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EPISODE 31: How to Use Human-Centered Design When Consulting—with Ashley Pinakiewicz 

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to Episode 31 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I have a really interesting guest today, Ashley Pinakiewicz, who's from Looking Glass Strategy. And one of the reasons I was really interested in talking to her is that this is she has a consultancy that focuses on human-centered design. Sometimes that's also called design thinking. I'd heard a lot about these, but I didn't know what they were, how it gets used, what that would look like when you're working with clients. She breaks that all down for us.

It's interesting because she doesn't just work with products, which is where human-centered design has often been used, but she also works with organizations that are mission oriented, like nonprofits. She helps them get to where they want to get to using a very different approach than sort of traditional planning or strategic planning. So I was really interested in all of the great wisdom that she shared about how to incorporate this into consultancy. She also mixes in there how this works with branding, which is something she also does. I think you'll get a lot out of this. I certainly learned a lot, and it's making me think about how I do things and how I might switch things up to do them in a different way to ultimately get more for my clients. So let's get started.

Hi. I want to welcome my guest, Ashley Pinakiewicz. Ashley, thank you so much for joining the show.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Thank you for having me.

Deb Zahn: So you want to tell my listeners a little bit about what you do?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Sure. I have a company called Looking Glass Strategy. We bring human-centered design to mission-driven organizations. So that looks like quite a bit of facilitation, side-by-side innovation work with our clients as well as strategy, and most of our work is with schools and nonprofits.

Deb Zahn: And can you define human-centered design? I know also part of what you do is design thinking, are those the same thing or different?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I use them interchangeably. There are people who have very strong opinions. I do not. I like human-centered design because I think human is the operative word. Human-centered design is simply a way of solving really complex problems by starting with the needs of the humans that you're solving for. Most organizations solve problems starting with the business case or starting with technology and then kind of retrofitting that on to the humans that are either audience, their end user, their beneficiaries, what have you, in this process. It borrows from what I call a capital D Design, so things like architecture and engineering as far as process, but it really is all about putting the humans at the center of the work.

Deb Zahn: Great. And what does that process typically look like for you?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I'm going to describe it in a linear way, but really it's quite cyclical. It begins with empathizing with humans. So that is understanding, again, who we're serving, what their needs are, their motivations, their behaviors, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, by doing largely qualitative research work. And then, once we have sort of a deeper understanding of the humans involved, we also, of course, do research around the sort of context of the problem. So maybe digging a little bit into the organization that our client is a part of, digging into the sector, so on and so forth. And then we synthesize all that, which is a fancy way of saying we look for patterns. We look for tensions. Those sort of signify areas that are worth pursuing.

And then we start to brainstorm ideas for those areas, so if we see a bunch of themes, meaning a bunch of users and stakeholders have said, "This is a problem." We start to brainstorm solutions to that problem. And then we prototype. That's really taking the ideas that hold the most promise and building some sort of shareable, tangible activation of those ideas to get feedback on and revise, and revise, and revise. And then kind of launch out into the world in a pilot or experimentation form to see how it starts actively solving the problem in the way that we hope it does.

Deb Zahn: Great. Now, I've heard of this with products before, but how does that work when you're working with these mission-driven organizations? What types of things do you create that are shareable so that you can actually work it through the process?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah, great question. I mean, you can do this with anything. You can design-think a relationship. I think for the clients that we serve, sometimes that manifests as a strategy. So, right now, I'm working with an after-school organization on their strategic plan, but it's not your classic strategic plan. They're thinking about the next three or four years tactically, and they're also thinking about what could they be 25 years from now.

Deb Zahn: Wow.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah, it's a really, really exciting way to conceive of the work that they do. The human-centered design approach to that is that we have spent a lot of time talking to the people they identify as the critical humans to them. So the students they're serving, the after-school staff that they work most directly with, their own staff, their board, stakeholders, which include funders, sort of friends of the organization, partners, and understanding what they see as the potential for the future of this organization. And then, again, looking at the patterns across all those different constituencies as well. Again, looking at the tensions to see what sort of big questions do we need to ask, do we need to solve immediately, and what big questions can be more sort of guide posts as we continue to do the work and think about how we evolve over the next 25 years?

