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ThinkPlace designer Cybelle Ledez in Kathmandu

When it takes a decade to find your (Think)Place...

Sometimes, when you find yourself in the right place at the right time, the clouds all part and you can finally see things clearly.

That’s an experience that resonates for ThinkPlace’s Cybelle Ledez.

But more on that later.

Early in her career, Cybelle was naturally drawn to using a co-design approach to challenge the status quo. In 2001, her work in Southwest Queensland, delivering projects that achieved better educational and employment outcomes for local communities saw her recognised as a finalist in the Young Australian of the Year and Young Manager of the Year 2001.

By the time she joined ThinkPlace in 2018, Ledez had built an impeccable CV across the Australian Public Service. She arrived more than a decade after first thinking she would like to work for the company started by John Body and Nina Terrey.

“I was running stakeholder relations at Medicare and working on a big project when I first met (ThinkPlace partners) John and Nina,” she says.

“Straight away there was a connection with their values and purpose. After that there was always this idea that one day we might work together.”

A long-term leader when it comes to introducing design thinking, human-centred design and co-design within various government departments she has seen a revolution sweep through government agencies and departments in recent years.

At the Department of Human Services she ran one of the first major co-design projects in the APS.

As one of the key design voices behind the Digital Transformation Office (later the Digital Transformation Agency) she played a key role in establishing that agency’s focus on a user-centred philosophy that remains core to its DNA to this day.

And as organiser and co-facilitator of the first ever Design Jam across APS agencies in 2014 she was instrumental in fanning the flames of design thinking within government.

“I’d describe myself as strong in facilitating change, in empowering people to take a human-centred approach, in leading teams and in influencing leaders to adopt a new way of working,” she says. “And I just love working with amazing, creative, passionate people to achieve something special.”

DHS, like the Australian Tax Office from which ThinkPlace partners John Body, Nina Terrey and Darren Menachemson emerged, was an early adopter of methods such as human-centred design, co-design and design thinking.

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Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu helped shape the thinking of ThinkPlace designer Cybelle Ledez
Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu helped shape the thinking of ThinkPlace designer Cybelle Ledez

Over a decade Ledez has seen these ideas grow in influence across the public sector. And after spending time at the DTO she returned to DHS and led the team that started a design thinking mentoring program that has trained people across the entire APS.

“Across the public service there’s a lot of really passionate people who desperately want to see this capability grow and be enabled,” she says.

“Working now at ThinkPlace it’s important that we recognise that capability and do not assume it is absent. For us, it’s about continuing to build partnerships and work with people who understand the benefits of designing things this way and for leaders in the APS who really champion it.”

She believes these methods work well in government but knows that an overly dogmatic approach to them can stymie progress.

“We have to be pragmatic,” she says. “And we have to always remember that we are there to help our client tackle a problem they are having. Not to convert them.”

The past decade has given rise to an increasingly-competitive marketplace in which the design thinking language long used by ThinkPlace has become more commonplace for many of the largest consultants to government.

“In this environment we just have to be as authentic as possible,” Ledez says. “When we work with a client we need to outperform their expectations. We need to deliver on what we say we’ll do and then go further.”

Ask her what she brings to her role at ThinkPlace and Ledez nominates her broad range of contacts across the APS and her ability to understand the design challenges within government from that side of the fence.

The people she is now working with are in a position she inhabited herself all-too-recently.

But there’s something else too.

“I think because I understand how these places work and the challenges they face that I am pretty good at winning the trust of a client and convincing them of the need to experiment,” she says. ‘’To dare to try something new and innovative.”

The lure of the big, world-changing idea is one that drives ThinkPlace and it’s a drive she shares.

Much of this she traces back to a year-long overseas trip she took in 2011. A year prior Ledez had lost her sister to cancer. Towards the end the sisters promised each other that whoever lived longest would try to live out the unfulfilled dreams of the other. In her last few days, her sister gave her a notebook filled with her dreams for the future.

“It spurred me on to look at life and ask the big questions,” she says.

Chasing those questions took her to London and Paris, to ashrams and silence retreats and to all manner of exotic locations.

And it took her to the Kopan Monastery, atop a mountain in Kathmandu – where she spent two weeks doing a Buddhist meditation course. That fortnight at the monastery, coincided with a general strike in the city below.

“Because of the strike the city was at a standstill, the cars all stopped. Nobody was driving,” she says.

“Over the course of two weeks as the cars all stopped I saw the terrible smog of Nepal start to lift. From on top of this mountain I could see it gradually all disappear and then suddenly it was gone.

I thought to myself: This is the impact we are having on the planet. It was so clear.”

At ThinkPlace, among other responsibilities, Ledez will be the Sustainable Environments Lead. It is a responsibility she takes seriously, guiding our work in the environment sector but also making sure ThinkPlace itself develops sustainably as it continues to expand.

A self-described “nature lover” she says Canberra’s surrounding bush gives her time and space when stresses build up. “Whenever I can be close to nature I love it,” she says.

 

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