88. Nic Parmaksizian: How to create an environment that encourages innovation

Nic Parmaksizian talks to Sue Stockdale about his role as Global CEO of Designit and why he is passionate about creativity and innovation.  He outlines how leaders can create environments that encourage innovation, and why ambidexterity is needed to be able to focus on both profitability today and tomorrow.

An accomplished global business executive, Nic is known for his strategic, visionary thinking. His contagious entrepreneurial approach and humanity-centred work methodology have contributed to an impressive track record of industry-leading transformational change in the areas of technology innovation and human behaviour.

In 2022, Nic joined Designit as CEO and was previously Head of Digital practice at the global technology and management consultancy Capco, a Wipro company. During the eight years that he headed the digital department, Nic built a renowned digital innovation team that challenged the norms to deliver highly successful digital transformation strategies for financial services around the world.

Connect with Nic Parmaksizian via LinkedIn or Designit website 

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Key Quotes

I have a very associated mind. So I connect things and I try to find patterns.

I still try to make sure that I can still tap into that little voice, that intuition to help guide me when I come to make decisions.

There needs to be a clear mandate from the top of a business that innovation is a priority and that leadership will create an environment where people, have the time, the opportunity and the safety net that they need to be able to innovate.

Innovation is not just about coming up with ideas. It’s also about following up on those ideas and making sure that’s they land and there is execution behind them.

Do your day job, but also think about tomorrow.

The leader can find themselves in this sort of parent child relationship, and I’ve tried to make sure that, we are talking as equals as adults.

As a leader, what I try to do is lead from the front, lead by example, role model the behaviours that I would want to see from everybody else.

You need ambidexterity between profitability today while thinking about your profit for tomorrow. And I find that sometimes one can compromise the other.

I find it very important from a wellbeing point of view to give people access to learning.

Nic Parmaksizian Transcription

Sue: Hi Im Sue Stockdale, your Access to Inspiration host. This is a podcast with a social mission to help you be inspired by people who may be unalike you. As always we hope their experiences and insights cause you to reflect on your own perspectives about the world.  Well my guest today in episode 88 is Nic Parmaksizian, Global CEO of Designit. Nic explains to me how leaders can create environments that encourage innovation, what he does to create an amazing place to work for the creative talent in his organisation and also what he would like to be designed for the world. Welcome to the podcast, Nic. It’s great to speak to you today.

Nic: Thank you for having me. Sue it’s really great to reconnect with you.

Sue: There are two words that really remind me of you Nic, one is creativity and the other is innovation. And I think they’ve been the threads that have woven their way through your career to date, both in terms of businesses that you’ve worked in and focused on, and how you lead. At least that’s the sense I get. I wonder if you would agree with me or not.

Nic: Yes. Certainly, I think creativity and innovation have been passions of mine. They’ve been certainly when it comes to creativity and imagination, they’ve been constants in my life as far as I can remember. You know, I grew up in a relatively artistic household and family, and where I think imagination was always encouraged. And so that really stayed with me where I’ve always needed to think big ideas and create.

And I can’t really tell you that it was part of a plan. But this creativity that essentially is turned into active innovation work and helping clients really transform their organizations and transform their markets by leveraging the power of ideas to innovate has actually become my reality today. And it’s been the case for a number of years, as you said Sue. So yes, I would agree with you. But I wouldn’t say that was ever part of a plan. I think things naturally evolved in this way.

Sue: it’s funny how you’re describing that, sounds like it was an emergent career to date.

Nic: It sort of really is. And I think the beauty of hindsight is being able to look at things and the choices you’ve made and not necessarily understand why you made the choices that you made at the time. But actually I have a very associated mind. So I connect things and I try to find patterns. And when I look at the choices that I made, which often were against what people thought would be the rational option. The big picture sort of makes sense to me and I can see how all of those elements and career choices and roles that I’ve taken have really contributed to having this sort of narrative around creativity and innovation and imagination. And you know really talking to people about tapping into their intuition, because intuition and gut for me have been as you know, I think you and I have had a coaching relationship. Intuition and gut have kind of been omnipresent with me as well in my decision process. And as a CEO now of a relatively large business. And I’m being surrounded and made sure to be surrounded by rational people can advise me. I still try to make sure that I can still tap into that little voice, that intuition to help me guide when I come to make decisions.

Sue: You also mentioned the word rational there, Nic. And I think you and I met first when you were operating in the banking sector, which is perhaps not one that would spring to mind. First of all, thinking about creativity and innovation, when you’ve worked in sectors that are more traditional in their thinking, how have you encouraged people to use their imagination, and to think about what’s possible?