So the end products in that case is the strategy. You can prototype an organizational role. So you can think a little bit differently about the humans in your own organization and what they do. You can prototype and develop a curriculum. I've worked with schools on that before as well. But, really, if it's a potential solution to a thing, it can be human-centered lead designed.

Deb Zahn: That's great, and that's so different than traditional planning where you're going to build this beautiful strategy or beautiful vision, and then humans have to do it.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Right, and then you lack buy-in or you lack ownership or you miss some critical inflection, usually at the point of implementation. But without understanding what that looks like, a strategy cannot possibly come to life. And so this process insists that the people that are going to be activating that strategy are also owning and developing it, which I think is a better way to work. But I also think it makes for a more successful and more sustainable end result as well.

Deb Zahn: And are folks coming to you and saying, "Hey, we want to do this human-centered design process," or are they coming to you and saying, "I want to do some strategic planning," and then you have to introduce this, "Hey, this is not the way you are typically going to do it, but you're going to get more out of it." How does that usually work in terms of how you first engage with clients?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: It's a little bit of both. It's really interesting because my background was in the private sector, right? And in the private sector there's a little bit more fluency around this concept of design thinking or human-centered design. And so in that world, most often people ask for it directly, and I do have a small percentage of my practice that still rests in the corporate world. In mission-driven organizations, often what I get is, "Hey, we know we need to be more innovative," that's the other term. Or "We know we need to think like human-centered designers, but we have no idea what that means, and we have no idea how to build it in." Or they might say, a lot of nonprofits do have a very clear human-centered mission. So they might say, "We really know the humans that we want to serve, but we don't know how to serve them better, and we think this might help us."

For schools, I'm getting a lot of, "We know that we need to graduate and develop design thinkers, that our students need to have these sets of capacities and these sets of orientations. But we need help in figuring out how to do it right." And other times it is that second option that you mentioned, which is, "We need to develop this strategy. What approach would you take?" And then that's where you find a nice marriage. But I am getting a lot of sort of curious questions about how human-centered design can help people. That's kind of how a lot of the conversations initially begin.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. And I like the idea since I do a lot of strategic planning and I always loath to start with mission and vision without having talked to anybody because it's not that it's going to be wrong, but it means that there's going to likely be a slew of the humans that you care about that it will resonate for and a bunch that it won't. And you sort of miss that key piece. And do you have, when you're working with clients who...again, it's a different way that they've done it, even though if they've embraced that they want to try it, that you have to sort talk them into being willing to do a process that might be slower, might be more deliberate than something they're used to?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah, I think it's partially my responsibility to explain how this process feels different, and where it will feel uncomfortable. And the belief that I hold is that if people are uncomfortable within the process, that means that they're doing it right. I mean that they're allowing themselves to push beyond the sort of obvious answers and also try and test and embrace and learn a new process, which is by definition uncomfortable but with the purpose behind it. So I do mention that and I mentioned that it feels a little bit top heavy, right? You were mostly oriented towards starting by generating ideas and solutions. And this process asks that we not do that until we know that we have enough information about the humans that we serve. And that we've actually ensured that we're even asking the right question to solve in the first place. Because that's often what we have to sort of articulate a little bit differently.

So I try to be really clear about that part of it. And sometimes organizations are really, really apt to embrace that. And sometimes it's a little bit of a trickier transition, which, again, it's my responsibility to steward them through that. I think I have experienced clients who have come and said, "We really want this, and we know we have to do it, and we're so excited," and we talk about the steps of the process. And then when we start to engage in the work itself, it becomes clear that they're actually not ready culturally, they're not ready structurally. And so at that point, you have the option as the consultant to kind of insist on continuing the process in order to get them to their intended result, or you need to adapt a little bit and say, I can't quite like...can keep banging my head against the wall with them, but it's not helping them to insist and be precious about this thing if it's not what they need, or not what they're ready for.

