Diana Liu and Kandis O’Brien founded NYC and San Francisco based innovation and strategy consultancy The SIX in 2017. Since then, The SIX has been working to “slay the ambiguity,” “supercharge organizations,” and help clients “throw down with confidence” with startups and large, global enterprises alike.
We had the chance to catch up over Zoom with Kandis and Diana and hear about their career journey, path to Design Thinking, Service Design and Design Sprints, and how they meld business with design to create real results for their clients. If you’re interested in hearing about how they make real results combining design and business, read on.
We’ve broken this blog down into a f ew sections:
- Getting Started with Design Thinking
- Founding an Agency
- The Changing World of Design
- Running Sprints and Workshops
Before we dive in, I want to let you in on their career stories, which really enrich their reflections on strategy and innovation. Feel free to skip ahead to the commentary below if you’d like!
Kandis started her career in accounting, realized it wasn’t for her, and entered the world of e-commerce during the dot com bubble. She ended up in web design management, then consulting, then as trade manager in charge of a multimillion dollar budget. There, she got her experience actually creating and marketing consumer facing products. Kandis then moved from trade management to e-commerce content management and digital transformation, even working for NTT data to bring the first US flagship Uniqlo site to life. Kandis met Diana when they joined the same consulting firm, where they worked on accelerating legacy enterprises and building holistic digital experiences.
Diana started her career a bit differently, though also in the computer industry, graduating with a degree in international business and taking her first job in sales for a large data networking company. She ended up working there for over ten years, moving up the ranks from small-medium business channel sales to international account management, by taking on markets nobody wanted and growing them on her own– as you’ll see, this fire and tenacity has obviously carried her through to her current role. She started her MBA when she realized she was no longer learning from her co-workers, even though most had been in the field longer, and promptly found a job out of her master’s program and began a career in consulting.
Now, I’d like to let Kandis and Diana explain in their own words just how The Six came to be.
Getting Started with Design Thinking
Neuromagic: How did you start getting involved with Design Thinking methodologies?
Diana: Going into management consulting, my background was really about innovation and strategy, and innovation and strategy at that time was business process engineering– in the new world, people call that value stream mapping or jobs to be done. So that was what I focused on– helping people in HR, people in engineering, people in sales and operations to kind of reimagine the experience for their sales people, for their product people, for their HR recruiting process. The CEO [at my previous company] brought in design thinking as a methodology and I started layering it on top of business process management.
Neuromagic: So you and Kandis were really drawn into the Design Thinking movement through your former company?
Diana: Kandis was really the thought leader and learned it from the founders, and then she and I created this whole new offering based on her experience with them. And then we started bringing in business model canvases, value-streaming, as well as Design Sprints. We grew a team that was like 5 people to like 75 globally in one year. It was great, it was so fun, super intense. Kandis would fall asleep a lot. At the end of a workshop, she would be going out to dinner and she would just be falling asleep because she wanted to hang out with us but she would be so exhausted from doing Sprints back to back.
Neuromagic: How did you manage to spread the Design Thinking methodology at your former consulting firm? Was it difficult because people were used to more traditional consulting styles?
Diana: It was word of mouth so the CEO at the time had everyone learn it and they were doing one day trainings, I think he trained 100,000 people in one year. And so there would be training sessions where there’s like a thousand people in a room in India– and that probably wasn’t the right way to do it– but I was trained in one of those rooms, except my room had 30 people. There were people in the room who were like, “this is irrelevant to me.” But when I observed it, I was able to really translate it into my work and when Kandis and I were doing it people just lost their sh*t, like they loved it. It was fun!
Kandis: I think what we were good at doing was number one, figuring out how to integrate design thinking into part of a consultative offering that delivered real outcomes for the client because I think what was often happening is that people [at our company] were looking at it as a loss leader so they were like, “so lets offer to a client just to show that were innovative.”
A lot of people focused on “let me train you about design thinking” and our approach was different in that we were saying, “we’re going to take a real business problem that you’re having and we’re going to use this methodology and this approach to help you find the solution.” And then I think the other element to it was that we didn’t just stop at the end of the workshop. We were really focused on delivering a solution to them or delivering a roadmap for them that would allow them to execute later on.
Often when I think of Design Thinking it’s kind of mired in just like “lets work with post its and playdough” and I think when we were focused on it, it was really thinking about what is a meaningful solution for the client…Kandis O’Brien, Co-Founder, The SIX
Often when I think of Design Thinking it’s kind of mired in just like “lets work with post its and playdough” and I think when we were focused on it, it was really thinking about what is a meaningful solution for the client and that was another reason that we started transitioning from pure Design Thinking sessions into Design Sprints because we actually wanted to have high fidelity outcomes and high fidelity prototypes at the end of our solutions so people could go into their business and make a real argument to their executives or really show a tangible outcome out of the workshop rather than just maybe capturing some ideas.