Nic: Yes. And that’s why,  I often get hired is to essentially facilitate that process. And you talk about financial services this is an industry where people are essentially incentivized to managing risk and profitability and making the right investment decisions and, and certainly you are asking them to start to think outside the box and really think big ideas to drive breakthrough innovation in order for you to compete with this emerging FinTech industry that’s been obviously been competing with traditional banks. That is not easy and there are a number of things in my experience that need to be in place.

Number one there needs to be a clear mandate from the top that this is a priority and that leadership will create an environment where people, number one will have the time, but number two, will have the opportunity and the safety net that they need to be able to innovate.

 The third thing that needs to be in place and this doesn’t happen at the individual level. I mean, most of the time, those individuals, those bankers come together as part of a team or a pod through the course of a project or an engagement. And again, I think really getting that team to norm and perform is, is really critical. So, team dynamics and multidisciplinary teams is often one thing that gets discussed in the innovation literature, but having people coming together with different backgrounds and different agendas and different experiences, while it makes sense on paper in practice can be very challenging and it’s very helpful for people to sort of step out of, their day to day job and start to think on behalf of the user and on behalf of the customer. So again, all are things that need to be in place for you to really create an environment that is conducive to innovation. Because innovation, as you know, is not just about coming up with ideas. It’s also about following up on those ideas and making sure that’s they land and there is execution behind them.

 I have clients who, and actually banking clients who unfortunately are caught into this prototyping wheel where they will basically spend a lot of efforts and investment in some instances. I have a client that has 90 prototypes, nine – zero prototypes running a year, but nothing ever get to market.

And so making sure that you have the entire end to end process in place for innovation is critical. And having all of those elements in place from a leadership point of view, from a team, from an organizational behavior point of view is also critical. And I often talk about the necessity of as leaders and as practitioners to almost have this ambidexterity of being able to do your day job, but also think about tomorrow.  While the decisions that you might make today might not be aligned with the decisions that are required for tomorrow, still being comfortable in navigating those tensions. And that again, I think requires coaching. It requires supports and it requires an environment and an organisational climate that is supportive of that. And that’s one thing that obviously in my experience, at least financial organisations have struggled with.

Sue: Now, given that it may be more challenging in the financial services space to introduce innovation, now that you’re global CEO of Designit, I’m imagining therefore you’ve got much greater influence on how you introduce innovation and disrupt. How do you as a leader, go about encouraging the very thing that you want to have happen in your own organisation?

Nic: I basically role model the behaviours that I know are to be critical for an organisation to be able to innovate, starting with being myself so being authentic in my leadership, talking the truth and being transparent. Sometimes a leader can find themselves in this sort of parent child relationship, and I’ve tried to make sure that, we are talking as equals as adults and are doing the right thing to the business.

So again, role modelling, being authentic being able to have the right conversations, presenting the facts and being transparent around the choices that we are making. And as I was saying earlier, creating an environment that is conducive to thinking, fresh ideas by providing that time and capacity, but also the safety of being able to to think differently.

I think also the point I was making around the power of teams, making sure that you are doing everything you can as a leader to remove the blockers that might be in the way of collaboration. I often encourage colleagues from different countries, different studios from Stockholm to Madrid, for example, or Tel Aviv to Tokyo to come together and really collaborate to the benefit of a client or the benefit of an idea.

As a leader, what I try to do is lead from the front, lead by example, role model the behaviors that I would wanna see from everybody else. And I very much see my role as an enabler. So I often say to the team, I work for you as a matter of fact, you know, I’m the CEO, but you pay my salary. So I’m here to empower you.

I’m here to make sure that I remove the things that hold you back, that might hold your creativity back and really kind of free to be themselves and to do what they do best, which is to create. I often find that, for example, there’s sometimes nothing wrong. There’s nothing worse when you are putting a creative person into the wrong role. So certainly in my experience in the past, you know, I’ve had creative directors moving into management roles. And it was almost, the wrong choice for them in the sense that that was not necessarily the best fit. And they were also getting frustrated for not being able to create. So having the right people in the right roles and making sure that everybody has a platform to be able to create is very important. And this is what I try to do in my role today as CEO of Designit.

Sue: And I think you’re describing it very clearly for the listener there in terms of what, you have to see it, to be it. And if you’re role modeling, that’s an important thing for the employees, for those that haven’t come across, Designit before. What does the company do? And I’m wondering if you can give us some example of the types of successes that you’ve had?

