Category Archives: culture

Are you a designer, or just a facilitator?

A few weeks back I was standing in a room facilitating a large ideation workshop. Mid-session I found myself thinking, I am not sure if I enjoy this. Walking out of that workshop, I told myself that I entered into the design field to become a designer, not a facilitator. I felt that as a workshop facilitator, I could have been replaced with any other person, toolkit in hand. Sure, there are nuances experienced design facilitators bring (like knowing when to probe thinking and move a team in different directions) but a decent set of card-prompts could suffice. A good toolkit in and of itself could very well guide a novice team through the process, particularly since many design thinking workshops are aimed at beginners and most beginners cant tell the difference between good and bad design thinking.

Design thinking is sold as a better way to work, to innovate. It has morphed into a practice that encourages so much collaboration that it has left lead designers playing an integrative (and intrinsically extroverted) role. I am no extrovert. I began as a ‘traditional’ designer, embedded in my own world (or that of a very small team), often left to our own devices to problem-solve through design. Commercial design thinking practice takes aim against this ‘lone wolf’ from design yonder, and shoots it squarely between the eyes. Commercial design thinking is theatrical and its workshops are an opportunity for presenters to perform to a large group of individuals.

The problem I have is that I don’t think I agree with big collaborative design. I am not sure I agree that you should integrate everyone and anyone into the design process, at every step of the way, in big workshops. Yes, I make the exception with end-users, as this is the heart of the design process. However, I’m pointing at those projects that carry the client and/or big, broad networks of stakeholders across every stage of the design process. I understand that large workshops with key stakeholders are conducted in the essence of time and schedules, but this is not how design naturally flows.

a ripe environment for collecting ideas

Crowdsourced design has become commonplace; gather a bunch of multidisciplinary individuals in a room and make sure everyone contributes to the creation of ideas. Make sure the same individuals also participate in prototyping, in research, in testing. Most often than not, these individuals- whilst bringing in diverse viewpoints- find design unnatural and uncomfortable. Design thinkers often find themselves facilitating these teams to do the design work, with little breath in-between to engage in the design process. Workshops started as a way to help clients and teams understand the process of design. Somehow, they have made their way into design practice. This more than often slows the design process down and requires more time up-skilling which detracts from actual designing and thinking.

Of course, if the project intent is to build design capability amongst an organisation or team, then this makes sense to do so. But capability based projects and design projects have conflated. This problem exists not only for external design consultancies, but for in-house design teams. This issue naturally raises the topic of establishing a design culture; if everyone across an organisation is familiar with the process and approach, then each project can operate in a less rigid and more organic manner. It is this intuitive flow that is lost when you need to design and facilitate capability uplift through collaboration with a large set of stakeholders, leaving no one really feeling their way through the design process.

It is this situation that I question if we are really doing design, or just superficially skimming the cliche. It is in this situation that I ask myself if I am actually designing, or if I am reduced to merely that of a passive facilitator- at best- an active integrator. It is in this situation that I ask myself if you really need an experienced designer, or simply someone who can run a workshop. It is in this situation that I ask how an ‘experienced design thinker’ perceivably differs to a novice, when faced with a room full of stakeholders fresh to design practice.

It is, however, in this situation that I know a small, engaged design team working intensely and consistently performs far better and with greater understanding than large, sequenced and structured workshops.

Culture eats innovation for breakfast

There are often times when I come to a sudden halt and find myself feeling stuck or unable to produce or execute work that I otherwise may feel confident and comfortable to complete. This happens to everyone at some point in their career, and more so in creative ones [see imposter syndrome]. I found myself asking what exactly was the difference between projects and moments in my life where I excelled, versus others where I perceivably fell short- particularly in design and other creative endeavours.

I concluded that in situations where I did not perform to my best there always existed the following:

  • a perception I had of myself
  • a perception I assumed others had of me
  • direct and imposing authority / a reduction of autonomy
  • ambiguity over direction
  • inability to control or effect change

This is not at all surprising. To offer an extreme example, the Stanford prison experiment largely encapsulates the above characteristics. This experiment portrays how placing sensible people in a particular environment (embodying the above) can influence destructive interactions and inspire a culture which results in negative behaviours.

Most (if not all, it seems) companies and leading C-suite executives proclaim that they want to foster innovation and design. Strategists barge into meeting rooms like stormtroopers armed with powerpoint proposals, ready to fire graphs and vision statements that will lead in the mission to become ‘creative’ and ‘disruptive’. As sound as a strategy may be, influencing innovation is rarely effective when as a top-down piece of company prose- as the old argument goes.

In many strategic initiatives a comprehensive consideration of culture is commonly absent. Capability is considered, but often confused as culture. At best, initiatives titled ‘change management’ are sprinkled into consideration. To enable new ideas, a clear culture-building approach is imperative to success, one that implies an us rather than impose a versus them. The very title change management is almost antithesis to this way of thinking.

[Back to my above experiences]

I realised that my actions were heavily impacted by the environment I was in and this was affecting my mindset. Behaviour changes mindset, and the right environment influences the right behaviours. When we talk about generating a design thinking culture and/or fostering an innovative organisation, we cannot curate this type of behaviour without first observing the environment and culture that pervades.

Innovation is fundamentally risky and creative. A hierarchical organisation with a lack of transparency, direction and autonomy provided to its employees will not allow for creativity, risk, and thus innovation, to manifest. All of the design and creative toolkits in the world wont save your ‘disruptive’ business strategy.

Rather, compliment strategic direction by implementing advocates who represent and support the right behaviour, attitude and mindsets you wish to emerge. Don’t give them wanky names like ‘change agents’ or ‘experiential strategists’- this again just reinforces the power dynamic and distinction between the corporate strategy and its employees. Instead, place these advocates into each team, to the frontline, and ensure that at each level there is a person who has been approved with creative autonomy and clarity to effect autonomy, creativity and culture-change through clear mentorship and support. Call them a friend, perhaps.