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Dr. John Curran ‘Two tribes go to war. Dealing with conflict as part of Design.’

John Carter
January 15, 2019
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Completed Episodes
January 15, 2019

Dr. John Curran ‘Two tribes go to war. Dealing with conflict as part of Design.’

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Episode Transcript

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Gerry: Hello and welcome to the first episode of 2019. I hope you had a good break and a good holiday season. As you know, my name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a human centred design practitioner based in Dublin City, Ireland. Before we begin, I wanted to take this opportunity to wish you a very Happy New Year. I hope it’s a good one for you. In this episode, I caught up with Dr. John Curran, a London-based anthropologist. Now, we met in service design days in Barcelona where John was giving a keynote on conflict and how important it is to deal with this, not only in the design process but also the broader impact to the business itself.

How we speak and manage conflict has a direct correlation to the success metrics that are associated with many of the products and services that we as practitioners are often involved in. Now, we chat about this and also the role of collaboration and its impact to culture. It’s a big conversation and it’s a good one. I really enjoyed it.

Now, since we recorded this episode, myself and John started speaking a little bit more frequently and I’m delighted to, again, announce that John would be a regular voice on this is on This Is HCD and will be a guest host speaking on all matters relating to organisational development and culture. How good is that? We have a few more of these announcements to come in the next few weeks, so please stay tuned. Let’s get straight into this conversation with

John. John Curran, a very warm welcome to This is HCD podcast.

John: Hello, Gerry, thank you so much for inviting me, as well. I’m really looking forward to this.
Gerry: John, we recently caught up with services design days in Barcelona. You’re coming live from London, is that correct?
John: That’s right, yes. South London, Crystal Palace, of all places.

Gerry: South London spelt: S-A-R-F, isn’t it?

John: That’s right, yes, South London, mate. Then put mate on the end.

Gerry: I love it. John, tell us a little bit about yourself and how do you describe what you do and how you got to where you are today?

John: My background is I’m an anthropologist, a social anthropologist, but I work in the world of business and also design. My official title would be a business anthropologist. I’ve got a couple of fingers in academia, as well, at the Royal College of Art in London. Also, Cass Business school. Predominantly, I work as a consultant with a group of associates, as well. I’m really interested in the interface between organisational culture and consumer culture. Okay, so how do organisations really think about their consumers? How do organisations in a genuine way become customer or consumer-centric, and how they develop strategy, how they think about new product development, brand, marketing, services. That’s my world.

I’ve got one leg in each camp. I work with the organisations themselves to see how they collaborate with teams, from an organisational culture perspective. I’ve also got a background as an executive coach and worked with leaders and leadership teams. Then as an anthropologist, I’ve got a background, 20 years background in commercial ethnography, and qualitative research. I was one of the few pioneers in Britain of using anthropology within the commercial world. Yes, I can take the organisation, the client on that journey, as well, so it can really experience what the customer’s world and culture is about.

Gerry: You definitely have a varied week-by-week, you could be the ethnography one week and you could be doing executive coaching the next?

John: That’s right. Sometimes the two of them are interconnected. It might lead onto something. The amazing thing about working with organisations and also doing the executive stuff and the team development stuff, facilitation. Fundamentally, you’re dealing with culture, you’re dealing with people. Your mindset, as the anthropologist, is the same. You’re trying to decode what’s going on. That could be in the consumer world or in the organisations world. I also do ethnography in organisations. It’s what I call the cultural 360 audit, right? Where I hangout and observe how the different teams collaborate. How might that be improved? Fundamentally, we know this in service design, why is this going on?

Gerry: John, how do you describe culture to your friends?

John: Okay. If I’m in my local pub, are we talking about culture? Of course, we do. I would talk about culture as fundamentally messy. It’s an unconscious process that we learn over years. We learn and what it does, culture does, it shapes us, it shapes our behaviour, it shapes our way of thinking. It shapes about how we consume the brands that we consume. Fundamentally, culture is very much about the collective. It’s about us forming our sense of identity against another identity, or another group.

