Audree is a digital transformation and design leader with experience of establishing and operating agile, user-centred services and capabilities at scale - including as Chief Digital Officer at the Department for International Trade, and as Service Director at NHS Test and Trace. Her background is policy, service design and strategy, so she naturally takes a multi-disciplinary and user-centred approach to solving complex problems.
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Designing in the dark
The achievement of big noble goals often comes down to skill in working with the warp and weft of our organisations. But do our multidisciplinary teams contain the knowledge, skills and relationships to design and manipulate the invisible matter that surrounds, enables and constrains them? In this session Audree shares ways teams can increase their strategic influence, advocate for their service, and work to secure the organisational conditions for their success.
And it'd be a great thing for the design community, so she went to her director and she got explicitly her director’s support and the director said you know go to the investment board we'll get the money that you need, we'll get the people you need. So the head of service design did that, she went to the board, and she got knocked back. She was absolutely stunned because her director didn't go to bat for her, didn't disagree or push back when people said not to go ahead with the proposition, and she felt completely under-supported and undermined. And I'd been in the back of the room so she grabbed me on the way out and we had some coffee she wanted to know what I thought had gone wrong and it became clear to me that there were a few things that the head of service design hadn't spotted that if she had known about she would have been able to take into account.
So the first thing. The director was ambitious and looking for her next role. She's trying to get promoted and so she wasn't going to go into that room and challenge any of her peers because she didn't want them to be challenging her on things that mattered to her. If her peers had gone along with it, if they'd been interested she might have been willing to say something but she wasn't, she wasn't going to put herself out there.
The second thing the chair of the investment board that they went to, his style was ‘Steamroller’ and so if he didn't really agree with the proposition before going in you weren't going to succeed. There were a few other things as well. So for instance it's an investment board and the head of service design hadn't really twigged that those sorts of boards are looking at opportunity cost, not just return on investment. So that's to say that if there are 10 things on the table and the board only has funding for four of them the board has to choose which ones to go with, and so the head of service design needed to make sure that it wasn't just a good ROI, but that it was better than six other things on the table, which she hadn't really been thinking about it that way.
But there were also things that she couldn't really have known much about. So a few years prior a similar initiative failed. If she'd known about it she would have known to say why this time it was going to be different. And another thing that she hadn't known about, and this time because she didn't really have her ear to the pulse of the organisation… most of the people in that room that week had been told they needed to make a significant cut to their budgets, and so they were in fight or flight mode. They were defending what they were already doing on their investments they weren't going to be new investments for new things. They weren't going to be investor safe, they were going to be focusing on damage limitation really. So we came out of that coffee and she said something I hear all the time, ‘I'm just not good at politics’. And I hear this from people almost every day. So product teams that just don't have the support they need, of leaders or people with great initiatives but not getting the traction with decision makers to be able to move forward. People with a fantastic idea that has initial promising progress and then people find themselves against a brick wall or wading through treacle, and they're wondering what happened. And that's, you know, the lucky ones, they're the ones that get out of the Starting Gate.
Why is it so hard? You know James was asking this at the start of the day, why is this stuff so hard? Well I think it's because of dark matter.
So five percent of our universe is visible matter, 27 of it is dark matter or better described as invisible matter. Really the rest of it is dark energy and I'm not gonna bother with that because it doesn't work for my metaphor.
So dark matter is something that we only know is there because of the effect that it has on the things that we can see, because of the gravitational forces that are that it puts onto our visible universe and I think the same thing is going on in our organisations. I think dark matter is surrounding you and your teams… it's what enables you and it's what constrains you. And it's really really hard to work with if you don't know it's there, but it really does seem to be treacle or secret sauce.
So what is in this dark matter of our organisations? It's fear and it's insecurity, and it's ego and pride and jealousy, and resentment. It's red tape and it's risk aversion and its culture and stories and gossip.