Nic: Yes, absolutely. So we are an innovation and design agency and we work with some of the most well-known brands around the world and across many industries. So whether it’s in the hospitality, aviation industry, healthcare or life science industry, or financial services, we really help clients not only reinvent products, but critically reinvent experiences as well. So for example, we work with a well-known pharmaceutical company around redesigning the experience as well. For example, for some of the client for example around the ALS disease, the motor neuro disease we’ve also worked in the product space again, in the pharmaceutical sector, in developing the next generation insulin pen.

We work with financial services sector to be launching new digital features that help the mass market, individual get access to investment advice that would perhaps be more dedicated to another segment in the past. We work with the aviation industry to reinvent the passenger experience. So there’s a huge amount of creativity that goes into hopefully, really shaping a better world as well through the power of our ideas. So we’re trying to be very true to our purpose, which is to ignite shared progress. We make sure that we invest our creative time and energy in industries and sectors and projects that sort of make sense and align to our values as well. And we always have sustainability at the hub of what we do. So again, from a design point of view, making sure that our products, services, experiences have built into sustainability as well.

Sue: It’s interesting that you say that, Nick. It’s bringing into the conversation for me, purpose as well as profit and having the world as a stakeholder for some of the things that you’re doing. Is that the way that you’d be thinking?

Nic: Absolutely. I think and I often need to remind myself and remind the teams as well that, we are in this for the long run, and so this is a marathon. This is not a race, we are not going after quick fixes when it comes to profits. When it comes to revenue growth, I think it’s really about investing into the future by making the right choices when it comes to clients, work that you can be proud of because that work will then help you attract the Next generation talent that you need, as well as bring the type of clients that you want.

So it’s a fine balance. Obviously, you know, you want to be financially independent. You want to be able to control your own destiny from a financial point of view. But at the same time, it’s a balance with doing the right thing, choosing the right work building those products and services that you want to be proud of, that you can use as references for the future. I think to me this point about again, back to the ambidexterity between profitability today while thinking about your profit for tomorrow is very important. And I find that sometimes one can compromise the other.

Sue: I’m wondering if that means that you ever say no to taking on client work.

Nic: Absolutely we do actually. There are some sectors that we won’t be working with like, for example, the tobacco industry. So we actually have internally a team that holds me accountable as a CEO. And that team is made of colleagues from all levels to make sure that the decisions that I make and the rest of the leadership makes in terms of the clients that we choose to work with and the projects that we aim to win are aligned with purpose and values.

 I think. For that team to represent 900 people across all levels and cultures is very important to us because, our most important asset are our people and our brand, brand and reputation. So we wanna make sure that, our people are proud of the work that they do, and that’s reflecting the way people perceive your brand externally and your reputation.

Sue: It’s interesting that sometimes it’s as much about what you choose not to do as much as what you choose to do that can make the difference. You’ve mentioned there again about the importance of people within the organization and I’m just wondering in terms of this current theme for the series for us is around health and wellbeing, I’m wondering if there’s anything explicit that the organization does to support the health and wellbeing of its people, so they can be at their best and be creative and innovative?

Nic: yeah, that’s obviously top of mind, especially following the hard years that we’ve had were beyond the risk of being infected by a virus. There is obviously the whole anxiety and stress that comes on top of it. And so for us having flexibility in the way people choose to work is very important. Most of our work is done virtually. I mean, we do have 15 studios around the world and if people choose to do so, they can obviously meet and get together. But at the same time we absolutely are encouraging. Like our people are in North America, for example, most of them are working virtually so much so that we don’t really use those studios there. That’s number one. Again, from a wellbeing point of view giving people access to learning, I find is very important. It’s all very well to be coming in and, and doing your work, but especially with creative people, I find that providing great learning opportunities is really important.

So, and that goes into your wellbeing. I feel that I’m learning, I feel that I’m developing myself, there’s nothing worse than feeling, like being stuck. And so making sure that people have those learning opportunities is very important to us. I think the third thing is for so for our top talent, what we are also trying to do is we give them the Friday to be able to follow an interest and a passion of theirs. Because we believe that those interests and those passions will in turn benefit the rest of the organization as well. When they turn into a point of view or they turn into an asset, they turn into prototypes. So we try to give people the time to the point about innovation, time to be able to think, to be able to reflect and to be able to in turn innovate. I think that goes into this feeling like I’m adding value, I’m contributing, I’m able to follow interests and passions of mine, which in turn helps with your wellbeing and your mental health. So those are things that come to mind to me when I think about wellbeing for our employees.

Sue: Now if any of our listeners are senior leaders in organizations and they’re thinking, Oh, well Nic, that sounds fine, but I can’t afford a day’s worth of my employees time to work on something of their own interest. What would you say to skeptics listening that don’t currently think the way that you do?

