On the need to design relationships

Fjord Family

A while ago, I wrote a post for a very interesting bunch of people who were putting together a documentary: Design the new business. In it, I talked about how design is helping shape better business strategies, and what we’d learned along the way making this happen at Fjord.

I’m pleased to share that the film is now live and it’s a good watch – plenty of insight and potential.

The central challenge of getting design thinking to ‘stick’ is still there though, and as I work on different Fjord projects for different clients, we keep coming back to it – how do designers help companies see the potential for change, agree that they need to change, and then actually change. Not so much one challenge as three distinct challenges, with subtly different learnings for each. So what sort of things can designers do differently to ensure that, if their initiative is the right one for the organisation in question, the organisation actually goes ahead and does the thing that we’ve been advising them to do?

At our recent annual get-together of the company, I ran a session with our CFO Henry Fairpo on ‘engaging with top management’ at our different clients. I was surprised and encouraged by the numbers of people, designers and business developers and managers, who attended and helped us think through the topic in some depth.

And it dawned on me that the way designers approach briefs is not so very different from the way in which designers need to engage more with their clients. Designers are fabulous at breaking down a problem, analysing user needs and issues, and coming up with meaningful creative briefs that then inform projects that tackle really important things, ultimately delivering products and services that people love.

But the thing that’s routinely missing, both from the way in which design education is organised through to how design projects are typically run is this: we need to design the relationship we have with our clients. Not just design great services and products, but design the way in which we engage with our clients. That holds if you’re a designer within an agency; it also holds if you’re a designer working in house as part of an internal design or UX team.

Let’s get back to those three challenges:

  1. Help organisations see the potential for change. 
    We’re typically pretty good at this. Through the creative process we can’t help but point out where companies need to change. We can never take a brief at face value – at worst it’s often the outward manifestation of deep internal confusion (conflict?), or at best the germ of a great idea. As we work with our stakeholders and clients, it’s important to push boundaries. But the twist is this: we need to elevate the discussion and have a credible voice when it comes to what the business or organisational consequences might be of pushing those boundaries. The first trick to helping our clients sit up and take notice of the potential under their noses is to have a deep enough understanding of their business in the first place. Not just what they do, but how they’re organised, who’s involved, what departments are missing from the project. We’re currently working on a pretty major organisational change initiative being driven by a design organisation within a large media company, for example. Not to mention the work we’re doing with one of the big UK supermarkets, where we’re pushing beyond the brief and helping the client see the potential.
  2. Help organisations agree they need to change. 
    Here’s where design projects can start to come unstuck. It can be so obvious when we’re working at the heart of a project that things need to change, but if we’re part of a project, we’ve been on a journey, and that journey isn’t always clear to people on the outside. So the thing we need to ‘design’ is how we start to communicate what we’re doing, to achieve that nirvana state of ‘stakeholder buy-in’. We pay lip service to this important phase without always understanding just how difficult it can be. To my mind, really successful designers are also people who can engage with the difficult and dirty stuff of day to day organisational politics. How do you get your message across? Who do you need to tell first, what allies do you need before approaching the executive committees? Unless you’re able to design this phase, ideally working pretty closely with a bunch of people within the client organisation, then the likelihood of a project seeing the light of day is getting slimmer, especially if you’ve come up with an amazing and meaningful idea that wasn’t already mandated by someone else. On a recent project in Turkey, this preoccupation was front of mind. We even presented the concept and the likely implications to the CEO, working really closely with the executive VPs to get the messaging right. The service is now far ahead into build, launching soon.
  3. Help organisations actually change. 
    Getting something to market, especially when it involves major change, strikes to the heart of the problem. By the time something is launched, there’s a very real possibility of dilution, getting mired in organisational stasis, or simply getting hijacked by a bigger agenda. And this is where designers and design companies really need to learn. It’s not just about getting the thing built without mishap (although that’s critical too): we need to design how we want to get something to market, including who needs to be involved, helping map the impacts on their areas, reassure them about it, design new KPIs and measures for different areas, engage with a host of different areas to help develop an integrated launch plan that doesn’t just get to the launch date, but takes into account continuous improvement, iteration and testing. I’m currently helping a small company get to market with a new venture, working alongside an extremely brilliant product manager – the sense of focus on this project is fantastic, but I’ve been involved in others that, frankly, get kicked into the long grass way too easily.

All of this applies not just to working with large organisations but also to smaller, more agile ones. The size of the company can change, the velocity can change too, but the organisational challenges remain. Approaches to product development, be they Agile, or Lean or whatever, can be extremely effective, but even getting these approaches embedded can be fraught with exactly the same challenges as those I’ve just outlined.

So let’s remember the main point here – let’s not just design great products and services, but lets design relationships with the organisations we’re working with, to ensure that we get things out to market where they belong.

Fjord Family

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