So I think a lot of the sort of anti-design thinking rhetoric is about, how people are often far too precious about it. And in my mind, if a new organization takes one of those elements of the process I mentioned, or one mindset, or one tool, and that's all they take, that's still progress. So it doesn't matter to me so much in the grand scheme that they follow very deliberately the set path, as long as I'm helping them find ways to open the aperture of what's possible in terms of working differently, more collaboratively, and better, and really still myself being empathetic to them as humans in terms of what they're ready for.

Deb Zahn: That's right. I like that. And I imagine, I'm sort of just picturing, particularly on the East coast of the U.S., which is less process-oriented than the West coast. So my experience has been that it'd be tough for sort of type A's who typically want to get to solutions fast and then to ask them, "Hang on. Just hang on until you get more input to do it." I imagine that's gotta be tough for some organizations because that's a significant cultural change.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah, and it's how we're rewarded in corporate. I say corporate with a small C in this case. If you worked for an organization, you're rewarded generally for having answers and ideas, which is a great thing. But very often you're not rewarded for asking the really good questions, or raising your hand and saying, "I think we need to pause before we move forward." That's typically not a behavior that, both formally and informally, organizations incentivize or reward, and so it can be a little bit hard, I think. So a lot of the work actually that I do is around mindset development and around creating the conditions. If a client comes to me and says, "I want to work more collaboratively. I want to work in a way that better reflects the needs of the people I serve. I want to work more creatively." Then I need to help them create the conditions for that.

And a lot of that work is creating the space to think differently and behave differently and also understanding what kind of space they have for that. Some organizations are like, "We can totally take this project and redefine how we work," and we have all this wiggle room, and some of them are like, "I don't have permission to do that, but I can change my weekly meeting." And if that's all we can do, then that's still progress I think.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And give an example, if you can, of how you help with that cultural shift. What types of things do you do with clients to help them with that?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I'll give an example for the most sort of intensive version of my work. So I do a lot of facilitating, which I love, which is really a nice way of saying like, how do you compress a process down into like a one day workshop, or two day workshop? Which is, it's wild. You've got these humans in a room. I've been on the other side of PDs on many occasions, and I know how awful they can be. So I really take that to heart. And so when we're running people through those, usually we'll run through a whole cycle of human-centered design with what I call a dummy challenge. Just meaning a challenge that isn't necessarily integral to their business, but it's close enough that they don't feel too...that they're less focused on coming up with a perfect solution and more focused on learning what the process could feel like in solving a problem.

Deb Zahn: And maybe not such a high emotional charge behind what the outcome is.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yes, exactly. That attachment we're trying to avoid. That's exactly right. And so in those scenarios, there are a lot of tips and tricks that we use to sort of usher people's thinking. So we talk a lot about how convergent and divergent mindsets are very different. So convergent mindset is the mindset where you're converging on a set of decisions. You're narrowing, you're applying constraints in order to make decisions. And that's how we typically operate every day at work, right?

Deb Zahn: Right.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: But a divergent mindset is one where you are opening up the realm of possibilities, and you're just thinking about...you're generating ideas, generating solutions. And you're not yet thinking about the feasibility of those ideas, or the viability of those ideas. You're just thinking about like, what could be possible? And a lot of organizations conflate those two things and don't separate those modes of thinking. I work a lot with an organization that I love called The Design Gym, based in New York, and they talk about that as open and closed thinking, and they like to say it's like oil and water.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: And so we'll cue in, in those sessions, we're back to thinking divergently, which means you're going to start dropping the constraints that you work within every single day and come up with ideas. So I could say that and then ask people to brainstorm, but you can't just step out of the way that you're used to behaving every day for 35 years. So we'll do some physical warmups to get people in a different mindset. There's a great one called rock-paper-scissors tournament where you have everyone in the room pair up and they do a round of rock-paper-scissors and the winners of that tournament find winners of another, and a loser of each tournament becomes the winner's biggest fan. And so it becomes a sort of survivor mode.

It's great. Its loud is cheerful. It changes the energy and it also signifies to people that you have permission to behave differently when you're thinking divergently. You have permission to get a little lucky. You have permission to laugh. You have permission to expand what you think is possible in this sort of business setting, which you need to give people an order to ask them to generate a bunch of blue sky ideas.

