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Gerry: Hello, and welcome to Bringing Design Closer on the This is HCD Network. A very warm welcome to the very first episode of Bringing Design Closer. It’s a podcast dedicated in exploring the tactical and strategic things that work in enabling a design centricity to occur in organisations, businesses, and governments. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a service design practitioner based in Dublin City, Ireland.
In this episode, we caught up with Andre Shaminee, author of a fantastic book: Designing with and Within Public Organisations. In the episode, we discuss what are the biggest things that prevent local councils and governments from adopting design methods. We ask, what makes the challenges of adopting deign in government unique. We discuss, what is a wicked problem?
We discuss, also, what are the tactical things that we can do to solve wicked problems? Such as, framing and reframing as a tactical tool. As being critical to the success of not only the project, but also the integrity of the methods themselves. Let’s get started. Andre Shaminee, a very warm welcome to Bringing Design Closer. How are you?
Andre: I’m very fine, thank you very much. How are you?
Gerry: I’m good. Andre, tell us, where are you coming from today?
Andre: I’m sitting in my living room in a medium-sized city in the Netherlands called Nikmegen, which is somewhat in between Amsterdam and the beautiful city of Einthoven, where the Dutch Design Week always week.
Gerry: Excellent. I’ve been meaning to get to that. Now, that I’m back in this part of the world, I’ll try and get there maybe next year. Andre, I was given your book by your publishers a number of months ago and I’m only getting around to it now. It’s Designing with and in Public Organisations. It was a great read. I really enjoyed it. Let’s start. Tell us a little bit about yourself and maybe how you describe what you do to your mum?
Andre: Oh dear. Well, first of all, I’ve been trained as an urban designer in the late 90s and the beginning of this millennium, I was in university. I enjoyed it a lot. I started working in that field, as well, but I also have been involved in the arts scene. I’ve founded two record labels also in the 90s. I’ve been doing that for about 15 years.
Andre: After a few years working in the field of urban design, I found myself working for a consultancy firm called Twynstra Gudde, one of the leading firms in the Netherlands. Although, I enjoyed working there a lot, I was trying to figure out who I was in that field, because up until I started working for Twynstra Gudde, I combined a more technical job with a more artistic approach with music. I kind of lost that in the first few years that I worked for Twynstra Gudde.
I’ve always been inspired by artists and designers, how they bring about solutions to complicated societal issues in a way that I can’t, and most of the people I work with can’t either. In one stage, I was looking at some work from pretty young designers, I thought to myself, well, actually, there are questions that nobody in my field asks. They design interventions that I have not seen before. What would happen if I take them along on my assignments?
This basically was the start of a decade where I brought in designers in all kinds of assignments I got from different sources of governmental organisations. I mainly work in the public sector. That was quite beautiful because I was not too familiar with design. I knew it inspired me, but I didn’t know about methods and instruments and how it worked.
By observing the way designers work and how people in organisations respond to their skills and their attitude and their instruments, I learned that there was something missing on the interface between design and organisations. Basically, that’s what I’ve been focused on for the last decade, on the question: How to bring forward a thorough and impactful design process in organisations that are not equipped to work with designers in essence.
Gerry: Yes, they’re baked in their old-world type of behaviours.
Andre: It’s that, but it’s also that public organisations are designed in a manner that they are fundamentally unable to work in a way that a designer prefers to work. When I started working with designers in public organisations, I notice that although many people in public organisations were really open for a different approach and they were really looking for creativity. The moment designers started working, they would cause some reactions. I call them friendly fire these days.
Gerry: Friendly fire.
Andre: Even if public organisations hire designers to work together, to collaborate, the way of working with designers is so different in nature, most of the time, that within these organisations, reactions come about that limit the space for a thorough design process. Perhaps I can best describe this by giving you a little bit of background in how we look at design from a change management perspective. It is important to understand that most changes are being brought about by ways of cognitive fact-finding and negotiating in public sector organisations. Most civil servants, they come up with proposals based on facts and figures and evaluations.
Andre: All of these proposals, most of the time they fit the system. When they’ve got these proposals, the leadership considers them. Then depending on the resources, such as time and money combined with the political ideology of the people who take the decision, the take the decision.
Gerry: Is that process there one of the biggest resistances, that the fact that the proposals are being sent into people to make the decision, and the people who get to make the decisions are sometimes from the old world?
Andre: I’m not so sure what old-world means?
Gerry: Let me describe old-world, old-world are people who’ve been behaviourally, organisationally institutionalised to that way of thinking. They think like a government. They don’t think from the service perspective. Whenever the people go and they actually base their proposals to effectively inform new-world type of thinking, they’re presenting it to somebody who’s from the old-world and they may just define and decide, should we do this project based on their own mental models of what they believe to be the right decision.
