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Storytelling with Stakeholders & Service Design Mindsets: A Designer to Designer Conversation

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Lauren Sinreich is a Principal of Design Research and Strategy at Coforma, with a cross-disciplinary background and seat on the Pragmatic Design Advisory Board. Recently, Lauren sat down with Shannon McGarityPragmatic Design instructor and one of the minds behind our design practice curriculum—for a fascinating designer-to-designer conversation that ranged from the connection between environmental studies and systems design, to the differences between consulting and in-house work, to the perils and promise of stakeholder communication.

(Editor’s note: This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Shannon McGarity: It’s always fun to start with people’s design story, how they got to design, and I would love to hear yours if you don’t mind sharing. 

Lauren Sinreich: Well, design has so many different origin points. And especially if you’re thinking from a strategic design or design strategy perspective. 

I come from a non-traditional design background. I started out in comms. I did my master’s in an environmental studies program where I learned all about environmental economics and conservation. I did field work looking at a participatory democracy approach to managing forests, so I had developed a really strong qualitative and ethnographic skill set.

I started blending my previous experience of communications and stakeholder management with this ethnographic qualitative background, moving towards the projects that were available and accessible to me.

So there were a lot of like social projects or civic innovation projects that I started doing and mixing those skill sets of strategy, story and research, I quickly found myself doing these methods that I didn’t realize there was a name for but later it came to learn that [that’s] design thinking.

It’s so common how that happens, right? I’ve been doing a thing and now it has a name, and they’re teaching courses about it? 

Exactly. I was freelancing, consulting, using these skill sets. Every project I did became increasingly more design or research oriented. 

Your career journey didn’t go in a straight line. Can you tell me a little bit about that? 

It was consistent as far as the skills I used, but how I leveraged them and what industry or sector, varied dramatically. After I came out of my master’s, I went into environmental and social consulting. That work was primarily in the NGO world, with clients like UNESCO, and then started getting involved in more place-based work where environmental and social combined. 

That led me to civic innovation. I was working with nonprofits in San Francisco at the intersection of social engagement and creative technology and working with the mayor’s office of civic innovation in some of those projects. 

I worked in energy efficiency, and I was doing strategy and storytelling around solution building and what the user and stakeholders need. I also worked in media and entertainment, with Sony as one of my clients. 

Design has both hard and soft skills. The soft skills—communication, connecting the dots—are applicable in any industry. The hard skills—synthesizing data, pulling together a journey or prototyping—are as well. The methodology itself is designed to break down silos.

Then, I went in-house with Bank of America. I was brought into an innovation team being built in the global information security organization to own the customer journey process. I was really excited about the team I’d be working with and owning the process, because I come from such a systems-informed approach. I really like getting into the back end, figuring out what’s going on upstream. 

That’s what brought me into the financial and global information security organization. Right now, at Coforma, I’m working with a large federal client, Veterans Affairs, in the healthcare side of things—helping develop software for clinicians to make better decisions.

When you start out your career, people would never tell you you’d have this variability of experience. But this industry—design and research and strategy—will enable that in a way that not every other profession does.

And why is that? Sometimes in the world of design hiring, people think, “Oh this designer is this kind of designer—you’re working in healthcare, you’re working in finance,” but designers are often very fluid. What do you attribute that to? 

Design has both hard and soft skills. Both of those types of skills are not industry specific most of the time. The soft skills—communication, connecting the dots—are applicable in any industry. The hard skills—synthesizing data, pulling together a journey or prototyping—are [as well]. Also, the methodology itself is really designed to break down silos.

You’ve spoken about service design, design strategy and systems design. Those are a lot of different mindsets but all with a thread that goes through them.

For me, they feel like the same mindset. 

Great! Tell me more! 

They’re not identical in methods, approach, outcomes or goals, but they’re very much the same mindset. I did my master’s in environmental studies and a lot of this work is informed by the things I learned there. 

To do an environmental program, you have to really understand the ecosystem perspective, how things fit together, what’s the upstream driver of things, what are the core causes of problems and just fundamentally how everything connects and impacts one another.

