Are You Really Ready For Design? - hero image

Are You Really Ready For Design?

It seems like every company wants design. Human-centered design, Design thinking, Design strategy, User experience, Innovation – it’s the buzz, and it’s been the buzz for over a decade now. Companies want design. But are they ready for it?

At Modernist, we work with a variety of clients, and mostly large ones. And we see some consistent indicators that seem to predict how creative projects will run in these companies: if they will be successful, and what some of the largest challenges will be. As we build up this predictive knowledge, we can start to strategically change our approach to help our clients achieve success.

I’ve heard some of these qualities called dysfunctions. Increasingly, I see them as curiosities built into company culture. The people in the company who are most successful have learned to work through, with, and around that culture’s idiosyncrasies. Just because a company has eccentricities doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t leverage the value of a strategic approach to design.

These are some of the indicators we’ve seen that indicate a company is not only ready to embrace the power of design strategy, but will find the process harmonious and will reap the benefits of their investment:

  • Small Groups, Small Meetings
  • Transparency of Strategy
  • No Rules
  • Focus on Customers, Not Org Structures
  • Well-Funded Front Lines
  • An Empowering Legal Team
  • Our Own Aspirations


Small Groups, Small Meetings

One of my friends used to describe a large group of people trying to be creative as a “group grope,” with everyone struggling to latch onto something, anything, as an anchor for the discussion. The behavior I see in a large group meeting or a giant project team almost always shows what I would call a “dual miss” in alignment.

The first miss is in the actual content of the creative activity. Everyone in the meeting has a unique perspective on the subject matter. They view the problem differently, view the constraints differently, and have different information that drives the way they think about framing the problem. Language becomes a shortcut for that perspective, but spoken language is often imprecise. The words “platform,” “experience,” and especially “design” can derail entire conversations, simply because of a mismatch in definition.

The second miss is how they think about a creative process. Some people are comfortable with ambiguity and don’t need a well-defined process before starting an exploration. Some people want to know the goals and steps before they start. Some need a complete picture of the context to feel comfortable, while others are okay with a limited view of the problem landscape. And some people are just fine saying things that are silly or incomplete; others are self-conscious and reluctant to participate in a less mature conversation; and still others see play as inappropriate in a business context. This means that a large portion of a meeting (or project) can be spent discussing, debating, and deciding on how to do things, which often is at the expense of actually doing things.

People in a small group can be just as misaligned in both content and process. The difference is that the realignment is much, much easier. If two people disagree on how to run a creative session, they can quickly talk through the pros and cons of each approach and either agree on one or synthesize the ideas into a new, hybrid method. It’s clear what the “rules” are.

But in a large group, it’s a spiderweb of agreement: an exponential task of knowing how people want to work and then merging those ideas into an approach. I don’t actually think it’s possible to align a group of 15 or more people on an approach. They may agree to go along with the process, but everyone won’t believe in it, and so they won’t champion the outcome.

When we look around a company and see 10 or 20 people in a meeting that’s supposed to be about “brainstorming” or is called a “working session,” it’s a sign of consensus culture. We encourage our clients to consider cancelling these meetings entirely, or limiting attendance. What will people really miss if they aren’t involved? Are creative decisions really being made in these meetings, or are they just a waste of energy?

Transparency of Strategy

While daily or frequent tactical meetings can be creatively frustrating, a somewhat regular leadership-driven strategic update, focused on product and service rather than organizational dynamics, indicates transparency and a respect for the maturity of the team. We’ve seen companies that are reluctant to provide information to their teams because they fear the team won’t be able to contextualize the information and that it may scare them. And, we’ve seen leaders that are so separate from the practitioners that they don’t even realize how large an information gap has grown. When leaders feel free to share strategy with their team, it signals that they feel the team is mature enough to absorb that information.

Of course, there are limits to this: oversharing is both disruptive (too many meetings) and makes it difficult to focus on the day to day decision making, the tactics that are often viewed as the “long slog” of shipping new value to customers. When we see that form of oversharing, we also observe a more tangible sense of worry, or even pessimism, about strategic decision making.

It’s a delicate balance, but the extremes are easy to see. Particularly obvious is a hesitation to share a sense of where the product or service roadmap is headed. Creative practitioners need a north-star, one that rarely shifts, and they need to understand why broad decisions are being made in certain ways. A regular “stay the course” message on product and service delivery helps creative teams internalize that direction: it’s a reminder, and underscores commitment and regularity.

One of the clues we have that a culture struggles with this is the amount of time spent placing blame on leadership. When we hear stories or lamenting on how out of touch management is with the realities of the day-to-day work, or how frequently management changes their mind, it’s a sign that a given project will struggle with big-picture alignment and follow-through.

No Rules

Rules – big ones and small ones – act as signals to practitioners that someone other than themselves knows what is best. When a team is told by facilities that they can’t put things on the wall or change the temperature of the room, or when a group is told by a corporation that they have to wear certain clothes or work certain hours, it reinforces that there are right and wrong things to do. This bleeds over into strategic innovation: it implies that someone else has the answer, and the job is to figure it out, not invent it.

It’s a big jump for a manager to see how small operational rules, like “do not move the furniture,” can hamper creativity. When we see cultures that do make that connection, it’s typically tacit – it’s hard for anyone to actually describe that one impacts the other. And the relationship is not causal. A culture with no rules can easily fall into “bro land,” where nerf darts, beer, and language create a toxic environment. A positive environment with no rules can be quiet and introverted, well-structured, and mature. This subjectivity makes this a hard quality to sniff out and an even harder quality to foster.

