023 : How to Create Collaborative Design for a Creative Firm – Step 1, Awareness


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What’s the first step in changing company culture? Most companies struggle to understand why their employees and executives have exited the company, and they’re left scratching their heads wondering how they can prevent more talent from leaving. According to Steve Chaparro, companies go through a certain process, a tipping point if you will, that tells them that there is something about their company culture that’s pushing people out of the door. How can company leaders create an environment where trust and growth are present?

The answer? Awareness. 

In this episode of Culture Design Show, podcast host Steve Chaparro gets interviewed by John Corcoran of Rise25 Media about the importance of awareness in creating cultural shifts. Steve reveals how significant cultural shifts happen as a movement of change rather than a mandate from the top down, the role of leaders in implementing change, and the importance of identifying and addressing problems within the company in the process of creating a new culture.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • When does a company realize that there is a need for change in their culture?
  • The three steps to solving cultural problems: Awareness, Application, and Adoption. 
  • The three types of problems and how to identify and address them properly.
  • Why it’s important for leaders to be willing to change themselves and their leadership approach when implementing a new company culture.
  • How can leaders surrender to the process of culture change while maintaining the balance and peace within the company?

Resources Mentioned in this episode:

About the Guests:

Steve Chaparro, the Founder of Culture Design Studio, is a keynote speaker, workshop facilitator, and culture design strategist. He takes design thinking to the next level as he assesses how to make culture in companies and organizations a movement of change rather than a mandate. His extensive experience in design and strategy allows him to create cultural shifts while eliminating toxic cultures and improving leadership.

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by the Culture Design Studio, a consulting firm that helps people and cultural leaders who feel constrained in their ability to engage their employees to become champions for their people through a series of facilitated workshops. They provide a practical and collaborative process to transform the culture within your creative organization.

Culture Design Studio has worked with organizations like Design Thinkers Group, Red Bull, USAID, Bacardi, and the Office of Civic Innovation

If you’re looking for more than just a consultant and want someone who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation to transform your culture, Culture Design Studio is the one for you.

Contact them today to learn more about what they can do for you and your company.

Full Transcript: Powered by Otter.ai


Welcome to the Culture Design Show where we feature conversations with leaders and thinkers who are passionate about culture and design. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Steve Chaparro 

Steve Chaparro, here. I am the host of the Culture Design Show, a podcast where I feature leaders and thinkers at some of the top creative firms in the world, including architecture, design, technology, and marketing. What’s the one thing they all have in common? They all believe in the power of culture and design.

I have John Corcoran here, and he’s done a thousands of interviews with successful entrepreneurs, investors, and CEOs. And we have flipped the script. He’ll be interviewing me today.

John Corcoran 

All right, Steve. Thanks for having me. And in the last episode that we recorded, you and I were talking about some of the challenges that creativity have actually having a collaborative and inclusive culture internally for their company when, in fact, oftentimes they are espousing those values for the clients that they’re working with. And so in this episode, what we’re going to do is we’re going to really get into the nuts and bolts. What does that look like from a practical standpoint, if I am running if I’m the founder of a creative firm, and I’m thinking we need to improve our culture. What does it look like? What do I need to do? How much time do I need to set aside? How do I actually need to do it? How do I need to be involved?

But first before we get into that this podcast is brought to you by Culture Design Studio, which helps people and culture leaders who feel constrained by their ability to engage their employees become champions for their people through a series of facilitated workshops. Culture design studio provides a practical and collaborative process for transforming the culture within a creative organization and culture design studio has worked with organizations like to DesignThinkers Group, Red Bull, US Aid, Bacardi, and the Office of Civic Innovation. So if you are looking for more than just a consultant, but someone who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation, to transform your culture, reach out, you can go to culturedesignstudio.com.

Alright, so Steve, give us some explanation of what you would recommend for creative firms out there that have realized that they have a culture problem, and that they need to do something about it. What does it look like in terms of what they need to do in terms of bringing in outside experts like yourself, or what pieces they can handle internally and what the time commitment is and how long it takes to, you know, right the ship, that sort of thing?

