The design moral of this story: the assumption that we can ‘crowdsource’ design innovations, and their development through ideation practices, needs a greater level of sociological sophistication regarding the meshwork of formal and informal roles required to make it work; using a simple set of recognisable archetypes, and supporting people to reflect on their actions through that framework, we can provide clarity and simplicity for a more efficient and participatory process.

Of all of this month’s articles, this is the most ‘academic’ and complicated – but also, hopefully, the one that most embodies the use of designerly concepts to simplify the super-complex.

I’ll begin this article by establishing the need to gain a more nuanced understanding of the micro-roles that people play for each other within the innovation process. I define micro-role as less than a job-role, but more than just doing a favour. For example, within the academic technology community at Warwick, we encourage people to act as “informed advocates” for each other – spreading accurate and usable information about our services through their personal contacts. Each case in which they act in this way might only take a short time, and would typically occur within the context of a different social or professional interaction. But the role is both identifiable and important. We value and recognise people playing this role, and aim to increase the number of people doing it effectively. But it is not in any way a full role. Rather, people slip seamlessly in and out of acting in this way, unobtrusively, without disrupting the main focus of their activities. This fluidity is most important. We want influential people to pass on good information, but we don’t want them to feel that their core identities (e.g. as a professor of history) might be changed by it (e.g. the professor of history being identified as a techie). It’s easier for many diverse people to partially identify with a micro-role than it is for use to create new positions or convert existing people into different fully-developed roles.

My aim is to improve innovation by recognising diverse contributions, and to make that recognition effective using a shared taxonomy of micro-roles upon which dialogue and reflection about contributions may be based. Put simply:

  1. a group of people come together to advance a design idea;
  2. they recognise the kinds of activities and inputs that are required at this stage of the process – and they understand those inputs;
  3. they are each able to adopt micro-roles that work together to advance their collective goal of moving the innovation process onwards.

This is a reflective and collaborative practice, rooted in the work of Donald Schön and Chris Argyris. It depends on people acting as “reflective practitioners” informed by a continual “double loop learning” that grows their collective design capability. But it is also influenced by theories of social identity and action that consider 21st Century humans as increasingly complex and polyvocal, in sync with the demands of post-industrial economies. The old debate concerning whether ‘innovator’ is a specialism, a fully-developed role in itself, is sidelined by the argument that there are no single master innovators necessary, but rather a meshwork of people playing a range of different micro-roles in the process, and changing over time as required. That meshwork might include micro-roles that have a coordinating, guiding, coaching, facilitating, organising, editing and perhaps even controlling function. But they are not in any way masters of innovation.

The main work of this article is to consider the value and nature of a micro-roles approach. In the second part of the article, we’ll move on to considering what the roles might be, and how we can get them recognised and valued more broadly.

The institution-level problem

In the last few weeks, we’ve had some productive discussions with university leaders about how we can establish and sustain a coherent and rigorous open innovation process across the whole university, covering pretty much all of the institution’s activities. By ‘open’ we mean open to all members of the university. They can propose design changes and innovations, and participate in the development of those ideas. We have run a prototype service for this, called the Ideas Space.

A key to the success of this, as we have learned from the prototype and from our Extended Classroom project1, is to ensure that formal methods are applied when necessary, doing all of the (often very) hard work of exploring ideas thoroughly and preparing them for the many hurdles that they can come across on the way to implementation. The Design Thinking approach (Brown, 2009) correctly argues that this ‘ideation’ phase should use a well-facilitated ‘participatory’ design approach – ensuring that all appropriate expert knowledge is employed – and that means everyone who has a relevant interest (and often, meaning that the voices of managers are muffled a little). So we get better quality ideas going through the refinement process (or being rejected on sound evidenced grounds). Effective participation increases the base of support for good ideas, if managed well, meaning that the progress of a design idea (from inspiration, through development and testing in ideation, and then through implementation) maintains momentum and energy. Importantly, the process must not feel onerous, slow or threatening, even if it is in reality quite challenging.

