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Episode 133: A Play-by-Play of Using Human-Centered Design as a Facilitator—with Prina Shah

Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So this is a super special episode because we're going to talk about human-centered design. How to apply it when you're working with a client and how to talk them into actually hiring you to do it. But instead of just talking about it in theory I brought on someone who does this all the time, Prina Shah. She's a coach, she's a consultant, she's an amazing trainer, and she's going to walk us through step by step exactly how she used this in one particular instance.

Starting with the first conversation with the prospective client and how she got them to say yes and understand why this was a great approach all the way through what she did before and during this session with this client to help them solve a problem that they were really trying to get to the bottom of and then what happens afterwards. So we're going to move from theory to actual practice so you can get a really good juicy deep feel of how this actually works. So can't wait for you to hear this, let's get started. I want to welcome my guest today Prina Shah, Prina welcome to the show.

Prina Shah: Deb, thank you so much. It's great to be here today.

Deb Zahn: Well, let's dive right in. Tell my listeners what you do.

Prina Shah: I am a global coach, consultant, trainer and keynote speaker. And the specialty areas that I focus on are developing leaders, developing teams and optimizing organizational cultures. So there's a lot there under that umbrella and I'm looking forward to expanding the conversation to explain what I do. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: That's fabulous and obviously very relevant to consultants since all of those things matter any time you do pretty much any engagement of any kind. And we're going to dive into something I know you talk about and I heard you talk about it and I was so impressed. I'm like, ah, I got to have her on the show. We're going to talk about human-centered design particularly as it relates to facilitating when you're working with a client. So let's start off, define human-centered design for the folks who don't know. What is that?

Prina Shah: Human-centered design is exactly what it is as the title says. So it's designing with the end-user in mind from the get-go. So, Deb, often we have, especially in the corporate world, the tendency to launch straight into a solution or straight into, oh, this is what's wrong therefore this is what we need to fix. So for my clients, it's always interesting when I get a query that comes to me and one recent client, and we're going to expand on this conversation as well, came to me with an issue that they had in relation to their workforce, which I'll explain shortly. And then I chose to take a human-centered approach in facilitating a workshop for them and their key leaders to address this key problem that they've proposed to me, Deb.

So it's really keeping the individual in mind. So if I can give an example is, let's say that we're designing toilets for a little village in Africa. Me as a Western person will come in and build a toilet there because I feel that I know best. I don't know best, ideally what I should do is have that human-centered design approach whereby ideally if I could go and live there and look at how people use the village, what nighttime is like, what daytime is like and then appropriately build a toilet wherever, for example, that's the way.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And again, so much of what consultants do lives or dies by how it actually gets used at the end…

Prina Shah: 100%.

Deb Zahn: ...And yet we ignore the human part of it and we ignore the end-user part I think way, way too often. And before we get into the specific example, can you contrast a little bit that version versus when you might use something else in your toolbox, when you might use something that isn't a human-centered design approach?

Prina Shah: Absolutely. OK. So contrast. So the reason I went with this as a human-centered design approach is because I wanted to have a blank slate. And this is a brand new client who had an issue with their workforce that I wasn't sure about. So let's have that blank slate and let's work with it. When I don't use a human-centered approach is usually when I have more experience in certain areas, let's say culture change because I've got the methodology and the background of doing things differently and years of experience. I know often, OK, this is the issue, this is how we can address it, but that's based on years of experience, Deb, so that's the other thing.

Deb Zahn: So the human piece has already been established, understood. That's really helpful to understand sort of when to choose that. So in the example that you have, you decided to use the human-centered approach. Talk a little bit about how that went including how you helped the client understand that this was a good idea for them to do it in the first place.

Prina Shah: Oh, that was a really interesting one. So pitching to the client first off. Absolutely. So this is the first time that I have ever co-delivered a session so I co-delivered it with another amazing coach, Suzanne is her name. And the client went to Suzanne with their issue which was an issue in relation to attracting and retaining the subcontractors who were drivers so it's a transport logistics company. We're in a lockdown, our borders are closed within Western Australia, where I am, therefore talent is really difficult to attract and people can't move to our state of Western Australia therefore we've got to look at the pool that we are in. So this is the client's issue that they posed to us.

