The Human Centered Design Podcast with Gerry Scullion

Sarah Clearwater ‘The Intersection of Design and Leadership: Navigating the Journey’

John Carter
July 11, 2023
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Sarah Clearwater ‘The Intersection of Design and Leadership: Navigating the Journey’

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Episode shownotes

Today on the show I speak with Sarah Clearwater about a Design Leadership white paper that she instigated and curated, speaking to many people across various organisations. Sarah's based in New Zealand, and I drill deeper into the background of the paper.



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Episode Transcript

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[00:00:00] Gerry Scullion: What does it mean when we put the two words together? Design, leadership. Are they in opposition to each other or are they actually, do they work in

[00:00:07] Sarah Clearwater: harmony? Ultimately, I think it's worthwhile understanding that whenever we put two things together, a third thing emerges, and that it's up to us to explore different variations of that relationship.

[00:00:19] Sarah Clearwater: Mm-hmm. So for me, design has a specific meaning and leadership has a specific meaning. And together that create, if anything, a greater opportunity beyond what I think we've currently understood.

[00:00:33] Gerry Scullion: Hello and welcome to another episode of This is Eight cd. I'm delighted. Have you with me for another cracking episode, as many of you'll probably know, my name is Jerry Scolion and I'm a service designer based in Ireland and I offer service design training, user experience, design training, and also my visualization methods for changemakers course on my website.

[00:00:53] Gerry Scullion: And I offered this course in-house for businesses too. If you're in an organization and looking for training, please do get in touch with me. [00:01:00] I'm recording this segment from Spain where I'm on a long overdue vacation with my family. So if the audio quality of the intro is a little bit questionable, that'll be why.

[00:01:08] Gerry Scullion: Anyway, today in the show I speak with Sarah Clearwater at Design Leadership, a white paper that she instigated, curated, and spoke to, uh, with many people, of course, various organizations. Mainly in the APAC region. Sarah's based in New Zealand, and I'll drill deeper into the background of the paper, where it originated from and what questions they ultimately sought to answer.

[00:01:32] Gerry Scullion: Now I really want to get more into the different perspectives of what we mean by design and leadership, and we speak about it so often, but really what do we mean by this? I fully believe in what we were trying to achieve by discussing design and leadership. Our question is, is this ultimately or actually achievable in certain organizations?

[00:01:51] Gerry Scullion: Sarah was a great guest. I think you'll enjoy the perspective. So let's jump straight in. So Sarah, clear what I'm delighted to have you on the [00:02:00] podcast. Um, we've been back and forth for a couple of months and um, I'm excited to have you here. So maybe start off, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and where you're from.

[00:02:11] Sarah Clearwater: Sure. Thank you Jerry. Great to be here today with you. Uh, I am originally from West Berlin. I'm born to East German and Egyptian parents, and I, uh, sort of grew up towards the end of the Cold War into a very new type of Germany, I suppose. Um, wow. I I always like to describe myself as an intersection child because if you imagine West Berlin.

[00:02:35] Sarah Clearwater: In the, in the eighties, uh, I guess you can imagine the, a great diversity of sort of sociocultural movements, different economic structures, different uh, politics, different ways of living and thinking and being. And so, and I'm always attracted to the spaces in between which I put down to the. To my upbringing, I suppose.

[00:02:56] Gerry Scullion: Yeah. Your, your background. So you're in New [00:03:00] Zealand now, like we, we can't ignore the, uh, the, uh, Kiwi accent and I'm gonna do my very best not to do flight of the Concords jokes in this episode. Thank you. But, um, how long have you been in, in New Zealand?

[00:03:12] Sarah Clearwater: Uh, so I came to New Zealand twice, first in 2011, and then again in 2016.

[00:03:19] Sarah Clearwater: Um, I met a Kiwi while in living in the uk and as we all know, London doesn't really have any English people in it. It's mainly Aussies, Kiwis, uh, bunch of SFAs, and then the odd other European. Um, yeah, and of course, ki and.

[00:03:40] Gerry Scullion: So, whereabouts in New Zealand are you now?

[00:03:43] Sarah Clearwater: So I'm living in Auckland now.

[00:03:45] Gerry Scullion: Okay. You're in Auckland. Great city. I was there a couple of years ago, um, on our way out of Australia. We stopped in in Auckland for a couple of weeks, which was, which was really great. Um, but I noticed over the last couple of years you've been working primarily as a CX [00:04:00] consultant.

[00:04:00] Gerry Scullion: So your, the name of your business is CX Collective. Correct.

[00:04:05] Sarah Clearwater: That's one of them.

[00:04:05] Gerry Scullion: Yes, that's one of them, yeah. Okay. So talk me through, um, cuz we're gonna be discussing one of the reports that you created and you sent through about design leadership in a second. But I'm interested to see about your own personal journey and how you landed into the world of CX and you know, what your involvement is with human-centered design as well.

[00:04:26] Sarah Clearwater: Sure. I would say that like I think many of my peers or people who call themselves design designers today, uh, most of us have actually arrived here by chance rather than by design. Um, ironically, and so I.

[00:04:47] Sarah Clearwater: Uh, I first trained, uh, um, as a policy analyst, as a human systems analyst. Effectively, I studied in the Netherlands, got humanities degree partly to. To [00:05:00] myself, I think how a world this diverse could possibly coexist. Um, you know, I had this notion that if, if we can figure out how we can create, um, sort of, or co-create policy for, you know, 28 different countries with multiple different languages and social systems and traditions and and views of the world that, you know, anything is possible.

