25: "The Optimist" - Elizabeth Kiehner

Elizabeth.jpg

"The Optimist"

Elizabeth Kiehner is one of the world’s experts on the application of some of the world’s most powerful technology to solve the problems of today and tomorrow. 

As the Global Design Practice Director at IBM, she and her team can take the power of Watson -  rapidly becoming not just a computer system but in many ways a new form of intelligence - and apply it to the problems of both today and tomorrow.

I talked to Elizabeth about the expansion of natural language technology in our daily lives, about a machine’s ability to edit tennis highlights without human involvement and about how to design solutions for problems that will exist 5 years from now. 


Three Takeways

  • The curiosity to challenge yourself. A willingness to discover, "What else am I capable of?"
  • A relentless sense of optimism.
  • The ability to balance the question of what's going to happen five years from now with the ability to turn to the practical side to make things happen.

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 25: "The Optimist" Elizabeth Kiehner

Charles:                               

Liz, welcome to Fearless. Thank you for being here.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Thank you for having me, Charles.

Charles:                               

There's a question I tend to ask most of my guests to start off, and I'm going to change it slightly in your case, which is when's the first time that you were conscious of design having an impact on your life, going all the way back to your childhood? What's the first point of reference that you thought that design was actually a thing and important?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, it's interesting, and it's good that you're taking it all the way back to my childhood, because I worked in a couple of different areas before I focused on design, and it wasn't until I moved to New York City that I actually worked at a proper, formal design studio. Prior to that I was working at large advertising agencies, of course working in a creative capacity, but not solely focused and oriented around design. I worked for several years at a Swedish design company, Trollbäck and Company, here in the city, and had this recollection back to my childhood of being fundamentally inspired by fonts, and type faces, and paper. I've always loved and could spend hours roaming around paper stores.

I'm like, "That's where all of this came from," and it took a while to go a roundabout way to land there, but I ultimate land there, and it was like connecting the dots, and these pieces of the puzzle finally came together for me that I was like, "Yeah. This design thing, that's what I'm supposed to be doing." I went to school and studied visual media, but that was largely oriented around photography, and film making, and things like that, where you did understand composition and visual principles, but not to the level of a traditional graphic design education, which I feel like I gained working for a Swedish designer for sure.

Charles:                               

What did you do with all that stuff as a child? What drew you to that? What was the expression of all of the fonts, and types, and paper, and so on? What did you make?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, I was one of those kids growing up that, you know, took AP art classes and photography classes and created a lot of things that either lived on my bedroom walls or elsewhere. I always loved and cherished craftsmanship and being a creators. Growing up, because I grew up in a very blue collar family, and I think they, in a lot of cases as a child, didn't know what to do with me, so I often got the line like, "Oh yeah. Liz, she marches to the beat of a different drummer." I was like, "Is that a good thing, or is that secretly an insult?" It was one of those things that I had a lot of fanciful notions as a child and definitely a very active imagination that fortunately, through enough experience and great mentors, and encouragement, and guidance, and direction along the way, ended up where I've ended up today.

Charles:                               

What did you study in school?

Liz Kiehner:                       

So, I went to school in DC, at American University. I went in thinking I wanted to be a journalist, and once I got into my first film class, I was like, "Hm. This film making thing is so much more impactful, as far as communicating and really connecting with audiences on an emotional level." Then I pivoted to study visual media, and I also double majored in literature, which is so fundamentally important, because even with what I do today in design and being able to sell and pitch your ideas and articulate a vision around something, the ability to write well is so important and is sometimes underestimated, quite frankly, but I think that was really great.

When I was in school, all of my literature professors were, you know, encouraging me to get my masters and go down that track, and I was using it more as a way to discipline myself around writing and having that level of cognition and ability in that space, and not just do the visual thing.

Charles:                               

It's always fascinating to me, the relationship between words and pictures. Obvious probably, but just the choice of a certain image with certain words and how that can completely change the meaning if you change a word or if you change the image, and also, the physical relationship between them and the size of the image or the choice of font, to your point. It's so powerful, isn't it? I think the differences can be so subtle and sometimes underappreciated.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Absolutely. I think the challenge with my role now is that I work globally, and I'm in fact working right now on a proposal in Hong Kong, so it's often getting to know what words, and colors, and things, what the ramifications are like in a different culture other than your own. That's really interesting to be able to quickly put yourself in the shoes of another culture and try to get whatever contextual relevance you can around that.