Now, Deb, I've heard you talk in a podcast before about the fact that you do a heap of research before you go to apply to understand their industry, this and that. I chose not to do anything. I chose to do completely the opposite and just go in blank and pitch to them. I want to go in blank with the reason of applying human-centered design so that I have no preconceived notions, no judgments and no ideas so that we can get the best out of your leaders and their creativity and their ideas. Because people have so many ideas and they already were so excited about what they could potentially do. But I thought, OK, I need to tap into that. And as a facilitator sometimes we can have all of the knowledge and that's the upper hand that we have, or we can go in blank, completely blind, and that's also upper hand as long as we have the right tools and systems to facilitate.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Well, I love how you're talking about it because it's really about making a deliberate choice. And if you're going in where essentially you have a blank slate and you know how to work with a blank slate, I think that can actually be a fantastic way to do that because you sort of have the innocence of, as you said, being without any preconceived notions. I just think that's great. So you went in with a blank slate and they went to Suzanne to have this conversation. Did you have to convince them that the human-centered design approach was the right approach or were they looking for that?

Prina Shah: They were looking for something different. They didn't know what until I shared the process and, yeah, the methodology with them. So there were two CEOs. So it's a small business, family-owned. And as a family-owned businesses, the business is super close to their heart. So it's even more of a big decision to say yes to myself and Suzanne. So the other thing I asked both of the CEOs, both of the heads of the organization, is if they would be participants within the workshop.

So everyone is on an equal level because often when it comes to a small business as well people are very influenced by their bosses and yet we'll just say what they say and that's one thing we could not have in this workshop. So we had all of those agreements, I showed them the kind of facilitation methodology that I'd used to make them feel comfortable. I also added I'd like to address their current culture in relation to the drivers that they have to look at where they are right now so that I can plan for the future and where they need to be to look at the ups or issues and the good stuff also. So yeah, that's how we came to the workshop in the end.

Deb Zahn: That's perfect. And then how did you put together what you thought was going to be the right workshop based on what you heard from them and what those agreements were?

Prina Shah: Right. So with human-centered design, for people who don't know, there's so much free material out there open source so you can just Google human-centered design. There's the king, the college, the queen of human-centered design, IDEO, IDEO, I don't know how you pronounce it.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, IDEO. Exactly. They have actually a documentary if anybody wants to see that.

Prina Shah: That's it, right? I haven't seen it but I need to. But on IDEO's website were just open source, there's so much material out there in the form of templates and all sorts so I thought all right. I wanted the group to start big with their thinking crazy big thinking and then I wanted to filter down to, let's be realistic now. And then let's have some test cards which are accountability cards now of what we're going to do and how we're going to measure it when we go back into the workplace. Because as you said earlier, Deb, you can run a facilitation session, you can run a workshop, but then at the end of it they've got to do something with it. You don't want it to be useless.

There's that homework element at the end when human-centered design really flows through. So I used a number of facilitation techniques and tools. I've got my slides here, Deb, we started with, obviously, introductions to ourselves to make the room feel comfortable and introductions to them as well so we could understand where they were from. We also asked if we could have a few experienced drivers in the room so we can really hear from the horse's mouth so it was a good mix of audience in the room that day. We then started with the why we are here so the reason that we were there in the room was to disrupt the industry of drivers.

And I love this, the big hairy audacious goal from both CEOs was to disrupt the market so we talked about disruption as well and what that means so we started big from the context of disruption. We then started to look at the internal culture that they already have with the drivers that they already have and we looked at it from the classic iceberg model. So what's the sexy stuff there? Everyone knows about you above the iceberg. Now let's get into reality, if I've been a driver with you for around three months what's the below iceberg stuff that's the reality? And we had some open and honest conversations about the good, the bad and the ugly off beneath the iceberg so adult conversations there. And then we had that as a flip chart. I love my flip chart if you can see.