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, I love this question. And I like to use the example of a firm that reached out to me a while back and they were saying that, you know, this was a about a 30 year old firm, and that the they had experienced great success in the past. But with some of the new folks that were joining the firm, the founder, this charismatic founder and incredible creative had brought in lead the firm through much success, but almost did it through his sheer iron will and driving personality.

And, you know, it’s like Marshall Goldsmith says he says what got you here won’t get you there. And so while the firm is successful on on, you know, on the books, as a firm today, there are a lot of people that are considering leaving the firm. In fact, some of the senior leadership have left because they just can no longer deal with the toxic culture, not just within the company itself, but within the leadership team. So the way I think of it as if a firm wants to undergo some transformational change in their culture. They have to see it as a movement. They can’t see it as this top down mandate, that, oh, all of a sudden, we now realize we have a problem. Now we need to change the way we do things. So by the way, all of you employees, this is the new way. There’s a new way of doing things and you are now mandated, integrate things a different way. That’s not going to fly.

John Corcoran 

That’s a great point. It’s like, Yeah, you’ve failed immediately. If you’ve already failed if it you do it that way.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, you failed, especially with the younger generation, that is no longer going to tolerate this hierarchical, this command-and-control, this top-down type of leadership. You know, we now live in this, what has been described as a vuca. World, one that is volatile, one that is uncertain, one that is very complex, and one that is ambiguous. And so that describes everything about what’s going on today. Not just politics, not just the economy. It’s everything. Our Clients expectations are changing and with that our employee expectations are changing.

So all that to say that we have to almost view this as a movement where you invite people organically people choose to join this movement of change, they can never be mandated to join a movement. So part of it is what I love view it as this three phases of this movement. One is there, oh, there is awareness. The second stage is where there is application. And then the third thing is where there is adoption, or what I would call widespread adoption.

So when we go to that first stage, I think many times it’s about understanding what in fact, is the problem that we are facing or recognizing we do have a problem. But I think what we have to understand when we’re talking about problems, is that many times we think we know what the problem is, but when we really Dig deep. We actually don’t know what the problem is, therefore, we can’t know what the solution is. In fact, you know, there’s three types of problems that we learn in design school, there is a simple problem, where you know what the problem is, therefore, you also know what the solution is very simple. A complex problem is where, you know the problem, but you don’t know what the solution is. In the design world, there is a problem, the third one, which is called a wicked problem, and that is where you don’t even know what the problem is. So how can you even know what the solution is? And I think most cultural problems would fall into that wicked category, where we need to first understand what is the problem?

So in this going back to this firm, one of the things that I suggested is that we spend some time maybe a half day as a leadership team where I go and I facilitate some conversations. And part of that is to gauge one Does the leadership team believe that there is a problem? Number two, are they willing to be open to the process of determining what the problem is and what and being open to what the solutions are? That’s a really hard one. That many times leaders are not willing to undergo some of that really heart-wrenching change. Because many times..

John Corcoran 

I imagine it’s hard. Is it kind of letting letting go of control at that stage?

Steve Chaparro 

Absolutely, you have to let go of control. And you know, and I could almost like an interlude right here, I’m gonna, kind of like in this story, I’m going to inject another story. So when when I started to realize for myself that my life’s mission was to then help leaders undergo personal change, so that they can lead organizational change. When I realized that that was my life’s calling. I didn’t count on one third element of that. And that was, I was going to have to go through some tremendous change as someone who wanted to help these people because I was laid off from my last job. And I thought that I had this really like I was gonna climb the mountain. And then I fell into this valley because I was laid off. And I went through this series of asking people as I reached out to like 10 people, friends and family, you know, some really hard hitting questions like, what am I good at? What is one thing I need to change? And all these really hard questions and some responses were very firming, but there were some other questions that punched me in the gut. And I remember I was sick to my stomach for like two weeks realizing. We’re, you know, what were the challenges that I needed to address. And I believe that experience for me, helped me to understand that if leaders are going to break That change into the organization’s they’re going to have to undergo some really hard introspection and even outward reflection that many times people aren’t willing to do.