I feel very fortunate because the industry has been moving in that direction over my career. When I began, I don’t know that there was as much support for such an interconnected, systems approach to things, but now there’s definitely a lot of like demand for it.

From a systems perspective, you have to understand the ecosystem approach, that everything feeds into one another and there are cycles and impacts, ebbs and flows; that there can be impactful and far-reaching areas not immediately perceivable. 

Service design is doing something similar but delineating it from the customer’s viewpoint versus the service delivery person’s viewpoint. You are understanding when you have an issue, challenge or blocker from a delivery perspective that is going to impact the user experience upfront, and that’s going to impact your bottom line.

When you have a systems approach, you can really dig up a lot. You have to have a good understanding of what the appetite is before you wear out your welcome. 

Service design doesn’t just have to be in the consumer-facing space. In an enterprise, one team is working on one thing, another team is working on another, and if either of those sides are not operating at full capacity, then you’re impacting the delivery one way or the other and ultimately impacting the bottom line. That will impact the consumer’s experience. 

For me, it is all a system that I’m working through. 

Yeah, that’s interesting. Oftentimes designers operate in siloed organizations and sometimes they have to make a case to have that broader mindset. Have you seen obstacles to that way of thinking or it’s been in some way embraced and they’ve had success with it? 

Yeah, to varying degrees of both. I cannot sell something without communicating this mindset. It is what informs how I do things. 

When I talk about a project, this is in my language. That’s a starting point. I find myself in situations that are often more receptive than not. What that looks like in practice is there’s always going to be some level of getting on the same page that’s required. 

There’s an appetite, because sometimes when you have a systems approach, you can really dig up a lot. You have to have a good understanding of what the appetite is before you wear out your welcome of digging too deep. 

I think when you talk about appetite, you’re also talking about an understanding of the value that that work would bring.

100%. There’s understanding of the value, but sometimes it’s just not the right time for an organization to have the resources or the cultural or political space to be digging into it that much.

But yes, this has been a big conversation for a long time: How do you show the value of design? Then, because we’re talking about design strategy, how do you show the value of things like design research that inform that strategy?

A lot of these things have longer timeframes that don’t necessarily have the immediate feedback loops that are connected so closely to our ROI or our value proposition. 

It’s like the lagging indicators, right? So many of the success metrics we are given are one or two years out, and we need more leading indicators and to communicate them back to our business stakeholders and our partners.

You talked about how people or organizations are at different stages of readiness to accept that thinking. I’m curious; where’s the difference between working in house and having those conversations and working as a consultant?

In house, you end up having a much more intimate understanding of the organizational dynamics. There’s savvy you can leverage in navigating who might be concerned, who might be champions, and how each team operates, so you can understand what their goals and objectives are. Oftentimes you can find overlap. Everybody just wants to understand what the problem is so they can fix it. 

In a consultant perspective, you may not have that intimacy, but you have the naivety, like: “I’m just asking the dumb question because I’m here to ask it. I’m new to the space and I need to get to the bottom of this.”

There’s so much power in that stance for effectiveness. You don’t have to worry, I should know this. It’s a really effective way to get to the heart of things.

You and I are similar in that way. We both had those experiences. When you are a consultant, in many cases, they’re asking you to reframe or push back or provide a perspective they might not have in house. I see that as being one of those amazing values of having consultancy or agency experience in your portfolio. 

Totally. But you can do that in house as well, because you’re getting a perspective that, if you can communicate it and storytell in the way that really hits home, you are being like, “Whoa, I did not see our problem from that perspective, and this gives me a lot of inspiration.” 

When we were developing our course Influence Through Storytelling, we focused on applying the empathy we apply to users to the stakeholders that we’re working with. When we were talking about how they have to be bought into the value of thinking in a different way, that’s a communication challenge. You have to figure out the story that’s going to resonate with them to see the value in some proposed change or work that you’re doing in service of the user.

