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Using empathy and creativity to rethink the way we work.

An interview with Mauro Porcini

Published: 17 Mar 2023
What is innovation without curiosity? What is genius without empathy? For a complete and inspirational answer, we ask Mauro Porcini, class of 1975, and Vice-President and first Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo since 2012. First, he worked for Philips Design, then he founded his own agency, Wisemad and became Chief Design Officer at 3M, which includes Scotch and Post-it. Throughout his career, and at all the companies he has worked for, Porcini has succeeded in bringing a new approach to design by inserting his own creative principles into every phase of production and communication. He has even written a book, published by il Saggiatore and entitled L’età dell’eccellenza (The Age of Excellence) that is both a record and manifesto of his ideas. The book emanates a powerful and necessary optimism as well as a vision that is ready to transform the rapid changes taking place in the world into important opportunities for innovation with humans at the centre.

During the pandemic we experienced a new way of working, at home and with more flexible hours. Was this just the acceleration of a process that was already underway? Is smartworking the future or did it finish with the end of the Covid-19 emergency?

It is the future of our way of working for various reasons. In the last hundred years, productivity in every type of company and business has increased exponentially thanks to new technologies. But this increase has not been reflected by a recalibration of our personal and working lives. Before the pandemic, everyone at all levels had recognised this, from CEOs to shareholders and employees at the start of their working lives. There was a widespread, overall awareness that was hidden and not talked about and sometimes made us feel ashamed and even afraid. The cutting-edge human resource teams at the big multinationals, who usually seek to carry the discipline of human resources forward, had already sensed there was a social need for change. For example, in a company like PepsiCo, there were already numerous flexi-work and short week schemes. For over fifteen years now at PepsiCo, you can take the whole summer off, as well as all the Fridays in December, if you work an extra hour during the week. Several companies were starting to move in the same direction. But not everyone agreed. The pandemic awoke our consciences and people were saying, “we already felt like this before, and now this is what we want. Life is short and fragile. So why can’t we take back part of that life and invest in ourselves? Society owes it to us.” It is just a natural evolution. In the same way that, arbitrarily, the working week has shortened compared to a century ago. If we have a bit more time to give to people in exchange for increased productivity, we can create a dynamic balance. That is a great step forward for society.
Using empathy and creativity to rethink the way we work.
Even if many people love working from home, relationships within companies can be extremely fruitful, as they spark new ideas and projects. Who are the “unicorns” you talk about in your book?

I am a great fan of the hybrid model. For most professions, working purely from home is not ideal. People go to work to connect, to work together, to celebrate successes, inspire each other, mentor colleagues and solve problems. Meetings are usually about specific topics, but big problems are often solved in the five-minute coffee breaks at the beginning or end, when people talk about issues that were not on the official agenda. It is a situation that is not easy to reproduce in the digital world. But society needs this change towards a hybrid model regardless of the business interests involved. At the same time, businesses need to have people who can connect, be inspired and celebrate in the workplace, and then go back home and have space for themselves, their hobbies and their family - time to look after their body, be more energised, be more complete, and just happier. As they will then take that happiness to work. People who don’t work enough, who are not interested in the company's goals, and the basic idea of laziness are all problems that also exist when people are at work. They are only less visible. This hybrid model implies that companies must understand in a more strategic and organised way what the “unicorns” are that I speak about in the book. What are the fundamental qualities I want my teams to have? In the book I talk about 23 different qualities. How strategic are companies in defining these qualities? We are talking about qualities that make more sense today, in our global, hyper-competitive world, than 20 years ago. These qualities include curiosity, politeness, kindness, optimism, respect and a love of diversity, which are all fundamental in today’s set ups. You need people with these qualities to ensure they will perform at their best in a hybrid work setting. The question for companies, both large and small, and for the CEOs is: do you have a strategic model to truly understand what your employees are like and whether your team members are suited to this kind of scenario? Have you ever considered parameters like respect, kindness, optimism, curiosity in a scientific and strategic way?

You have introduced design and creativity at all company levels, but where does this approach that seems to combine emotional, humanist and managerial elements come from?

It comes from my gut and my heart. Initially, it was very instinctive. In my professional career, when I began experimenting, my level of knowledge was very low. I believed that I was doing what I liked and what I thought was fair ethically and morally. These two variables were basically unconscious. I entered companies with this kind of instinct and I was lucky enough to create teams from nothing, with the exception of my first year at Philips, where I then created my own start-up. After that, for almost 21 years, I always created teams from nothing at these multinationals. To begin with, I surrounded myself with people who had certain qualities that attracted me. Then, looking back, I tried to understand what the key variables were in the projects that had worked and I realised that it was the human variable that made the difference. At that point I asked myself: what qualities did the people who had done great things in these teams have? And what qualities were lacking in those who had not performed? I also researched and investigated other companies and other situations. Out of pure instinct, I developed something more strategic, with a clear vision of how to construct it too.
Using empathy and creativity to rethink the way we work.
Has the idea of leadership in companies and start-ups changed in recent years?

