Creative Provocateur, Innovation Catalyst, Designer
Dec 4, 2018, 13 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
In summer 2017, Julia took a course at the University of Stanford, called ‘Adventurous Thinking’ - A new syllabus for expanded thinking and problem-solving’. This is how she got to know Sally Dominguez, who developed and teaches this course. We are very excited to feature her on 'Here She Is'. - be prepared for a thought-provoking read.
On her LinkedIn profile, Sally describes herself as ‘Creative Provocateur, Innovation Catalyst & Adventurous Thinker. Multi-award-winning Designer, Multifarian. Always Open.’ (A multifarian being someone who views issues and opportunities from a diverse set of viewpoints, we needed to look it up, too :) ). She has designed anything from houses to baby highchairs, raced in car rallies around the world and was a design judge on TV. As for her character: She is loud, cheerful and highly energizing.
In this conversation touching a breadth of topics, we covered clients complaining about breastfeeding, her ‘CV of Failures’, finding common emotional ground with gun supporters and the power of thinking outside of your expert-self.
Sally, great to have you on. Why don’t you start with a brief introduction of yourself? What is it that you do and what do you want us to know about you?
Essentially, I am incredibly curious and passionate about bringing out purposeful creative thinking in people. I am an architect, a designer, I have won product design awards for a couple of things that were sort of ahead of their time. I have judged innovative design on TV and for various product awards around the world. Now I teach ‘Adventurous Thinking’ at Stanford University or private corporate classes. The purpose is to establish a mindset that provokes curiosity. I have designed an innovative thinking system that has five lenses (methods) which give you really diverse viewpoints on a problem, an idea or a part of your day you might want to rethink. It is using the theory of multiple intelligences devised by Dr. Howard Gardner at Harvard University. Basically: The more diverse perspectives you use to look at the one thing, the deeper meaning and understanding you will get. You might come up with new solutions and options. At the worst, you end up with a much greater understanding of what it is you are grappling with. (Read more about the 5 lenses of Adventurous Thinking at the end of this page).
“Our society and thinking are so safe. (...) Our curiosity is so damped by our immediate access to curated information. (...) I want to get people into mental bearable discomfort.”
What I love about your approach is that you discover and release unexpected amounts of creativity and resourcefulness within yourself. Can you explain what you mean by your saying that "Curiosity can be provoked"?
Our society and thinking are so safe. We have a level of specialization, meaning that everyone is comfortable to work in narrow silos. I want to get people into mental bearable discomfort.
It doesn't matter who participates in the exercise, what age or gender. Once they get the mindset, the idea that it’s safe to be unsafe, you can push against your expert-self. Rather than knowledge, we are going after imagination. Imagination shows us possibilities that don’t yet exist. The difference in people at the start vs. at the end of my workshops is mind-blowing, and it makes me so happy!
An example: Nowadays, if we want to know something, we just google it and take the answers we read. But all we would have to do is google in a different geographic area, and we might get a whole set of different answers to the same question. Our curiosity is so damped by our immediate access to curated information that we forget to ask "What would happen if…?".
At the workshop, the rule was that whenever we thought "That idea is too crazy!", we should stick to the credo "Go with it, just for five minutes”. In reality, after that time, we had thought things through and they became much more tangible.
We naturally shut down everything that does not fit into our system of thinking. The discipline is to force yourself not to discard the thought as ridiculous andwork outsidee of your ‘expert brain’. It is incredible how things can get resolved once you let yourself think “anything is possible”.
“It is incredible how things can get resolved once you let yourself think “Anything is possible!”.
You grew up in Australia. Please tell us about your journey and some of the milestones that have shaped it.
Chris Bangle (an American automobile designer), who invented a flame welding technique at BMW that changed a whole genre of car shaping, once said: "My knowledge is an inch deep and a mile wide.". That’s how I see myself. I have always done a million things at once. Some of them failed, some of them succeeded.
I went to university but was always doing creative things on the side, like writing music, singing and designing fabric patterns for companies. In Australia, there was a semi-recession starting at the time of my graduation, and they preferred to hire males. I said “I don’t need this. I’m just gonna do it myself.” So I founded my own company right out of college. I landed several jobs and got published pretty early. I started several side projects related to solar and sustainability. In the midst of it, I had a baby. And I really did not think about it. I had seven architecture projects on contract and this baby. All of sudden, I thought
"Oh my goodness, the whole thing is going to crash down around my ears."
Ironically, I was ashamed of the baby’s ugly highchair, an ugly Peg Perego, which clients visiting me would see. I didn’t have the Tripp Trapp, which was the only one I could find that was decent. Still, it didn’t have what I was looking for. So I designed an innovative type of highchair for children at different ages, called NEST. It won several awards for its slick and functional design. I never patented anything, but the smooth roto molding finish I designed is now an industry standard.
“Curiosity can be provoked.”