Culture is a way that formalises who we are, but the important thing about culture is, it’s largely unconscious. I have a big issue with organisations when they talk about our organisational culture is… because you can’t do that. An organisation is made up of subcultures, different teams, different values. If you’ve got engineers over there and you’ve got marketing over there, those are two different languages, right? They’re trying to preserve their identity. How do you work with that cultural difference, so you can get collaboration?

Gerry: When you say two different groups, would you call them tribes?

John: Yes, tribes, sometimes I call them subcultures. I think the word “tribe”, it’s an interesting word, right, because in the traditional anthropology, in academia, the tribe was seen as an otherness, an exotic. If we talk about subcultures, it’s got a bit more substance, something a little bit more workable. It’s a bit more real. I think tribe sounds sexy. Actually, it doesn’t make…

Gerry: It doesn’t make it good.

John: Right, exactly. The really important thing here about subcultures within organisations is that they are constantly trying to preserve who they are. If you have a fantastic service design workshop and it’s all going well, you are actually dealing with a lot of conflict that exists within this. That’s one thing I’ve spoken about, which is, we need to really embrace conflict in organisations, also conflict within the consumer world. Conflict is thinking data, I call it. If we can actually, from a design perspective, start thinking about designing for conflict rather than trying to iron out conflict, which is the default button of design, then actually I think there are some real juicy innovation opportunities we can be thinking about.

Gerry: What’s the end goal that you’re trying to work towards when you’re working with organisations?

John: Okay, end goal, I think there would probably be two. One of which is that they become truly customer-centric. Now, what does that mean, truly customer-centric? I would see truly customer-centric being that they have to have different touch points along the way how they design strategy for the future, for their customers, how they think about product-development. So much so that thisproduct developmentomer-centric has to be written to KPIs, into job descriptions, into how they actually work, into how they conduct meetings. It’s a living process rather than just: We are customer-centric, and we put the customer in the centre of everything we do. You see those as beautiful mission statements. Get passed the mission statement, you’re going, “Where are you? Come on. Let’s work on this.”

Gerry: Yes, absolutely. I know, in some of the work that I’ve done over the last five/ten years, organisations tend to think that they already are customer-centric. How do you get around that if they think they are when you know that they’re not? What do you do?
John: Okay, well, you have to show value, basically. It’s a lovey thing to think that you are, but if an organisation or brand can’t see the value of being customer-centric and when I’m talking about value, I’m talking about…

Gerry: Business value.

John: Yes. Okay, there are definitely stake-holder, shareholder centric, but they might not be customer centric. That’s a different thing, so you have to really show what the value is here. I will be doing this through using case studies, walking organisation’s teams through every single step of why this is important to how they work, how they think, how they interact with customers. Partly, that’s also got to do with making them really understand about how easy it is for customers to turn against your brand.

Gerry: Who would tend to bring you into the organisation? Who’s the target market for John Curran?

John: Okay, so I think that they are probably at the moment two big ones and one emerging one. The two big ones will be predominantly marketing, but then also C-suite. More execs. The execs might have heard me doing a talk or in some other place, they’re very quick at signing something off. They can see it quite quickly. Then you’d be looking at the heads of marketing.

Gerry: Why do you think the heads of marketing are looking for an anthropologist to come into their organisation?

John: I’m seeing a big shift and a big trend they are really beginning to see the value of firstly, their organisation being customer-centric, but also the consumer world is so fast-moving now, that if they see the value of culture, then they know that they need the anthropological input and way of thinking there, as well. Companies, especially pharmaceutical companies, where they’ve got the innovation departments, you’ll be working there, as well. The marketing and innovation will be crossing over. They need to because all of the insights are relevant to both of them.
Then the emerging one which is really interesting, which I’m finding really exciting is human resources. I don’t know what this human resource looks like to your global audience, but very much in the UK, the traditional image of human resources were these people who cracked the whip and were quite critical. It’s about policy, it’s about process, operations. I’m finding now that human resources are becoming much more dynamic, much more forward-thinking. One of the big things I do is, I do train around how to think about who your customers and what your organisation from a culture perspective. HR are the ones going, “I think that’s what we need to bring in.” It isn’t just marketing saying that, it’s HR bringing that in, as well.