Deb Zahn: Any good facilitator loves a good flip chart.

Prina Shah: We had that plugged on the wall throughout the day because that's a brilliant thing to refer to as we go through the day, so people understood their current state in relation to their culture. We talked about the desired culture for the future but then I picked on it a little bit more as we went through the session. So then through the session I opened with the concept of the balcony and the dance floor, Deb. And I really like this concept because that really gets people to understand. Being on the balcony is when you as an individual within the workplace or as a consultant are thinking strategically, you're reflecting, you're thinking ahead. When you're on the dance floor you're thinking operationally, you're thinking hands-on.

So I explained that concept to them and I explained the fact that we're going to be doing a lot of balcony thinking first off then we're going to get onto the dance floor and get operational. So it was good to explain that concept also so then as I facilitated through the day with Suzanne because, OK, we're in balcony mode now we're on dance floor mode. And people completely got that because it's simple English to comprehend.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And I think that in telling it as a metaphor I have found is so helpful as opposed to now we're going to strategize, now we're going to operationalize. And it's hard to concretely grasp what I should be doing at that moment but that's why I love that you used essentially a story to be able to do that.

Prina Shah: Correct. Exactly so. And it gets people to switch their minds quickly and easily, which was so good so that really worked well I saw as I really like that aspect. So then we started big, big picture and we started to look at the competitors because that's what we should always do, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Prina Shah: So we looked at it in terms of competitors. What this organization is doing really well that stands out from the competitors, so let's look at that first. What the competitors are doing that we could potentially learn from and pinch.

Deb Zahn: I love that you said pinch, by the way, that was a really nice way of saying steal, that was fabulous.

Prina Shah: Why not? Why reinvent the wheel if somebody knows? If someone is doing something well let's learn from them and let's do it. And then if someone is doing something really poorly, that's the other aspect that we looked at, and let's not even bother so let's not even touch it for the purpose of this session to look at our driver subcontractor model. It's really good to pitch it that way at that high level so that we know where we're going, what we can learn from our competitors, where we don't want to go whatsoever and what we can start to role model and steal.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Yeah. I mean, you're saying it very matter of factly, but there's some really profound things in there. So I know one of the reasons that you do what you just described is also to give people a sense of agency that we actually get to craft who we are and not just look around and say, we have to be like them, we have to be like them and it's a powerful state for people to get into to feel like they really are helping shape something. And so, again, I recognize as soon as you said, oh, that's really cool, I know what you're doing, but that's a pretty profound way of getting people into a new space.

Prina Shah: There's so much behind the scenes and that's it and that really talks to exactly what you're saying. It's empowerment, and we own our culture. We own our brand. We own our employee value proposition. Now this is all a consulting field that will just bore the death out of some participants in the workshop.

Deb Zahn: They jump off the balcony.

Prina Shah: They will jump off the balcony, totally so. So you flip it to change your facilitation language to make it accessible for all.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Prina Shah: Yeah. So it was really good to look at the competitors and that external perspective first off just to see where we were at as an organization and how we pitch ourselves. So it was good intel for myself and Suzanne as a facilitator also so we could understand where they thought they were at because as a facilitator you're always on your radars, always on. So that was a really good first activity to do. We then moved on to explain the concept of avatars to them. And this was a difficult concept for some to grasp because they're so used to a driver is a driver, yes, a driver is a driver but it could be a female, it could be a working mom, it could be a student, it could be whatever else. Now we did put words into their mouths but we explained the concept of avatars and their activity in this section was to just think of as many avatars as they could. So you can have some crazy ideas, doesn't matter, go out with whatever you want to jot down, this is your creative space so we're still on balcony mode here.

Deb Zahn: And can I ask just in case any listeners don't know what an avatar is and why you do one. So why would you have a conversation about an avatar?

