Rob Kellas – Programme Manager at the d-school

Rob Kellas, Programme Manager at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at UCT talks about learning processes, Design Thinking and creative intelligence 

Shuhari is a term used in the Japanese martial art discipline Aikido to describe the learning processes to attain mastery: ‘Shu’ – to repeat the forms; ‘Ha’ – to break with tradition; ‘Ri’ – to transcend tradition.

‘For example, whether it’s Aikido, calligraphy, flower arrangement or tea ceremony you spend the first four or five years understanding the different styles and repeating those different styles,’ explains Rob Kellas, programme manager at the d-school.

‘And only once you have this – once you have your first black belt for instance – only then is the requirement to ask how you can bring your own expression into that craft or art.’

Rob was introduced to the philosophy of ‘shuhari’ during his decade-long immersion in Japanese culture as a teacher on the island between 2004 and 2014.

‘I studied Japanese calligraphy and Aikido while I was there, and I was fascinated by the realisation that, although I was studying martial arts and arts subjects, the underlying philosophy was the same: a dedication to practice and having a deep experience in your craft before starting to think about how you can manipulate and change the dynamics of it.’

Now, four years later and 14 000 km away on the tip of the African continent, Rob’s experience in the learning process of shuhari is finding a home in his role as programme manager at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town, more commonly known as the d-school.

One of only three such institutes in the world – the first one was launched at Stanford University in 2004 and the second in 2008 in Potsdam, just outside of Berlin – the Cape Town chapter opened in 2016, with the purpose of facilitating, training, and capacitating students and organisations in design thinking.

‘It’s where creative intelligence is unlocked, and where future-ready leadership is developed,’ says Rob, and his role here is to put together and run design-thinking short courses along these lines.


Typically working with organisations in the early discovery phase of their projects, Rob says d-school uses Design Thinking to outline the dynamics of the problem, starting with the very basics of what is known: who the users are and how they feel about these challenges.

‘What sets Design Thinking apart is the emphasis on empathy and the user. This methodology is particularly strong in the early phase of a project where you’re trying to understand what the real problem is. The first question the team needs to answer is: ‘Are we solving for the right problem?’”

Using a set of tools and methods, Design Thinking then facilitates the process of problem-solving along these lines. ‘The first two or three phases of the process are about understanding the challenge, getting good consensus on how we understand the dynamics of the challenge, and what the semantic analysis of that challenge is.

‘The next phase is then to go out and speak to users and explore how they experience the challenge and here you’re looking at things like creating deep empathy with the people who experience that challenge and with their context.’


For example, one project involved working with the Waterfront team to unpack how they may be able to eliminate plastic bags from the complex.

‘It’s not an easy challenge, because it’s not just about finding alternatives – there are many different factors to consider. There are the vendors and businesses that exist in that environment and how they will react to the decision, and then there’s the consumer’s perspective and how they may interact in that environment when they’re used to a particular service.’

Using the combined information gathered during this problem discovery phase, the team then frames a point of view that acts as the foundation for the rest of the problem-solving process.

‘It’s very different from most problem-solving approaches, where not enough time is given to understanding the environment, context or dynamics of the challenge before jumping into the solution.’

Another big shift, says Rob, is in how the solutions process is approached. In traditional organisations, the project team feels a lot of responsibility to come up with the solution, to be “the experts”.

‘But we shift the focus here slightly. While we acknowledge that we might be the best at collecting information, we know that it’s about understanding the user’s perspective on this challenge because, ultimately, we’re designing a solution for them.’

All of which is quite different to traditional project management’s ‘this is the solution, come hell or high water’ stance. ‘Which isn’t reflective and doesn’t consider what the user wants. Design Thinking brings the user into the conversation.’

Once you have that point of view and you’ve identified that you’re working on the right problem, says Rob, then things like Agile and Lean Start-up can be employed to work through the ideation, prototyping, and testing phases, since these methodologies are about scaling a solution. ‘And again, this is about being more flexible and iterative than your traditional project management styles.’

Instead of trying to scope out an entire project at the beginning, leaving it open to project creep and ever-bloating budgets, the emphasis is on smaller, faster iterations. ‘This helps us understand the dynamics of those problems and how to solve it as we go along, exploring and iterating until we come up with a solution – or until we’ve identified that this is or isn’t a problem worth solving.’


Rob’s background as a teacher, and his experience in trying to understand his students’ needs and promote their development, undoubtedly plays a huge role in his ability to do so now in the corporate sector.

But there is far more to this English teacher turned design thinker than a few years in Japan.

Initially an MA English Literature graduate with awards and a scholarship under his belt, Rob’s keen interest in psychology saw him fill his free hours in Japan – in between teaching, Aikido and calligraphy – with part-time courses in Industrial Psychology through Unisa.

An expansion on his earlier studies in psychology, and influenced by the dynamics of interaction he was exposed to on the island, Rob looked to this avenue to explore drivers in an organisation.

‘I was also doing a lot of reading and was drawn to Dan Ariely and his work in behavioural economics, especially as he lays it out in his book, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions”. It got me thinking about how people behave in their environment and how that might motivate their decisions and biases.’