Andre: I’m not sure if the thinking in old-world and new-world is eventually going to help us. Of course, there is this systems logic in public organisations. This systems logic prevents you to dive into the perspective of your end-user. It’s remarkable how many civil servants actually have contact with end-users, with civilians. It’s only a few of them. Those people are usually not the ones who hold a lot of power in those organisations. They’re really important and they’re excellent professionals, but they are often not the people who bring systematic change about.
Anyway, these systems, they tend to be dominant of the live-world perspective. However, in these systems approach is also the guarantee of a good democratic system. You have to understand that things like equality before the law is guaranteed by the way we design these systems. When a designer comes into an organisation, they tend to think from the end-user and come up with proposals that actually will make a difference in the outside world. If the public organisation who has to be responsible for those ideas can’t guarantee basic principles, like equality for the law, then their ideas will not be adopted.
What design does not do very well is redesign the core values of organisations. What I see design does, they come in, look at the issue, look at the end users, come up with a proposal, but they forget that there is a box outside the box. We look at the issue as a box that we have to think outside. Then we thought outside that box and then there’s another box. That’s the organisation. That has to shift.
Gerry: Yes, but that’s the space where we need to play.
Andre: Yes, definitely. We have to understand that these organisations, although, many things don’t go as well as they should, democratically speaking, they work pretty decently. We can’t just say it’s the old-world and to abandon the old-world, we have to see which core values are standing in the way of finding meaningful ideas and redesign these core values. This we can only do in cocreation with both the civil servants and the leadership. This is the second problem, and that’s design is not so good with power.
Gerry: Yes. It’s interesting. I’m learning as I’m speaking to you now at the moment, it’s probably my own experiences dealing with government that when you’re a designer and you’re going into government and you meet that resistance, that cold-face and you’re trying to push through that change, and you get that resistance. It’s my behaviour and my understanding of, actually, do you know what? They don’t think like me, they’re old-world. I compartmentalise those experiences.
They’re like me, it’s tribes, it’s subcultures, it’s whatever you want to call it. I’ve experienced that. I know from working in governments in many countries, but it’s interesting to get that perspective on it. I agree with it, but it’s an interesting conversation to be had. Within your book, there are lots of great points in it. You speak about wicked problems. Now, for the people who are listening who aren’t aware of what a wicked problem is, how do you describe it?
Andre: You can’t describe it in various manners. Professor Kees Dorst, who wrote the book: Frame Innovation, the method I prefer to work from. He described wicked problems as problems that are open, networked, dynamic, and complex. Open means that many people have access to it, so many people have an interest in…
Gerry: In the problem.
Andre: It’s dynamic, it changes while you work on it. It’s networked, which means if you start working on it, you cause troubles on totally different silos and totally different silos. If a problem is wicked, which means if it’s open, dynamic, networked, and complex, it usually means that the answer has to be open, networked, dynamic, and complex, as well.
Andre: Another statement from change management is a wicked problem is a problem where what’s allowed doesn’t work, and what works isn’t allowed.
Gerry: Yes, let’s talk about that. That’s really interesting for me. What works isn’t allowed is probably the resistance that I’ve experienced. You can duck to the best design research and you validated the best possible ideas. You’ve been inclusive and you’re presented it back to government, the decision-makers and nothings happens. What are we doing wrong?
Andre: Well, things that typically go wrong is that you work from a perspective on society that’s not politically feasible. Sometimes not even feasible from a social perspective.
Andre: The interesting thing is that a designer does not hold a position of power, yet, they exercise a lot of power. What design does is, by going out there, speak to people, you are actually interfering in the forcefield that’s maintaining the problem. It’s probably the right thing to do if you want to find a solution, but you can imagine that if you are disturbing the forcefield, so you are neglecting some people you do not find relevant and you’re highlighting people that you do find relevant, you also start creating your own resistance.
You’re starting to make a cocreational process that is actually going to lead to some sort of meaningful solutions. However, most of the parties in this wicked issue are not in a cocreation process, they are in a negotiating process. In a negotiating process, totally different rules apply. You’re only having a seat on the table if you have an interest, if you have a stake. All of these people who have an interest in the issue but who are not so important from an end-user’s perspective, if they get excluded, they are going to resist.
This resistance can take all forms. There are three games played in a wicked problem. The first is a cognitive approach. Finding the one true solution and implement it in a project manner. This is how most engineers, but also how many civil servants prefer to work. This is how, also, they are being managed by their bosses. Then there is the negotiating approach of the leadership, so they relay all of the interests on the table and they negotiate and try to get the best deal with as much support as possible. Then there’s the designer who is not looking for compromises or looking for the one true solution but is starting to find trying to create a meaning and trying to build a movement around that, a movement that nobody can really control, nobody can really predict.
