The Corner of Design and Strategy

I spent the morning with a group of 20 interior design students at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose semester is focused to a large degree on consulting around built spaces. We spent most of ourtime discussing the challenges of navigating a client space – especially when you come to the table with your own ideas, passions and designs.

I wasn't quite sure walking into the room how to start the conversation, or what from my world of strategy and facilitation might be most relev ant to their design-centered aspirations.

I quickly discovered – thanks to their excellent questions – that what our work had in common was a passion for the work and a focus on the client.

We began in earnest with a focus on the importance of listening, but I also suggested – strongly – that the best consultants (business, strategy, design or otherwise) are those who can understand deeply what the client truly wants, and then give them that plus something unexpected. Something that takes them even closer to their dreams – for their home, their workplace, their organization.

It's an outcome I work hard to achieve for my clients, and I still have so much to learn when it comes to tapping into unspoken aspirations and delivering something powerfully better than either of us – client or consultant – could have individually imagined.

Continuing to learn how to do that better is part of the work. Seeing it as an investment, not an expense, is another part.

A member of my team remarked recently that she was surprised and impressed with what she described as my patience. "You just let the group continue to talk and work toward the right answer," she said, while pointing out that she'd run out of patience with what felt like wheel-spinning much earlier in the meeting.

"The answer is already in the room," one of my mentors told me long ago when I asked how they facilitated so effectively. "If you start with the belief that you alone have the answers, you're not doing the right work. If you deeply believe that the client already has the answers, and that your job is primarily to help them discover and deepen their commitment to their best answers, it's powerfully different work."

I wasn't surprised that the VCU students wanted to have a long discussion about this, because I believe it is at the heart of effective consulting. And it is at once so obvious and so difficult that it demands our constant attention.