HDL Studios Building In-House Commitment

Posts tagged with "How-To" contain reflections on designing, organizing, and operating the HDL Studios. This post was originally drafted as part of our In Studio book but was cut and has been lingering in draft mode ever since. As we're now spending more helping other public sector organizations boot up internal design capabilities the topic became relevant again. So here we go!

In a previous post we talked about Transferring Knowledge with regards to stakeholders who are outside of your organization. In this post I'd like to talk about the flip side of that: how knowledge is transferred internally. Or maybe it's more basic. How does one build commitment within their own organization?

A bit of explanation is due. Strategic design was a new thing at Sitra when we began preparing for HDL 2010. In fact, before Marco came to Sitra as the Director of Strategic Design the position didn't exist. For us the stakes of the studio were double—they had to serve a need for the external stakeholders while also helping to demonstrate to our colleagues here at Sitra what design is, what it looks like, and what benefits a design process can yield. The worst thing that could happen was that we end up as an 'internal service bureau,' offering turnkey services to disinterested 'clients.'

In fleshing out this aspect of the Studios we took a slightly oddball approach and sought to build internal partnerships that would yield financial (€€€), social (networks), and human capital (know-how). In other words, we thought of ourselves as a startup looking for seed funding within the broader umbrella of Sitra.

Financial capital

Money is always useful when beginning a project, but the motivations for seeking internal 'investment' go a bit deeper—after all, this is a question of moving money around internal accounting buckets, so it's mostly an imagined barrier. Money may be a flawed symbol of commitment, but it's a convenient one.

The reason we asked that our partners in the Public Leadership and Management Programme and the Energy Programmes to contribute to HDL studio budget was to make our shared commitment more tangible in the early phases of the project, when design was still mostly a magical black box for most of Sitra. It was a leap of faith that we're very thankful for!

Formalizing the partnership by re-allocating funds served as a reminder of the shared vision that we were developing. In a public organization like Sitra the accounting system is robust, requiring diligent structuring and sign offs, so we turned this into an asset by using the 'gatekeeping' nature of the accounting system as a way to regularly revisit our shared commitment both verbally and in writing.

Social Capital

With a bit of skin in the game, our internal partners also had increased incentive to be personally invested in the Studios. The first evidence of this deeper level of interest came through the sharing of networks. For each of the studios we conducted extensive research to create the challenge briefing, organized a day of field trips for the studio members, and brought a handful of guest speakers. This amounted to a significant network-building effort, especially considering that our knowledge and connections in the areas of education and ageing were limited at the outset.

We were obsessive about quality because the studio was limited to a one week on-the-ground window of opportunity, there wasn't a single minute to waste. In practical terms this translated to thorough vetting of all speakers and guests under consideration for the Studios. Our internal partnerships were instrumental in helping build long lists of possible studio members and guests, as well as making personal introductions and helping start those relationships off on the right foot.

In return, the promise that we made was to help the programmes develop their own networks. Since we were out in the field talking to people on a more or less daily basis, it was easy for Marco and I to keep in mind the needs of the programmes and make connections where they seemed valuable.

Looking back over the invite lists for each of the studios, it's clear that each of them is the result of a deep meshing of the various personal and professional networks within Sitra—and richer because of it. By using the broader networks as the basis for our recruiting we were able to introduce productive overlaps between studio members, guests, and others involved which would not have been possible with our own HDL network alone.

Human capital

Having the partner programmes on board with the Studios added resilience during crunch points when we had acute needs for extra help. For instance, being able to get an extra pair of eyeballs to review the challenge briefings at various stages of their creation was very helpful. This also served as an opportunity for our partners to be personally involved in the process, seeing for themselves how key parts of the design process are developed and fine tuned, and hopefully to take some of that experience back to their own teams. There's a delicate balance to be struck between asking too little of your partners and overwhelming them with requests. At the moment we don't have any grand insights into what that point is, other than to say you'll see it on the face of your coworkers when you're about to topple the balance!

Being Realistic

Given that there was no precedent for design within the organization, the level of support and trust that has been afforded to HDL within Sitra is remarkable. Starting from scratch, we knew that the Studios would be a good opportunity to help our leadership see for themselves what strategic design is all about, but we also knew that we had to be realistic about how much of their time we could hog. Everyone has packed schedules, and for top leadership that's doubly so.

For many reasons we are averse to memos and reports. Particularly when dealing with a topic such as strategic design, which can be quite abstract, we knew from the start that it's more productive to have conversations than put things immediately into writing. As much as possible we tried to create opportunities for in-house leadership to visit with Studio, to see it for themselves, and to hear from the Studio members what the experience was like.

On the other hand, we also had to be realistic. What's the minimal involvement that would be useful? Two or three brief visits each from a couple key individuals over the course of the entire Studio experience was effective in generating a deeper level of in-house understanding. As much as possible, we encouraged these visits to occur during active times (like the final jury discussions) to maximize their impact.

Making (and taking) Time

Having built strategic design at Sitra and the HDL Studios with a combination of financial, social, and human capital on a hunch that all three would be needed, this combo only becomes more critical the longer we work on these issues. As Sitra has now been practicing strategic design for coming on four years, the deep importance of strong partnerships—internal and external—can only be underscored.

Perhaps the reason for this is quite simple: partnerships take time. The longer we spent working with our internal partners the more we see saw strategic design taking root within Sitra. Patience and persistence might be the most important kinds of capital we have.