Charles:

Tell us what your job is at IBM. It's got an incredible title. When we were talking a few weeks ago about potentially doing this, I was absorbed by the kinds of things you got into, and we're going to talk about that, but just for all of our sakes, explain what roles you have and what that entails.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. My title is that of a global design practice director, so we have a team in New York of roughly 24 people now, and we have 35 studios that are part of IBM Interactive Experience around the world, so in addition to our smaller nuclear team, the global studios, and I'm use Hong Kong again as an example, will come to us if they have a pursuit that they're working on or an RFP response that they need to tap into our subject matter expertise or thought leadership to collaborate with them to win a specific pursuit. We work on a global basis, and we work cross-sector as well, which can be one of the most challenging things about the job, quite frankly, because it's going from working with the financial services client on one hand. I had an extremely daunting task about a year and a half ago of working with John Deere and doing an immediate deep dive into commercial agriculture and understanding all of the implications of data coming off of tractors, and what to do with that, and how to monetize that data.

Charles:                               

What kind of data comes off tractors?

Liz Kiehner:                       

All of the same like telematics data that comes out of a car, quite frankly. Luckily, I had done a lot of work with the automotive sector, and so could leverage a lot of the same principles as far as the data that we can glean coming out of the sensors in an automobile is the same sort of data coming off of a tractor, so you can do things like-

Charles:                               

Average speed, distance, direction?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Things like that, and then also being able to do predictive analytics and being able to assess a system's failure before it actually fails, so you can increase the up time of the machines out in the field and be able to, you know, work with much more efficiency and agility.

Charles:                               

What drew you to the job, and what did you bring that drew IBM to you?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, it was interesting. I came to the job after owning a design company, which is still up and running, Thornberg & Forester. IBM was actually a client of ours, so we did probably five projects with IBM, and the more intimately I got to know the IBM team, the more sort of captivated I became with the nature of the work that IBM was doing in the space, especially as it pertains to customer experience and really orienting a strategy around putting the customer first and how corporations go to market and look at their digital transformations.

After a while, I reached out to my main contact there and said, "I'm contemplating coming over to work with you," and had to go through the same interview process that everyone else does, but ultimately that seemed like a really great decision, because I was at a point where I definitely wanted to work for a more tech oriented company and very specifically wanted to get more global experience, because I could perceive the world getting smaller and smaller, and most of my clients that I had worked with were in North America. While that's great, the ability to now have worked or touched in some way practically every continent in the world in some way, shape, or form now is really, really important.

To me, as far as the personal value that I was bringing, was a goal that I sort of set up for myself. Some people don't feel like they need to necessarily have tackled the globe to feel successful, but I really wanted to do that and wanted to sort of push myself a little bit.There was a bit of a learning curve, particularly on the technology side. But it's been a great move, and it's been so exciting, and it's a great place for somebody who is genuinely a lifelong learner and has an insatiable curiosity, because there's always something new coming out of research that you need to get up to speed on and be able to talk eloquently about.

Charles:                               

What was it about the global challenge specifically that drew you? The universality of communication? What was exciting to you about taking on a global perspective?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Definitely the universality of communication and also being able to help uplift other parts of the globe that are maybe less digitally mature than we are. That's all very exciting, and just seeing different parts of the world communicate. I had an opportunity to spend some time in Greater China, and it was just interesting to see how people there were using WhatsApp and had all of these funny games and, you know, ways of communicating, which included even kissing their phones or you kissing their phone. It's stuff that is a whole different universe of communication style happening there, that it's just really compelling, and it sort of can stretch your point of view.  Sometimes some of these best practices are very specific to the region. There's also things that you can learn that are relevant for us back here in the states.

Charles:                               

The Chinese have a really fascinating perspective on creativity I think. One of the earlier episodes of Fearless I was talking to Carl Johnson, who's the founder of Anomaly, co-founder. I think he would correct me. He said they did some research for I think it was Converse in China about what people thought was creative. It turns out that in China the most creative ... the person that the survey respondents said was the most creative person is Jack Ma, who's an entrepreneur, not an artist, not a musician, but an entrepreneur. You saw that kind of sense or value of innovative thinking in China, I'm assuming.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Absolutely. We had a lot of meetings and briefings there where you could see that people are looking for that inspiration and innovation. That's certainly very much championed there.

Charles:                               

I'm always interested talking to people who come from a design discipline. What's your definition of design?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, for me it is very much in line with IBM's definition of design and also Apple's definition of design, for that matter. It's not just about how something looks. It's how it works. I think being able to ... Oftentimes in my role I'm not always focused on the aesthetics. It's being focused on the curation, the orchestration, the bringing together disparate teams and technologies and helping to create an environment where they all live in a beautiful way, in an elegant way together. It's being able to create these elegant solutions. Sometimes the best design is design that you don't even see. It's just an experience that is so wonderful and delightful. Yeah. That's how I look at it in a very, very high level.

