6 work style demands designers cannot afford to hate!

We see some interesting acquisitions in the design space recently – Lunar by McKinsey, DesignIT by Wipro to name the prominent two. The growth of digital business has put creativity and innovation ahead of conventional value of cost and efficiency. Design firms looking for opportunities to scale has found alliances with large organizations who are seeking design capability to delight customer experience. How these alliances work out would be interesting to watch.

Though this opens up exciting world of opportunities, it also throws challenges for designers in adapting to corporate style of working.

Corporates as in existence today believe in policies, systems, rules and declared methods. Designers believe in flexibility, intuition, out of the box thinking as a norm and consider methods as personal. In my opinion they form poor corporate citizens. They have to deal with the following 6 work style demands if they have to succeed in corporate setting.

1 Collaborative working

Designers believe in individuality – individuality of insights, ideas and execution – because that gives them and their output the identity. This is against the grain of corporate execution culture where value addition is collective. You pick from where someone leaves and add your value over to reach the most executable solution collectively. This can be between roles, functions or departments. Usually designers are more collaborative with their type and find not their type difficult to deal with. Here, I do not refer to the behavioural attitude of collaboration, rather I talk about the hazard that designers tend to possess through their professional practice that fosters lone, end-to-end working.

2 Designing for scale

With the prevalence of systems that drive operations the corporate functioning is centered around data. Business intelligence and analytics influence decisions. Insights will be most appreciated in small groups, but executable ideas that have large scale impact are usually data driven. The competence of human centric ideation and prototyping  shall yield respect for designers, however, their tools, methods and approach in addressing large scale complexity will be in suspect. Functions like marketing, projects, production, support or finance are most likely to confront designers on the merit of their idea. Designers have to learn to respond using the language of data and not of gut or intuition.

3 Love user, Hate market

Given a choice designers prefer “user study” for insights than “market research”. Possibly the chart and graph laden market analysis are considered to be useful for business analysis  and not for design. This is untrue. Significant macro insights are extremely important for problem definition. Designers have to integrate insights from users along with market to base a more holistic solution. But, more profoundly designers refuse to accept the fact that market is nothing but a perspective that reflects the collective view of their users they admire to serve.

4 Reporting as a ritual

Corporate functions have embedded distinct business reporting methods as part of their functioning – Sales forecast, Inventory, Cash Flow, etc. Similarly design function needs to embed a reporting that is organisationally relevant. Reporting is a means to communicate execution health and alert possible cross-functional risks. Designers will have to step out of the ‘deadline’ mode of studio operation to enable their method of working being viewed from customer value, cost, timeliness and efficiency like other functions in the organisation.

5 Nuisance of Presenting & Documenting

Designers ignore investment of effort in documenting & presenting their rationale in a consistent manner. I have often found young designers shirk this as an intrusion into their otherwise more satisfying creative pursuit. Corporate actions are driven by priorities. Priorities are set by communication. So, a well-structured and objective business communication is the only way to reach out to people to excite attention and action.

6 Dealing with feedback

A typical business operates on continuous course correction through feedback from market, customers, finance, support, sales, delivery and quality. Not all of these are predictable in terms of content or time. A work day may be a mixed bag of countless such feedbacks exchanged. Great ideas worked with extraordinary passion could face ruthless rejection. Designers who identify themselves with ideas should strive to let their objectivity prevail not to regard business feedback as personal. Corporates will demand extraordinary tolerance to absorb feedback.

Not to say that the organisation of the future will be drastically different and some of these assumptions may not be valid. But, designers who enter corporation of today do not have a choice. Do they?

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Design Thinking

Design thinking is in great focus of late. Organizations in India, especially Retail & IT services, have started to look at design thinking lot more aggressively. Businesses by and large have come to realize managing all the touch points of human experience is as critical than just making, branding, selling and delivering the product or services. At the end of the day, businesses thrive on the success of those touch points. Viewing human as the core of consumption and weaving a world of experience around the touch and feel is what design is all about.