But it's also the good stuff too. You know, it's courage and it's vulnerability and integrity and honesty. And I think of all other things that we work with, it's trust. My job is digital transformation consultancy and actually most projects seem to be about trust.
So I find it really strange that this is what we're working with, this under-recognised skill to work with this invisible matter. It's not something that we’re taught when we're learning how to do our jobs, we focus on the technical stuff, or as one of the other speakers said, we focus on the things that aren't the soft skills. And so what that means is lots of us spend our careers going from one what the [ __ ] moment to another, learning it the hard way, and I don't think it's necessary.
Also, I'm really surprised that it happens because so many of us work in teams where we recognise our users, our consumers our service product users we recognize them as emotional and social beings. When we research their chaotic lives we learn about their contexts, we learn about their needs and then we design for them. We design for their experiences and yet we treat our bosses and our colleagues as if they are rational objective robots that are unaffected by any of this. I don't understand why we do it, but it does mean that we have a lot of the skills, we've just not been using them for this.
So I said we've got a lot of the skills. One of the skills is research. I think we need to start with research. Now I'm going to walk through the application of some of the thinking that I think we need to do in this space, some of the skills and questions we need to be asking. I'm going to use an example of trying to win an advocate, convert someone to your cause. Could be a boss or someone like that. So the first thing you need to do is start with research and I think you need to start with emotional needs. So what are their hot buttons? What do they care about, what are they trying to achieve? You know, what keeps them up at night, what are they afraid of? You know, are they ambitious, are they trying to get their next role? Is that what they're focused on? I’ve seen initiatives fail over and over again in the organisations who have kind of lost faith that it can happen. Maybe they're new to their role and so they've got a point to prove, they want to prove that they can do it.
Then move on to functional needs. So this is the practical stuff of their day-to-day. How are they spending their time, what is taking their time and attention? What does their job look like, what is expected of them? What are they measured on, what are the metrics the performance is judged by? For them do you have the job description, do you know what their objectives are? Where is there friction, you know, in getting [ __ ] done?
And then once you've once you've got a sense of that, I think you should be trying to understand their capabilities and constraints. So here I'm thinking, what stops them you know, what are their blockers? What do they not have control of? And you can figure this out by talking to them about their frustrations, most people aren't quiet about that sort of thing. You also though, need to figure out if they can empower you the way that you need to be empowered. Can they give you the support that you're looking for? So if you are looking for someone to fund the thing that you are lobbying them on, your proposition then, do they have budget? Is that delegated to them? If you need a team, are they able to hire or buy someone in, do they have headcount available if you need approvals? Are they on the right boards do they have influence with the right people? Because if they don't maybe you're not looking at the right person maybe or maybe they're the person you need to go through to get to the right person and then have that conversation but you need to figure out if they are the right person.
And then finally I've added who influences them, and here I mean who are they looking to impress? What are they reading and re-sharing? That tells you about what they think, what their mental models are.
And when they are influenced, when you see that they are responding well to something… to a proposition, to a business case or an article, what is it about that that seems to be influencing them? Why that, why that thing? So is it that they are persuaded by data, is it that social proof and stories work for them? You know what are they looking for, what will work for them, so this is a lot of stuff that I'm suggesting that you try and find out about.
You’ll be thinking how on earth am I going to find all of that out, and some of you might be thinking I reckon Audrey goes through her colleagues’ bins, but I don't I promise you. I think you have lots of opportunities, I think you probably already have a lot of the information you already need to find out. Some of this sort of stuff because people are telling you all the time what their priorities are and what they care about when you're in meetings with them. You know you rock up and you have small talk at the start of your meeting, you're finding out about them, you're building rapport, they'll share little anecdotes about their life. And then you've got water cooler chat for those people who still go into offices and have water coolers, or corridor chats on the way to meetings, God I miss those.
Breathing space in between back-to-back calls you know. So there's a lot of opportunity. Nowadays of course we also have teams channels and slack channels and you can see a lot about what people are thinking, what people are reading, what people are sharing. You can see that on there, it's quite a nice historical record really.
