Lessons from an intensive strategic design studio

Today (5/27/20), NASA reaches a major milestone in the pursuit of commercial space. SpaceX will be launching NASA astronauts in their Falcon 9 rocket. It seemed like the right time to reflect on my experience of the past semester consulting for NASA on expanding commercial space. We also made this short video to inspire the vision NASA hopes to achieve.

I sat at my desk, coffee in hand, CRNs ready, and tapped refresh for ten minutes before registration opened. The six-credit intensive studio with NASA as the client filled in three minutes, but I made it. I wanted to achieve three things from this experience:

  1. Exceptional systems and strategy design.
  2. Grow my experience of client facing work.
  3. Extend my understanding of Strategic Design as a practice of teams.

NASA has been pushing to be “one of many customers” in the future of the space economy for several years. This means there’s a need for more service providers for everything from rocket launches to life support systems. Currently, entire companies are built on the back of NASA’s purchasing power. The International Space Station (ISS) functions as the focal point of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) economy where private and public research is being carried out around the clock. If NASA can participate as a customer instead of the customer then prices will be lower, and missions will be far more resilient because there is no reliance on a single product or service provider. The process of reaching that future state has already started, but it isn’t happening fast enough and NASA has major plans for the next ten years. That’s where the Parsons Design Studio (self-named by the class) was asked to work.

The Solution

We argued NASA will need to be replaced at the center of the LEO ecosystem by some kind of facilitating mechanism which we called Lead in Space. This new organization would require five years and three stages to achieve the ultimate end.

Animation courtesy of Rashina Bhula

Since the ISS National Lab and NASA are at the center of the LEO economy they own most of the means of participating. This is traditionally understood to be an impediment to the growth of the LEO economy, but we started to imagine that it could be an asset. If the pathways, systems, and mechanisms available today were housed on a single platform, and NASA’s contractors adopted it as their central access point then the process today would be streamlined and more effective. This clears the way for new entrants, and eases the anxiety of current NASA contractors.

The proposed entity should begin separating from NASA, and incorporating the needs of private industry by year two. This begins with the launching of the Lead in Space competition. NASA provides a great deal of money today, but they also provide leadership in vision for technology because of the size of their wallet. In order to expand this mechanism Lead in Space will source the forecasted visions of private industry to source the necessary supporting technologies.

Finally, Lead in Space fully separates from the banner of NASA, and operates independently at the center of the ecosystem. It acts as the central point for data, insights, funding, and connections for the four primary segments of the LEO economy.

Design as Consulting & Consulting as Designing

I have spent the majority of my professional career working as a creative member of internal teams, but have little experience as an external consultant. I believe the client facing studio course is one of the greatest assets of the M.S. in Strategic Design and Management curriculum for my personal learning. Over the course of the semester we engaged with a primary stakeholder at NASA on a weekly basis, dozens of ecosystem stakeholders donated time for us to have interviews, and our midterm and final presentations each had more than ten stakeholders from NASA, the ISS National Lab, and the Department of Commerce. I personally had the opportunity to interview seven experts from the government and private industry, participate in a weekly client check-in, and present at both the midterm and final presentations.

Perhaps the most important piece of knowledge I learned was the difference in expert and process consulting. My understanding of expert consulting is very similar to traditional design practice where consultants take a problem away, and come back with a solution they believe is the best for the client. In a similar way, designers and architects prepared their work in dark rooms and presented them like artists. When design made a sharp transition to human-centered design, and placed a greater emphasis on empathizing with users they also departed from the expert model. Process consulting by contrast is much more about facilitating organizations to reach their own innovative solutions with hand holding from the consultant. This is not unlike what a design thinking facilitator offers to their clients because they lack the contextual knowledge to make insightful decisions. Instead, they give their client’s a toolbox, and a process to reach solutions. However, in the words of one of my professors, “the client will always end up asking if they reached the right answer.”

Reading about these approaches would have left me believing I had to choose one or the other, but this experience taught me there is a delicate dance of the two. In a separate class, a guest lecturer used the term co-creation to describe how he has achieved some major innovation projects. He reasoned that engaging the client in the creative process will inevitably lead to client buy-in which turns into an internal advocate for your external work. I like to call concepts like this elegant. It is simple, yet refined, and impactful. This is what we hoped to achieve in the work with NASA. I believe we succeeded approximately 75% of the way. We certainly placed a great deal of emphasis on the needs of NASA, their opinions, and the opinions and ideas of other stakeholders in the ecosystem. Where I think we missed an opportunity was in client engagement with design frameworks. When we used design tools for strategic foresight, research, synthesis, and concept validation we did this internally. If we had turned them towards the client then we would have fostered even greater buy-in via the co-creation process.

Working as a Team of Strategic Designers

Our team of fourteen included operations managers, architects, educators, fashion designers, brand managers, product and industrial designers, and marketing professionals. To say this was a professionally diverse team would be a tremendous understatement. In addition to a diverse professional background we also had very different educational backgrounds from undergrad which included English, Sociology, Business, and Architecture degrees among others. I love a team with a wide range of interests and expertise, but I also wonder every time about whether the experiment will pay off.

The question I found myself asking is: if we’re all strategic designers, how do we each function independently and collectively while also providing real value to the work?

We initially started as a team with well defined roles and a clear hierarchy. We were all told the team was flat, but the structure of roles meant each person had specific duties and responsibilities. This was helpful with making sure everyone felt like they could speak up equally, and not be overruled or silenced by any of the leadership. However, our team was in the initial research stage and the split in team functions caused some challenges. Most of the design team was left with not a lot to be focused on, but eager to get their hands dirty.

The leadership team decided to build a bridge between the design and research team to facilitate the work of strategic planning. Half of the researchers and half of the designers joined to plan and outline the next week’s work. This was the cadence we pursued for several weeks to more evenly distribute the work. Each member of the strategy team was also still responsible for their respective team work in design or research. This structure carried us to the midterm where we presented several possible ways forward based on hypothesis’ we formed.

We split at the midterm into two flat self-selected teams with one hypothesis at their core. This was where the majority of our problem solving occurred rather than the problem finding in the first half. After multiple internal crits, and rounds of iterations we landed on a single solution with just three weeks til the final.

Our project manager took all of the necessary components for the final, and compiled them on a single Mural board for the entire team to assign ourselves to. Over the next few weeks we worked on weekly deliverables with check-ins and feedback at each class. The structure at this point was almost the opposite of where it started.

Strategic designers are most often generalists, and seek to have a broad understanding of the world. This may not be true of all, but if we look to some of the first iterations like Buckminster Fuller, it is certainly a pattern. This is not ideal for having distinct well defined roles among a number of strategic designers. The high point of the semester was when we worked in diverse, but intense clusters focused on specific outcomes without concern for our own expertise. These moments were rare and usually informal until the end of the semester. I think this represents the changing nature of the world. With the introduction of the internet, and easy access to the world’s compendium of knowledge, disciplines and divisions of labor based on knowledge start to make much less sense.

Disclaimer: the opinions, thoughts, and writings here are those of the author only, and do not represent NASA’s, Parsons, or any of the participating team members.

Aspiring Comprehensivist | Currently a (slightly) above average Generalist

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