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Dan Sutch: Solving problems through design thinking
Episode 625th November 2022 • The King’s Fund Embracing Digital • The King’s Fund
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How can we be sure we're working effectively to tackle the challenges we face at work? Dan Sutch, director of CAST (the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology), shares tips on how digital technology and design thinking can help us address even the thorniest and most complex projects and problems. Dan's been speaking with The King's Fund's Sharon Jones.

CAST are online at https://www.wearecast.org.uk/

Transcripts

SHARON:

Hi, I’m Sharon Jones, Head of Digital Innovation at the Kings Fund and today I’m speaking to Dan Such, the Director of Cast, a charity which helps organisations use digital for good, with the aim to create a more responsive, resilient and digitally enabled social sector. Our topic of discussion is design thinking and how this can be embedded across an organisation. Can you tell us a little bit about what Cast does?

DAN:

Yes, of course, so we believe that civil society organisations are just critical to the health and wellbeing of our communities and we know how important digital is. So, we spend our time trying to help civil society organisations use digital in their strategy, in their services or in their approaches. What that really means is we help civil society organisations develop new digital services or new digital strategies, we help develop digital leaders withing civil society organisations and we often work with grant funders to help them provide the best sort of support and resources, so that the civil society organisations can really flourish in their use of digital. The final thing we do is we often initial and incubate new approaches to using digital, whether that is championing reuse of ethical technology or whether it’s incubating great big networks like the catalyst.

SHARON:

Can you tell us what a civil society organisation is?

DAN:

Yes, it’s just a more expansive term for charities, one thing we saw, particularly through the pandemic is the number of different organisations that respond to provide help to communities across the country. So, we certainly have brilliant charities, we also have community groups and faith groups and sports clubs and all these organisations that are providing health and support and wellbeing to their communities and almost all of them can benefit from really understanding how they can harness digital.

SHARON:

Yes, it sounds great and what common challenges do you see, time and time again, when organisations come to you?

DAN:

I think the biggest thing that they have realised is the change in the communities they’re trying to support, particularly the change in how people are looking for support, for information for resources and how very often that is now a digital activity. If civil society organisations really want to provide support to those communities, they need to be able to respond to that change. So, that’s the first thing, a change in people’s behaviour and we saw that, just hugely through the pandemic, where so much support and need for support was expressed digitally.

SHARON:

So, we’re going to be talking about design thinking today and it seems like such a buzz word, you see it in job descriptions and we need to have design thinking and it isn’t anything new, so can you break it down for our listeners and break it down in simple terms and what are the pros and cons?

DAN:

Yes definitely, it’s still definitely a buzz term, it’s essentially just a set of strategies or processes that are used by designers as they try to solve problems and ideally then create new solutions. That’s what it is, it’s like being creative and thoughtful but when we unpick what that really looks like, then we begin to get a bit more of a detail. So, the first is, it starts with really understanding uses, needs, behaviours and expectations. That means it’s focused on the individuals or the communities or the humans that we’re trying to support and build from there, rather than elsewhere.

So, that’s the first, it’s user-led or user-driven, the second is its test-driven, which means we don’t just make assumptions or we don’t just guess what might work, we test things out as we go. Very often, using prototypes and that’s why this type of design thinking often links so much to digital because you can make things quite quickly. So, you’ve got those two things, so it’s user-led, it’s test-driven, it’s also really creative, one of the best bits is where you can try out all these different ways in which you can address this problem.

So, it’s a really creative approach but possibly the most important thing that brings them all together is its really iterative, you would take lots of small steps to get to your big solution, always testing, always making sure it’s focused on the needs, behaviours, expectations of your user group. That’s the real act, the things that bring it all together, so it’s iterative, it’s creative, starts with user needs and it’s test-driven. There are loads of pros to doing that and we’ve seen that through whole new industries and products and services being created.

The biggest con, the biggest problem with it, particularly for people in civil society, is if you just relentlessly focus on individual users needs and behaviours, then you miss out all of the community social and environmental value, which means you can become really focused on just individual need and create great products and services that might make you a lot of money but they can also be destructive to communities and to environment. So, the biggest challenge for our sector, in trying to adopt this is how do you take this really focus user-led, test-driven approach but you look to create balanced value. So, balancing the value for individuals, for communities and for the environment.

SHARON:

Do you think there is anyone or any organisation who has cracked that consistently?

DAN:

I think there are loads, yes, I think there are loads that do really well, I mean there is a wonderful design organisation called Shift Design, who have been driving this approach for so long, there are other design agencies like Snook or Future Gov or Side Labs or Neon Tribe who have spent years works with charities and local government to help them adopt these approaches but it’s really tough. It’s really tough but that’s part of the challenge of working in our sector, is you’re trying to balance short-term needs of individuals with long-term system change, in a way that is becoming useful to many people and fundable or at least, financially viable.