It’s just understanding what somebody’s concerns are and saying, “I found this bit of information that seems relevant to you” and having a regular channel for communicating it. 

One of the things I do in all projects is this end-of-week readout (or whatever the appropriate cadence and avenue is)—where we’re sharing back to stakeholders at the end of a sprint. It’s like “This is what we’re hearing.” It’s not this formal research, output or artifact. 

It is by far the most effective engagement mechanism that we have for people involved in the project. It really helps to get people communicating on the same page.

That’s an excellent tool to employ. When you’re telling those stories or connecting to your audiences, what values do you often find yourself surfacing in that conversation?

Transparency, open-mindedness. While you want to be empathetic and understand where people are coming from, there’s also something really powerful about not being too swayed by whether or not people will receive this well. If you are in a true strategic role, whether it’s a design or research position, you are not doing your job if you’re filtering things for people.

Yeah, the goal is not to validate. In research, we talk about how we’re not doing research to confirm something, we’re looking for places to share new ideas or divergent thinking—things we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves. You have to share difficult news sometimes. 

It’s kind of like as a facilitator, right? You create safe spaces for certain dynamics or things to happen. What is the safest way you can shake perception up, open up places that might be constraining opportunity or new possibility? 

I think there’s something baked in about feedback too. It’s an art to deliver information to people that is difficult but in service of the business or stakeholder.

My career started out in communications, so I have some background with that. Talking about the winding career path; it’s amazing how these things that you never thought would’ve been anything connected.

That is an important part of design strategy and research. If you can’t communicate what you’re finding effectively, then it’s tough. 

From a personal, emotional intelligence perspective, a lot of times we pursue our roles and share things out in fear of it not being enough or not being received well enough. So we change it to adapt to other people’s ways of doing things and that ultimately limits the fullest way we can show up in our roles. 

If I am not full of integrity and clear about what I can bring, then the project suffers. It’s through my values how I’ve identified how I show up best on these projects.

I will forever be a person who cares about showing up for other people in my fullest capacity and doing the best work I can do. And what enables me to do that, increasingly, is to put less emphasis on the self doubt. It’s been one of the most important shifts of mindset in my career. 

That mindset probably requires a lot of intention. That is a finely-honed, crafted skill that doesn’t just come naturally. Can you tell me a little bit about intention? 

So, I’m an introvert, I have a very deep empathetic vein within me, I have a deep research background. A lot of my career has been around this liaising and working with people. There’s a point where you realize you have the skills, freedom and capacity you didn’t have before, that you built them over the years. So you start exploring that more and giving yourself more freedom.

There’s something really central to values here. For me, I’m talking about transparency, coming to the core of the problem, not putting a bandaid on things. I cannot work in an environment where I’m putting a Band-Aid on things; it just drains me completely. 

If I am not full of integrity and clear about what I can bring, then the project suffers. So it’s through my values how I’ve identified how I show up best on these projects. 

I’m going double down on the values talk, as a coach. That is the place where choices are made, right? When you are intentional about your values, the outcomes are always going to be better. I’m curious; what values were you honoring when you moved on to your current role? 

Over the previous two to three years, I had my own practice. I would pull people in on projects from time to time, but it was largely me driving things. With the scale of projects you can pull in an independent practice—and also the pandemic—just got really isolating.

From a values perspective and a culture perspective, I have never been somewhere where I feel so aligned. Coforma works in the public and private sectors (private companies, nonprofits, government clients on the federal and state levels). 

There is this level of intentionality around being transparent and helping people show up as their full selves—no matter what that looks like. [They’re] putting in the social and operational structures and norms to facilitate a culture in which people can show up to do their best work, as well as staying true to what’s best practice from a delivery or design perspective. It’s very mature in its philosophy when it comes to design, because it’s a design informed company from the start. 

There was a very rich space for me to get into a very systemic, service design approach, to dig my fingers deep into places and expose the darkest of things that need a little bit of rearranging.

I’m curious about that too. Where are those places?