Gerry: What are the things, because the majority of our listenership is design and service design and user experience design. They intrinsically are human-centred, they bring the research back and they’re bringing it from a place of goodness and a lot of the time, into a place where the cultures don’t really seem to appreciate the value. It’s that disconnect between intent and the business objectives. The business being, “We need to sell more.” In your talk, we spoke a little bit more around that conflict. Let’s talk a little bit more about how we might embrace that conflict and it might unlock some of that potential for innovation. I try to avoid the word “innovation”, but more like the design centricity or the human centredness to blossom in an organisation?

John: I think that’s a really great point and it’s a complex point, as well. Going right back to what my interest is around the interface between organisation culture and human culture, one of the things I said is, where does design sit within that interface or that relationship? This idea of I think that when I talk about the design world, I’m fundamentally here talking about design agencies and how they interact with their clients. Often, what I see, and I’ve experienced it myself with my projects, not just in design, but also in marketing, where you think you’ve done a fantastic project.
You’ve uncovered some brilliant insights, you run the best co-creation workshop with your client at the end. Then it goes nowhere, it fizzles out. You think, why did that happen? What I realised over the years is, it’s funny to me this is happening because, the organisation themselves, your client maybe aren’t ready for that, or maybe there are too many barriers, there are too many rituals of resistance between teams in the organisations to actually activate the value propositions. What I’m really saying is, to be 100 percent human-centred in what you do, you need to really focus on what conflict is. I think that’s one of the key points.
When I’m talking about conflict here, conflict is a key part of culture.

If we didn’t have conflict, we wouldn’t have culture. It’s people and it’s human beings that make up culture and their experience and they’re acting out what these acts of conflicts are. By understanding the touch points of where conflict exists within your client’s organisation, even within your organisation, will allow you then to be able to monitor and understand how best to implement new insights for customers. One of the keys things then I look at is around collaboration.

From collaboration, if you can get that right, you get productivity amongst teams. One of the key metrics in a way, and I’m using this word metrics as an anthropologist, which sounds weird, but it’s about being able to get different teams to see the shared good in what a project will offer, without each team thinking they’re going to lose their identity or they’re going to be more devalued than another team. Marketing is more important than engineering. Then engineering will be thinking, “Screw you, I’ll come along to the workshop, but I’ll be playing with my pen at the back. I’ve seen this many a times happen.” It’s a how do you accept, number one, that there will be conflict because we’re different, we speak different languages within organisations. How do you work with it? How do you get collaboration? For the design world, for design agencies, going in, the first prat of being human-centred is being human-centred toward who your client is and what’s going on there.
How do you do that? First, the way you do it is usually through something called the contract client, who is actually paying for your services within the organisation. You need to build trust with them.

By building trust, I mean by being able to sit down and go, okay, so look, we’ve agreed on what the strategy, the focus of the project is going to be, this is brilliant. What barriers do you think there are in place that are going to make this hard that we need to work on now before we go into the field, around the world and understand people’s uses of technology?

By asking that question, what barriers exist? The “what” means that you are saying there are barriers. Nor are there any barriers? If you say, “Are there any barriers”, then the response is, no. End of conversation. If you can say to them, what barriers are there out there in your teams? They’ll go, “Well, actually, you know, there’s a bit of tension and there’s been a lot of change happening in this team. Maybe we need to step back and do a little bit of pre-work before we activate.”

Now, the output of that question is that your contract client, your client will think, “I trust you, I really see you as someone I can share stuff with.” That relationship builds and builds and builds.
Gerry: What kinds of behaviours did you think people should be trying to change? What are the destructive behaviours that you’ve observed?

