Trim-tabs and the Kokoda Trail — Design Leadership in a Post-Truth World
How Human-Centred Design Leaders in the Public Service Build Resilience When Faced With Adversity
Speaking at a recent event at the NSW Treasury in Sydney, Andrea Siodmak from the UK’s PolicyLab described how she admired Buckmaster Fuller’s analogy of design leadership to that of a ‘trim tab’. A trim tab is the small piece of a rudder that overcomes inertia by breaking a ship’s slipstream and which allows even an enormous oil tanker to turn with minimum effort. According to Fuller, design leaders also have to overcome inertia and bring change to organizational juggernauts, not by brute force, but by influencing an organization’s culture. Change can be introduced incrementally, and what might seem at first like a minor ripple, can eventually have a major effect. Andrea pointed out that in the world of government, achieving even incremental change isn’t easy. Policy can often be driven by political ideology, or by the short-term election cycle, rather than by evidence. And, just as in any large hierarchical organization, there can be hostility to the introduction to any new way of working, and that includes human-centred design; design leaders, even when they are acting as ‘trim-tabs’ need to be resilient.
In Andrea’s presentation, ‘Learnings from the Heart of the UK Government’, she identified some of the difficulties of introducing even incremental change to such a culturally conservative and complex domain. She related how design leaders in the public service have to learn to be resilient to deal not only with ‘push-back’ but also with adverse external events outside their control, such as the climate emergency. Andrea also alluded to political events, such as Brexit, in terms of the crippling effects these can have on the everyday workings of government. Not mentioned was the ‘elephant in the room’, the installation of Boris Johnson, reportedly no friend of science or evidence-based policy-making, as UK Premier, on the previous day. Andrea explained how she tried to keep her focus on building new, positive, human-centred design narratives for the future despite these external constraints.
Learnings from the US
Inspired by Andrea’s presentation, I wondered how other global design leaders coped with the particular stresses and strains of working with government in today’s political environment. Through the This is HCD Slack channel, I posed a question to Dana Chisnell, who has done such amazing work with the US government at the Centre for Civic Design: how did she stay resilient in the face of adversity?
Dana graciously replied to my question in an interview with Gerry Scullion. Interestingly, for Dana, making sure to look after her own physical and mental health was the number one priority:
“The first thing is that you have to take care of yourself because if you are not feeling well physically and mentally, you are not going to help your audience and constituents and public. That’s first.”
Dana went to explain that keeping a tight focus was another priority and that this tight focus must be on projects with a measurable outcome, projects “where you can tell you’re making a difference”.
Learnings from Australia
Design Leaders in the Australian Public Service face similar levels of adversity and resistance to change, and the same types of external constraints as their UK and US counterparts. With projects like the robo-debt recovery scheme, proposed drug-testing for welfare recipients, and the refusal to increase the NewStart allowance, the current government would appear to favour ideology over expert advice. Simone Casey of the RMIT Future Social Services Institute has argued that a “lack of engagement with critical social research is a limitation which hampers social justice efforts and reflects disregard for social suffering” in Australian government. Meanwhile, writers in industry journal The Mandarin have gone as far as to comment that public servants now have to live in a ‘post-truth’ world:
“The idea of evidence based public policy has been fundamental to policy making since it first came to prominence over 20 years ago. Events around the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President are often seen as emblematic of a shift towards populism and ‘post-truth’ politics.”
In order to find out more about these challenges of working in government, I spoke to four design leaders recently, all experienced in dealing with adversity. A leader in sustainable design practices (whom we’ll call ‘I.S.’*) admitted that although “you try your best, talk to the right people… things don’t work out the way you hope or plan.”
Another public servant, ‘C.W.’, who has extensive experience in state government, designing policy and strategy, described how frustrating it was to see projects ‘canned’, and evidence-based decision-making ignored, because of political constraints. She identified some of the tensions that had affected her work, centred on short-term election cycles.
“Politicians are so sensitive to short-term factors, so scared of being on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.”
It’s important to clarify that we’re not talking about design management here — we’re talking about people who are leaders in the sense that they are leading the way with human-centred design, bringing ground-breaking new methodologies into government. ‘S.W.’, who has led the way in NSW government with accessible and inclusive design practices, believes that “leadership isn’t necessarily management.” He sees leadership in a similar way to Buckmaster Fuller — “It can be leading the design team from the background — and you can have a massive impact on the project.” S.W., who has lived experience of disability, has developed strategies to deal with some of the disappointments that he has to face with his leadership work.
