Henning Fischer recently had an email conversation with Peter Coughlan, Partner and Transformation Practice Lead at IDEO. They discussed IDEO’s transformation practice and his team’s processes to create a more human-centered design. Peter will be presenting on at our upcoming MX San Francisco—Managing Experience Through Creative Leadership—conference on April 20-22.
Henning Fischer [HF]: What is IDEO’s Transformation by Design practice?
Peter Coughlan [PC]: IDEO’s transformation practice helps clients become more innovative, customer- or employee-centered, sustainable. We do this using some core principles of design and design thinking—building empathy with stakeholders, envisioning a future, prototyping—the stuff that good human-centered design is made of, this time applied to organizations.
[HF]: What lessons has IDEO learned from working with clients in this manner? How has the practice changed over the years?
[PC]: We’ve learned a lot about the difficulty of getting people to change behavior in organizations. So, we’ve really ratcheted up certain aspects of the process—for instance, getting stakeholders to reveal what they really care about, making sure that visioning sessions are as inclusive as possible, and making change as tangible as possible inside the organization, so that people have constant reminders and prompts for behavior change.
[HF]: How do you get visioning sessions to be inclusive as possible without the too many cooks in the kitchen problem?
[PC]: You use visioning sessions as divergent activities—you’re trying to get as many ideas, from as many different perspectives, as possible. So, to extend your metaphor, during a visioning session you’re not yet started cooking—you’re just getting people to contribute ingredients. They of course can have an opinion about what ingredients they like (which is important feedback, and you should gather that feedback in order to help you decide what you’re going to make).
[HF]: In terms of creating tangible changes that serve as reminders and prompts of behavior change, can you give some examples? In the past Adaptive Path has created artifacts like booklets, t-shirts and posters to help refocus client teams. We have found them effective for shorter periods, but they occasionally become part of the furniture. How do you avoid that?
[PC]: What you’re describing is more along the lines of promotional items. What I was talking about is artifacts that give you an excuse to behave differently. One of my favorite examples comes from a hospital that wanted to help reduce their patients’ worry levels while they were waiting for (chemo) treatment. A very simple idea they had was to just go up to patients and ask them if they had any worries, any questions that they could address. It turned out that doing that—going up to patients and asking them questions—was very awkward and difficult to do. So they created an artifact to help them get over that awkwardness—a set of question cards that they shared with patients to help break the ice and provide something to talk about. It turned out to be a wonderful way to prompt new behavior on the part of patients and providers. Even if the question cards do become a part of the furniture, that’s okay—they helped the care providers overcome a fear and scaffold a new behavior.
[HF]: How do you get clients to trust what in the surface is a seemingly simple process?
[PC]: Clients almost never trust the process until they’ve experienced it directly! So we try to build in experiential sessions very early in our relationship so that clients have the confidence to trust us and the process we lead them through.
[HF]: Can you describe some of the experiential sessions that you use to build that trust?
[PC]: We create experiences that last anywhere from half an hour to a few days. In a short session, we might present some evidence of people’s existing behavior (workarounds are a favorite of mine), and ask people to tell us what the behavior reveals about a need. Then, we’ll convert that need into a brainstorm topic and ask participants to help us come up with ideas. Seeing the link between an observation and an idea that helps meet a need (revealed through the observation) is powerful—knowing that it’s not black magic is comforting to clients, who understand why we’re asking to go out and just hang out with people to inspire our thinking (which can seem pretty fuzzy and risky).
[PC]: If we have more time, we’ll have clients work through the whole process. It’s fun to see how different people “get it” at different points in the process. They’re usually amazed with what they’ve been able to accomplish, and I think they then know that if they (as beginners) were able to come up with breakthrough solutions to tough challenges in a short time, then doing the same process with more experts and over a longer period of time can only be better.
[HF]: How common is it to find that decoupling between the vision functionality of strategy groups and the actual means to execute on that vision? What are the most common points of failure you see that create that disconnect?
[PC]: It’s very common to find a decoupling between vision and execution. What I see often is that the organization needs to now build a business case for why they should execute on the vision (in its entirety). Then, they have to apply for funding; which, depending on when the visioning happened with respect to budgeting, can be up to a couple years. By the time funding comes through, the economic conditions have changed, a competitor has done something to make your strategy irrelevant, or you’ve actually forgotten why this direction was the right one in the first place!
[PC]: That’s why we push clients to start down the implementation path immediately—get some prototypes or experiments out into the system and see what you can learn, what evidence you can collect that will help you secure your next bit of funding, your next bit of support from leadership. You still keep a big picture view of where you’re headed, but you break that view down into some bite-sized steps that reduce the risk and the feelings of overwhelm that come from trying to implement a strategy at scale in a single stroke.
[HF]: More and more designers are using similar methods to yours, which represents a significant step forward for us as a profession, but there still seems a long way to go. What can designers and managers do better or differently to advance the cause?
[PC]: I would say that the most important shift in the design profession will be for designers to get comfortable with the notion that it’s more important for a client to have a great idea than for the designer to have the idea. If the client organization has played a role in coming up with the idea, it’s way more likely to see the light of day.
[HF]: Adaptive Path believes the exact same thing, and we work extremely collaboratively with our clients to make that happen. The challenge we are most often faced with happens when the engagement ends and the client team struggles. How do we avoid situations like that?
[PC]: Well, the obvious answer to that is to anticipate the client team struggles, and design the program in anticipation of that. We started down this path by offering clients some “telephone consulting” or follow-up visits to hold their feet to the fire—that’s evolved into a more formal process in which we help them prototype the infrastructure they’ll need to implement while we’re still actively engaged. We’re also exploring new models including “externships” (where an IDEO person goes to live with a client to keep things moving along), as well IDEO alumni who can embed themselves in our client organizations after we’ve completed our programs.
[HF]: Peter, thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing you present at MX San Francisco.