John: Yes. That’s a great question. The destructive behaviours are what you see on the school playground. I think teenagers or kids are better at solving them. You see what I call: Acts of resistance or rituals of resistance.

Gerry: For example?

John: An example would be a no-show, not coming to the workshop. A big workshop means big investment, right? You’ll get last-minute cancelations, by that stage, you know where those cancelations are coming from. That’s a really good one. The other one you hear is, yes, but… We can’t do that because…. Which stifles any form of creativity or even thinking, trying to think outside the box or just trying to be able to devest yourself from who you are in the organisation. The yes, but… you’d be surprised how powerful that is. Often, then, the yes, but it will be one or two antagonists, they might then get attacked within the workshop setting by people who pro what you’re doing within the organisation.

What I often do is stand back and let that play out. Then I’ll come back and reflect and go, “Can I just share with you some stuff I’ve just noticed?” We’re talking about your customers who are using your products, your brand. I’m not feeling that, I’m not feeling you engage with that. You’re exposing what’s already there. You’re not going to try to tell them something new.

Gerry: What does it look like? People, in my experience, when I’ve gone into some organisations and some have fantastic cultures, where they walk the walk and they talk the talk. Other times, I’ve been in cultures that are quite toxic. You speak to the leaders and they’re just totally unaware of it. Is it possible ever for a leader to truly understand the cultures and the subcultures?
John: I can almost hope that they don’t truly understand them because then that gets their work done for them. What I say to lead is, and I’ve created this model that I’ve worked them through around coaching, about how they always have to keep their finger on the pulse of what their subcultures are doing. They’re always changing, as well, they’re little microcharges can have a bigger impact on another team.

Gerry: What kinds of changes are you talking about there? New employees?

John: Yes, anything like that, new employees, redundancies, moving office, a change in focus or strategy. From a leadership point of view, that might just be seen as, that’s just what has to happen, but the impact is incredible. All those things, the leader needs to be really aware of what those touch points are and by that, they need to be – it’s changing from what the CEO of Microsoft calls from a knowing culture to a learning culture. A learning culture is, and this is what I talk to leaders about, this word comes up all the time and I’m always trying to push it. Learning and listening, fundamentally is about empathy.

Empathy isn’t about going, I really feel your pain, or it’s not just about walking in the shoes of your employees or your customers. Empathy is really about you as the leader. Empathy is about your being able to stand back and question, how am I feeling within this? What’s it gripping in my stomach? As a researcher should do, a good ethnographer should always be reflective. You know, why don’t I buy that? What is it about me that’s about that? That’s a really important point. When I’m working as a consultant, I see myself within that space, within the organisation as also a political figure. I’m part of the politics because I’m an outsider. I think that idea about being political, I think in design, that also has to come into it.

I think in the Harvard Business Review, I think recently there was an article on design thinking being conservative and actually preserving the organisational culture status quo. The designer is away from being political. When, actually, they’re fundamentally part of it. That’s the cultural mess, that’s why culture is messy.
Gerry: Absolutely. The design thinking thing is definitely important, we could definitely speak a lot more about that, about the institutionalisation of designers when they’re working within those cultures. They miss these things and they’re what I call the design blind spot. I guess that’s a great topic for another podcast, potentially. I’m really keen to drill in a little bit more around the intersect between conflict and culture.

One of the key takeaways from your keynote was that should be embraced. Now, in my experience, human behaviour is always a little bit more like it’s difficult to embrace it because it’s a difficult thing to talk about. What examples or what advice would you give to designers to be able to go over to the engineering department or go over to the marketing department, or whoever it is in your organisation and be able to change this?
John: I think that’s great. A lot of the examples I’m giving you, they sound really simple, but they’re not, they’re really hard to do. I’m going to give you one, maybe more of a tool or a technique that people can use. I think it’s really important. We’re talking about trust here. If you’re going to have that honest conversation around conflict, you need to have trust with the other person, or the other team. I just want to quickly pick up, by the way, in a survey done on European and U.S. executives, I saw this on a Ted Talk by Margert Heffernan. 85 percent of executives are too scared to talk about issues that they think are important because of a fear of conflict.

