Creating impact by scaling four peaks

As designers, we aim for impact in our work. Opher Yom-Tov argues there are four mountain peaks that each of us as designers need to scale:

  • where is the company, between the swamp of status quo and the oasis of awesome?
  • where is design in the hierarchy? Where does the biggest supporter of design sit in the organisation?
  • what is your organisation’s perception of design?
  • where are you on your journey to design mastery?

Opher’s thesis on how designers can have massive impact is through large organisations – whether government, or nonprofit or corporate. There are very few people who are able to create a large movement outside a large organisation.

There are four mountain peaks that each of us as designers need to scale:

  1. where is the company, between the swamp of status quo and the oasis of awesome?
  2. where is design in the hierarchy? Where does the biggest supporter of design sit in the organisation?
  3. what is your organisation’s perception of design?
  4. where are you on your journey to design mastery?

There is a magical place called the Oasis of Awesome, where you and your organisation arrive at when you absolutely able to deliver massive impact. For ANZ their version of this is that their customers love them, because they are doing the right thing by them. That staff enjoy working there because it’s a great place to be. That their products are awesome and there’s a bias to action.

You definition of the Oasis of Awesome will be different, but you’ll be able to imagine it. There are companies out there who have made it, like Google and Apple and many others.

But it’s not easy to get to the OoA. People tend to be very happy in the cozy, warm Swamp of Status Quo. People need a nudge to get out of there.

Between the swamp and oasis you go through…

  • Ascent of self-awareness, whether at the individual or organisation level. Where you have to reflect on how bad the swamp is, and maybe there’s a better place. It’s a bit of an uphill slog.
  • Summit of commitment, where you have enough people convinced, that have the conviction that the swamp was bad and there’s somewhere better to be. This is not easy, it often means replacing a CEO, or a Prime Minister, and most or all of the leadership team.
  • Run of transformation, where all the hard work happens to actually get there.

Before you can begin a journey to change, you need to be able to identify where the organisation is. That’s the first peak.

The next peak deals with hierarchy. There is always some kind of hierarchy. Where is the highest-placed person who really gets design? That will make a huge difference to whether change is possible. You need high level support. Remember that it isn’t always someone who you’d think of as a ‘designer’.

The next peak is whether people understand design. Do non-designers think it’s all about aesthetics? The crayon department that slaps lipstick on pigs? Signs and symbols are a huge part of design, but that’s not the whole. It’s also about objects and artefacts; interactions and services; and finally solving systems and wicked problems.

Would your organisation see a major business problem and decide to tackle it as a design problem?

The last mountain you have to climb is…. yourself. You have to be prepared to muster the passion and grit to take on the difficult journey of having major impact.

What are the traits of a great designer?

  • purpose – what do you stand for? what gets you out of bed in the morning? If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.
  • niceness – the single biggest superpower that you need to master is niceness! It takes years to master any number of skills, you are going to mess up and fail. If you are nice to people they will reach to you and help when you’re down.
  • craft – build your skills, build your ability to execute. You may build this in a place you don’t ultimately think you’ll have a big impact, but if it’s making you better at your craft then it may be the right place.
  • pragmatism – Apple spends a remarkable amount of time prototyping things, but even they have to make a decision one day to ship something even when it’s not perfect. Sometimes the best design is the one that’s released.
  • persistance – you need grit, don’t compromise on the big picture even when you’re tactically pragmatic
  • leadership – find opportunities to engage people around you, build your coalition of the willing

The last thought is that the journey looks like one post-it note.

The creative process:

  1. this is awesome!
  2. this is tricky
  3. this is shit
  4. I am shit
  5. this might be ok
  6. this is awesome!

@oyomtov