For long, profession of design has remained an exceptional individual or a small group centric activity performed by a specialised set of creative professionals hired on contract. The primary purpose of engagement was to lay layer of aesthetic appeal to an engineered good or a service. However, there were few handfuls of studios that possibly went beyond and did some strategic work (with few exceptions in auto industry). Mostly, design remained as an activity that happened outside the corporation. It was not seen as core to business until companies such as Apple led the way. Through its in-house design department Apple made a departure to the culture of contracting design to making design core to business. Several companies have followed to institutionalise design as part of the corporate role. In fact, the re-designation of Jonathan Ive of Apple as CDO (Chief Design Officer) recently is a reiteration of a shift for design as a function to lay an equal and powerful stake as much as functions such as finance, people, marketing, to influence & drive the business.

Case for design thinking

What such a transformation means to industry in general? If business of yesterday was seen as a collection of perspectives of finance, marketing, strategy, people resources & technology and a business leader is a one who is sensitive to these perspectives we see an added perspective of design that will influence how business of tomorrow are run. If balance sheet, P/L accounting are the tools for embedding finance perspective, if performance rating, assessment are the tools for embedding human resource perspective, design thinking shall be the tool for embedding design perspective. In the world of business where efficiency is given, productivity is taken for granted, shelf life (for a product/service) is short-lived, experience demand is high, the only way for businesses to differentiate is to churn, discover & craft newer ideas, approaches and solutions at terrific speed. All being equal it is design where the differentiations will lie.

Design Thinking

Design thinking may be described in many ways. One simple way could be this:

Keeping the experience of the user at the core, discover & define the problem; visualize the user scenarios; ideate possible solutions by integrating both logical & aesthetic perspectives; generate close to consumption prototypes and demonstrate the power of the idea for execution.

Design thinking is not only about designers like Managerial Accounting is not only about accountants. Managerial Accounting is about managers viewing business through numbers. (One need not necessarily be a trained qualified accountant to learn to read numbers behind business operation. However, a business manager should know the language of numbers to think business) A business manager needs to build sensitivity to numbers to see the impact and deliberate her investment decisions. Same way, a business manager today needs to build sensitivity to design thinking for developing business propositions, be it product, service or both.

What do we foresee?

As design permeates we will see several changes in the nature of organisations of tomorrow. Like how quality permeated through certification, process control & compliance into the business operations we will see design shaping the culture of ideas driving business. We will see designers leading key transformative initiatives. Abstract concepts, sketches & obscure drawings will adorn the corporate discussion forums apart from documents, financials & project time lines!

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The Changing Instructor

As classrooms (or what we call as classroom) change so also the instructor.

Teaching was a revered profession couple of decades ago. The ones who were academically sound and outstanding took to teaching. They had a love for the subject and teaching became the vocation beyond earning a decent livelihood. We had seen that change. (It is often said those who could’nt (succeed) teach.

In the 80s, the story that used to go around in our school about our eminent (and cranky) physics teacher was that he refused to comply with his seniors at the famous Bhabha Atomic Research centre as a researcher. He quit and decided to pursue his career as a teacher.  We were fortunate to have had him in our school. A man full of eccentricities, physically and also in terms of his diction, he served as a typical candidate for mimicking for amusement. I vividly remember how he used to explain the concept of ‘reference’ by dramatically raising the duster in his hand twice in succession to say his claim of having raised the duster to the same location can only be disputed if you had measurement reference from a permanent object, say, a fan, ceiling etc. The class would giggle quietly on his lunatic action with least regard for the message he was intending.

A good instructor was someone who was loud, humorous, dramatic, spontaneous, attention grabbing, and extract fairly sustained attention. When you had the privilege of attending sessions in college you chose those that had an engaging instructor. I attended one recently and was enamored by a professor who despite his frailty of age, roamed around in the class to stimulate dialogue and responses from students. In such cases, lecture sessions are nothing sort of performance. Very evolved lecturers of yesterday performed in class to get students fall in love with the subject. Uninteresting lessons become interesting depending upon who teaches them.

The instructors of the new world will be vastly different. The demand on their skill sets are changing.

