In this episode, we speak with Bronwyn Kennedy, a design thinking coach and facilitator. In the early days of design thinking in South Africa, she recognized the lack of awareness and training in the field. Her journey led her to the Design Thinkers Academy in Cape Town, where she underwent facilitator training around 2016-2017.

Bronwyn’s pivotal role in driving innovation and critical thinking came at Standard Bank, where she transitioned from learning and development to a strategic team. There, she spearheaded efforts to transform operations, foster problem-solving skills, and enhance customer service.

Today, at Net Stock, a tech company, Bronwyn focuses on optimizing business processes and ensuring consistency across territories while exploring opportunities for automation and process improvement. Join us for an insightful conversation with Bronwyn Kennedy on her journey through design thinking and process optimization.

Welcome to Great Minds Design Think Alike. Where we investigate design thinking, the challenges, the successes and the problems it solves. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of design thinking, check out episode 1. Be sure to subscribe so you get the newest episode as it’s released. Great Minds Design Think Alike is hosted by Stuart McDougall, owner of Tenaka, a leading design thinking consultancy in Johannesburg, South Africa and is proudly brought to you by Mac Media.

The conversation with Bronwyn:

SM: Welcome everyone to this episode of our workcast and podcast. I’m so excited today I’m chatting with Brownyn Kennedy. She is somebody I have known a while. We’ve chatted and worked together on stuff that we have done in the design meet up with other design thinkers in sort of a social responsibility space as well. 

And I’m excited to speak to you today because a lot of what we’ve spoken about in some of these recent podcasts is around education and design thinking. 

And Bronwyn is a coach and a facilitator of design thinking and she’s been overseas and got training there. And she’s also worked in the corporate environment. 

So Bronwyn thanks for joining me and having this chat with me. And I don’t know if you want to maybe just start off by just mentioning to people when you came across design thinking. 

When it all started for you and you started to think wow this is something that interests me or I could get into.

BK: Sure. So we’re in 2020 and I think my first exposure to design-thinking was in 2015 and it was a word that started being slung around in the IT teams and in a lot of sort of white papers that were coming out around skills for the future. 

So I was working in a corporate learning and development team and the next thing you know design thinking or critical problem solving started popping up on all the I think it was world economic forum lists of you know these are the critical skills that people need. 

And I kind of didn’t know anything about design thinking and I thought how am I going to prepare the teams of people that I’m working with if I don’t even know what this thing is. So I started doing some research and coming across probably the front runners.

SM: So did it all start with like the buzzword of design thinking is that where it started like or you heard this phrase and you thought this sounds interesting. Is that how it began?

BK: Yeah pretty much. And I mean you know if you work in the learning space or you work in any type of business where or role where you are responsible for learning and development like you need to know what’s going on and if you don’t she have to find out. 

So it started as a buzzword and I think also my ego was a bit bruised because I thought flip how I am not ahead of the stock trends and what things are coming up and what’s relevant. And so yeah I would say my journey and my journey from there started. 

And then a few months later innovation really like kicked off at Standard Bank. And it was then you know top-of-mind for the senior leadership. If you weren’t sort of bought into the whole concept of of critical thinking of solving problems for yourself or for your team as a leader then  there wasn’t necessarily gonna be space for that sort of skills gap. 

So then kind of like you know the pressure was there there was energy and excitement and then these opportunities started to come about where I was recruited out of learning and development into a strategic team that was really then looking at how do we shift the operations business and how do we make people think more critically solve problems themselves and really just offer that better customer service for Standard Bank’s customers. 

And then I started getting into training like actually getting into design thinking and being upskilled myself in terms of what it was, how to do it and the benefits that your organization can kind of derive from design thinking once people are adopting it and utilizing the methodology.

SM: So your journey then, that was the beginning and it started to take you on this track then where you eventually went overseas and at the conference? 

Tell us a little bit about that and what insights you she started to see at these conferences and what people were doing how they were doing it.