When you were in that situation - you were pregnant and then had your baby, but also needed to deliver the projects - How did you experience the pressure and how did you deal with it?
It was incredible. Part of the reason why people would contract me is that I am really hands-on and on site. So I kept working and visiting sites, while I was breastfeeding. I would step out for half an hour to do that. And now imagine: I had one client who called me up and said: “I know that you were doing breastfeeding while you were on our site and I don’t want to have to pay for it.” He docked me an hour of pay. His wife, by the way, had children.
Nevertheless, my mindset was “I can do it all” despite the baby. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the response of people, including of women. They would see me with the baby and I would immediately become a different person in their eyes. Even though I was doing the same job, and perhaps even more efficiently.
I was also working in manufacturing and interestingly found that the older male engineers were much more relaxed about it. I also worked in the car industry as a design journalist judging the design of cars. To this day I must say this is the most misogynistic industry that I can think of. I still can’t wrap my head around how bad it is.
At what point did you move to the US?
I designed Rainwater HOG , a rainwater harvesting modular plastic tank (named Top 10 Green Building Products USA 2008). It was hugely popular and so I decided to move the States and seek my fortune with this technology there. We were calling the move a sea-change (a play on the Australian TV program ‘SeaChange’) because the original plan was to move outside of Aspen and be skiing the whole the time (laughs).
“I know that you were doing breastfeeding while you were on our site and I don’t want to have to pay for it.”
How did you plan to make a living during that time?
We were riding really high on Rainwater HOG. Now bear in mind, this is just before the recession. So we came over, my husband Simon and I, assuming we would make it big in America, and join the American dream with this rain tank because everybody loved it. We sold our property in Australia, came over, set up the company, tooled up for local production, got ready. And then the recession hit. We did not get a single order. Every single sustainable building company went broke. The big rain building conference went broke. It was ugly. The smart thing would have been to pack up and go home. But that was never an option. We thought “No, we’re gonna make it”.
Even though you had to take these tough decisions, you kept telling yourself “Everything is fine”?
Yes. But let me share one thing. Last year I did a podcast with Rey Castellanos called We Fail Forward . As a condition, he made me write this ‘CV of Failures’, which was quite confrontative. My biggest career mistake, by far I realized, was moving to the USA. Careerwise I should have stayed in Australia.
“When I wrote my CV of failures, it turned out to be three pages. I thought “Wow. Actually, this is amazing. I had no idea I tried all this stuff.”
You could challenge that a little bit because it seems that you are listing things as failures that are maybe a mixture of decisions and circumstances?
Always. I will add: His whole point of writing this CV is ‘Fail forward’. When I wrote my CV of failures, it turned out to be three pages. I thought “Wow. Actually, this is amazing. I had no idea I tried all this stuff.” I sent it to my sister, she sent it to all her friends, sent it to my kids and everyone has the same reaction “Wow, this is amazing”. I realized the importance of sharing it. It was all part of my journey. If I had not lived here, I would have never solidified ‘Adventurous Thinking’, I might have just kept talking about it.
What were people who read it impressed or struck by?
Nothing in particular just the sheer number of things I have attempted. But I think I made them feel better about things that most of us don’t try to think about. Despite all these failures, after all, in many ways, I am very successful.
I think leadership should adopt this everywhere and publish their CV of failure. The best way to encourage a culture of failing is to make your own failures public. It actually says way more about you than your actual CV. I know a professional academic who sent his CV of failure out with applications and he got incredibly positive reactions.
“I think leadership should adopt this everywhere and publish their CV of failure. The best way to encourage a culture of failing is to make your own failures public.”
I would like to hear your opinion on ‘diversity and technology’.
I am involved in the production of a new show coming up on ‘neurodiversity’. People with dyslexia, autism, people going into the workforce with certain disabilities. My legacy project that I am currently working on is asking “Why don’t we value all those different ways of thinking? And how can we value them?” Confucian thinking values the group over the individual. But most of the research that we have done on thinking has been done on Aristotelian thinking which is prioritizing the individual. We don’t need to get into ‘problem-solving mode’, we just need to harness the power of a group of diverse thinkers.
I am hoping to put a TV show together around Australian Aborigines. They have this understanding of the vastness of everything and the tiny point at which they are relevant. Their thinking is on this huge sweeping scale. Our thinking is completely different. If we valued different types of thinking instead of homogenous thinking, diversity would be the thing that everybody wanted. Because this is how we can come up with unexpected solutions.
How do we get to understand that value?
I was excited to see that McKinsey is valuing it, for a start. Recently, they put out a graph that showed that a diverse workplace is 15 percent more productive. I agree that we can use computers for diverse candidate selection, but in order for it to stick, it needs to be a business value that is understood. Then everybody will just say “Yes, diversity, we have to have that.”