[00:05:22] Sarah Clearwater: So I went into this really full of curiosity and, and full of sort of, Hunger to better understand how we can create unity out of diversity, how we can live next to each other, but still be who we're. And, uh, I guess through that, I then moved to the uk, started working for the local government association there, and got really stuck into policy as a change mechanism.

[00:05:45] Sarah Clearwater: If you'll ok. And. Probably there that for the first time I already came across what we would now start to identify as co-design, sort of, um, you know, engaging with citizens, like having conversations with them, [00:06:00] co-designing with other stakeholders across the policy spectrum across different, different local government agencies.

[00:06:06] Sarah Clearwater: And then moving to New Zealand, well, there wasn't that much around, um, European. Level policy that was really relevant here. Yeah. And so most of my experience didn't have an anchor. And through that I got into community engagement. I got into, um, qualitative research, which then got me across to, I guess what, what we now call probably design research.

[00:06:31] Sarah Clearwater: And through that, into design.

[00:06:33] Gerry Scullion: Okay. So you've, you've had a long and winding road, um, to quote the Beatles to, to this point where you're at now in your career. So what, what brought you to creating this, um, report? The design leadership report? I think it's called Perspectives on Design and Leadership. Is that right?

[00:06:51] Sarah Clearwater: That's the one, Jerry. Good memory. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:06:54] Gerry Scullion: I, I'm cheating. I have it on my screen here,[00:07:00]

[00:07:00] Gerry Scullion: but yeah, you, you, you, you created, you can sort of see the, the hint of the orange glow coming from this screen over here where, where all my notes are, but I do, yeah, I did remember it anyway, but, um, what, what was the, the kind of precursor to the creation of this report? Sure.

[00:07:15] Sarah Clearwater: So I think. And this is possibly a, a sort of New Zealand centric view of looking at design.

[00:07:22] Sarah Clearwater: But something that I've observed over the last sort of five to six years being in the industry is that we keep having the same conversations, um, and bump up against the same challenges without much iteration evolution. A lot of designers are really focused on working in the practice, and I haven't come across many people who are interested or practicing design, who actually work on our practice, and as a result, I have a sense that.

[00:07:50] Sarah Clearwater: We are not really evolving or maturing with great intent as a discipline. Rather, we sort of haphazardly jump into, [00:08:00] into the work trying to get as much good design work done and you know, uplift the experiences for our communities and our customers Now colleagues, without any sort of robust discourse on and some of.

[00:08:16] Sarah Clearwater: I guess frustration or, yeah, really frustration. I, I thought I better have a chat to some people, because that's what we do as designers, right? We don't just form an opinion. We start being explicit about our assumptions and then lean into, into that conversation.

[00:08:33] Gerry Scullion: You definitely had a lot of conversations.

[00:08:35] Gerry Scullion: Like there's some people here that I would know of. I dunno. I'm gonna do a quick, uh, count of eight. Uh, 16. Was it 20 people? How many was it? 24 people.

[00:08:46] Sarah Clearwater: We had 28 conversations in total.

[00:08:48] Gerry Scullion: 28 conversations. And like there. They're not people who are, uh, unfamiliar with what we mean by design leadership. There, there's some serious, um, organizations here in the [00:09:00] APAC region, like Optimal Workshop.

[00:09:01] Gerry Scullion: I know Kelsey, uh, and a number of others there, um, zero and so forth. So, question for you. Um, what does it mean when we put the two words together? Design, leadership. Are they in opposition to each other or are they actually, do they work in harmony? So I

[00:09:18] Sarah Clearwater: think, I mean, great question. Uh, ultimately I think it's worthwhile understanding that whenever we put two things together, a third thing emerges, um, and that it's up to us to explore different variations of that relationship.

[00:09:33] Sarah Clearwater: So for me, design has a specific meaning and leadership has a specific meaning, and together they create. If anything, a greater opportunity beyond what I think we've currently understood.

[00:09:46] Gerry Scullion: So there's some leadership, um, I think about people who are guiding the ship, who, who are kind of like laying the foundations for the future and [00:10:00] kind of getting people to, you know, work alongside each other through for a common goal.

[00:10:05] Gerry Scullion: And I'm keen to see and understand a little bit more around what you learned about leadership, um, within the design sphere and what are the, the bits that are holding back the, the practice of design being embedded into organizations.

[00:10:23] Sarah Clearwater: So I wanna take a step back, um, before I dive into leadership and maybe offer a view on what's happening for designers inside organizations and why leadership is such an important thing for us to lean more deeply into.

[00:10:37] Sarah Clearwater: So I think one thing that I'm observing, um, in a sort of. Consulting role. I said, I come into organizations and design teams are really excited about the fact they're doing better design, right? They wanna upskill their capability, they wanna get more hands on deck. They wanna really make lives better for people.

[00:10:56] Sarah Clearwater: I think many designers really have this, this notion of this [00:11:00] idealism behind them, which is, which is wonderful, and when they do the common assumption, I'm saying is that in order to get better outcomes, we have to do better designs. What I am observing instead is that in order for design outcomes to actually show up and to be more impactful, we need to start leaning into intentionally driving change inside the organization.

[00:11:27] Sarah Clearwater: Cause if there's one thing I think that, that I'm, that I'm.

