5 things Eames taught me about agile project delivery

5 things Eames taught me about agile project delivery

Recently I was reading about the creative process of Ray and Charles Eames, the couple who epitomized modern furniture design in the 1940s-60s. I was immediately struck by how many agile concepts were championed by Eames all those years ago. What we now know to be the ‘new way’ of implementing projects in-fact go back a long way.

Here are some of the agile principles that have been championed by Eames in their design process.

1) Not reinventing the wheel

To deliver on the challenges of a new project the typical team often relies purely on the brain power of the existing team members in all facets of the project. However, there are significant opportunities to leverage from various experiences either within or outside the organization. This can include:
– Previous roll out experience of this particular product/service and how employees or customers experienced this roll out previously
– How to work with particular stakeholder groups as experienced by other project team members
– The successes and failures of the approaches that others have taken in designing the project solution (either technical or process solution)
– The approaches previous project teams have taken to meet the timeline challenges and lessons learnt
– The successes and failures of other teams in implementing any learning and development interventions as part of other projects, in terms of systems, content design and roll out approaches

2) Continuous testing and learning

Agile project approaches focus on iterative design and releases so that the project team can learn from each iteration. With each iteration, the overall solution then becomes more and more fit-for-purpose.

However, continuous testing and learning should not just be restricted to those project team members focused on process or technology design. All project team members should be involved in this. For example, from a change management perspective:
– Testing messages with employees to see if the message resonates and is appealing. One can also leverage the A/B Testing approach of coming up with 2 messages to test and seeing what the responses are. This can be done digitally (channeling half of the users to one version and the other half to the other version) and assess the impact of the message.
– Testing the learning content with users. For example, select a module to test with a sample group to collect feedback on whether the content is appropriately structured, positioned at the right level in terms of detail and clarity and using the right medium/channel
– Testing impact assessment details with users. Most projects select business representatives or subject matter experts to test the impact assessment details. However, testing impact analysis and understanding with end users can be hugely valuable to obtain a much more accurate assessment

Check out our article on what you can learn about change management through a famous Eames video.

3) “Respecting the materials at hand”.

Understanding the capabilities, limitations, strengths, and weaknesses of the resources that the project team is working with are key to success. Resources, in this case, should be broadly viewed as including such as people resources, system resources, process maturity, and stakeholder capabilities.

The ability of the project team to understand and ‘read’ the capability levels of stakeholder groups to be able to learn, adapt, and embed new processes and behaviours needs to form a part of the work of the change lead. With better understanding, the project is then able to formulate the right design and support interventions to help drive and embed the new changes.

4) Come up with new perspectives and new ideas through play and fun

The Eameses continuous incorporated play and fun into their lives and it was through this that new ideas and perspectives often appeared. For the project team, incorporating play and fun is also important. Some examples of this could be a ‘hackathon’ for team members to go out of their comfort zone and come up within a short period of time (often 1-2 days) a problem and an already designed solution to fix it.

Periodical team development and bonding sessions could also be designed to incorporate a sense of play and fun. The trick is to incorporate elements of play and fun outside of the project context, as well as then linking things back to the project at hand. For example, the facilitator for the development session could design into the session dialogue around how their experiences have helped them to realise a different approach or idea of how they would work differently.

5) “Eventually everything connects”
One of the most important principles touted by the Eameses is that “eventually everything connects”. This is quite a profound statement in that it forces us to think broadly about what are the elements we are working with and how are these elements connected together. For example, how are our processes, the system design, the stakeholder communications, the learning interventions, and project branding, all connected together to form a system?

Whilst the elements of the system at a project level is critical. The project team also needs to look broadly across the organization to understand what is going on and what are all the dots and elements and how they are connected. To put this into illustration, what are other projects and changes that the organization is going through? How are these interlinked or not linked to the current project? How are other initiatives impacting the same parts of the business that this project is also impacting? As a result, how do we help the stakeholders to connect the dots around how different initiatives are connected to support a particular strategy or focus area? All these are important considerations for project and business success.

Read our ultimate guide to agile for change manager.


What you can learn about change management from this famous Eames video

What you can learn about change management from this famous Eames video

“The Powers of Ten” are two short documentary movies made by Ray and Charles Eames who are most known to us as makers of fabulous mid-century furniture.  These include the Eames lounge chair and ottoman and the DCW (molded plywood chair).    The Powers of Ten is touted as the most famous movie made by Ray and Charles Eames, completed in 1977.  The work depicts the scale of the universe according to an order of magnitude.  The video starts with a couple having a picnic.  Then it zooms out into space and then zooms back in again, eventually zooming into molecular levels.  The link to the famous 9-min video can be found here.

Continuity and change

The Eames office states that “Powers of Ten illustrates the universe as an arena of both continuity and change, of everyday picnics and cosmic mystery”.  To what extent do you understand your organisation in terms of its continuity and change?  What are the activities that are constant and ongoing from a business-as-usual perspective and what are those that are being changed and altered?  What are peak customer periods where it’s all hands-on-deck for the frontline staff?  How are changes being planned having taken these busy periods into account?  Are there changes that are still being embedded that need to continue before new changes are rolled out?  What is the right balance of continuity and change for each part of the business?

Relative cultural environment

The work cultural environment of the employee is critical in how we understand change.  As the movie starts to zoom in or out we see a very different view of perspectives within almost every frame.  When we are sending communication messages during change from the above, how do these make sense to employees at different levels?  Do we understand their view as we craft these messages?  What is the employee’s particular cultural context and what lenses do they view things through?

As we implement a series of changes impacting employees across the organisation, do we have a clear view of what the relative impact is on the employee?  Often we see initiative owners who are very keen to market their initiative as the most significant and impactful change.  How does this compare to other initiatives relatively? Are there other initiatives that are more important and impactful at one level of the organisation compared to another level?  How do we support the clarity of the initiatives that are of higher priority for the organization?

Cross collaboration through context

To drive change success collaboration is required between the drivers of the change and the receivers of the change.  The drivers of the change need to supply the information, the intent, the energy, the leadership and resources for the change.  The receivers need to supply the feedback, support, understanding and behaviour change.  Collaboration happens when there is cross understanding of each other’s context. For example, why are we changing? How are we going to do it?  What does it require?  So understanding the cultural context of the receivers is also crucial for the change drivers.

Sense of curiosity

Adopting a sense of curiosity is also important for the change driver.  The film explores the boundaries of the universe and atomic levels of understanding.  In the same way, the change driver also needs to call out what are the boundaries of understanding across the organization.  Are there some parts of the organization better engaged and represented than other parts?  Are some more inundated with changes and will have less focus compared to another part? What does our data tell us about the context for each layer of the organization?  What are the fields where you have no data?  All of these are important considerations.

Ray and Charles Eames are icons of design in the current century.  Their exploration and play in creating the Powers of Ten has raised important implications for us in change management.  How do we learn from Ray and Charles Eames to be designers of change? How do we see the forest from the tree and the tree from the forest?  Food for thought …

Read about the 5 things Eames taught me about agile project delivery.


To understand more about how to be able to see and to zoom in and out of the change context and landscape of an organization please visit us on www.thechangecompass.com or contact us on admin@thechangecompass.com

If you’ve found this article interesting, please ‘like’ and share this with your connections.

Follow us here.