Simple steps to strengthen your design leadership
Design is driving business today. Companies are actively embracing design as a core path to innovation and distinctive product experiences. Design, once considered an afterthought, has now become a business fundamental. This has prompted an extreme shift across businesses and industries towards integrating design thinking approaches and talent to build design-driven organizations.
Being a design leader in this design revolution today brings great opportunity yet at the same time great challenge. While your talents are more in demand than ever, you quite often may feel like you are moving a mountain with few resources but many expectations. Or perhaps you have the resources but building consensus and unity is the insurmountable challenge. In either case, the mountain of responsibility falls to you the design leader — to hire talent, train and manage staff, maintain current product experiences, plan for future innovation, evangelize methods and enhance design leadership. And on top of that, your efforts to transform the organization into a design-driven leader are an uphill climb with legacy mindsets, organizational structures, politics and personalities that create friction and roadblocks.
With all this in front of you, where do you start or how do you evolve when you are responsible for this mission. While there is no silver bullet, over our 14 years of experience at Punchcut fostering design teams and helping companies transform into design-driven organizations, we have captured a few perspectives along the way. We have found that there are 5 key themes to effectively growing a design team and design-driven organization.
- Establish a clear vision and authentic mission
- Hire culture builders not culture consumers
- Leverage support for speed and scale
- Focus on persuasion not only production
- Build relationships with living experiences
1. Establish a clear vision and authentic mission
Design starts with a vision.
In the rush to transform, companies are acquiring designers and design teams faster than ever. Companies are clamoring to capture emerging design talent right out of school along with lurring veteran talent with years of insight and experience with attractive packages and offers. While these teams are great blends of various skills and experiences, they are often a mixture of mindsets, approaches and experiences loosely stitched into established organizations with legacy process and expectations; or in the case of startups emerging teams with little clarity around process and vision.
This infusion brings great energy but a clear vision is needed to unify the team and educate the organization on the value and impact of design. Your vision should be clear, be principled and be consistent in its message about the impact your team will have. Designers are creators and when they create real products and experiences that enhance and improve lives they thrive. Helping everyone to understand what is the vision and why it matters is always job number 1. Sharing the vision through active sessions, materials and videos are helpful ways to keep it alive and in view.
Design must be authentic.
A clear vision brings clarity but it must be generated from an authentic mission and commitment. It is possible to find great designers and build a thriving culture of design and innovation but it does not happen overnight. Time and care are needed to nurture the right blend of people, process and perspectives. But most importantly the commitment and motivation must be genuine. Great design is about authenticity and human-insight. Faux attempts and short-cuts to simply “keep up with the Joneses” never deliver lasting impact in the end. Designers seek out authenticity and the companies that are honest and value the true nature of design are rewarded with loyalty. To be authentic you must live the values and vision you aspire.
2. Hire culture builders not culture consumers
Design thrives in a healthy culture.
Too often companies mistakenly believe that culture can be fabricated simply by breaking down the cubes, adding a foosball table and painting the walls. While flexible, creative environments can be more conducive to creative thinking and activities, they are not the source of the culture but merely a supplement. Culture is fueled from the people. And the type of people you hire is critical to how this culture develops. We have found the most effective ways to build a great culture is to find the right people — people who are culture builders not simply culture consumers. The qualities of a culture builder are people that care about the vision and mission and desire to extend and expand on how it is achieved. They are social connectors and leaders. They thrive when everyone around them is succeeding. They want to improve things and at the same time they seek to preserve the things that genuinely make a difference for teams and products. When hiring look for these qualities beyond the specific skills.
Design-driven culture is contagious
While people fuel culture, a culture is a blend of philosophies, processes, and preferences, that connect and sustain a team or organization. In addition to building a strong culture within your design team the greater mission is to evolve the collective culture of the larger organization. A culture of design and innovation must be encouraged across business units and divisions in order to genuinely deliver on the mission of being a design-driven organization. Sending out your culture builders to find other culture builders is key. In some organizations, we have helped to establish design stewards or representatives that liaise with the core design team but have specific insight into the individual product groups. Too often product teams are separated from design services teams creating disconnect and a lack of empathy between them. Evangelizing through cultural infusion is often the best first step. Invite product teams to brainstorm vision sessions and set up residency with product teams to better understand their flow and needs. Over time this mutual collaboration helps to extend the culture of design and innovation.
3. Leverage support for speed and scale
Openness keeps design strong.
Companies more than ever desire to build design and innovation into their company’s DNA. Consequently, they seek to develop this internally and limit their need for external support. They believe that companies that truly embrace a design-driven mindset have seamlessly built it into their culture. While true for some, this is not always the case. Just as good designers know how to pull from a variety of sources, methods and streams to create the best solutions so too should design leaders seek to find leverage in a variety of places to scale to meet the pace effectively. The goal of creating a self-sustaining organization can still be maintained while leveraging different sources (internal and external) for design leadership and support. Special skills may require engaging a specialist beyond your team, but it may prove fruitful even when the most basic skills are required to tap external sources.
