How to Work Yourself Out of a Job

Written by Parker Gates
Posted April 7, 2016

So I’m on a flight leaving Dallas, where I just attended the 4th annual graduation of a leadership academy that stoke.d helped create, and has been coaching or facilitating for the past few years. It’s one of the more gratifying parts of my work; watching several teams that have been working on yearlong healthcare projects using design thinking wrap up their efforts and have the opportunity to present to senior leadership everything they’ve learned, and the solutions they’ve come up with as teams.

This may even be more rewarding as this is healthcare, and it has been my own personal experience that healthcare is an industry not quick to try out new behaviors.

When we got started with the 40+ person cohort back in March and began to introduce design thinking as the methodology they would use on their project, they looked at us like we were crazy people. Then, as we sent them out on their first empathy intercepts, I’m sure they were really starting to question our methods.

“What do you mean we’re going to go out and talk to real people about their actual experiences?”

The next uncomfortable shift in behavior happened as they learned how to ideate as a team and build on the ideas of their peers. But as the year progressed they began to fall in love with design thinking. They started to realize the value of understanding the users experience first-hand, of ideating in teams, or creating and testing low fidelity prototypes.

Their projects started to evolve in ways they couldn’t predict, their eyes lit up…they got it. Over the years we were amazed by the potential of final projects to disrupt healthcare if pursued. Being part of developing a truly innovative idea is something that will forever alter them. The way they work and treat others. The way they see problems and how to solve them. Regardless of whether or not their idea is implemented, they have become human-centered designers and can carry those skills and behaviors wherever life takes them.

It’s something they can be proud of. A confidence they now possess.

Something I’m pretty proud of is that this is a client that we fired. Well, technically we didn’t fire the client, but we did remove ourselves from this project.

We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to be on the hook for this academy long term. If you know us, then you know that it’s our mission to build the internal capacity of organizations we work with so they don’t need us for very long, at least not for the same initiative. And this was a big success for us. Each year this leadership program has run, stoke.d has, by design, had less and less to do with it.

In the beginning, we were creating all the design content and facilitating everything from quarterly project sessions and design reviews to just spending a time with the coaches that we trained as graduates the year before.

This next year, we’ll help get the latest round of graduates up to coaching speed but we’ll never meet the teams or see the projects from start to finish. Spending our time and energy to create the next vanguard of design thinkers and design leaders in this organization has been key to our ability to walk away, and to their capacity to stand on their own two feet.

These coaches and teams are fully self-sufficient now. They don’t need us.

This is bittersweet and incredibly gratifying. But it’s also enjoyable to watch an organization at large start to practice design thinking without outside assistance. And for a large company that’s used to doing things the old way, that’s a huge step!

So, here’s to pride in your work.

Accomplishing long term goals.

And removing yourself from projects as a means of being of service to your client.

  • Congratulations! This kind of enduring change to culture/practice is rare. Too often I see initiatives fold and energy levels fall once the initial champions move on. It sounds like you’ve approached this capacity building/culture change in a really sustainable way – being there long enough to ensure the energy doesn’t fall off at the first hurdle, but not so long that the organisation is dependent on you (and possibly you on it)! Would love to read more about your approach as I think there are some great lessons about change management that could be applied more broadly.