Give a [person] a fish …

A good 90–99% of the service industry is set up to give people fish. Clients tell them what to do and they just plain do it. (Yes, I’m over simplifying to make a point.) This isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes as a client you just need stuff to get done and you don’t have the resources yourself to do it. I get that.

The problem is though that most organizations at some point need to transition from being mostly outsourcing their design work to owning their own design organization. It is very difficult for organizations to turn design into a strategic value provider from the outside. Some organizations try very hard at doing this, but the best organizations bring design into their organizations so that they can not just “do stuff”, but to collaborate with the rest of the internal teams. In this way they infect the entire organization with the 3 ultimate value propositions that design offers:

  • Creativity: No, design doesn’t have a lock on creativity, but the way that design is creative adds yet another avenue for an organization to be more innovative in how they provide value for their customers.
  • Strategy: Most people don’t think of designers as being strategic. They are too busy focused on the most simple unit of matter in software — the pixel, right? However, design helps teams envision one of the most important components of any strategy — the future. Only by understanding the future can an organization plan appropriately.
  • Clarity: If there is anything that good design does, it is clarify. That is not limited to the obvious legibility that comes with good design but also how design as a tool can be used to help bring clarity to group conversations through information visualization and graphic facilitation.

If you keep outsourcing your design, you won’t bring this DNA of clear, strategic creativity into your organization and gain the ability to bring this value to your customers.

Making the move from fish eater to fisherman

If you are still at that stage where you need to work with outside agencies and consultancies to get stuff done, you need to start thinking about transitioning to bringing this internally. And this process itself needs to be done creatively and strategically.

Step 1: Learn

The first thing you need to do is start learning. There is so much to learn about managing, maturing, operationalizing, and just generally gaining value out of a design organization.

If you want to gain value from designers and their ability to take your customers to the next level, you need to start with the expectation that they are full citizens in your organization.

So far, you have probably relegated design, most likely, to simple order taking roles, or otherwise siloed design away from product and engineering. Those teams are very used to this world, so making change means changing these teams’ expectations about what it means to work with and understand the value that design provides.

Sending all types of cross-functional teams to design workshops such as the Cooper UX Boot Camp would go a long way to helping them understand the kind and level of cultural change they will need to expect. Getting them used to the idea that building strategic products and services for customers is a fully holistic and balanced team sport as soon as possible is vital. The more that your cross-functional teams understand and respect the value of design, and are included in the changes to the education, the better your design team will be able to meet objectives and have true impact.

Step 2: Finding the right expert fishermen

Many outsourcing agencies but especially consultancies can help here. If they can’t, one of the things you need to start looking for is help in this exact area. Find someone or some organization that can teach you to fish.

The best teachers are the ones that embed with your teams on the existing projects they are already working on. Their primary role though is not to get stuff done, but to mentor, and be a role model to others on the team. If you are working with an outsource organization, find an organization that can offer this role as well.

Step 3: Building your future fishing boat

However, it is rare to find an existing agency that focuses on fishing that also knows how to build the boat that catches the best fish that is perfect for you. You’ll need to look for a consultant or a consultancy or a leader you can bring into your organization who can take on the job of helping you all design the right organization, so that design has the most value within your organization.

Your ability to do design is 100% determined by the design of your organization and the honest truth is 90% of organizations are designed poorly to take best advantage of design’s real value.

The job of this boat builder is to help your organization imagine the end state for how to best integrate design, develop it, and make it successful in a sustainable long term way with the least amount of disruption. The end goal is to get your new design team contributing as much value to your organization and your customers as quickly and as much as possible.

A good consultant in this regard can also be the mentor and coach your team needs to help be better and more impactful designers. In this way, as you start transitioning away from your outsourced resources you can have this person take over the coaching and mentoring of your design team, and the cross-functional teams they have to work with.

What does this all look like?

How can we even frame an end state in a generalized way since any real solution needs to be pretty bespoke in order to be truly effective. So here are some principles to think about:

  • No silos between cross functional teams. Organizing by function will lead to issues in communication.
  • Everyone works on the same goals for the organization. When teams have different goals invariably those goals end up in conflict with each other.
  • Practice leadership needs to be in place separate from project leadership. Those who are best at driving execution are not the best people to drive maturity and quality, innovate the practice, operationalize it. and evangelize it.
  • Plan long term while doing and learning short term. If you don’t know where you’re headed you can never truly evaluate success.
  • Use human(e) metrics to reach for. When you set goals be sure the objectives are ones that are meaningful to those who have to reach for them.
  • Be contextual and appropriate. Different people will care about different things. That’s ok. Use them together but help everyone understand the other’s needs.
  • You can’t plan for everything, so be prepared for the unexpected.
  • Transparency and openness are your allies for learning and change. Serendipity is your friend, but only if you design for it.

Imagine what you can catch, if you set your team up for success?

I may be able to help. I have been designing applications, platforms, services and experiences for and in global Fortune 500 companies all the way down to small startups. I have helped build and mature design teams and evangelized within those organizations their strengths till their true value was realized for the organization and their customers. I can do this for you. Please contact me if you’re looking for a strategist, a team coach, a mentor, a practice lead or all of the above.

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