But we often see clues of this strong culture during our first meeting and introduction to a team (even during our sales or negotiation cycles), because we see people simply get to work, rather than apologize for the logistics of the meeting itself. We can observe subtleties, like the frustrations of booking a room, ordering catering, delivering a file via email, or finding an HDMI cord, all of which give clues about the amount of freedom or “lock down” employees experience. These are indicators of how much latitude there will be to paint outside of the lines during a creative exploration.

Focus on Customers, Not Org Structures

Our primary focus is on helping our partners with a problem. Sometimes it’s ill-defined, and sometimes it’s well defined, but there’s always a “there, there” and the discussions we want to have focus on the project work. But in some cases, we notice that the majority of our conversations are not focused on the products, services, strategy or customers, but instead on the internal organizational structures of the company. We might hear our clients describe that this person “rolls up” to that person, and frequently describe the hierarchy within the company.

Understanding this organizational structure is critical in large businesses because it indicates how many people will have approval and input into a creative activity. But sometimes, the conversation, consideration, and worry about this structure becomes the bulk of the discussion, and in these cases, it’s a sign that design will have a long, winding road towards success. Projects have a limited amount of time to drive impact. If that limited time is spent primarily focused on internal politics, it will be at the expense of focusing on customers and value.

A focus on internal organization is not an indicator that design won’t be successful. It’s often these large organizations that are best equipped to delivery value at scale. But it is an indicator of the speed at which design will happen – a predictor that a slow, careful, and politically sensitive process will follow. Attempts at acceleration will be unsuccessful.

Well-Funded Front Lines

There are a variety of touchpoints with customers that extend beyond products and services. These touchpoints provide clues about how a company will react to a view of experience as systemic or holistic. Customer service representatives often present the face of the company to customers. Some companies empower their customer service representatives to bend over backwards for customers, doing the right thing even if it means doing something expensive or out of policy. Other companies are focused on limiting the cost of these activities, viewing them as a necessary evil and a cost center. Lowering the cost of customer service means incentivizing representatives to be fast, rather than thorough. We’ve all encountered the rep that seems to just want to get off the phone. It’s likely that they are penalized for long calls or low transactional throughput.

Sometimes, our projects focus on an in-the-round view of strategy, and as part of our evaluation, we call the call-center ourselves. It’s a great clue not just about the experience customers are having, but how the company will think about tradeoffs: when push comes to shove, should we do things that benefit our customers, or minimize costs?

An Empowering Legal Team

When a company reaches a certain size and scale, they begin to run into issues of compliance, and lawyers start to play an instrumental role in the context of product decisions. When I was at Blackboard, legal issues around FERPA and data privacy impacted the types of things we could show to students, parents, and faculty. The design team didn’t have expertise in those areas, and we relied on the legal team to help us navigate those structures.

Companies that seem ready for design have legal partners that empower product teams, instead of limit them. When they work through product decisions, the lawyers advise and make suggestions on how to improve, instead of simply saying “no.” This is an indicator that they view their role not as distinct from the customer-focused value proposition: they see themselves as advocates for people, rather than policies. Risk mitigation can go hand-in-hand with positive experience.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are companies where legal is feared. Teams anticipate that, when their work is presented to counsel, their design will become trashed with user agreements and opt-outs, or worse, the functionality will be removed entirely based on a risk-assessment. In these companies, innovation is purposefully tempered because it raises a flag to the legal team. If the product teams think the legal team will kill their work, they’ll do the best to either hide what they’ve made, or make it as innocuous and “nerfed” as possible.

Our Own Aspirations

One of the most telling signs of a design-ready company is the way they talk about their design goals. Some companies describe what they want to do in terms of their customers, their employees, and their organization. They use phrases like “We want to provide our customers the ability to…” or “We want to empower our employees to…” This internally-focused language indicates that leadership has introspection: they reflect on their own competencies, strengths, and weaknesses, and they see themselves in the context of the people they serve.

An opposite perspective is to describe design goals by focusing externally. Leaders at these types of companies describe their goals in terms of other companies or the vague idea of the market. They say things like “We want to be like Apple or Nike” or “We need to keep up with our competitors.” These are perfectly reasonable goals for a company to have, but the language is a strong predictor for how these teams and companies will respond during a design process. An external market focus leads to a feature competition; instead of exploring product innovations or decisions that are best for customers, project teams will often be encouraged to focus on feature parity. And when leaders focus on external company models, this focus – while valuable in aspiration – often rejects or ignores the commitments and risk-taking these other companies have made and the length of time it’s taken them to establish their company culture. You don’t become Nike in a year, or two, or five or ten. It took them since the mid 1960’s to become the design powerhouse they are today.


Signs of Opportunity

The lack of these traits are “early warning signs” of how hard change will be. But because something is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or can’t happen. It’s often the desire to embrace some of the positive values I’ve described that sparks a design strategy push in the first place. When you start to see a sea-change around these traits, it’s a great sign that the company is shifting, and that the pain of creativity will start to dissipate. When these positive traits become visible, design will start to flourish. And often, design can be the catalyst to help these traits emerge: it can be a force for positive change.

Jon Kolko

Modernist can help you drive design through your company culture.

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