Well for clients, there are known ways of doing things, things accepted as part of the scope of a project. If you start pulling on this thread, you’re like, if we do what we thought the scope was going to be, we’re just going to keep having the problem. We’ll put all this time and money into a bandaid, but this is going to come up again. So if you follow that thread, how far does that thread go?

Sometimes it goes as far as tech debt. It is fundamentally the infrastructure that informs the data. Sometimes it’s a governance process, [which] can be sensitive sometimes. 

Back to our point: what’s the appetite? I have been on a project where they wanted to fix a huge process that was a key part of the organization. Then, when we had done discovery and synthesized the findings, they were really just interested in quick wins, because politically they needed those wins. It’s like a real big trade off—yes, quick wins, but they will continue to have a difficult time until you deal with underlying issues. 

I was out in the garden the other day. I like to weed and do gardening. I found myself following the roots of things that I didn’t wanna tear up. I was like, ah, I’ve gone too far. 

Ah this is actually a carrot, as opposed to a weed that’s invasive. It’s tangled in.

So that’s a safe space to do it. You don’t want to do it like that in the organization. It’s what’s right for the organization at the time, making sure that everybody’s on the same page about the trade offs, rather than these implicit versus explicit decisions.

I care a little bit less about what you design and work on as how you approach it. A lot of things are unsaid, accepted without being on the same page of “we’re all accepting these risks to move in this direction.” As soon as you make it explicit, it’s easier and better to move forward.

That resonates for me, having worked on that course. A lot of us don’t realize what’s baked into the explicit message. We can say a thing, but our stakeholders are going to take away dramatically different things based on their perspective. So we have to do a bit of communications, facilitation and discussion work. It’s also just proofing our own messages and making sure it’s going to hit the right way. 

When you’re developing a product or a service, it’s good practice to document everything as fully as you can, so nobody’s left in the dark, nobody finds out about a risk or concern later. 

From a storytelling perspective, one word may mean something slightly different to another person, and a number of those words strung together can actually be interpreted into something so different. It’s the fundamental human conundrum.

There’s something about feedback loops and building that in so you’re not throwing something (a message, an idea, advice) over the transom without having that helping people understand your intent. 

So often in design or research, we’ll use: “Let me see if I heard that right.” You mirror. We do that to understand that we are hearing things as accurately as possible. But it’s interesting to prompt the person you’re communicating to, “What did you take away from that?”

It’s probably tricky to get it exactly right so they don’t feel they’re being tested, but I think that’s amazing to be able to say.

Do you have any advice for folks in a different space looking to think more about service design or systems design?

It depends on personal inclination. If you’re inspired by a systems approach, or service design, a service design class is always helpful. A strategic class is always helpful.

It’s interesting to start following adjacent areas and connecting the dots, or things that don’t feel like they are immediately adjacent and actually you can take a lot of learnings from.

Albert Einstein would always say when he was working on a problem, he would go play his violin and the problem would get solved for him as he was playing. There’s this like real value to exposing yourself to other forms of thought, theories and ways of doing things—even your ways of doing things applied in different practices. 

The fundamental bit of understanding systems is starting to understand how things operate when you take them outside of your comfort zone. When you are no longer used to taking things as given and you put yourself in a new situation, you can see from a new mindset or perspective. Then when you go back to the place that you’re comfortable, you’re comparing it to this new situation. 

If you can identify something that seems like it might be relevant, great, explore. See if beekeeping can teach you anything about organizational strategy. Sometimes it’s just following your interests and making sure that your personal world is robust and has variation and exposure to different things. 

* * *

Learn how to enhance collaboration with stakeholders, overcome communication challenges and ensure your messages resonate with diverse audiences in our Influence Through Storytelling course for designers and design researchers.

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  • Pragmatic Institute is the transformational partner for today’s businesses, providing immediate impact through actionable and practical training for product, design and data teams. Our courses are taught by industry experts with decades of hands-on experience, and include a complete ecosystem of training, resources and community. This focus on dynamic instruction and continued learning has delivered impactful education to over 200,000 alumni worldwide over the last 30 years.

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