Doctor's Note - Issue 27 - Fear & Anxiety in Stakeholderland
In this issue: Fear & Anxiety in Stakeholderland / Guff of the Week / Power of Ten / A New Website & Workshop Facilitation Course / Book Corner / The Linkhole
Fear & Anxiety in Stakeholderland
A common topic that comes up in my design leadership coaching is a difficult relationship with a senior stakeholder. For design folks, used to opining about design to design peers or reports, it can feel like senior leadership not only doesn't get it, but are actively hostile to design in the organisation, that they don't understand how and why designers may need to work differently from other parts of the organisation, nor how to leverage the impact design could have if only the team were given the chance.
I'm guessing the above scenario sounds familiar to many of you. There is a rude awakening that design leaders often experience, so used to thinking of design as self-evidently A Good Thing™. It's that many senior leadership don't care about design at all. They may even see it as a pointless waste of resources.
Take a deep breath. It's not that bad.
What they do care about is the impact and outcomes design can achieve.
Trying to force-feed stakeholders the design process message can make things worse. They have plenty of other things they are focused on, in the same way as you're focused on raising the quality of the design work and applying its particular lens.
I have found a useful reframe of this comes from what initially feels like a negative place. I believe the world of work is laced with fear and anxiety. Stowe Boyd, among others, have written a great deal about why we've ended up so beholden to work and bosses (some of my thoughts are here and here), so I won't cover it here. My thesis is that starting from the view that your stakeholder is full of fear and anxiety is not a negative viewpoint, but an empathetic one that will help you navigate those—and many other—relationships.
Few people act negatively for the sake of it. It's a central tenet of storytelling that the antagonist's actions are coherent within their worldview. Darth Vader wasn't just an evil villain for no reason. Not only did his love turn to hate, then to anger, revenge and the dark side (as Yoda reminds us), but the bad deeds are justified because they will bring order—and ultimately peace—to the universe. A universe he feels he is the right person to be the leader of. It is an all too common political trope in our present day.
While managing upwards to Vader is likely to end with a tight collar, you are, hopefully, in a physically safer space1. When senior leadership are not supporting or even blocking your requests for more design resources or for design to be more involved in strategy, for example, ask yourself what they are afraid of and anxious about. Why is the need for speed so pressing? Is this a real or an arbitrary deadline? (Spoiler: all deadlines are arbitrary.)
This achieves two mindset shifts. It helps you see that stakeholder as a human being and one that has just as many anxieties, hopes and fears as you do. It also helps you hone in on what that stakeholder might really want or need. You focus on the need behind the behaviour rather than the behaviour itself (which might ring bells for those of you who have done design research).
Once you have a better sense of their hopes and fears, you can position the outcome or impact of what you're trying to achieve through design activities relating to those hopes and fears. This is most often connected to business growth, costs or risk, but stakeholders are people, too, who may have personal or career goals you can help them with.
Many of design's requests are about going slow now to go fast in the right direction later. Framing your request as de-risking or avoiding wasted time and effort connects with those fears and anxieties far more than "we need more design research" will, because many stakeholders might not fully understand what design research is.
This way you connect with the human, hitch your need to theirs and progress together.
It’s a bit smoother on the transitions front, has much better typography and also has a dark mode (try it using the top right icon of the sun/moon). I’ve moved around the navigation structure a little, so it should be clearer where to find the things I do. I got rid of the archive page, but search is back, finally.
As always, I’ve probably broken a few links, despite setting up redirects and aliases. If you find anything broken please let me know.
Power of Ten
And soon to be recorded are interviews with Kate Tarling on The Service Organization, Sheryl Cababa about Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers, and Julian Bleecker on The Manual of Design Fiction, all of whom I'm very much looking forward to.
If you have a suggestion for someone you'd like to hear on the podcast (including yourself), hit reply here or get in touch. They don't have to be book authors, just interesting people. It's always good to hear about folks outside of my own bubble.
Workshop Facilitation Course
I have moved my online course platform from Thinkific to Podia. The subdomain points to the new online courses here. Not all of them have been moved over yet, since it's a totally tedious manual copy and paste process, but I have put a new one online with over two hours of material on workshop facilitation.
Doctor's Note readers can use the discount code "DRNOTE" for 15% off until the end of May 2023. Feel free to pass that on to others.
Guff of the Week
For years I've been collecting vacuous statements from people in business and consulting when they really don't know what they're talking about but want to sound like they do. It's called The Big Book of Guff.
One of the things I used to joke about in consulting was that junior analysts were like advanced Googlers, able to ingest a lot of information from databases and reports, slap it into a deck and present it with great confidence, without needing to really understand what they were talking about.