But there are lots of people who are making really good progress and I think, particularly over the last year, we have seen huge progress as more and more charities and more and more agencies have been working on some of these big social challenges through the pandemic and beyond.

SHARON:

Wow, I mean they all sound like super-trendy organisations, so when you think of an organisation that isn’t at the height of innovation, perhaps, what do you think the barriers are when trying to embed this way of thinking in an organisation?

DAN 6:05

There are quite a few because it’s quite a different way of thinking about problems, so the first one that overrides all of them is just mindset. I mean particularly when we think about our wonderful charity sector, for decades, centuries, we dream up ideas, you pitch them to funders, you get funding to do something and then you go and deliver it. You get funding to deliver that solution, whereas design thinking are saying, let’s back a team to figure out the problem, then figure out a solution and then deliver it. So, it’s quite a fundamental difference between saying, I’m going to dream something and predict what’s going to work and that’s how our approach is going to be taken all the way through to saying, we’re going to take this iterative test-driven approach and figure out, over time.

So, shifting that mindset to saying, we’re going to test our assumptions, we’re going to build this around the needs and behaviours of individuals and then going to figure out a solution. That’s the biggest one, the second thing, I think I touched on a little bit there is this shift from predicting what’s needed to testing and figuring out what’s needed and it’s tough. I mean when you get to the top of an organisation or you’re used to bid writing, you’re good at predicting and convincing people what’s needed, what’s going to happen.

Whereas within this approach, we’re saying, genuinely we’ve got some assumptions or some hypotheses about what might work but we’re going to test it out. That means there’s a shift in power dynamic from those who can write good bids or those who want to tell a good story in the future to those who are going to take a test-driven approach. So, that’s quite a significant shift and I think the two others that are really important, so the first is following that model, taking this test-driven approach, good human design or design teams will be empowered to make decisions based on the data and the experiences they’re having as they’re designing, which means it’s teams that are empowered rather than may the person at the top of the organisation.

So, that’s quite tricky for some organisations to say, I’m going to give all the power of decision-making, or most of power of decision-making to a small team. Then the final one is starting the needs and behaviours and expectations of the user group rather than what’s needed for the organisation. That’s really tough to say, look we might end up doing something that is completely distant from what our strategy might be what we thought was needed but we’re going to root it absolutely in the individual’s needs and behaviours. That’s quite a tricky thing to do.

SHARON:

That is quite hard and in terms of funders, do they get onboard with this way of working because obviously they’re putting their money into this project and they want to see results, what has your experience of that been?

DAN:

It’s really changed, over the last five or so years, funders still largely will fund a great proposal that speaks to what it’s going to achieve, whereas more and more now, we’re seeing funders, looking at digital projects saying, we will fund you to discover and understand what’s needed, we’ll fund you to define what the solution might be and then to deliver it and particularly, really innovative funds like Comic Relief or Esmée Fairbairn or Paul Hamlyn Foundation who are really trying these new approaches.

Then we saw this huge fund from the National Lottery Community Fund a few years ago, where they took the same approach and these funders are now saying that we recognise that you’re a great time, you understand these good processes, so again, give you the funding to figure out the problem and to figure out the solutions and where we see that, we see much better outcomes and much better solutions. There are still lots of funders of course, that will fund a great application that says, this is the thing we’re going to deliver but having worked as a funder myself and having supported hundreds of funders over the last five years, I think we have enough evidence to say, that if you’re going to fund digital stuff, you have to fund it through discovery and definition before knowing what the thing is, the output is going to be and what the outcome is going to realise.

SHARON:

Yes, I think that’s really true and design thinking often goes hand in hand with agile methodologies which you’ve touched upon, can you talk a bit more about what agile is because that’s another word that is banded around quite freely and how it can help projects across an organisation that is not necessarily a digital project?

DAN:

Yes, that’s absolutely right, I mean it started as a process used within software development to go iteratively through all these things, it was called a build, measure, learn cycle. It should have been called the learn, build, measure cycle but it’s too late. So, it’s the build, measure, learn cycle where we’re going to create these prototypes, you’re going to measure how well they work and learn from that and then start again. Actually, it’s just a set of approaches, processes and ceremonies they’re called that allow you to go for this, to empower the team, to make the right decisions.

It started off in software development but you’re right, it’s now a good starting point for any project or any new piece of work that is working in a complex environment where you don’t know what the deliverable things should be, you don’t know the relationship between the input and the output. Now for Cast, all of our work, we operate in that space, it’s a bit unusual and a bit complex, if you’re doing something you’ve done a hundred times over, then you don’t need an agile process, you can define it upfront, you know what is needed. But I think I would argue, that for most charities, we operate in a space where we’re not quite sure how people are using digital in their daily lives, we’re not quite sure of the best ways of solving a particular solution.