BK: Sure. So as much as design thinking was this big buzzword being thrown around, not many people in South Africa I found knew what it was or were offering any type of training. I eventually came across the Design Thinkers Academy who are based out of Cape Town. And put through motivations and whatnot. 

And got to go on the facilitator training. And that was back in I don’t even know when 2017 2016. And then through Design Thinkers Academy I got exposure to the conference that the Dutch team runs every year in October. It’s a two-day and it’s actually called a conference just because that’s the word that I think most people recognise but it’s anything but a conference. 

So another motivation and a lot of you know begging and pleading to get a trip to the Netherlands to go and attend. 

And eventually I got to go in 2018 and it was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. And I say that because first of all the venue is a renovated theatre. It’s not your typical conference. You know, sit auditorium-style or 6-10 people. Random strangers at a table and do kind of look up at each other every now and then and don’t say another word. Its theatre style. It was high energy, low energy really intense. 

Speakers from across Europe, United States. And completely orchestrated around the theme of empathy. So if anyone does any quick Google search on design thinking, they’ll see that empathy kind of pops up as the first step or sometimes it’s called understand and that’s a very much about understanding your user or your customer whoever’s going to consume the product of your service. 

And so that already was for me one of the reasons why I wanted to go to this conference was like how do you run a conference completely on empathy, like what are people gonna talk about? And how does this relate back to the real world? And if anything, the first year I went, it was an emotional roller-coaster. 

We had speakers that are negotiators working in The Hague that will negotiate with terrorists or a kind of the people that we would see in movies you know like blood diamonds. This woman Flo was the woman who went into those environments and spoke to those bosses’ kingpins whoever and was able to negotiate with them a peaceful you know end to whatever was going on there.

SM: How did that tie into empathy?

BK: So very interesting, so you know. She presented a few case studies to us. And it was very much around saying how do you have empathy for somebody who’s maybe done a lot of terrible things? 

How do you keep your humanity when you know you need you are judging or you are deciding on the future of this human being? 

How do you find forgiveness? What are the things that really are the difference between a killer vs a policeman versus you know a mother or father? 

So it was very much seeing these situations and these people from her perspective in her role. And really just getting again a different perspective. 

So how do you really have empathy for somebody else if you can’t put yourself in their shoes? So it was also very interesting for me to see what biases I have or what judgements I’m very quick to make based on information and not necessarily considering that you know, that only one view one perspective or one piece of a perspective when it comes to you know to anything not just the corporate world of designing solutions but just life in general?

SM: That was an extreme sort of case of empathy but I mean you position around like the judgmental side of it and and this person that she’s obviously getting information from being so bad so they’re painted in the bad and I mean that’s like extreme case of empathy it’s not your normal situation when you looking at that research for a corporate projects or something like that it’s very different.

BK: And I think I mean that’s the one extreme. And then the next day we almost went to the complete other side of the spectrum where one of the sessions was all about emojis and like where do they come from and how are they used in different cultures? And how does a thumbs-up in one culture mean one thing when in another culture you know that could actually be something quite rude or just it’s not an icon that they know all that they would use in communication. 

So again looking at it in a fun way, how do you have empathy or how do you communicate and gain understanding for another culture or another person if what you think is the commonly used format for communication is actually not for them? 

So just a little bit lighthearted and that’s for me is what makes design thinking such a robust methodology as well as a very accessible way of engaging with how to solve a problem and also go out into the world and get information and communicate. 

There’s no one right way. There’s no one template that can be used. It’s really gotta be so contextual. And whoever’s facilitating or driving that piece of work just has to be like one of the most open-minded people I think ever and just really pushing back and testing assumptions, testing out whether whatever the findings are is real is it the truth and whose truth is it? 

And I know I don’t think I would maybe have the levels of empathy that I have right now during Covid. If I hadn’t had that really extreme experience and exposure at the DT conference.

SM: Wow. That’s the stuff you’re gonna take away from that’s the stuff which is obviously gonna impact you quite hugely in the future hey I mean its massive. So now you are working in the corporate space. You mentioned that you are working remotely, your company’s completely remote tell us a little bit about you and what you are doing and how you looking at bringing design thinking into the organization?

