Influencing Strategy with Design: 3 Take Aways

by December 16, 2007

In our Influencing Strategy with Design course last month, Tom Chi and I put together a program that aimed to teach designers how to expand their organizational influence by synthesizing and articulating clear, actionable business and product strategies.

In particular we outlined how organizational dynamics, metrics, design skills, and executive presentations can open up unique opportunities for impacting strategic decision-making within a company. Too often, career opportunities for designers are artificially limited by org charts that fail to fully capitalize on the role that design can have beyond product design or marketing. Our goal was to move beyond these boundaries.

At a high-level we advocated the following for any designer or design team interested in expanding their strategic involvement or influence.

Treat strategic influence like a design problem.

Designers tackle all kinds of complex product design problems but somehow always shy away from treating their position in an organization as a problem that can be solved using design methodologies. Who is your customer? What are their goals? Instead many design teams adopt the role of the victim and claim engineering, product, or marketing teams prevent them from expanding their influence. Organizational influence is a problem that can be addressed using design-centric process and deliverables. Step up and solve it.

Use your existing design skills.

While many design organizations claim the best way to influence business is to learn how to speak its language of ROI and NPV, the truth is it takes significant time to learn new skills. Until designers master the principles of business, they are going to be the least qualified people in these areas at the table. However, no one else at the table besides the design team has a complete set of design skills encompassing pattern recognition, synthesis, visual communication, and empathy. These are crucial additions to strategic discussions. Focus on how your existing skills add value instead of trying to lean too many new ones.

Start with the minimum you need to prove your concept.

Many businesses are naturally risk-adverse as they have huge dependencies on their bottom-line. So it only makes sense that completely new ways of solving problems or tackling business opportunities are going to make them nervous. Instead of trying to sell design thinking to the company wholesale or as a broad cultural change, it’s often better to apply it to small but impactful projects. What’s the smallest possible initiative you can tackle that provides backing for a broader, more comprehensive program? Having a previous win to reference assures the analytical mind that this pattern can be reproduced again and perhaps at a larger scale. Build up your wins gradually.