The same, but different.

15 chris peel01cl 01


After spending most of my working career in the public sector, I jumped into the private world as a consultant, to push myself in different ways, learn and see what all the fuss was about. To cut to the chase – it’s not all that different at a fundamental level, but the pace and some of the nuances have certainly given me pause for thought. 

Here are my reflections and the top few outtakes of my move to the private sector:

The impact of empathy

The easiest thing to lose sight of is your customer.  Most companies seek to better understand their customers and to be more responsive to their needs. Feedback surveys are definitely not the way to do this. To develop products that are effective for people, you need to deeply understand their needs, motives and behaviours. Yet while we know it’s important, it often becomes the first thing to  slip. DNA doesn’t let that happen. With every client and every project, empathy with current or potential customers is core to what we do.

Why is that important? Because empathy drives innovation. Jon Kolko articulates it well:“We aren't looking for the market to tell us what to build, and we aren't looking to validate that an idea will be successful. Instead, design research is focused on provocation: on driving towards new ideas that will fill a market or a user need” 

As practitioners, empathy is how we build our context and understanding. It’s how we understand human needs and articulate the relationship of humans with products and services. For me, it’s moving towards insight that ultimately enables such provocation with and within a business.  

The bog of business as usual

In my prior work this was probably the most frustrating barrier to progress. “We can’t release people for the project because they are too busy running day to day”.  It’s a vicious Catch 22: release your experts to work on innovation and impact the ability to operate day to day or fail to innovate and the issues your people and customers face get worse. 

It’s a depressing thought but there is always hope (there has to be) - but to move forward you have to be deliberate in action.  It’s a hard journey to start and for us its about how we can help organisations first see the value and secondly create the ‘burning platform’ for change. Empathy is core to this – the stories of your customers goals and needs as well as their delight or frustration with your organisation is the best lever you have to cut through the noise.  

Validation of the direction you are heading is key to building support internally and making sure your ideas actually deliver to customer needs in a way that is valuable to them. Prototyping early and often gives this validation. You guessed it, as well this is a core part of the the sprint process. Regular iterations mean that every time you test, you build greater understanding of your customers. As well as adding value in the form of new elements of your design or killing elements that clearly add no value.

The consultants are coming…

I’ve always been quite resistant to consultants (and I appreciate the irony that I now am one). This was mainly because I saw them used in the wrong way, working on projects with unclear scope, that lead to long expensive pieces of work – or worse, reproducing work that had been completed internally multilple times and not revealing anything new. 

Now, seeing both sides, I think it’s about being deliberate and getting external agencies to do the heavy lifting and accelerate your programmes of work. Be clear on scope, whats valuable for you and your customers, and most importantly open to ideas that challenge your organisations way of being. It doesn’t mean you have to change, but it’s the confrontation of “is this important enough to create change?”. 

The only caution here is that you, and your consultants need to be able to assess your organisational maturity, so solutions are designed that you can execute.  There is nothing worse than a design that’s created in absense of the the business realities, because it won’t deliver value to the most important people: customers. This is something we have in sharp focus in both DNA offices right now, we are always looking at what we can practically and pragmatically create that will deliver value and effect. 

 Pace, Pace, Pace

With the pressures companies are facing, the ability to deliver at pace is key for digital transformation.  

Which brings me to sprints (the model that most attracted me to working at DNA). Sprints are amazing. You should be doing them and consultants you bring in should be doing them. Your business will be better for it.  If you don’t know much about them read the Jake Knapp sprint book for the low down.

Why do I think they are great?

> With a discrete time-box and clear deliverable it means you are always progressing.

> It motivates teams and it creates urgency.

> It’s not about failure or success but learning. Progress for the business can be as much about what not to do as it is about what to do.  

What have I learnt in my first 6 months about sprints?

> Keep foundations front and center: The foundations of a good sprint are fast prototyping and testing through empathy with real customers

> Watch your cognitive load: You can handle multiple sprints at the same time (we currently think 2 is well balanced and 3 is the maximum) but be careful not to schedule intensive activites at the same time. E.g. empathy or synthesis all in the same week across multiple projects.

> It’s collaborative without the overkill: if you have been brought in to accelerate you need to ensure every minute of your clients time delivers insight and value to the process. 

> Talk early and often: build early prototypes and talk about it to sense check. It ensures delivery is aligned to expectations and flushes out business concerns early on.

The biggest point of difference for me is the pace at which we move in the consulting world. So, to wrap up I think it’s only fitting that I talk about how to drive towards greater pace and action when you find yourself in capacity debt and have challenges that your people just can’t get to.

> Think about your priorities and look at how you can use external partners to accelerate you forward.

> You won’t achieve successful digital innovation without insight from people (customers) at the centre of the process. 

 > Learn to sprint or find a partner that can show you how. It’s a game changer that won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

 Chris Peel _ Experience Designer.