BK: So I’m working for a tech company called Net Stock. And they are remote first. So no offices you know everybody work from your home or or whatever is convenient. And everything else is online. 

So amazing for me to work for a business that has global presence and has in that sense has not been affected by Covid and a lockdown or work-from-home situation and also all of our countries, all of our staff, you know, we barely even felt a speed bump as we transition to full-time working from home. 

Aside from the few colleagues that have got children who’s that I mean you know will be there all the time as well. But that’s very much for me, So it’s a business that’s been set up from the beginning as remote first. And so everything all the systems that we use, they all support each other in making you know their work experience as easy as possible. 

So my role very much is to look at the processes that are within the business and look at how we get consistency across the territories when we are all doing the same thing. And then also looking at you know how do we improve that whether it’s through automation or just you know applying other basic process improvement methodologies.

SM: And so just in terms of design thinking, how are you looking at bringing in, you were chatting earlier and you were saying that from a corporate space and where you came from a different it is where you are now and that sort of possibility that you have to adapt.

BK: So few things that have that I’ve started is that we have got a crowdsourcing idea factory channel on Slack. So as customers are requesting certain features of functions in our app or as anyone in the business thinks of an idea, they can pop it in their Slack channel. 

So that’s something that we did at Standard Bank that really looked at how do you harness the collective thinking and innovation of the group. And not every idea is going to be implemented, not every idea is necessarily viable but everybody has a voice and anyone can suggest an idea on any topic. 

So from the CEO, you or you know every single employee. The other thing that we do or when we could do face-to-face is get to call people together whether it could be in Joburg or Cape Town or even just to get together online. 

So that you still are able to tap into every team or get the feedback and the impact that you need. So remote first doesn’t necessarily mean working isolation as we just use different ways of doing it. And then from a design-thinking point of view, the methodology that I might have pushed a lot harder two years ago, I don’t have to do in this business. 

So because it’s such an open organization and you know everyone can contribute to every every functional department, there’s already a lot of transparency and openness. So you know suggestions around what tools to use or how to implement something or I have identified a gap and I think we could work on that and improve it for the customer. 

It’s looked at and evaluated and then you know if I can move forward quite quickly. So I wouldn’t say that I’m implementing design thinking as the full process in its purest form. 

I definitely feel like I’m pulling pieces as needed and rather bringing in the design-thinking mindset to the business in challenging them in like why do they do things certain ways and how have you know processes or you know when you ask somebody like why you’re doing that and their responses is because that’s the way we do it or the way we’ve always done it that’s generally you know the area too kind of push back and so ok but like what value does adding to the customer or what are we achieving by doing it that way? 

So the leadership at Net Stock have fully bought into the idea of design thinking mindset of we don’t want to say things like that and we want to challenge what we are doing. Anyone can challenge any step. And if there’s anything that you are doing that you feel is too repetitive, how could we automate it? 

If it’s something that there are few customers are complaining about, well let’s look at that and let’s improve immediately. We don’t have to wait for a forum, or have to wait for a software release that can only be done once a year. 

This is a very nimble business where those types of changes or any type of change that can improve the business in the way of delivering the service to the customers you know it’s taken seriously and it’s looked out and can be implemented in a very short space of time.

SM: That’s amazing. I had a conversation with the Head of Innovation at Nedbank and he was saying that we need to design thinking into Nedbank, they have adapted it and changed it to sort of suit their environment. 

Which of these is very similar to what you are doing here where you just start to use the pieces of it where you know it’s gonna have an advantage. 

I’m assuming that the people that you’re working with are also at that sort of level of maturity in terms of understanding how innovation happens and how great ideas can you know, can be brought to the table, whereas in the bigger corporate environments sometimes one of the challenging things is making sure that people understand that they have the space to be creative and be able to give ideas and test those ideas. 

They feel like they are boxed in and have to just do the job the way that they’ve been told to do it. 