Founding An Agency
Neuromagic: Why did you decide to leave together and start The SIX?
Diana: For us it was kind of like “Hey I’m gonna do this, do you wanna come? Do you wanna do it together?” And one of the reasons why we are perfect and imperfect partners is that Kandis and I get on each other’s nerves, we are very different but are also very similar and what I’m really good at and what she’s really good at perfectly complements each other, right. And we have so much laughter and so much nonsense in our lives as well right, so that’s kind of how it evolved, it was just asking and we had already been partners in crime for at least a year or so at that point.
We thought it could be something bigger than using a process to convince clients to use a technology that our company wanted them to use.Kandis O’Brien, Co-Founder, The SIX
Kandis: I think we really saw that there was more we wanted to do with these methodologies. We thought it could be something bigger than using a process to convince clients to use a technology that our company wanted them to use.
We really wanted to be able to serve our clients, I think was a big part of it, we wanted the flexibility not to have to sell them anything but to really work with them, to understand what their real challenges were and to offer the real solutions that were co-created with them. I think a second thing was that we saw that there was a ceiling for us in our company in terms of how far we could get promoted and how far we could go.
Neuromagic: What do you think makes The SIX different?
Kandis: I think what’s different about The SIX from other companies that run design sprints is that Diana and I are not designers, our background is as management consultants, so we really understand the business challenge that a lot of companies are dealing with and we understand the usual barriers to execution in terms of internal processes and organizational design and stuff like that. We can really focus not just on the user’s needs, but really understanding the business context as well and marrying that and I think that’s what’s made us successful.
When we started our focus was really with startups and focusing on product challenges. In the last year it pivoted a lot and it was really about working with enterprises who are trying to align around vision, who are trying to align around their organization design, who are trying to reengineer their processes. So we’ve been able to really leverage a lot of the methodologies from design sprints as well as other business and strategic frameworks to help clients with those challenges in a really accelerated way.
The Changing World of Design
Neuromagic: Throughout all of your experiences, I’m wondering how you’ve seen the functions of design agencies changing?
I think what’s shifted now is when we work with different creative agencies, it seems like they’re much more open to a co-creation role with their clients.Kandis O’Brien, Co-Founder, The SIX
Kandis: From my perspective in terms of creative agencies what I’ve seen or what I think is a little bit of a difference is, I remember when I was working on brand as a trade manager, and being in this meeting with our creative director who belonged to a very large creative agency and I remember him talking about the brand voice for our product, and he’s like, “as the owner of the brand voice,” and we were like “uh, excuse me, we are the marketing team, we are the ones who own the brand voice.” Right? The company owns the brand voice– I think that has really shifted. I think there was a point where creative agencies really thought of themselves as the arbiter for the brand voice, for the design, and I think what’s shifted now is when we work with different creative agencies, it seems like they’re much more open to a co-creation role with their clients.
So, understanding that they’re one part of a discussion that is happening and they are an execution arm but really they’re not driving strategy in a lot of places. And I think the other thing that’s shifted is that with some designers and creative agencies it used to be all about the user and lots of things about the user perspective without really having that strategic insight about what the business is trying to achieve, and I think that’s really changed now.
Diana: In terms of agencies that run Design Sprints, I do think people are evolving the way that they’re doing things. When design sprints started they were just for product, but even the creators of the design sprint have evolved their practice. They just followed it by the letter of the law, and now they have more flexibility.
Some people thought design thinking was bullsh*t even though design sprints were built on design thinking, and it’s like the foundation for it. I think that there are a lot of different ways to do it. Kandis is really introspective and thoughtful and really curates, she really customizes it, and other people are just like, this is how we do it, we’re not going to do any flair, because I’m a designer, no matter what you tell me, I will just design the crap out of it, right?
Neuromagic: Do you think that some clients see design as more of like a buzz-word or are turned off by it, or don’t associate it with real results? Have you experienced that kind of response?
Kandis: Tell them about the client who didn’t want you to call it Design Thinking.
Diana: Which one was that?
Kandis: Was that you or was that me? A fruit company that was just like, “we can’t use Design Thinking here, call it something else.”
Diana: Yea, which is fine, I mean like, the call that I just got off today– we’re gonna do a product design sprint but we’re just calling it a “Go-to-market Acceleration Workshop” because it’s for the go-to-market organization, and they want to accelerate the platform design. And it’s fine. We don’t need to call it that. We use whatever words make sense, but I think it does help for us to say we use a combination of approaches and methods around Design thinking, google ventures style design sprints, and business model canvases, right, and you know well say Six Sigma or JTBD depending on how old they are. We have to use the language that they can relate to.
