When it comes to our inspirational sources, we point to the wrong thing

A few years ago, a software company called InVision created Design Disruptors, a feature-length documentary series profiling the world’s best in software design. It was a jaw-droppingly large, complex, and gorgeous project.

Today, leaders everywhere continue to cite the film as something they might consider doing.

The problem isn’t drawing inspiration from others. The problem is where most leaders point when they point to inspirational sources: the output.

The output, the resulting work, isn’t the reason the thing initially succeeded. The insight, the underlying truth about the humans on the receiving end, definitely was.

In the case of InVision, they’d been creating video case studies for years. We all know the type: A customer sits down and looks just off-camera to the interviewer. The interviewer from the brand asks a set of expected, boring questions, which yields expected, boring answers:

What was the problem you wanted to solve? What changed when you found our product? How did you use it? Why is it a success? Why would you recommend it to others?

But all those years ago, InVision’s team decided to ask a simple but refreshingly different question, and that’s when everything changed:

How did that make you feel?

“How did it make me FEEL?” they’d hear from design leaders. “Like I finally mattered to this company. Like I finally have a seat at the table. Like I’m no longer a last-minute, last-mile ticket system for the product team.”

They realized: Product designers didn’t need more tools or a set of how-tos. They need a sense of community, a sense of belonging. The profession was so nascent that they needed a sense of identity.

So, yes, an hour-long film portraying design leaders from Airbnb, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Dropbox, and more all feels like a rather logical approach to marketing IF your insight is that your audience needs a sense of identity.

And, sure, releasing the film exclusively offline, as InVision did, seems strategic IF you understand that those you serve need to come to together to build the community.

But pointing to the output, the film itself, as the reason you should do it at YOUR company? Now that’s just a stunt. That’s justifying action with a superficial layer of understanding, not the first principle.

Any successful person, team, project, or organization began their process by putting their fingers on the first principle insight of the world around them, then building up something original from there. It was sound in its thinking and execution, because it started in the best possible place. But others who see the resulting, whether they aim to copy in lazy fashion or they draw inspiration with good intent, usually can’t see the insight. It could be due to the lack of access to their actual thinking, or maybe we blame to the passage time. Regardless, when we’re pointing our fingers towards an inspirational source, we’re usually pointing at the wrong thing.

In the end, we look for “what works.” It’s far more powerful (and practical) to start with “why did it work?” That’s first principle thinking at its finest.


I explore the story of InVision and the concept of first-principle thinking in more depth in my book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. Available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and author-narrated audiobook forms.

Posted on August 22, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.