However, broadened participation is often intuitively seen to be the enemy of speed and agility (too many cooks). There is some truth in this. Change becomes slow, complex, dissipated across an organisation and perhaps deliberately frustrated; factionalism increases; implementation resources are siphoned-off elsewhere; or we end up grasping ill-explored ideas and jumping too fast to conclusions. Managers may consciously or unconsciously exploit the ensuing mess to gain back control with subterranean schemes that divert efforts in their favoured direction (yes, I am implying that I have seen this happen). This might be a classic ‘wicked problem’ (as defined by Richard Buchanan, 1992). Openness actually results in complexity that obscures and encourages people to manipulate the process – rather like the Brexit debate in UK politics.

How might we resolve this conflict? In their book Ten Faces of Innovation (2005), Tom Kelley (IDEO) and Jonathan Littman describe an intermeshing set of simple ‘roles’ (not jobs, rather roles in a sociological sense) that people may play for each other within a dynamic innovation team (with ‘team’ meant in a less formal sense than current management practice might allow). I like to call them ‘micro-roles’. By consciously recognising, performing and valuing these roles, we can simplify and accelerate the innovation process.

Part One – making crowds work with micro-roles

The word ‘crowd’ has undergone two apparently separate ideological rehabilitations in recent times – the concept of ‘crowdsourcing’ being one of these more positive dimensions. We might say that the revolutionary excitement or terror of 1917 has been forgotten somewhat: storming the gates of power, the narrative of a mass proletariat reaching boiling point, becoming singular, a unified weapon against the ruling class. The wrong kind of crowdsourcing? Now we see the crowd as a more gentle kind of power, distributed across thousands of coffee shops, home offices and corporate lunch breaks. Change bubbles-up slowly, incrementally, through digital (and perhaps sometimes passive aggressive) micro-actions. But it is still, in most applications of the concept of the crowd, a largely undifferentiated mass, a vague kind of democracy in which the agency of individuals is heavily diluted and dissipated into the mass. It is subject to the wicked problem of open innovation.

What if we used a more sophisticated idea of how crowds are constituted? How might that change their capabilities in crowdsourced innovation? Might it also give us a feasible route to democracy, in the broadest sense, as a participatory design innovation process?

The other interesting rehabilitation of the idea of the crowd is less well known, but far more useful when considering how we can do effective participatory design innovation without the associated side effects – that is to say, without the overcomplicated and fragmentary engagements that typify projects in super-complex organisations (for example, universities). The key to this is the argument, now well supported by empirical evidence, that even the most energetic of crowds are far from being undifferentiated masses. They are organised. People retain identities, and in fact the roles that they play within collaborative social action are more differentiated, amplified and appreciated. Successful crowd leadership recognises this, legitimising and directing the special identities that occur within the crowd – for good, and sometimes for evil. You can see that happening in the many Soviet-era paintings of Lenin addressing the revolutionary crowds. All walks of life are there, except of course the pre-revolutionary ruling and middle classes – they are the outsiders who define the crowd through a logic of exclusion.2 The imaginary communist crowd is an intermeshing assemblage of positive roles channeled by the leader. The Soviet flag itself was an innovation in the design of flags. Not a combination of feudal powers, nationalities, religious or philosophical symbols, rather it presented this new idea of society composed from a functional assemblage of workers with different roles represented by their tools: the hammer of industry and the sickle of agriculture, combined into a single force. That’s not exactly the kind of crowd we are after. In a world where less time and human resource is taken up with physical labour, and more time is available for creativity, people may be less determined by singular roles, more able to reflectively switch modes of operation as required for collective success. And this should be mirrored in our understanding of crowds and crowdsourcing.

For an account of the shift in thinking about the nature of crowds, listen to the interview with social psychologist Stephen Reicher, as part of BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific Series. Jim Al-Khalili began by asking:

“Crowds are the elephant man of the social sciences, what do you mean by that?”