Yes, certainly. There is an element that is changing and the companies who have understood that have an extra edge. In the past, hard-nosed leaders, sharks and people with a touch of crude irrationality were celebrated. And, at a management theory level, CEOs used to be taught that conflict - setting people against each other and making teams compete - was something healthy that generated, in a sort of Darwinian approach, the creation of excellence. The strongest idea won. But this approach is extremely inefficient. As if I make people compete, they will all do things that are similar and therefore redundant. It was an approach that worked previously because competition was limited and each sector had only a few competitors with clear entry barriers and rules. Everyone knew what their competitors were doing, what they were working on and where attacks would come from. There was a dynamic balance. But, today, the great entry barriers have crumbled under the weight of globalisation and new technologies, so anyone can have an idea and access resources through incubators, investment funds and online funding platforms. And anyone can reach end users directly via e-commerce and social media communications. In this new scenario you can be attacked from anywhere, often with unexpected variables, and perhaps from players who do not have all the typical constraints of a consolidated company. It is what happened with Uber in the transport sector, and Airbnb in hospitality. This type of scenario means that today's leaders must be able to make teams work together with extreme efficiency. They must have competitive advantages in all business dimensions. Whereas, in the past, you could invest in one dimension only, today you must have everything: the best product, in terms of style, emotional appeal, aesthetics, practicality and ergonomics, the most inspirational brand, the best service, the most intriguing experiences, and so on. Then there are other variables such as sustainability, extreme customisation, health and wellness, and technology. This means you need extreme experts in every dimension. You must also have a leader who can find this kind of talent and create the right synergies. And you need a series of qualities, such as curiosity, because people have to grow along with a world that is continually changing. Take Artificial intelligence. It is essential to understand that it is the future of design. This means that in addition to all the skills we already have, we have to add other new ones, like the ability to write a prompt in a certain way, to understand the semantics and semiotics of words that will be displayed together with images. Pushing back on something like Artificial Intelligence is like when designers who created graphics by hand opposed digital software. It does not make sense. It means you need new technical skills and people who are curious enough to say, “I want to find out more about this kind of tool.” You must also have the courage to do it, the resilience to move forward and reinvent yourself, as well as the optimism to say, “I will succeed and I will be the best.” Then these people have to connect with each other to create a team. Kindness, empathy and a series of other qualities are also required. Qualities that used to be appreciated, but were not considered necessary like they are today, in a world where you have to be hyper-efficient 24 hours a day. The subtitle of my book in English is: the power of people in love with people. Here, Love is our love for the people we serve - so you have to put them before profit. Love is our love for the people around us, too. So, you have to make sure the team is happy and that everyone believes in it. Love is also our love for what we do. As if we love what we do, the effort we put into it will be positive. An effort without effort: So, even if you go to bed tired, the next day you wake up full of energy.

You wrote in your book: “We are entering a world in which we need to innovate more than ever, because there is no alternative. Either you do it with humans at the centre of everything, or someone else will.” In your opinion, in Italy, do we invest enough in innovation?

There are several systemic problems. It is not easy to invest in Italy. As people tend to think of it in terms of small to medium-sized companies. Whereas, today, investments are worldwide, or at least Europe-wide. There is often a slightly pessimistic mentality, too, that can be summarised in statements, like, “it can’t be done, it’s impossible”. We should also take into consideration the fact that Italy had massive success in the financial boom years with a model that can’t be used any more. With that model you could be successful in Italy by being innovative and thinking about exports later. But today that doesn't work because you need a global mentality straightaway. It means that the great Italian strength of the enlightened, creative entrepreneur who worked with a sheet of paper in front of them even while having lunch and a glass of wine and who managed everything at a personal level, no longer works. The Anglo-Saxon model based on processes and strategies is now the ideal. But the problem of the Anglo-Saxon model is that it lacks what in Italian I call “l’arte di arrangiarsi” - “the art of getting by”, or what Americans call “problem solving”: the capacity to move in grey areas. In the Anglo-Saxon process, every person has a specific role. People are like gears in a huge machine that has worked well for years. But today that machine has to move at the speed of light. In the past, it wasn’t necessary, but today, you have to adapt, be flexible and continually change strategy. It is there that a combination of the Italian and Anglo-Saxon approaches can make the difference. This is what I have tried to do over the years. To combine Italian creativity and the art of getting by with a capacity to plan and implement a strategy. To think in scale and move in major systems. To delegate, think big and dream.

Can you name one thing that, in this complex world, makes you feel optimistic about the future?

The focus on sustainability. Which didn’t even exist until a few years ago. A fantastic exhibition by the great designer Stefan Sagmeister, Beautiful numbers, demonstrates how the world has actually always improved. The idea was sparked by a conversation Sagmeister had with a lawyer who said, “this world is a mess, things were better before.” Stefan thought, “show me the data.” So, he created works that compare what the world was like a hundred or two hundred years ago and how it is today. How many women are in parliament? How many babies die in their first year of life? And so on. Putting everything into perspective, you realise that things are getting better. My optimism is based on numbers. Seeing the new focus on sustainability, as I do in PepsiCo, gives me hope that what we are witnessing is ultrafast improvement.