Charles:                               

Where does the process start for you? When you're faced with a challenge, where does your head immediately go to as the process begins?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. It's interesting, and I think this has been a level of maturity that I've gained over the past few years, that I feel like early in my career, in some of the teams that I worked with, people ran immediately into brainstorming, and ideation, and let's pile everything and everybody into a conference room and start drawing on walls and looking at books. Now, I am really focused on doing much more research and more contextual inquiry, so actually, depending on who we're designing for, going and seeing a day in the life of how they're doing X, Y, and Z right now and looking at where that white space is and how to improve that experience. It's stepping out, getting away from your desk, getting out of the office, and just going out to where your user or your customer might be and meeting them at that place before you get into the now we're brainstorming and starting to solution.

Charles:                               

What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when it comes to facing a design challenge or a design problem?

Liz Kiehner: 

I think it's not knowing the problem that they're solving. I think that happens a lot, and people sometimes go down this whole train of thought and then become very attached to whatever they've created and very frustrated when the person on the buying side doesn't see eye to eye from them, because maybe they were solving for a different problem or there wasn't an alignment on the problem that you were truly setting out to solve.

Charles: 

Talk to us a little bit about the scale of some of the problems that you're trying to solve for? I don't want to presume. How big are some of the problems you're trying to solve? What's the range? What's the scale of them?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. The scale is an interesting point, because from the smaller side, our team has done several apps for the Apple Watch, which is a very small, discrete piece of technology. On the broader side, we have done a lot of work in stadiums. The pursuit that I'm working on right now with our team in Asia is for an airport, so it's redesigning not only the infrastructure, of course, but what the user experience is and interactive, engaging infotainment sort of experiences there. It's bringing a very broad level of both different disciplines, as well as something that ... This airport experience is something that is launching in five years. We know what's cool, and current, and of the Zeitgeist today, but it's also being able to put on the futurist lens or filter and thinking about what's going to be interesting five years from now, because this thing is actually not going to be open to the public for five years.

Charles:                               

How do you do that? We're sitting here the week that the new iPhone X was launched. That looks like some of the aspects of that are going to change the way we perceive how we engage with technology. Face recognition is different for all of us. There's a number of different attributes to that. How do you begin, in a world that's changing this fast and with technology pouring at us from every corner, how do you even begin to get your mind around what is going to be relevant five years from now, in terms of the consumer experience, in that situation? Where are you getting the inspiration from? What provokes the thinking?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, I think looking internally first, one very unique value proposition that IBM has is IBM Research, and all they're doing is research. It's nothing that is market ready, commercial ready yet. They're thinking the five years into the future. In New York, our research lab is located in Yorktown Heights, and then we have another lab in Haifa in Israel. My first course of action is going to be contacting them and briefing them on this opportunity to first say, you know, what is the latest that's contextually relevant in this space that we can talk about that you may not have any idea of how it would physically manifest today, but we don't need to determine that just yet. We just need to identify this as being very relevant and thought provoking for creating this futuristic vision.

Charles:                               

Is the challenge both determining where technology and society will be, in terms of your ability to integrate with that, as well as the kind of technology that you guys might be capable of developing yourself? Is it trying to marry all of that together?

Liz Kiehner:                       

It is oftentimes trying to marry all of that together, and then we also have no shortage of ecosystem partners, like I remember when I started at IBM, a very good friend of mine was starting at Apple in Cupertino. I sent her a message congratulating her, and she was like, "Oh. We're going to be enemies now." I was like, "No. We're not, because Apple is an ecosystem partner, and we're just launching 100 enterprise apps for Apple." It is interesting as well to look at the halo of what we have internally and what we have working with some of our partners, as being able to leverage that technology.

Again, the group that I work within is often considered the tip of the spear, meaning that we try to create this vision of how we go forward, what the future looks like, and then figure out what data do we need to enable that? What technologies do we need to enable that? Again, I go back to the fact that this is very much an orchestration role of being able to bring in the right players and choreographing this in way that there's so many moving parts behind the scenes, but what the customer experiences is hopefully a really glorious experience.

Charles:                               

What are the characteristics that you've discovered you and your team gave to bring to play that orchestration role?