It sounds like he had that openness that you spoke about is obviously a good environment for people to start taking the principles and mindsets of design thinking and apply it themselves.

BK: Definitely. One of the biggest challenges that I have that I’ve experienced and that I’ve seen in other clients that I have facilitated with is that there’s a very small team who are very excited and very motivated to implement the changes that will drive strategy forward. 

And there’s a leader somewhere who doesn’t quite agree and because there’s that lack of support it just makes everything so much more difficult to to get done to get the buy-in. 

And you kind of feel eventually that new units with the constant struggles. So there’s a lot of good talk but there’s not a lot of good action. And I’m really lucky that or fortunate that I’m working in a team and organization where everyone is going in the same direction. 

There’s not a lot of pressure to achieve something because you said you would even if it turns out that there’s not necessarily the right solution for the business anymore. And that’s quite refreshing. That’s you know if something’s not working you can kind of rather say look this isn’t working we have tested it out and I think we should go on a different tactic or use a different tool or try something else. 

And you know not having that fear that now your jobs at risk or you know if there’s just a lot of other corporate stuff that kind of comes with innovation when you don’t have that leadership support.

SM: Going back to your coaching and facilitating the work that you did in the last year, with the people that you were involved with coaching and facilitating, did you come across any sort of in the process of design thinking in any one specific area where you felt people really struggled with that and was there something you found  you could do to help them you know adopt the mindset and use it?

BK: So two things stand out for me and I wasn’t really able to help it the second thing. So the first thing that I noticed in all workshops across different sizes of business, different levels whether it was in a company or in a public workshop, is that the average person, I’m saying the average person but we are not good at asking the right questions. 

So what I observed is that and I mean the challenge with facilitating is that you have limited time. So you are always under time pressure. 

You know you’ve got to think of who your user is. Are we gonna go and do empathy interviews or we gonna gather data? So what are you going to ask his people? What is it that you’re trying to find out? And very often that’s where people would get stuck where they ask questions that lead the user down a certain path or that validate the assumptions or the idea or the solution you know that the participant already had. 

So that’s like first fun challenge as a facilitator or coach is you know to get the participants to gain an insight for them to see that actually not learning anything new or I’m not really empathizing or finding out more about the experience of the user cause I’ve asked very superficial or just not the right questions. 

So I spend more time on the questions, check it with them you know you kind of have a checklist of ok check all these things and at times it would be necessary to go into a second round of information-gathering or you know encourage them to go back and validate those some of the responses and the data again. So that I’ve seen as one of the big challenges. 

And then the second big challenge is when you get into the second diamond of design thinking when you get to prototyping and testing. And there were a few times where the group for the participants better really decided what the solution was going to be so even though you’re encouraging them to come up with lots of ideas you know the more the better. We are using divergent thinking, like let’s go wild and crazy.

At a certain point some people just can’t get over that hurdle of wild and crazy or they might be more than one solution. So very often they would go with what’s tried-and-tested or a tweak of a solution that been used previously and then there’d be a little bit surprised when the feedback from the use of is like all this doesn’t work for me or  this isn’t what you know this isn’t a solution that I can use. 

So back to the drawing board again and I think you know it’s easy to spot these pitfalls as a facilitator or a coach when you’ve been through it a few times you’ve probably made those mistakes yourself. 

But it’s really it is a bit heartbreaking when you see your participants just now falling in there again and no amount of guidance or gentle nudging get them to insight. 

So sometimes failure is the best way to let people experience it for themselves. and hope that the next time they do it they do something differently or they just hold back on their own opinion and judgment of what that solution should be. And then go with what the user is telling them the problem is.

SM: I think you have highlighted to like areas that we as Tenaka with our workshop have experienced. Particularly the first one which was that asking the questions. People I don’t know tend to do things in the easy and comfortable way. 

Whereas when you are digging deeper and asking more whys and things like that, then empathizing with the person that you are interviewing. 