[00:11:35] Sarah Clearwater: Design fundamentally, or the promises of design are fundamentally different to the dominant business narratives we are encountering. And so if we are designing in a commercial context, we're coming with all these beliefs around lived experience, human-centered ways of making decisions of, um, you know, showing up of seeing the world.

[00:11:55] Sarah Clearwater: And we bump up against the commercial realities of many of those organizations.[00:12:00]

[00:12:02] Sarah Clearwater: And then talking to leaders as part of this report. What I'm hearing is that leadership is independent of design, right? Yeah. Leadership is this own practice. Leadership ultimately is about creating the conditions for an hour case, the design team to thrive. But I've talked to leaders who aren't designers and who are still very, very good at that.

[00:12:27] Sarah Clearwater: When we think about traditional trajectory of a designer moving from junior to intermediate to senior to leader, we assume that that is something someone with subject matter expertise who is maturing in their practice, when in actual fact the person sitting in the leadership position or the functional leadership role within an organization doesn't have to be a designer because the job is fundamentally different.

[00:12:52] Gerry Scullion: Yeah. So is it is, like you mentioned there about designers, um, wanting to do better work. Okay. [00:13:00] What are the, the, the blockers enabling that? Is it, is you saying it's a leadership piece? Are you saying that, um, leadership needs to become more aware of their impact on the designers?

[00:13:15] Sarah Clearwater: I'm saying that designers need to figure out, What the innate leadership capacity is, depending on where they're designers.

[00:13:24] Sarah Clearwater: Designers. Right.

[00:13:26] Gerry Scullion: So, so walk me through that. So what does that look like from Yeah. The perspective of, um, leaders who are already in place and then you've got a swarm of designers who are figuring out that they potentially have leadership. How does this

[00:13:42] Sarah Clearwater: work? Yeah, so I would agree with you that someone who sits in the functional leadership role is ultimately there to create the conditions, the structures, right?

[00:13:51] Sarah Clearwater: Mm-hmm. To provide a level of guidance and direction. But so far we are, we've assumed that as that [00:14:00] person who is. Leading in every aspect of of the, of the word. They're not just leading the function, they're leading the conversations, they're leading the meetings, they're leading the practice, you know, they're leading our career development.

[00:14:13] Sarah Clearwater: They're responsible for all of that,

[00:14:15] Gerry Scullion: but they're also leading, they're also leading sales and marketing and, you know, operations. And it's the whole design centric versus impact centric approach to. To kind of where design sits within the organization, the complexity, and I mean the proper term of complexity as of leadership is it's really difficult.

[00:14:37] Gerry Scullion: The problems are really difficult. They're all interconnected, but um, is the problem. Designers not becoming leaders? Is that the problem? Or, or I'm, I'm keen to understand, yeah. What that might look like from a leadership perspective. Yeah. If you had that group of designers all kind of, [00:15:00] what are they striving for?

[00:15:01] Gerry Scullion: Are they striving to become business leaders, like leaders of the business, like CEOs or COOs, or they just. Are we talking about design leadership?

[00:15:09] Sarah Clearwater: I think when we talk about design leadership, uh, in the context of design practice, we're talking about our ability to connect our craft with our context.

[00:15:18] Sarah Clearwater: We're talking about our ability to connect our work with the impact that's trying to create, and we are talking about intentionally and actively stepping into spaces of discomfort that ask of us.

[00:15:36] Sarah Clearwater: Two truths. One.

[00:15:41] Sarah Clearwater: Designing for people that is, you know, that lived experience and um, and sort of people's feelings and their needs have a role to play or should play a role in our decision making within an organization, as well as working for an organization that has commercial aspirations [00:16:00] and that will. When it comes down to it, we'll make a decision based on bottom line and profitability and efficiency and productivity.

[00:16:08] Sarah Clearwater: There are two competing worldviews that are true at every moment in time, and if we want to achieve impact with our practice, the leadership ask. No matter of our role within the system, within the organization is to straddle and navigate that tension. Yeah. What someone in a functional leadership role does is doing that at a much more senior level and therefore at a greater level of complexity and a greater level of risk.

[00:16:41] Sarah Clearwater: Right? Yep. And at a greater level of exposure. Yeah. And yeah, if I can just add an example to that. When we are leading at a functional level, we are leading into the executive, we're leading into our peers of. Managers and sort of heads off. Yeah. [00:17:00] When we are leading at a practice level as a practicing designer, we are leading into other teams, other silos.

[00:17:08] Sarah Clearwater: We are leading into conversations, into stories, into meetings, always straddling that tension and we are shying away from that. I think.

[00:17:17] Gerry Scullion: Those tensions, I wanna understand a little bit more. They tend to be in my experience. And tell me you, you've got more, um, sort of clarity on this is the, the kind of, the incessant need for growth and economic success.

[00:17:35] Gerry Scullion: Okay. And what tends to be a blocker from a design perspective is they want to add value. To the, the customers or the person who's using the service, uh, their lives. And sometimes that's unquantifiable from a business perspective in terms of like, what is the ROI in this? Why are we doing this? So it's, that's one of the key tensions between the.[00:18:00]

[00:18:00] Gerry Scullion: The typical, as we, I'm doing air quotes here folks, leadership versus design leadership, and it's balancing those, it's kind of like, okay, you win this one, but I'll come for you again another few weeks with another one. You pick yours, you have to, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. Um, cause it is a relationship at the end of the day.

