Get Design-Ready Before Getting Fit for Design

OpenIDEO Joburg, August 2016

In early 2013, the team from Inquisition started work with a financial services firm. Managers had started to feel that their team lacked the capabilities to build breakthrough innovative products and services. Impressed by our passion and work in service design they asked, “can’t you teach us design”?

Of course we could. We’d slowly transitioned away from doing lucrative work in the service of doing design for clients — how I miss you retainers — and were exploring ways to do design with our clients. It felt like our big break and was a much welcomed injection of cash into our business. We’ll teach design! And so we did.

Without much consideration for our client’s organisational culture, we imposed a series of design workshops and simulated design sprints with teams of people. It felt good to impart new ways of working; hell at times it felt like we were encouraging more people to consider a career in design. Standing at the front of interactive workshops watching people practice design methods felt like it was an incremental step in the right direction — toward a Design Transformation.

The trouble started the minute we left the teams.

We had rehearsed design with the teams we just hadn’t put it in front of a live audience. Isolated from the organisation’s ways of working, people could explore customer needs and quickly develop and test a solution but when they tried to stick to the Design Thinking process, they experienced what Bud Caddell did:

Then, the reality of organizational dysfunction set in. The project imploded as each C-level client executive lampooned the idea because it failed to support their silo’d incentives. The idea demanded IT resources, yet those resources were divorced from any activity that occurred in stores. The idea also demanded retail space, but because it was a new idea it couldn’t afford the same predictability of the usual merchandising footprint (a declining ROI was still preferred over a less certain one). The idea also required marketing dollars to spread the word, but it cut into the expected TV impressions the CMO needed to unlock his bonus.
Most damning of all, none of these people seemed to like working together.

The calls didn’t stop. We could have opened a successful therapy practice off the back of briefly showing people what better ways of working felt like and then leaving them to battle back the immune system of institutional culture.

Design isn’t just a process, it is cultural

Organisational culture is the collective belief by a group of people in a set of ways of working (systems, processes, structure, people) within an organisation. In our work-design firm, Inquisition, the design process fits naturally. Inquisition was setup as a way to learn and test new ideas. It is structured to do so and the processes support the idea and the problem it solves.

When we evangelised design methods alone we missed the context in which they’re performed. When palesa sibeko and I setup Inquisition, we very deliberately structured the organisation to support design challenges. We’ve landed at a blend of lean and design process steered by agile principles and the lightest structure which supports solving challenges.

Innovating through hackathons, bootcamps, brainstorming sessions, sprints and the like is a good start, creating a culture of innovation is what will set you apart. — Sara Coene in A Framework for Building a Design Thinking Culture

Good Design Requires a Design Culture

Organisations are beginning to see value in design but often prefer to see design rather than do design. Seen-design is the worst example of innovation theatre.

I’ve seen teams led by very smart design coaches rehearse design sprints and methods. They repeat them until they’re experts at acting them out. But when the coach leaves and they have to perform design for a live audience they quickly default back to their old ways of working because they face less resistance for doing so.

As a result many people who have rehearsed design lobby their organisations for an independent design business unit. They carve out an independent design team, or sometimes a new subsidiary. It may just as well be a design consultancy because it begins to setup its own culture and has to fight to wrestle away tasks it wants from the rest of the organisation. Instead of design steering the business, it becomes a sideproject.

Worse case, people start to realise they will never get to work on meaningful challenges and they leave and take their new skills with them to start something new or join a competitor.

Doing design right will require that you change existing organisational norms and be brave enough at the expense of short-term objectives to say that we can’t revert back to previous ways of working just because it’s easy and understood. Design requires that you commit to a sustained long term change and as it happens, design is a useful tool to deliberately work on culture.

Experiment Toward a Design-Ready Culture

In many organisations, culture is something that just happens, i.e. there is little in the way of intended behaviours or actions, the culmination of which determines its culture.

At Inquisition we believe that you can deliberately design culture. If culture is how we work around here then you can change culture. Albeit, not in a change programme which tries to predict the outcomes of an imposition of new principles and ways of working on a group of people but through experimentation.

Instead of offering Design Training in to support organisational change you’ll find Inquisition applying design to the conditions at work to help teams of people do the best work of their lives and sparking a shift in mindset in our Design Training Sparks.

With businesses increasingly adopting design methods as a competitive advantage, we are on a mission to create the conditions in which design can thrive, to make organisations design-ready.

What has been your approach to design readiness? Mail us on or leave a comment.

Here are ways you might start your journey toward a Design-ready culture