This piece is part of a series of interviews I will be conducting with colleagues of mine who lead design teams through organisational change all over the world.
My goal is to draw attention to, what I consider, the most important problem organisations should solve right now. One that needs addressing more urgently than building a design capability and adopting agile, or lean methodologies
This problem originates in the human quality of resisting change, yet having to adapt to it quickly. With industries evolving, some jobs disappearing, new skill sets emerging and millenials contesting the 9–5 model of working, organisations need to embed a growth mindset instead of a fixed one .
Sadly, due to our reactive human nature, the majority of organisations go straight into the end solution to their problems, ignoring that the first step towards success is the set up and not the shinny thing that people see as an outcome.
This is the problem I want to solve. How can leaders help their teams transition into organisational change more easily? In other words, how can teams organise themselves for growth and change?
Service design for organisational change in Indonesia
Nurul is a bright service designer who studied with me at Hyper Island.
After trying to promote and establish a service design practice with different NGOs in Indonesia, she found herself joining a travel booking company as a design strategist/service designer.
She is now responsible for a team of 22 designers and here is what she shared with me about her experience:
What was your journey into leading a team?
I entered this role by accident. I was approached by a company who was looking for a lead design strategist. I didn’t know this was going to be a lead role or that I was going to lead a 22 people team.
I was curious and interested in the concept and in working on different product propositions. I was keen to do it when they explained the role to me, especially because I wanted to help asian citizens to do design.
What keeps you busy in your day to day?
I work together with a team of designers, engineers and stakeholders to create and launch end to end products. This company is 6 years old and 2000 people work here. The company’s core business is travel but they also do different things such as flights bookings, providing information about products, hospitality and vacation products.
I am responsible to create experiences across platforms including the launch of features that enhance services.
What was your main challenge?
When I came in there was no structure, the company was undergoing a transition to launch new products and that’s why they re-organised the teams. I handled payment facilities and there were a lot of changes in the organisation. People didn’t know where they were going to be, or what role would they end up doing. I was not sure how I was going to solve this.
I started by chasing everybody and getting contacts in the organisation. I was in the middle of things happening, so I didn’t understand where to begin in the project. I had to get more context from everybody, for instance, how to work with people across teams including the designers and the developers, but people would tell me different things. It took me 4 months to start making sense of the situation. It did not happen immediately.
How did you resolve it?
I don’t know if I resolved it. I had to adapt every day. I started with trying to decide where I was going and I focused on that. The leadership had different expectations of me, though. I saw myself pushing for aligning and co-designing with the intention of open collaboration but not everyone preferred it, as they wanted to see a design outcome quickly.
I finally decided what to focus on, so I focused on leading. I had to start with the knowledge I had learnt in my Masters degree and I became part of the team and collaborated with them.
What secret weapons did you use?
In order to gather the whole context and convince everyone in a short time and educate them on user experience, I did the following:
Convinced people by doing
I created solutions with no testing because I had to show them and they had to see what I was talking about. I was sure no one would be convinced of the ideas otherwise. Different stakeholders are different. For instance, engineers want practical examples and clear UI.
Guerrilla validation due to lack of testing
I opened literature reviews, books and validated in my own way for the sake of convincing the other teams and the stakeholders.
I learned that there wasn’t an intro to how design could resolve business problems.
What do you wish you had known?
I wish I had aligned expectations. The design strategist’s role didn’t align with the responsibilities that leading all this entailed. In retrospect, that was a risk as I didn’t have that much experience leading big teams.
I was also a bit overoptimistic. I walked in here wanting to win hearts with convictions about design and things that I had learnt at school. For instance, I prototyped things that weren’t tested and after we tested them we discovered many things were wrong.
I led the team. I treated them very collaboratively at the beginning and this ended up not being what they needed. Instead, they needed more guidance and to be told what to do since a lot of them were very junior.
I learned along the way that I had to adapt to this. I decided to organise a process about what we will do today, tomorrow, next month or week. I organised this in a system when I realised they couldn’t, or didn’t want to collaborate.
What support did you receive from the leadership?
There was a clash of expectations that impacted the team’s management. I also lacked support and a safe space to share the issues I was facing.
What was your biggest learning?
At the beginning I wanted everyone to have a good environment and create cool things and have a good working culture but I had to let that go.
I couldn’t apply the team collaboration techniques that we learnt at school because that wasn’t what was needed at the time. Instead, I had to be firm and anchor what I felt intuitively was most needed, such as training the team on some basic principles of human centered design.
I focused on how to fail fast and try something else quickly when something doesn’t work. I wish I could have taught them this before. Some of them were too critical and they were worried that their solutions were wrong.
I learnt to step back. There were generational differences between my peers. For instance, there is a difference with my generation as we push for what we want. The new generation is not the same. There is a mindset of not being good enough, so this requires close guidance and not being so pushy as a leader.
What was the outcome of your efforts?
I was surprised that people adapted to the change. In general, people benefitted from it. People who had a background on design research used what they learned to improve although 2 people resigned. The change was too overwhelming for them. Perhaps their expectations were to have a peaceful day to day.
The main metric of success was in terms of applying design to the deliverables. We had metrics for how users use the services and the features. We shifted teams. We talked to users again and listened to their experience of the changes and included this into our design process.
I have noticed that some people probably have a mindset to adapt. What I noticed was that there was a mix in my team’s thinking. Some wanted to convince themselves and the decision-makers to maintain their position. They had been doing the same for years and were in denial. They wanted to carry on developing, doing what they were doing while some others were preparing for what was going to happen. And some others prepared themselves for uncertainty.
My main realisation has been that people themselves are the design, not only the products or services that they make.