Liz Kiehner:                       

It is definitely everyone is responsible for doing a tremendous amount of networking. That's one of the first things that it's something that for many of us we take for granted. I naturally am somebody who's always been a connector of sorts, which is definitely beneficial to me in this role, but when you go through your initial onboarding into the company, one of the first things that's stressed, beyond here's your laptop and here's how to do your expense report, is you need to network like crazy with your internal colleagues all over the world, as well as, of course, building out your ecosystem of partners and collaborators externally.

Charles:                               

Is that a hiring criteria for you, quality of network?

Liz Kiehner:                       

To some extent, yes. I think for me I am somebody that before I hire somebody, I will always scrutinize their social media, you know, LinkedIn, Twitter. Who are they connected to? Are they active in these areas? That to me is very important. I don't know if everyone else on the team is as rigorous as that, but I suspect that they probably are, that that's pretty important.

Charles:                               

What are the other attributes? The networking capability, or commitment, investment, is one. What else do these people have to bring?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, I think it is, IBM particularly, is a place where it takes an army, so people who have very much a lone wolf mentality are often frustrated in this environment, where because of the size, and the scope, and the scale of the projects that we do, it's one of those situations where it takes a village, because it does take a village, so you need to be able to operate as effectively and efficiently as you can and drive solutions forward aggressively while bringing sometimes 50 collaborators with you. It's taking what could be cumbersome and unwieldy and finding a way to keep things, you know, streamlined and agile at the same time.

Charles:                               

Just give us a little bit of context about, again, when we had our call, you were describing some of the technology that you are exposed to, have access to, utilize. Can you give us a little bit of explanation about kind of the scale, and the size, and the power of some of this technology that you've got access to and that you're working with?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. I think, you know, for the company in general right now we're definitely very oriented around cognitive and cloud. A big project that I was working on for the past year and still have some conversations with new automakers coming up later this month is around what does the world look like when you put IBM Watson inside of an automobile? Again, the example that I always use, being a child of the 80s, is that it's like Michael Knight and KITT and being able to talk to your car. That's very much of the here and now and what we're talking to several automakers about.

Charles:                               

Is this self-driving? Is this more than self-driving? Is this changing the care experience?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. It's definitely changing the car experience, and I would say it's an interim step, like right now we're in the transition to self-driving, and we'll start to see self-parking and things like that before we see fully autonomous, self-driving cars, but just being able to, in light of the fact that we obviously shouldn't be using our cell phones while we're driving, if we can ask the car to be in some ways something between a copilot and a personal assistant, to be able to order dinner on your way home or make a call to somebody, and you're doing this all through your voice and natural language, so I think in a lot of instances like that ...

I feel like there's so much traction in the marketplace right now, because there is so much buzz coming out of CES this year around Alexa that now everyone, I think every brand that we talk to, is obsessed around natural language processing and how to use that in all different contexts. How do you use that at home, in the car, at work?  As we think about this ... That's part of the reason why we concocted this term called cognitive mobility. It's as you move between your day, through your home to your office, to wherever you may be, being able to be connected and do a lot of the transactions that you want to do via voice, if you would like. Sometimes you very specifically don't want to do transactions with your voice, but I think we are seeing now obviously people living in a very multimodal world and being able to leverage our technology in more flexible ways as we move from place to place and from device to device.

Charles:                               

That phrase, cognitive mobility, is that right?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah.

Charles:                               

What does that mean specifically?

Liz Kiehner:                       

We created that phrase specifically around the notion of putting IBM Watson inside of a car.  Imagine if you, for example, live in a city like New York, or London, or any place where there's multiple modes of transportation you might be able to use throughout the day. We have now a bus, called Olli, that's powered by Watson, so you can talk to the bus and ask for directions, or advice, or I need a good coffee shop in this neighborhood, and it can advise you, and you might have a similar experience in your car, on your phone, just being able to have this seamless interface from device to device and from mode to mode as you're going throughout your day, so almost if you imagine this seamless journey, which we're not entirely there yet, but on the road to thinking this through and what that looks like.

Charles:                               

Obviously I've seen the ads and I've read a little bit, but talk to me about what powered by Watson means. What's the practical implications of that? Watson is a super computer.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Watson is fundamentally a series of APIs, and you can select which one you would like, depending on what you're trying to do. In natural language, speech to text is one of those APIs. You can do with Watson a lot of different things, depending on what you're trying to accomplish. A lot of times Watson could be working behind the scenes, and you don't even realize something is powered by Watson. I'll use for an example, because this just wrapped up last weekend, the US Open. At the US Open there were a couple things that were powered by Watson. One was Watson created all of the highlights, so at the end of each match Watson was trained in machine learning to analyze tennis and understand what characterizes a highlight. It would auto edit.

