September 25, 2012

Practicing Client Partnership

brightspot Culture

At brightspot we have the opportunity to work with a diverse set of clients across higher education, cultural, corporate, and non-profit sectors. While engaging in the different ways of working that each client practices, we partner with our clients to engage them in the work that we do, such that they learn and work with us.

This approach is foundational to brightspot’s working culture. It aims to empower the client on several levels: (1) helping them become more knowledgeable and capable in our expertise and skills; (2) fostering their contributions; (3) strengthening their sense of ownership over the project outcomes; and (4) building outcomes that are actionable and viable. All of these actions also ensure that the work that’s been put in is not lost in the “changing of hands” that usually happens at the end of the project (and which we try to minimize through sharing ownership of the outcomes) or in the translation from paper to practice.

Partnering with clients benefits us too. Projects that have been particularly strong in this aspect enable us to quickly and strongly understand how the client works, so that we can: (1) build ways of working that are effective for both parties; (2) deliver materials that speak a shared language; (3) respond quickly to goings-on in the client’s realm; and (4) establish great (and fun) working relationships.

As we continue shaping this approach into a more established process, we wanted to share the key activities that have defined “client partnership” for us.

Designing the team / defining client roles

A key jumpstarter and enabler of co-active strategy is putting together a team that includes client members and making concrete their roles and responsibilities. By drawing on the expertise and skills of the client, much the same way we think about our own team members, we build a team specific to the project that suddenly has added abilities.

Sharing authorship

Creating deliverables together has been a valuable and visible way to share ownership of a project and to see where the client’s thoughts are heading and focusing. We’ve adopted Google Docs on a couple of projects and in addition to the invaluable basic functions of being able to work on the same document, edit in real-time (for example, as we talk about that document on a conference call), and collect contributions from multiple parties, shared documents have also come to signify (1) continuous, open calls for input (ie. comments are not limited to the scheduled meeting, but can occur whenever anyone have a thought) and (2) that the contents are not “precious” (ie. it is editable by anyone).

Being flexible

As a compact team, staying flexible, planning for Plan Bs, and creating workarounds has become a core competency that has enabled us to keep aligned with the client and able to support each other’s work. Whether it’s at a micro-scale such as shuffling the agenda of a workshop or at a macro-scale such as re-organizing the project schedule and tasks, being flexible keeps us on top of change.

Making work accessible

Every industry has its own terminology and jargon, and ours is no different. We often work with clients outside the design industry who don’t use terms such as “design briefs,” “programming,” or “post-occupancy evaluations,” so we use such tools as stories, example deliverables, and glossaries to bring everyone to a shared understanding.

Creating transparency

In one of our library service design project, we had extended conversations with the client about “giving students fish” versus “teaching students how to fish.” In co-active strategy we try to teach our clients how to fish in addition to giving them fish, and over-communicate about how we arrive at our conclusions and outcomes. Transparency in the process and the tools helps our clients make sense of what, how, and why we do what we do (begetting more knowledgeable clients); engenders further trust in the outcomes; and opens the door for improvement. Just as we de-jargonize the work we do, we want to de-mystify the process and share the tools and processes that we use. If, by the end of a project, a client doesn’t need us anymore, we take that as a positive sign.

Co-creating multiple options

When visiting our clients, we make sure to balance the amount of time we’re presenting with the amount of time we’re working together. Whether it’s a workshop format or a concentrated work session, including our client in the process of generating concepts and ideas provides an opportunity for all stakeholders to get their hands dirty and have their voices heard, for us to know early on whether we’re on or off track, and to put more minds together. When it is time for us to present, we’ve also noticed that providing our clients with multiple options facilitates more informed conversations and decision-making, in which clients can provide more than a “yes or no” answer and feedback that keeps the ball rolling.

Time engaging with our clients is a valuable and limited resource, so we’re always aware of the need to make the most of this time, for us and them, such as by designing better meetings, sending pre-reads, or using processes such as co-active design. So far, so great. We’d love to hear how you work with and not just for clients as well!

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