Portland-based XPLANE, a management consultancy that specializes in visualization and design thinking, announced recently it is opening an office in Qatar to serve the Middle East.
Currently, XPLANE's main offices are in Portland and Amsterdam. XPLANE ME, as it is known, will be supervised from Amsterdam at first but according to CEO Aric (pronounced Eric) Woods, the goal is to find change management work within the Gulf and North Africa as those regions expand their economies.
"Our aspiration is to work across the region, but the middle east is not one market, so we're taking a market by market approach." There's work in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but he's very aware that they are two different places, and they have an embargo on. For now, they will focus on Qatar, because they have already worked with ADabisc, an advertising, communications, and entertainment agency based in Qatar. (The office is an XPLANE-ADabisc joint venture.)
They have already worked together with clients there in business and government. "We'll being bring them new capability. Ad agencies are good at telling stories to customers. We're exceptional at telling clients' stories to employees."
Woods says they have delegated leadership of Middle East expansion to Dave King, who has been with the firm 10 years and runs the Amsterdam office.
It got so 20 percent of their business was in Europe so they opened an office there. Last year, 15 percent of their European business was coming out of the Middle East, now it's 40 percent.
"We don't tend to expand preemptively," he says, explaining the work is there to be had from corporations dealing in finance, transportation, and energy, as well as in government.
According to the World Bank the Qatar economy is growing at 1.5 percent, which will be 3 percent in 2019.
"In Qatar there's an immense amount of change with diversifying the economy beyond energy. It's great for us because where there's change there's opportunity. With the (FIFA soccer) World Cup in 2022 being held in Doha, they're overwhelmed with momentum for change." He was there in May and saw new rail systems and housing being built, infrastructure that is meant to last beyond the soccer tournament. There are stadia where chilled air is blown at the players on the field, and he talked of an outdoor shopping market where there will be grates in the sidewalk blowing cold air that can reduce a 130-degree day to 77 degrees.
They're already working with Trimoo, which builds digital edutainment and theme parks and is opening the first Angry Birds World in the world, in Doha, and three other parks elsewhere.
"We worked with them to help them build and explain their vision for their products," he says.
He says the idea that the companies need westernization in the middle east is presumptuous.
"From what I saw, a lot of those companies are already at or ahead of where our companies are."
"On one side there are ambitious visions for growth, but they need to get thousands of people coordinated, and that drives opportunity for us." He says most of the multinationals they work with are already diverse and operate a level playing field.
"A digital transformation project looks the same in the middle east as in India or norther Europe, there might be 100 nationalities represented in a corporation. The teams are largely international."
XPLANE calls itself "a design consultancy focused on aligning and engaging large organizations to accelerate results."
It has been around 25 years, founded by Dave Gray who is still a principal owner along with Wood. Today Gray lives in St Louis, working on The School of the Possible. "He's a key thought leader, he's written books, done workshops and key notes promoting visual thinking," says Wood.
Back then visualization was a new way to get corporations to think. Infographics and graphic recording have grown in the last decade, led by the work of Palo Alto design and consulting firm IDEO. Now it's common to see events being graphically recorded, usually by a pair of artists drawing cartoons with markers on pads or whiteboards.
"Graphic recording is an ingredient in our soup but not the value proposition," says Woods. "It's an element of visual thinking, how to translate ideas into images so people can engage the images so we're all talking about the same thing."
XPLANE might go into a company or nonprofit and deal a deck of cards with notes like LACK OF FOCUS and INTERNAL CONFUSION and ENDLESS DISCUSSION, which employees sort into piles, solitaire — like, until they have defined the company culture.
For UPS they developed a board game which 150 top executives played at a retreat. The idea was to lay out the parcel company's strategy, and to get the higher ups to empathize with each other by playing each other's roles. At other client companies, lower level employees might be given a mobile app on which to learn similar news about corporate strategy.
Woods says they are for not being a hit and run outfit.
"We're about developing a strategy and putting it into action. It's not about making a PowerPoint and throwing it over the wall. We show you how you implement it. A lot of times the new strategy doesn't get implemented, maybe not everyone bought in or not everyone understands it, or you need to motivate people to change."
Design near death
Being part management consultancy, part design studio Wood says they bring design thinking to the process by which they spur change in companies.
"We take a human centered design approach to understanding who the people are who need to do something different on a Monday morning, and why they should do it. We develop communication tools, games, apps and workshop experiences to get all the people rowing in the same direction."
They work in a workshop style and hold discovery sessions, putting 15 people in a room and "getting the stuff out of their head and on to the table."
When they design a game, they prototype it, test it on five people, then improve it, deploy it to a larger group, and go back an improve it again.
"That's a very design-based methodology.
My goal is we're constantly refreshing. We aspire to be embedded with clients," Wood says. It's partly because change is swift: a new strategy that takes three months to devise could be
obsolete on day one. Technology changes too,
upending processes. And it's just good business to be selling a service that constantly needs tweaking.
XPLANE had what Wood calls a corporate near-death experience. They sold out to the Dachis Group, run by former Razorfish boss Jeff Dachis, and soon regretted the loss of control. The brand effectively vanished. At a quarter the size as it was when they sold it two years previously, Wood and Gray bought it back: the brand, the intellectual property, the payroll of 30 staff, and the lease on a large office on the bus mall. (They have since moved to more modest digs next to Pioneer Courthouse Square. XPLANE is the modern workplace, with no set hours and people encouraged to work remotely, which Wood says explains the empty desks. That didn't stop one of his colleagues making her own standup desk. A kit version has subsequently become a KickStarter.
"I learned don't give up control. If you have vision you have to personify that vision because others aren't going to do it. Control your own destiny. On our map we have a picture of Xplaners polishing the brand. No one of us own it. We want to steward and invest in it so it's around for a long time. We're thinking about the long term but being correct about today."
Working for foreign governments and big energy has brought about the means and the desire to work for nonprofits, often pro bono or at a discount. Wood cites their work for OMIS (his wife is COO there), helping them with their successive five-year plans and 20-year vision, which incorporates development of land around the museum in the city's Innovation Quadrant.
Wood says they are not looking to flip the company again. He sees it as a longterm play, especially in looking to work with more nonprofits.
"Maybe we're giving away some profit but we're able to tell the stories, such as OMSI's. Now I can go to the World Bank, so we can continue to win more business in those areas."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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