These three games are being played at the same time and totally different rules apply. What’s more is, even the languages that are being used in these three approaches is totally different. They don’t really understand each other. If an engineer asks you, have you spoken to the right people? He probably means, have you spoken to people who wield knowledge?
If someone in the negotiation field says, “Did you speak to the right people?” They probably mean, did you speak to the people who hold an interest, who have power? If you say to a designer, did you speak to the right people, they probably assume you refer to the end-users. These are totally different people.
Andre: These are totally different people. We speak totally different languages and we have totally different playing rules. The trick is, you can’t say that one approach is better than the other, these three have to be combined in some way. This is basically what my book is about. There is nobody protecting or guarding the interface between these approached.
Gerry: Whose role is that? Who do you see owning or enabling the bridging of those relationships?
Andre: Look, that’s the million-dollar question.
Gerry: Yes. It’s contextual, as well.
Andre: As long as designers don’t have in-depth knowledge about organisations and about power and about all these things, it has to be someone from the organisations who hire designers. Most people in the organisations don’t have the in-depth knowledge of design. Who is going to build the bridge? In the ten years that I’ve been working in the field of design, I think there is a third discipline. The third discipline is about building the context within organisations to bring about a thorough and meaningful design process.
Of course, there are people who do meaningful and wonderful things on intuition or because they do know about design and about power and about organisations and systems, but there are not so many people. In order to bring design further within public organisations, we have to address this and work on a discipline on the interface of design and organisations.
Gerry: It reminds me of a quote John Thackara mentioned in one of his keynotes that I’d seen in Barcelona last year, by Ilya Prigogine and it was “in an unstable complex, small islands of coherence have the potential to change the whole system”. It’s very similar. When I’ve worked in government organisations, too often you get a group of renegades who are disruptors and they put together a stealth team, a stealth project, and they work on it tactically. They work on it covertly as well in many instances.
They conduct the research, the conduct the validation, the prototyping, it’s inclusive. It’s at that point then that they try to build a movement outward from those stealth projects. Looking at your approach and what we’re discussing here about having that bridging gap. Is it the lead designer or is it the product manager? Who would you see helping enable the bridging between, I’m going to go back to the new-world and that system? What have you seen that has worked?
Andre: What’s worked for us most of the time best is that we have – basically, it’s my role. In all the assignments that I do, it’s my role to bridge the gap between design and organisations. After being in the field of design for ten years and being surrounded by excellent designers, I’ve learned a thing or two about design. I’m really reluctant to call myself a designer when I’m on stage. First of all, the people that I bring with me are better designers that I will ever be.
It also makes my position difficult. I can say things that a designer can’t, organisations trust me more about when I advise on changing the organisations than they do when a designer who says the exact same thing. On the other hand, when my designers present themselves, there’s a bit of a crossover between organisational advisors and designers.
What we’ve experienced is that you can’t be so radical in your design. The designers we work with, it can be far more radical in their approaches, in their suggestions than I can. By giving up the position of a designer, you also give up a little bit of your…
Gerry: Yes, you’re their superpower.
Andre: Yes. What’s best for us, especially in organisations that I’m not too familiar with design yet, is to bring in two distinct roles. Don’t let the designer become an organisational advisor, and don’t let the organisational advisor be a designer.
Gerry: You mentioned about the new role, what would you call it?
Andre: Prof Kees Dorst called me a context builder. I think that nails it.
Gerry: Yes, it’s nice. It’s also someone who’s involved with the framing, it sounds like, or the reframing of the opportunity, as opposed to even defining the project or any of that stuff. It’s the opportunity and it’s working with that to shape it out. It could also be a business design function. I’ve seen that work quite nicely. It’s really interesting. Andre, in the book, you mention about reframing as being one of the critical things to dealing with wicked problems. Now, I want to speak a little bit more about the tactical things that you’ve seen works well, just so the people are listening.
They can take that and maybe they can start incorporating that into how they’re working. One of the things that you mentioned about is the feasibility, which is obviously desirability, feasibly, and viability. I see design playing very well in desirability, but they also have a huge opportunity in the other two. You call out something they can do in the faming process around feasibility. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Andre: Well, the feasibility of the design process has several aspects. When you look, for instance, at the framing and reframing and for those of you listening who are not familiar with that stat in the design process, frame innovation is the method we work from and frame innovation says, before you actually get up with finding new solutions, you have to look at the frame that you use in finding new meaningful solutions. Problems are usually framed in a manner that maintained the problem.
Before finding new solutions, you have to reframe the issue. For instance, we worked on a construction site and the construction site is usually looked at as a place where people have six years of burden of noise and pollution etc., before the work is done. We reframed the construction site to a temporary economy, because we saw in a project in Amsterdam, there was a lot of material, knowledge, machines, etc., being brought into a project in the city centre, in a densely populated area.
