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3M’s CDO on Leveraging Design During the Pandemic

July 27, 2021, 8:50 PM UTC

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When Brian Rice started his role as Global Chief Brand and Design Officer at 3M nearly 11 months ago, he was in many ways walking into a well-oiled machine. 3M is a staple across so many industries with a deep history of applied science and engineering in healthcare, safety, and consumer products. Plus, Rice’s predecessor Eric Quint had built up an incredible team and culture around the power of design. Still, in other respects he faced challenges he couldn’t have imagined amid the throes of Covid-19 sweeping the globe and changing the realities of the healthcare industry forever. Rice grew up in Central Florida, though his career has moved him throughout the South and Midwest between in-house design teams at big brands like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific, and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. I spoke to him about the role design can play in building a business, what’s surprised him most about his experience at 3M to date, and how he sees his work shaping up in a post-covid world. 

Fortune: What is your main objective as CDO at 3M?

Brian Rice: Leveraging design as a means to grow the business: To use design as a growth driver, a brand builder, and as a means to differentiate 3M to other alternatives consumers have in the marketplace. I inherited a very strong foundation, and with it came a great deal of internal awareness. My challenge is how can we power the business by using the unique capabilities, skills, and talent that we have. It’s not that design thinking is “better than.” It’s that what designers bring to problems, opportunities and challenges is unique. The design industry hasn’t done a great job of talking about that part of what designers do. Most people understand the output – the aesthetics – but few leverage design as a capability that can help reframe problems, exploit needs, or identify opportunities. Design can provide the critical strategic thinking that goes behind a new business model. Those are the things that make design a part of a continuum in an organization. It can be paired with the strategic capabilities other functions within the organization bring to the table. 

What does that process look like for you?

It’s about taking a realistic perspective on our products and making sure we deliver them against the job to be done. Whether we’re working on digital products or physical products, we want to be sure we design within that system in the proper context: a patient, a payer, a doctor. What is the ecosystem a customer can buy into? Especially for healthcare, while aesthetics are critical, what is the usability? How can we make things one or two clicks easier? The practice is sometimes just watching people use our solutions, that natural observation that designers have to say, “It looked like you were confused in that step. Can we make that simpler?” The job is about ensuring the total experience – not just the product, but also its use – and take all of it into account. When I was in design school I learned that you create a number of alternatives to ultimately tear them all up. The answer is not in the first one, it is in the fifth or sixth attempt. I challenge the design teams to say, “What if you took that step out? What would happen”’ That editing is important. Less is more. Many of our most loved products are simple. There is complexity in answering the question, “How do you make it simple?” Simple enough and no simpler; that’s what we are striving for. That can truly be applied to everything from soft drinks to laundry detergent. 

You’ve come to this role at 3M at a really interesting time given the pandemic. What have been the big takeaways for the business in the design space?

Design is a visual activity, in many ways. That became the task for my team. How do I show things visually and do it over a screen? We were trying to solve this problem of not being face to face. How do we stay engaged and meet the business’ needs? That was the challenge of the first several months at my previous company. Then I joined 3M and they’d already gone through those first growing pains in the pandemic. I was relying on the team to tell me what works and where the challenges and gaps are. I was careful about asking questions without slowing things down because the pandemic was continuing. You can’t have a new guy come in and say, “Stop what we’re doing because Brian doesn’t understand”’ It was amping up my personal humility and increasing trust among my team. The power of trust can’t be underestimated. That’s a big takeaway. One of the key challenges or gaps revealed through conversations with my team was the lack of integration with the business. Design (at times) was seemingly not brought into projects or efforts at the onset. Sometimes, instead, the team is being sought out to improve the aesthetics of the product, service, or user experience after the solution is already determined. While design naturally plays a role in improving the aesthetic experience, our untapped “super power” often lies in reframing problems and visualizing opportunities for the business. This is where our design thinking methodologies can play an important role when integrated further upstream in strategy and business model development processes to support growth.

As a result, were you able to leverage your team in a new way? 