I remember when ‘sustainability’ was a funny word and people said "What’s the ROI of it?". Now you have got the triple or quadruple bottom-line target. You have companies like Interface or Herman Miller showing how sustainable initiatives throughout the company contribute to profitability. We are seeing reports that are really clear – if you have diverse thinking throughout an organization, it will be more profitable, innovative, and will have stronger growth.”
“In order to convince people (...), we have to find common emotional ground. The facts will never convince people of anything. It’s humanness within us that is going to react.”
How can we make progress in eliminating bias?
Well, we are not machines. This is the human condition. One of my favorite books from last year was ‘The Influential Mind’. It talks about how, in order to convince people that what we’re doing is right, we have to find common emotional ground. The facts will never convince people of anything. It’s humanness within us that is going to react, and we don’t want that to change. If you don’t want Artificial Intelligence to own the world, then you can’t say ‘Everybody has to be the same’. Because that would be a robot. But what you can do is to ask "How can we start a conversation to find common emotional ground?". Take a scenario where, for instance, I have to work really closely with somebody who thinks it’s great for everybody to have a gun. That is contradictory to my values as an Australian, we think guns are rubbish. But I think, our common emotional ground is: We want our families to be safe. That person wants to be ready to protect their family. So do I. Once we are ready to agree on that, we have something in common which we can work from.
What’s a habit that contributes to your success?
I have a bunch of websites that update me every day and they are in areas that I have no or little knowledge. They are super techy and report about lots of scientific discoveries. The amount and rate at which discoveries are happening is incredible. If you look for stuff like that way outside of your expertise, of what you’re working on, it will inform you in really unexpected ways of things you can do within your jobs. You don’t need to be looking for it. You just need to be open to it.
I read my selected sites for about five minutes and then I force myself to shut them down and think for about three minutes. What could I do with that?
“Disruptive innovation used to be high-risk innovation. But it is actually becoming more and more easy and relevant.”
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
My financial planner recently asked me, if you were to die in a week, what would you do? I said, I haven’t executed a full helicopter jump on skis and Im starting to admit that I likely never will.. Nor can I do a running front flip, which I have been practicing for years. Everything else I have done and pretty happy about.
One thing, though: My 20-year-old self did not have the confidence that I have now. So I would say to my 20-year-old self: You friggin’ rock! (laughs).
Well, everyone will like to be told that. Thank you for the interview.
It was fun, thank you.
Interview Extension: Lenses of Adventurous Thinking
Read more about Sally's framework for disruptive thinking.
Can you give us an example of one of the five lenses of adventurous thinking and what you can do with them?
Some of the lenses are more geared towards developing an idea, some of them are for taking something you know well, identify the core value and making it better; and some are about continuous, incremental improvement.
People struggle to quantify information. I use this innovation quadrant. It determines where you are sitting with your current thinking and where you can move to, based on design, technology, and the current market. You can assess where you are working and where you want to go. And several of the lenses will help you get there.
The first lens is 'Negative Space', it is all about identifying opportunities outside of primary focus. In physical space, looking at what you’re not using. In emotional space, something that you did not get. And for time, ask yourself when something is working already versus when is it dormant. Could you make use of that idle time?
'Thinking Sideways' is basically design thinking: Having empathy, understanding your preferences, but then also using certain tools pressing against your preferences. I use something called the ‘detest tool’ where you look at an issue and try to deal with it. You come up with a solution for something you hate doing or seeing. You would never come up with a solution if I just left you on your own and you would just use your classic expertise.
'Backwards Thinking' is about life cycle analysis, understanding the end game and making sure production processes and materials fit that time frame. Not many people deliberately analyze when a particular thing is going to end. Think of a call center, for instance. You know that the technology in there is probably going to be superseded in just a couple of years. If you knew that and have a training process, then you will change the way you manage people and how you design the products that go in there.
'Rethinking' is good for applying it to your career, what you do personally or professionally. It is about understanding your core value and then explore what else you could do.
Finally is 'Parkour', which is disruptive thinking. For anything you do, any process, you just down your ways as detailed as possible. And then you invert every single one of those steps. You come up with a new way. I was actually doing a mini-workshop that last night with my husband, who is in Sales. I said “How are you prospecting your clients? and he listed the basic ways. Then I said, “We’ll invert all of these”. We came with two brand new ideas. My husband said, “Now that I get my head around it, the potential is massive”.
Disruptive innovation used to be high-risk innovation. But it is actually becoming more and more easy and relevant.
Sally Dominguez about 'Adventurous thinking for optimized innovation'.
Copyright © 2017 Sally Dominguez via Youtube
Sally Dominguez is an innovation activator. As a multi-award-winning inventor, adventurer, journalist and educator, Sally has unique experience practicing, observing, teaching and advocating for innovation. Sally has enhanced design thinking with her 'Adventurous Thinking' methodology, designed to promote the fast, open mindset needed for consistently innovative practices. Sally is passionate about helping others reach their creative potential.