TEDxAsburyPark Founder Brian Smiga talks with Jason Watt about how he is lighting up Design Thinking around the Globe. He will be presenting at TEDxAsburyPark 2021 as well. 

Brian Smiga: Hi, this is Brian Smiga, the host of TEDxAsburyPark. Today in our podcast, we’re lucky to have one of my favorite speakers. Jason Watt. Jason, welcome.

Jason Watt: Thank you very much, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you.

Brian Smiga: Same here. So Jason, one of the reasons that I’m so excited to get you in front of our local TEDxAsburyPark audience – and hopefully the world – through your TED Talk is the power of organizations getting together and reinventing their future in a democratic way. With participation by all the players. This is your life’s work now. You started off as a surfer in Monmouth County and now you’re doing this: “design thinking” for great companies and organizations.

Jason Watt: Yes.

Brian Smiga: I don’t know where to start. Let’s define “design thinking” as you see it first and then we’ll work backward.

Jason Watt: Sure, yep. So in terms of design thinking, the start was branding. I started with a company when I was 26 years old, under the leadership of a woman named Meg Brunette. And in doing branding, what we discovered was that people inside of companies were not operating at their full potential. And they didn’t understand the big picture of what was going on. So there was this gap between what people were connecting to emotionally for the company and the direction that the leadership, the CEOs, and the executives wanted to have happened.

So we created a company called Fishbird that was really everything that you’re talking about, which is getting the people inside of the organization to be operating from purpose and to discover what their purpose is, to drive all of their actions. Does that make sense?

Brian Smiga: It does. I think so many of us don’t have that clear compass, that clear purpose. And now I understand you do this not only for companies, if we can say their names, like J&J, and Telecomm companies, and pharmaceutical companies, but also for nonprofit organizations. You do quite a bit of pro bono and nonprofit work too, right?

Jason Watt: Yeah. Yes, we do.

Brian Smiga: Can you give an example?

Jason Watt: Yeah. We’re working with Restoration Operation, which is an organization based out of New Orleans, which works on women’s prison reform globally. We did a talk at Lincoln Center in New York where we met them, and they have a lot of formerly incarcerated women that run the operation, and we offered to go down there, pro bono, to work with them to get underneath who they are, what their vision is, tapping into their imagination and really being able to create a future that isn’t restricted or controlled by the past.

It was a very interesting process because what I found myself was…I didn’t realize the emotion I was encountering, walking into the room. There were probably 20-25 women in the room that had been incarcerated for up to 30 years. And usually, I’m in an environment where that’s not the case. There are people that go home, they have meals, they have incomes. And there were a lot of…there’s a lot of barriers that were in the way to be able to get into a purposeful, futuristic conversation. So for example, one woman didn’t know where she was going to sleep that night, and the conversation we have in Fishbird is we pose to people, “If anything were possible for you, what would you want to have happened? There’s no restriction, you could do anything.”

The real purpose around that question is to tap into your imagination. And most people are stuck in how do you do something, and they try to come from ‘how to’ to the imagination. So we really divorce ourselves from a ‘how-to’ conversation and get into complete dream fantasy, imagination mode. And this woman raised her hand, and she says, “Listen, Jason, I appreciate the question,” but started crying. She goes, “I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight. I got out of prison last week. I have 16 grandchildren. I make no money and I don’t have a bed tonight.”

And a big part of that work for them was emotionally being able to express themselves, to heal, to come up with plans, to take care of one another, to ultimately be able to arrive at a future that wasn’t this identity of “formerly incarcerated,” which is an identity that these women had. So it was some of the most impactful work that I’ve ever done.

Brian Smiga: Yeah. It underscores that we need a break from the past. We need a break from our habitual perceptions, whether it’s at work, in our family relationships, or if you’ve had the misfortune of being a prisoner. And your design thinking method…and design thinking can do that, right?

So, as an investor in technology, I think technology could solve a lot of the world’s problems. But a far more powerful lever is this organizational team design thinking that you practice. And so I’m very hopeful that it becomes more widespread. 

We’ve got to come back to your origin. You were doing this branding work. Was there a moment when you realized you were shifting from the branding work to the purposeful design thinking work?

Jason Watt: Yes. Yeah, I would say so. I think it happened organically. So I don’t know if there was a moment. I think… I believe that Meg and I really believed in people, and we had this design thinking already in mind as a brand tool. So there were moments…a lot of my stories are moments in relationship with Meg that had me realize, have aha moments personally that I’ve been able to bring to companies and to other individuals or professional athletes, even Olympians. But the work is personal. So for me, this isn’t just about delivering work to somebody else who’s telling somebody else kind of what to do and how to think. It’s something that I have to be able to try to adopt and to practice. And I think the aha moment for me was “It’s not about them, it’s about me.” And even though I’m delivering work to them, if I can get the work, they will get the work from my experience and from my being. Not just from telling them a process to walk them through themselves.