So you're already in a lot of the meetings, there's also a fantastic opportunity at the start of things to get to know people so never miss out on a good start you have when you're new to a role. Lots of organisations will expect you or allow you to do a bit of a road show around your colleagues, introduce yourself. Actually the best places I've been someone's gone around with me and introduced me so that I've managed to get in the door, but you can do that, have those introductory chats.
And in those chats you're asking kind of the big stuff. Not the day-to-day ‘this is what I'm trying to achieve right now’ stuff. It's you know, what's your agenda, what are you trying to do this year, who's in your team, how does this work? You know, what does success look like for you? You can ask those big questions at the start. You also have team kickoffs, project kickoffs where everybody is getting together and they're not just trying to figure out the scope of this thing, but they're trying to figure each other out, you know. The manual of me, some of you will have seen it, some of you can Google it, but it's essentially for project kickoffs where you and your team are discussing your communication preferences and your working style, and how you like to receive feedback, and you know, what channels you like to use. They're all things that you know, are gold for getting to know the people that I'm talking about. And this is just a general benefit to taking the time to build the rapport, not do what I am terrible for sometimes which is like just diving straight to the business.
They pulled me up for not even saying good morning sometimes, I'm really bad, but you don't have to, you know… learn from me, don't be me.
Okay so what else…yes, pay attention to how they're showing up in these meetings. You know, what are they saying? How are they literally showing up? What is their body language telling you, what are their facial expressions telling you? Not just what words are they using. If you notice them getting particularly animated, passionate, or angry or appearing anxious. If you see emotions, maybe figure out what's going on. Ask questions if you can then and there, or afterwards. If you don't have that type of relationship with them, make it a yet, rather than at all, you know, build that relationship.
What else… desk research. I love a bit of desk research. So I have in the past gone through past board papers and and similar documents to see where my sponsor or target sponsor has supported something like my thing in the past. Are they on record saying that this is a good thing already, or have they given a talk or written a blog post or anything like that really. A piece of internal comms where they've said that they'd be up for this, or has there been a past proposition that's been like this that they've liked. If there is, if there is that on record, grab it, point to it. Because that's a bit of pre-commitment you know, it's a hook remind them of this they must have supported, that this is just like that. Remind them of it, and then you can also read into their behaviour through their choices. So how are they spending their time? What gets into their diary and what doesn't reflects their priorities. Similarly, what are they sharing with people? It tells you, you know, are they re-sharing half Business Review blog posts? Are they re-sharing government digital blog posts? Are they recommending people come to Camp Digital? You know, the things that they share reflect the things that are most likely to resonate with them in the future. So you can learn from that, okay, so pay attention to what they're saying and doing, but also you can learn from what they are likely seeing and hearing because you will be able to see and hear a lot of it too.
So what do I mean by this? I mean what are these signals that the organisation is telling that person is needed to get promotion? Like what behaviours are rewarded here, what's expected, what are the values of the organisation and actually are people walking the talk? What are the actual values, not just what are the things on the piece of paper? What is the wider organisational strategy, like an organisation that is having an existential crisis, you need to know about that because it's going to affect whether or not they're willing to step towards you in your proposition or they're going to be leaning back.
You kind of need to know what their posture is going to be, so that's from the organisation but also they will be seeing and hearing things from their professional communities. They will have people you know, saying what good looks like. They'll have people saying I'm setting their expectations, kind of creating the mental models around what it means to be a good director of digital transformation or a good product manager. And that will shape their thinking, they'll hear that, that will shape it, so have a look to see what they're saying, what they're getting from that ecosystem. And then can you figure out again from what they're sharing with you, what people or organisations, institutions, publications outside of your organisation that they respect, and just like park it at the back of your brain for later.
