In conversation with… Dr. Nick Coates

We managed to grab Nick recently, in between his various trips running workshops around the world. We’ve known Nick for ages (since our FreshMinds (now Decidedly) days and he’s always been an inspiration. If you’ve not met him yet, he describes himself as someone who helps companies work with their customers to invent better products and services. A bit modest if you ask us.

What was your first-ever job?

Ironically, as they say, it was a door-to-door survey in Waterloo…something to do with the Jubilee Line extension. Long days, in the cold and the rain, including one interview in a council flat where I sat down to begin the interview and suddenly noticed a collection of around 10 axes on the floor, and the burly bloke I was supposed to be interviewing standing between me and the door. After I got out alive, I remember thinking ‘thank God I won’t have to work in market research once this is finished!’

Who would you most love to share a coffee with / go for a drink with?

Joni Mitchell. A strong woman in a man’s world. An extraordinary poetess of sound. And I really want to know how she tunes her guitar.

Highlight of your career (so far?)

Being asked to present some behavioural economics work to the Behavioural Insights Team at No 10 Downing St. That or being paid to spend a week on a cruise in the Med doing ethnography.

Nature or nurture?

Nurture. Or we end up abdicating responsibility. On the other hand, I’ve never been able to shake my hatred of Brussel sprouts, despite my Mum’s best efforts, so there are clearly some things no amount of nurture can change. It’s a daily challenge with my kids to navigate this stuff. Which is when I remind myself of something I saw scrawled on a toilet door once:

To be is to do – Aristotle

To do is to be – Sartre

Do be do be doo – Sinatra

Best advice you ever heard or received?

“Just act as if”. I suffer from severe imposter syndrome, so it’s a liberating thought.

What talent do you yearn for?

Beautiful handwriting. Mine is like the mad trail of a spider that fell in the inkpot.

What is your favourite brand and why?

Blue Note Records – the most iconic, dreamy blend of attitude, design and content. Dangerous though – I’ve bought quite a few albums just because the covers looked so damn cool. Labels don’t quite shape culture in the way they used to. It’s a pity.

What book do you most recommend to others?

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker. A novel about a lunchtime in a boring job, full of fascination for life’s little details. A real curio.

What last impressed you at work?

Some work we were lucky enough to do with a train design company where we ran usability trials for new rolling stock using both physical prototypes and VR headsets. Unfortunately, the VR glove that allows you to use your hand to interact with virtual objects didn’t show up on time, but it’s great to see concrete applications of this kind of tech being so useful.

Which lesson has been the hardest to learn? What failure did you learn the most from?

That leadership means getting out of the way. The more you control the less you control.

In terms of failures, not getting into Cambridge (twice) was tough initially, when my whole family seemed to expect it, but I soon realised that escaping the hothouse was a blessing in disguise. It gave me more, not less, confidence to become myself.

What do you want to do when you retire

Learn to play the piano properly. I read that music is the best form of brain training – and if it’s also physically and emotionally stimulating, what’s not to love. And I like the idea of a grand piano in a villa somewhere on the Atlantic coast of France. Or an island somewhere…

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