Influencing Strategy by Design: Organizational Dynamics

by Luke Wroblewski December 20, 2007

One of the first areas of focus in the Influencing Strategy by Design course is organizational dynamics. Many designers hoping to increase their role in product and corporate strategy start with their design organization and its position in the company.

Do these phrases sound familiar? “Our design organization needs to be more strategic.” “The design team is not included in up-front strategic decisions, we need to convince the organization we should be.” These circumstances are frequently blamed on either reporting structure (where the design team reports in), or a lack of organizational understanding about the role of design. While both of these factors may be in play, focusing only on them to increase influence is unlikely to yield results.

The Role of the Victim

In Conscious Business, author Fred Kofman describes the power dynamics behind each individual or team’s responses to circumstances seemingly beyond their control. Kofman explains how it is easy to take on the role of a victim because it affords complete innocence: “the design is not great because engineering did not build it to spec.” By blaming the engineering team a poor product release is no longer the design team’s fault.

But in taking the role of the victim, the design team has ultimately given up power. They’ve conceded that they lack the ability to help engineering build to spec. It’s beyond their control.

Kofman instead advocates adopting a philosophy of being “response able”. When problems arise, be able to respond to them. Stepping up and taking ownership of a problem, provides ownership over the solution. In our earlier example, what could the design team have done to help engineering build to spec? The first step to strategic influence is responding to problems, even when you did not cause them. For design organizations that includes engineering, marketing, and product management issues in addition to design issues.

Selling Design

Being in the role of a victim can create dysfunctional dynamics within which designers are simply told what to do or how to design. In these circumstances, key ideas and decisions may be made without design input because the design team has resigned themselves to only part of the problem being solved.

A common outcome of this dynamic is that designers are asked to work on things they don’t believe in and the output of the organization is suboptimal. In order to address this situation, design organizations will resort to “selling design”: here is how we collect information about users, here is how we use personas, and here is how we run a usability test. As Tom Chi likes to point out, this is the equivalent of the Finance department in an organization deciding it needs to be more strategic and putting together a road-show that explains how they do balance sheets, why depreciation schedules are great, and how different accounting methods help when managing debt instruments.

What’s the end result? No one cares. Selling the finance process or the design process is ineffective at convincing others or changing behaviors. Trust me, I’ve seen it tried several times.

Providing Leadership

During the industrial economy of the 1900’s, assembly lines and corporations defined how business got done. In the 2000’s, technology, distributed leadership and globalization are shifting efficiencies from traditional command structures to creativity. In order to be effective at global scales and leverage the wisdom technology provides organizations need more creative, on-the-ground thinking from all their contributors not just the formal leadership team.

No longer does the process-orientated mode of yielding power drive effective results for organizations. In order for a large global company to be effective, every node needs to become more intelligent and capable of making the right decisions at the right time. This creates a natural opportunity for design professionals to take on leadership roles. Because designers can generate aspirational artifacts through improvisational methodologies they can provide leadership in many contexts.

So in today’s global economy, there’s no need to wait for an executive mandate or new role, designers can start being leaders today through action, not position. That action comes from being ability to respond to marketing, engineering, and business problems with design skills, considerations, and methodologies. In other words, using existing design skills to step up and lead.