The Odd Couple – Getting Designers and Consultants to get along

One’s boring old fashioned, clean and tidy and wears a nice suit, the other’s messy, shaggy haired and goes to burning man. How will they ever get along? Simple answer; it’s the business model and the culture.

Throughout the years, each of the consulting firms has had a stereotype. I’ll show some tact and not describe them specifically but there was a particular clone army who used to arrive at careers’ fairs en masse; everyone in chinos and well ironed semi-casual shirts. They were very open about looking for a certain type of person to join their team and typically, you could pick the likely candidates without anyone opening their mouths. There was another company where the wearing of shoes other than black would be considered a disciplinary matter.

To varying extents, all the consulting companies up until the past few years pursued a similar approach. I knew a number of people who left my own organisation with commentary thereafter that ‘they were an _____ person anyway’. However, with the world of consulting changing so has the approach to hiring and acquisition.

Buying design

The aforementioned chino brigade like the others have bought a design agency and are integrating that into their business.  Everyone else has done something similar but the legacy company won’t suddenly change overnight. Strangely given what consultants do for a living, not everyone is managing the change perfectly. So if you are designer at a consulting firm, here’s a quick lesson in transformation with a view towards what might happen. Here are example 4 integration models. (there are many, many more)

Option 1) The Trojan horse – you set up a new team in the middle of the business with a new name or new job titles. It’s ostensibly part of the same structure and is integrated into the P&L. All the operations work the same and the design people are treated like every other consultant. A slow gradual change of bringing in the skills, starting to get projects and building the team. The team starts to grow and subsume other bits of the business until eventually, it’s no longer the small bit rather the main bit. The change to the business is to blend the skills and capabilities towards the design elements and you transform the business from within.

Problem; is getting through the first couple of years. The designers don’t want to be like everyone else and the performance management is difficult to compare oranges and apples. The culture is a big shock for the new people so they retreat into their own team a little. The rest of the team resents them for ‘getting special treatment’ and some of the designers leave. The experiment is considered a failure and the team is rolled into an existing team.

Option 2) The Mercenary force – you recognise that the skills and culture is so different to the existing business that you keep them separate. Different office, different structure and management. You integrate the services into the business with a service catalogue where you buy in resource from the ‘mercs’. You spend weeks trying to work out how to price it and end up with a compromise. The value is seen in the delivery, the people and the brand is protected and the services can be integrated into the business. The symbiotic relationship works for everyone and everyone is happy.

Problem: is the project managers in the main business who see that they get less margin from using the mercenaries rather than their own people. They see the credit for the good work go elsewhere so they start to try and resource the projects from their own teams. They’ve seen it done before so they repurpose people to do something similar. However, they don’t do as well so the quality drops. The new business gets less money and looks to sell things themselves and even competing with the main business. Either way, someone loses out in some revenue and after a power struggle, eventually moves are made to take it in-house.

Option 3) The club mascot – the business builds something shiny which looks great and has a small team. A huge force of marketing is put into the endeavour both external and internal. The new people feel special and existing staff aspire to join the special team. (needs to have an especially cool name).

Problem; is that it’s likely to be a cost centre and for it’s nice for a while whilst you invest lots in the venture. Eventually thoough someone asks what the business is getting as value and chances are that it slowly loses traction, funding and eventually people. You then go back to square 1.

Option 4)  The melting pot – you create nothing new and hire people into existing teams. The new people align with existing structures, process and performance management. The skills become embedded skills as with anything else and slowly the whole business starts to acquire the ability through training and engagement. The functions delivered are morphed to represent the new way of working.

Problem is; getting any people to join the team and stay with the team when they are likely to go through a tough time before their real value starts to be visible and rewarded. The whole business take a while to adapt to the new way of working and the pain of transition tends to lose some people.

So what

As with anything, Culture is the magic bullet for dealing with transformation so everybody needs to start there.

For the boring, old fashioned consultants. There needs to be a realisation the investment is a medium term plan and unless you change the whole business then ultimately, it won’t work. You maybe don’t share a flat with your new designer friend immediately but you have trips to their house and start to adapt your own for when they move in. You also have to realise that these skills are going to be absolutely core for your own future learning.

For the trendy new designers, you have to realise that it won’t be great as soon as you move in. It can be a long process to get used to something different and even longer before you are recognised for the value. In the long run though, you’ll get the real benefit so don’t jump ship immediately when you realise there’s no in-house barista made Turmeric Lattes.

I see a lot of commentary from designers extolling how corporates are ‘finally seeing the value of design’ and it’s true but you have to appreciate how becoming the mainstream changes the dynamic of what you have to do. You can look to your consultant colleagues and realise that whilst you’ve been talking about ‘service design’ for about 3 years, they’ve been building customer centric operating models for 10 years. The value of the two together is greater than the sum of its parts.

How to design a 1 day workshop in 10 minutes and 10 reasons why you shouldn’t.

