4 logistical problems when scaling design cultures

Written by 
Mariano Battan
November 2, 2015

In the last two years, I’ve spent a lot of time with teams collaborating remotely and enterprises who are embracing design at scale.

I’ve seen a lot of the latter invest heavily in amazing innovation centers, workshops with top design agencies, and executive retreats that include a few sessions at cool design schools.

Yet, only the ones that truly embrace design as a culture at scale are the ones that are seeing results. These guys understand the need for a broad cultural shift, in addition to the need for teams to build new experiences and solutions.

On a Mission to Change

For their September 2015 issue, the Harvard Business Review focused on the evolution of Design Thinking. In a great article, Jon Kolko, Head of Design at Blackboard, outlines a few big cultural and strategic challenges that companies face when implementing these concepts. He does a good job describing the need for buy-in from the C-level, and how getting more innovative means getting comfortable with ambiguity and challenges in measuring ROI. Since Kolko covered the cultural roadblocks, I’ll focus on a different set of issues.

Even when companies have pushed the initiative from the top down, and everyone is dedicated to embracing a playful and fearless path to the next big idea, there can be tons of organizational and logistical issues to solve.

Problems from the Playfield

Problems from the Playfield

Here’s a few speed bumps I’ve come across. We’ve all felt these kind of hiccups, so tell me about yours in the comments.

  • Hard to find and equip a “project room”. As I mentioned, lots of companies have innovation centers, but if you walk the halls you’ll see that many offices are not even equipped for a basic brainstorm session. One design manager from a Fortune 500 company mentioned that he had to set up the process by buying Post-it notes and foam boards for his company, before they could get to work.
    Lack of space also forces teams to schedule conference rooms in order to collaborate, and they usually have to leave the space empty for the next group. A colleague told me that her team once had to re-do a 3 hour workshop because no one documented their white board and Post-its when they finished. All the work was simply erased by the next group to use the room.
  • Globally distributed teams don’t get together regularly. Go into any Design Thinking workshop and you’ll see a common pattern, they all rely on analog tools. This is on purpose, of course. They want you to turn off distractions from mobile phones and email, and push up your sleeves so that you can draw and prototype stuff, talk to people, make everything fast, and iterate. The reality though, is that people in large companies are often not collocated and project rooms are not teleportable.
  • Battling Workshop Amnesia. It’s endlessly frustrating to spend hours ideating wildly with your team, only to see many of your greatest ah-ha moments get lost when the Post-its come down. We refer to this loss of momentum and context as Workshop Amnesia. It can easily derail a project by contributing to confusion over distribution of responsibility and next steps.
  • Non-standard design process. Something very common at design agencies is to have a high-level process, but use different tools and frameworks depending on the team or context. Within a larger organization, this means a lot of setup time and energy are spent just to make sure everyone is on the same page before a project even gets started.
  • High expert to rookie ratio. When you embark on a big change, there will be experts, amateurs, and rookies–but mostly rookies. The experts will be in high demand and can have a hard time managing all the requests for help. Not always because of a lack of time, sometimes just because the ask wasn’t right. For example, an executive at a client company complained that he was often asked to travel across the country, only to find that he could help the team get unstuck in about an hour with some simple questions and guidance once he saw the project laid out.

These issues have the potential to annoy and discourage people enough to quickly give up on the entire process. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for maximizing results, but below are some tips for avoiding many of the pitfalls that can keep a design culture from working in your enterprise.

Pro tips for scaling Design Thinking

Pro tips for scaling Design Thinking

I think it’s time that we define the Playbook on how to practice design thinking across industries. We have a high level process and principles that we can all agree on: adopt a user-centered approach, be thorough in finding the right problems to address, be driven by outcomes, use divergent and lateral thinking to encourage wild ideas, pick and focus on the best ones, define and do quick experiments experimentation, and share findings through good storytelling to move others.

The methodologies, content, and frameworks are there, but there is still a need to determine some go-to best practices. It would be helpful to have a default set of standards for folks getting started, and then a more detailed playbook for veteran teams.

Based on my observations, here are a few ideas to include in that Playbook of best practices.

  • Demolish cubicles, provide the right workspace and tools. Providing a physical space that is conducive to innovation methods and fully stocked with tools to brainstorm is a start. Have folks feel comfortable breaking things and rearranging their spaces as needed. When remote, looping in distributed team members with video conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom, and collaborating digitally in an online space like MURAL will assure that everyone can contribute their ideas.
  • Go digital-first. This can be tough if your team is mostly together, but going digitally first, especially with devices like the Microsoft Surface Hub, will help level the playing field for everyone, especially remote workers. It will also help you keep up the momentum of the project. Combine live, local sessions to build organically and get team work done fast. Yet capture your ideas digitally so that when the team separates, they can keep iterating without loss of context.
    Additionally, being digital makes ideas shareable and that will provide the necessary transparency and openness that fosters serendipitous connections in sample physical cases like the famous Building 20 at MIT
  • Around the clock access. Not all great ideas happen during the work day, and team members aren’t always in the same timezone. Have the method and tools in place to support and capture activity whenever and wherever inspiration might strike. Permanent and persistent spaces like murals can help with asynchronous work and having open video channels will help the team pickup from their last session very quickly.
  • Hire, acquire, or grow a method. It’s important to get the entire organization aligned to use a standard framework or method, and there are a few different ways to do this. The LUMA Institute has a number of brilliant manuals to help standardize and scale Design Thinking practices, but sometimes enterprises might need a little more help. In that case, a top agency like IDEO can be brought in to consult.  Some companies like Capital One have acquired design firms, like Adaptive Path, that specialize in experience and service design. Other companies, like IBM, have chosen to invest in hiring senior design leaders and building a new program from the ground up.

  • Invest in training. Since Design Thinking is a relatively new field, it makes sense to invest in training key staff members so they can effectively lead the charge and train others. Intuit trains and recruits “Innovation Catalysts” to help their managers work through design initiatives. Programs, like Stanford’s LEAD Certificate and California College of the Arts MBA in Design Strategy, are designed for executives looking to ramp up their Design Thinking skills while still keeping up with their day job.
  • Experts on demand. If a team is facing a minor problem, then you can take advantage of having the entire project online, using common visual frameworks, and use of standard language. This way, the expert can onboard quickly and digitally so that they can get right to the source of the issues and get the team back on track without ever stepping foot on a plane.

Of course, achieving the next big innovation in your industry will always take hard work, talented people, and a creative process that fits your team. If you can use these tips to reduce the effort it takes to execute this type of work, you’ll be making strides towards a more forward-thinking way of working. I’m sure there are a few things I left out, share your tips in the comments.

Do you think it could be possible to put together a definitive playbook for the innovation process? Could we have The Way to practice design as we have with storytelling, coding or sales? I’ve discussed this with the renowned strategist, John Kao, and he believes he knows how to move towards. Maybe one of the design masters can take the lead and show us the way.

About the authors

About the authors

Mariano Battan

Mariano Battan

I co-founded Mural, where we are making creative teams become better design thinkers through our collaboration software. We started Mural because of a game we were designing. Ask me about that.

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