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Building design capability and delivery at pace


by Bella Burt-Morris

I’m a service designer with a bias toward delivery and pace. I like to get things done. Over the last year, I’ve been conscious of how I balance my own “need for speed” with the pace of the team, the project and the client.

We do this job to change hearts and minds. To build design capabilities in organisations, with teams and with people, so that long term they can continue making change happen after we’ve stepped out of the picture. Yet, this purpose to build capability is increasingly at odds as we push for delivery at the same pace and to the same deadline.

The shift from consulting to delivery

When I first worked as a [graphic] designer, I worked within the traditional relationship between a client and a creative. The “I’ll do it for you” model. We were the experts, we were briefed and we did the thing. Speed was encouraged and rewarded.

Today, service designers work with clients as partners. We’re co-designing, facilitating, building capability and supporting implementation.

In relatively recent history, design adopted agile, a methodology which introduces language that reinforces speed: stand ups, sprints and retros. Trying something new, the unfamiliarity and ambiguity of this approach can magnify the feeling of pace.

However, the meeting of two organisations working together on one journey towards delivery requires constant recalibration of pace and expectations.

Pace at the cost of depth

When we start any project, we’re keen to speak to users. Whether staff or citizen, speaking to people helps us understand first hand experience and expectations. In order to be truly user centred, we need to hear from them, test things and learn. We’re often hired for these behaviours, embedding this mindset with everyone we work with to create truly human centred services.

But we aren’t always starting from scratch; interviewing and collating research where there wasn’t any before. We bring pace to this process by trusting the expertise of the client. Being one step removed and operating at a higher level allows designers to get on with creating without getting caught in the detail for too long. I’ve become accustomed to recognising when ‘we know enough’ or ‘are confident enough’ to move to the next stage, and, balancing that understanding against knowing when more insight is needed.

However, maintaining pace can come at the cost of depth. The faster we move, the more our field of view can narrow. Under the pressure of time, it can be hard to zoom out from the doing, taking the time to make sense of the work and ensure we’re still doing the right thing.

I’m trying to become more comfortable with slowing down on projects. I mean really slowing down, for a week or a whole sprint, to let this happen.

Service designer as coach

Service designers have increasingly taken on the role of a coach or guide. Whilst learning and building new skills with teams and people can happen naturally, the reality is that it’s a long term process, continuing beyond the bounds of any one project.

You may be familiar with the experience of teaching someone to become a design researcher whilst conducting the research itself. While we lead an interview, the client observes the nuances of qualitative research as the note taker and gradually, gains the confidence to become the facilitator themself.

Our expectations when skill building needs to be sensitive to the pace of someone trying something for the first time. In these moments, it can be tempting to revert back to the “I’ll do it for you” model. I’ve regularly experienced the counter-intuitive feeling of slowing down and holding back from getting something done quickly to instead, properly bring someone along on the journey.

In my experience, I’ve found it works best when coaching sits on a separate, longer timeline. It allows space for onboarding to discuss an individual’s goal, learning by doing in project delivery and space afterwards to step away and reflect on that learning.

Finding where the pace feels right

Rather than asserting pace, teams need to acknowledge it and check in with it. We need to show empathy for individuals, the team and the organisation to recognise when we can go fast and where we need to slow down.

It’s having the awareness and maturity to recognise when the team or individuals need time and space to think, reflect and possibly pivot. Once you’re conscious of it, you can be deliberate.

Not every sprint or week is equal. The pace can vary over the life of a project, as long as we’ve taken the time to build trusting relationships and changes are communicated widely to set realistic expectations. As we continue to respond to increasingly complex and urgent issues, this awareness and ability to adapt will be more important than ever as we listen to the needs of communities and organisations to find a sustainable pace for impactful change.

Bella Burt-Morris's avatar

Bella Burt-Morris

Design Director

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