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January 02, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Jay Morgan bringing design thinking passion to Knoxville

Pedal(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series setting the stage for a new initiative focused on utilizing design thinking to help business executives grow their companies.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

By Knoxville standards, Jay Morgan is a real newbie to the community. The business executive moved here about a year ago and devoted the first nine months to what he describes as a “corporate detox” program.

Now, after enough time away from the trenches, he and three other local businessmen are launching two new ventures – one is a company appropriately named Pedal located at 902 North Central, and the other is an intense initiative called the Knoxville Innovation Bootcamp. The latter is based on a similar effort that Morgan helped start in Memphis.

Partnering with the Dayton, OH native in the new ventures are Mark McComas, Scott Buchanan, and Brad Greene.

Morgan describes Pedal as “an agency that partners with visionary leaders to build a better future. The Pedal team combines the savvy of a management consultancy with the creativity of a design firm.”

So, how did the former senior executive with Bayer Healthcare, Merck Consumer Care, Schering-Plough, Bath & Body Works LLC, and Maybelline get to Knoxville? The answer is fairly typical of parents.

“We vacationed here a number of times,” Morgan says. “We have had four daughters at UT. Two have graduated; two are still in school.”

To understand the two new initiatives, you need to know more about Morgan’s background and the experiences that have informed his plans for a community he affectionately describes as “a city with so many great assets but still waiting to achieve its full potential.”

Let’s start with his experience as an executive with Bath & Body Works, the national chain that specializes in shower gels, lotions, fragrance mists, perfumes, candles, and home fragrances. There Morgan learned the critical importance of listening to customers to understand the needs and motivations of people that are very different from him, a capability he says is not taught in chemistry classes.

“Fashion merchandisers were behind it,” Morgan says in reference to the company that is part of the Les Wexner and L Brands conglomerate. “As such, you had to come up with new products every season. It was a crazy pace.”

Bath & Body Works required executives to work two days every quarter in a retail store, including Black Friday. “It put you in touch with store issues,” Morgan explained. “At Bath & Bob Works, it was all about the fragrance, package and label design and not so much about what the product performance.” In other words, what pleases the customer and causes her to purchase the new product.

Later, at Merck, he was challenged to double revenues in five years on the same headcount and budget. What did he do? Morgan became a student of corporate innovation, a path that introduced him to the concept of human-centered design or design thinking.

Wikipedia describes the process as using “the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Isn’t that what any successful company – established or just starting – seeks? It is, after all, developing and selling a product or service that brings value to customers.

“I decided I wanted to become a practitioner of design thinking,” Morgan says, so he attended the Stanford University Design Thinking Bootcamp. “I saw the world differently after those three days.”

That experience changed his way of approaching his work at Merck and the way he interacted with the team he led.

“Customers aren’t good at telling you what they want,” he says. “Companies need people who understand human behavior . . . understand you (customers) beyond your words. Design thinking seeks to deeply understand the underlying emotions, tensions, and core needs to define a better question before searching for solutions.”

Based on his learning, Morgan began the task of fundamentally changing the culture and workspace design to be similar to that of fast-growing Silicon Valley businesses. “We had a lot of pushback at first, but soon, almost everyone loved it,” he says.

“You get good at design thinking by going through many cycles of effort that create new knowledge,” Morgan says, equating the process to machine learning.

NEXT: The Memphis Innovation Bootcamp as a precursor to a new initiative in Knoxville next month.

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