[00:18:19] Gerry Scullion: So what are the other tensions that you were seeing other than the, the commercial aspects?

[00:18:26] Sarah Clearwater: Well, I think a, a really massive challenge is, is how do you participate, partake, and add value to a system that at the same time you're trying to change. Right. So, and that is related to the previous tension, but a separate activity.

[00:18:42] Sarah Clearwater: Yes. How do I separate role? Yeah, a hundred percent. And it's slightly schizophrenic, right? Like Yeah. How do I demonstrate value, as you said, in my role and my capacity as a designer, when I know that [00:19:00] my allegiances are divided and that my mandate is to, to remind the business that they have appointed me because they wanted me to have multiple allegiances.

[00:19:11] Gerry Scullion: Yeah. Yeah. When, when you're, when we're talking about this stuff and when I read the report, I remember the pieces where I was reflecting on, I was like, well, there's, there's two, two kind of operational pieces within the design pieces, the craft piece. As in like, if you've got the conditions to create, you know, the best possible outcomes when we're designing.

[00:19:31] Gerry Scullion: Um, and if you liken or if this is Aiken to a chef in a kitchen, the chef is producing, you know, beautiful meals. They're being satisfied and stuff, but at the same time, the knives and the plates and the, the crockery and everything that's used to cook the food is not fit for purpose. That's a separate job.

[00:19:51] Gerry Scullion: You, you would almost look at the manager to work co-creatively with the chef to, to create a better outcome. So in our [00:20:00] worlds, and I, I love the fact that, you know, schizophrenia might be the right word, but I, I get what we're trying to say here in terms of like, if a leadership is, uh, sitting in on a meeting with a designer, Or design leadership, and they're like, okay, we've managed to create these outcomes under poor conditions.

[00:20:19] Gerry Scullion: They're like, what? Poor conditions. We need you to fix those. So suddenly now there's two jobs. You're being graded on creating quality outcomes, you know, great dishes. Continue the analogy of the chef. And two, also make sure you can fix up the, the, the kitchen so it's fit for purpose that takes us away.

[00:20:36] Gerry Scullion: And the, the bit that I wanna talk to you a little bit more around, it takes us away from the bit that we're being paid to do really, and that is to create better outcomes. And as a result, if we can't put our full focus on this, the outcomes are gonna be depleted. That's right. So what I wanna understand a little bit more, and I really liked the way you broke down the three categories.

[00:20:58] Gerry Scullion: You know, design is a behavior, [00:21:00] design is a practice. And what was the third one? I'm gonna have to do a bit of scrolling here. Folks. Design as a function. Function. Now, the bit that I wanted to talk to you a little bit more around was design as craft. Um, cuz I'm still of the opinion that we are still craftspeople at the end of the day.

[00:21:19] Gerry Scullion: What was the thinking behind that and was it an intentional emission?

[00:21:25] Sarah Clearwater: So craft emerged, um, from an understanding, um, and a view of the diversity of disciplines, the diversity of knowledge, and the diversity of experience that feeds into the design. Practice today. So, you know, as someone who is a scientist, can someone who's a scientist call themselves a designer?

[00:21:47] Sarah Clearwater: Can someone who is an anthropologist or a doctor or a nurse or you know, is, is that compatible? And if you look across our, our industry, you'll find people from all [00:22:00] walks of life suddenly having that designer title. And I think in the report a distinguish between designers, a behavior, which is, you know, A, a, a trait of all living things, um, to design as a practice, which is where these days we talk about, um, the design discipline or design thinking, human-centered design showing up in organizations and design as a function, which is, um, which I'm referring to as the, the functional role of leading a team of designers within an organization.

[00:22:32] Sarah Clearwater: Mm. And the leadership element straddles the practice as well as the function. And the craft. The craft is what many people are attracted to when they come to design, right? We all started out with, with with the attraction to the possibility of creating solutions or solving problems or producing outcomes that make the world a better place in some shape or form.

[00:22:58] Sarah Clearwater: Now, the, the massive [00:23:00] disconnect between design, practice, and design, And functional design leadership is when we are suddenly disconnected from our tools. Right. And you hear that from every single person who's been a designer, a practicing designer, and then moved into a functional design leadership role where they're missing the tools and many go, go back because they can't.

[00:23:23] Sarah Clearwater: Yeah. Their identity is tied to to practicing it, right? Yeah. And so that's one thing is recognizing that design leadership in the functional sense has got very little to do with doing design and very much to do with creating the conditions for design to thrive, and a lot of that difficult political.

[00:23:44] Sarah Clearwater: Banging your head against the door and waiting for it to open and still keeping, keeping going, building resilience, creating momentum in that team and holding space for that team to sometimes grieve that, straddle that. We talked [00:24:00] about that tension, right? Yeah. And sometimes to harness the energy that comes from friction to propel the team forward, which just a very different job.

[00:24:09] Sarah Clearwater: Yeah.

[00:24:10] Gerry Scullion: Yeah. One of the, one of the problems within design, I feel, Is the, the label of design, because lots of people have multiple meanings for what we mean by design. I still get asked, do I design errand sweaters? And I'm like, that's, it's a type of jumper in Ireland. And I'm like, no, I'm not that kind of designer.

