Do What You Love: The Rock Star Inventor

Ever dream about finding a way to do what you love for a living? In my "Do What You Love" column, I ask people who've done it to tell me their secrets. Here's hoping they inspire you to do the same.

You may not know Harry West by name, but odds are pretty good you’ve used one of the many products or services he’s had a hand in
inventing and bringing to market. West, CEO of Continuum, a global design and innovation consultancy, has had a hand in designing products that have become household names, including the Swiffer, Reebok Pump shoes and “stages” diapers.

West didn’t think he’d end up a rock star inventor, however. In fact, growing up, he thought he’d become a farmer. But fate took him in a different direction and he’s glad it did. He tells us why he loves what he does and how you can find a way to do what you love, too.

BusinessNewsDaily: How did you end up doing this for a living?

Harry West: I grew up in a little village in the countryside in England where my dad was a builder. So I knew about farming and I knew about building homes. I didn’t really know about any other career. But I was good at math and I had an intuitive feel for how things worked, and I ended up graduating from Cambridge University with an engineering degree. Even though I was pretty good at engineering, I was really more interested in people. So I decided to study political science, applying to a program in technology and policy at a place I had never heard of — and this is an indication of my appalling ignorance at the time — called MIT. So I showed up at MIT in 1980 to study political science, and found myself at the world’s leading engineering university. But I loved the program, and I loved living in Cambridge — this time the Cambridge in America — and I decided I wanted to stay in the United States. I don’t know if this is still so, but back then, a sure way to get a green card was to get a Ph.D. in engineering, so I went back to engineering, got a doctorate, and ended up a professor of engineering at MIT. I taught design and control theory at both the graduate and undergraduate level, and it was a lot of fun, but what I was really hankering for was more of the human element. So I began to bring it into the design courses I was teaching, and I began consulting for design firms in the Boston area, and it became clear to me that that was the right fit. I decided to move into design consulting, thinking it would be a bridge between the engineering skills I had and where I wanted to go, which was about people. After considering several offers, I thought Continuum was both the most interesting place I could go and the place where I could have the greatest influence and the biggest opportunity to forge my own path.

BND: What was the crucial decision you made that led you to this place in life?

H.W.: That would be 1994, when I was 35, and made the decision to leave academia to take a position at a design consultancy. It would have been very tempting to do something else — to go into management consulting or engineering or stay in academia. But I felt there was a space into which I could bring my talents that would be very satisfying. What I really liked about engineering was that it forced you to think clearly about things. You can’t bullshit in engineering. But at the same time, I realized that so often the really difficult problem is the human problem. Once the human problem is well posed, then often the technical solution is self-evident. I like trying to think clearly about things that are very difficult to think clearly about, and human problems tend to be like that. In the design and innovation challenges I take on, I try to distill things to their essence and get to the self-evident solution. I worry a lot about words and I want to express things in a simple, straightforward way, which probably comes from my years spent teaching. That’s what turns my crank. Turns out these are useful skills for creating new products and services, and for helping companies to see what they have to do to make them real.

BND: What did you want to be when you grew up?

H.W.: A farmer — because I lived in the countryside, and there was little else. When I was 7, I hung out with a farmer who was 70, helping him look after pigs, chickens, geese, a horse. He was one of the last farmers to work without mechanization. We used a horse-drawn cart and cut the hay by hand. It wasn’t a “lifestyle” thing. It was the real deal. There was a whole crew of kids who hung out there. It was social networking pre-"Farmville." When I was young, that was all I knew.

BND: Why do you love your job?

H.W.: I love being connected to what’s going on in the world — and by that, I don’t mean geopolitical events, I mean the important stuff: how people really live. I love going into people’s homes or offices, or hospital rooms, talking with people about the mundane issues that make up our lives and thinking about how to make them a little bit better. Drinking milk, changing a diaper, cleaning a kitchen, applying for a mortgage, managing glucose levels, sending a text, renting a car, buying a beer, going in for surgery, buying a car, filing an insurance claim, eating a pizza … materially, that is what we are as people.

