Why Design Conversations?
“A design approach as an integral part of the business strategy enables enterprises to systematically create value propositions for the people they address. It allows us to integrate stakeholder-specific approaches in an overarching vision, and to design artifacts and systems that are useful and meaningful for everyone in touch with the enterprise. It fosters relationships by exploring, meeting, and exceeding real human needs and turning them into business initiatives, products, and services” (Guenther 21).
Many of our businesses are at a critical crossroads: we have recognized the limitations of traditional, bureaucratic, hierarchical top-down styles of operations… And we have recognized the benefits of agile, nimble, human-centered styles of operations.
But appreciation for a design approach hasn’t always meant wider adoption.
It’s a complicated road – there is no ‘one right way’ there.
Figuring out the right approach for your organization will need to consider a multitude of factors at the center of feasibility, viability, and meaningfulness.
It can be costly.
Integrating new software, hiring new people, training – these costs can add up to be a significant investment.
It doesn’t happen overnight.
As this article suggests, instilling a new mindset across an organization may take years to accomplish.
It requires buy-in from risk-averse stakeholders.
When applying creative processes to strategy development, those more comfortable with “tried and true” business methods may be skeptical of newer, participatory styles of leadership.
It is difficult to measure success.
Sometimes a design-led approach results in indirect benefits, which can be difficult to track and measure on a balance sheet.
It would be impossible to address all of these concerns on one site, especially when doing so might require an intricate understanding of a particular organization. But I can advocate for one facet that supports efforts across all five areas: conversation.
Focused, purposeful conversation can help organizations discuss a myriad of paths forward, aiding groups in finding alignment, eliminating unnecessary costs caused by confusion, and it can inform people about the complex topics related to transformation. At its best, conversation can help turn assumptions into understanding, the cynical into the empathic.
But good conversations don’t just happen (or rarely do). Just like any great product, they are the result of much planning and consideration, and require a good captain at the helm. Designers, I believe, are up for the challenge of the captain role. The tools and methods employed by designers over the last twenty years have prepared them to tackle the abstract nature of designing conversation.
Poor conversation is a waste of valuable resources
“Most companies have elaborate procedures for managing capital. They require a compelling business case for any new investment. They set hurdle rates. They delegate authority carefully, prescribing spending limits for each level. An organization’s time, in contrast, goes largely unmanaged (Mankins, Brahm, Caimi)“.
How is our time spent at work? Often, as Mankins, Brahm, and Caimi write, it is in “phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, meetings, and teleconferences.” This causes, they say: “organizations to become bloated, bureaucratic, and slow.” 2
Here are a few stats to illustrate the magnitude of the costs associated with poor conversations in our organizations:
LACK OF PURPOSE
One study showed “a single weekly meeting of midlevel managers cost one organization $15M a year” (“Estimate the Cost of a Meeting with This Calculator”). A commenter on this article, Toby Lucich, Principal of Return Leverage, agrees: “It’s funny (sad) to me that we invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in new software, process redesign, organizational realignment, and business innovation, and yet we rarely if ever provide the necessary guides or parameters for what constitutes a ‘good’ meeting. Organizations just ‘assume’ that meetings create value.” *
In Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report, US companies wasted over $399 billion as a result of poorly organized meetings, which resulted in a number of undesirable outcomes: stealing necessary time away from the rest of the respondent’s workload, causing confusion around actions and loss of focus on projects, slowing progress, and alienating clients. A whopping 68% of American professionals reported losing “time every week due to unnecessary or canceled meetings.”
NO DEFINED GOALS
A study done by Microsoft, American Online, and Salary.com determined workers only actually worked a total of three days. The other two days were considered time wasted. ‘Pointless meetings’ were listed at the top of reasons why.
Doodle’s report also captured something striking – about one third of Americans believed that these poorly organized (or cancelled) meetings were what posed the biggest threat to their company. In a simple Google search you can find countless popular articles written about meetings, such as Perlow, Hadley, and Eun’s “Stop the Meeting Madness” and Simon Jenkins “Crushing morale, killing productivity – why do offices put up with meetings?“, illustrating a pervasive frustration we are not addressing across business.
Taken from a more holistic vantage point, this prevalent waste means that our biggest opportunities to converse about strategy, to debate, to clarify, to align, to forecast, to collaborate, prioritize, understand, to frame problems, to form connections… are often considered unstructured, and lack purpose and direction. The cost has been tremendous, impacting the economy’s bottom line into the billions, and wreaking havoc on morale.
It means that there are so many missed opportunities for organizations to engage stakeholders around a shared mission, to satisfy the human desire to have value and purpose in their work, to feel a sense of belonging, to create a corporate identity that positively reflects the millions of tiny touch-points that happen each day within an organization’s literal and figurative walls.
The pervasiveness of this meme, while hilarious, represents a widespread and shared frustration across our society about wasted time.
And what about time for reflection? As John Dewey famously said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Various studies agree, the research from one indicates how workers who were given time to reflect outperformed a group who had not: “On average, the reflection group increased its performance on the final training test by 22.8 percent than did the control group,” even though the control group worked longer.5 Thus, it is arguably just as important for organizations to give time and purpose to conversations with the self, just as time as given to conversations with teams and managers.
I believe the art of conversation design can take back the reins, give workers their valuable time back, save organizations money, improve the experiences around daily communicating and collaborating… among so many other benefits more fully explored throughout this site.
*Commenting on this article was disabled and so this quote is no longer available to view.
Well-designed conversations means
“When you add the list of emerging opportunities – customer experience, wayfinding, service design, operational processes, branded training, organizational design, decision making, business strategy, and thought leadership – you begin to appreciate the need for strong design management” (Neumeier 98).
For years, designers have fought for a “seat at the table.” A recent 2020 study by McKinsey writes: “… designers complained that they needed to be brought into the C-suite to make strategic decisions alongside CEOs and CMOs. That has happened over the past five years, as 40 of the top 100 companies hired a chief design officer (CDO)” (Wilson).
However, leadership lacks clarity about what designers are supposed to do in that role and other positions of design leadership. “I think in some ways the CDO is going to be what the CMO was 20 years ago, when that role was first coming into its own,” says Ben Sheppard, McKinsey & Company’s Product Development and Design lead. “There was a lack of clarity of scope, how you measure success, and what their role should be in business strategy… You know the head of sales is accountable for hitting sales numbers, and the CEO is accountable for production numbers,” says Sheppard, “What the CDO is accountable for is less clear” (Sheppard).
As my aim on this site is to elevate the importance of both conversation and design in our businesses, I believe designed conversation should be an integral component of every design leader’s responsibility. As we seek to make designers accountable—and their responsibilities more clear—we must consider the management of an overlooked resource, time, as part of our duties in ensuring the best experience for the humans working at the heart of our businesses.
We need designers designing conversation
Design the Conversation is not about telling people what to say, how to say it, or when to say it; it is about laying the groundwork for understanding—what human beings need to feel satisfied in conversation, what tools and methods designers have mastered over the last twenty years that could be beneficial to planning purposeful conversations, so we can better engage and align groups who have come together for discussions around concepts both big and small.