You only realize afterwards that people are actually like  they want to give you that information. They wanted to tell you about the problem. But you, the researcher, sort of put up this barrier or this wall because you’re too scared to dig into the areas that the person you are talking to is uncomfortable with. Put it that way I don’t know I found that. 

BK: Definitely. I mean design-thinking unless you’re running a very focused project within an organization you know where you’ve got teams or you’ve got project plans and timelines. And you really know I can kind of go through it step-by-step. 

In a training environment or in the short workshop environment and getting it context. So you are always under time pressure. The people that you working with generally or not the most experienced or this is probably the first time they they hearing about design thinking and now you’re pushing everybody already out of their comfort zone by telling them they need to go to Institute strangers all their colleagues or leadership and go find out information and then you know they coming back to create a solution. 

It’s quite a lot of things that a person needs to kind of get to grips with in a very short space of time. So you know it’s not the perfect world or the perfect environment. But I think it doesn’t matter whether it’s a five-day boot camp or a 2-hour you know intro to design thinking sprint workshop, if the participants can leave with a little bit of exposure and experience of a different way of solving a problem or gathering data for prototyping and testing you know then for me the the job is done. 

It’s very much around I think again that mindset that there’s not going to be one perfect solution and they probably won’t ever be so. 

SM: So I mean in your opinion and recommendation, if somebody was to do a workshop and then go back to their office environments or their business or you know where they come from, knowing that they’re only done it for 5 days or very short period of time, what is your recommendation that you have for them to continue to obviously the experience this? I mean because from my side you have to be doing it in order to continue to learn from it.

BK: Definitely. I think regardless of role, regardless of team, if somebody wanted to take it back into the workplace exactly just go and do it, play experiments and use the plethora of resources that are available online. There are books, they are YouTube videos, they are warm ups, they are templates. I have rarely found nothing usable when I’ve searched for you know how do I help participants come up with better questions? What do I do if I’ve only got 30 minutes? How do I use the time effectively? 

So it’s very much also I think if you need to now go and facilitate a lot of workshops with a lot of people in your organization, it is to work out a good agenda for a framework for a workshop that can be scaled up or scaled down. That at least covers the basics. And I actually found that tool as well. It was design thinking in an hour. I found it all and tempered online. I think it came from IDEO. 

And I actually in the beginning when I wasn’t a very comfortable facilitator I used to do that exercise as the first step in the workshop every single workshop. And you know that it’s only over time you get more confidence and then you don’t need your tried-and-tested activity because you figured out how to to get to the desired outcome in another way. 

Definitely I agree with your practice. Do it, tell people that you are learning. I think if anything design thinking just showed me that you can be vulnerable and that people will still wanna work with you. And there’s always a fine line when you are being paid to facilitate and you go and tell the participants I don’t really know what I’m doing but we are going to test something that’s not really the way to go about it. But by telling your participants, or your clients or colleagues have done this a few times but I’d like to try something else, would you like to try with me? And then inviting them to participate. 

That I think it’s definitely a way to just allow other people to be vulnerable and make mistakes with you and not necessarily have to be the facilitator that’s got all the answers and that knows everything.

SM: So Bronwyn, at the moment you are full time with the organization that you worked with at the moment but I don’t know if you you wanting people to reach out to you if they have something that they they would like you to facilitate or coach with them, is that something that you would consider as an opportunity for yourself?

BK: So I’m not coaching and facilitating anymore. I am working full time. But I’m happy to field questions or direct if people are stuck and they don’t know where to go or what to do very happy to to offer advice or suggestions or connections 

SM: Which channels can they reach you on? 

BK: LinkedIn is the best. I think my details are there. They should be. They should be up to date, even just an email message. I’m happy to just set up a zoom or take it offline.

SM: Brilliant thanks man, I really really appreciate this time. I wish you luck.  I had a look at the project that you are working on. The software. And it’s amazing stuff. I think people should go check it out as well

BK: Its kickass

SM: It really is.

BK: It’s definitely helping a lot of our customers. I’m very happy to say we are in a space helping our customers at the moment.

SM: Brilliant. Thanks, I hope we will chat soon.

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