[00:24:28] Gerry Scullion: Oh, do you do interiors? No, I don't. What do you do? Services. What's the service? Okay, well let's get the whiteboard out. And I'm like, kids, go get the whiteboard. Daddy's gonna talk about what he does for a living. Anyway. Um, one of the pieces I want to talk to you a little bit more around is design operations.

[00:24:44] Gerry Scullion: Okay. Design operations and design leadership. The phrase design operations. I love, I absolutely like, it's got a deep kind of satisfaction for me because it's moving laterally away from the design definition and it's [00:25:00] very descriptive of what it is we need to do. Operations, the opera authorization, um, parts of design.

[00:25:08] Gerry Scullion: Creating those conditions, design, leadership, um, how, what I wanna understand is how do these conflict, or do, do they mean the same thing in your eyes? Because when you talk about design functional, um, and you talk about, um, like, I'm trying to remember here, the, the, the three, gimme a second. Don't jump in.

[00:25:26] Gerry Scullion: It's design behavior and design practice. So when you think about those, Three things. A lot of those encompasses design operations. So they're, they're considering those aspects. Do we still need design leadership? If we've got design operations?

[00:25:41] Sarah Clearwater: That's, that's a good question. Um, I would say that design, op design leadership still.

[00:25:48] Sarah Clearwater: Provides the umbrella under which all of this comes together, right? Still provides the direction, and most importantly, the anchor design. Leadership is outward looking, I think, and [00:26:00] design operations inward looking. Absolutely the two parts, you know, of the same chain link type thing. And I would say that a good design operations lead will be one of the biggest assets to any design leader out there today.

[00:26:15] Gerry Scullion: Yeah, they work in harmony, I guess. Yeah. So when you look at other disciplines, when I'm, I'm taking the perspective from a leadership perspective, if you're sitting in the middle of the organization, it could be a product leadership, it could be c o or c o o, even a C F O. And you see, um, okay, I, I'm walking over to the sales department and we've got head of sales and we've got a sales director.

[00:26:40] Gerry Scullion: Um, and then we go over to the marketing. We've got a marketing director, and then we might have head of marketing, and we might have other types of marketing, direct marketing and so forth, and they come over to the design team, and then you've got, hi, I'm the design operations head, and then I'm the design leader, and then I'm the UX leader, and then I'm the service [00:27:00] design leader.

[00:27:00] Gerry Scullion: What does that look like in terms of when we're talking about. Actual business leaders, the COOs. COOs. Are we being overcomplicated about these things, the nuances around what we do? Or can organizations get by? Like what do you say to those people who are like, okay, the designers are just kind of going around in circles here.

[00:27:23] Gerry Scullion: They're not really solving business

[00:27:24] Sarah Clearwater: problems. So I think the fundamental challenge that we have as designers inside organizations is that we're the new kid on the block, right? Sales and marketing and finance has been around in a commercial setting for a very long time, and so we, we are building the plane as we're flying it, right?

[00:27:43] Sarah Clearwater: Yeah. We don't have a set of, we don't have a accreditation that we go through. You must do these five things and now you shall be your designer. Like, yeah, it's not like, you know, go to university and get a marketing degree or get a, you know, get a sales qualification or, and so, [00:28:00] and I think the other thing that's really important for us to understand is that design, unlike many other disciplines, anchors in the human condition.

[00:28:07] Sarah Clearwater: So what that means is that our practice and our ability to evaluate if we're practicing well is deeply context dependent. If we once set our design practices and principles would not be fit for purpose in a different context. Like, and I mean the, one of the, I guess, most evident differences we have been observing in the last few years is sort of the.

[00:28:34] Sarah Clearwater: The, the separation of human-centered design and, and co-design of participatory practices, right? Yeah. They've gone different ways. Although we, we share a, a root, I guess, belief system because of the context within which we're practicing is asked much, much different things of our, of our practices, right.

[00:28:55] Sarah Clearwater: And so when you, when you say we've got all these different people, do we even solve business [00:29:00] problems? Like they're, for me, they're two different questions. Right? We internally, within our team, we need, we need a level of complexity because we are not just flying the plane, we are also building it. We are also figuring out where we're going.

[00:29:12] Sarah Clearwater: And that we may need that to build a robust practice. Yeah, right. If we're solving business problems, is then evidenced by our ability to link our craft with our context and tell the right stories and build the right relationships. And I think that to your first question. Really it's well, leadership shows up.

[00:29:33] Sarah Clearwater: Yeah. And so the, I think the key, the key things that this report has uncovered, which I found really, really insightful, is that when you look at leadership through a lens, not of function, but of practice or behavior, what shows up as leadership, um, as a moment in time that is ob observable by others. That any of us can step into.

[00:29:59] Sarah Clearwater: Mm-hmm. And [00:30:00] when we think about leadership, not as an omnipresent status, as a decision we make based on our unique abilities and preferences and skills to step into particular situations and lead there. Right. And when I say lead there, what I mean by leadership in that context is the ability. To see a different future, a future that is different from today, and then take steps towards that.

[00:30:32] Sarah Clearwater: Any of us has the ability to look what's in front of us and say something else could be better. And we can then take steps into that direction when we talk about a team leading collectively the challenge of the quote unquote functional design leader who comes to create a level of consistency and coherence across the leadership activity within the team.

[00:30:55] Sarah Clearwater: But the leader alone can't move across a [00:31:00] organization and expect an emergent practice to just show up and deliver value. Yeah, like that is unbelievably exhausting and frankly inadequate to ask of a single person. And it's about the, you know, the, the construction and the, the conduction, like a conductor, if you'll, yeah.