The new instructor is the one who will be a brand for the subject he/she professes for audience globally. He divides his content/ information part from his reach and facilitator part. He is available in social platforms to interact with students which are not in 10s or 100s, but in 1000s or 10000s. The checklist for the changing instructor will go something like this…

  1. Upload  lecture videos in youtube
  2. Answer doubts through Facebook
  3. Post an absorbing comment in Twitter
  4. Run a blog to excite opinion and interest
  5. Become an individual brand
  6. Author and publish an insightful book
  7. Have a swelling student following…

Unfortunately, we do not have a mechanism to train and develop such instructors for tomorrow.

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The Changing Classroom

Classroom is changing. Or rather Class (session of learning) and Room (place of learning) are becoming distinguishable and not one and the same in today’s learning revolution.

Classroom fundamentally was an outcome of economics of congregation for mass education. Academies and institutes are a bundle of classrooms to economize on the small pool of educated to deliver learning to the large mass to be educated. The fundamentals that drove the system were attendance and not attention. You may recall the first job of the instructor was to take the roll call, to ensure all are in. The classroom, therefore, with the blackboard as the icon for learning & education exemplified the authority driven instruction executed by the teacher and the institution. The enclosure was to separate the privileged few who are inside from the under-privileged those who are outside. Attending and subjecting oneself through the rigour of classroom was tantamount to being educated. It was always when we attribute credentials to a learned person, it is the college/university and the place where he or she attended that mattered. Instructors who could summon the congregation and extract discipline were considered outstanding.

In the old world, the only way to access education was by attending where it was delivered.

If the classroom and institutionalization separated content from instructor in the old world, the current world has separated instruction from instructor. The commercialization of education, the onset of subscribed distance and virtual education has broken the norm of attendance as credible evidence of learning. The instruction has got separated from the instructor. The measures moved away from attending to completing. Classrooms ceased to have less or no significance in the education process that is completion driven. The engine of content material, assessments and tests drove the process. The delivery and administrative engines have taken away the power from instruction. We see that happen in a big way in higher education.

In the current world, the way to gain education is by completing from wherever one could access.

The explosion of digital technologies and the connectivity is moving education to yet another world. The format of education emerging today has the potential to be completely learner-centric. One may choose what to learn, from where to learn and how to learn. Classroom’s relevance may further get diluted when virtual communication processes mature. We are now talking of educational platforms that are technology-driven. These platforms have flattened classrooms by which students become equal contributors to learning as much the instructor through peer learning.

In the emerging world, the possible way to experience education is by contributing through individual assimilation

Is the Classroom dead? No, it isn’t.

The future will be an interesting mix of all the three worlds with each format doing its bit it is best at. Congregation is still an important component for learning. The Classroom shall uphold the virtues of group physically being together for synthesis, debates and synergizing learning synergies and not for instructional or informational monologue. The classroom shall definitively cease to continue to be an attendance punching machine and the intellectual fort. The instructor needs to leave the virtual medium for students to access content. She rather should look at ways to induce dialogue, conversation among the groups.

The irony is for a virtual classroom course (synchronous learning through video) I undertake today, the institution mandates that I sign an attendance sheet on a piece of paper after every session!

Our mindset shift has a long way to go!!

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That elusive purpose!

Purpose is key to a presentation. This is nothing new.  But we just do not seem to get it. In a vast majority of transactions we do in a typical day it is very much possible that we miss the purpose a great majority of times.

In my presentation workshop session when I insist on the participants to identify and define your purpose as the first step, they struggle. The typical objection is, “My boss usually wants it this way”, or “We are supposed to present in a given template only”. Many executives have habituated to what I call as a distanced approach to presentation. Use a template, fill in and email a bulky 10MB file. What you get is a deck of purposeless, naked set of slides that are fit in to last the length of a long arduous meeting.

The real challenge is to move oneself to the position of accountability to what one creates and presents. If such a belief does not emerge, one cannot make an effective presentation even with the best of tools. The easy availability of templates has ruined this process of ideation. It has denied the opportunity to linger on and extract clarity from scattered ideas and muddled data. The templates short circuit this process and presentations usually emerge from default settings. You find people work annoyingly very hard to fit that extra bullet that hits the bottom of the screen, or let a slide of poor readability pass.

So rule one, spend more time on the purpose than choosing the template.

