5 tips for successful capability building

Design is on the march in large organisations like never before: from the recent rapid growth of design departments in banking and energy sectors and the assimilation of agency pioneers into consulting behemoths, to the rapid ramp-up of service design teams at the heart of governments around the world. But this exciting time for the field comes with an inherent challenge: how might design managers build capabilities in their teams – the knowledge, skills and experiences – necessary for design to thrive in its new organisational role?

As design capabilities become central to the working of organisations, and business smarts become ever more important for designers to master, many design managers are taking roles as corporate educators. For those used to working with R&D and marketing departments to marshall resources and deliver design outputs, these new collaborations with internal learning departments and “change management” directors can be a bewildering culture shock.

How, then, can design managers ramp up their skills for these new roles?

It’s a question we’ve confronted more and more at Plan as we have developed training and coaching programmes for clients in a variety of sectors. We believe that a conscious approach to skill development can ensure the effectiveness of every learning opportunity and help foster a sustained culture of capability building. Looking
back at the experience we’ve gained developing and rolling out these programmes, some of the lessons we’ve learned can be distilled into a few main messages.

Here are five tips for success at building capability in design:

1. Design for learning

For managers embroiled in the daily cut and thrust of project delivery, being asked to initiate change in innovation culture or lead the development of new capabilities is often a marker of success. The temptation here (particularly for designers used to delivering a “product”) is to codify and communicate personal practice to the nth degree, creating guidelines or “playbooks” that broadcast their knowledge to a wider audience. However, just as filling in a “paint-by-numbers” landscape doesn’t make you the next Van Gogh, ever more detailed instructions do not good capability building make.

Successful managers look beyond their own experience to survey the broader needs of the organisation, rather than starting only from their own knowledge and conceiving training from first principles. That way, they can understand good learning practice and design effective programmes that encompass an array of training, coaching and practice activities.

Key questions

  • What are the capabilities needed by the organisation?
  • Who needs to be trained and coached, and to what level?
  • Do people need to learn new knowledge, skills or attitudes?

2. Make it real

In many organisations – large and small – the world of development can be divorced from business realities, with conference attendance offered as a sweetener for good performance and training as something to be sent out on or brought in. If not arrested, this situation can lead to cynicism towards any efforts to ramp up skills and hamper work to create a learning organisation. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Successful managers’ capability development programmes include a significant amount of live application, tying the delivery of training and coaching to a pressing business need. As learning becomes intrinsically linked to real-life practice, projects benefit through better results. By creating carefully crafted flows of training, on-the-job experience and expert coaching, the benefits are shared: the organisation, by gaining a solid return on investment, and participants, through demonstrable progress and career development.

Key questions

  • How are training and coaching currently organised?
  • What’s the current perception of their effectiveness?
  • Is there an opportunity to develop a capability development programme around a live project?

3. Create cachet

Leadership-driven changes typically, and understandably, focus on collective impact and the benefits to the organisation as a whole. However, without addressing the individual being asked to change, capability development programmes are likely to fall at the first hurdle. Moreover, there is a risk that highlighting a need to change implies dissatisfaction with current performance.

Rather than shy away from the apprehension and uncertainty that new learning experiences can prompt, successful managers tackle these issues in their design of learning experiences. They do so by providing space and time for participants to think through the impact of change and the steps to be taken to overcome these challenges. By developing programmes that inspire participation – through imaginative content, special selection of participants, or completion incentives – programmes can be designed to create pull for participation through the cachet they bring, generating that all important word-of-mouth buzz throughout the organisation.

Key questions

  • What’s in it for participants?
  • Why won’t the desired change work?
  • What can be done about it?
  • How can it be launched with a bang?

4. Layer it up

A common pitfall of subject-matter experts who design training or coaching is to try and compress as much content and learning as possible into precious development time. While motivated by noble intentions – to make efficient use of resources, or accelerate development as quickly as possible – the result can be a less effective experience.

Just as a boxer practices separate sparring sequences or a golfer spends hours on both the green and driving range, successful learning designs break down the complexities of expert practice into bite-sized chunks. These can be introduced, tried and mastered in isolation before being strung together in the heat of day-to-day work. This careful layering happens not only at a macro level when working out how to train a particular skill or area of knowledge, but within micro learning interactions themselves. Great trainers and coaches not only introduce new ideas and ways of doing, but demonstrate through examples, encourage skills practice and allow space and time for reflection.

Key questions

  • What are the key modules of learning?
  • How can new knowledge, skills or attitudes be broken up into discrete sequences?
  • How can learning activities include ‘tell’, ‘show’, ‘do’ and ‘reflect’ components?

5. Curate a community

Capability development programmes – no matter how well-designed the materials or activities, and how well trained or coached – can succeed or fail based on one key variable: the selected participants and how they are managed as a group. With too broad a level of existing expertise or not enough time for personal and group reflection, collective development becomes difficult.

Successful learning design ensures that participants are carefully selected, engaged throughout and consciously connected afterwards to kick-start an enduring community. When effective development happens, learners foster a shared sense of purpose that encompasses their own goals and those of the wider group. If maintained after the learning programme – through, for example, the curation of ongoing skills clinics or project shares – participants will, over time, develop their own identity as capable practitioners within a wider community of practice that becomes self-sustaining. Even better, this community often yields the next generation of coaches and trainers who can continue capability development efforts for lasting organisational impact.

Key questions

  • What are the key participant selection criteria?
  • How can the cohort become a community for the long-term?
  • Who are future trainers and coaches?

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