Brian Smiga: Yeah.

Jason Watt: And there’s a direct shift from branding to real design thinking where people stop saying, “Hey, I don’t need the creative” but, “I want that Fishbird stuff.” And some of the top leaders in the world in different industries were requesting the design thinking in Fishbird. And I think to me that was a bit of an aha moment. That it’s so powerful if you can impact the people. People affect culture. The truth is the greatest asset of every company is its people. So to get the most out of the company is to get the most out of the people, and the people create the culture, and the culture should shape the strategy. Most businesses shape strategy before culture. And I think they’re the companies that end up being the followers. So I think that aha moment for me allowed me to put myself in the sweet spot of owning the power of design thinking as a deliverable to organizations.

Brian Smiga: So you’re a saltwater guy like me.

Jason Watt: Yeah.

Brian Smiga: And you’re traveling around the world.

Jason Watt: Love it. Yeah.

Brian Smiga: Yeah. Working with these large companies in this transformative design thinking process, how much time do you and your kids get in the saltwater these days?

Jason Watt: Well, I’m fortunate now. I live two miles from the ocean in New Jersey. And we have a little cabana where you put your surfboards, right down on the beach. So in the summertime, on the weekends we get out there pretty much every weekend. Whether there’s waves or not, we’re in the water. In terms of traveling, I like to travel to California with the family and my son who’s eight years old. He loves to paddle out. So it’s a lot of fun to go and just rent a couple of boards and wet suits and pop in. 

Brian Smiga: Yeah.

Jason Watt: I found myself surfing a lot less because I want to be with my family, but now that they want to paddle out, it’s like…

Brian Smiga: It’s come full circle.

Jason Watt: Yes. It’s come full circle so I’m not surfing as much, but it’s more meaningful to me.

Brian Smiga: Yeah. Does living near the shore, growing up near the shore play a role here? I mean, I know that you and I get out in the ocean to get clear. Definitely for me, nine months a year, I’m in the ocean. I’m in the saltwater rivers around here. But does your upbringing here on the shore have anything to do with your design thinking work?

Jason Watt: I think it does. I love the horizon. I love sitting in the water and staring out. There’s something about infinity, and there’s something about no end that I am present to when I surf, or when I’m on the shore. And I think there’s a direct correlation to possibilities. I think we’re naturally born to evolve. And I believe that we are limitless. And I believe that anything is possible at our truest nature. And I think metaphorically surfing on the shore visually expressed that for me. And it’s not something that I could articulate.

I don’t go down to the beach and have these philosophical conversations. But it’s just, it’s an actual experience of what I think is design thinking and the Fishbird type of work that we do. It’s ultimately about tapping into our creative nature and being untethered to the past. And leaving it all behind where it belongs. Which is massive work to be able to live into a future that really empowers us now. So that’s what the shore does for me.

Brian Smiga: I feel like you’re putting words to something that unites all of us who live and play near the ocean. And we were not aware of it, and you’ve just made us aware. And it does have to do with the long view and the horizon and our approaching infinity. Because that’s where the great ideas come from. And so I’m going to leave it there because what better note to end this interview on. We’re going to keep the rest of the story tight. So, folks, let’s all come to see Jason Watt and 24 other amazing artists, jazz musicians, comics, scientists, TED speakers at the Two River Theater if you can make it. And we see it as a celebration of our shore community in ideas at the Two River Theater on Saturday, May 2nd. It starts at 9:30, goes until 7:30 PM. There’s a two-hour reception where you can mix and mingle and ask these thinkers, like Jason, questions.

They’re going to hang out with us. There’s going to be tastes from Porta and leading area restaurants. Tastes From Chef David Burke, who’s also speaking. And artisans, like Augie Carton, a past speaker, are going to be providing taste and beer samples. So, Jason, we’re really looking forward to having you speak at TEDxAsburyPark on Saturday, May 2nd. Thank you for being with us today.

Jason Watt: Yeah, thank you. I want to thank you for inviting me and my world into TED, and I want to thank you for all your work and what you believe, what you see, and putting a voice out there for the community to listen to. I think it makes a real difference. I want to thank you for who you are, so thank you.

Brian Smiga: Well, there’s 60 of us, to be clear, that make TEDxAsburyPark. And nothing gives us greater joy than bringing voices like yours to the TED stage. And it’s especially discovering local ones who are living right here in our local towns like you are. So it’s a win-win, and we’re really looking forward to it.



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