Designing the Right Things

At a high level, design teams in organizations face two challenges: Doing things right and doing the right things.

“Doing things right” is about efficiency: making the best use of time and resources. When seeking efficiency, leaders ask questions about their team’s production function:

  • Do we have the right roles?
  • Are relationships between roles organized optimally?
  • Do we have the right people in those roles?
  • Do we have enough people in the team? Do we have more people than we need?
  • How do we recruit the right people into our team?
  • How do we nurture leaders?
  • What tools, systems, and processes can help us do our jobs better?
  • What mental models can help us do our jobs better?
  • Is our team culture conducive to producing good work?

For the most part, leaders trying to answer these questions have peers in the organization they can partner with: HR, IT, and operations. As design matures within organizations, there’s also more professionalization of the discipline without; this manifests in the growing interest in design operations and the documentation and sharing of best practices.

In other words, when looking to do things right, today’s design leaders have several starting points. But what about doing the right thing?

“Doing the right thing” is about ensuring the team is tackling the challenges that will make the greatest difference towards helping the organization thrive. A design team can work on many different things at any given time; effectiveness isn’t only about efficiency, it’s also about choosing what to focus on. In other words, this isn’t about production, it’s about direction. (As in, “are we aiming in the right direction?”)

This direction function calls for a different set of questions:

  • How are our initiatives contributing to the organization’s goals?
  • How are we measuring the success of what we’re doing?
  • What’s the opportunity cost of the things we’re taking on?
  • Who are we accountable to within the organization?
  • Who are we accountable to outside of the organization? (This includes our ethical responsibility to nurture healthy societies.)
  • Do we understand our context clearly and completely?
  • How do we find out what we don’t know?
  • How do we find out what we don’t know we don’t know?
  • What models and practices are impeding our ability to see reality clearly?
  • How do we change as a result of what we learn?

Answering these questions requires a different set of tools and relationships than those required by the production function. Strategic direction isn’t just a function of a few operational groups within the organization; it calls for a holistic understanding of the organization’s context, its long-term objectives, and its plans for deploying resources in the near- and mid-term towards achieving those objectives.

Each organization has different goals, resources, constraints, etc. Leaders can learn from case studies — what has worked for others over time — but must make a greater effort to extract lessons that apply to their particular case. Leaders must be wary of “me-too” approaches: of being drawn into emulating what (apparently) successful competitors are doing. Often the best answers come from unexpected sources, including other industries. Inter-disciplinary dialog helps.

How do you do it? In my experience, clarifying direction happens most effectively by collaborating with a diverse group of stakeholders; by engaging folks who can contribute their understanding of part of the picture, and who don’t usually work together. Given how busy most folks are, this works best by engaging them in intense, focused workshops. (By the way, this collaboration can include end-user stakeholders, such as customers.)

By strategically deploying our superpower — making the possible tangible — designers can be powerful catalysts in driving effective conversations around direction. We can facilitate the mapping of contexts and systems, make connections visible, model possibilities, make them understandable and engaging far beyond spreadsheets or PowerPoint decks. This strategic use of design skills is the true “seat at the table” so many design leaders aspire to: It’s not just about making better products and services but clarifying (and testing) the reasons for making anything at all.