Digital transformation is something that we all wish we could boast to our friends and colleagues as something we have accomplished.

Steph Troeth
Steph Troeth
2 weeks ago

The covert challenge in this pursuit is hidden in the word ‘digital’, which implies we can achieve this fabled ‘transformation’ when we have the right technology. It is true that effectively employing the right technology is crucial. But there’s something else that’s important to address. In order to achieve digital transformation beyond just wearing the badge, design needs to play an equivalent strategic role.

For this to happen, our design practice must reach a tenable level of maturity.

When we think about maturing our design discipline within our company or organisation, the language that often dominates the digital transformation conversation tends to be about changing the processes, systems and behaviours. Design systems and design ops are part of the natural progression towards scaling design—and don’t get me wrong, these are necessary, fundamental steps. However, from my angle as a researcher and strategist, it’s as if we expect to be able to introduce change by redesigning the system alone, just like an engineer would upgrade a machine.

As someone who looks to inform strategy through evidence-based design, particularly from the human perspective—I’ve been thinking that in our current conversations we might have unconsciously overlooked the human element: the core narrative that each of us needs to embody in order to make change happen. These narratives make up the internal script that all of us run on: stories we tell ourselves about how we work, what we do, what we want to achieve—and why. These also include stories that we tell our peers and our colleagues.

To advance the design discipline, we must make adjustments to our collective version of truth, so that the scalable design systems we create reflect the story of transformation within. As a result, companies and users will benefit from the valuable outcomes design-led work brings. True change happens only when everyone involved accepts what “normal” is.  

The power of narratives

Do you know that exhilaration after you’ve read an amazing book or seen a brilliant film — the feeling of becoming a different person afterwards? There’s power in that feeling — when you are conscious that something has caused you to change the way you see yourself and the world around you. Something has changed the story you might tell. Borrowing from psychotherapy or social mediation, we can refer to this idea as a ‘narrative transformation’. In other words, the conscious act of changing our story.

While it would seem inappropriate to equate digital transformation to a form of therapy, if we look outside our own world, for example, to where professionals in mental health try to enact change in individuals, there’s a lot we can learn to help us establish a more mature design practice. Narrative transformation is also common where agents for social change – from political leaders to key workers on the ground – are tasked with healing rifts in communities.

And yet, when it comes to our industry, the concept of changing the narrative is not usually where the digital transformation conversation begins.

Frame the conversation.

Explore the context before the conversation

In the hubbub of the day-to-day and the business as usual, it’s often difficult to take the time to reflect on how we could most effectively incorporate new habits.

I’ve designed and run strategic training workshops for various clients at Clearleft. And when I’m working with design leaders who want to drive the influence and impact of design within their organisations, I’ve noticed that the initial conversation is often around upskilling a team on something specific, such as fundamental design research skills or Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD).

That said, every design leader who wants to lift their team’s game also talks about the need for some degree of ‘change’, something that’s usually less tangible in practice. ‘Culture change’ is the nirvana on everyone’s lips.

Have you ever thought:

“We’ve done a workshop on X, but we struggle to know how to use it in practice?”

Or:

“Some of our team doesn’t buy into this process?”

The reality is, murmurs of hesitance are often found elsewhere in the company, where priorities are competing and colleagues need convincing that alternatives are better. Trying to make the argument that a different way of working may improve the end product or service is never quite so straightforward.

New skills are only as good as your team’s ability to use and apply them in the context of your team dynamics, the business objectives and organisational culture. As such, there needs to be an adjustment to the status quo, whether it’s mindset, process, or culture.

So how do you change the status quo and empower your team to not only upskill, but truly embody the culture change you’re aiming for?

Create culture change through narrative transformation

In order to seed change to lead to higher quality design, better outcomes for your customers and revenue for the business, it is essential to create a safe space, protect time, and frame the context for key conversations to happen within your team.

Often, these conversations:

  1. Enable your team members to gain individual insights so they grasp the effect they have on the outcome that impacts your customers
  2. Formulate a cohesive, shared narrative of why things currently happen the way they do
  3. Address skills gaps and uncover individual strengths — I think of these as “superpowers”
  4. Revisit the current narrative, and speculate: “with our new superpowers, how do we do things better?”

The Clearleft way to do this often involves workshops and design sprints of various flavours. We use our expertise to craft the workshop experience in collaboration with design leaders client-side, so that we can sow the seeds of longer term culture change whilst upskilling their teams. The focused nature of design sprints means teams can achieve product changes in a short space of time; participants come away with a new sense of empowerment and an awareness that they can truly make something happen. After the workshops and sprints have happened, and your team has gone back to the usual office rhythms, they should have better clarity on how these newly acquired skills can fit within their day-to-day context — towards a more mature design practice.

My way of addressing narrative transformation is through bespoke training on research. As I said earlier on, strategic research is my particular lens, but the focus on using narrative as a change driver can apply to other design disciplines as well.

Before you decide on embarking on this kind of intervention, there are a few things you can do to prepare ahead.

Shared reflections.

Plot the path to your north star

As you are trying to decide on what kind of skills you need in your team, it’s worth having a conversation with them to agree on what may be the best long-term outcome, together:

  • Dream up the ideal narrative. If you were to speak to another design leader and describe how you were successful, what kind of story would you want to tell?
  • Focus on the characters in your story. Look for the change-agents and influencers across your wider team — key players who can create a ripple effect in changing the narrative: who are the people you most need to influence? Who are the best people to spread the message?
  • Think about transforming individual journeys. Keep in mind the people you need to take along with you on your path: what might be the right combination of internal workshops, externally facilitated workshops or training workshops to help you change the culture? What other interventions might be possible?

I’d be interested to hear about the path you and your team may take to change your narrative, and what other kind of interventions you have used in order to accelerate design maturity within your organisation. Join our ongoing conversation about design thinking at @clearleft. Alternatively, you can reach me @sniffles on Twitter or steph@clearleft.com.