And and so with this particular company, you know, asking them one, do you understand that there’s a problem? Number two, do you believe that you guys are willing to trust the process? And the number three? Are you willing to let me guide you through that process? Because…

John Corcoran 

Yeah, and this is all within the awareness phase in the process.

Steve Chaparro 

All that in the awareness phase, and even even the second part of that awareness phase, is where we actually go and meet with spend another day with the organization at the leadership level, and it’s basically telling them about what this process looks like. And it’s very much adapted from, from design thinking. And design thinking is very collaborative. It’s human centered, which means that you put the end user At the beginning of the process to understand what their needs are, and then you end with a solution that meets those needs. So it’s a very different type of process. So part of that awareness is teaching them this new way of solving problems, and then allowing them at a very small level, like say, within the leadership team to actually use that methodology to solve possibly any a leadership team challenge. So that’s it…

John Corcoran 

Sorry to interrupt so so if they if you find that you are working with leadership team, and there’s reluctance to change, what do you do?

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, so that’s a great question. I spent a little bit of time as a financial, licensed financial advisor. So the idea of a fiduciary advisor became very real to me, and that I needed to make sure that I was doing what was in their best interest and not in mind, but also to understand that I was just an advisor that I couldn’t force them to make certain decisions. So I have learned whether it was as a financial adviser, whether it was even as an architect or an executive at an architectural office, that I needed to be an advisor and I needed to be able to help them, give them one, the right solution to the right problem. That was my way of being a trusted adviser.

In many cases, if they didn’t take that advice or weren’t receptive to it, I had one of two decisions to make either one, I would give it some more time because maybe it was just a matter of time for them to embrace these new ways of thinking and to just kind of let them sit in it and and let time help them understand or two, I had to make the decision whether this was a good client for me, because part of this whole process. I mean, I don’t want to use you It may seem patronizing to use the term a sort of a humble and teachable heart, you know, but for someone to be teachable, and trust, who This guide is to lead them through the process, they have to trust the process and they have to trust the guide. And so if they are reluctant to listen to the guide, you have to make a gut. Like for myself, I have to make a gut level decision as to whether or not it’s going to be productive for either one of us to move forward in that relationship.

I’ve actually, you know, some people talk about firing clients. I’ve, I’ve made the mistake many times of taking on clients that I knew because of my experience, and my gut told me they were going to be a problem, but I went forward anyway, and I paid for it. In some cases, I experienced that early on in the relationship, and I decided that I had to, you know what we’re going to have to park ways even though we’ve been working together. In other cases, we can determine that from the very beginning, even before we work together, and I could just say, you know what, I don’t think it’s going to be a good fit for us. So let’s, let’s go our separate ways. That’s that’s a hard thing from for, for either side to accept that type of stance. But I have to make sure that I’m working with people who are willing to listen to what I call the ugly truth and not accept embrace the ugly lies, or rather sorry, do they want to that they are willing, let me just restate it this way. They are willing to embrace the ugly truths, but also reject the beautiful lies.

John Corcoran 

Rejected beautiful lies, that’s such an interesting phrase. So that so let me throw out a scenario for you. So let’s say they have the awareness. They’re willing to change But then kind of rubber meets the road. And the question is whether they’re going to let you help them change. Does it sometimes get to the point where you’re working with a client and they say they’re willing to change, and they appear initially willing to change but at some point, you know, they just they’re they’re throwing up roadblocks and and when the rubber meets hit rubber hits the road, they won’t, they don’t actually change.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, and I think I think sometimes I have to make sure that I understand what hat I am wearing in any particular engagement. I think most of my life I have been more of a consultant or the subject matter expert where people hired me to do the work for them. I believe that moving forward, my work will be less about being a consultant doing the work for them as the design as a subject matter expert, but rather acting as in one of two ways. Either way One as a facilitator, where I guide them through a process, and many times these are like one off workshops, or it might be a workshop with the leadership team and then a workshop with the, you know, at the team level throughout the company.