Deb Zahn: I like that. It actually reminds me years and years and years ago, my brother worked in the technology industry and he was working for a firm that was converting the banking industry. Remember when banking was all paper?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I do. I do.

Deb Zahn: And this company very specifically tried to switch that mindset in the way that you're talking about. So they would bring everybody together and people would play these games. And I remember one in particular, and I've used it in consulting quite a bit, where you get into teams and you're supposed to imagine that you have a refrigerator. And as far as you know, when you close the refrigerator door, the light turns off and every team has to come up with no constraints as many ways as possible to prove that that light goes off. I mean, and people, I remember I was on one team where someone said, well you get those sunglasses that go dark when it turns light and you put those in there, or people said, "Replace one of the panels with glass and then you can see it."

There were so many bizarre and interesting ways that people came up with, and that would lead into, "OK, now that we're in a different mindset, now let's get to the business of being more open in our thinking." I love that.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: That's great. I haven't used that one before. I might have to borrow.

Deb Zahn: You can. I stole it. So you can too.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: It's all open source, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah. That's great. And what's your mindset that you have to have when you're a...so I'm a facilitator too. It's one of my favorite things to do, and I know that I have to have the right mindset to be able to do things like this. What's yours?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: It's a couple of things I think. I mean, one, I really try to practice what I preach, which starts with empathy. So I try to understand who's in the room. And I try to understand as much as I can about the business. So if I'm walking into a retail organization, I need to understand that it's a retail organization. Understand, what are they talking about, just from their website about their current priorities. I try to really adapt my language to reflect that because I'm also coming in, there's no reason that anyone in the room should believe me until I've demonstrated to them that I have value.

So I need to give them something valuable, and I also need to suggest to them that I do speak their language, and that I am thinking about this work in their context. And I'm lucky that I was a consultant before, so I have worked across a number of different sectors, but I really think carefully about how do I echo their own language back to them? How do I reference elements of their mission? And I try to do that and get that information from my clients as directly as possible. But there's a lot out there for most companies that you can use that for. I try to understand who's in the room individually. So is it one team that's there? And are they thinking about a particular set of priorities? Are there people from different parts of the organization? What's the hierarchy?

Because if there's a lot of hierarchy and it's an organization where people don't feel like they have permission in front of their bosses, and I have to kind of flatten that hierarchy in my time there. And so my mindset really is about, how do I make sure that this feels important and valuable and applicable for the people in the room? And so that's really critical. It's also, I'm a firm believer that the energy that you project is the energy that people take from you, and I happen to be very energetic, and I need to be authentic. And so for me that means whatever's going on in my life, I kind of put aside and I really feel like it's my responsibility to inject optimism and to inject a joy for learning this new process and to really also communicate that I do think this is valuable, and that I have a lot of passion for human-centered design, and I think that really does resonate.

And then the other part of it is that you have to be flexible. We make these really detailed run of show agendas that are minute by minute and consider everything and then they never ever go completely to plan, right?

Deb Zahn: And a good facilitator knows to switch it up. And that's the difference. I was facilitating a big group yesterday and I switched the entire agenda because we were on a path that was wonderful, and it was exactly what we needed. So I'm like, "All right, I'm switching up." And for a lot of folks who are new to facilitation, they treat the agenda as much more holy than it actually is.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yes, that's exactly right. You have to be. I like to call this responsive facilitation. Because, again, if you are being truly empathetic, you are reading energy in the room, you are making sure that the activities are still creating value. And sometimes you get some groups that really need a lot of discussion time, and so you have to give them a space to be heard, and that can be really important. And then you have some groups where you're allocated discussion time is far longer than it needs to be. And so then you have to kind of respond and adapt as you go. But I completely agree. If you're not listening and watching and observing and asking, and responding, then you're probably missing a lot of parts of that. That data that could be far more valuable to the people in the room.

