The Power of Influence: Acknowledging Biases in Design

BY ANYA KANDEL

In the field of organizational design and innovation strategy, I help teams and communities solve complex problems, establish new ways of working, and build new systems and products. I do this by working to create the conditions in which a group of people can collectively agree, create and/or act upon a productive outcome. This often includes designing and facilitating in-person sessions that allow people to come together in an environment where a diversity of perspectives can be processed, understood and translated into creative or strategic breakthrough. In essence, this is experience design.

Practitioners in the world of innovation and strategy—especially those who design time-bound experiences meant to “transform” groups toward some sort of creative breakthrough—make choices that influence the feelings and behavior of those who participate (not to mention the outcome itself). The decisions we make, the systems and approaches we use, the vocabulary we provide, even the way people are situated in a physical space—all these elements hold influence.

We are being faced with increasingly complex, large-scale problems. The onus is on us to be honest and thoughtful about our intentions. And, in order to do that, we need to clearly understand the biases that lie in the processes and approaches we use.

Design is Biased

As I’ve mentioned before, design is a process of making choices and privileging certain elements over others. In effect, design is inherently biased. Biases in this case are not defined as good or bad, but rather intentional and unintentional values and principles, which translate into intentional and unintentional decisions and emergent outcomes. We have to be aware not only of preexisting biases, but emergent biases that manifest through the design process. (Nissenbaum)

The problem is that we often assume that our systems, tools and processes are inherently neutral frameworks to make meaning of information and solve problems. When we start to design with these assumptions, we limit the power we have as designers to consciously influence the collective outcome of a group of people, and default to the biases already inherent in the process.

Our task: acknowledge the power of influence from the beginning and employ approaches and tools with an honest understanding of the assumptions built into our processes and the outcomes they bias. The result: systems and solutions that are more likely to be contextually understood, sustainable, powerful, equitable and honest.

Process is biased

I see versions of this scenario all the time: A well-funded, Big Tech startup wants to “do good,” so they host a hackathon or design sprint. They offer up a challenge like, “How might we rethink the water supply in x village in Africa?”

Participants quickly gather information, come up with lots of ideas and prototype a few concepts in a limited amount of time. This process, in effect, favors simple, pitch-able, beautifully designed and easily packaged outcomes that look like products. The winning team’s design is a portable water bottle with a filter perhaps, paired with a one-for-one business model.

Far less likely is a list of messy, unanswered questions that need to be explored first, because the process doesn’t reward it. Far less likely is an understanding and acknowledgement of the difficult relationship between the community and the wild game park located nearby, the investments a foreign country has made in directing water to oil resources, or the complexity behind the local government’s distribution of water sources, which are managed by multiple NGOs who refuse to work together. Meanwhile, the participants are probably not from the village, are more male than female, and most work in programming or design. The list goes on.

These types of engagements are often simplified versions of the Design Thinking process. But even Design Thinking, done at it’s best, is a predetermined framework for problem-solving and carries with it the propensity to bias certain kinds of solutions too. It can be celebrated, utilized and evolved, but it cannot be blindly revered as the answer to problem solving.

There is nothing wrong with hackathons. There is nothing wrong with water bottle filters. There is nothing wrong with bringing a group of people together to create. But anytime we’re using a process that advertises itself as solution, that’s a good clue we’re going about the problem in the wrong way. We must must be honest with ourselves about the inherent biases that exist in the processes that we use, and the scale of impact our solutions can have.

Impact is biased

The partiality we feel toward process has to do not only with the creative outcomes themselves, but the personal experience of transformative change.

During my early days at Gap Inc, I frequently found myself leading time-bound innovation sessions with groups of people to collaboratively uncover new, “breakthrough” ideas for their organizations. Having experienced a euphoric feeling of collaborative breakthrough, participants indeed walked away feeling transformed. But, sessions simply designed for a breakthrough often play out in one of two ways.

The first (especially in the context of doing innovation for large corporations) is a subsequent let down after a collaborative session. People return feeling transformed to an untransformed environment. The actual work of bringing a new idea to fruition feels insurmountable. And hope is lost. Because the notion of innovation is too often tied to these kinds of simple, ideation exercises, the very hard work of driving change in the organization loses momentum when the excitement of a breakthrough fades.

