The story of a design transformation at a telecom company.

Outside-in and inside-out

There seem to be two prevalent approaches to the design transformation these days: outside-in and inside-out. The outside-in strategy includes hiring coaches and design agencies to poke a stagnant company culture to change. Projects are defined and run and in a rather short period of time there hope for effective change. While such an approach has quite a few advantages: like speed of action, novel insights, fresh blood, etc. it seems to lack one important ingredient— building in the design habits that persist over time after the external help is long gone. While I am not at all advocating against this approach — I strongly believe that it is a fantastic first step to initiate a transformational process, I think that the inside-out approach has some advantages that might go unnoticed.

A few years back I got invited to come aboard one of the Polish telecom companies (as an external consultant which role I remained in for the entire time of this contract) to help them use design to create better services for their clients. In fact, I was asked to join by a guy who was a design enthusiast and wanted to have an opportunity to do some crazy stuff with a partner who knew how to approach the creative process.

We got really excited to get going and tried to land a project. It took us a year to succeed in this respect. And the project we got was so-called “a corpse from a wardrobe” — a project that was destined to be killed so there was no harm in us killing it even more. Luckily, we revived it with some business success. It landed us a few more minor projects in the marketing department where we were stationed.

It is easy to make two mistakes at such a moment: either to give up or to try to dent the organization in a different place. By a sheer strike of luck we didn’t do either. Instead we decided (together with the director who took us under his wing) that in order to evangelize the rest of the company we need to truly change ourselves. Ourselves meaning the marketing department. So, we made a little plan where we set out to spend the subsequent two years working primarily on the projects within marketing to create awareness of what design can offer and to “educate” our colleagues what they could get from us.

There was a lot of confusion at that stage. People didn’t know when and with what they could turn to us. Marcin, my partner-in-crime, was literally eavesdropping conversations in kitchens to hear about new projects coming up and offering our support for them. At first we would only get requests about user research, then slowly more and more design jobs started to land on our plate.

Would they miss us if we were gone?

Each year, around the anniversary of my arrival, we would do a little summary of what we have done in the past year and always asked ourselves this question: Would they miss us if we were gone? Or would everything go back to the old ways the minute we disappeared? For the first three years the answer was pretty straightforward: No, they wouldn’t notice. The old ways and old habits of doing projects were so deeply rooted in the day to day operations that our disappearance might have been seen as unfortunate but no one would have missed us that much.

Only after three years we started noticing that something had changed. That people didn’t want to run projects without doing user research first. they felt uncomfortable without prototyping and testing. Without being assured that what they produce builds up the value for customers. It didn’t mean that they all became designers. It means that they’ve learned how to use designers and design to create staff they were happy about.

This is the thing — often an idea for the outside-in transformation is to change the business guys into designers. And this is, first, not that easy, and, second, may not be as interesting for everybody. Many of our business colleagues said: — we are not interested in doing your job but we are super keen to use its results. Again, it doesn’t mean that some of them didn’t learn how to run the elements of the design process and became pretty skilled at it. But the bottom line was that they all wanted to have people on board who were there to provide knowledge, expertise and above all help whenever necessary.

It took effectively about 5 years to establish the value of design across the entire organization. Today, it is a part of the company culture. Something natural. Something that has always been there. Yet, it needed all this time to get to the point of being seen exactly that way.

On a more philosophical level I imagine that the difference between both approaches can be summed up in the following way:

Outputs versus outcomes

When a company decides to do an outside-in transformation: be it design, agile or any other transformation it focus is on the output. There should be more “innovative” projects put up on the market in the shortest time possible and with the least possible cost. It is like preparing the house for sale: you might paint the walls, bake a cake for the smell and put the flowers in the vase but you are not going to fix the pipes and change the windows.

The inside-out approach seems to focus more on the outcome: the over-time change that embeds itself in the company. It may not bring the quick wins but it offers a better understanding of what are the consequences of such a change to the organizational way of thinking. This is fixing the house for yourself not for others.

Short game versus long one

On an even higher level it seems to boil down to the selection of the game the company wants to play. It chooses whether they want to grab the place on the podium as fast as possible risking being de-throned by the next one who chooses a similar approach or if they want to put up a long game. A game that will help them build an advantage that can survive the test of time.

Like I said before I am not against the outside-in approach. I believe that it can be a fantastic first step for transformation. But I wonder whether it is possible to sustain that change without the inside-out approach. Without “changing the company pipes” so that the new way of thinking has a chance to become a part of the entire system.

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