Embracing a Faster Path to Changemaking
Most of us here at Greater Good Studio came from a design background rooted in product development. In that world, it’s all about designing “the thing” — whatever that might be. As innovation consultants, we’d define a product, then it would get refined and tested, manufactured and shipped. Eventually the thing would hit the shelf, and hopefully it would sell, whether it was a TV or a writing utensil or a medical device.
A product’s design journey might take a year, or several years.
But when you start applying design thinking to social good, working with clients on designing programs and strategies, it’s not just about a final “thing.” And that means you can start making change much earlier than you might expect.
Imagine showing the client a giant wall of research, and instead of simply saying, “Thanks for the update,” they say, “Great, we’re going to go do something with that right now.”
Tapping the potential for action
If you’re designing a new pen, its journey from sketch to shelf is pretty much set. But when designing for social good, there’s opportunity to stray from a more predictable path to broaden your impact.
Earlier this year we had a client who was particularly proactive, and it opened my eyes to the power of a more flexible approach. OneGoal is a national nonprofit that works in low-income public high schools to make college enrollment and graduation possible for all students. Greater Good observed and interviewed OneGoal educators and came back with a tremendous amount of information. We synthesized it and identified key strategies that teachers were using to help their students raise their grades and test scores. In our first research debrief, we shared these best practices and showed OneGoal team members raw video footage from our interviews.
I noticed that they were taking notes, asking questions and adding context to what we learned — just as we hoped they would.
But then they said, “We’d love to use that video in our next training.”
Now, an informal research debrief is traditionally about getting clients up to speed. At that point, we’re still a month (or more) away from even generating ideas. But because the organization delivers a program, and no one was waiting for a product to make its way down an assembly line, the learnings and fodder could be used immediately.
So, instead of responding to OneGoal’s request with: “Wait, according to our timeline, we have months before the final deliverable,” we said, “Great, here’s the footage!”
Keeping the door open
Sharing raw video footage or a wall of unfinished insights — these are small, simple things on the surface, but they point to something larger that’s foundational to our work, and which flows under the surface of everything we do.
It’s a sense of openness, collaboration, and trust.
Our clients were able to apply what they were learning before they left our studio because they were engaged as teammates, not passive recipients of our research.
We’re very intentional about fostering this collaborative sensibility.
A few tips:
- Get face time. We meet with clients regularly throughout all phases of the project, not just when we’re in final presentation mode.
- Don’t hide your dust. We deliberately share drafts, unpolished thoughts — and footage. Our clients are the experts in their field and of their organizations. Including them in our process and receiving their feedback is a critical part of creating solutions that really work for them.
- Be clear. Our tone is always conversational — not filled with design-thinking jargon. Even when we share synthesis that isn’t fully complete, we do our best to organize it in a way that’s digestible and easy to understand.
All of this naturally creates a more productive and informed relationship.
Weighing challenges and benefits
So your client speaks up at a meeting and says they want to get started ASAP on a new idea scrawled on a half-sheet of paper. Does that short-circuit your design process, with its carefully planned phases?
Fair question. It depends how comfortable you and your client are with embracing flexibility and uncertainty. Is there a chance that your client may end up running with a half-formed idea? Yes. But here’s why you should consider trusting their enthusiasm and rolling with it:
- Change can’t always wait. Especially for clients whose work directly impacts people’s lives and wellbeing. If the whole design process takes six months, and the client makes no changes for most of that, they’ve lost precious time.
- While your project may be your primary focus, it’s likely only one of your client’s responsibilities. Learnings from your project together may spark ideas that are more relevant and helpful in other aspects of their role.
- Even if they implement a smaller idea, that otherwise would’ve fallen to the cutting room floor, they’re making progress.
- Finally, and not insignificantly, you’ll continue to build trust and instill in your clients a sense of ownership over the design process. When a client says, “Hey, can we start working on that right now?” it’s a sign that they’re fired up and ready to go.
Although we only realized the potential for our research to impact our clients’ work more broadly because we had a motivated, resourceful partner, now we try to make it more intentional. By supporting our most proactive clients to run with ideas quickly, we all get extra mileage out of the entire process. Clients improve and iterate faster, and we all see some quick wins that instill momentum and confidence.
With the right client, it can be incredibly useful, making change for the better — faster.