Prina Shah: Yeah. So from a human-centered design perspective, we are looking at our ideal driver in this case. So an avatar would be an ideal driver in how we describe it to this audience. Now what does that mean? The audience still said let's look at the individual's gender, their location, the kind of work that they like, what kind of person is this and let's label it so let's actually label people now. Inter-occupants, so that's another way of explaining what an avatar is to begin with the workshop and that's, yeah, that's what landed with the participants.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And again, why I love it, and some people’s ideal client, client persona avatar, I think the movie Avatar kind of threw everybody off so they're now picturing blue beings. But the reason I love doing that is that now you have something to have specific conversations about. And so I've used this in facilitation where we're designing a process or a workflow and we need to know that it's going to work for that particular avatar that we're talking about, we need to know what they care about, what their pain points are. And I imagine with drivers if it was a female 35 with kids she might care about childcare, if it's a 45-year-old married man whose wife is retired or partner is retired, he might not care about any of that. He cares about other things.

Prina Shah: You got it. And that's exactly the next step that we went to. So we had a little bit of a break and then we did empathy mapping.

Deb Zahn: Ooh, nice.

Prina Shah: Avatar, so we had around 11 avatars, which was just amazing. So we empathy mapped and this is us connecting with a working home let's say who could be a potential driver. So we looked at the working mom this avatar in relation to the kind of tasks that she may like, the influences that she has, what kind of feelings she has, her pain points and what her overall goal is. So per avatar, we empathy mapped, all of these which was just brilliant. So then we are still thinking balcony because we're going with all of the crazy avatars, let's just do it all and then we'll start to dwindle down which is really good fun. Then we started to generate ideas of how we could tap into them from an attraction and retention perspective, and these are still crazy ideas and we asked the group to come up with eight crazy ideas, let's just go wild still, still on the balcony here.

And here this is a good fun thing because you don't know what's going to happen and as a facilitator, Deb, it's a double-edged sword. It's really difficult but then it's really easy as well if you're OK with facilitating in a vague space. Because here for myself and Suzanne, the key really was to ask the right kind of open questions, so what influences this person? So why would you have this idea? What would attract them? What would retain them? How can we continue to attract them? How else? All those kinds of big thinking balcony questions still so we're still being super, super creative.

Deb Zahn: And you're not leading anyone to a destination at that point because I know as a facilitator as you know, if we wanted to lead a room, we could lead a room, we could lead a room anywhere we wanted them to go, but if you do that in this type of moment you're going to squash a whole bunch of good ideas that might create a better outcome.

Prina Shah: Exactly so. And then we had the best conversation per avatar and then we started to rank them as to, oh, well, that would work, that's really unrealistic we can't attract them, we don't have the budget. So we started to get a bit more operational now, we're getting onto the dance floor now without me even leading the group, without Suzanne even leading so that was really good. So now we're starting to get decisive because of the fact that we can't be in this big picture thinking all the time we need an end result. So then the next session was to discuss what ideas have the most potential and that was a really good open adult conversation where everyone respected each other's opinions and there was a lot of debate because some people really holding onto their idea because they empathy mapped it and they empathized, they really.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, so they feel it.

Prina Shah: Exactly. Which is the good thing about doing empathy maps because you really deep dive into the needs of that avatar.

Deb Zahn: Love it.

Prina Shah: So then we dwindled it down and we got decisive to look at the ideas which have the most potential so we're filtering now. And that was a really good activity to do because the debate and the conversation that we had brought out so much in relation to the organization's culture. So hey, we did that culture work at the beginning, so people then started to refer to, well, that kind of avatar doesn't actually suit our culture. Aha, my facilitation job was done, I felt like that. When someone says that kind of stuff, I think, yes, you're getting it and me and Suzanne were just facilitating the conversation by this stage. The whole audience, the leaders in the room, they owned that space, they owned all of this work so I was so pleased with the way the conversation went when we started to get decisive with their culture.

Deb Zahn: Because they're owning what they decided collectively they wanted their culture to be so much so they're now using it as criteria, they're using it to make operational and strategic decisions. That is gorgeous, I love it.

