Justine Lai
Sep 5, 2016 · 4 min read

Today, design and designers are the new hot thing, but what about design facilitators?

Aditi Dugar, co-President of Wharton Innovation & Design, facilitating a group of Penn students at the May 2016 Wharton Entrepreneurship Program’s Design Hackathon.

Over the past year, media coverage has highlighted how companies like IBM, Pepsi, and Samsung are driving innovation by making significant investments in hiring and training designers, highlighting the development of new external products, services, and designs as proof of their return on investment. These articles also feature the company CEOs talking how they also want to use design for driving internal organizational change, creating a culture informed by design principles and empowering employees to put design thinking at the heart of their problem solving processes. Yet only talking about designers ignores the fact that it’s really the design facilitator that drives this type of internal change — people who use design as a means to engage, and have the ability to simultaneously teach, model, and lead the desired behavior change necessary in order to make that change possible.

The Case For The Design Facilitator

Why is the design facilitator necessary? Hiring design talent does not necessarily translate to hiring workers who are skilled in culture change. In any given discipline, experts often struggle to translate their skills and approaches to the untrained participant. And this is where the design facilitator can come in. These facilitators may or may not have formal design training but they are fluent and conversant enough in design principles is to translate its value in driving better experiences, products, and services to the rest of the organization.

A good facilitator is a teacher, psychologist, and strategist all rolled into one — they’re able to share the design thinking process and help employees apply it to their everyday experiences, convey excitement for design and design thinking, listen to their audience’s concerns and skillfully translate these pain points into a call for change, and also encourage the greater vision underlining the need for change. They typically engage with their “clients,” or fellow employees via workshops, meetings, or as consultants — rather than participating in the core work of the firm, their job, first and foremost, is to engage others as participants in the design process so that participants work differently.

Examples in Action

It’s difficult to find truly objective case studies of companies trying to implement design thinking within their organization, but two studies that do exist overview both the successes and failures of using design to drive internal innovation highlight the value of this engagement-based approach. At Philips Research, design researchers found that they achieved the most success in taking an design-based approach to their work when they engaged users as partners, rather than informers. And at Kaiser Permanente, an initial pilot coaching a select group of nurses to help address shift turnovers failed miserably due to resentment from the remainder of the nursing staff, who didn’t see the need for change. It was only when the design team began to think of themselves as facilitators, rather than design experts, that change really began to occur. By focusing on helping the entire unit staff to both do their own research and identify their own solutions, this led to a much higher level of buy-in, and ultimately, successful implementation that addressed the challenge at hand.

These studies highlight that while when trying to change internal processes and getting buy-in from the rest of the organization, having facilitators is critical. Rather than being an expert who set the direction and have a significant influence over all decisions, a facilitator accepts that ultimately, the participants, or the employees, are the ones who set the goals, make the key decisions, and deliver on the final product. The facilitator shares the specific strategies and skills which enables the participants to lead, but doesn’t direct the outcome.

Looking Forward

Some companies investing in design do recognize the value of the facilitator and the participatory approach. IBM released a series of design guidelines on how to implement design approaches across a large-scale organization, and Fast Co published an article on how Microsoft is putting inclusive and participatory design at the core of its new product development. On the consultancy side, firms such as frog design, Made by Many, ?What If! Innovation, and others have developed new service offerings specifically tailored to working alongside non-designers to help share their methods. However, in the media, the main focus often focuses on how hiring and training expert designers is the key to internal innovation, and a more nuanced understanding is needed. Being an expert designer does not necessarily translate to being a great design facilitator, and ultimately, companies need to hire both experts in design, and experts in design facilitation. It’s a different skill set that few designers (formally trained or otherwise) have practiced.

Sometimes, the best teachers are not experts, but people who can work with both experts and beginners to help them work meaningfully together. Design facilitators can act as that bridge to help companies make sure that design isn’t just silo-ed to an “innovation unit” but used to drive long-term internal change via engaging employees throughout the organization.

Resources | How does one go about becoming a design facilitator?

In New York, The Design Gym offers workshops specifically oriented at training design facilitators (and great pay-what-you-wish online resources); for something a little closer to home, Acumen+ has a self-paced “Design Kit: A Facilitator’s Guide to Introducing Human Centered Design” course with IDEO.org where aspiring facilitators work with groups of their choice to learn the requisite skillsets.

Thanks to Irene Chong and Greta Carlson for their help in editing and reviewing this piece.

Wharton Innovation & Design

Thought-provoking ideas on the role of innovation and design-thinking in driving long-lasting, positive impact for individuals, organizations and communities.

Justine Lai

Written by

Passionate about combining human empathy with analytical reasoning to create more compassionate and creative organizations.

Wharton Innovation & Design

Thought-provoking ideas on the role of innovation and design-thinking in driving long-lasting, positive impact for individuals, organizations and communities.

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