His interest in the business environment flourished and when he returned to South Africa in 2014, Rob signed up for an MBA at the Graduate School of Business at UCT with a focus on lean thinking. In 2015, he spent four months at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto as part of an exchange problem, immersed in a hub of powerful, global thinkers.


With this wide base of learning spanning multiple disciplines, Rob’s perspective on any given problem offers valuable insights.

‘English lit, philosophy, psychology, business … these all question in their own way; they are different ways of making meaning. You can interrogate life from these different frameworks but you must understand that the story you will create is only one perspective.

‘And no perspective is better than the next – it’s just different. I think it’s powerful to acknowledge your experiences and how they’ve shaped how your work and how you create, but then you must ask someone else about their experiences and how those have shaped them.’

This capacity to understand and incorporate manifold perspectives in any given context gives Rob the edge when it comes to problem-solving for corporations.

‘Organisations want a fresh perspective – so as a facilitator with a fresh perspective, I can come in with the stupid questions and that’s okay because I’m not expected to be an expert in my client’s field. Let’s say it’s banking. Well, I’m not a subject matter expert in banking, but I can communicate and translate this concept of design thinking to you and then facilitate how you might use that in your own context.’

His sentiments echo the slow move organisations are now making to incorporate outside perspectives by working collaboratively with people who have experience in different disciplines, adding value to the business’ problem-solving processes and energising organisational culture.

Rob believes that this move is still too slow in South Africa. ‘The culture within organisations doesn’t generally encourage collaboration and doesn’t encourage diversity of thought and experiences when making decisions.

‘This trickles down to what inputs they consider when dealing with their customer. They still feel the pressure to know the answer and then present that answer to their customers, instead of engaging with them about what they actually need and want.’

Collaboration and diverse perspectives are concepts that come up when speaking to Rob, and they’re the motivators behind his involvement as a Founding Friend of Creative Leadership Collective (CLC).


‘My interest in CLC is two-fold. Firstly, as an academic partner the d-school can bring in the academic side of design thinking – and how that might be practiced – to an even wider audience.

‘Secondly, it’s important for us to link into the corporate context, to be part of the community of practice, where we are exposed to the realities of the corporate world.’

These realities are an important part of the mix: Experience has taught Rob that the way something is taught to the way it is practiced can be quite different. ‘We don’t want to just be a theoretical institute. We want to have a relationship with organisations and open a dialogue that incorporates the realities and constraints they face in their context.’

The CLC provides a collaborative network for Rob and the d-school to plug into, one that will provide insight from that all-important elastic core of different perspectives.

‘People can be so lulled into the sense of “I know this and I’ve got this”. I’m always surprised when I think I have this model of “how things work” and then someone else presents a different model. Then there’s this “a-ha” moment, and that’s valuable stuff.’


Utilising this sort of collective and exploring different models of collaboration is one way Rob believes that innovation can be supported and encouraged in South Africa.

‘Remember, innovation in and of itself isn’t a new discipline. On some level, people have always come across, deliberately or by accident, new ways of doing things. But now there’s globalisation, there’s more and tougher market competition, and there’s a lot of pressure to get to market quickly.’


To futureproof themselves, South African companies need to do new things and explore new opportunities. ‘And yet they’re price sensitive, they don’t have time, they don’t have resources to spare, and their risk appetite is conservative so they don’t spend a lot of time engaging with their users and exploring – all of which keeps them stuck.’

Rob believes that much of the problem is cultural. ‘I don’t know that our society is comfortable taking responsibility or making decisions. We’re definitely not comfortable with failing. In schools, we’re taught there’s a right answer and you may be ridiculed if you get the wrong answer. None of this allows for iteration.’

To illustrate the sort of mind-set innovation specialists come up against, Rob recounts an anecdote about shopping in Japan: ‘If you go to a store and ask a sales assistant a question, they take that question on and try to solve that problem for you.

‘But in South Africa, there’s this habit of deferring decision. If I go into a store here and ask for something, I’ll be referred to someone else, who will refer me to someone else, and so on.’

Getting people comfortable with a new way of thinking is about giving them opportunities to iterate and providing critical feedback in a way that is actionable and builds on what they’ve done, says Rob.

‘Innovation for me, in my context, is about helping organisations to think about how they design their work teams differently, or engage with their users differently, or think differently about their products and the opportunities for those products.’

The learning journey that Rob takes clients through is the same learning he’s inspired by. It forms part of his lifetime love affair with unpacking the human condition and bringing about the positive change that can be brought about from it.

‘I’m so curious about this. We’re given so little time and there’s so much out there. I still have a lot to learn in the space of Design Thinking and innovation.’

And given where business is going, the time has never been more ripe for this.

Connect with Rob on LinkedIn.

Keen to join CLC Africa? If you’re an executive or senior manager charged with building innovation capability within your leading and/or ambitious organisation in Africa, we hope to welcome you as a member. Email Paul Steenkamp, who will guide you through our application process.