The pandemic confirmed what we as a design team do and what our stakeholders know. They know we can brainstorm quickly and problem solve and do things beyond the aesthetic. For those that were newer to design and early in their adoption of leveraging design, it sped it up. For example, our healthcare space; that was an industry that literally changed overnight. In our oral care practice, specifically, patients couldn’t get to their dentists. What happens to preventative care if you can’t meet face to face with a dentist? The team played a heavy role in thinking about not just product, but also services. How do we think about the patient journey from initial contact with doctors’ officers, to patient care, to payment? Everyone involved explored the journey a patient takes, noting pain points (remembering to wear appliances, follow dental care plans, etc.) and challenges, then identifying the products, services, and science 3M has to meet the end user’s need.

A good example of the development and design of a product directly impacted by the pandemic is our 3M Tx Tracking app. The app was originally designed to help remind patients to wear their dental aligners for the prescribed amount of time. But with COVID, we quickly integrated approaches to expand the services of the app to a telehealth hub, connecting patients to their doctors at a distance. Alongside these were simple access to care, more options, and better understanding with minimal life disruption. Patients could now share progress photos with their doctor alongside patient-to-doctor messaging. That way, doctors could make better decisions about patient needs, while staying safe during the pandemic. Plus, the app also offered other personalized components to track hygiene, visualize personal data, and more. It expanded the user’s experience from a tracking resource to a more robust telehealth app in a well-designed and thoughtful package that seamlessly integrated with their treatment. We focus on a user-centered approach to observe, identify and record pain points. Our teams cultivate insights that highlight gaps between the current situation and the way it should be, discovering opportunities to fill those gaps. We iterate designs using fast prototyping and co-creation with users. The reality is that software solutions are never done! We use the MVP approach (Minimally Viable Product) and continuously shape and grow our solutions to optimize the experience as we learn more through our testing directly with customers. 

People often talk about change and the difficulties of it in an organization. What has been your team’s relationship with it in the last year? 

There was this slow drip of change that needed to occur in healthcare in general: Long wait times, sorting out medicines. All of those things were a slow drip. Now the pandemic hits and people can’t see doctors in person. Covid became an accelerator for change in many ways. Now, you have to rely even more on digital information. You have to be more nimble, more flexible with limited information. You have to get comfortable with taking low risk chances. For us it sped up many of the things we had considered and thought about but hadn’t yet acted on. Sometimes you need something as powerful as a crisis to do that. I do believe if we think about what has happened in the last year across many industries, the level of disruption we’ve all experienced, and what’s important to end users I think the pandemic amplified all of that for business leaders. As the healthcare world changed, we had to change with it. 

What’s next in your space? 

I’ve been thinking about augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) and how we can leverage it. How do we find time to connect with customers beyond a phone call? How do we use it to help people understand when and how to use our products? For so many companies AR and VR is really thought of as a gaming technology. We are starting to realize the power of this in terms of creating an almost face to face connection in a way that helps people understand and learn. We have invested heavily in the VR space with the HoloLens and Oculus. It’s a space we are exploring rapidly. We have five interns on the design team that are AR/VR interns. Now we are seeking out young designers at the undergrad level that are playing with digital technology and help us figure out how the technology can create new experiences when we can’t be face to face. It’s opened so many doors. We are looking to grow this capability and attract top talent to help drive our progress in this space. Our interns are a great pipeline to start building on and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. 

How so?

When the pandemic hit, we did all the things that a typical company would do when they have a product or service that is critical in fighting the pandemic: delivering respirators and making PPE available, ramping up production and adding shifts. Then when we think about how to train these newer folks. Typically, it’s a classroom setting, but what happens when you can’t be face to face? How do I create an experience that helps a new employee understand how our machines work, or help a customer best use our equipment? How do I simulate a window washer putting on one of our harnesses? That needs to be checked from a safety standpoint. The AR/VR technology can go that far, so it’s near real in order to help a customer feel comfortable with our products. 

Wow. That’s pretty remarkable. It makes me wonder how that’s influencing your thoughts on hiring going forward. What’s your take?

Our internship program was face to face. Now, we have 17 interns on the design team that are entirely virtual. We’re also attending hiring and recruiting events virtually, too. It has very quickly expanded the pool of students we can get to. You can attend two events in one day without a private jet. You’re exponentially reaching more skill sets, programs, and schools that have the capabilities you’re looking for. I think for all employers – certainly 3M – is thinking about the future of work, the return to the workplace, and what that looks like. I’m excited.

Nicole Gull McElroy


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Atlanta 3m Rice
"I started in this industry as a graffiti artist, so I have always been inspired by street art and graffiti," says Rice. "This is in Atlanta."
Courtesy of 3M

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