My first impression of Chat-GPT was that it did exactly this. So, this week's Guff of the Week is written by Chat-GPT in response to asking it what enterprise clients need to know about digital transformation:
"Digital transformation is not just about implementing new technology, but rather a holistic approach to reimagining the way businesses operate and interact with their customers, employees, and partners in a digital world. It requires a cultural shift towards agility, innovation, and customer-centricity, with a focus on leveraging data, analytics, and emerging technologies to create new business models and revenue streams. To achieve this, enterprises need a comprehensive strategy, a robust roadmap, and a cross-functional team of experts to drive change across the organization. They must also be willing to experiment, fail fast, and iterate quickly to learn and adapt as they go." — Chat-GPT 4.
Buzzword much? 🤷
I am slowly working through Ian McGilchrist's The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. It comprises two 900-page tomes, which I bought physically because they're beautiful books, but I also bought the Kindle version to read at night. The downside is that I read a couple of chapters and my Kindle tells me I have only read an extra 1%. The first part is all about how our separate brain hemispheres perceive the world and he corrects many myths around this. Regarding Chat-GPT, this quote seemed apt:
“There are plenty of examples–particularly vivid in the case of split-brain patients, but often seen in more common situations such as stroke–in which the left hemisphere not only clearly does not know what it is talking about, but behaves as though it knows perfectly well. Its manner is confident and unhesitating, even when it is talking about something of which it knows absolutely nothing.”
As mentioned, The Near Future Laboratory's Manual of Design Fiction is on the reading pile, too.
Kate Tarling's The Service Organization is turning out to be a fantastic manual for service design in organisations.
Systems thinking has really taken hold in the world of design in the last few years. My own discovery of it coincided with my interest in service design, but I wish I had known about it far earlier. Sheryl Cababa's Closing the Loop is a great starting point for designers.
I mentioned Eric Zimmerman before. I cited him and Katie Salen several times in my PhD. You should check out all his writing, but his latest book, The Rules We Break is on the reading pile. More on this later, I expect, too.
A slightly surprise podcast recording with me and the Near Future Laboratory's Julian Bleecker. Julian called it Structure vs. Imagination
You can hear me discussing my MTP Engage talk, on The Product Experience.
On the Chat-GPT-as-consultant front, there is a site that launched Chat BCG, but was quickly re-badged to Chat BA (the domain still redirects). It generates consulting slide decks.
I no longer hang out on Twitter, though still have my account. I urge you to come and join Mastodon. I've found it a much nicer place. You can find me here.
That said, this piece from Cory Doctorow on What the Fediverse Does Not Solve deserves a read.
What Can We Learn from Barnes & Noble's Surprising Turnaround? by Ted Goia is refreshing.
Design Leadership is Change Management by Peter Merholz. 100%.
This article gives an opinion on the difference between principle, staff and lead designer. It's much more blurred out there than one might think.
Back in 2001, Josh On created a site called They Rule mapping the elite who sat on corporate boards of the world's biggest companies. He recently wrote an in-depth So What? article about it, which is fascinating and disturbing.
What Went Wrong with Design Thinking? by Rebecca Ackermann suggests that the "approach that promised to democratize design may have done the opposite."
I wrote my PhD about play, so this piece called A game is not a game without a special kind of conflict by Eric Zimmerman was a fun read.
Regular readers might know I play tabletop role-playing games. I believe there is a lot to cross-pollinate between TTRPGs and design and leadership, of which more soon. In the meantime, this guide about playtesting by Kobold Press has some excellent tips that apply to giving feedback on creative work.
Imposter Syndrome was originally called Imposter Phenomenon, which I've always preferred since it sounds less like a lifelong affliction than something that comes and goes. Leslie Jamison charts the dubious rise of imposter syndrome in The New Yorker.
Synthetic Users seems like a terribly bad idea.
This did the rounds, but I'm linking to it anyway. Stephen Wolfram's explainer What Is ChatGPT Doing … and Why Does It Work? is as close as most of us non-mathematicians will get to understanding it.
The Backfire Effect from The Oatmeal. Just read it.
Many readers and listeners will know I'm a huge fan of thinking in zoom levels when it comes to service design. Megan Erin Miller wrote a great piece about levels of zoom in service design.
Finally, Kelsey Dionne is an independent TTRPG writer who has just had incredible success with her Shadowdark Kickstarter campaign, raising $1,365,923 compared to a $10,000 goal. She has a series of videos on her YouTube channel about how she writes a one-shot (a single-session adventure). I appreciated her lovely manner, especially the way she interacts with those in the chat during the stream, but it's also fascinating to watch someone write live and use a simple framework to drive creativity.
That’s it for this issue. Thanks for reading, sharing and listening.
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