Caroline Smeallie “The work I love the most involves engaging people who aren’t normally consulted.”

Caroline Smeallie is a Senior Service Designer at Fjord. A self-described “people person,” for the past ten years, she’s held client-oriented roles focusing on innovation and human-centered design, technology development, and communications. She loves solving problems using ethnographic research methods, creative facilitation, and systems thinking — all the while engaging and co-creating with the people most directly affected by a challenge. Caroline thrives in roles where she can wear many hats and collaborate with diverse teams.

This is part of a series of stories using Loup’s “Your StoryEngine” to help individuals define their purpose and advance their career. Learn more »

Caroline’s Story

Tell me a bit about your work.

I’m a design strategist. Very broadly, my work focuses on understanding the root of shared problems amongst a group of people, then collaborating with those people to come up with new ways to address that problem.

My role has often focused on research: understanding who the people are, what they need, what motivates them, and what they aspire to. This often involves developing creative ways to engage people, whether through in-person ideation workshops or using digital technologies.

I enjoy seeing the entire process — from early research through to implementation. I want to keep building the muscle to do this kind of full-scale project design — and I always look for opportunities where I can lead or participate in all of the aspects of a design and innovation process.

I love the face-to-face, immersive, and hands-on creative aspects of this work. Working with people in workshops and with diverse teams during implementation. I also love iterating — that process of getting feedback and making improvements.

Where are you five years from now?

The work I love the most involves engaging people who aren’t normally consulted. Bringing them into the process and facilitating their participation — in design, implementation, and providing feedback on whether something works or not.

So I’m doing that. Working on projects where I can help make  ideas real — where I can help bring them to life. Whether that’s advising clients how they might approach doing research, facilitating ideation, developing prototypes to test, or designing a program.

I’d like my portfolio be more representative of this kind of work — helping organizations design and work with people in their community they don’t normally consider consulting, or work with them in a new way..

This is consistent with what you’ve said before, wanting to do the full spectrum of ideation — from initial inquiry to seeing a real thing in the world.

I have a sweet spot: I’m creative and visionary, but I’m also pragmatic and can see how something will — or won’t — work in the real world. I like facilitating the ideation process and enjoy the process of figuring out how to make (some of it) real.

I don’t think I’ll ever be an entrepreneur, but I can help others come up with ideas as I’m tethered to reality. I bring that lens to most of my projects, asking questions like: “What do you need to think through in order to make this happen?” Or, “What are the criteria you’ll use to figure out what is a viable idea?”

Thinking about your work, can you tell me about a time where you felt a sense of success?

I lived in China for a while, and worked to help Chinese students apply for U.S. colleges. This involved guiding them through the application process, which was really focused on developing a personal narrative. I helped them tell their story in a way they hadn’t thought about it. I loved working with them to think about a more diverse set of school options and the experiences that made them unique — and then putting that together to tell an authentic story for college admissions.

One student loved biology. But when we unpacked that — when we dug into her motivation to study biology — it emerged that what she really loved was gardening and planting with her grandparents. She had this attention to detail and was fascinated by the connection between humans and growing plant life. She ended up getting accepted into a small liberal arts college with a great biology program. She was so excited because she never would’ve considered that school. She thought about biology as a good degree — but not in connection to who she was as a person. That moment stands out because she got in somewhere that made her really happy and I felt like I played a big role in helping her make that connection with herself.

More recently, I’ve been doing a lot of workshops and facilitation. I worked with 60 youth activists from all over the country who ran programs at their schools and were really connected to the issues they were working on and how those issues affected their communities. We brought them together and helped them figure out both their personal stories as well as their collective shared story. We walked them through the Marshall Ganz storytelling framework, which is based on the idea that you have a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.

Together, we framed a key challenge: “What more could we do if we functioned as a cohesive national community?” They had fun ideating around that, and the process allowed them to connect with people they hadn’t previously known, but who were doing similar work in similar ways. After the workshop, they deepened those connections using an online community platform I set up for them, which has now morphed into a much broader community.

