Marcus Kirsch, CXO Transformation Director

Marcus Kirsch is a .com veteran, author, and Royal College of Art alumnus. He helps organisations face future challenges by creating ‘wicked’ teams and processes. He has led innovation and transformation efforts for clients like Astra Zeneca, BT, EY, GSK, Leo Burnett, Natural History Museum and Science Museum London, NHS, Nissan, HSBC, P&G, Kraft, MIT Europe, Sapient, WPP, etc. On ‘The Wicked Podcast’, he has talked to over 100 global thought leaders such as Tom Peters, David Marquet, and Doug Powell from organisations such as Deloitte, McKinsey, US Navy, IBM, Westpoint, etc. He is the best-selling author of ‘The Wicked Company’.


Over the last 25 years of working in innovation and transformation, I have had frustrations about how organisations treat design. When I reflected, I realised that the ability to connect with reality has been very successful for me, saving and making companies millions. Organisations believe in the industrial era myth that connecting with reality is too expensive and time-consuming. Our role should be de-risking and improving decision-making, as we can connect with reality efficiently, and the tools are cheap and fast.

Abstraction is outdated

“Hundreds of interviews will stop us from doing the work!” is a response I have heard in many projects. It is usually followed by not spending a few thousand on a few weeks of insights and then losing millions to blockers or having to stop projects.

Too many practices rely on outdated and heavily abstract diagrams and myths. Some approaches have three, six, or more levels of abstraction that create risky convenience but hide reality.

Many practices must upgrade their insight level and frequency to be effective in an exponentially growing world of challenges.

Business analysts live on the business level of processes. Their reality is the abstract level of business processes and quantitative values.

Enterprise architects have more tech biases than business analysts but must understand the human context of their process flows.

Process and business designers believe that structure and process alone can solve problems. They have often abstracted the human factor.

Some of my own experiences:

It’s just a tool!

A company wanted to choose between two code management tools to save costs.

Checking in with reality showed no code overlap between India and Europe; therefore, millions would have been spent retraining one geographical location on the other tool. Instead, we found a vulnerability and saved millions in the process.

Why aren’t they using it?

A digital warehousing solution had failed twice to produce efficiencies, with the company investing millions in two transformations.

Connecting with reality showed that the solution needed to be improved for the network environment and the human task involved. The software was poorly performing, and the network quality was poor.

This was a technical issue that the tech team did not discover with its approach twice. The tech team insisted it was a technical issue but did not question its ability to detect the flaw.

Just make it digital! 

A physical debit card system replaced a paper voucher system. Paper vouchers were seen as a stigma when used. The digital system had to re-invite all previous benefactors of the service. The new card denied previously accepted benefactors. Participants also dropped out of the programme because of application issues. It made the morning TV news. It was never tested if the card was visibly perceived as less of a stigma or if people cared.

Just give laptop!:

IT services expect an agency to have its laptops upgraded remotely. Employees had to drop their projects in a shared folder to backup.

The human-centered approach showed that employees needed to trust the IT services to back up the data correctly. In addition, the update timeslots couldn’t be met due to ongoing pitches and deadlines.

We created a booking system that lets employees pick the time of the upgrade. This puts employees in control, builds trust, and dramatically enhances adoption.

The Fix? (check in with reality updated)

As with any C-Level, you should ask for an improved check with reality on any project. Classic approaches have a high failure rate because they must use this sustainable approach.

As a business case:

  • It improves contextual insights and reveals significant pain points that other activities and practices won’t find.
  • Independent research by Forrester shows it improves time to market by 50%, reduces product flaws at launch by 75%, and has a medium ROI of 229%.

As support:

  • If used to create cross-disciplinary teams or improve skillsets, it reduces bias, which reduces risk and enhances output value.
  • It needs to function as a collaborative activity, though. The core team needs to participate in them.

What it is:

  • It is a quick and lean iterative check-in with reality, which means engaging with actual end users, employees, and customers. As iterative, it will not hold up any project progress and make the business case more robust.
  • Its insights are aligned with business value and technology capabilities.
  • It helps the business better understand what is happening on the ‘factory floor’.
  • It will help prioritise simplifying outputs.

What it isn’t

  • A linear phase that goes on forever and holds up other activities. It is iterative and aligns along the process, just like governance check-ins.
  • An exercise to please the end-user or customer. It includes business value and capabilities to prioritise any item.
  • A way to increase complexity.


As a CXO or design-based leader, you may use this way to make your mark on an organisation.

Design, especially product design, where much of this ‘checking in with reality’ comes from, is more than defining the product. It has always had a practical, efficient, or production edge. Over the last 25 years, digital has not embraced that history as much as it could have.

Maybe it is time to remind leaders of people like Dieter Rams, who just received a lifetime achievement award ( and heavily inspired Johnny Ive’s practical and minimal experience for the first iPod.

We are not just screens; we are people, behaviour, and evolving systems holistically understood.

#lovetheproblemnotthesolution #wickedproblems

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