So a lot of this is inference, yeah and it's not, I'm not going to say it's not proper research, it's okay to infer things from what people say. We do it all the time. In our romantic relationships you read into what people are saying and doing, it's okay. Or with your kids you know, your kid is acting out today you're asking yourself what's going on with them, what might you know, did something happen at school, you're inferring from their behaviour.
Or you might be watching your favourite TV show when they're trying to like figure out from what you've seen what might happen in the next episode. Inference is fine, but once you've got that understanding you can build it into how you design a proposition that will work for them. And so you need to take the right proposition for your users or for your team or for your organisation. Whoever it's aimed at you need to create the right propositions, yes absolutely, but if you can integrate what matters to your advocate too, you're much more likely to be able to get their support and sometimes, though I've not seen it often, sometimes they're going to be mutually exclusive but don't assume that at the start.
So design, what do I think you should be thinking about here, how do I think you should be integrating these? I think you should be aiming to design a proposition that is attractive and easy and safer. So starting with attractive I think you should be trying to connect what they've said is important to them, what their needs are to your proposition. And there are different ways you can do this, you could say just thinking back to some of the things I've said, oh here you are, this will help you deliver that flagship policy commitment you made. You've already committed to this it's kind of essential, so you know or you can play on their ego this will make you a trailblazer in your field or with ministers.
I've also played on fear. So this is going to stop you being in front of a public inquiry in a couple of years' time.
But also like figure out what the pain, you've said you know, these are the pain points, these are the points of friction, these are the costs. You know what they're worried, about how can you address or eliminate some of that friction, how can you make it easier for them. So you could take that angle and you should also consider what some of the alternative propositions might be. So how's this better than the other things that are on their plate if you have sight of them?
And don't assume you can't find out what they are, because people who run committees and boards are often willing to share, especially if you've taken the time to take them to coffee.
That is attractive, so I mean easy to support. You need to help them see that this proposition is going to be easy for you and so it's easy for them. So you need to do the work to make sure that they don't have to put all that much effort in.
If you have figured out precisely what you need of them and only the things that can be done by them, the things that can only be done by them, then you can, if you can, take care of the rest of it by doing it yourself or by delegating. You take away a lot of the psychological barriers to supporting you. So I have, it's all really boring bureaucratic stuff, I've written business cases, so many business cases so that they didn't have to. I've run procurements because I wanted to bring some suppliers in. I've written job descriptions and I've gone through entire recruitment campaigns because I knew that if I didn't offer to do it, or with others in my profession it wasn't going to get done. And I could do that stuff and all I was asking of them, of my sponsor, was their support their supported approvals, their support in boards. They are essentially fronting up. I'd taken that load off them and we underestimate how much that kind of psychological barrier is, especially for people that are constantly feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. So yeah what can you do to take some of that load from them?
But briefing actually, briefing is really important. So I've said that's all she needed to do. It's not just the same as with the head of a service design where she had briefed her director and she hadn't fully equipped her director to go in front of the board and fully represent. It's a different level of detail, and actually investment boards, they want numbers. And so the director would have had to get her head around the numbers. She did go into that that level of detail in the initial briefing because it was a convincer briefing that first one, so if you think about the places where your advocate, your sponsor is going to need to go to bat for you, you need to equip them to do so really well. So think about what those boards, what those places require of them.
And in really high stake situations I've assembled something called a murder board. And I don't know why it's called a murder board and it's a thing I'm not making it up, I promise. But what you do is, you bring together a panel of questioners and everybody gets together and thinks through really really challenging questions and puts the sponsor through their paces in a safe-ish space so they can work up their understanding of the asks. So that they can answer those questions under pressure, so they can get a better idea of what they are facing and so that they can feel more prepared and the better you can do to make them feel more prepared feel more confident going in, the more likely you are to have their support.