Deb Zahn: And it sounds like you're also modeling human-centered design because you have the empathy piece up front.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah, and I try to peel back the curtain. I'm really clear with folks I'm facilitating that that's what I'm doing. If I switch something up, like you just described yesterday, I'll often say, "Hey, I'm noticing this. I heard this. It feels to me like a better use of your time is this. How do you feel about that?" Or I give them options, or I say, "Hey, we're going to do an activity that's meant to kind of kick you in a divergent thinking. Here's why I think this one is good for you guys." And then I launch into it. So I do try to create a little bit of fourth wall breakage if you will, although the wall shouldn't be there, but…

Deb Zahn: But often there is.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: But often there is, exactly. And I think that also for a lot of these folks, they're trying to learn a new way of working. But then they're going to be responsible for activating and working in that way, and then also potentially asking their colleagues to do that. So the more I can tell them and share some of the specific strategies I'm using, I think the more helpful it is for them too.
 

Deb Zahn: That's great. And I imagine keeping things fun too?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yes. Why do we assume that if you are good at your job, you have to be serious? I fight against that expectation every day.

Deb Zahn: I don't think I would be good at my job if I were serious.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I agree. I was like, so often I'm working with folks where they're passionate about what they do to some degree, but their daily life is about executing, and executing always on what feels like borrowed time, and often executing, even if you're talking to a nonprofit, for a lot of people, their day to day work is a little bit removed from the humans. And so they often crave that sort of inspiration and excitement at work. And I find that bringing the humans back into the work and helping people, or exposing people to different ways of understanding it as humans, actually tends to kind of light that fire a little bit for folks when they're kind of bogged down in just the daily machinations of keeping an organization alive.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Because then they get to remember why they got into it in the first place.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: That's beautiful. I love that. So it sounds like when you're working with consultants, you use human-centered design in how you apply your craft. What about as you're building your business? How do you apply it when you're seeking clients and trying to see what your business is going to be now and in the future?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: That's always the trick, right? It's like the old adage about the shoemaker who's got shoes that are falling apart, whatever that story might be. Really, a lot of it comes to just an iteration. Well, one of the elements of human-centered design is that your first idea is not your best idea and your first version of the idea is not the best version. And so you should keep iterating and getting feedback and iterating and getting feedback.

So every time I create a facilitated experience, I slot in an experiment of some kind, be it big or small. And it keeps me on my toes. It keeps me interested, but it also helps me test new ideas in a way. Comedians have a similar process, right? Work for the average comedian, I think it's something, like only 20% of their set is new jokes. They have the 80% that they know lands, that they've cultivated over time and they try that sort of subset of new jokes and they slowly sort of thread them in to create eventually what might become an entirely new set. But they don't usually go from zero to a hundred unless they're Seinfeld. But for me, I try to do the same thing. I'm like, what elements of this do I want to tweak and play with?

And I try to focus on areas that have been the least successful. So one of the things that I was thinking about last year a lot was, how do I reinvent my process of post project? What does that look like, because-

Deb Zahn: Oh, good.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: And I'm still working on it. But I think very often you have this sort of, as a consultant, there's this perception that you kind of parachute in and everything's hunky-dory as you're working and then you leave, right? And then reality seeps back in and, how do I keep this work alive?

Deb Zahn: That's right. And there was another damn suit that came in and told us what to do.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah. Or like it's that training wheels come off and there's that paralysis of, "I can't do this on my own," which I don't think is ever great. If I've done my work, I'm building up your capacity to do this for yourself. But I do think that there are structures of support, and they should look different from company to company. But I've been playing a little bit with what that looks like. And then also things like language, I'm always iterating my language. I talk to a lot of different kinds of audiences, and sometimes they'll tell me what doesn't resonate.

Deb Zahn: They're so kind.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: And sometimes I have to pick up on it. Oh yeah. It's funny because when I went from working as a private sector consultant to becoming a classroom teacher. I remember sitting with one of my co-teachers one day and talking about something, and she looked at me and said, "I have no idea what you just said." And I was like, "Thank you for your feedback." And I realized that all this jargon had seeped in. And so I'm cognizant and I'm really passionate about language as a concept, but I'm really cognizant that it can be alienating or it can be really inclusive. And it could be helpful, or it can be isolating. And so that's something I'm always, always playing with.