“I get frustrated, but ultimately, you strike a chord with someone else… and ultimately you get them to change their policy. You’ve got to put things in perspective — really think about what’s happening before reacting. Control what you can control.”
As a person who has faced great adversity in his personal life — including 23 separate operations for his medical condition — S.W. doesn’t believe in just walking away from projects that don’t work out.
“Never give up! Resilience is getting up every time you’re getting knocked down and learning from that lesson.”
I.S., who has fought for the inclusion of disadvantaged communities in design processes, also sees resilience as a key quality for design leaders. She describes how the pressure on individual designers can be intense however, and how important it is not to take set-backs personally.
“There’s no value in being pig-headed or being reactive. You need courage — be willing to ask questions and take people with you on the journey. Just be careful that you don’t burn out.”
To deal with the stresses of leadership, build resilience, and to avoid this ‘burn-out’, I.S. practices yoga and mindful meditation. She uses these practices to “find a way to that peace, silence in a storm.” She also finds it useful to connect with nature — “to recharge.” Service Designer Kate Storey has detailed how she also uses yoga and mindfulness to support her work with the Australian government. Storey uses a quote from Melis Senova’s This Human: How to Be the Person Designing for Other People to illustrate the particular pressures of ‘change environments’ in government:
“Design leaders need to remain sensitive to themselves and how they are travelling to ensure they don’t fatigue and burn out. An awareness that change environments can be demanding, and they demand a lot from design leaders. It’s important to establish healthy boundaries, have a restorative practice to rejuvenate, build stamina and create the capacity to be the human you need to be to be in service to yourself and others.”
It’s vital that design leaders don’t take the constant pressures of these ‘change environments’ lightly. The stresses of a difficult working environment can have very negative effects on both mental and physical health. Recent scientific studies underline this link between stress and illness and support the idea that mindfulness meditation can have positive health benefits.
While mindfulness mediation can help public servants build the resilience they need to deal with such difficulties as cancelled projects, budget cuts, and the prioritization of ideology over evidence, successful design leaders also use other strategies.
Despite the challenges they face working in government, the four design leaders I spoke to have been able to deliver many successful initiatives. C.B., who is a leading Urban Designer with more than ten years’ experience working in government, explained how she kept a positive attitude:
“You need to be humble. Offer the best you can offer. Always do your best — but design is not everything and it’s not one person’s role to get everything to align.”
Sustainable design lead I.S. also stressed the importance of always trying to do your best.
“You need courage. Be willing to ask questions and take people on the journey with you. Policy is also created in the delivery of solutions — through feedback loops.”
Design Leaders need to actively advocate for change, according to C.B., and promote the message of human-centred design throughout the organizational culture.
“Stand your ground. Calmly, peacefully, make your point. Design leaders need to be vocal and actively push for good design. It’s so important!”
Despite this strong advocacy for evidence-based ‘good’ design, design leaders can still find themselves stymied by processes outside their control. And when that happens, it can be time to “move on” according to C.B., but not without learning from the experience — “what are the lessons learnt, what could I have done better?”
And like Andrea Siodmak, S.I. believes that it’s vitally important to keep focused on a positive narrative: “It’s not enough to say ‘no, I can’t do it’…You have to identify what it is that you can do!”
An exemplar from the Kokoda Trail
On the day that Andrea Siodmak was giving her presentation, there was a man sitting just outside the Treasury, who could serve well as an example of courage and resilience to design leaders. This man, Bill Ryan, has served his country well. Bill, a Kokoda Trail veteran, who is now 97 years old, was there in his wheelchair in Martin Place, exercising his legal right to protest against the environmental policies of the government, as he has done for many years. And even those who don’t share Bill’s strong views about the environment (Australian tabloid media, for example), admire Bill’s courage, his amazing tenacity and resilience. And in this way, in his communication with popular culture, Bill also acts as a ‘trim-tab’ for the environmental movement, bringing views on sustainability and fossil fuels into areas where they might not otherwise be heard.
Despite being legally blind, Bill does not give up, simply because he has to face adversity; Bill Ryan is not a man who gives up simply because the political climate seems to be not in his favour. Bill simply states that “you’ve got to fight against things that are not right”. Faced with terrible adversity, Bill has learnt and built resilience, fighting on to the very best of his ability to try to bring a new and positive future into being.
*Real names of interviewees have not been used, for privacy purposes.