[00:31:20] Sarah Clearwater: To align all of these through various mechanisms and for each of us to take responsibility and accountability in our unique spaces and step into leadership where we can in alignment with others.

[00:31:34] Gerry Scullion: Absolutely, and absolutely. I, I, I see that the questions I'm, I'm asking are the questions that I've been thrown in the last, you know, year or two, like around design leadership, what does it mean for, you know, COOs CEOs when, you know, there's multiple design leaders floating around the business and they go, who does what?

[00:31:56] Gerry Scullion: Why are they here? What, what, what are they bringing to the organization? [00:32:00] There's no question. There's value in terms of what they're creating. It's more what gets used. And from the leadership perspective, there's a level of curation that happens whenever the design leaders present visions to the future.

[00:32:14] Gerry Scullion: And it's, it's ultimately like Game of Thrones where the one who, you know succeeds is the one who stands the longest and you know, says the same thing repeatedly over time or. A change, a leadership. So a lot of the stuff that you were, were talking about here requires designers to change. What does it look like from the perspective of leaders to kinda become more receptive to the work that design leaders as a function are, um, are creating?

[00:32:46] Gerry Scullion: What, what are your thoughts on that?

[00:32:48] Sarah Clearwater: So when you talk about leaders, you're talking about other leaders in the business?

[00:32:52] Gerry Scullion: CEOs, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Heads of marketing, heads of sales. Well, what does that look like? Because that, in particular, I'm [00:33:00] coaching a couple of people in financial services at the moment.

[00:33:03] Gerry Scullion: They are hitting their heads against a wall in terms of trying to sell why they need to get experienced designers into the organization. But leadership just, you know, have a deaf ear. They don't want to hear these problems. They don't have the power themselves to maybe increase the budgets. They, um, and it's, it's a really sort of, uh, complicated space to be in.

[00:33:26] Gerry Scullion: Yeah. When, when you're in that situation, what do you say to people in those situations?

[00:33:31] Sarah Clearwater: Yeah, a hundred percent. I mean, first of all, well well done for being there, for standing there and that discomfort and that tension and trying to work with it. Cause many people don't last. And so if you are there and you are doing it anyway, um, that's that's awesome.

[00:33:48] Gerry Scullion: That's not response within reason, as long as they're, they're taking care of themselves and they're able to sustain it. Yes. In my experience, a lot of designers who put themselves through immense amount of pain to survive in toxic [00:34:00] organizations and toxic situations.

[00:34:01] Sarah Clearwater: Well, well, that's, I I would say, again, another, the, the, the toxic organization is, it's a slight addendum Yeah.

[00:34:09] Sarah Clearwater: To that bit. Yeah. Yeah. So, but the other thing is, I guess, have we. Have we truly understood how we are adding value to the people in front of us? Have we truly understood the levers that we, that our practice can uncover that they understand? One thing I'm observing and you tell me what you see is that we are very, very good at listening to customers.

[00:34:39] Sarah Clearwater: We are very, very terrible at listening to colleagues. We amp up the empathy dial to those people outside the organization, but many designers. Haven't actually sat down and done the same with their colleagues, with their seniors, with their stakeholders. So if I'm walking into an [00:35:00] executive boardroom and all I've got is my, my customer insights and why we should most definitely fund another designer, I'm not gonna get anywhere.

[00:35:12] Sarah Clearwater: I need to walk in there equipped with a really deep understanding of. The other people in the executive or the people I'm trying to influence, actually want out of this conversation, what they're thinking about, what they want for their teams. How can I, as a designer, enable the outcomes that they're seeking?

[00:35:33] Sarah Clearwater: Me pushing my own agenda? It's maturity 4.5. Yeah. So when I think about design evolution inside organizations, the second part to your question is how can we meet an organization where they're at? Where are the people at in their journey of profit over people to people over profit? Because if we, if we wanna create a binary, that's the journey.

[00:35:59] Sarah Clearwater: And so [00:36:00] where's the organization at? And if I start harping on about human-centered design and the benefits the customers and how people's lives better organizational. It's evidenced by, you know, every single piece of structure or artifact, anchoring and profit and, and productivity. I'm using the wrong language.

[00:36:22] Sarah Clearwater: I'm the wrong stories.

[00:36:24] Gerry Scullion: Yeah. I've got these people in my head when you're talking, and nearly all of them would be like, yeah, it's definitely people over profit or or profit over people. Oh yeah. Um, nearly all, all, uh, scenarios in that, out, in that outcome is, uh, the businesses favor the profit. Um, so what do you see in terms of where we can actually work with design, or not designers, but leadership, functional leadership to support them?

[00:36:54] Gerry Scullion: Um, Not even become, just, just to be open to those [00:37:00] situations. Cause like I've invited leaders to workshops and training and all that, and they'll, they'll come for the opening bit and then they'll drop off after 15 minutes. And that in itself just says an awful lot. They're like, yeah, okay. See you later.

[00:37:15] Gerry Scullion: I'm not interested. And you know, Fair play. Like in, in some senses, they're like, okay, this is, this is your domain. I know if I'm here I might, um, kind of disrupt that. I want you to learn, but at the same time, There's a certain amount of, um, responsibility to upskill to be able to communicate on the language that designers create.