When I started at Continuum, I was a creative practitioner, then I grew the strategy practice and a few years ago, my colleagues asked me to take on the role of CEO to grow our business globally. Now I spend about half my time working with our offices in LA, Milan, Seoul and Shanghai, speaking at conferences and meeting with companies all over the world. And I spend half my time in Boston working with our management team. But I am still always part of a project somewhere, and find time to go into the field and talk with people. We are in a rapidly evolving business and I think it is important to stay directly connected to the work we do.

BND: What's the biggest misconception about your job?

H.W.: The biggest misconception about the work we do is that it’s all Post-it notes, Nerf guns, and hacky sacks — people think we’re all just sitting around a room throwing ideas around. It’s not like that at all. We spend our time looking very closely at how people live and then thinking about it deeply, reframing our understanding of that particular aspect of their lives and seeing new ways to make it better. It’s hard work. It’s very satisfying work, but it’s intense, hard work.

The other misconception about my particular position is that a CEO tells people what to do. In our company, at least, I cannot tell anybody what to do, because we are all motivated by the work, not by hierarchy or reporting structure. The way we motivate people is by giving them great opportunities in their work. People’s motivation and satisfaction is in taking on challenging design and innovation problems and being part of a company that is doing good. My job is to see more clearly what it is that we do as a company through the eyes of our clients, to help people in our company to understand the real value in our work and to see how we will continue to evolve, and to communicate to the outside world.

BND: If you didn't do your job, whose job would you like to have and why?

H.W.: Well, I guess I could always go back to farming … but really I would want to stay in design and innovation, and if not in consulting, then it would be interesting to serve as chief innovation officer in a large company going through a transformation. In the CIO role, there would probably be less emphasis on creation and more focus on helping the organization to make innovation real. That is an area that a lot of companies are struggling with today. As a consultant, I have helped organizations make innovation happen, and I think it would be interesting to lead that process from the inside.

BND: Do you think having a job you love has made you a better person in other areas of your life?

H.W.: Well yes, I feel very privileged to have my job. Working with a creative team in which there is not complete overlap in the way people think about the world has helped me understand much better how to communicate with and manage people who think very differently. I enjoy engaging with people whose approach to problem-solving is completely different to mine, without thinking that one of us is right and the other is wrong. It expands how you see the world.

Also, I am fortunate that my job keeps me very much in touch with how people live. I think my family benefits a lot from that a lot. As you get older and more established in your career, it’s easy to lose connection with how the world is changing, but in this job, you can’t; you have to stay constantly engaged.

And when you are working in design and innovation, you have to stay on the cutting edge in the way you think, and that forces me to be constantly learning. I guess that is a link between my academic career and my consulting career — constant learning. I love to learn and this job affords me a constant intellectual challenge and a constant need to learnnew stuff. I am grateful for that.

BND: What's your best advice to other people who are trying to pursue their career dreams?

H.W.: Try things out. If you aren’t happy, change your job. Or if you are lucky enough to work in a place that supports it, change your role within your job. The beauty of working at a place like Continuum is that you can change what you do very easily. It may be an unusual company that affords you the opportunity to do that — but more and more, it seems to me, the jobs that are well-codified are going to move to India or China or they are going to get automated, or they are going to get boring. The jobs that interest me are the jobs that are difficult to define, and the only way you can figure out if those are a good fit is to try them out. If you look at careers people are engaged in now, some of them didn’t even exist five years ago. In our own company, we have had to create new terms for positions such as "envisioner" and "service designer"; job titles that did not exist a few years ago. When you are taking a job that is not predefined, then you are forced to design the job as you do it, and the only way to do that is to be constantly experimenting.

Jeanette Mulvey has been writing about business for more than 20 years. Know someone who loves what they do? Tweet me @jeanettebnd with the hashtag #dowhatyoulove.