It was also an area where there was a lot of unemployment and many people dealing with poverty. We thought, well, we can put a fence around this construction site, or we can make it as transparent as possible and see how all of this knowledge and skills and materials people actually benefit from it in talent development in setting up their own business. If you make that reframing, but from the design point of view, I think that was quite well done. I mean, it looked good, it felt good, and it worked.
It did not only work because the design was right, it also worked because we managed to get the system to adopt it. What normally happens is, everybody is so focused on reducing the annoyance for the people around the construction site, that that’s the only thing that you focus on, the reduction of the noise. If you start considering this construction site as something people could benefit from, as something positive, people have to make a great mind shift, that’s not how they used to work, they have to stop doing what they were doing.
Andre: Yes, they have to change. It also means that we are aiming for different goals than we used to. The goal normally around a construction site is to make the burden as accepted as possible, so that the process can go through as quick as possible, so we can lose as little money as possible on the project by delays. Now, the question that we have is, how can the area benefit as much as possible from this temporary economy?
This is interesting because the people who are in charge of the project, they might say, “Well, that is not the task that we were asked to do.” This is what normally happens when you make a reframing. What we have to do is, make sure that this strategy to adopt it, and then people say, “We are responsible for this new goal. We consider it important and we go for it.”
Gerry: Yes. It goes back to the mindset of the organisation because they have to be comfortable with changing course. What I’ve seen in government, in particular, is they sign off the business case, treasury tend to give them money, like there’s two million or whatever to do this project. Then to go back to government and go, we’re going to do a reframing, it takes a certain amount of confidence and trust in that team to be able to say, “Do you know what?
We’ve agreed to pay for this over here, but now you’re telling me reframing, we’re going to end up doing this over here?” I’ve seen projects been stopped for stuff like that. That’s one of the biggest problems that I’ve seen in preventing the delivery of value and the right thing to be going to societal.
Andre: Yes, I think many of the listeners will recognise this. There isn’t this easy set of five rules what to do to prevent that from happening. What I try to do in my book is, give you a lot of cases and explain what happened in that particular case.
Gerry: You definitely have given that. I’ve passed this book around to a few people and they’re like, “Hey, this is really good.” It’s a good, and this is not me trying to sell a book by the way, I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t believe in a book, it’s a strong book for anyone who’s working in these difficult spaces.
Andre: Thank you.
Gerry: It’s something that I know, I’m probably a difficult person to speak to about this because I’ve gone through government projects, but there are some really good tactical things in the book that I’ve found very useful. Even you’ve heard it on this episode, I was talking about new-world, old-world, and you were like, “No, no, no”, I need to reframe probably myself. I’ve really enjoyed it. I want to move onto the last part of the interview. I always end every episode with three questions. I’ll ask the first question, what is the one professional skill that you wish you were better at and why?
Andre: Oh dear. There are so many things that excellent designers can do that I can’t. I’ve given myself the privilege of not having to be able to do that and just accept that they are better at it and make sure that they are in my team. One of the things that we are learning in this stage is, I think that you talked about stealth projects. I think we are quite well aware of how to bring about a stealth project, but when it really comes into the forcefield of power, what happens then, and how to deal with it and how to manage it?
That’s still a bit of a learning field also for us. Up until now, we’ve had a whole bunch of experiences, but there is so much more to learn. I would love to get more the heart of societal urgent matters. Where people try to understand what a design approach is needed, that they asked for it. Really ask us to understand on an even deeper level how design and power interact.
Gerry: All right, so the second question, Andre is, what is the one thing you wish you were able to banish from the industry and why?
Andre: To banish from the industry? I think it would be good if we were a bit more cautious with starting all of these laboratories. All of these labs. They do serve a function, but they’re also an excuse not to engage with the organisational complexity.
Andre: Usually the organisational complexity is eventually holding implementation of your wonderful design back.
Gerry: Yes, and the IP. That’s a great answer. The last one is, what is the advice that you’d give to emerging design talent for the future?
Andre: Read, read, read. Read newspapers, read opinion magazines. The thing is that if you start working in this field with societal issues, there are so many sides to it. Also, intellectually, it’s really complicated, and you have to understand where you stand yourself. You have to understand what the complexity is about. You can’t fall back on just methods and the instruments. Being curious, being truly curious about the complexity and also be curious about the resistance of your experience. Instead of being annoyed.
Gerry: Yes, Andre. That’s a great answer, it’s very true. It’s something that I’m always saying when I mentor young designers is, go and experience everything. In business, life, go do charity work, go travel and broaden your mind. It’s a great way to end the very first episode. Thank you much for your time.
Andre: Thank you very much.
Gerry: There you have it. Thanks for listening to Bringing Design Closer. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit: thisishcd.com, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel, where you can connect with other human-centred design practitioners around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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