[00:37:38] Gerry Scullion: Um, it has to be a two-way street in order for anything to change. They are the gatekeepers at the end of the day. Um, is it a case of some people are, are gonna be able to get it and others just aren't?

[00:37:52] Sarah Clearwater: I mean, to your earlier point, you know Yeah. If you're in a toxic organization, No amount of goodwill and [00:38:00] effort is, some environments cannot be changed and it's not worth, yeah.

[00:38:05] Sarah Clearwater: You know your sanity to do that. Absolutely.

[00:38:12] Gerry Scullion: Toxic organization. I'm like, okay, just, just get out. Okay. There's other places you can go work. Yeah. Just kidding.

[00:38:18] Sarah Clearwater: But, cause there are plenty of organizations who get it right and there are plenty of environments that are conducive to introducing. Designerly ways of thinking and working that can unlock increasing opportunities over time.

[00:38:33] Gerry Scullion: Yeah. I'm, I'm with, with leadership as a, as a particular function and you've got design leadership. I'm always kind of interested to hear what people have to say around what we can be doing better, what we can be doing more of. Help crystallize not even the value of design, but just be be aware of the conditions that need to need to occur.

[00:38:55] Gerry Scullion: That's right. Cause too often it's just seen as human resources and like, okay, [00:39:00] we just need to get another designer in and throw a design at the problem. And it's not really. It's not really how most of the people who listen to this podcast want to operate. And it tends to be the blockers, the main blockers.

[00:39:11] Gerry Scullion: If you're using that analogy of the chef. Again, a lot of the kitchens aren't fit for purpose. Um, so what were the, what were the main pieces that you saw in the report and in the research? Cuz you had like bloody loads of conversations and what must have taken you. It's taking you months. Like I, I can't have more than two conversations a week without feeling dizzy on this podcast.

[00:39:35] Gerry Scullion: You, and, um, what, what were the, the kind of enlightening pieces? What were the enlightening conversations that you walked away from and you went, wow, okay. That was, that was eyeopening.

[00:39:48] Sarah Clearwater: I mean, yeah, whole conversations. That's a, that's a pretty, um, big reflection mode. I would say some of the, some of the pieces that really stood out were, um, and that is [00:40:00] a massive part of my learning journey, I guess, is indigenous perspectives on design and leadership.

[00:40:05] Sarah Clearwater: And much of the evolved leadership understanding I hold as a result of this report has come from, um, indigenous practitioners or those who are very literate in the indigenous space. Um, you know, design after all is a. As a western concept that we are super imposing, um, into many, many different environments.

[00:40:28] Sarah Clearwater: Um, which in fact have had their own innovation and, um, consultation processes and collaboration processes for centuries. Yeah. And so balancing that I think, um, has been really, you know, or that, or sort of reinvestigating. Where our practice comes from, how, how we talk about it and what humility in our practice looks like, I think is a, is a really important milestone in the evolution and maturity of the design discipline.[00:41:00]

[00:41:00] Sarah Clearwater: Um, I would say that some of the other things that, you know, when we come across these challenges that we just spoke around on, how can we convince CFOs and CEOs and all that stuff, one of the, the big insights again that came from conversation was around that notion of context literacy. How much time do we start, do we spend and actively invest into observing around you?

[00:41:26] Sarah Clearwater: Um, there's this wonderful book called, Sorry, wayfinding leadership that we can link to in your show notes. Yeah. Um, which comes, has come outta the indigenous space here. She spiller and, and a couple of other authors. Ok. And so the, the, the, the notion behind this is to understand that when we lead. In spaces.

[00:41:46] Sarah Clearwater: Spaces the, the westernized or industrialized concept around leadership is very much sitting around going from A to B planning our way there. Yeah. And then when something goes wrong, we go, oh, surprise. Something didn't work out the way [00:42:00] we planned. Luckily we have three backup plans. Yeah. The, the notion of leadership, as I understand it, based on a more indigenous perspective, is to suggest.

[00:42:11] Sarah Clearwater: That in our language, we live in a VUCA world. Nothing is within our control. And so the the core leadership capability we must cultivate is navigation. Navigation result. Navigation is dependent on reading signs in the landscape. Yeah, right. What science does our landscape or context offer us to make better decisions for our teams for discipline?

[00:42:39] Sarah Clearwater: For our people. Yeah. How much time as a leader can you afford to, to pull away from the the B a u meetings and productivity and cadence of things and just sit there and watch what's going on? What are people saying? Why are they saying it? [00:43:00] How are they saying it? What does it relate to? And I would say that,

[00:43:07] Sarah Clearwater: Even if they weren't, haven't had an indigenous background who were successful, they were successful because they could read the landscape. Like it was a book and they could hear what someone was saying and knew, okay, this is what this means for the next strategy update. They could read the next newsletter that came in, the internal comms whatever platform, and gone, oh, okay.

[00:43:31] Sarah Clearwater: These are the three key words I have to include in my next executive presentation. They've become so attuned to what's going on around them. That they were able to use it to their advantage. And when I think about my coaching practice and my training practice with designers, the thing that stumps people up is their inability to see what's in front of them.

[00:43:53] Sarah Clearwater: And it's cause we're not cultivating our census to tune into what's going on [00:44:00] around it. We are so obsessed about planning and filling out business cases and getting through the double diamond at pace with key deliverables. Yeah. We don't see what, what we need, what we could use to actually advance our cause if, if we so wish.

