How do design leaders stay ahead of the curve, while simultaneously managing their teams? We chat to Dan Powell of EngineeringUK about how harnessing the power of design thinking has benefitted their business.
Here at Clearleft, we’ve long held the belief that applying design thinking has a business-changing impact, from efficiencies to a new-found skill-set that can be passed on and beyond the initial scope of work, fundamentally changing the way the whole company tackles challenges. We call this the project legacy.
It also heralds a new era of collaboration, shifting the goal-posts of what a client-agency relationship should be. When in-house design maturity is flourishing, agencies have to bring more than design thinking and exercises to the table. They have to demonstrate long-term ROI and support deep-rooted cultural change within the organisation.
Clearleft: If you were only allowed to give one piece of advice to someone beginning a similar role in a sizeable not for profit — what would it be?
Dan: Keep talking about what you are doing and consult with colleagues and stakeholders as much as you can, their input and buy-in is vital! If you see silos try to break them down, encourage as much cross-team working as possible, and bring people together who are involved in the project as regularly as you can.
Clearleft: How much did you have to build the case for design? How did you go about doing it?
Dan: It’s well known that with over 600 organisations delivering STEM activities for schools there was a need to help teachers navigate this and select the right activity for their students. From this came the idea to provide a platform where teachers could find quality assured careers activities to engage their students, and EngineeringUK are delivering that on behalf of the engineering community. By the time I arrived at EngineeringUK Clearleft had already been selected as the agency we wanted to work with, and their innovative, design thinking led approach was a key factor in that decision.
Clearleft: Which of the decisions that you have made has had the most impact on how design is approached in and across your company?
Dan: We decided early on that we needed to involve as many people as possible in the process. So as well as establishing a core group of internal stakeholders we also shared our ideas across the organisation and with our wider stakeholder groups from the teaching community, professional engineering institutions, engineering activity providers and industry partners, and asked for feedback. I think this helped to increase buy-in for Neon internally and across the sector, kept people in touch with what we were developing, and created a sense of ownership that was important for the success of the platform. We also invited Katie and Tom from Clearleft to come in and talk at one of our All Staff meetings about the process we were going through which improved transparency and also introduced some design thinking concepts which other teams have gone on to integrate into their projects.
Clearleft: Design can work best when it’s weaved into the fabric of an organisation. Have you broken down traditional barriers to achieving this, if so what worked for you?
Dan: As I said above, keeping colleagues updated on progress, involving them in decision making, and talking to them about how design thinking can be a powerful tool when designing a product made a strong case for working in this way. EngineeringUK’s strategy is driven by the insights our Research and Evaluation team produce about the engineering sector, so it makes sense that we integrate the insights gained from design thinking into our programme design. I was fortunate that colleagues were really engaged with the design process and saw the benefits, so while there were (and are still) some barriers we are definitely moving in the right direction.
Clearleft: How do you measure the value and impact of design?
Dan: For Neon we have a set of KPIs we will be measuring to ensure the platform is delivering on its ambition to be a go-to place for teachers to find engagement activity for their students. These are focussed around our organisational EDI criteria, numbers of schools engaged, and consistency of use by educators and activity providers. The beta testing and useability interviews we ran pre-launch with a cohort of teachers were also invaluable in measuring how we were doing, and enabled us to fine-tune Neon before the public launch.
Clearleft: What makes it a successful agency-client partnership?
Dan: It goes without saying that regular communication and an understanding of the aims of the project are key, and the team at Clearleft made certain we all had a shared vision of how the design process would work from the outset. We had regular retros to celebrate what went well and what we could do better, and we always felt that they shared our passion for the project.
Clearleft: How has advocacy for design thinking benefited you?
Dan: I hope it has meant that colleagues have an understanding of the power of design thinking when we are designing our programmes, and that I’m able to support teams across EngineeringUK in this if needed.
Clearleft: What do you think is unique about design leadership in not for profits? Does it bring extra challenges?
Dan: From a not-for-profit point of view a major challenge is always going to be around resourcing! We probably have less resources available than teams in the for-profit world so managing a backlog and thinking creatively about when and how we take new iterations forward is key.
Clearleft: Regarding design within your organisation, how would you like it to be different in 5 years time?
Dan: Working with Clearleft on Neon showed how powerful design thinking can be in the design and delivery of programmes which engage educators and young people and transform their perceptions of engineering, especially given the new challenges raised by the global pandemic. I believe that the next step for us is to think about how we design a strategy that supports the implementation of this across all of our work. It would be good if in 5 years time colleagues and our stakeholders can clearly see the value of working in this way, that we have it embedded into the way we work, and that ultimately it will be a major part of EngineeringUK delivering its ambition to grow the number and diversity of young people choosing a career in engineering.
Clearleft is a design consultancy helping organisations realise their digital potential. We use research, design and strategy to enable innovation, deliver products & services, and build design capability. Find out more about how we could help you.
Many thanks to Dan for his candid input in this series. You can follow Neon on twitter here.