Overcoming an organisation’s immune system through design

Published on
November 16, 2019
A barbed wired fence deterring intruders


  • A national electricity supplier wanted to develop an innovative mobile app for its customers.
  • This required a new way of working across departments, which the organisation was unused to.
  • PebbleRoad overcame the organisation’s strong immune system by adopting a strong customer-centric mindset and engaging and aligning the different departments to join forces.

The Challenge

A national electricity supplier with more than 100 years of history elevated their purpose and positioning from “keeping the lights on” to “leading the nation to a sustainable and smart energy future”. One of the first digital products to herald the company’s new strategy was a smart energy mobile app that used hourly data from new smart energy meters installed at residential and commercial properties.

The design of the new app meant that we had to bring together the different departments that were traditionally used to working in silos. We also had to deal with conflicting norms, standards and belief systems to ensure that everyone was aligned and contributed to meeting the business objectives.

They now see the benefits in adopting a customer-centric approach, in challenging the status quo where necessary, in working together across departments and in celebrating quick wins.

The Approach

We used the common double-diamond design framework. However, we modified the stages to Discover and Frame in the first diamond (instead of Discover and Define) to Prototype and Build in the second diamond (instead of Develop and Deliver) to emphasise the Framing and Prototyping. We knew as this was a new app, we had to get the first diamond right. However, the double-diamond framework does not prepare one to understand and navigate an organisation’s immune system.

An organisation’s immune system protects the working culture of an organisation. Having a strong immune system is a good thing—it protects against external intervention and change and it is exactly what you would want if your organisation is mature, stable and has a guaranteed commanding position in the market (does such a thing exist these days?). However, a strong immune system becomes a barrier if your organisation is desperate for innovation and change.

A strong immune system becomes a barrier if your organisation is desperate for innovation and change.

In this project, we experienced the full wrath of the immune system in the first few weeks. People saw us as troublemakers; as outsiders who “did not get it”. But a month later, everything changed for the better. Here’s how we managed to achieve this rapid turnaround:

  • Strong leader: We got lucky. We found a strong leader and supporter. She had the experience and background to command respect and used it to cover and clear the job we were tasked to perform. “I support their approach. It is something we have to do to make progress and deliver results.”
  • Customer-centric lens: We positioned ourselves as the champions for the customer. We use this customer-centric lens to address the fears and uncertainties and issues that would otherwise derail the project. “We used this feature before. Now, let’s look at it from the residential customer’s point of view. How would they benefit from this?”
  • Understand-first approach: After getting top-level support, we were steadfast in our allegiance to the customer and boldly questioned current practices, decisions, measurements and inactions. “How does this metric inform the customer journey? Why does this low performing feature still exist?” It was our understand-first rather than an advice-first approach that won the team over.
  • Rapid design: We quickly realised a problem: as we were introducing new ideas and concepts, the team was not able to join the dots or understand the overall flow. We had to show them high-fidelity flows and interfaces to bring these new ideas to life. Thankfully we managed to do this rapidly as we used a design system to speed up layouts, modules and UI changes.
  • Co-teaming: Working collaboratively with both the client’s team and the app development team has been our signature engagement approach. For this client, we continuously engaged three client team members in explorations, discussions, workshops and one-on-one guidance sessions. This helped them grow their understanding of the design process and coach them on some hard decisions they had to make. We ensured that the development team were invited and consulted in every discussion we had so that we minimise any gaps in the eventual handover.

The Outcome

We managed to design a complex app on schedule and helped the development team with a full design system that they could build upon, rather than starting from scratch.

More than the product, the engagement was a win in terms of a mindset shift for the team and stakeholders. They now see the benefits in adopting a customer-centric approach, in challenging the status quo where necessary, in working together across departments and in celebrating quick wins. More than just designing an app, this project was successful in honouring the past and present of the company and allowing its immune system to welcome and embrace change.

Maish Nichani, co-founder, PebbleRoad
Maish Nichani

I enjoy helping organisations achieve their potential in an ever-changing and complex world. I lead product and transformation conversations.

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