Prina Shah: Organically joining the thoughts themselves. I thought, yes, that was just such a beautiful thing to see. I was very proud, yeah. So that's not enough. So we've got our big thinking ideas, we've got decisive and we've dwindled down our avatars that we really do want to focus on still not enough because what are you going to do? We were still navel-gazing at this stage. We were still at balcony timing. We need to get operational. So there are brilliant templates out there, and I used a test card template for this now. Now the test card is you choose your avatar and you write a hypothesis for when you go back into the workplace, and this is really your operationalizing and now you're back on the dance floor. So with the test card there were one, two, three, four elements, and in that the hypothesis for moms as drivers, let's say I'm still using that as an example, the first statement is we believe that blah, blah, blah, and to verify that we will.

So the first thing has to be a smart goal. Let me explain the concept of a smart goal, and to verify that we will, so now we're getting to the accountability piece, and we will measure. So, oh, we are really getting in detail as to how we're going to measure the viability of this when we get back into the workplace. And then the last statement, we are right if you know that your hypothesis is correct and it's worked with that last statement, we are right if. Now this is going to take around three to six month’s worth of work when people go back to the workplace, but they've got something solid and meaty to work with in the form of these hypotheses at the end. So then we closed the session, Deb, with this is not it, you're going back with your hypotheses and they're being further supported with monthly coaching.

Because often when we go back into the workplace, we go back to business as usual. We get carried away with work life. But we need to bring ourselves back to the balcony time again and the reason that we were here so those test cards are now the coaching criteria so that's perfect so it's a seamless process. So it was a half-day session and, my gosh, there was big thinking. There was so much joining of the thoughts, there was a lot there. But something real tangible now that they're working with and already working on so they've got some massive campaigns that they're doing to attract new types of drivers. I can't wait to see what else comes up now as well, creative thinking and different as well.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. So the thing that's different than many workshops that I'm sure we've all been in or we've done is the conclusion wasn't the full conclusion. The conclusion was, now what can we test so that we iterate and then at the end of the process of testing these things, we're going to be so clear about what actually works and what doesn't, as opposed to you walk out of a session and, all right, good, now we're just going to implement that and then a year later they're like, well, how come that's not working? Well, I don't know, should we bring somebody else back? Which is what happens with a lot of more traditional strategic planning which is why the hit rate for strategic plan succeeding is still hovering below 50%. It used to be worse but it's now still hovering below 50% because people aren't engaged in the problem solving and testing that you're describing.

So that's beautiful. I so appreciate that you were willing to do this sort of reenactment of here's the step-by-step process we did because all of it feeds off of the last thing you did. So I think even more than saying, oh, I use this technique, I use this technique, is to show the process. So there's I know a whole lot of open-source information out there that people can get but what types of skills or attributes should someone foster who wants to do more human-centered design stuff?

Prina Shah: OK. If you're a facilitator under your facilitation hat and use your role as a facilitator from an appreciative inquiry perspective. You know nothing and go in blind if you can like myself and Suzanne did, Suzanne had a little bit more information but I went in blind altogether. I recommend if you're going to do that, that you're going to do that to your client as well because that's your credibility also. So when we spoke with both CEOs I put my hand up and said, I'm not going to do any homework on you and that's out of no disrespect to you, that's out of lots of respect to you because I want to go in with an open slate so then I can facilitate and ask all of the questions that a person on the ground would be asking you as well.

Deb Zahn: Wow. That's deep because so many consultants or facilitators our identity is around us being knowledgeable experts and what you just said, which again is very profound and I think extraordinarily helpful in this is, no, I pollute the process if I do that so I'm taking myself out of it.

Prina Shah: Yeah. Totally

Deb Zahn: Nice. Wow. That's fantastic.

Prina Shah: I'll have to gain their trust and buy-in as well. Initially it was like, oh, I think a little bit of uncomfortableness from their side, but then once I ran the process through they understood it and they got it. And then the other big question is, well, for anyone who does this as a facilitator, as a consultant, it's really important to have everyone in the room at the same level. Now if you're working with organizations as I do corporations, there's a hierarchy. There's positional power at play and that really needs to be eliminated and you need to have that conversation upfront otherwise it's going to mess up your facilitation. If you've got the CEO on your table and you're thinking, “Oh my God. I'm just going to stick to what the CEO says.” So it's pitching it right to your clients at the get-go, but then during the workshop also pitching it to the whole room that everyone is on the same level even the people who agreed that would be working with you are participants in the room.