Nic: First of all, it’s not like the whole organisation, right? So what we’ve done is we’ve very much created this scheme as I suppose an incentive for our top performers. So our top 20% will sort of get access to this scheme. But what I would say is that your people are your best assets and you wanna invest. When you think about all of the marketing investment you could be doing to building your brand, when you think about all of the time you might be spending haphazardly to develop a new point of view or a new asset being actually quite structured about it and saying I need this no matter what. What I’m selling is intellectual capital. So as an investment, I’m gonna reinvest the time that we need and structure it so that we can actually go to market with something that makes sense, that’s aligned with people’s interests, passions, and values, which by the way, is often reflective of what the rest of the world is thinking.

 I think to me that’s just an obvious investment. Plus I often say I’m the worst person to be putting in front of the press. I mean, I’m not that interesting. I think that those people have a point of view are the right people to be talking and to be advocating and to be influencing really the world. Also it’s an incredible incentive for our junior colleagues to have access to a platform that enable them to get their voices heard. So I think there is so much in the way of benefiting the organization in turn where people are contributing, and they are contributing by doing something that they are interested in. They have the time for it. They are getting access to a channel that’s gonna amplify their voice and point of view. And in turn, people are engaged. It’s just, It’s great.

Sue: Now you, most of what you’ve been saying so far has been very much around what you’re doing for your people in the organization. I’m wondering about you now, and given that this podcast is called Access to Inspiration, where do you get your inspiration from?

Nic: So I mentioned I think in the start that you know, I have an associative mind. So the way I learn is by being exposed to stimuli in my environment. So whether they are through observation or through reading or through communicating with others, the way I get inspired is by making connections and finding patterns and maybe seeing things that otherwise wouldn’t be obvious. Often wonder when I go to an art gallery, why is it that at the opening of a show, 90% of the audience are other artists. Until I have come to sort of realize and actually to be able to create and to get inspired, you need to expose yourself to as many stimuli as possible.

And so I try to do the same. I try to find the time to expose myself to a wide variety. I mean, at the expense of times of my entourage who will accuse me of being a bit hyperactive in that way. And I never seem to be able to rest my mind is always curious to learn and to find out and to question things. So getting access to different pieces of data. I’m actually doing a doctorate as well in parallel because I find, I started it last year and I found that having the structure of an academic program as well helps my mind to learn new things and make associations with the practical reality of my job and the concrete lives that I live. And so that’s how I get inspired by connecting things and people.

Sue: Sounds like you’re a busy man.

Nic: but you know, I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sue: And if you could come up with any idea to design something for the world, something that you think we need right now?

Nic: What would I wanna be designed for the world? I mean, I think there are many things in the world that need design input in the way of improving things. I think the whole democratic process, for example, and the way that democracy happens I think to me is a really interesting journey and process that we take for granted. And I think is very much at risk and probably would benefit from being looked at and thought through. So the way we essentially get access to information and the way we as democratic citizens get to cast our votes and how we hold those in power to account as well. I think it’s really interesting and I think that design has a great role to play in making sure that there’s more transparency, there is more accountability that people find it easy to be able to vote, that they have all of the information that they need to be able to. Make the decisions in terms of casting the democratic voice and being heard. Yeah. So I’m just sort of thinking out loud. But I would love that. So if anyone is a taker, I would love national there. Looking to rethink that, democratic process. Yeah, I think that would be so interesting that also so needed.

Sue: Mm. And finally, Nic, I guess if you were looking back at what you know now and giving your 14 year old self some advice for life, what would be that wisdom that you would offer the young Nic?

Nic: I think don’t be afraid to listen to your own voice and your gut suddenly. Being French. The French education system doesn’t really encourage you to think in those set up non-linear ways. I think it’s all about, being rational and sequential in your thinking. I think it’s okay to sense things differently and even if you can’t really articulate the why, just being able to go for it because that’s how you feel it should be is fine. Cuz there is no bad decision. I think in the end everything sort of makes sense.

Sue: Maybe there’s another opportunity for a redesign of the French education system in the future too.

Nic: Well, that was a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much, Sue.

Sue: And if people want to find out more about you and the work that you do, Nic, how might they do that?

Nic: Well, they can certainly connect with me on LinkedIn. So you know, hopefully we’ll make this available through this podcast and anyone looking to connect and exchange ideas and always very open to that. So thank you for that opportunity.

Sue: Wonderful. Well, it’s been fascinating to speak to you today. You’ve certainly stimulated my thinking in the conversation, so it’s been lovely to speak to you.

Nic: Thank you so much. It was great. Thank you, Sue

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)