Deb Zahn: And I like the idea of, "but make deliberate choices." Because sometimes insider language makes people feel like they're part of something, and that can be a beautiful thing. And then other times it's alienating. So being conscious and curious about when's the right application of that I think is helpful. I have personally vowed to never use the term level set, ever. I caught myself saying it the other day. I'm like, "Oh, damn it. Why did I say that?"

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Oh, that's great.

Deb Zahn: But, yeah, I remember being in front of a client and I said, "Yeah, we're just going to create a punch list for it." And they're like, "Well that's what my contractor says." I say, "Yeah. No, that's where I got it from." So it's what everybody in this room knows what it is, so we're good enough. I don't need consultant speak to say it.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: But yeah, this is beautiful. And in terms of what you do afterwards also. So afterwards is so that people feel like, "Yes, this is good and this is moving forward." But also, as I'm sure you well know, getting clients that you are able to work with over time helps them because you're able to continually add more value to them, particularly as you get to know them better. But it also helps you from a business perspective because that's less time you have to spend going out and getting new clients. So how do you approach that? Again, from an empathy-for-humans kind of way?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: The new business park?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I actually really love business development, and I consider myself very lucky because that's usually the consultant's most dreaded part of the process. I am very fortunate that my first few roles were actually business development roles. So I always think about how fortunate I was because that was such good training for this. I mean I think for me, it's about relationship development. And I'm not selling a product. I am selling a service. I'm selling a collaboration. And so it doesn't serve me to approach new businesses in sort of a volume-based way that if you were selling a product you would. That doesn't help anybody.

And my sales cycle is usually fairly long, with a few exceptions. So sometimes I contract directly with my clients. So a school might hire me directly to do a strategy project or a facilitated experience or a curriculum design or what have you. Sometimes I contract through larger design firms that pull me into projects on a discrete basis. So they might say we've known you for...at this point, I have a few partners like that, that I've known for a few years that...and I speak, their branded language and they can kind of pull me in without too much fuss, and then based on what he told me in to work with the same clients over and over again.

So that's great, right? For someone who is really working independently, they're doing all the new business work and I'm just making sure that I'm doing enough high-quality work, they keep calling me. And then as far as approaching new business on the sort of direct contract side, I always tell the story how the biggest project I ever sold, and this was back when I was working for a consulting organization. The biggest project that company had ever sold was someone I had met two years prior when I was an admin at a different company, right. I was an admin, and her...I was helping to organize this experience for our clients alongside the partner that I was shadowing essentially, and I struck up a conversation with her and asked her about the business, and really tried to make sure that experience feel valuable for her and for her team.

And she remembered that and called me a few years later and said, "I have this massive project," and that was how it worked. And so I anticipate a long conversion time but I'm OK with that, because really what I'm trying to do is find interesting people that are curious and that are excited and want to work differently. Explain to them what I do, connect them with other people that might be helpful and just know that when the time is right, if it makes sense, they'll see that I have something to offer them.

And so I think that's really important because it's really authentic. I know what to say no to and the kinds of projects that aren't helpful for people and where I can also refer them to somebody else that I trust that is better able to serve them and give them what they need.

Deb Zahn: That's the relationship as primary approach to business development is always prioritize that relationship.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah. Again, and also, I prefer to work that way anyway. I mean, it feels more natural to me, but what I'm really doing is I am building these connections where I really am trying to get a deeper understanding of, what problem are you trying to solve? What are you trying to change about your work and organization, or the organization? And I really am authentically curious about that, and then I'm able to really see where that value connection might exist. Now the other part that I have to do is then be able to articulate, "So here's how what I do will help you solve that problem."

And that's where the rubber meets the road. And I also like that process because I don't...I have a couple of sort of standard packages, but for the most part, these are customized projects that are really designed to respond directly to this particular person in this particular company.

Deb Zahn: Which is more fun anyway.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Yeah, I think so, and as long as you know...the foundation is always the same, right? So I don't spend two days scoping for every new project because I have a foundation that I based it on. But I am really thinking about, what are the elements I need to shift in response to this person's needs? And that's far more fun. And then that also means that whatever I propose as a delivery really does feel bespoke. It really does feel like I've listened. It really does feel like it gets to whatever they've determined their sort of outcomes, desired outcomes, to be.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. The other thing that I also know you do is branding, which I actually like. So the human-centered design and then branding, which is how you want people to think, feel, and experience you. How do you blend those two together?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: So the branding piece, it's really the strategic part of the brand, right? So I always say to people, "I recognize great graphic design and I cannot produce it." 

