Lesson 1: Lead with vision, not with process
There is no point hammering on about design as a method. I can assure you no one cares, except design geeks. What busy leaders want to know is “where will this get us?”.
Instead, excite people with a big, bold aspirational vision first, and then show how design will get us there. Let me give an example.
When I led the transformation effort at Land Transport Authority of Singapore (LTA) in 2014 – the government authority in charge of designing and building all transport networks, from trains, to buses, to roads – the burning platform at the time was rail reliability.
After a series of high profile train breakdowns, the government was under pressure to deliver more reliable train services, despite the fact that it was already one of the best in the world. There seemed little room to talk design; engineering chops ruled the day.
But our team linked design back to the larger objective of a car-light Singapore. In a country which was land scarce, where roads have already taken up 12% of land space (compared to 14% for residential), cars cost on average three times the price of that in Europe, which meant that they were status symbols.
We had already used many pricing tools available – heavy import taxes on cars, and tolls for car entry into the city centre and congested roads. But pricing tools come with a political cost. Our team argued that most sustainable way towards a car-light Singapore is to make public transportation desirable and loveable. This called for experience design.
We went about showing that if we designed public transport spaces thoughtfully, we could provide a better experience without increasing service levels or reducing the price. We held experiments such as the football-themed cabin to show that we could improve happiness for 80% of commuters through design, without increasing service levels or reducing price.
Were we sure that any of this would work? No. But was it bold to want a loveable public transport system? Yes. And this boldness was enough to make a few crazy people take a chance on us.
These early design experiments eventually led the LTA to use design thinking for the upcoming Punggol Coast MRT station. The Punggol Coast MRT station is part of an extension to the North-East Line – it will serve new housing estates, a digital business district, and a new university campus. LTA conceptualised the new station using design thinking, mounted commuter-behaviour studies and prototyped concepts. As a result, it introduced the “civic commons” feature, an open public space where the community and students can mount exhibitions and engage with the digital businesses in the district.
My observation of change teams is that they tend to play safe in laying out their vision for the future. Secondly, they don’t talk enough about their work. Inspiring other is the first step to change management. Unless you offer a vividly different – and better – alternate future, why would anyone bother to jump in with you?
So the next time you are going to talk to your stakeholders, ask yourself – is the future I’m offering exciting enough?
Lesson 2: Help others be successful
Every year during Singapore Design Week, we hold an anchor conference on design in business called Brainstorm Design – this is organised in partnership with Fortune and Wallpaper* magazines. We invite CEOs and Chief Design Officers from large companies to talk about how they embed design in their businesses.
Kwek at Brainstorm Design 2018, an annual conference that brings the best minds from design, business and public policy to discuss how design can build businesses, improve sustainability, engage communities and enrich people’s lives. Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Design.
The key tip to success from CDOs like Mauro Porcini from Pepsico and Ernesto Quinteros from J&J has been: “I help other business units be successful. I find out what problems they are working on, and help them solve it using design.” Demonstrating the power of design is the best call to action.
In Singapore, when the DesignSingapore Council engages local businesses to help them use design, our conversations with CEOs always starts with understanding what challenges they face. Our programme, Innovation By Design, helps companies embed design capabilities by working with them on real-life projects.
My observation of design teams is that they are so focused on their customers, that they tend to forget that internal stakeholders are users too. The next time you talk to BUs, don’t make this about how they need to restructure their operations to help your project. Instead, find ways for how your project can help them. Find a common ground. This, to me, is where the real creativity of design lies.