Discover more from Futurestate Insights
8 leadership techniques for keeping design on track
When organisations embark on strategically-important design programmes, one of the greatest challenges is to get everyone aligned around a…
When organisations embark on strategically-important design programmes, one of the greatest challenges is to get everyone aligned around a common set of goals.
By: Stephanie Fletcher, Founder Partner, Wilson Fletcher
We use purposing as a key tool in this process: identifying and agreeing on purpose at the outset is key to the success of any project. If purpose is not clearly defined at the outset, programmes open themselves up to failure.
But in design programmes, establishing the purpose isn’t where it ends — it’s where it starts. Just as an organization will drift without clear purpose, a design programme will too. It’s great to start with a big vision and lots of passion but without strong design management the purpose will become clouded and the design solution compromised. If not managed well, the purpose may not survive the process it is so important to.
Great design solutions are always the product of iteration. But with iteration comes challenges, as there are pressures to drift away from the core purpose coming from almost everywhere: discrepancies and indecision amongst stakeholders; siloed views that focus on individual priorities; user testing input; competitor activities; and dozens more. Just keeping the project on-track is difficult enough: keeping it true to purpose is a huge challenge.
This is where strong design leadership techniques come in. With a strong, well-defined purpose set out from the start, I believe that the primary role of the design leader is to keep the design solution aligned with that purpose. That means that every design decision made should be both rooted in the original purpose, and aiming to deliver on it.
It’s the job of the design leader to keep the “‘why?” at the centre of the design process (while we figure out the “how?” and the “what?”).
I want to highlight some of the key techniques that we use to keep design programmes on-purpose and ensure that each step we take is a progressive one.
You can’t get anywhere without a common understanding and shared goals. To start well, you must get everyone in the same room. You’d be surprised how many workshops we run with teams from different departments who have never been in the same room before, let alone focused on the same thing. And most of the time they all want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how. It’s always fascinating for everyone to hear the perspectives of their colleagues and by the end we usually have a very excited and aligned group of people.
Write out the principles you’re working to from the start — put them on the wall, discuss them and ensure that everyone agrees on them. Broad purpose, specific purposes, desired behaviours, strategic principles, commercial objectives: no matter what it is, make it visible. This is critical to ensure everyone is aligned from the start, but it also gives you some key tools to re-engage them throughout the process.
Throughout the design process, remind and re-connect everyone with the purpose before you show or discuss any design work. At every design review reconnect stakeholders with the purpose they helped to define and make sure to link every key design decision back to that purpose. Frequently this comes down to keeping everything visible: we often produce materials for our clients that go on their walls so that they have them front-of-mind at all times.
It’s common for teams to change and new people to become involved as a project progresses. These can often be some of the most disruptive influences on the process unless you ensure that they fully understand the thinking around purpose first.
Put the outcome first, not the product or the artefact. Don’t allow design decisions to be subjective. It’s the design leader’s role to guide decision-makers through the design process used to arrive at a solution, and that won’t happen if you give them an opportunity to make decisions based on subjective preferences. Articulate WHY you are recommending this design solution. Focus on the commercial/strategic benefit each solution will provide and how it will contribute to achieving business goals.
Keep a record of design decisions and refer back to them. Keep looking at your purpose statement and design principles — keep them on the wall! — and crucially the rationale and decisions made in support of them at each stage of the design process. Every time you have an internal design review, — check against this list of things you’ve written down. Writing things down isn’t about creating a paper trail, it’s about capturing thinking that is otherwise easily lost.
Things never stay the same for long. In any design process there is a continuous need to accommodate change. Design is not a religion, it’s a process so a key part of effective design leadership is adapting to change. In my experience, the more you can assess and discuss changes against agreed purpose, the less disruptive those changes are. Map any new requests, new content, new ideas or new opinions against purpose and you can address them objectively, no matter whether they’re major challenges to strategic direction or small requests for a new ‘must have’ page of content
It’s as important to keep the design team aligned as it is the broader project team: Here at WF, all of the above applies as much to the core design team as it does to our clients. We operate as a tightly integrated team of diverse people, so it’s essential that we’re all aligned with the purpose too. It’s not a tool to be applied to our clients; it’s a tool to help us manage the design process on a decision-by-decision basis.
No design process is easy. Ideas evolve, commercial objectives shift, people change — but purpose can be used as a constant. Placing purpose at the heart of the design process helps to give the design leader the tools they need to focus to ensure that great design emerges from the process. It’s the heart of achieving design effectiveness, and its strategic basis helps give design a seat at the top table.
Here at Wilson Fletcher, we’ve conducted all of our work this way for so long that I think we sometimes took it for granted, not making it an explicit enough part our process. In recent years it has been kept much more front-and-centre and as someone who frequently occupies that design leadership role, I’ve seen first-hand how much it helps me and the team here keep things on track.