Deb Zahn: Exactly.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Which is an interesting place to be. I've worked with amazing designers my whole career. And so I'm very well aware of where my capabilities stop and theirs begin. So brand strategy for me is exactly what you said. It's, how do I want people to engage with the brand? It's really thinking about, you can just start with knowing your audience. So my in-house experience was I worked at Tough Mudder, which is the mud run company. I don't know if you're familiar with?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Obstacle, totally wild.

Deb Zahn: Super cool.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: So cool. It was a really experiential brand. I really wanted to go and help somewhere where I thought that the brand itself was really exciting and mission accomplished.

And the brand strategy work there was, they had a really, really clear visual brand. There were these orange headbands that you get when you complete that are really great sort of badges that you can replicate digitally, but are this really great visual of the brand. It's a mud run. So the visual assets are bound, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: But what we really were thinking about there was, well, who is the audience and why are they coming back? Why are they maybe not coming back, and how do we speak to them in a way that makes sense? And then how do we think about those different segments? So we had people that were coming to the runs, that were running two events back to back and then would come every weekend and they ran 30 to 40 a year.

So that's a different kind of a user than someone like me who, quote, "Ran one," which is to say I completed one, and lived to tell the tale and said, "I'm good." Right? We're two totally different users with very different set of needs and we want to be spoken to differently. And so brand strategy is about understanding, who is your audience and how do you tweak those messages? What do you dial up, what do you dial down? That's still sort of rooted in your core values and these sort of key messaging pillars. But then how do you adapt and adjust those based on the folks that you're talking to? There are a lot more stewards of your brand than you typically realize. So for us, of course it was the people that were running the website and our social media and our ads and our sales.

But the people that run the events are also brand ambassadors for us. The Facebook groups that we didn't run, but that people formed, those are ambassadors. The people that worked for Tough Mudder, that were building and running the events on site, of course, are ambassadors. The local people that we hired to build who are onsite but weren't full-time hires were ambassadors. So you need to also think about, what are all those touch points in all those people that are...and should be advocates for your brand? And how do you enable them with the right set of messages so that when they do encounter other people, they are sort of disseminating that strategy that was building toward what you want your brand to be?

This is an interesting thing about nonprofits, because they have a mission by definition. But what happens with missions is that if you don't actively cultivate that mission and if you don't actively and intentionally craft messages and ensure that people are articulating your vision the way you want them to, they will adapt it and say it differently.

And schools are the same way. I worked with a school that wanted to do an audit of its core values because they had four very clear core values. But when I did interviews with families and students and staff and board members, they all articulated those values differently because the school just had...it had been too long since they had said like, "What do each of these words actually mean to us as an educational institution?" And so that was the opportunity there. So I think that brand strategy, again, is knowing your audience. But then it's also saying, "What are the things that we want people to believe about us? Where do they meet up with the needs that our audience has? And then how do we create and craft the right messages to make sure that what we're offering is really resonating with them in the way we want it to."

Deb Zahn: And if you're a consultant, the same applies for any consultant as you also want to be crisp and clear about what those things are. You want to equip to your brand ambassadors. So people I work with on projects, clients, funders, they're all my brand ambassadors and if I don't equip them with the right one experience, the right feeling, the right thoughts about me, the right language, then I'm just sort of leaving it to chance.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Exactly. And you don't want to do that because people will decide what you are, and if you're lucky it aligns with what you want to be, but most of the time it's something a little different.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, exactly. Because I have a huge vegetable garden, I often give clients or people in my circles vegetables. I don't want to be known as the, "She's got great kale." I do have great kale. I want to be known as, "And she brings it and does something valuable." That's much better. So let me ask you one last question. I ask everybody this because I think looking for deliberate ways that we create more balance in our lives so that we have the life that we truly want in consulting as part of that is so important to me. So how do you find and bring and create balance to your life?

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I would say it's a work in progress.