Charles:                               

[crosstalk] No editor was involved.

Liz Kiehner:                       

No.

Charles:                               

Watson watched the game, decided for itself what was interesting, had a predetermined length of time it had to fit the highlights into, and so it made selections based on all of that?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah.

Charles:                               

Wow.

Liz Kiehner:                       

In all of these cases, in Watson, does this work. There will be a real human editor that can adjust that or say, "I think that's perfect, Watson," or, "I would add this or tweak this.

Charles:                               

Until Watson decides he doesn't want that [crosstalk].

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yes. Exactly. That was one area, and another area was around subtitling, that Watson could subtitle everything coming out of the matches. Again, that was cutting down on the time and the staff for USTA, so they didn't have to hire as many people or put people through the laborious task of subtitling.

Charles:                               

Watson is listening to the commentary and then writing subtitles in multiple languages?

Liz Kiehner:                       

I have to see. Watson speaks I think close to 10 languages now, so I don't know how extensively the US Open was subtitled. I was watching the live subtitling in English. You can see the text stream coming down, and then it gives the degree of confidence that Watson has in subtitling that particular line. Obviously, if it's 99% confident, you're like, "All right. I'll let that one pass." If it's 60% confident, then the human operating the machine will say, "All right. I'm going to double check that." Again, it isn't replacing the human being, but it's making their job a heck of a lot easier and a heck of a lot faster.

Those were two main components that were launched that were a part of Watson Media offering, that again, I think can be really transformative in helping people work more efficiently and with more agility. I think it's really important that IBM is focused on the fact that the way that we use AI is around augmenting intelligence and not replacing people. We can enable people to move tremendously faster, and we have seen some of the most inspiring use cases in the medical industry, where you can see doctors being able to diagnose rare diseases in record time, because we've done all of this machine learning and analyzation of medical records from hospitals around the world that have shared their data with us, to be able to pinpoint this is what's wrong with your child, and we've diagnosed in a matter of an hour what would have taken months previously to diagnose. There's a lot of interesting cases, and particularly in medicine and oncology, that are really just extraordinary.

Charles:                               

Where do you get project briefs from? Are they internally generated? Do you have partners outside IBM who are coming to you and saying, "We want to solve for this problem. Can you help us?" Where do you get the challenges from?

Liz Kiehner: 

Yeah. I would say they come in both areas. We many times have client execs that will come to us and give us a brief based on a problem that their client is trying to solve. In some cases, obviously, we have personal relationships with the client and we'll have a conversation and understand they're trying to solve for X, Y, Z. Yeah. In both of those ways project briefs come to us. I think it's really important for me and the way that our team is oriented that we try to take a very consultative selling approach, so really doing more listening than anything, and then trying to figure out the very best recommendation, and tying that together into, again, really clean, cohesive user story, so we understand how this benefits the end customer and ultimate how it helps to drive the bottom line and business results as well.

I think, again, what we challenge ourselves with every day is being the team that can tell the one IBM story, not the, "And we have Watson, and we have block chain, and we have ...", all of the laundry list of technologies that I think some people don't need to get into the weeds and the details of those. They just want to know that they can solve for the problem that they're trying to address.

Charles:                               

I want to come on and talk about how you put teams together to do this kind of work, but actually you just mentioned block chain. I'm fascinated by block chain. Can you explain block chain in a way that I might understand it better than I do at the moment?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Block chain is basically like a database that is validated by many, many different touch points, so we see it used very much now in the financial services industry and the insurance industry, and it can certainly help prevent fraud. I have had, which I'm sure somebody's working on this right now, ideas around smart contracts and using block chain in the real estate industry, so you're closing on a house. Rather than gather 10 people in a room on a Friday afternoon, everybody executes their contracts online, and it's validated via the block chain, which lives in a multitude of locations redundantly and can be validated and verified.

Charles:                               

It's more secure, as I understand, because it's not just one arbiter or one authority that you have to convince. You actually have to essentially inform and convince the entire network that this transaction happened, this exchanged just took place. The entire chain has to come into alignment and [crosstalk] that's what happened. The security is that multiple entities are involved in affirming, and if you don't guess, as I understand it, the majority or the vast majority of the chains to confirm it, then the transaction is not valid.

Liz Kiehner:                       

That's correct. Yes. It gives you that credibility around the transaction, and then also, because it lives in multiple locations, if any one of those locations were to fail, there is this embedded redundancy in the system that it lives in so many place, it will never be compromised or disappear.