Gerry: Wow.

John: 85 percent. That’s incredible, right? I just thought I’d throw that in as a stat because that’s the only stat you’re going to get. The tool is then, what I really promote is, if you want to have an honest conversation that’s about something that you feel isn’t working, and you feel that there are barriers being put up or rituals of resistance. If you were going to go to the engineering department and have that conversation with them, you need to start off on a positive. That there is something positive going on first.
You might think, well, actually, that’s made up, you’re trying to fabricate. There are always positives that are going on. If it’s about a collaboration and we’re working together but there’s an issue, there’s something going well with us working together. Let’s pick up on that first because it creates a completely different psychological platform for you then to discuss around a soft entry. That’s a great way of looking at it.

Gerry: Thanks. You can sell that.

John: I’ve just noted that, and it’s already copyrighted, so there you go.

Gerry: That one is for free.

John: It is about the soft entry, but the dynamics are, this is really working well. I’m just wondering where we sit with this? It feels at the moment that we’re finding it hard to move it forward. It would be really helpful to hear what your thoughts are on this? Then you’re putting the onus on them, instead of coming in with this idea of, look, we need to talk, things aren’t working out. We’ve got a deadline.

Or you keep on saying this, no, you keep on saying that. Then you get the conflict going. That gets nowhere. That’s how conflict works. It’s I will get my troops, I will get my supporters, you will get your supporters. Then we will clash and explode. The explosion in conflict isn’t the conflict, the conflict is what’s happening months before.

Gerry: That’s brilliant. I’ve definitely done some of those things, definitely a few things I’d probably do a little bit better. What are the definite no-nos that you’ve seen in regards handling conflict? What about two teams coming together, as they say, and I’m doing air quotes here to “nut it out”? Even better, they might go, “Let’s workshop this.” Is that a good or a bad solution?

John: No, the workshop, let’s workshop this, for me, would be a strategic tool to use to deal with what’s going on. Then once I’ve agreed or once we’ve agreed that there’s going to be a workshop. I will then be sitting down with the clients who are my contract clients, where we’ve got trust, to say, okay, now we’re going to have these people there and these people… two tribes comes to war. Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Gerry: I was going to say, Frankie.

John: It was Frankie. Now, this is how we’re going to work it. I want the CEO to open up the discussion in that workshop. Let’s get the dates so the CEO is there. Fundamentally, this is coming from the leader-down and then you guys are going to have to work together, collaborate, to co-create how that’s going to work. You feel empowered now but it’s the leader who has said this. Instead of it being the leadership is almost some abstract form somewhere else. This is really important. Leadership has to be heard. The leaders have to be heard when you’re workshopping like that. Then you go to that next level.

Then the workshop becomes this ritualised space, where you can talk about, well, what do people think? Then you might get a difference of opinions and that’s fine. It’s less the conflict part of it, the everyday conflict has been reduced. The key thing then about the workshop is, if you create actions at the back, you’re creating accountability. Once you’ve got accountability, it’s very hard for people, if people do shun away from it, then you can actually use that against them.
Gerry: Use that against them doesn’t sound too good.
John: No, but fundamentally, that’s where it does come down to. If a client invests a considerable sum of money to create a value system, for example.

Gerry: True.

John: That an organisation is going to have to embed, and you’ve got silo pockets going, this is rubbish, we never used to do it like this. They won’t shift and you try to get them to shift. Then, finally, it does come to that cliff-edge, right, where are you going to go?

Gerry: Absolutely. It’s probably a good point to make, in any of the design teams I’m on, the best ones have always had arguments.
John: Yes.

