Feature: Overcome 'foreign body syndrome' - and change your business

Mark Curtis
- Leadership - Apr 18, 2018

Mark Curtis, co-founder and CCO of Fjord, on how businesses should turn to partners not just to recommend change, but to install them within the organisation to spread new methods, tools and strategies via cultural change. 

In an environment of near constant change, businesses are increasingly turning to external partners to future-proof themselves against disruption ahead.

However, in order to drive meaningful innovation, it’s no longer enough for external partners to recommend changes from the outside looking in – they must re-engineer the company itself from the inside out. The question for businesses and consultants alike is how to do so without meeting internal opposition.

Almost by definition, innovation requires people to think differently. In an attempt to rise to this challenge, many companies rightly seek to bring design expertise in-house, understanding that re-engineering the way they approach business challenges is, in essence, a design challenge.

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For most, this takes the form of engaging external partners, who are able to introduce a new way of thinking precisely because they are not part of the host organisation. Indeed, outsourcing innovation can seem like a quick fix for those who are used to a familiar way of doing things, and perhaps daunted by the prospect of change.

However, it’s precisely this preference for familiarity that can result in employees resisting initiatives led by external parties – potentially limiting the scope of change possible. In many ways, this is usual group behavior; banding together against another 'tribe' who present a challenge to established norms. In fact, this response is remarkably similar to the natural biological response of a human or animal that detects a 'foreign body', which triggers “homeostasis” – the move to reestablish an equilibrium.

So, how can organisations move to bring design-thinking in-house, without running the risk of a “foreign body” being expelled before the business challenge(s) are met? As an agency who has gone through the integration process themselves, we understand the fears that businesses may have of foreign body syndrome, and we’ve worked to establish a few steps which they can take to smooth the path to innovation.

Be transparent
Fundamentally, we understand the importance of acknowledging fears before you tackle them, and as a result we don’t seek to ignore the resistance we may come up against. Instead, we place a great deal of importance on empowering internal teams to lead initiatives themselves. Crucially, this allows them to explain any new processes and ideas in a familiar language from the outset, helping assuage any concerns about the new or unfamiliar.

Moreover, this approach makes it easier to be transparent about the change that may be underway; not only is it familiar, trusted faces at the helm but it also provides a direct conduit to employees not involved in the project directly. Whether the project is being discussed around the coffee machine, or working styles are being adopted by other teams around the business, cross-pollination of ideas becomes natural instead of forced.

Be distinct
In order to achieve this, both external and internal teams must be encouraged to work in certain ways. As a cultural force, it’s imperative that the installed cohort of design-thinkers (made up of internal and external members) have the space to define the perspective they’re trying to shape and role they’re trying to fulfill. Creating a physically separate or culturally distinct studio space is a good way of doing this, and will enable these thinkers to hone the perspective they’re there to provide. 

Let new blood mingle
Nonetheless, it’s still important for this team works to share the meaning and impact of their work; whilst they may need space to hone their new perspective, it should not be forgotten that the ultimate goal is to disseminate this thinking throughout the organisation in order to drive innovation. 

Show evidence of value added
External partners can drive wider employee buy-in to any initiatives by keeping a constant channel of dialogue open. There should be regular updates to the wider business (not just those involved in the project) about how the initiative has added value to the company. Even if it’s incremental progress, constant communication allows a success story to be built from the start. Moreover, this creates an opportunity to convey the benefits of accepting a “foreign body” into your organisation – access to the network benefits of an external party, for example, or to specialist knowledge not already housed inside the business.

Creating a design hub in practice
We employed these four steps in tackling a project for Commerzbank. The bank's strategic aim was to become much more customer-friendly, and they sought to do this by speeding up their ability to spot customer trends and incubate new ideas. 

In response to this challenge, we worked with them to set up an in-house design agency, allowing them to bring design thinking straight to the heart of their organisation. Powered by a team of very experienced consultants and respected internal employees, the hub was able to quickly garner trust from the wider company. From the outset, their work was communicated using detailed plans and timelines, allowing for transparent communication on how the activity would impact and benefit the business as a whole. 

This project represented a real step into the unknown for Commerzbank, but by equipping them with a solid base from which to grow their design hub – an experienced team, and a transparent and rigourous plan – the bank was able to take that leap of faith, and truly realise the design hub’s potential to drive business change.

Today, the new design agency, Neugelb, is working on a range of projects for the bank and has already materially progressed its ability to stay ahead of its customer's changing needs. It does this because the Fjord consultants and their Commerzbank peers are able to work seamlessly together, with no “foreign body syndrome” to hinder their progress. It's a project that we are proud for exactly that reason, and shows that it is possible to embrace the new thinking in a way that doesn't threaten existing culture.

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