At this point, I feel it’s safe to say that most organizations are realizing the value of design to their business, customers and products in one form or another. This has lead to an overwhelming demand for design talent and many designers finding themselves in organizations whose overall understanding of design is still fairly immature.
The issue is that these organizations are looking at design as another tool or a cog that they believe can just be inserted into their existing structures and processes. And when that doesn’t work, they begin looking at the various symptoms that seem problematic and treating those, without ever realizing that the issues are rooted more deeply in their organization and culture.
As part of an agency, I’ve had the opportunity to work with lots of organizations and teams of different sizes and structures and observe how people work together within them. It’s probably my favorite part of being an “outie.”
Over time I’ve noticed common characteristics of the organizations that work well together in designing and producing great products and services. There are lots of these characteristics, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on 5 underlying organizational and cultural elements I believe are key.
Note: in this post I use “product” to mean anything that the team creates, whether it be an app, website, device, etc.
Characteristic 1: They understand that design is a creative process that involves all members of the team.
Many organizations make the mistake of thinking of design as a “phase” and so they establish a list of “business requirements” and technical constraints and then hand things off to the designers for them to organize and create something from.
Members of the best teams I’ve observed understand that they are involved in a creative process together and so all participants: business, design and development are present at all stages. Everyone participates in a process of discovery, problem definition, exploration, iteration and validation.
These teams understand that in order to be successful they must collaborate and that collaboration requires transparency and mutual goals. Mandates are not just passed from one role to another. So they work together in research, observing interviews and ethnographic studies. Stakeholders don’t bounce in and out acting as some form of gatekeeper or overlord that must be pleased with the team’s offering. They participate in both the generation and critique of ideas.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, as teams begin to recognize the need for collaboration, there can sometimes be a tendency to over-extend it, creating an environment of design-by-committee, where consensus must be reached for all decisions and so concessions are made to make participants happy regardless of whether they’re right for the solution.
Strong teams recognize this danger, and individual team members have a strong sense of their expertise and respect for that of their teammates, trusting in that expertise and that they are all working toward the same goals.
Characteristic 2: There is strong creative vision and directorship from whomever is leading the effort.
In creating any product or service there is a seemingly infinite number of elements and potential solutions that must be evaluated and coordinated. And because there is a larger group actively participating in the creative process, it’s guaranteed that people will have different ideas of how things should look and work.
On the strongest team’s I’ve observed, there is a individual who works to establish and communicate a vision for the solution. This vision specifies the scope and principles (characteristics) that the final solution will be composed of.
This role is not unlike the director of a film, who communicates a vision to actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc. so that they may make decisions as to how their own areas of influence (characters, camera angles, sets, etc.) will work to produce the desired vision.
Also similar to film directors, these individuals often have a background in many aspects of the creative process, typically having worked as a designer, but also having an understanding of business and even development/IT.
Many teams I’ve seen lack this role or understanding. There may be a project or product owner, but often they don’t have a clear vision or haven’t been entrusted by stakeholders to establish and direct toward one. Or it may be that there is someone on the team who does have a clear vision, often a lead designer, but they aren’t put in a position where they can effectively lead.
The presence of this role, in no way means that the “director” creates the vision alone. By virtue of the first characteristic, these individuals work to establish the vision by pulling together input and ideas from across the areas of expertise on the team. At the same time, as the project progresses, and the vision is refined and further detailed, they act as the guide to determine when to build consensus and when to make executive decisions in alignment with vision, preventing an environment of design-by committee.
Characteristic 3: They don’t see design and development as two separate phases.
Teams can spend a significant amount of time defining what it is they want to have built, creating elaborate and detailed documentation to then hand off to developers for production.
This almost always proves problematic, however. The more complex the solution, the more gaps are exposed during this handoff. Additionally, this pattern treats developers as if they’re an assembly line. Which, to be honest, I find offensive.
Great teams understand that thinking and building are interdependent and intertwined. As we build something we learn more about our ideas and our solution. We see new possibilities and new questions. It’s not that there are separate thinking and building phases, but rather a continuum of fidelity that begins with brief, high level representative elements and ends with the final, real product.
As such, these teams not only get to code faster, eliminating unnecessary documentation because designers and developers are working side by side around a shared vision and mutual goals. But they also tend to have a different view of code and technology than teams that separate design and development.
Where as teams that separate the two often view code as concrete, final, slow and painful to change, successful teams treat it as just another medium; malleable, erasable, able to be discarded. They aren’t afraid of it. And they don’t look at it as a constraint, but rather a challenge. Asking themselves “How can I push these limits to create what we want?” rather than, “How can I create something that fits within these constraints.”
Characteristic 4: They budget and staff for products, not projects.
The project model is pervasive in large organizations. Someone has an idea to create or change something. They get it approved by a committee or board and are awarded some amount of money to do it in a certain amount of time. As the project continues and new ideas are raised, they’re thrown into a fictional “phase 2” that must got through the same project approval process and almost never happens. So when the current project is over the team disbands and moves on to something else and their creation is left alone until another project comes along that affects it.
What this model ignores is that the design process is ongoing in its cyclical nature. As soon as something is released to users there is an opportunity to observe, learn, and refine the design. This is the iterative process at work. The design process doesn’t stop until the product or service ceases to exist.
It isn’t to say that project teams can’t come up with great ideas and solutions. But strong organizations recognize the need, not just for long-term support of their creation, but for it’s ongoing evolution, and so they use a product model instead. Teams are assigned to a specific product or service and work continuously through the iterative process. There is no project end-date. Budgets still get calculated for certain lengths of time, but they continue on until the product or service is eliminated.
In tandem with the project model, there is a tendency in many organizations to centralize staff according to skills, establishing design and development departments. As projects arise staff from each department is assigned based on availability. Because of this, when subsequent projects for the same product come up in the future, there is no guarantee that the same staff will be assigned, and so often there are breakdowns and gaps in knowledge and understanding of product vision, which slows progress and leads to inconsistent decisions.
Centralization around skill-sets also has a tendency to create certain territorial attitudes, where individuals place higher value on their department’s priorities over the product they’re working to create. This often pits team members against each other with competing and unaligned goals.
Characteristic 5: They assemble teams based on individuals, not just skill-sets.
And finally, the best organizations I’ve observed take great care when constructing teams. It isn’t just about the skills of an individual, but also their character. Is the individual open-minded, collaborative, respective of other’s area of expertise? Can they recognize and handle conflict productively? Are they engaged and genuinely interested in the product or service they’ll be creating?
Great organizations realize that collaboration resides in the relationships that team members form and that while someone might have great ideas about interaction design, or maybe they’re god’s gift to HTML, if they can’t collaborate well with their teammates, they are going to do more harm than good.
This provides more reinforcement for creating product rather than project teams. Relationships take time to develop and in the project model, that often can’t happen effectively because of arbitrary timelines and individuals being assigned to multiple projects at once.
All of this isn’t to say, that doing these things will instantly create an effective creative organization. Nor is it to imply that making these kinds of changes is easy. By it’s very nature, culture is something that is constantly reinforced by the behaviors of the organization and its staff, and therefore changes to it require dedication and time.
But it’s important to recognize that being successful in design and creativity is not just the outcome of an addition to skill-sets. It requires a change in behavior and mindset.
What other characteristics have you observed in great creative organizations?