If you work in collaboration or event design or facilitation or anything similar, you will probably recognise the following scenario; a client or a colleague arrives at your desk/office/bean bag and says ‘I need a workshop, here is the agenda, can you please deliver it’.

This is not a scenario which is repeated in many other places. You tend to ask help from SMEs based on the presumption that they are the experts. Accordingly, I don’t arrive at the dev managers start-up meeting and say ‘I’ve designed the sprint myself, can you just run it’. However, everyone has been to events and workshops so everything thinks they can do it. Everyone has also eaten a cake but they don’t tell Gordon Ramsay how to bake one.

So, if you are going to do it anyway, here is your 10 minute design guide.

1)     Pick some clear messages about what you need to get out of the session – get the most important person to give them

2)     Give people things to think about – case studies, examples, articles, quotes, videos etc. Pick some customers or employees to tell some meaningful stories to surprise

3)     Let everyone whine about the problems (then politely tell that it’s in the past, gone, forgotten, yesterday, today is about the future……pause for effect

4)     Set a new context and play a game – build, paint, draw, act. Pick some obvious metaphors which demonstrate the theme – customer, working together, value, cost savings whatever

5)     Pick the main areas you want to talk about – have a nice chat to discuss what’s important, have some ideas and then a group chat to discuss

6)     Have another go – more pointed, specific, objective driven, have another group chat

7)     Decide what to do with what you have discussed – plan, initiatives (start to work on output if you have time

8)     Group photo and everyone agrees to commit to do something


Have a go at this in 10 minutes and see how you do.

Then please throw it in the bin and go back to the start (ideally by asking someone who knows how to do it if they are available). Here is why

1)     Facilitation is an art as well as a science – if you have been in a workshop with a good facilitator, you will know the difference in how the flow and rhythm of the event works. They ask the right questions, know when to push and know when to let things run. People who do this all the time are better than you because they have experience but mostly because they put in a huge effort in preparation. They might say ‘this is probably a daft question’, if they do, you can bet they have a pre-prepared laser targeted gem ready to go.

2)     You have to go slow before you can go fast – you will think that it’s wasting time to talk about different things, or to go in circles for a while. You do so because you can’t get straight to the heart of the value without taking people through a journey. It’s then much quicker at the end than at the start.

3)     Creativity needs to be applied correctly – anyone can name film titles and suggest that the event is themed with pictures of Disney characters or the all time classic ‘a mountain’. This misses a huge trick if you don’t spend the time connecting a theme with the program or the organisation etc. Likewise, during the session, you have to recognise that people create and imagine in different ways and you can’t force a one size fits all e.g. everyone have 50 ideas on these post it notes……..

4)     Every hour of an event needs a day of preparation – you have to respect the time being taken out of the business and the potential for the event. Unless you can sacrifice some people to (at a rough scale) commit 1 day per hour of session in the preparation, then you are missing an opportunity.

5)     Managing people is on a logarithmic scale – a 100 person workshop is 1000 times harder than a 10 person one. It’s like managing babies 1 is hard, 2 is harder, 3 is nightmarish. The logistical challenge alone going from 10 to 50 people is a huge difference. Please don’t start with a 20 person event, announce that 53 are coming and wonder why the design team are in tears

6)     You don’t know how long things take – if you have an agenda with ‘process redesign session’ which has been allocated 20 minutes, you are going to struggle. You have to recognise that rushing to an answer isn’t worth it if it’s a bad answer. Take direction on how long things take.

7)     Pretty pictures and graphics are lipstick on a pig unless they mean something – people engage really well with visuals/graphics but it’s like anything else shiny, it needs the substance beneath. Rubbish beautifully scribed on a board with hand drawn pictures is still rubbish.

8)     Unless you are extremely clear about what you are trying to achieve then you won’t get there – you need to apply some critical thinking to event design as with anything else. You usually get a view of ‘what’ you want to achieve fairly quickly – a strategy paper, an aligned plan etc. That’s not how you build a great workshop, you need to peel back layers of ‘why’ or the whole thing crumbles at the first challenge. The preparation needs to make sure you answer these questions in advance.

 9)     You need to know the psychology about who is coming and know how to handle them – fundamentally, a workshop is about people, if it wasn’t then you wouldn’t need it in the first place. You could get some strategy consultants in a room, throw them some expensive peanuts once a week and read whatever they give you. So, you need to take the time to understand who is coming, what the dynamic of the group is and work through how to manage them individually. 

10)  You need to think differently – some independence of thought and some disruption in how you would normally run things is of huge value. A different perspective adds immensely to the process and will generate questions that you’ve likely not thought of.

There’s a whole lot more to the above and I’ve missed a pile out but hopefully you can appreciate my message namely; respect the value of a workshop and consider the possibilities. Running a bad workshop is easy. Running a good one takes time, thought and imagination. If your organisation has skills and support available, you’d be mad not to use them.