Inside SBN: an interview with Matt Ayers

17 February 2014

Meet Matt Ayers, our project manager and design expert at SBN. In the first of a series of articles about our team, Matt shares some insights about his background, what inspires him and tells us what ‘design thinking’ is all about.

What is your role at SBN?

I’m SBN’s Transformation Area Project Manager. I work closely with our Transformation Area Advisory Group (TAG), who help us to select which types of initiatives we should start amongst SBN members. My job is to work with them to select what the projects will be, deliver on their implementation and engage SBN members to take part in those projects.

What part of your role at SBN do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy the fact that we’re working in the area of transformation – we’re rubbing shoulders with people who are naturally thinking in terms of the ‘system’. Whether that’s the food system, waste system, transport or renewable energy system, they’re looking at addressing social issues within their business operations.

These are the people who are thinking about the future and actively working on some really fascinating projects and ventures. As we start to mingle more and more with these people, we’re looking at where the gaps are and how we can help – it’s a lot of fun to see both what is possible and to be working with a bunch of game-changers.

What were you doing before you joined SBN?

I was trained in product design, and after university ended up setting up a new unit within a chartered accountant’s practice, using the methods of design to help their clients structure the development of new ventures. I was leading a team of people who were doing ‘hard and fast’ projects across industries, including airports, hotel chains and tourism operations. We were helping them to establish new ventures, identifying what those could be and taking them right through to market. I spent eight years doing that.

Tell me more about ‘design thinking’. What does it mean?

Design in the sense of ‘design thinking’ is a well-established industry overseas, but in New Zealand we’re only just starting to apply the principles of design to more complex challenges, rather than just making things look pretty.

Design thinking is helping people with different responsibilities, like a CEO or a product manager, to engage with what the design industry has learned about how people come together to solve complex problems, or create new products or services. It’s basically drawing out what happens inside the head of a designer, and giving those approaches or methods to managers, product developers, and executives to use within different functions of the company.

Most interestingly, these approaches or methods are now being given to sustainability managers, who are working with a very complex set of constraints and issues. This is where design really comes into its own – when you’re dealing with a lot of complexity and you need to try out new things to market, or test things within your organisation that you don’t know, especially where there is no market precedent.

I think the sustainability movement finds itself at the front-edge of the future of business – which is to continue to grow business, but with an increasing understanding of the social and physical environments in which these businesses are operating. This just adds even more constraints which businesses have to take seriously now, especially if they want to recruit the top talent, if they want to make products and services that compete well in the marketplace, and if they want to be able to withstand the type of critique they are now getting. So for a growing set of reasons, executives just can’t ignore these types of things anymore – and design just happens to give some practical tools with which to address these types of complex challenges.

What do you like doing when you are not at SBN?

My wife Jomine and I love having people in our home, we have a small place in Onehunga here in Auckland and we have done what we can to make that place beautiful. Jomine is South African so we have a Weber BBQ, and the coals are lit up most evenings with people coming over… a lot of eating and a lot of entertaining. Both of us love to experiment with different kinds of cooking and different things we can produce on our small section – and the types of spaces we can create within our home.

I also like to do a lot of reading and mixing and mingling with entrepreneurs and innovators within companies. As I only work at SBN Monday-Thursday, one of the things I do on Fridays with a friend of mine (who also works in this area of design) is give my time to companies. If you want to access this type of design, it can cost you a lot of money. We’ve decided we can afford to give some businesses the ability and the tools to engage.

We work with a lot of companies around what their strategy is and what they can do in the future. So we give that for free on Fridays to companies that we like, in an effort to level the playing field.

Do you have a nugget of wisdom for our readers?

Design methods can actually help you develop your ideas, in terms of the skills of prototyping, empathy, getting into the lives of those you want to serve (whether that’s your staff or potential customers) and different ways of analysing market data from classic market research approaches.

So my nugget of wisdom is that the world of design is worth taking a look at. If you’re in sustainability, you’re effectively looking at the future of business, and you’ve got to make it viable and attractive: that is your challenge. You can’t just rely on people to just ‘get it’ and want to do it out of the goodness of their heart, it’s got to work for the business. So you need ways of ‘de-risking’ some of that exploration, and making it strategic, aligning it with what the company is trying to do, and aligning it with what the company wants for growth. Design will give you some of those skills and practical methods.