Overlap’s Head, Relationships and Problem Framing, Alison Portt, shares her journey from charity development director to entering the world of human-centred design.

I made the decision to leave a successful career in fundraising to join Overlap, a social innovation design firm in Kitchener, Ontario. This massive career decision was a difficult one to make, but it was ultimately a long-time coming.

Overlap helps organizations use human-centred design to create revolutionary products and services that make better a reality for people, organizations and, ultimately, the world around them.

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As Head, Relationships and Problem Framing, my role is to build partnerships with clients and create results using human-centred design for systemic transformation.


How I got from there to here

I found myself in complete career uncertainty in 2011 when the organization that saw me through all my life’s major milestones, and over ten years of fundraising, moved me into an innovation role. The role was ambiguous at first, but it ultimately became the best work-related gift I would ever receive; it would become the foundation of my career.

During that time, I was introduced to intense innovation training. The training taught me early on that skill and process beat talent any day.

When organizations plan and make decisions without understanding their end-user, or the people impacted by the ‘problem,’ they increase the chance of getting it wrong.

I learned that co-creation and collaboration were critical in problem-solving and that never losing sight of this knowledge would serve me well as I pursued my career goals.

To be innovative, it’s important to lean into discomfort to look for it and embrace it. This was not easy for a professional who built a strong fund development reputation by consistently devising plans that delivered on targets with absolute certainty, and with well-mapped contingencies.

It was time to push myself into discomfort.

At the time the position was comfortable and happy, but I was missing ‘work joy’ the kind of thing that had me feeling equally scared and excited about my role in delivering excellence. It was even something I probably owed the organization that had invested so much in me for so long. I had given them my best, and it was time for me to move on and possibly return one day better for making the choice to leave.


Sense-making and problem framing

I took on a role last year that was set to be my next career chapter. It was the job I always dreamed of landing. It was a demanding role in the charitable sector with an organization that was aggressively moving into the future with awesome rigor and ambition – something that felt exciting to be a part of.

In that role, I was trusted, challenged, and supported in making changes that would help position the organization well into the future.

My innovation process strength is on the front-end, which my new role quickly validated for me. I was challenged daily with problems that I could unpack and clarify comfortably. I could make connections, encourage co-design, and begin the sense-making process with ease.

I motivated my team with optimism, leading them to turn insights into ideas, and ideas into action. I found myself thriving when I was framing problems and building relationships.

And yet, I was feeling the weight of the important daily operational activities that came with a major fundraising function. It became clear to me very quickly that I would probably not fulfill my ultimate desire to introduce innovation and human-centred design to the industry with that role.


Putting people at the center of a problem

There is a gap within charities and fundraising ventures between what should theoretically help people, and what will help people. The opportunity for charities to focus on the actual people they are designed to help is huge.

Human-centred design puts people at the centre of a problem.

I was an Overlap client early on in my innovation role. They are process experts, which is why we started working together. They taught me how to use design thinking and human-centred design to generate revolutionary ideas and solve complex problems. They were highly effective in their approach with our team.

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Overlap taught us how to lead a system of change by building on our existing capacity and putting people at the center of everything. They built from where we were along with us – leaving our team better than when they found us.

It was exactly the focus on human-centred design and innovation I had been missing in my career so far.


Moving into Human-Centred Design

Overlap’s work is important, and I feel extremely privileged to be a part of it. Here I believe I will achieve my goal of introducing innovation and human-centred design to other visionary organizations.

Since the very beginning, Overlap has been a pioneer in the area of human-centred strategic planning.

Overlap isn’t afraid of messy, complex systems and the team approaches each of them by focusing on the experience of the people within. It all works because real transformational change can only happen when the solution works for the people it directly affects.

Overlap designers use qualitative techniques that link human experiences to the specific goals that will move clients toward a desired future. Clients love this approach because it connects them to their key stakeholders, representing diverse perspectives ultimately aligning teams like never before.

It’s been a month since I became an Overlapper. I’ve had a chance to meet a number of clients.

In my second week, I met a client who brought an executive group to our office for a facilitation in our space. We were helping them get unstuck on a problem they had been tackling for some time.

After the session, I had a chance to say hello. She excitedly welcomed me to the team and called the Overlap work “magic.”  She went on to describe how the team transforms outcomes by using approaches that leave people feeling better, even brighter, and more hopeful about the complex problems they are trying to solve.


Better is always possible

Overlap offers a number of services that move transformational change into organizations.

  1. Action Planning

So often organizations build strong Strategic Plans and then don’t know where to start or how to put the plan into action.

Overlap starts from where you are. They get to know the situation and use existing assets. The team creates forums where people can feel safe asking difficult questions, giving truthful answers, and working through challenging situations.

  1. Stakeholder Engagement

It’s hard for organizations to expect their stakeholders to tell them what they actually think when they are asked.

Overlap solicits feedback, gathers information, test drives new ideas, and fine-tunes them before roll-out. This helps organizations validate hunches and build rock solid plans to present to their board, or funders before they make an investment or take a chance on something new.

Overlap synthesizes these findings and delivers them in highly creative and digestible ways.

  1. Co-Design and Collaboration Training

Overlap coaches teams on how to bring key stakeholders into the conversation. Clients get the techniques they need to ask good questions, recognize the most valuable answers and, in the end, make the most effective decisions.

  1. Capacity Building for Adaptation and Innovation

Many organizations are full of high performing fixers, not actual problem solvers. The same problems keep coming up. They are temporarily fixed, but never actually solved.

Overlap coaches clients to analyze, describe, and embrace the real-world context of their problems. Clients build on existing capacity and dig deep to become high performing problem solvers.

  1. Getting to Better

‘Business as usual’ is unacceptable for organizations working tirelessly to deliver a greater impact. Design thinking is a new way of working. Overlap empowers individuals to combine their systems knowledge with their capacity for innovation, in order to develop targeted strategies that meet identified needs.

It all supports the success of the organization, its stakeholders, and any connected user.


I left Fundraising to Work In Human-Centred Design

My journey of constantly trying to design a better version of me has helped me see that I am at my best making connections and helping organizations discover their potential.

That’s where I find my work joy.

I encourage you to learn more about the power of design thinking and human-centred design because it’s bigger than any one tool or method. Thinking through design is a fundamentally different, empathy-driven approach to interacting with the world around us – one Overlap believes anyone can adopt.


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