Reicher’s answer:

“People think of the crowd as monstrous, they think that people are somehow less moral in the crowd, they are less mindful in the crowd, they’re less rational in the crowd. And all those ideas, I think, are profoundly ideological. They speak to a fear of outsiders, rather than an understanding of the actual phenomenon. Once you get close to it, once you get inside it, once you map out what actually happens.”

Reicher has done exactly that, personally getting inside crowds to observe in detail what happens, how people behave, and how they think. His evidence shows that crowds are not anti-social, they are profoundly social in their organisation. They are full of constraints, and most importantly, characters playing roles for each other personally.

Coming back to the concept of crowdsourcing, if we now shift our understanding of how crowds work positively, we can see that for the crowdsourcing claim to work (that effective innovation may come from broader participation), we need to understand how the social dynamics of crowds (as social systems) really work: when the right intermeshing arrangements of people, roles and organisation are achieved, then crowds become powerful agents of change capable of sustaining innovations beyond the moment. There are people who agitate, think differently, cross-pollinate from one domain to another. There are people who are good at analysing, envisioning, being critical, refining ideas. There are others who are good at sustaining an idea, at seeing it through to the end. And then there are others who say “give in, it’s going nowhere”. But most importantly, there are people who stand back and know what kind of contribution is needed at the moment or in the foreseeable future, and are able to guide the crowd and its members to adopt the right approach at the right time. But it goes further still. When members of the crowd know, can name, and may positively recognise, the contributions made by people in the right way at the right time, then they may become more fluid and confident themselves in switching into micro-roles to help each other in just the right way at the right time.

Of course we remember the exceptions to this positive idea of the crowd, where crowds collapse into tyranny, becoming the exact opposite of the crowd: the dictator. But under more ordinary circumstances, crowds can have positive results, if (I argue) we know how to facilitate them. And that is, I think, an underlying notion behind the Design Thinking approach, based on the belief that we can get many ordinary people collaborating in the design innovation process, but only if we facilitate them in playing the right roles in the right way. And our understanding of what these roles are like are based upon research and reflection as to how professional designers work and how that may be adapted for non-professional designers (more on this in part two below).

Recently, I have been experimenting with ways of identifying roles that people can play for each other in broad, complex, less-formal innovation processes that extend across the whole messy territory of a big university. We are looking for an intermeshing set of archetypes that people may partially align themselves with. We’re not looking for a new set of job titles and descriptions. Role occupancy is partial, whereas in the communist ideal roles are monolithic and permanent (and hence its easier to point the finger at the outsider or the potential traitor). We actively want people to change, to grow, to continually challenge us. The roles we need are micro-roles (philosophers reading this might rightly make a connection with Deleuze and Guattari). A single person may perform different roles with different people at different times for different purposes. We are looking to make the most of the little bits of extra, sometimes peripheral, participation, that otherwise busy and focussed professionals from many different fields can give to a project. They can, we might say, feel the power of being in a crowd, being one of many, all contributing a bit to a powerful force, whilst also adding detail to their own identities, and avoiding anonymity.

My hypothesis is that: if people recognise specific roles that they may usefully play for each other in the innovation process, and we reward them for doing so, they will get better at doing such micro-roles, at knowing how they can contribute effectively, knowing what other kinds of people and contributions they need to get to help a design innovation along, and ultimately feel more pride and fulfilment through their contributions. This may, and probably should, be formally recognised and rewarded as part of HR and development processes. And that’s what I mean by “recognising and valuing diverse contributions in the innovation process”.

Part Two – a taxonomy of innovation micro-roles

So what are the roles? What do they do? How do they work within the collective? Kelley and Littman describe The Ten Faces of Innovation (2005) – a collection of what they see as the ten most useful roles we can promote for the design innovation process. The roles are each aligned with a different aspect of the collective challenge of creating, exploring and implementing design ideas:

Learning roles Organizing roles Building roles
Experience architect
Set designer

You can find a summary of the roles on Kelley’s web site, or on this nicely designed one-page summary. Most of the roles have names that clearly suggest what they do. Kelley’s book gives more details on the contributions they make to design innovation, and the times and places in which they fit into the process. Five of the roles usually need a little more explaining:

Anthropologist: using the methods and attentiveness of trained design anthropologists to watch, record and draw insights from how real people behave with real products and services in real situations. Although this is derived from an academic discipline it is a practice that non-academics can learn about and develop.

