Living in the duality of complex projects I

Last year, I climbed onstage with Mael Inizan to introduce our customer experience project with Eurotunnel, the Channel operator, at an enterprise design conference themed “Better Futures”.

The project was a huge undertaking and success was not a given. There were many firsts for everyone involved. I encourage you to watch the video if you want to see a CX case study that goes beyond the fluff.

This article is not about that, though.

In the early whirlwind days of the project, we realized that helping our clients take a leap towards better futures requires that we evolve, too. Evolve how we perceive and carry out our own practice. Let go of an expert’s posture. Embrace the complexity of things we don’t yet see, let alone understand. Only then could we take our own leaps, with just enough confidence.

Preparing for this talk prompted the question, What about our better futures as enterprise designers?.

We analyzed our experience for the systems and relationships that allow us to dive in and out of adjacent disciplines, live-prototype ideas with the client team and unlearn long-held habits and beliefs about how things are done.

Those musings became the third part of the talk. This article is its write-up.

During the course of a complex project, we live in dualities.

The first duality is about our perception of progress. Progress with understanding the situation, developing our thinking, prototyping ideas, making inroads with various stakeholders etc.

Those smiles on the left — this is when we’re in the flow. The project is amazing, we are amazing, we’re getting somewhere! And the next day, or the next minute even, it’s “Are we actually getting somewhere?” and “Why are we talking about this again!?”

Throughout the course of the project, we swing back and forth on how we think we’re doing. This can be exhausting. We burn up energy, and not just our own.

Another duality is about how time passes. Sometimes it feels hard to breathe deeply. The situation moves so quickly and we’re pressured to move even faster. Everything seems to be changing all the time. And in the very next moment we bemoan that nothing is changing! Things are taking ages — what’s going on?

This can be uncomfortable. It’s neither the clock of agile nor waterfall, two rhythms that are familiar to many of our bodies.

And of course, those two dualities have a direct impact on how confident we are in being able to deliver what we’re trying to do. On good days, we say, of course! Of course, this is so obvious. We’ve got this. Then five minutes later — I’m lost again. Do I know what I’m doing? Do I have what it takes?

This can be scary. Saying “I don’t know” is fine. “I don’t know if I can” is less so.

In taking on complex projects, we constantly find ourselves in these dualities. Sometimes, the team will be on the same side. In other times, one person will be on the “left” side, and manage to pull the other over. Partners-in-crime that believe in each other have that superpower.

My younger consultant self would have tried to ease the discomfort with elbow grease, in between getting upset at herself and those around her.

Recognizing these dualities unlocks the self-awareness to start managing ourselves within these states.

Read about the practices that we organically developed throughout the course of the project in Part II.

This article is a partial write-up of a talk that I gave with Mael Inizan at Intersection 2019 called “Scaling CX: A Story About Building Bridges Together”. Illustrations by Laure de Valon.

Originally posted on my website, where I write about designing the conditions for independent-minded individuals to grow and thrive together.

Strategic design, user experience and conversations.