Another common outcome is that the personal experience of transformational change is confused with the actual impact of the work. For those who live in Silicon Valley, this might sound familiar. A water bottle that enables some people to have filtered water, for example, is a great idea. But, if those who developed this product truly believe that it’s solving the problem of limited access to clean water in the world, then we have a problem. Worse, as organizations carry these false perceptions of change beyond the development of products, we disassociate real impact from our perception of impact more and more.

So what do we do? We design (beyond the euphoric breakthrough) for the people who have to work together, for the long term. We design not just for great ideas, but for a contextual understanding of their impact.

Designing Towards Psychological Safety

Establishing a safe environment to collaboratively create together requires a nuanced understanding of power in an organizational context. The socio-political, cultural and racial politics set the context for every collaborative endeavor and influence how we individually experience belonging. So too does organizational politics—whether it be an organization, a conference, a network or a collaborative working session.

As practitioners of “change,” much of what we do is influence power dynamics, but we focus on different frequencies of power. Traditional organizational consulting, for example, focuses on organizational structure when it comes to influencing power. Diversity consultants, on the other hand, tend to focus on race, gender and sexuality. Both perspectives (and all frequencies) are valuable, but if we stop there, we’re still looking at the world too narrowly. Age, clothing, height, voice pitch, how you carry yourself, physical space—all of these things contribute to differing views of status. We need to take these all into account when designing a process.

Psychological safety, coined by Amy Edmondson, is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking… [which includes] a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” Edmonson’s work was brought to attention during the Aristotle Project at Google, where researchers sought to understand what makes for a high-functioning team. The team studied as many factors as they could—size, location, distribution. They found that the essential ingredient didn’t have to do with their disruption of roles, size or function. Nor did it rely on how smart a team is, or how efficient they seemed. The shared link between successful teams was the experience of feeling safe enough to show up as one’s true self, even in situations that were inevitably going to feel uncomfortable.

This can feel daunting, but one good way to start is to simply acknowledge that no system or culture or person is neutral. We must actively bias toward psychological safety by making our personal inclinations and assumptions transparent, choosing to integrate a diversity of perspectives into our creative process, recognizing power, and contextualizing individual perspective.

Designing for bias

I have been focusing on designing collaborative experiences that integrate an understanding of bias. One way of doing that is through a collaborative design process with an internal team of 4-5 cross-functional employees from across the organization. They not only contribute to the design process but actively co-design the experience, which most often is a strategy retreat, offsite or innovation session. We collectively match processes, approaches and inputs to their desired outcomes, based on a shared vision of success.

This transparency of process provides the team with the foundational tools to design an experience and establishes a sense of responsibility over the process, which helps to build capacity for the long term. The group has the opportunity to understand what it means to influence behavior. The language we choose to use, the way we set up a room, the food we serve, the facilitative processes we use—it becomes exceedingly clear that all these factors carry weight.

The co-creative approach, especially for an individual consultant, working independently, has tradeoffs. It requires extra time. It demands personal interest and dedication from the team you are working with. And, it risks the fidelity of the perfect experience design for the sake of team-learning and shared ownership. This means that as a consultant, I am judged not on what I identify as the ideal experience design for a collaborative session, but by a co-created experience that may not be my ideal choice as an experience designer.

The more strategy and innovation consultants I speak to over the years (from individuals to big firms), the more pervasive is the conundrum. On the one hand, they acknowledge limitations in our processes, approaches and models, which are often biased toward the experience of transformational change, rather than being designed more collaboratively, with power, bias, and learning in mind. But, on the other hand, the best way to ensure a clean outcome is to maintain complete control over the process, and the easiest way to sell and scale is to advertise a “unique” process or model as a solution.

However, if we don’t acknowledge biases and work past them, we aren’t doing any better than the filtering water bottle is doing for a community’s pervasive lack of clean water. If we aren’t honest and thoughtful about our power of influence, we risk establishing a practice that promotes the experience of social change without the impact. We can do better than that. We can actively bias our design toward the psychological safety and diversity of perspectives and contribute to a more innovative, equitable and creative outcomes.

 

ABOUT ANYA

Anya Kandel is an innovation strategy consultant based in San Francisco. She has spent the last 15 years researching and building systems that enable creativity for positive change and helps organizations work holistically to build long-term strategy and innovation capacity. Anya recently worked internally at Gap Inc to help build an internal innovation practice and now works with purpose-driven organizations in the private and public sector. She has a background in Socio-cultural Anthropology from UC Berkeley, with an M.A. in Media, Culture and Communication from NYU, and is constantly trying to understand what the creative edges of culture looks like.

 

 

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