Deb Zahn: I love that. Yeah. I've actually said to CEOs, if you start to dominate the conversation, I'm going to stop you. But I'm going to let you pick right now what word you want me to use to stop you?

Prina Shah: Oh, safe word. Clever.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. It's kind of pineapple or they say something where it's their choice so they still have agency because I don't want to strip them of that because I need them to fully participate. But I want you to know that if I do that I'm going to do it with your permission. I'm going to do it with a word you're comfortable with.

Prina Shah: That's a genius idea. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Nice. Very nice. It sounds like you really have to almost understand your identity in your role and be able to reflect on what you should be showing up depending on what you're trying to accomplish.

Prina Shah: Yeah, completely so. And then when you were in the session itself on the day it is just about being completely present, clear-minded, having no set agenda yourself as a facilitator and myself and Suzanne were really careful not to put words in anyone's mouths as well because you don't want to influence any thinking, we were very clear on that as well. So that was a big, big lesson for both of us because as facilitators you drop little nuggets here and there just to help the process move along, in this kind of facilitation you don't.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, no nuggets.

Prina Shah: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: It's really hard because we're hilarious and we're adorable and part of the way you put people at ease is to say things and it doesn't work with this.

Prina Shah: No, not at all. Yeah. And for consultants or facilitators who are considering using this technique, get familiar with the tools yourself, run it on your own business. It's such a cool concept do it for yourself also, get familiar with it so that when you do deliver it you can play down the right way though.

Deb Zahn: That's right. I love that. Now. Is there anything you would do differently in a remote situation? Obviously, we keep all going on and off remote, anything you might change if you're doing it virtually?

Prina Shah: Very good question. If I was doing it virtually because of the fact that it involves a lot of conversation, I would say probably 80% conversation from the group, the session if you're delivering it virtually has to be super interactive, you've got to create first off that psychological safety for all. So it's even more difficult from a virtual setting. But, yeah, I think setting the ground rules upfront about the fact that this is an interactive session, we are going to have some fun, this is going to be a different kind of session to the norm that you used to. It's not a sit-down, I'm going to lecture you type of session. I expect you to be on as well because this session really depends on you as an individual participating and giving us the feedback that we need.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And then when you follow through on that they really believe you.

Prina Shah: Yeah. That's it. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. So this is extraordinarily helpful. Where can folks find you?

Prina Shah: Yeah. Deb, I am on LinkedIn so please do connect with me on LinkedIn. Prina Shah, and on Instagram also at prina.shah is me. Yes.

Deb Zahn: And you definitely want to follow her because I follow you and that's how I get to hear these fabulous things that you talk about. Well, let me ask you my last question because I think obviously I know you're on lockdown right now. We are depending on the day. We're not sure always what's happening, but how do you bring balance to your life? However it is you define that.

Prina Shah: Yeah. That's a really good question. And for consultants, what does balance mean? For me, Deb, balance means having a variety of work that challenges my brain such as this session that I talked about, lots of learning as well so you have to constantly be learning, but then I always need time to switch off. So for myself, I love my garden, lots of succulents, all sorts, walking, I live in beautiful Western Australia. So it's having proper time to switch off and being OK with that because a lot of the time also as consultants we can guilt ourselves into anything and everything and that's just so wrong. So treating myself well and not quilting myself when I do have that time off but it's about being organized as well then allowing myself to have that time off so that's the balance for me.

Deb Zahn: Wow, that's just wonderful. Well, I want to thank you so much for coming on and sharing in such great detail how you made the magic that you made with Suzanne in that room. So thanks again for coming on.

Prina Shah: Thank you so much for the invitation, Deb.

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 if 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. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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