Charles:                               

Does it prevent things like the Equifax breech this week?

Liz Kiehner:                       

I would say yes. It would be able to prevent something like the Equifax breech.

Charles:                               

Let's talk about the kind of team that you have put together and the characteristics of that. Working on these kinds of projects, what kinds of skills and disciplines do you need to bring together to unlock the potential of this kind of technology and solve some of these problems?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. That's a very good question. We have a group of strategist who work very closely with us. We always have strategy involved in all of our projects. Then for my immediate team, which is more of an experience design team, we have everything from design research, UI/UX through visual design, copywriters, project managers, to front end developers. For most of our projects we'll have about five or six people oriented around it, which we have now started calling a minimum viable team.

It's, again, creating a team within our immediate nucleus that is efficient enough that we can move quickly, and we obviously need to have stand ups and touch bases with the broader group that we're often a part of, to align and discuss what we're working on, but we can move really quickly together, having a team of that size. It, again, is very different from the traditional agency model of an art director and a copywriter.

It's more similar, in some ways, to what Google introduced a couple years ago around art copy code, being able to always get to a point where we can do at least a functional prototype or some demonstration of how the technology or how the experience works. That's why we go through, on our team, front end development, and because we don't do a lot of ... we're working on a lot of demand generation, proof of concept, go to market, pursuits, RFP responses.  We only take things so far up through the front end development, prototype, proof of concept phase, but then ultimately if a project goes into development, being able to do that hand off process to the team that might be overseeing one, to two, to multiple year customer engagement.

Charles:                               

Salesmanship must be an important part of this from a certain perspective. The ability to show somebody a future they had either never seen or only vaguely conceived of and helping them understand how this could be real must be a very important part of the work you do.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. It absolutely is. I just recently, a few weeks ago, was named distinguished designer at IBM, which there are only 22 of in our organization.

Charles:                               

Congratulations.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Thank you. We actually had a call today where we were in fact talking about how one area where we needed to groom all of our designers more was around the salesmanship, presentation skills, and being able to tell that story very well, and knowing the ... We trust that most designers can design a beautiful presentation, but that's often half the battle, so getting people really skilled up and confident around the area of salesmanship is something that we're working on improving upon.

Charles:                               

What's the toughest thing about selling the kind of thinking that you guys get involved with?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, oftentimes we're selling the art of the possible, and sometimes when you're selling something that might be a net new technology or an idea, there is no way to necessarily articulate the measurable ROI. There are some companies that are very into being first to market, and we'll just say we'll take the press value that we get around being first to market as enough of a reason to engage in something new, but I think that, to me, has been the most challenging thing in selling something that hasn't been demonstrated, and in the market, and proven yet.

I have had conversations before with our client teams where we have to say, "So, do you remember when Facebook first launched and the Facebook ads sales teams were out trying to say, 'Hey. Brands, get on Facebook.'?" When you're trying to sell anything that's new, I think that's the biggest challenge, when most companies are so focused on quarterly profits, and the bottom line, and how this is going to show some sort of immediate revenue growth or impact.

Charles:                               

From a leadership standpoint, what's your biggest challenge? Is it going too far in the ideation, or the conceptualization, or the ambition, or is it not going far enough?

Liz Kiehner:                       

I would say it's probably going too far. I think we sometimes, I have used this term getting ahead of your skis. When we have an idea or a vision for something, or if we push the technology this much further, we can create this experience, and we're not able to deliver that just yet, so I think where our imaginations can go and what is technically feasible or possible is an area where we need to do a lot of validation and apply a lot of rigor to make sure that what we're selling is in fact possible to deliver by whatever the deadline or launch might be.

Charles:                               

As you took on the role and settled into it, what have you found your personal leadership challenges to be? What's been the hardest thing to grapple with?

Liz Kiehner:                       

I think it is in part when leading a distributed team, obviously the people who are closest to you and are in the home office, you know, benefit from a lot of things that we have folks in a many other cities around the country that as much as we do daily standup calls every morning and do a lot of video conferencing and the like, struggle to make those people feel truly included, although we work in every way to operate in total transparency. Early in my career I got a piece of advice, which I think holds true anywhere you go, that it's always good to work at the headquarters or in the home office, rather than in a satellite office, because despite the best attempts to make everybody feel included, there's always that real or perceived barrier that people feel. That, to me, has been the greatest challenge.