The second challenge is to make the purpose finer. It usually starts from vague, philosophical meandering of holy good statements. Then one needs to guide oneself by repetitive ‘so what’ to sharpen the statement within oneself and arrive at the core purpose. This is the process of removing redundancies and slicing to extract the core. Fight the tendency to conclude this process too soon. The approach to articulate one’s thoughts in 3-5 core messages would help.

Rule two, cut the fluff and get to core.

The third challenge is to identify stories that contribute to each of the key messages. Messages get reiterated when there is a story to back up. Instead of hunting for bundle of spreadsheets with pies, bars and graphs to fill the slides go behind them to check what they are conveying. Work on the story, the beginning, the various sub plots and the ending. Then, you evaluate what fits and what doesn’t.

Rule three, let the story decide the content.

Try applying these 3 rules, if not a great presentation, you will end up having one with a purpose!

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The distracted audience: Do we have a choice?

It is not unusual to see people twiddling their mobiles, tapping their laptops for their emails or browsing while in a meeting. (I personally get extremely annoyed when I am facilitating a session and I am sure there are many).

I witnessed a high profile executive walk out of a session when told to shut his laptop to lend an undivided attention. He refused and argued he cannot be present if his laptop needs to be shut.  It is an acceptable etiquette today to have the members in the room glued to their respective devices when the proceeding is going on as no one’s business. This might be considered rude and as an act of disobedience in the previous era.

We are living in an era where it is impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation with your colleague, spouse, however brief it can be without a nagging beep that takes their attention away. Your juniors cannot resist responding to the beeps, distracting themselves openly or covertly sometimes, during a serious business conversation. The work area is full of ringtones, bells and at times loud funky tunes.  So, welcome to the world of incessant distraction. Thanks to the explosive invasion of devices into our hands at such proximity.

The truth is that the audiences were always a distracted lot. Just that their distractions have become apparent now and we have devices to blame! Our auditory, visual and touch sensitivities as a form of distraction is the most evolved and part of us. So, this distraction is no surprise at all. One way to deal with the distraction is to impose code of behavior. This can get the body in, what about the mind?

The other is to re-look our communication, our content and our presentation. Look at how our communication exchange blends with the natural behavior of the audience. We continue to carry the old default patterns of meeting, classroom and conferences as centered on talking and listening with undivided attention. It is time we change that. Meeting is not just for informing, but to synthesize ideas and opinions. Classroom is not for teaching, but to learn and assimilate.

We need to break our mindset and see meetings as an opportunity to set up an interaction that has integration of several patterns – information sharing, idea capturing, debating and decisive action.  We need to design engaging interactions to include every participant in all of these processes. The devices that distract may serve as ally to fulfill part of these patterns effectively.

Let us be the distraction of choice for our audience!

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Communication Under-served!

There are areas of communication that are under-served. In a mass market the most served or rather over-served is the communication from business to consumer realm. Great deal of investment goes into the creative strategies, production and delivery of content and reach of marketing communication that induces individuals to buy products and services. So, as a buyer I feel my communication need is over-served from the seller, except maybe, post sale!

On the other hand, the under-served areas are the communication that you experience (rather, that you don’t) as an employee from your business, as a citizen from your government, as a resident from your community or as a student from your institution. Why this difference? It is after all the same engine, the same population and the same belief that communication influences action which over-serves one and under-serves the other.

Corporations invest heavily in machinery, facilities, offices and the communication infrastructure through IT enabled systems. However, for an employee the day-to-day business is governed by communication riddled with plethora of badly written emails, intranet sites that is difficult to navigate, data that lies unpackaged, business strategies that is never uniformly understood, operational procedures that is ambiguous, policies that are unfamiliar, meetings held with sloppy powerpoints and training that is most unproductive.

In a sense the care to synthesize a productive communication environment has never figured as a priority for good business.

In todays distributed work culture aided by sophisticated personal devices, what and how the content is designed and managed is the next wave of change we will foresee in work environment. There is tremendous scope to design communication that takes strategies as stories to every corner of the corporation, policies as nuggets for high recall, corporate values as morals to induce internal belief and operational procedures as rituals to inspire discipline.

It is too naïve to leave that under-served!

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