As our efforts to consider how current design firms might transition to new areas for design, our team talked about designing design teams as a possible strategy to advance the influence and understanding of design. The idea is that as a design consulting firm, we would create design teams within organizations that could sustain themselves and then create other design teams within the organization if or as needed.

But obviously, it would be difficult for a current design firm to make this transition. We discussed initially inviting people to work with us during a design engagement, to be part of a design team for a real project to gain design experience and learn methods and tools. These people would then go back to their organizations with their new appreciation of design as advocates for design and for our firm. With word-of-mouth marketing, we would seek to shift the business from taking individuals into our firm to embedding ourselves into client organizations while we help build internal design teams. This is similar to what IDEO did for SAP a few years ago when they created the Design Services Team.

Just a few days ago, Henning Fischer of Adaptive Path interviewed Peter Coughlan, Partner and Transformation Practice Lead at IDEO. The following snippet of conversation addresses a potential problem are nascent plan would face.

Fischer: The challenge we are most often faced with happens when the engagement ends and the client team struggles. How do we avoid situations like that?

Coughlan: Well, the obvious answer to that is to anticipate the client team struggles, and design the program in anticipation of that. We started down this path by offering clients some “telephone consulting” or follow-up visits to hold their feet to the fire — that’s evolved into a more formal process in which we help them prototype the infrastructure they’ll need to implement while we’re still actively engaged. We’re also exploring new models including “externships” (where an IDEO person goes to live with a client to keep things moving along), as well IDEO alumni who can embed themselves in our client organizations after we’ve completed our programs.

I view this as design mentoring. Naturally, client teams or even new design teams, as my team is considering, will not have the expertise and experience of design firms whose mission is to be leaders in the field. But as Coughlan points out in the interview, solutions are more likely to be implemented if developed by the client and not the design firm. The role of the design firm thus becomes to show clients the way rather than to do the work.

Coughlan: I would say that the most important shift in the design profession will be for designers to get comfortable with the notion that it’s more important for a client to have a great idea than for the designer to have the idea. If the client organization has played a role in coming up with the idea, it’s way more likely to see the light of day.

Designing design teams could be an extension to this shift.