A lot of the people that we work with are primarily in the enterprise, so a lot of them have been at the same company for ten to twenty years and are in a fixed mindset not because they want to be, but because that’s what’s happened over time.Diana Liu, Co-Founder, The SIX
A lot of the people that we work with are primarily in the enterprise, so a lot of them have been at the same company for ten to twenty years and are in a fixed mindset not because they want to be, but because that’s what’s happened over time. They have all these constraints that I try to beat out of them and I think Kandis tries to inspire out of them, and we all have different methods of doing that.
I think now we’ve shifted the thinking about what design is as true problem solving and it’s going to take people a little while to get up to speed on that.Kandis O’Brien, Co-Founder, The SIX
Kandis: I do think there are some clients who are suspicious of design because they think about design not as problem-solving, they think about it as artistry or creativity– “ok you’re going to give me something pretty, not that you’re going to solve my problem,” and I think in some ways, previously, the role of the designer was to make things pretty. I think now we’ve shifted the thinking about what design is as true problem solving and it’s going to take people a little while to get up to speed on that.
…if they’re speaking business speak and you’re speaking design speak, it’s very hard to connect and you know, share.Kandis O’Brien, Co-Founder, The SIX
I think another challenge is often that designers don’t have the language or they don’t have the jargon that business people understand necessarily. So if they’re speaking business speak and you’re speaking design speak, it’s very hard to connect and you know, share.
Diana: We’re not fixed the way a lot of people are.
Running Sprints and Workshops
Neuromagic: In terms of how you actually run sprints and facilitate, how much prep work do you do before the actual Sprint?
Diana: A sh*t ton.
Kandis: It’s ridiculous. When we first started doing design sprints we were hearing really respected leaders in design sprints say, “Hey you don’t have to do a ton of work up front just show up on the monday and then you will work it out on the client.” But the follow-up to that was always, “Your first sprint might not work.” And we were like, your first sprint didn’t work because you didn’t prepare for it. And we always believe you only get one shot, so if we didn’t do it right the first time, then what client is going to give us the second opportunity to do it for them again?
Diana: Yup. I think the other thing that’s interesting is that people will say that they’ll prep, but they are prepping like four hours. And then the design sprint originally was like, we’re trying to make this as lean as possible, people don’t have time to do all the pre work, we’ll just, again, design the crap out of it.
…we’re not just facilitating but we’re also sharing insights that they themselves don’t know because they are siloed and they don’t talk to each other, and so we can ramp up very quickly and use their language and tell their stories on their behalf…Diana Liu, Co-Founder, The SIX
One of the reasons why we do the pre work is it actually differentiates us when we go through workshopping because we know more than the client going into it. So we’re not just facilitating but we’re also sharing insights that they themselves don’t know because they are siloed and they don’t talk to each other, and so we can ramp up very quickly and use their language and tell their stories on their behalf, they totally appreciate that. Because we do the due diligence we are able to speak intelligently– not at a technical level but at a user level– on what matters and on a business level, about what matters.
Neuromagic: A lot of the pre-work then, involves doing user interviews?
Diana: We do a combination. Our research is a combination of business stakeholder interviews, we’ll also look at competitive research, we’ll do our own competitive research, we’ll look at analogous industries, because all of that research will feed into inspiration. And we just mash it all in two weeks because it’s clean, it’s fresh, we document it, we put it all on an empathy wall or an inspiration wall. It helps people visualize it and then as we go through Ask the Experts and we can talk through all of those different elements, and the client can react to it.
Neuromagic: I noticed that on your website you list all the things we can do– Slay the noise, throw down with confidence– and I thought that must have a lot to do with your success and probably your facilitation style– having a strong fun personality.
Diana: You know, we’re going through this exercise now with someone who’s a copy editor and she’s like, well you have two different personalities and I’m like, one is sophisticated, academic Kandis– well-read, you know, quoting sh*t– and then there’s me, who’s like, I don’t care if things are perfect, I just want to get things done, I just want to move forward.
The funny part is, she’s like “so do you think your personality if you were a celebrity, who would you be?” and so we were thinking about that because we’d never thought about it and she’s like “I think you guys are Elizabeth Warren” and we were like… “What? WHAT?”
Kandis: I was like I’m not sure that’s the right person to help us if that’s the vibe that she’s getting from us. But actually Diana really nailed it, she was like, “you know, I think we’re like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live together” and I was like, “yea I see it.” Which one do you think would be Tina Fey though?
What do you think? Tina Fey and Amy Poehler? I’m not getting much Elizabeth Warren? Either way, the leading ladies of The SIX are certainly a power duo with a wealth of knowledg, experience AND humor.
Thank you to Diana and Kandis for letting us in on their founders’ story and their perspective on business and design! If you want to learn more, check out The SIX site and blog, and stay tuned for more interviews with more global innovators.
Originally from Philadelphia, PA, USA, Elena is passionate about storytelling and designing for equity. Her current focus is on content strategy and creation, from research, to writing and photography.