Hurdler: the person who is good at keeping a project moving forwards despite the many practical and institutional hurdles (e.g. committees) that get in the way.

Director: in the movie making sense, as the person who gets the actors and resources in the right place at the right time, motivates, gives direction etc.

Experience architect: this term comes from design methods research, and describes the more technical practice of constructing workflows, spaces, interfaces, and interactions that shape the experiences had by people interacting with designs and design processes.

Caregiver: often the role that makes (or if missing, breaks) a design collaboration, this shows recognition of the fact that real people are involved in doing often quite challenging work.

But is Kelley’s list conclusive? In my experience, it is a good start but needs adapting for the needs of specific organisations and projects. Within the University, for example, we find that projects are rarely ended early, even every one really thinks that they are going nowhere for a good reason. So we have someone in the innovation team who is good at just saying “enough”. We perhaps don’t want to say they are the assassin – what a micro-role that is. Perhaps we can call them the Honest Guy. Much of our innovation work happens within already well established platforms and services. We want people to explore what is on offer well before focussing on innovations and design changes. So we imagine a cycle in which “informed advocates” (described above) help their colleagues to be aware of and gain sufficient understanding about practices, tools and services that can already be accessed (but which might seem innovative to the uninitiated). We know that “technology facilitators” are key to this as well, helping people to really explore hands-on and get a good feel for new things. We can’t possibly provide enough people to do this role as a central part of their jobs, but we can encourage and reward people, including students, for doing it as a micro-role. Similarly, once sufficient understanding has been achieved and a commitment to adopt/adapt has been made, further support from colleagues playing micro-roles is essential. We like to see good “design participants” helping each other, and do work to coach people playing this micro-role. Finally, we hope that once practices are adopted, people act as “critical-creative friends” for each other, to consider how they might innovate further, or to feed back to service providers ideas for changes and innovations.

This is really just the start of a longer engagement with this approach. It is an ongoing action research project that needs the involvement of even more people committed to the idea of playing micro-roles for each other within the broader crowd through which we source effective design change and innovation.

Beyond innovation within organisations – the future of  democracy

One final observation. If we consider the complex political process of democracy to be an innovation process, we can see how our wrong is our current version of it: largely treating the demos (crowd) as an only roughly differentiated mass, and with very little genuine participation in the generation and refinement of change, how could it possible make effective progress on the many complex challenges that we face? Of course some like it that way, it enables control through simplistic rhetorical devices. For example, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg recently claimed in relation to the Brexit negotiations that:

“Britain has to decide if it is a serious country or a joke nation”

We can see right through his method:

“Earnestly demanding choice between a false dichotomy – the weakest form of rhetoric. Rees-Mogg clearly fancies himself as a third rate Roderick Spode impersonator.” 3

The micro-roles at play, or at least expected here, are the comic rabble rousing leader gesticulating with aloofness to his adoring public who hang on his every word. Like Lenin in the painting, but with all the real connections to real people with real roles in a real society removed.


1 The Extended Classroom is our approach to creating a stronger community of people across the university using and supporting learning technologies. The aim is to get them to coalesce around our existing toolset and services, so as to ensure a more productive and collaborative open innovation process that builds from where we are at the current time.

It might be the case that in 1917 the workers’ struggle was really about individuals in a freshly industrialised and rapidly changing society seeking the certainty and solidarity of identity-through-work, identifying strongly and singularly with a single profession or craft. Today we are much more used to, and capable of handling, multiple and shifting identities, partial roles, cross-pollination between roles. I’m not saying that is necessarily better. But things have changed.

3Spode is a character from P.G. Wodehouse’s satirical Jeeves and Wooster books set in 1930’s England. A wannabe fascist leader, his rhetoric is blatant and pathetic.

Published in the March 2018 edition.