter. Things people use. Things that are beautiful. Things people want. Things that make a difference. I’ve always wanted to do that, but the scale is radically different. I never imagined 30 years ago, when I was working on packaging and label design at the start of my career, that I would be consulting and advising countries or governments, or boards of organizations, or entire sectors… or possessing the ability to radically change how people behave. I never thought that. I mean, it’s a dream come true.

JF: What made that possible? Is it the evolution of the industry or is it the evolution of IDEO?

PAUL: I think it’s both. I think we’ve evolved in response to the industry and the industry has evolved in response to us. I think those two things have shifted. We certainly don’t sit there in some boardroom and say, “How do we change the world? Let’s cook up a new way to do that!” It’s usually in response to something we’re seeing from our clients. I think we’re very good at sensemaking, at understanding, at sort of sixth-sensing how we see the world going. Actually, I’m pretty good at that. My intuition is a very strong business tool for me. I understand where I see the world and how I can see things changing and how we can help shift and change that.

JF: What has been the role of collaboration in bringing those insights to the world?

PAUL: The biggest learning I’ve had in the last 14 and a half years is the value of collaboration. I think it’s transformative when you let your ego drop, and when you understand that it’s not your job to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, you’re never going to be the smartest person in the room. You can actually learn from everybody else. You can enable and ignite that in others. The value of seeing how that affects you is profound, and how it affects your craft, your practice and how you can see the value of everybody genuinely coming from a place of wanting the idea to be the best it can be. That makes you want to be the best you can be.

JF: I believe you will be talking about the role of friendship and collaboration at C2 Montréal. Can you tell us a little bit more about your talk and your relationship with Tim Brown?

PAUL: Tim and I are good friends. Tim and I decided in my interview that we were going to be friends, I think. We both saw something in each other, which was kind of a difference and a similarity at the same time. So I think we want to recognize that. I think we want to actually understand what it means for us as individuals, but also what it means for our business. I think it’s been very interesting going through this process together where, you know, we lead from the head and the heart, in various quantities and in different ways. Coming together around a really important decision like this, we would not have been able to do that if we weren’t friends. And I actually think that’s true of all of IDEO. I consider many of the people in this organization to be my friends. And so, this is not a place that is just about business colleagues, this is a place where friendships are genuine. Our friendship is actually the core of our business and I want us to talk about that.

JF: Do you think that your friendship and the impact it has had on your business is something that is personal to you? Or is it something that the business world can learn from?

PAUL: I think it’s true in both cases. I think it’s deeply nourishing, personally, to actually work with people you like, you respect and you want to spend time with. I think it has a massive impact on our business because we genuinely like working together. We see each other as full people. We’re not putting on some kind of persona where we’re coming to the office and pretending to be somebody else. We’re very much ourselves in our rawest state. And I actually think that’s a characteristic that we look for in our clients and in the people that work here. It transforms business relationships – to just be truthful, and to tell it like it is, and to actually be yourself. I am done, and I think many of us are done, with the world of being somebody else in business. I think we just want to be ourselves and do business and I think that’s a very different way of being.

JF: We’re going to be talking about the future of work a lot this year at C2. This notion of authenticity that you’re referring to – how do you see that playing out in the future? How does it impact how people interact at IDEO?

PAUL: I’m one of those people who are lucky enough to sit in boardrooms, with CEOs, and to sort of see the business world from a pretty strong vantage point. And so many of the things we see, and so many of the organizations that are struggling, are struggling because they just don’t connect as people. They use all of this rhetoric and they create all of these processes and they do all of these things that sort of fog the way of just looking at each other in the eye and going, “What do you think? What do I think?” I cannot underestimate the value of people’s intuition, and how long they have been in an organization is an asset.

I’ll tell you a story. I was with a manufacturing business which was in the food business, and they had a “process bible” that talked about how they did what they did. It was so big and so heavy that they couldn’t carry it. It had to be wheeled around on a trolley! I remember talking to the CEO and saying to him, “How long has everybody in this room worked here?” And we actually asked everybody to write down on a Post-It note how many years they’ve been with the business. And I think the total was something like 623 years. And I said, “Maybe I’m misinterpreting this, but you’ve got 623 years of experience, and you can’t make a decision? What’s wrong with you all? Look at each other in the eye, and say, ‘Here’s what I think. What do you think?’ Can you strip it down to its most human, simple, authentic version?” And so much of what we do is actually help strip away complexity from organizations to get people back to first principles, which is People, Stories and Truth. And that’s what we do at IDEO. Again and again and again, our work is actually about taking away complexity of process and adding in simplicity and human connection.

Paul and Tim will share the main stage at C2 Montréal on May 24, exact time to be announced soon.

You can follow JF on Twitter (@jfbouchard)

About IDEO

IDEO (pronounced “eye-dee-oh”) is an award-winning global design firm that takes a humancentered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow. We identify new ways to serve and support people by uncovering latent needs, behaviors, and desires. We envision new companies and brands, and we design the products, services, spaces, and interactive experiences that bring them to life. We help organizations build creative culture and the internal systems required to sustain innovation and launch new ventures.