The Road to Johannesburg

I am on the eve of working in Johannesburg. I’m joining McKinsey&Company, or McKinsey Digital Labs to be precise.

Once upon a time I was a designer. During the last five years I became a consultant. Not by design, it just sort of happened. The transition was easy, so it feels right. But I didn’t plan it. Which is why this Joseph Cambell quote gave me a jolt:

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Leading up to McKinsey I worked at Capgemini and Deloitte Digital. When I started out I had a vision of being a freelance designer working on my own. How I ended up working at these iconic companies is still a mystery to me. But there is a significance here that I need to understand and respect. Because now I’m joining the most iconic Firm of them all.

The trick is to stay in charge of your own destiny, and based on my experience at big consulting firms, if you wait for things to happen then you’re not going to get far, you must take action to make things happen. For an inward looking designer like me this has been the hardest transition to make.

If we cut loose old baggage new opportunities await us–I have no proof that this is not so. I’m excited when I think about what could happen next. But there are new things I must learn. Most importantly I must relearn what design is all about so that I can become a better designer. And I need to understand and internalise what consulting means for a designer in 2016: A good designer is someone who can improve a situation, and a good consultant is someone who thinks more about a client’s problem than the client themselves, the result of which helps the client to make improvements.

A long time ago when I was a working holiday maker in London I worked as a cycle courier for a time. It is the most extreme work I’ve ever done. But what I learnt was that no matter how bad a day was, when the next day started at 8 am there was a clean slate before me. Yesterday was forgotten. It’s a new day and anything could happen. And it usually did.

A Systems View of Innovation

How might we describe innovation as a system as apposed to a process? Thinking in systems about innovation is not new, innovation hubs and ideas around biomimicry take a systems view.

In a systems view of innovation events happen simultaneously, and for the most part uncoordinated. A systems view of innovation ups the odds for chance and luck to play its part in the emergence of new ideas and solutions. Thinkers like Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman ascribe more agency to luck and randomness than to individual decision making and skill in stories of success. A healthy innovation system needs to spark randomness, building on a solid skills bedrock, to increase the likelihood of lucky events.

A first stab at an innovation systems model could look something like this. It all hinges around a sense of opportunity that attracts people. Next, buildings provide physical space for people to interact. But more importantly, buildings and location give context that inspire people to take action. People bring skills and new opportunities. All these components need the right proximity to each other – if the friction becomes too great the system will fail. If the proximity is optimal it becomes a virtuous cycle.

We need new skeletons

New systems can be conceptualised as new skeletons, with the aim of attracting new cells to eventually grow new muscles. Our current skeletons are outmoded remnants from the industrial age. Our aim should not be to change them, we need to create new ones while slowly disinvesting in the old ones. The purpose of innovation hubs is to create new skeletons. 1

A systems view of innovation.

In this model no single entity can own innovation, players choose where to participate and what to contribute without certainty of outcome or payback.

Organisations eager to join the innovation game need to make radical culture and mental model shifts, because they’ll need to become more open and outward focused. For big companies this means more risk. But without risk there can be no chance or luck, and no innovation.

  1. The skeleton analogy is from a workshop I attended by Elizabeth Dostal

Thinking about emotions and relationships when working in big teams

The working title for this piece was Working with difficult stakeholders. But I changed my mind, for three reasons: Firstly, I once referred to a stakeholder as ‘difficult’, but a colleague on the same project had a different experience. Secondly, when asked in a job interview how I’d deal with difficult stakeholders I realised that up to that point I hadn’t really given it much thought. And thirdly, ‘difficult stakeholders’ has a faceless ring to it and it sets the scene for othering.

On the back of a recent project I made a list to help me next time I work with a big group that hold divergent and often apposing views:

  1. Draw a map of all the people on the project.
  2. Make the interrelationships between them visible.
  3. Identify everyone that will be impacted positively.
  4. Identify everyone who will be impacted negatively.
  5. Identify what people need form the project, and understand why.
  6. Ask yourself: What am I not seeing?
  7. Start with your own emotions. Look at your feelings and take ownership of them.
  8. Acknowledge that change is emotional for people about to gain, or loose something.
  9. Back up observations and recommendations with evidence.
  10. Talk is work – be on the lookout for opportunities to start conversations.

Another way of looking at it is that the interrelationships between people on a project is the project. A project will fail to reach its potential if working effectively with others is not seen as a key deliverable.

Intro to systems thinking for designers

The film Mindwalk and the book The Turning Point by Fritjof Capra switched me onto systems thinking. When I studied it formally I was surprised by the overlaps between the theoretical concepts of systems thinking and the practical methods that I was using in my work as a user experience designer. When a colleague asked me to explain systems thinking I realised that I didn’t have a simple explanation. Here are a few systems thinking concepts (as I understand them) that I find helpful in my design work.


What is the difference between a human rights system and a transportation system? When thinking about a transportation system it is easy to name what is part of the system and what is not. When thinking about a human rights system the boundary of the system is not that clear. But what is similar for both systems is that we make decisions about what to include and what to exclude in our understanding of the system. These are called boundary decisions, it is a key concept in systems thinking.

Systems are models

Systems only come into view when we make boundary decisions (implying personal responsibility), they do not exist ‘readymade’ out there. We make decisions based on a range of emotions, values, and prejudices shaped by our individual backgrounds and contexts, hence no system can be thought of as objective. This explains why there are more than one ‘system’ for understanding and improving climate change and other wicked problems. Systems are models created by people to understand situations better, to either exploit or improve them.

Systems thinking is design

Systems thinking is a method of arranging named phenomena to learn, understand, and plan action to improve something – it’s an opportunity to design better systems (models).

A response to the question: What is Design? could be:

“Oh, so design isn’t about this pixels thing. It’s about systems thinking.” I’m a systems thinker. “Oh, so it isn’t just about the appearance.”

The quote is from an interview with John Maeda on why senior executives must understand design.

Testing systems

There are many schools of thought in systems thinking. Understanding and experimenting with systems thinking is not easy, it’s the reason why it has failed to get traction outside academia. I do think that systems thinking provides useful conceptual frameworks for designers. Maybe systems thinking should take its place in the Design toolbox, alongside design thinking and user centred design – methods that are successful because they make it easy to experiment with, and test your models (systems) in the real world.

For a short introduction to systems thinking read the How-To Guide by Daniel Kim.