[00:44:21] Gerry Scullion: So going back to the indigenous perspectives, um, I like the fact that the heightened senses and ability to kind of simplify and identify our. Key key aspects. What other aspects did you learn from the indigenous perspectives around design? Other pieces came through,

[00:44:49] Sarah Clearwater: I would say, I mean, there, there are a number of people significantly better place to talk about this than, than I am.

[00:44:56] Sarah Clearwater: Yeah,

[00:44:59] Sarah Clearwater: [00:45:00] yeah. Um, and I would say that, That the processes by which, uh, we can drive innovation or drive, uh, different outcomes are manyfold and the, so the indigenous, I guess, ways of, um, driving what is akin to design outcomes. Are much more reliant on building relationships, on anchoring and conversation, in curating an environment of trust.

[00:45:34] Sarah Clearwater: Like all the stuff that we are discounting as nice to have is the stuff that is central to the way I understand it anyway, is central to, um, indigenous design practice at New Zealand. And I will also say that those working closely. With the indigenous space have largely given up. [00:46:00] The concept or the language around design for, for many of its, uh, challenges and at times recolonizing elements.

[00:46:08] Sarah Clearwater: Mm-hmm. And they embraced, uh, different frameworks such as Ho Waka and others, um, that, that center conversation, people and relationships. And the ironic thing is that we wanna, if we wanna design for people, we must center on the elements that make us human. Right. Yeah. And so I think that's, that's out.

[00:46:32] Sarah Clearwater: That is humbling and that is enriching. And, and I'm really, really grateful for being able to have had a sneak peek, a tiny sneak peek into some of this. Um, and the last thing you'll find at the end of the report, I'll talk about tensions. Yeah. That, that we have an opportunity to lead into. Or lean into, and one of the, the tensions that was offered that I thought was beautiful was one around the idea that design started off as a [00:47:00] production process, but can become a change process.

[00:47:04] Sarah Clearwater: Yeah. And it's not one or the other, it's a spectrum. Right. It's depending on the context. Again, we're moving up and down the spectrum, but again, leadership moments. By and large occurring when we, when we stand in spaces of tension, every single conversation I have had has either explicitly articulated or reflected on the fact that the moments in time where the leadership was most asked of were moments of tension and challenge.

[00:47:40] Sarah Clearwater: And so if we wanna lead design, we can't lead design in the spaces of comfort. There is no leadership to be sought there.

[00:47:50] Gerry Scullion: Absolutely. Yeah. We're, we're coming towards the end of, of our conversation. Um, I wanna ask a question. It's, it's, it might be a [00:48:00] little bit kind of personal in some levels, but after you've created the, the report, did you feel optimistic?

[00:48:09] Gerry Scullion: Um, did you feel more optimistic about design's role in the future? Or did you feel more pessimistic? What I felt.

[00:48:19] Sarah Clearwater: Um, what I've felt was that design as a discipline carries a promise that unites us across difference. Mm-hmm. And for me, that was really energizing. That would make me really, really helpful.

[00:48:41] Sarah Clearwater: Mm-hmm. The thing that is really challenging is that we are on worst enemy. Yeah, and it will, it will take overcoming of our egos, of our hero obsession of many of our deep health beliefs and what it means [00:49:00] to drive change for design to sustain and evolve into a respectful and responsive practice that it can enable and hold space for others to drive change collectively.

[00:49:16] Sarah Clearwater: We have some really awesome building blocks as part of this discipline, whereby no means the only people change is not exclusive to designers, but we are holding a unique set of, of, of composites, of skills, of mindsets that are, you know, that are leaning towards change that are really suitable to this sort of work.

[00:49:36] Sarah Clearwater: But the question is, will we as individuals, as teams, and as a collective, as a discipline, Step up to meet that challenge, to lean into our individual and collective leadership moments. Choose them wisely and then face the storm.

[00:49:59] Gerry Scullion: [00:50:00] Yeah, absolutely. Sarah, listen, look, thank you so much for, for sitting through me, kind of grilling you for the last really enjoyed.

[00:50:11] Gerry Scullion: Speaking and, and, and listening to the responses to my questions and stuff, um, I put a link to the report into the show notes, if that's all right. Um, is there a website that people can go to and download

[00:50:24] Sarah Clearwater: it? Sure. It's sarah

[00:50:28] Gerry Scullion: Okay, very good. Um, and if people wanna reach out to you and stay in touch, what's the best way for them to do

[00:50:34] Sarah Clearwater: that?

[00:50:35] Sarah Clearwater: Uh, LinkedIn would be ideal. Otherwise, it's

[00:50:40] Gerry Scullion: Alright, I'll put a link to your email as well. Listen note, thank you so much for staying up late in New Zealand. Uh, evening time, hopefully, um, you can get to bed and, uh, get a full night's sleep with, uh, your child sleeping through the night.

[00:50:55] Gerry Scullion: There's my wish for you, Sarah, tonight. Just thanks. I really, really enjoyed it.

[00:50:59] Sarah Clearwater: Thank you, [00:51:00] Jerry. It was my pleasure to talk to you.

[00:51:05] Gerry Scullion: There you go folks. I hope you enjoyed that episode, and if you enjoyed it and want to listen to more, why not visit? This is hate where you can learn more about what we are up to and also explore our course as well. You're there. Thanks again for listening.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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