Charles:                               

Yeah. I think it's interesting. We built a film editing company that had four offices, and one of the goals that I always had for that was to make every office feel as strong as the other and to build it in such a way that they were vitally connected, that they actually couldn't operate if you separated them, if you disconnected them. The challenge of that I think is from a human nature standpoint as much as anything else. I mean, this was back 15 years ago, and so technology was far more limited in its ability to connect, and so we had to overcome it in different ways.

Part of that was just putting people on planes and moving people around a lot, so that there was a real shared connection between people, not just localized. I also found that moving management teams around was really powerful.  In one case I jump swapped the heads of all the offices for two weeks, because they were all complaining to me about the other offices. I was probably the only person that had the view of all of them, and I found that when I put them into each other's jobs, and they understood both the benefits and the challenges of working in a different environment, that they came back much, much more accepting and supportive of each other than ever before.

But I do think human nature becomes a big factor in dealing with remote teams, doesn't it? At the end of the day people want to feel connected to something, and if you do have a head office mentality or a head office perspective or structure, I think it's always a challenge to get people remotely to really feel like they're part of something on a minute by minute basis. I'm interested in, as you have moved through this job, where do you see the future going? What do you think this job will look like five years from now, as that airport project gets launched?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, I think we constantly are raising the bar on ourselves, and we often like to use this line, everyone's last best experience becomes their minimum expectation for all future experiences. I think we probably are going to face customer expectations that we can't even imagine right now, because of the fact that the technologies is moving so exponentially quickly. I think it is the ability to rapidly absorb as much as possible, and again, you know, be out there and be talking to people about what humans actually need, rather than what we think we need. Again, going back to that deep, one-on-one research and contextual inquiry, I try to not get overly caught up in the technology or the technology for technology sake, you know, really understanding the fundamental human problems and desires out there that we're trying to address.

I think that, to me, is what we always need to keep our eye on. I think the biggest challenge and change to the landscape right now is all of the startups that are out there and what we constantly are talking to our clients about is how the line, which I hate, disrupt or be disrupted, which I think is totally overused, although there is several truths in that statement, that when you look at the Fortune 500 list and how radically it's changed from five years ago, there's such a level of change and renewal as far as who's at the top of that list, that I think we're going to see more and more shifts in the landscape in the next five years.

Charles: 

There's been a lot of press in the last two or three months especially. I think Maureen Dowd had an article in Vanity Fair a few months ago, in which she really examined artificial intelligence and the future of it. She talked to everybody from Elon Muck to Mark Zuckerberg, everybody in between, about their perspective about that or whether AI was a threat or a benefit. Elon Musk I think came out a few days ago and talked about he believes that we need to eliminate right now the threat of artificial robots having the ability to kill human beings. Where do you sit on, looking at all of that, looking at that sort of panorama of possibility and being intimately involved in seeing what machine learning and artificial intelligence can already start to do? How do you look at the future of this kind of technology and the benefits to mankind and also potentially the threat?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Well, it's a challenging space, because I've worked on pursuits that are called robotic process automation, where I know I'm going to be removing 5,000 workers from this company by the technology that we're proposing, so I feel like we're not feeling that right now, because our unemployment numbers are so low. I think from that standpoint, from the job loss or displacement, some people are seeing that less as a threat, and they're more worried about robot killing them, which I am less worried about and, quite frankly, more concerned about some of the jobs, like truck drivers, that will soon be replaced. You follow that train of thought long enough, and then you ultimately get to the point of universal basic income. Given the current administration, it's hard to even imagine having that conversation, but I think that is ...

I feel like I always talk about how upset I feeling seeing all the sort of Terminator, Michael Bay-like images and headlines around AI, and the robots are coming for us. I think we're so far from that, but what we do need to be aware of is the jobs that are being lost, and that will be lost, and that well eventually see labor statistics to show that. That's what we need to be thinking about ultimately, not only in America, but around the world, what our societies will look like as that starts to happen more and more.

Charles:                               

Frame this question correctly. [inaudible] the editor. We can always cut this part out. What is the biggest challenge to you in terms of getting these people in your team to work together effectively? How do you have to show up in the morning, I guess, better put, in order to get this disparate group of people looking at the world, sort of really interesting lens, challenging lens for lots of different reasons? What's the motivation that you have to provide to get them to want to coalesce, and work together, and solve these problems?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Well, it's a challenge, because we have a lot of people who are focused on their offering only or their P&L only and some people that, you know, aren't coming at the business through the same lens as we are. We have the benefit of sitting globally and cross sector, so we can take the one IBM position. Other people are like, "I just care about my little sliver of the universe." That I think is the biggest challenge. I think it is showing up every day with as much enthusiasm as you can muster to how do we do right by our client, and try to let everything else go by the wayside, and get everybody to at least agree to march to that beat and go together in that direction, which doesn't work all the time, but oftentimes if you get people on the same page and drive that mission and that motivation, you can make that happen.

