2 Design Practices that Will Help you Stop Being a Worker Drone and Make an Impact in Your Work.

Are you a knowledge worker struggling to understand how your work is anything but varying degrees of coordinating?

You might find yourself leading a project, planning timelines, staging deliverables and milestones and working with a team.

You might spend half your day sending a flurry of emails back and forth, and the other half researching and editing briefs and data summaries.

You might create a branch to some code in GitHub and open a pull request to get input from your distributed team.

And so on.

What unifies the diverse types of knowledge workers out there is this mildly reflective practice of coordinating (“what needs to come next? how do I move this off my desk? what needs to be communicated and who do I need to communicate with?” and so on). Whether you work together with teams of people, deliverables, information and data, etc., you are doing a lot of coordinating.

But is there a way to deepen our practice of the shallow work of coordinating?

How can we take coordinating to a whole new level?

Aside from trying to diminish the amount of shallow work you do, to carve out more chunks of deep work time, I think that answering a couple of questions in your day-to-day work will help you deepen your coordinating practice:

  1. how might I better design processes, products and services to meet the needs and desires of all involved? How might I make the problem solving tent bigger than just me at my desk?
  2. how might I engage systems of people and things strategically? How might I become a better strategist in my efforts to get sh*t done?

The Power of Co-Design: How Bringing More People into your Problem Solving Tent can Enliven your Work

The impetus of co-design is to bring everyone together, to actively involve the end user in the solution design process so as to make sure that whatever product or service is created meets their needs and is usable. Co-design is also a big part of design thinking methods: working with the end user or customer to prototype and ultimately build a product or service that responds to their explicit and implicit needs. To get to this outcome, you need to involve the end user or consumer in a cooperative or collaborative design process, i.e. co-design.

I love process facilitation approaches that use design thinking tools to design products, services and solutions in collaboration and partnership with broader groups of user, customers, stakeholders, etc. It just makes sense. If you’ve been lucky enough to participate in a co-design session, you know how awesomely powerful this approach can be. So, we need to continue to learn how to co-design, share experiences best practices and iterate and refine the toolkits.

But there is still something more to master…

Co-design is great because its starting assumption is that everyone can meaningfully participate in the design process. Everyone can be a designer. If co-design is found in formalized processes where a team of stakeholders works together on an issue, “trying to create a common language and shared visions and strategies”, then in Ezio Manzini’s words, co-design is all about “sense-making” (Ezio Manzini, Design, When Everybody Designs, 48).

By simply coordinating around problems, we tend to keep our problem solving work under a small tent of our immediate team, our boss, and the most interested stakeholders or consumers. Some call this the silo. Perhaps it is more efficient, perhaps it is more expedient.

By making sense of a problem with more people, through a co-design process, we make the problem solving tent bigger. And while there will still be much coordinating work to be done, it will have fallen off of the well-worn track of “how we do things around here.” This is where things get interesting.

A rich plethora of ideas are generated. A palpable excitement fills the room. And the work that follows from a co-design session is energized by the commitment to represent the sense that was created in that moment. The more sense that has been made about a problem and the potential solutions, the more the process of working on the problems and solutions has broken out of previous moulds. But what about the solutions that come from this process?

If co-design is about sense-making, then strategic design is about the political art of making things happen: the messy terrain where teams of people and tools try to implement something, keep it going for awhile, and adapt and adjust course when needed.

Although reforms are usually designed by a few people, invariably they are implemented by many. It is through the implementation, and not the design, that the issues, contradictions, and dilemmas rise to the surface and become grounded in the reality of administration and politics. And it is often the implementers, not the designers, who are called upon to reconcile them. (Good, 186)

I agree with this quote from David Good’s The Politics of Public Management and the folks over at In/ With/ Forward: implementation is often overlooked by the design thinking hype, but it is the essential next step to any good co-design process.

Sure, everyone is a designer, but not everyone can lead the design process from start to finish and beyond. This requires moving beyond brainstorming, prototyping and iterating, towards the politically fraught terrain of implementation… of making something happen.

How to Become an Agent of Change through Strategic Design

Manzini’s book is both inspired by the degree to which “everybody is a designer” and troubled by where the design thinking/co-design mania leaves the role of who he would describe as the “design expert”, and who I would more generally describe as the politically astute leader, or the politic leader. Manzini argues that to counter the tendency to reduce the design expert’s role in co-design processes to the “narrow, administrative activity” of the “process facilitator”…

“…design experts should be at the same time critical, creative, and dialogic. That is, they should feed the conversation with visions and ideas (using their personal skills and specific culture), listen to the feedback from other interlocutors (as well as, more in general, listening to the feedback from the whole environment in which they operate), and then, in view of the feedback, they should introduce new, more mature proposals into the conversation.”

