Increase your design influence by understanding your organization’s decision-making style

As designers, we like to think of ourselves as makers. When we’re working on large, wicked problems, the challenge is that “making” is no longer a solo endeavor; it’s something that requires a lot of people and functionality to make happen. This can leave designers feeling like we’ve had to compromise our standards to appease business or development stakeholders. It also inadvertently creates an us-versus-them mentality that actually makes it less likely that we’ll be successful in moving forward our vision of what’s possible.

So what does this mean for us? Simply understanding what your product’s users are dealing with isn’t enough. To make truly great products, you need to understand how people, organizations, systems and content play together. In this post, I’ll focus on some ways to help understand the organizational context you’re working within, and to adjust your approach to increase your success within those organizations.

The Competing Values Framework

The Competing Values Framework (O’Reilly, 2011) was developed by researchers Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron to help managers understand and help shift their organization’s culture. The model focuses on four quadrants, mapped by focus (internal vs. external) and risk tolerance (flexibility vs. control).*

Figure 1. The Competing Values Framework (Cameron & Quinn, 2011)

When applied to design challenges you may be dealing with, things tend to break down thusly:

  • Clan: Clans focus on collaboration and consensus in all things. When you’re working within a clan, it can feel like things never move forward because everyone wants to have a say in the work you’re doing. Signs you’re in a clan environment include feeling like nobody is willing to just make a decision already, or having people involved in your project say why wasn’t I involved in that decision? after a decision has been made.
  • Adhocracy: Adhocracies like to focus on creating new and innovative things. While this can be a great thing, it can also lead to feelings of chaos and churn. You might be in an adhocracy if you come up against resistance to anything that sounds like “process,” or if you hear things like that’s nice and all, but we need to ship [x].
  • Market: Markets love numbers. If there’s a metric they can point to that tells them they’ve succeeded, they will follow that metric closely, and focus their attention primarily on moving it in the right direction. If you’re in a market situation, you may find that your stakeholders keep asking you for more and more data to back up your proposals, but qualitative data isn’t taken seriously.
  • Hierarchy: Heirarchies focus on top-down leadership. As such, getting anything done generally requires buy-in from senior leadership. If you’ve ever experienced the executive “swoop and poop,” or felt like your priorities constantly shift based on whatever mood an executive is in that day, you might be in a hierarchy.

So startups are adhocracies, nonprofits are clans and enterprises are hierarchies. Right?

Not… really. As designers, we often deal with multiple groups within the same organization as we try to get our work done. So while the organization as a whole might be one style, the specific groups we work within can be drastically different.

For example, let’s say that you’re a design leader overseeing several digital products across an enterprise. As such, you interact with multiple teams, e.g. Marketing, Engineering, Training. Your portfolio includes work that’s beholden to each group; however, there’s one group (e.g. Marketing) that has the final say on everything in the portfolio. Each of these groups has a distinct decisionmaking style, but the style prevalent in Marketing ultimately wins. Figure 2 shows what that may look like.

Figure 2. Different team structures require different approaches.

In this case, what you may find is that working with the Training group requires a ton of group meetings and 1:1 discussions to move any decision forward; meanwhile, engineering is focused on meeting immediate deadlines and trying to move everything forward as quickly as possible. Once a decision is finally made with the Training group, you have to bring it to Marketing, where a single executive could throw the whole plan out of alignment, requiring you to go back and start the whole process over with the Training group.

Navigating the four types of cultures

Once you’re able to recognize the different types of groups you’re working with, it becomes easier to see frustrating situations not as evidence that people “don’t get it,” but as a difference in decision-making style that requires a new approach. Here are some tips that can help you navigate the different types of environments more successfully.

Help Clans see the big picture

With Clans, the most important thing you can do is bring people along for the ride. Find ways to show your teammates how their ideas are helping to shape the vision, and make use of informal, 1:1 feedback sessions with people who might need a bit more help getting on board. Regular sharing sessions throughout the process are also helpful; start with sharing low fidelity work, and increase the level of fidelity as the work evolves. This helps team members see the design process in action, and prevents them from feeling like you’re “handing down” a finished design for them to implement.

Bring Just Enough Process to Adhocracies

Adhocracies love to move fast — which can sometimes translate to a resistance to planning, or statements like “don’t let Process get in the way of Progress.” Adhocracies are another area where you want to focus on lower fidelity deliverables; presenting something too “finished” can make teams feel like you wasted a bunch of time when they could have jumped straight to code. Focus your role on listening at the whiteboard, and be the person who synthesizes what everyone else is saying, helping to shape the next phase of work. Another trick is to find ways to add process without every calling it that; walking the team through an experience brief at a project/feature kickoff meeting is a great way to keep them focused. Follow it up with referencing the brief whenever you talk about design.

Help Markets see the “why” behind the “what”

Markets tend to focus heavily on analytics, and pay close attention to what the competition is doing. Bring as much data to the table as you can to back up your decisions. If you have access to the analytics folks, work with them to identify anomalies in the numbers, and use those anomalies to kick off qualitative research, to get to the “why” behind those numbers. By showing how qualitative and quantitative data can work together, you can put yourself in a great position to shape the MVP, and identify ways that your team can differentiate from the competition.

Cultivate sponsors within Hierarchies

In a Hierarchy, executive sponsorship is key to success. The challenge is being able to engage with and cultivate executive sponsors without having to create design by HPPO (highest paid person with an opinion). Focus on creating higher-fidelity deliverables, including prototypes, journey maps and vision decks. Discuss these with your executives, and position yourself as a strategic partner. Listen attentively during meetings, and look for ideas, feedback, etc. that will actually make the design better — and tell the executive what you’re going to do with that feedback. Hierarchies are also one of the few cultures where confidently projecting your expertise is helpful. Being able to project that expertise without diminishing that of others will serve you well here.

Being a designer means being a diplomat

As much as we may dislike it, navigating office politics is an essential part of being a successful designer within any culture. By taking some steps to identify the type of situation you’re in, it’s easier to adjust your approach, and increase your influence within the organization.