Lessons from the Battlefield

Designers! We have finally arrived! We are now in great demand. Over the past ten years, design agencies have been acquired by big companies at a great rate. We now have a seat at the table, at the highest leadership levels. We no longer have to justify our value to the business. Design-driven companies outperform their competitors. Design is good for business!

So, what happens now?

Maria Giudice

Designers! We have finally arrived! We are now in great demand. Over the past ten years, design agencies have been acquired by big companies at a great rate. We now have a seat at the table, at the highest leadership levels. We no longer have to justify our value to the business. Design-driven companies outperform their competitors. Design is good for business!

Maria went to Autodesk to help them transition from old school business to design-driven culture. The company was 35 years old and had over 400 designers, but Maria was the first designer to enter at a senior leadership level. She perhaps under-estimated how big a task organisation change is at such a large company.

Changemakers

  • see patterns around them
  • identify the problems
  • organise fluid teams
  • lead collective action
  • continually adapt

(definition by Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka)

As a changemaker where do you begin? Treat every problem like a design problem; and start with people. She went on a listening tour, visiting all the offices. She hung out with the teams (everyone at every level) and asked five questions.

  1. tell me your story
  2. why did you choose to work here
  3. what’s keeping you up at night
  4. what are your hopes and dreams
  5. how can i help you?

The same problems kept coming up:

  • engineering-focused culture focused on execution
  • no cohesive design community
  • imbalance of power on product teams
  • fragmented access to customers and research
  • quantity of features over quality of experience

Familiar problems, but what to do about them?

Silos kill innovation! They create organisations of efficiency, but they create fiefdoms, self-interested parties. Many companies even intentionally set them to compete. Silos are like mob bosses, they defend their territory and make people stay in their own lane. The end result is maintaining the status quo, which is death to a changemaker.

So the first order of business: bust the silos. Find the coalition of the willing who will support your mission. Create safety in numbers.

For autodesk Maria settled on four guiding principles:

  • ship quality
  • connect experiences
  • focus on customers
  • build community

A key step was organising an internal design conference. A big challenge for someone new, who has never organised an event that big! This meant she had to find the coalition of the willing very quickly, to build the volunteer army required to make it happen. It was a massive shift for the company to begin celebrating design in such a way.

When you join a company as a changemaker, you are optimistic and imagine it will be a clear path to success… but in reality there are very big ups and downs. Failure is inevitable. It sucks. It hurts. It takes time to recover. But it is necessary! If you haven’t failed at anything you probably haven’t taken enough risks.

Many people quit when they hit the big lows. But you have to persist. Bouncing back from failure makes you stronger.

Lessons from the battlefield

  1. Build a coalition of the willing
  2. Executive support is required – continued evangelism from enlightened leaders must be there
  3. Align your work to customer needs and business goals – quantify progress as much as possible
  4. Get shit done – think big, but execute in small chunks. Vision without execution is hallucination!
  5. Make your work visible and memorable – overcommunicate and be transparent
  6. Celebrate and give credit – be inclusive, make it their idea. Share your success by giving it away. Reinforce the fact their idea was brilliant. Create celebration rituals.
  7. You can’t win them all – give up perfection, embrace the art of compromise. Sometimes we have to let things go. Instigate the ‘fucks given’ scale. Everyone has ten fucks to give, so how many of those are you going to spend right now?
  8. Stay true to yourself – authenticity generates respect and trust

Change is hard, uncomfortable and messy. In some cases it’s not worth the fight. But if you think the change is worth fighting for, then fight!