Then under the heading “Making Things Happen”, Manzini goes on (and I will quote him at length, because he nails it):

“To avoid both the post-it and big-ego design risks, design experts should cultivate their specific creativity and culture and their dialogic capability at the same time.
We must stress that dialogic capability… is not the application of a method but a very special skill: a kind of craft to be learned through practical exercises and experiences. The result is that they, the design experts, should consider their creativity and culture as tools to support the capability of other actors to design in a dialogic way. In other words, they should agree to be part of a broad design process that they can trigger, support, but not control.
Once they accept this view of themselves, assume this blend of creativity, design knowledge, and dialogic capability as their specific cultural and operational profile, design experts are in a position to become effective agents of change. They spark off new initiatives, feed social conversations, and help the process of convergence toward commonly recognized visions and outcomes. In short, they make things happen.
In my view, “to make things happen, to listen to the feedback and reorient the action,” is the most concise (and precise) way of describing the design expert’s role in the co-designing processes that we normally refer to when talking about design for social innovation.” (67–68)

To Manzini, the design expert has background in design disciplines: architecture, industrial design, graphic design, etc. Manzini also wants to ensure that we broadly understand “design expert” to include folks with backgrounds in service design and strategic design. Service design “to conceive and develop solution ideas that take into account the quality of the interactions involved” and strategic design “to promote and support partnerships between the different actors involved” (59).

This is all great (particularly the part about service and strategic design) but I want to push Manzini’s analysis outside of design backgrounds proper, and as I said above, broaden the design expert term to simply mean the politic leader.

Let me explain.

Encountering the notion of strategic design in Manzini’s book opened up a whole new way of understanding what I had been working to develop in my own work over the past decade. Before coming across the term “strategic design”, the best way that I could describe the notion was by pointing to leaders who had a strong ability to bring everyone along, without using power and manipulation to do so.

These leaders tended to be a rare breed–what I would oxymoronically call “honest politicians” of their field of work. Sometimes they were big names, who I had only encountered in biographies and historical studies. Other times they were lesser-known folks who I was fortunate enough to work alongside in various settings.

In all cases, they were leaders who seemed to be committed to cultivating democratic exchanges within their teams, stakeholders, partnerships and so on. They were also great strategists, and I would usually walk away from a meeting feeling like I had learned a whole new conceptual vocabulary around positioning, timing, selling, signalling, and so on.

They designed interactions, staged and staggered engagements according to tactical and strategic considerations. They knew when to speed up and slow down, and when the conditions were ripe for decisive action. Most importantly, these folks were practiced agents of change, with a history of failures and successes under their belt. They knew how to effectively bring about change, using their creativity, critical capacity (i.e. design knowledge), and dialogic capability to design the interactions among team members and partners, respond to feedback, and reorient the conversation and action towards making something happen.

Manzini would call this activity “designing coalitions”:

“Every design initiative is the result of coordinated action by a group of social actors who have come to an agreement about what to do and how to do it. These design coalitions… do not emerge by chance; they are themselves the result of design: an activity proper to the discipline of strategic design that seeks to identify a group of partners and build with them a set of shared values and converging interests.” (69)

And a bit further on:

“…designing the coalition required to actualize the initiative and set out its program is the most delicate, if not the most important, aspect of what design for social innovation does or should do. The designing coalition must certainly include subjects who can bring all the necessary skills to bear, including those of the users/co-producers (who together constitute the design team in a strict sense). However, it must also involve the political figures required to give the ideas that may emerge some hope of success (in that they will promote them in the arenas to which they have access).
Building this coalition is then, to all intents and purposes, a strategic design activity in which visionary capacity must combine with dialogic ability. In fact, the coalition must be formed around a vision or a program (of what to do and how to do it). At the same time, this vision and program can only take shape in the conversation among actors. Managing the delicate balance between the need to put forward ideas and that of gathering ideas from the others is the first and most fundamental capacity that design experts must show they possess.” (70)

In sum, here are some key takeaways to help you enliven your work and practice strategic design:

  • make your problem solving tent bigger: practice participatory design, prototyping and iterating… beyond your silo;
  • don’t just make partnerships, design coalitions: identify a group of partners and build a set of shared values and converging interests with them (a vision or a program);
  • don’t just facilitate, feed the conversation with visions and ideas;
  • listen closely to the feedback (read between the lines);
  • trigger and support, but do not control: introduce new, more mature proposals, and re-orient the action;
  • consider your expertise as a tool that can support the capability of others to design and implement in a dialogic way.

I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what strategic design is, what it means to design coalitions and what the characteristic of being politic looks like. In many ways, what I am trying to tease out through my conversations with practitioners on The Working Together Podcast is the art and practice of strategic design (even though they themselves wouldn’t call it that). So, suffice it to say that this project is ongoing!

That being said, in my next post in this series I will elaborate further on strategic design by giving you a provisional toolkit that will help you build-up your political skills and become more politic.

Let’s stop coordinating and start using co-design and strategic design to deepen our practice, implement robust solutions and make things happen!

Stay tuned!

PS: the precursor to this piece is this post on Post-it Note Chic. In that post, I make distinctions between types or styles of design (like “big ego design” and “post-it design”) from Ezio Manzini’s awesome book Design, When Everyone Designs: An Introduction to Design For Social Innovation.

PPS: for more on the politics of planning meetings, join over [insert exceedingly high number of] readers and sign-up for my newsletter at togetherworking.com.

PPPS: togetherworking.com is also where all this good stuff gets published… my little internet island.