Danny Hearn – Deeply Human Design Ltd

Creating space for a relational approach

Think back to when you were in the first week of a new job or the first kick-off session with a new client or team. How did you feel in those first few moments? I know I’ve experienced a range of emotions from nervous, anxious, excited, keen, cautious etc. Perhaps the other people in the team or client felt similar feelings in those moments too. In my experience, those feelings are common when building a new relationship, particularly within more transactional-focused cultures.

Design is change and change needs collaboration to work

That first handshake or eye contact is all ‘data’ that your brain is rapidly trying to process to learn where you and the other party ‘meet’ each other. We don’t know where the boundaries are, what’s okay to say and what’s not, or what we need from each other. This precious information is often discovered as boundaries are crossed, with expectations and dreams sometimes only understood after they haven’t been met.  

As services and products evolve in our ever-connected world, user experiences now cut across multiple channels, service teams, products, brands, marketing, operations and customer service departments. It is hard to imagine that redesigning powerful and seamless user experiences can come from a single design team or via siloed and departmental working. Therefore success is hinged on a team’s ability to work across an organisation inclusively and effectively, with a range of people who will all have quirks, habits, languages and preferences. What often seems like ‘just a digital project’ (new website/app/thing) often (without realising it) soon becomes an organisation’s transformational project, with jobs, roles and relationships all being impacted in some form.  Only 30% of digital transformations succeed due to the challenge of making significant shifts in mindsets and behaviours at an organisational level.

I have found that in typical working environments, teams are often focused on tasks and outputs in these early phases of being together. There is usually very little space to deeply understand and learn from each other in a way that strengthens relationships while surfacing the various roles we might all be playing. By focusing on the output and being task-driven, certain behaviours and characters quickly dominate. Conditions within a poorly functioning team tend to favour extroverts and, all too often, a directive management style. This then continues to depreciate the quality of output and efficiency by excluding the quiet and diverse thinkers down to task-monkeys. All of these negative behaviours bubble under the surface and appear in re-work, missed deadlines, poor decisions, missed opportunities, change requests, uncomfortable conversations and relationships that don’t always last beyond the project. The journey of relationship building on the job can be stressful, expensive and risky. Relationships and trust are forged over time and often around the edges of a project as teams work together. 

Have you considered how your working culture might look different if you created space for a relational approach?

I believe this is why the phrase EQ is the new IQ is becoming more prevalent in our industry.


So much of design is about collaborating, relationships, deeply listening, challenging and creating a shared language with each other

That's just the fluffy stuff!

I have found that when discussing this concept with various organisations, their initial reaction is ‘oh yes, we do
that already’ or ‘that’s just the fluffy stuff we just want to crack on..’. However, simply having a few EQ-minded team members or account managers intending to build relationships is very different from centring this intention into the core of how you work. Recently I spent some time working with DOT PROJECT, – a Tech for Good consultancy.  Their mission; To build digital resilience across the social economy.  We developed an important principle that guided our thinking – Technology and relationships are part of the core organisational infrastructure. I learnt that grounding our approach in that principle into everything we did affected how we worked. For instance, how would a project kick-off look different if that was a principal you sincerely believed in? At DOT PROJECT, we created space in the budget to protect our relational approach. For example our design workshops were co-facilitated with two roles; a design thinker and a relational coach. The relational coach role drew attention to and encouraged the team to reflect on what might be happening or what was being unsaid as they work together. It meant having the time to ask questions in a kick-off like ‘What do we need from each other? How will we meet in conflict? What are our low and high dreams? What roles are needed within this work together? Creating the time and space to listen and hear each other allowed for a stronger foundation of understanding to emerge. The shared understanding that was created through this approach, empowered us to be more strongly aligned, move quickly and effectively when we got stuck in the project work.

As I transitioned from the Tech for Good sector back into the commercial world, I was immediately struck by the difference in how we related to each other both internally and with clients. For instance, in one project, my first call with the new team started with a screen-shared spreadsheet and walkthrough dates and deliverables. There were no introductions to the team I’d never met before, no hello’s or space for understanding what roles people would be playing. It’s something that I started to identify as a transactional culture vs an interpersonal-led culture.  Culture Wizard has compiled a great list of examples that I have drawn from below;

Transactional Culture

  • Personal relationships are not relevant to conducting business.
  • Sharing personal information is considered unprofessional or ‘fluffy’.

  • There is more formality with colleagues, particularly on first encounters.

  • People will briefly greet one another and immediately dive into the subject of the meeting.

  • Asking “How are you?” is more of a formality. And people will be surprised if answers are not brief or insubstantial.

Interpersonal Culture

  • People develop strong personal relationships with their colleagues.
  • People share personal information in the workplace.
  • Getting to know someone helps advance business dealings.
  • Social conversations take place before meetings begin.
  • People are genuinely interested in how you are doing personally. This is viewed as relevant to how you are doing professionally.
  • Sincerity is prized, and trust is the cornerstone of business relationships.

Can you recognise your working culture? In some instances, it may of course switch depending on the context and need.

Is interpersonal better? 

To be interpersonal may mean being transactional. My philosophy with this is to try to meet people where they want and can be met (and is comfortable enough for me). I believe that creating the opportunity to bring in more understanding can enable a different type of relationship with teams and a different balance of power within relationships. It may mean that client or team/manager relationships can be more of a partnership and, as such open the possibility to work WITH the people rather than FOR or AT them?

I believe that there is a lot to be gained in overall efficiency and effectiveness by prioritising this type of interpersonal approach. I feel that it ultimately builds a more sustainable, happy and effective team. It won’t be for everyone, of course, but that in itself is useful to know and understand about each other.

One small tool I have started using, is to share a Manual of Me at the start of new engagements.  My intention is to model a behaviour and begin with a relational tone in the hope that it will inspire others to do so too.

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