So, a way of reducing risk and reducing waste is this agile approach which is a test and learn approach that goes through lots of iterations to build confidence in the way in which you can address a particular issue. So, it does go hand in hand, in fact, many would say, design thinking when they probably mean agile and vice versa and I think now agile is used as a synonym or maybe an umbrella term for this test-driven set of practices and processes which empower a team to solve a problem in a good way, moving towards a good outcome and output through learning and producing stuff.

SHARON:

This year’s digital charity skills report revealed that upskilling staff was a high priority for a lot of organisations, why do you think this is so challenging for the sector?

DAN:

It’s so great that’s one of the main outcomes from this year’s report, that this is now a priority that people have seen, it’s wonderful. I think generally, the sector doesn’t really invest in its staff, as an overall sector, we push our resources to frontline deliveries as quickly and as smoothly as we can. We take really frugal approaches and I think many times that’s okay because we’ve got very committed, very passionate people, where there is such a significant change in the practices and these new processes, we understand that we do need to invest the time to understand them, to ensure our organisations are more resilient and more robust and more responsive to community’s needs.

I think one of the reasons it’s become more important for people to invest in staff skills because I think we saw so many experiments during the pandemic, charities have no choice but to try and deliver their value digitally because we couldn’t see each other physically of course. That means we saw thousands and thousands of new approaches of trying to put things online, of trying to reach people through digital channels and that demonstrated some of the value but also some of the challenges in doing it. I think now, having had a bit of a break from lockdown, from the chance to regroup a little bit, charities are going, right we know this stuff can work, we know our stuff used to work like this as well, how do we figure out the best balance.

There are some who are still struggling, who did both face-to-face stuff and digital stuff separately where they are doubling their costs and their work. But for those who have had a chance to reflect, they know there is a new type of hybrid of how charities can work and that takes the best of digital, the best of face-to-face and creates new ways of providing value to our communities and it starts with investing in the skill levels of our staff, good mindsets and then ultimately the shape and the way in which our organisations are put together.

SHARON:

Yes, I think that’s really important and do you think, we’re going to change and almost testing and learning, as a sector, as well as these new methodologies?

DAN:

I think so, I think the one thing that we missed in the pandemic, because there was a pandemic on, but one thing we missed was really seeing them as experiments and sharing our learning and documenting it and making sense of what really did work and what the things, we tried that didn’t quite work. Instead, we all did it individually and independently and now we’re all trying to reflect, if we can go on a path, collectively, like through the catalyst network where there are so many learning events and opportunities to share, then that’s our opportunity to really progress as a sector, partly in sharing some of the things we create, some of the tools and the process and the resources but also the sharing of the learning and the journey together through open working and through better communication. We’ve got a real opportunity to not just reshape the organisations but reshape the way our sector is organised and that is only going to create more value to our communities.

SHARON:

That’s right and that’s actually a really experience opportunity, if we can have the courage to take it.

DAN:

Yes, absolutely.

SHARON:

So, say you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, well this all sounds great but I’m not in digital and how does this apply to me, what three ways can anyone in any part of the business use design thinking in their work?

DAN:

Yes, I think that’s a great question, I think the first is just thinking about, as that test and learn approach, so whatever you’re doing, be really clear and honest about what your assumptions are, as well what you really know and when you’ve got those assumptions, how might you test them out and that’s the first part of our job, it’s the first part of design thinking, it’s like being really honest about your assumptions. Whether you’re doing something that you’ve done for the last five years or whether you’re trying something new that has nothing to do with digital but you really care about what your assumptions are, what evidence you have for your assumptions and figure out how can you test it out, that’s the first.

Second is possibly the most critical which is spend time with your communities, with the individuals you’re trying to work with and really look and help understand their needs, behaviours and expectations. So, that’s like, what are the things that are going to help them achieve their goals, their needs, what are their current behaviours, how do they use digital, where do they go for support, who do they provide support to and what are their expectations, what are the things they enjoy doing, what are the things they like to do, what are they hoping to get from the community.

The more time we can spend learning from them, the more we can improve our work and the last one, is just, work more openly, if you share what you’re doing, you’ll find other people who are taking these approaches and they will look to support you, just as you support them.

SHARON:

That’s really great advice, so thanks so much for taking part, Dan, that was great and thanks to everyone for listening, I hope that has shed some light on a much spoken about topic. This is just one of a series of in-house podcasts for the Kings Fund, all of about various aspects of digital workplace transformation. Bye for now.

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