In many cases, though, as a coach, a coach is in there for the long haul, and that is, I’ve been disappointed This is going back to the awareness part of things. You’re giving them awareness that they can then apply at a very small level, maybe at a team level with one particular challenge. And once they’ve used it to solve that particular challenge, then they could adopt that way of doing things at a at a firm wide level. I don’t recommend that they try to do massive change for the first time at the firm wide level if they haven’t done it, one at the leadership level and then to at a team level, and so that widespread adoption is Were you act more as a coach have been able to help them through the implementation side of things. And a lot of times this that takes just reassurance, it’s giving the leadership space in their heads to reflect about the process to reflect about what has been done. And it’s not so much about giving them the answers, but giving them the them the space, to be aware, to help them develop their own insights about what’s going on, to come up with ideas of how they’re going to move forward. And in some ways, keep them accountable to do what they say that they’re going to do.

John Corcoran 

I’m realizing as we’re talking here, that this is really like three episodes, and we probably need to tackle the other portions here of application and adoption, which you’ve touched on but you know, maybe in a more in depth talk and in subsequent episodes, but before we get to that, I wanted to ask you so how as a leader, how does a leader let go surrender to this process, and yet, it does. Same time, not allow the company to devolve into chaos and still remain a leader and, and and the guide to the organization while at the same time, you know, letting go and surrendering to this process.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, I think it’s it’s a both/and type of thing. It’s not so much about just say full surrender, taking no action, but it’s all about, you know, understanding, you know, the soft side of this process. But also moving forward with making sure that the firm is is, is, is continuing to be successful moving forward to call it at the firm, you’re trying to rebuild the plane as you’re flying. It is one way of looking at it.

And I think the idea is, if you think of culture change as this elephant of a challenge, you know, there’s the old saying is how do you eat an elephant? And the answer is one bite at a time. And I think Yeah, and I learned the same thing when I was doing that. marathons like how do you finish a marathon? One step at a time.

And I think the idea is, there has to be a clear signal on behalf of leadership to the rest of the firm that says, we understand that we have cultural problems, we understand that maybe it’s broken, or maybe it’s hurting. Maybe it’s even toxic. We are we understand this. But we also understand that it’s going to take a process, it’s going to be a journey of transformation for us to fix it. We just want you to know that one, we are aware of it. And we are seeking ways to be able to involve you in correcting it, but it’s going to take time. So if you can give us some space to be able to go through the process because one, the CEO meet may need to go through his or her own transformation, as well as well as the leadership team and then so on and so forth to the teams And and employees.

So there is this ripple effect, but it’s about the leaders showing some degree of vulnerability and humility to them to accept that this is a challenge, because many times what I’ve heard from companies is that Oh, yeah, you know, we’ve realized because of our annual employee surveys, that we’ve got some real challenges. And we hire some third party consultant to come in, and they give us this, this, this, this plan to move forward. As soon as they give us the plan. the tyranny of the urgent happens, and we forget all about it and nothing happens. But this topic keeps coming up every year when the results of the surveys come out.

So if we’re not honest about taking this as a journey, but taking small steps before we take big strides, we start to burn out our employees, and they start to mistrust whatever we say. And you know, because I’ve heard it before, where they say oh, you We’ve had our leaders have told us we were going to address these challenges, but nothing ever happens from them. And so you know what, when they say it again, it’s going to go in one ear and out the other. In fact, I may actually leave the back door.

John Corcoran 

Right, right. Well, this has been great. We’ve been talking about how to enact cultural change, really, as a movement. And I feel like we’ve just touched on the beginning of the topic here. And there’s a lot more to uncover and unwrap. So we’re going to do that in subsequent episodes.

Talking, of course, to Steve Chaparro, the founder of Culture Design Studio. If you want to learn more about Steve, you can go to culturedesignstudio.com, connect with him on LinkedIn. And we’ll be back again soon, with more culture design strategies, advice and interviews with leaders and thinkers that some of the top creative firms in the world. Alright, thanks, everyone.


Thank you for listening to the Culture Design Show. We’ll see you again next time. Be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes. And while you’re at it, feel free to leave a review of the podcast.