Gerry: We’re always arguing and we’re always bickering about stuff because we care. It’s coming from that place. I guess it’s a little bit difference since it’s coming from a place of animosity or badness, I suppose.

John: What you’re saying about disagreement is part of professional conflict. You’re all invested in the same thing, you all feel passionately about that group you’re focusing on. You want it to be good. As long as you can have disagreement but if each one listens, that’s important.

Gerry: Yes, absolutely. John, we are coming towards the end of the episode. We have three questions that we always ask our guests. I’m going to put you on the spot here, I’m going to ask you the first question. What’s the one professional skill that you wish you were better at and why?

John: I wish I was better at mathematics. I failed my maths when I was a teenager. It’s only in this part of my life I’m seeing how actually creative maths and mathematics can be in the work in understand culture.

Gerry: Yes, and running a business, as well.

John: Well, yes, that’s why I’ve got 18 accountants.

Gerry: Five unused spreadsheets.

John: Exactly. What’s a spreadsheet?

Gerry: Yes, well, ask Andy Polaine, that’s his thing because he hates spreadsheets. The next question is, what is the one thing you wish you were able to banish from the industry and why?

John: Can I be really radical here?

Gerry: Go radical, man, the radical ones are the best ones.

John: Okay. I would banish post-it notes.

Gerry: What?

John: Yes. There you go. I can be radical.

Gerry: I’m hoping you’re going to say why at the end of this. People are listening with one eyebrow raised now, what’s going on with the post-it notes?

John: The Sistine Chapple wasn’t built on using – Ferrari wasn’t built using a post-it note.

Gerry: He might have concepted on the post-it note before he went through the Sistine Chapple.

John: I said, let’s banish the post-it notes where I’ve literally got about 30 piles sitting around me. I think maybe this is what I’m actually saying, what we spoke about around the workshop, if you have the tools, like things like post-it notes, sharpies and stuff, they also give the impression, okay, we’re going to go into a creative space here. Does it actually disable the ability to work with conflict, as well? We’ve got these iconic tools of creativity and we come in with t-shirts and jeans. I’m just thinking about the post-it note being a more symbolic representation of not actually dealing with the grime and the rubbish.

Gerry: I guess it depends where it’s coming into the organisation maturity.

John: Exactly.

Gerry: If it’s in a mature organisation, they can use it as a form of note-taking and it’s great. If you’re going into a government organisation and they don’t even have computers, they’re still using scrolls and feathers.

John: Also, especially if you’re working with a charity, right, sometimes they see it as a waste. They have to think of every penny or every cent that they’re using.

Gerry: Absolutely. The way I use post-it notes, I just flick them, write one or two words on them, and that’s it.

John: Yes.

Gerry: The last question is, I’m conscious that you don’t claim to be a designer, but what is the one piece of advice you’d give to emerging designers or emerging professionals in your industry for the future?

John: Yes, you’re right, I’m not a designer. I interact with the design world. There’s maybe something I have experienced being a consultant for 20 years. The importance of understanding client’s side, as well, for a bit, to understand how organisations work. Just by being a designer and going into organisations as a young designer, you’d be fantastic, you know all the stuff. Do some great stuff. Actually, to have a little bit of time in an organisation to be a designer would be a very interesting challenge. You would learn quite a lot.

Gerry: John, that’s a great way to end the conversation. Thank you so much for your time today.

John: Thank you, Gerry.

Gerry: If people wanted to reach out to you on Twitter or LinkedIn, how might they do that?

John: My Twitter is: @Dr.JCurran. LinkedIn, I’m sure you can just put that in, and it will come up somewhere. There are details there of how you can get in contact with me and stuff.

Gerry: Also, I’ll also pop a link to your keynote in the show notes, as well, so people can have a look at it.

John: Yes, that would be great. Awesome. So, there you have it.

I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you’d like to be part of the conversation or community, hop on over to, where you can request to join the Slack channel and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

End of Audio

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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