Lead… and let go

In our projects we often help clients to innovate by doing design research together. This usually includes qualitative research and co-creation sessions, in which we aim to involve people from the client side in everything we do. Often we find that people who are new to the design research practice feel uncomfortable with this process.

The trick to making this work is to learn to embrace uncertainty and benefit from it. In a creative process you have to be open to what participants bring up, and lean in to what happens in the moment. And at the same time it’s your responsibility to steer the conversation in a fruitful direction. This can be scary if you are not used to this way of working. Even with years of experience, uncertainty is always present, and it is frightening and constructive at the same time.

Keeping a grip on the process

It is important to look for a balance between preparation and structure on the one hand, and openness and exploration on the other. We like to call it structured chaos. The balance is different for every project and for every facilitator.

Over the years we have developed ways to keep a grip on the process, while at the same time leaving freedom to explore unexpected directions. When collecting stories from people we find that engaging materials like visuals or 3D objects can help to trigger conversations and bring up interesting details. At the same time they help to keep the conversation on-topic. When designed carefully, these materials can be photographed or filmed throughout the session and serve as data for analysis. In that way you don’t have to be stressed about documenting everything that’s said. This leaves room to really listen to people.

Idea generation

Another activity that is uncertain by default is idea generation. In co-creation workshops it is important to create a safe atmosphere where people feel free to experiment, try, fail, and try again. And as a facilitator you can train your intuition to help you decide which ideas to pursue and explore further. It is also important to manage expectations up front. In a two hour workshop you will not find THE game-changing solution that will change the world, but you will be able find several seeds that have the potential to grow when nurtured.

As with the development of every skill, when learning to deal with uncertainty it is important to keep exploring what works for you.