We have been helping organizations do this from our inception. Our mission has always been to seamlessly integrate with organizations in the most appropriate ways. Some companies simply need additional contributors to help get things done, while others need talent with strategic and organization vision to help establish foundational systems for teams. In either case the goal is to empower and enable your teams so they can move quicker, create more and clarify their direction. We refer to this as “design acceleration”. It is not about speed but more about impact. If only for a moment, tapping external sources may be your key to accelerating your growth and success. In your mission, you will need interim solutions to create bridges that carry you to the next level of impact.
Support comes from all directions.
Support does not always come from within your team, it must also come from those above your team at an executive level or those you serve — product groups. While they may be the ones setting the goals for you, you must enlist them in the mission as well. Exposing them to progress and process more frequently can open their eyes to the challenges and successes that are emerging from your group. You must involve them as an active participant so they can develop a level of empathy for the challenges and successes of design process. Open review sessions or open design war rooms are casual ways you can manage up about progress and process without encroaching into schedules and time.
4. Focus on persuasion not only production
Design is the power of persuasion.
In today’s experience-driven economy, businesses are racing faster than ever to compete and succeed. Technology has not only increased the pace of innovation but it has increased the reach of it. In a world where everything is connected, there are more customer touch points than ever that require design. The pace and scale inherently increase the demands of production output to ultimately show successful results. In the end, great designers must produce great solutions that ensure successful products. This naturally puts a heavier focus on production from your vantage point.
But in the rush to produce, many quickly lose sight of what matters most in hiring people and creating solutions. The ability to persuade and connect is crucial. We have learned that when hiring designers you must look for those who can persuade beyond simply producing. Good solutions sometimes never make it to market because they could not be effectively communicated or evangelized within an organization. The same goes for great product experiences. The products that are uniquely connected with consumers and bring moments of delight and true value are the ones that stand apart and succeed. The art of persuasion in design is critical. Persuasion is helping people to see opportunity and value. It is not simply selling or advocating. Great designers can smoothly guide and respond to opportunities and challenges in ways that preserve the essence of the product or experience.
5. Build relationships with living experiences
Bring design to life.
Design has the power to transform products and organizations. Yet, design process and value is misunderstood in organizations. To some, design is elusive. For the quantifiers, design appears ethereal and emotional and not data centric enough. To others, design is something that anybody can do. In large organizations you have to find ways to educate a broad set of constituents on the value, art and science of design. This is a big task. So what do you do — make design tangible as often as possible. Create living active experiences that bring design to life in process and product. This may range from sketching, to walkthroughs, to creating living demonstrations or design lab areas. The more real you get the more you can show the impact of design. One caution making it real does not mean shortcutting your process and principles of good design thinking. It simply means creating tangible output along the way that is understood by designers and non-designers.
Design balances approaches to success.
As a design leader, your job is also to find a way to balance the equation by inspiring the organization to think holistically and inspire seamless innovation. Business metrics and fundamentals put extreme demands on product results and quantification — revenue, profit, etc. Market forces and competition increase, replicate and push the pace of progress harder and faster for long term sustainability. In the process, the “softer” side of business has sometimes been undervalued over the “hard” data side of the equation. Unfortunately, there is no soft or hard side to the equation — business is all about relationships establishing them, extending them and then enhancing that deliver value.
Design builds holistic relationships.
Design at its core is fundamentally about understanding and organizing relationships. So your job as a design leader is to begin with the most important relationships — people. Seek to bring people together in ways that encourage sharing, collaboration and stepping out of comfort-zones and thinking traps. Design thinking approaches are well suited to help open-minds and walls focused on seeking new ways to see product experiences of the future. Yet, merely bringing people together does not simply solve the balance of the equation. Helping people to live in all dimensions of experiences–both the rational and the emotional–takes it one step further. The goal is to evolve from one-dimensional, siloed perspectives to embrace more multi-dimensional point-of-views. Exercises that force accountants to sketch, executives to role-play a customer, or designer to crunch the analytics will stretch and expand the view teams have and over time help to show how design and business must be holistic. In the end, product experiences, do not exist in silos they are delivered in a connected world. Remember this process takes time. Bringing people together is one step. Keeping them together more holistically is ultimate success.
The revolution has just begun.
Clearly you have big job ahead of you. An exciting one no less. You are a part of the design revolution in business. Design is more important than ever. But growing design-driven companies and teams is no simple task. We hope that these few simple reminders can help guide your continuing design leadership and evolution. Though it may feel like moving a mountain, if you approach it as a journey and not a destination you will see more success.