Coca-Cola's David Butler

Want to Understand Scale and Agility? Open a Box of Legos

7 minute read
Bill Sobel avatar

If David Butler had followed his childhood dream, maybe those semi-annual trips to the dentist would be more of an adventure.

Butler is Coca-Cola’s vice president of innovation. Every day it’s his job to create the systems, process and relationships necessary for the company to produce as much value as possible by looking at things through an original, novel and revolutionary lens.

He's also a self-proclaimed systems geek, surfer, optimist and builder of high growth start-ups. As he explains on LinkedIn:

"I love being told that something’s too complicated, or even impossible. For example, every big, established company knows how to execute their existing business model but most struggle to innovate. They don’t have the speed or flexibility it takes to leverage new technologies/business models to capitalize new growth like a startup. But what if they could?"

As a kid, "believe it or not," Butler wanted to be a dentist. But the dental field lost this potential innovator when he took a graphic design class in high school, "which changed everything," he said. "I immediately knew I wanted to be a designer."

Man of Many Hats

Butler has accomplished his goal — and a lot more. He's been an art director, designer, creative director, adjunct professor, director, brand strategist, business consultant and founder of several startups. 

His new book, Design to Grow explains How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility (and How You Can Too). Co-authored with Linda Tischler, it contends that every company is at risk of having a “Kodak Moment” — watching its industry and the competitive advantages vanish overnight because of its inability to adapt to new business realities.

Butler contends it's all a matter of perspective. "Designers don’t see problems as problems. We see problems as opportunities to make something better … we’re hard-wired that way," he claimed.

Butler joined Coca-Cola in 2004 as the company’s first VP of Global Design. He established a cross-functional, systems-based approach to design across more than 200 countries. Before that he was director of Brand Strategy at SapientNitro.

He also co-founded Process1234, an Atlanta-based a digital agency designed to help big brands build web-based products and services in the very early days of the Internet, and consulted for Gucci, United and Caterpillar.

Butler has earned a host of titles, including “Master of Design” from Fast Company. He made Forbes “Executive Dream Team” and in 2012 was asked to co-chair the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation.

He has presented keynotes at the Design Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa, the Web Summit in Dublin, The CEO Summit in Auckland, Australia, The Economist’s “Big Rethink” in London and Design Week in Hong Kong. But recently, he shared his insights closer to home, with CMSWire.

Connecting with Bill Sobel
Sobel: From dreams of being a dentist to a designer … Can you share a bit about your non-traditional career path?

Butler: I think it all comes down to the way I understand “design.” I believe everyone is a designer — we all design things everyday.

Think about it. Someone designed this computer I’m typing on, both the hardware and the software. Someone designed this interview. Someone designed the menu and the meal I ate at a restaurant last night.

I designed the route I took to my office today. Someone’s designing a meeting they will ask me to join soon. We all design everyday, all the time.

It’s just that some of us are better at designing some things better than others. And some companies leverage design to create more value than others.

I believe everyone can be a better designer and when it comes to companies, the companies that really focus on design, win while the ones that don’t, don’t necessarily lose but really limit their growth potential.

I’ve been a graphic designer, an experience designer, a product designer, a systems designer, an art director, a creative director, brand strategist, adjunct professor, CEO, founder, vice president and now an investor.

And over the years I’ve designed new products, services, systems, processes, business plans, marketing strategies, platforms and business models. But, when asked, I usually just say I’m a designer.

Sobel: Can you share a bit about your work at Coca-Cola?

Learning Opportunities

Butler: I joined Coca-Cola in 2004 to help our company refocus on design as a growth strategy. Of course Coke had been designing from Day 1. So this was not about me somehow creating design but simply helping the company leverage design to create the most value.

Together with an awesome team, I spent the next eight years building the systems and the culture to become a design-driven company. We’ve gone on to win many design awards, get lots of press, etc.

But what really mattered was our contribution to 18 quarters of positive volume and value growth for the company. About two years ago, I was asked to focus on innovation at Coke — specifically how we could create more disruptive innovation through new business models. We’ve designed a repeatable and scalable model for co-creating seed-stage startups with a global network of founders.

We call the platform Coca-Cola Founders. Now I spend the majority of my time advising the founders, investing in our portfolio companies and spending time with our internal teams to get the most value out of the platform.

Sobel: You and your co-author Linda Tischler of Fast Company open Design to Grow with a quote from French aristocrat, writer, poet and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Why did this quote resonate?

Butler: Scale and agility are two things every company needs grow and remain relevant in the hearts and minds of their consumers. 

The ironic thing is that all new ventures — startups —struggle with scale: How to scale their products, their team, their customer base, etc. All big, established companies struggle with agility — how to be faster, more nimble, more flexible, more adaptable in a fast changing marketplace.

What may be surprising is that the way you design for scale is different than the way you design for agility. The purposes are different. They both drive growth but the way a startup must design for scale is actually quite different than the way a big multinational must design for agility.

Designing for scale is all about reducing options — simplifying, standardizing and integrating all of the aspects of its business together to reduce friction so it can scale easier. This is where the phrase “less is more” is often associated with good design.

Designing for agility is about creating options — we don’t know what we don’t know — so in this case, “less is more” doesn’t work. We need “more is more.”

We use the example of Legos to illustrate the concept of designing fixed and flexible elements across the company. You have to very purposely design elements that must not ever change (fixed) and at the same time design lots of elements that are intended to create maximum adaptability (flexible).

Legos have two fixed elements — the core set of bricks and the way each Lego brick connects to each other. These two elements haven’t changed for 50 years.

But they also design new sets of bricks all the time, from Harry Potter to Minecraft, which allows Lego to stay relevant and adapt easily.

We use this same approach at Coke across our business. The book uses many, many real Coca-Cola case studies to illustrate both approaches as well as many different examples of how to transform a company's culture into a design-driven culture.