Dealing With Organizational Politics

For some kinds of problems, it’s essential that you think through what you’re doing before you work out how you’re going to do it. Common sense, right? Unfortunately, it’s not the norm. Too many designers still start projects by formally exploring directions before they’ve nailed down answers to key questions:

  • What distinctions will this solution impose on the situation?
  • How do those distinctions help/hinder the path to user satisfaction?
  • How do the organization’s governance structures affect our ability to create distinctions that support the user’s journey?

This last question is the most challenging for designers since it requires that we delve into territory many of us would rather leave unexplored: organizational politics.

Political struggles result when individual groups try to further their own agendas while serving the organization’s overall goals. Groups (and their leaders) compete and cooperate with other groups for resources and attention. Through the choices they make, they try to position themselves to achieve influence and power. Given enough scale and resources, all organizations exhibit some of these power dynamics. In some cases — but not all — these struggles can become toxic, affecting the performance of the organization and the people in it.

Many designers complain about having to deal with political forces. But dealing with politics is not only part of the job; it’s also a sign of maturity: The point of design is effecting change, and the only designers who don’t have to deal with politics are the ones who aren’t causing real change in their organizations.

Note this doesn’t mean designers should merrily go along with highly dysfunctional situations. Life is too short to deal with that sort of thing. But it’s important to acknowledge that design can disambiguate complex situations, leading to clarity and better decision-making for everyone involved. Understanding how power dynamics work — and embracing the reality of politics — is essential for designers who seek to effect real change in their organizations.