Deb Zahn: Of course.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Just going to say if someone has the definitive answer, please send them my way. This is the ultimate question because in some ways, what I really value is the flexibility that this work offers me. I can take a day off when I need to for whatever reason. When I was teaching, you don't choose the specific days you get off, and I found that really hard. At the same time, when you take a day off, no one pays you, and so it's really...and it's also very hard to sort of turn your brain off from this work because you could always be doing more. So for me, I constantly am asking this question and I ask it of myself, I ask it of my partner, I ask it of my network, of what can I do to sort of create that space?

So I think there's sort of two avenues that I pursue. One is, how do I do the work that's meaningful to me in a way that's valuable for my clients? And how do I make sure that I'm setting those structures up in the right way? Meaning things like, am I charging enough? And I have a friend who runs an events company named Lauren Caselli Events. She does a lot of really great free online trainings around things like raising your rates and stuff like that. Especially as a woman, right? So we tend to undercharge by quite a bit.

Deb Zahn: And if you undercharge, you overwork. Those kind of go together.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Exactly. And look, most of the time, if you're working for yourself, you're already going over your scope anyway because you're actively seeking to deliver on the work that you care about. So that's one thing, right? Does my pricing structure, does my scoping structure, do those things actually map to the amount of time I'm spending, the amount of value that I'm providing? And usually the answer is, "Almost, but not quite." And I'm about to raise my rates for 2020, and so thinking about things like that.

Deb Zahn: You heard it here first folks. The rates are going up.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Rates are going up, value's going up too. But I think that's really important. And so that's one piece. And the other thing is what to say no to. And I'm still learning. That's personally very hard for me because I do get excited about pretty much every opportunity that comes my way, and I've said no to...I mean I've said yes to a couple of things that I should have said no to, and in retrospect, I can see why, and I tried to now activate that going forward.

And then the other piece is learning from yourself what you need to create quiet in center in space. So for me that's meditation. That's exercise. That's getting out in nature. I'm an avid, passionate reader, so that's creating time to read. And it's hard to fight the voice that says, "Well, you could be reading an article about X, Y or Z versus reading this novel." But they have to feed my soul too. I think that's really important, and actually I'm going to add a third avenue, which is creating a community. So this work can be isolating. I have teams from project to project, but day to day I'm a team of one, and so I've worked really hard to create communities and I'm very lucky to have a design mastermind group that's all women in design that I meet with regularly who are phenomenal. They're brilliant, they're thoughtful.

We meet as whole people. So we talk about work stuff and they give really great advice and tools and resources, but then we also talk about how to keep ourselves balanced and happy and not spend. That's been meaningful. There's an IDEA alumni group I'm a part of. There is a design for social innovation group. So I've really sought out and participated in these other communities to ensure that I have other voices to drown out my own and just to provide perspective and to create a sense of belonging to counteract the sort of individual aspect of this chosen work.

Deb Zahn: Even for introverts. I actually just found my group and it's-

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Amazing.

Deb Zahn: It's five of us. Four of us are introverts. We got one extrovert just to keep things fresh. And I didn't think I needed it until I had it, and then I thought, "Oh my God, this is life changing." Because I get strategies. I get ideas. I get support. I get all the things that you don't get when you're in your pajamas in front of your computer.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Exactly. That's great. I love that. However, they can look like a lot of different things, but to me those are really invaluable, and they're so easily accessible now because of digital technology. So I mean I do find a lot of gratification in sort of face to face interactions, but when you travel a lot, and when you're in sort of client-facing business, it's nice to know that there are other ways to access those communities if they're not in your same geography.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. Well, Ashley, thank you so much for joining us on their show. You gave me so much to work with. 

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Thank you. Likewise.

Deb Zahn: I'm rethinking. I did this once when I would talk to another client, where I redid how I did strategic planning based on what I heard, and you gave me so much to chew on. I think I'm going to do it again and then probably again in the future, which is what keeps things interesting.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: I'm going to use that refrigerator exercise, so thank you for that. 

Deb Zahn: You're very welcome. Well, thank you so much.

Ashley Pinakiewicz: Thank you Deb. Have a great day.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. 

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