No it's not it's not safe, so this is safer, this is relatively safe, or this is like, appears safe. But like risk aversion is a human thing isn't it, can you anticipate what they're going to be worried about from your earlier research? And try and reassure specifically in relation to the things they're worried about. So if they're going to be worried about deliverability and costs or risk, can you start small instead of going for a whole ask. If you start small, you reduce the cost, you reduce the risk, you reduce the level of commitment that's required, and then if it fails then there's no huge sunk cost and there's no regret. And chances are it won't fail.
And then it makes it so much easier to go forward and to scale or to spread, because you've proven it in a space and just as importantly, you've won some confidence, you've won some trust, demonstrated that you can get [ __ ] done so can you give them that.
If they are worried about being embarrassed or they're worried about people being highly critical of them, can you can you work through some of the situations where that would be the case and produce some defensive FAQs of sorts, so that they can feel ready to take that critique. In the past I have worked with like in anticipation of someone not really having the balls to do it, I have worked with comms teams and press office teams to produce entire press plans ready for interest, and because I could say the press team is happy, they're confident we can handle any attention this gets, my boss was fine because as far as he was concerned, they're the ones that have to handle that anyway so if they're fine the risk isn't his anymore.
I also had one boss who said I am happy with you making all of the decisions Audree, except when it comes to people money and public comms and he meant it. And I was really grateful for him being that specific because I was able to put into all of the pictures that we made that whenever it comes to those decisions, I would always go to him for approval and so he kept his word and he did let me make those decisions. And I think it worked because he told me where his red lines were. It's like, you know the gutters in the bowling alley is where you could put the bumpers up. For him I'd put the bumpers up. Yeah he's got those guard rails. If you think you can find where helpful guard rails would be for your sponsor then definitely do the work to do that.
And then you can also like, make it feel smaller. It's not actually changing the size of the risk, not actually making it safer, but you can do things like, they're doing it over there and it's not gone wrong for them. Well your peers have been doing it for ages, you're behind the curve it's safe, look, there's plenty of precedent here. It's not reckless, it's just best practice, doesn't actually affect whether or not you're going to succeed or fail, but it makes it feel safer and probably also gives them something to point to if it does go wrong.
So yes anything that you can do help with that go for it.
And if you do, they might be willing to take a leap of faith with you.
So we have done our research, we understand needs and fears and context and constraints and influences, and we have tried to shape a proposition elements of a proposition we think are going to be attractive and easy and safer for our sponsor. The next thing we need to do is actually start communicating, and I would recommend that you start communicating with an elevator pitch. I know lots of you will have come across the concept of elevator pitch. Imagine you are on the top floor of a very tall building and you have the time it takes to get to the bottom floor in the lift to persuade your sponsor who is suddenly trapped and livid with you to support you. So you know what's that pitch in those two minutes? It's clearly got to be incredibly concise. Ideally, it would use language that they already use, language you know means the same to them as it does to you, and you know resonates with them, and it also ought to have a crystal clear call to action in it for you to get what you need.
Messengers. So I'm assuming that you're going to be the messenger, but don't assume that you have to be the only messenger. Actually there's a lot of benefit to bringing wider voices in because you get a sense of wider public opinion, but you know wider support from your earlier research. You know, I asked who influences them. Well if there are people that have their ear can you get them to support you in taking the message to them. If there are people that they're trying to impress could you see if they might be able to endorse you, endorse your message. Anyone you can bring in will help add to that credibility. Now I want to say right now that if you are a woman, trying to persuade a misogynist to go with a proposition, or if you are black trying to persuade a racist, or if you are a black woman trying to persuade a misogynist racist, you are starting with an instant credibility gap. Really really hard to overcome, and I don't have any answers for addressing structural racism and misogyny in the workplace. I encourage you all to think about what you might be able to do to help people around you bridge that gap.
But I can tell you what I do as a white woman. I am a youngish looking white woman. I've got gray hairs now so that's why I did the ish, but I have quite a high voice and people are usually surprised how old I am. I like wheel out the token senior white man in meetings you know, but I always pick allies. I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by feminists in my career and I say, do not hog the platform. Your job is to get us in that room and get them listening and then to give us the platform to help us bridge that credibility gap, and I will say do not take the credit. That credit is my team’s and they're usually fine with that. It's essentially I'm saying like, dude you're Debbie McGee, not Paul Daniels.
