Principle 2 – Good design makes a product useful

How to balance tension in collaborative events? For the tension between the collective and the individual and the tension between flow and content, design principle 2 might hold some answers.


Good design makes a product useful

A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.”


Sounds like a no brainer, yes?
A good collaborative event is useful. The next question is: useful to whom? Over the years, I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that ‘useful’ is like beauty. It is in the eye of the beholder. And here’s the hard thing: chances are high that for any given collaborative event at least part of the participants will question its usefulness.

Everyone gets in there with expectations. Some are logical, as the objectives of the event will have been communicated. But some are not that logical or a downright surprise. People are people and people have a way of bending their minds around things in very creative ways.


Let’s say we are preparing an event in which an organization’s vision is to be created. A couple of things will be used as a base to work from: the organization’s mission, its core values, external drivers, core capabilities and clues of where the market is going. There’s probably more, but let’s keep it simple. This event will be designed using the input of a couple of key stakeholders. They will set the objectives and define the boundary conditions.

Key people from within and outside the organization will be invited to attend. They will not come with a blank mind. Everybody will bring their whole self to the event, including all the knowledge, insights, hopes and aspirations they have. This is where the tension between the individual and the collective starts. Can we find the right answers for the organization, in a context of inclusiveness that makes sure the wisdom of all of these people is taken into account? Hopefully, but can we do it without losing people along the way? The art of designing a good collaborative event is to not get distracted by the urge to keep everybody happy and at the same time keep people connected to what is being created.

To me, this is true usefulness. The criteria that need to be met are on a collective level. This is true for the functional, the psychological and the aesthetic criteria.


On a more tactical level, a well-designed collaborative event is also a challenge. Having been part of a consulting firm for many years, a lot of the collaborative work I did was within consulting projects. Consultants are great, they are relentlessly thorough in gathering and analyzing data, creating structure and being exhaustive in doing so. In many collaborative events, I was dealing with the interests of a client sponsor (team) on one side and a consulting project team on the other side.

As I would be designing modules, I was doing so with the objectives of the event in mind. But logically, the content of the event and its modules would be the domain of the consultants. Long story short: they would ask me for a certain module to get the participants to fill out an extensive template. While indeed the module would be connected to the content to be captured in the template, the ‘flow’ (the way the participants would experience the event on an emotional level) often would differ from the logic of the project.

The template would also have fields that would distract or confuse participants in that step of the event. This tension between content and flow can be quite difficult, as another competence of a good consultant is their ability to be very convincing.

So how to deal with this? The answer is no surprise: make a clear distinction, make sure to have a good and clear conversation up front and then be ruthless in your drive to deliver a collaborative event that meets the criteria that you agree on with your client. Even better: include a consulting lead in the sponsor team. This did the trick for me most of the times. As a collateral effect the consultant in question will develop a strong relation with the other sponsors. They will be grateful.


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