Getting comfortable with uncertainty when bringing design into a large company

Design and Uncertainty

Design is all about exploring the unknown, and testing projects out until they fit the context and market. Design and uncertainty come hand in hand – but could it be that starting from a point of certainty, and then demystifying the process of how design capabilities are developed, is a way of bringing design into the core of a company’s approach to innovation within their projects?

Speedboat exercise

My experience of running a creative workshop with a large IT company in India led me to this reflection on how design can be brought into a business with a strong engineering and IT focus. I needed to get a group of 50 people to share their feelings about bringing design into the core of their design products and services. This was a big task!


Image from ‘Reinvigorated Retrospectives’ by ‘Matt Badgley’

To get this group of individuals to talk openly about their feelings I tasked them with drawing a speed boat, complete with an anchor that represented what is holding them back, and a sail that represented what was pushing them forwards. The results are below:


Speedboat feedback

In sharing their speedboat drawings, people first shared how they felt design should be brought into the core of their company’s everyday products and services. This involved having a clear strategy of what design represented in terms of a new offer within the company and, critically, having the CEO on board. But when it comes to implementation it is all about empowering employees to use design to solve problems on an everyday basis in their work and projects.

Looking over drivers and fears (see image above), there was a lot of conversations around people going back to feeling like a child, which I saw as a double edge sword: for some people this feeling gave them the freedom of exploration, but for others it meant uncertainty of how to develop the appropriate new skills that are expected of them, leaving them feeling out of their comfort zone.

In summary, to empower employees development of design skills has to be delivered in a way that creates certainty: keeping it simple, transparent, and demystifying the design process.

Design Inquiry Personas: Delivering certainty when fostering design capabilities

When people are feeling so uncertain about how to develop such skills, a new offer to employees may be needed: such as an initial structure that shows the different levels of developing a design inquiry that provide certainty, and support a developing confidence in exploring the unknown. Basically, it is all about communication!

This took me back to my PhD research, where I had developed Visual Inquiry Personas which were based on the metaphor of the Sherlock Holmes characters, and were used to communicate levels of personal visual inquiry development to both student and tutors. For example: Mrs Hudson uses products and did not question her approach. Dr. Watson knows when to analyse and synthesise, is able to question his own work, but can only self-reflect to improve his approach (see images below). Sherlock Holmes understands the context, selects the right approach to explore problems, and self-reflects throughout. Of course throughout a project you might need to use all these different approaches, being a ‘Mrs Hudson’ at one point and a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ at another. But in terms of development, these personas provide a clear framework to understand the steps you need to take to progress. The framework is not needed for long, as it soon becomes part of everyday actions.


The Sherlock Holmes characters were used to help students reflect upon and evaluate how they were developing, and made tutors aware of students’ barriers in a very short space in time. They make the process of development transparent and develop articulation between the whole group, who know where they were and can clearly see the steps they need to take in order to develop their project work. This is a great way of demystifying the process of learning.

Would the Design Inquiry Personas approach work in business?

If you want to empower people, metaphors (and they do not have to be Sherlock Holmes) can be used to communicate how a company expects their employees to develop design approaches within their projects, providing individuals and teams with a framework to talk about where they are in the process of developing such skills.

However I would suggest a couple of key points that should be considered with regards to the use of such an approach in business:

(a) Start with the offer to new employees: Every company has their own reasons for wanting design to be a core part of their innovation approach. The Visual Inquiry Personas started out as a way of exploring student development, and are a reflection of their development in that context. The same exploration to create the personas would be needed in order to reflect the new offer that design will bring to each company. One size will not fit all!

(b) ‘Why does everyone need to be Sherlock Holmes? We still need doers!’ This links to a question that I get asked often: can everyone really be creative? But I think the better question is what level of design capabilities will help the company in question to innovate?

I am not sure if everyone in a large corporation needs to be a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ – it’s probably desirable but not necessary. It may be that giving everyone a basic understanding of design processes and tools is enough to bring new value to the company’s products and services – as I’ve seen before at DesignThinkers, where a simple toolkit allowed the team to implement design thinking throughout their service projects. During my PhD research I found that it was hard to develop students’ skills into a Sherlock Holmes, as this level took a lot of self-development, being ok with uncertainty, prototyping and exploring. But I found it was very easy to help people move from Mrs Hudson to Dr. Watson, by providing clear design processes and tools and approaches to help them reflect on their work. It’s when you let go of the tools, and can consider what approach is right to explore a context and develop a product or service, that you demonstrate a great design competency. But being a Dr. Watson may be enough to gain the desired outcome for the company. There would be a lot of time wasted in self-development when there may in fact only need a certain number of design facilitators with Sherlock Holmes characteristics (along with the knowledge of when to be a Dr. Watson or a Mrs Hudson). Having being around great design facilitators I know that you have to be an inspirational leader and have good knowledge of a lot of design approaches, and be able to change approach as you work – all skills that take a long time to acquire. If people become happy in dealing with uncertainty, and are happy to create their own processes based on their own experiences – even better! They will be adding to the speed and quality of delivery of the product.

However once people get used to the idea of the tools, there could be an introduction and self-reflection session to introduce the value of uncertainty, and help people feel more confident with the idea of it in the context of design. Design professional skills take time to develop, and does not happen overnight – as it is a mindset change that requires constant practice.

(c) Engineers are great! Given a set of criteria they can all solve a problem very effectively; don’t try to change them in to something they’re not. Consider where design adds value to different skillsets and processes. Designers are great at exploring the context, and revealing human insights. When professionals from these two disciplines work together, they are stronger than they are alone. For example: engineers are great at solving problems, once experiments are done they are great at creating an effective process; and designers are great at finding new opportunities and asking the right questions to help them understand customers. I have heard of some companies bringing engineers in to support their design teams. As well as considering what value is added through this that could inform the design inquiry personas, it could also be about supporting team members to learn each other’s professional language, skills and mindset.

(d) Designers sharing the value of their skills: As designers develop new skills, these become ‘tacit knowledge’, and articulating the nature of these skills can be hard. In some workshops I have participated in, developers did not acknowledge the designers’ process, leading to an ‘Us and Them’ instead of a ‘We, together’ mindset. But as design moves into new areas, the tools, skills and processes will become explicit and the business value more clearly articulated.  New learning systems and evaluation approaches could be needed at this point to help in the development of design functions, and revisit where design has a role to play.

In summary

Given the factors above, I feel that the early introduction of a set of company-specific ‘Design Inquiry Personas’ would way of creating certainty around the development of relevant design capabilities and the evaluation of project progress. Once understood and embedded into project processes, culture and common language, the physical representation of the personas can be taken away. In my own research I found they could be removed after 4-6 months.

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