I felt great facilitating the process of them realizing there were other people that were doing what they were doing, that they were connected by something that cut across geographies, and contributing to amplifying their work.

What’s an example of a challenge you’ve faced?

I always see a lot of possibilities and can quickly run with something, but that can dilute efforts. I recently worked on a project where the client didn’t know what they wanted. In the end, we could’ve gotten much further had we been able to focus. We had great ideas, but they weren’t taken very far. We had the seeds of a community of practitioners, but not the structure to develop it. Nothing was built out because the effort was diluted.

I like to try a lot of different ideas and I see a lot of possibilities, but it’s important to get better at  figuring out which ideas to move forward with, whether as a workshop facilitator or in leading a project’s design or implementation.

So this means knowing when to be more opinionated or directive — knowing when to shift from facilitator to advisory?

Yes. I love advising people and telling them what to do. In my personal life, it’s my favorite role. [laughs.]

At that time, I was still finding my voice as a consultant. I learned that a better approach is to see all the possibilities while remembering that you’re helping people move through a process and ultimately make decisions.

Can you give me an example of a recent adaptation or pivot?

The same project I referenced earlier was supposed to create a community of practice that was designed to take off where a campaign had left off — focused on small businesses adopting inclusive and employee-forward practices. The community of practice was going to be the mechanism for what would come next.

The work ended up shifting toward designing an ideation process that aligned with an inclusive growth economic strategy that was being developed by city leaders. So we were tasked with convening a group of people to generate ideas that aligned with the proposed strategy. It was literally like building innovation out of a vacuum.

As the work progressed, new directives emerged. So we pivoted and conducted a virtual session to generate ideas under an inclusive economic development strategy — and then refined those ideas to produce an implementation plan. There were two major challenges: there were no resources on the table to implement the ideas that emerged, and there were no clear selection criteria.

We ended up conducting a total of three virtual sessions, which produced several conceptual ideas for ways that business intermediaries could work together to help businesses adopt these practices. Two of those ideas moved into the implementation phase.

I tweaked the way we typically do prototyping and adapted the business model canvas methodology for this process. With the business model canvas, we emphasized partnerships and focused on impact. We framed it with the idea of “a superpower” — What is the strength that this organization brings? What is the one thing they do for their businesses that no one else does? We came up with the idea of a superpower as a way to identify assets, and built it into the business model canvas.

What kind of support do you think would help you take your work to the next level?

Through career coaching sessions I’ve been able to inventory my skills. I realized that I’d like more experience in data analytics as a way to guide decision-making and generate recommendations. This would help teams create a compelling vision and generate the buy-in needed to do something about it. So you have the vision, the data, and the recommendations all together, which gets people excited and clear on what to do.

What’s the next level up for you?

I’m at a level where I have a wide breadth of experience — I’m very much a generalist. I have proficiency, but not fluency in any specialization. The next level for me is to gain that fluency, and then be able to draw on those experiences.

Can you point to something that makes you feel worried about the future of your work?

As a consultant, I’ve worked in many roles: service design, customer experience, community management. I always see a lot of possibilities, but don’t always know what to prioritize or how to operationalize those possibilities to advance my career. Not having a single defined space that I work can make it hard to assess the best direction forward.

I’ve have come to terms with the fact that I love doing a lot of things. I’m working on figuring out how to articulate this as a strength.

What is something that makes you feel optimistic about this work?

I can be happy doing a lot of things. I’m happy when I feel like I’m valuable, doing good work, and helping people learn something about themselves. I have really good stories I can point to. I feel excited to do more work.

Is there a significant relationship or connection that has emerged for you over the past few years through doing this work?

I worked with a Salesforce development team on a project a while back. Neither of us really knew anything about the others’ work, but we worked together really well. And it was one of those relationships where we had the same boss, but we weren’t each other’s bosses. We were completely peers on a project. I enjoyed working with them. I’ve learned a lot from them and I think they learned a lot from working with my team.

Mostly, my strongest relationships are with my colleagues. I can call these people as references and friends and even just bounce ideas off them. That’s really something that’s been significant.

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This story is copyright Caroline Smeallie and published on the StoryEngine website under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.