Charles:                               

How do you manage a team against a five year timeline? I mean, obviously so much changes, including I'm sure in many cases the nature of the team itself and the actual personnel involved. Obviously the world is changing, society, and technology, and almost everything. How do you keep a team coalesced around a vision that's that far away and that has so many practical implication before it gets there, the foundations of which may well change by the time you get there?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Well, I think with that or with any project with a five year timeline, we work in a very agile, iterative process, so I think we all acknowledge this is where we are today, but we're not going to say we're going to stay locked into this in five years, so we always envision this loop that we iterate constantly, which is a very big difference that I know many people that moved from working in traditional media or advertising, where you deliver a project, and you shop the master, and it's done. When you work at a technology company or with a technology company, your project is never done, unless it gets sunset and just goes away You're constantly iterating on that thing, so there is this very cyclical and perpetual process that is inherently and fundamentally different. That's one of the most interesting mind shifts I think of going from the traditional media space to working in a technology company.

Charles:                               

Are you fundamentally excited or threatened by the future of where technology's going?

Liz Kiehner:                       

I am excited. I am inherently an optimist in general about everything, but I think we need to be very responsible and mindful about what we're doing with the technology and what we're creating and deploying out there, but I think as long as that happens and there are a lot of coalitions and efforts working towards raising people's mindfulness and responsibility around that, I think technology can be a great enabler and connector of people.  Just looking back, again, at using machine learning and artificial intelligence, it's being able to source thousands of articles and get to the piece of data you wanted in an instant, like why not be able to do that? You know?

It's giving your mind a superpower, which is often how we like to think of, just within our team, artificial intelligence. We often look at the different Watson APIs and map them to different superpowers, so it's giving you [crosstalk] the ability to ... If you look at predictive analytics, it's having this cognition and ability to see the future and things like that. It takes it from being an intimidating technology to being able to ... When we gave Watson vision, being able to see and have this visual recognition capability, a lot of the APIs can get ... We actually created this little deck of super power cards, so you can look at how you're using cognitive technology in a different way that feels a little more humanistic.

Charles:                               

Actually sort of connecting to the emotional side of being human?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yup. Yup. Exactly.

Charles:                               

Interesting.  I try and wrap every episode with what I call three takeaways that I've heard, that I think stand out for me from the conversation in terms of how you lead. Let me take a crack at that, and you can tell me what you think. The first thing that strikes me is that you have this curiosity to challenge yourself. I think when you talk about taking on a position that has a global perspective, because you wanted to set that as a goal for yourself, that energy, that perspective, that challenge is present in most of the great leaders that I see. They're always trying to figure out, "What else am I capable of? What else is out there that I want to prove to myself?"

Second I think was the word you used a few minutes ago, was this sort of relentless sense of optimism. I think the best leaders are absolutely optimistic. As you defined yourself that way, I see that in the way that you show up, in the way that you describe your work. I think it's so important for people to be led by pp that are optimistic. It sounds obviously, but I think it's actually surprisingly rare.

Then I think the third thing that I would say is you bring a real humanity to this. Let me say that again. I think the third thing you bring is this willingness or this ability to balance hopefulness and what's going to happen five years from now with the ability to turn to the practical side when it's necessary. That judgment, that instinct, that skill to be able to know when to push and know when to pull back and make is actionable today is also essential in the leader of a creative business, because creativity, obviously, as you know, takes us into fanciful places, which is really important, but the business side requires us to actually stop and turn that into something that's deliverable, and meaningful, and valuable ultimately. Otherwise, it has no point. I see that in you. Do those three resonate with you?

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. They definitely do. I have always been a very left brain and right brain person, so I think that helps, especially in the context that I am in now, and a really important component to how our team works is being able to take the art of the possible and turn it into the art of the doable.  That last point is really critical to being able to fulfill that mission.

Charles:                               

Last question. Do you look for people who bring those characteristics? I imagine with all the possibilities in front of you, the ability to take that and turn it into actionable behavior and actionable steps must be critical.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. It definitely is. We do look for people like that. Another ridiculously overused term in that of unicorns, but we, like many other companies, are out there looking for these unicorn type people that have this blend of essential attributes that I think is really crucial to us being successful as a team.

Charles:                               

Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you so much for being here today, what a fascinating conversation. I look forward to the future, with all of the possibilities that technology provides.

Liz Kiehner:                       

Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you, Charles.