It’s official. We’re looking for a new lab designer to join the team.
I can see why. We need bandwidth.
As Bromford’s transformation programme trickles through to the last tranche of design workshops, more and more ideas are waiting in the wings, expecting tests and pilots to be whipped up at short notice. How quickly we dispatch these ideas to kill, shelve or release is a key health-check for the lab, and we need to be free from gunge to mobilise concepts while they’ve still got a head of steam.
Now, we’re recruiting for a designer with complementary skill sets just as soon as, I quote, “someone figures out what your skills actually are...”
So - ‘me’ being my favourite subject matter - I volunteered to write a post about what I get up to day-to-day. (I’m accepting email requests for the full autobiography after this post was cut down from an original 247 pages...).
As Design Lead (Innovation) I’m responsible for the practical steps to accelerate new ideas in the business. That’s everything from challenging preconceptions and teasing out ideas at their very conception, up to providing a sound evaluation with recommendations to keep, shelve or kill what you might've been working on for months.
As for the nitty gritty of how to do this, it's pretty open to interpretation. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to draw on experience working on commercial and government sponsored research projects and in product design to help - embedding a process of cyclic testing and piloting new ideas to destruction. But that’s not to say another approach would be any more or less successful and if you feel you have any of the following attributes, a career in innovation and design could be for you...
Drive projects forward
I use the word ‘project’ carefully around here. It tends to be synonymous with terminally dull expressions like ‘business architecture’ and Gantt charts, but I’ll level with you. Deep down, all we’re actually doing in innovation is running projects, whether we call them concepts or not. Illusion shattered. Mind Blown.
Our guerrilla form of project management is focused around momentum, enthusiasm and practical outcomes - as the ideas we receive are typically juvenile and much more fragile than what a project team will traditionally handle. There really is no textbook way to approach them - just don’t make them too big too soon. Think proof of concept.
If projects are the girls who take five years to choose their prom outfit and makeup and look amazing (although you’ve left, met someone else and moved to another town), concepts should be the girls who are ready to go at the drop of a hat, but don’t own anything flashier than ripped jeans and a t-shirt. You need to be into ripped jeans and t-shirts.
You’d think people would just be inherently fired up to work on something ‘innovative’, right? Well sorry to disappoint, but even ideas stemming from the lab suffer from the same ebbs and flows in enthusiasm that affect humans the world over. If, once the initial spike of energy passes, people simply go back to their day-jobs the little light inside invariably flickers and dies. There’s your momentum - dead.
I’ve adopted a ‘whatever it takes’ policy to keep people engaged with what’s going on.
Aside from simply being charismatic (though this definitely helps when you’re tearing someone's service area apart, looking for problems...) I’ve had success by rolling my sleeves up and doing stuff - making ideas tangible. This could be learning Power BI to make a live updating data dashboard, buying in new tech to improve diagnostics by surveyors or shadowing a newly commissioned role (still in test or pilot) to make sure it’s all playing out to plan. Learn new things and become a specialist. Don’t just map out a game plan for someone and expect it to happen.
Tell a story
‘Telling Stories’ may feel a bit flim flam, it certainly did to me at first, but as reports I’d meticulously written were left by the wayside, unread but still warm from the printer, I soon came round to the idea of trying out different ways to evaluate a test/pilot/concept. Perhaps my biggest responsibility, alongside Paul and Amy, is to sell innovation within the business - and selling rarely involves telling your customers that they’re wrong and they should read your reports. Flex and understand. If they’re visual people, knock up a quick infographic, if they are auditory (or just busy) - hold a quick briefing. Occasionally a report might be the right answer, but don’t expect your responsibility to end with the paper-trail. There is no handover without surety that the knowledge and excitement (and usually all the kudos) have genuinely been transferred over to the concept team.
Remember: Bromford is a social enterprise, and human interest stories are its lifeblood.
Fundamentally, being a lab designer is not rocket science. Nothing ever is unless we decide to turn it into an industry or an empire… and nearly nothing is more important in this role than avoiding industries or empires. Be fleet footed, keep your concepts fast and loose, and be confident in your ability to project manage without actually spouting (visible) project management.
Sure - be good, be brave, be commercial and be different... but be invested in the cause. Quality housing for those who need it.