Channels and formats. So earlier I asked like what resonates with them? You know, what are they sharing, what are they making? You should know if they're a PowerPoint obsessive or if they like long form reports, give them what they like. I've come across people that work entirely in Excel spreadsheets, no judging, but if that's what they need then, you know, give the people what they need.
And see if you can take the opportunity to put them in the channels where they are. So I'm assuming email, face-to-face briefing. Definitely do the face-to-face briefing, so they can ask you questions but like internal blog posts, public blog posts, slack channels. Anywhere really where you see that they are, and you're going to reach them. But also anywhere where they can publicly support what you've said, because again, if you get them to like, jump in and comment and support you, you've got a little bit of pre-commitment there just edging in but you can take advantage of.
And timing. So you can have to do this, a lot of these things never land the first time. Like people have got lots of stuff going on in their heads, and actually like there's loads of personal stuff as well, and you never know what's going on for someone so don't ever expect it to land first time.
And as the story I told kind of suggested, there can be really bad times to try and land your pitch so I would keep your ear to the ground and if this is blatantly a bad time, then keep your powder dry. Chances are it would just be a bit of a missed moment so you know, communicate, share that message, but do also see if there are any really good opportunities to re-land that message. Opportunities in the comms grid or announcements that are coming. Or initiatives that everybody supports that you can hook into and be associated with get the Halo from and then adjust your message to do that. And slide it back to the front of their consciousness, because you need to try and be at the front of their mind as often as possible for when there are opportunities to support you well, you'll have loads of things on their plate loads, of people around them, you want to try and be as there as often as you can.
And you are going to have to keep communicating, you're going to have to be a broken record. This is, this is market research from the 1930s. I think it's called the marketing rule of seven and it came from people visiting the cinemas and market research for cinema-goers. They had to run an advert seven times before on average somebody would be willing to buy a ticket. Now I don't know if the statistics still hold, I don't know if it's less or if it's more than seven times now, but like the general principle is true. You're going to have to say it over and over again. You're gonna have to say it so often you feel really uncomfortable doing it and chances are you still won't have done it enough, so don't worry too much about that, don't squirm too much over over-communicating.
And I think the squirming happens quite a lot when we talk about politics. People say, you know, I don't like that it feels manipulative. It's political, yes it is political. Everything is politics, everything's political, but doesn't make it dirty. I am not talking about what happens at Westminster. Organisational politics doesn't make it dirty. Politics is really just building relationships, maintaining relationships while getting [ __ ] done. So if we reframe it, if you are intentional about how you build your relationships, if you're intentional about how you pull together a proposition that delivers what your users need what your team needs but also integrates what your sponsor is looking for, you're going to be much more likely to get what you want.
I hear people say ‘oh I don't do politics my work, it speaks for itself’. It doesn't though, work doesn't speak. You need to speak for your work, you need other people to speak for your work, you need them to be telling everyone the impact that it's having, and you need them to tell over and over again.
So coming to wrap up, I have walked you through a structured and intentional way of thinking about Dark Matter, specifically this time in the context of winning an advocate over to your cause. And so I said you know, listen, observe, ask, infer and design and refine by making things attractive, safer, easier, and communicate. Over-communicate. So that head of service design now she's doing really well, she's got much better at politics in the organisation, and it's because she started shining the torch that she has already refined, designing services for wider users onto these critical stakeholder relationships that she has internally. And you don't need to be stumbling around in the dark, in the dark matter, stubbing your toe. Because you're all holding these torches so you know, we've got this. I have put a download of that Canva in a Google Drive, message me on Twitter or wherever if it doesn't work. But yeah I don't know do we have time for questions? Cool, well I'm around.