This is from 2022 | 9 minute read

The Corporate Culture Needed To Foster Design

Human-centered design, design thinking, design strategy, user experience, UI, innovation…“Design” has been a buzzword for over a decade now. Companies want design. But are they ready for it?

At Modernist, we work with a variety of (mostly large) clients, and there are some consistent indicators that predict whether creative projects will be successful, and what some of the largest challenges will be. As we build up this predictive knowledge, we can start to strategically change our approach to help our clients achieve success. Each company has challenges—or idiosyncrasies—the trick is approaching them as curiosities to be understood rather than dysfunctions to be avoided.

Some of the most important indicators that show a company is ready to embrace the power of design strategy, and that the process will be harmonious and beneficial are:

  • Small Groups and Small Meetings (instead of large)
  • Transparency of Strategy
  • No Rules (or at least no limits on creativity)
  • Focus on Customers, Not Org Structures
  • Well-Funded Front Lines
  • An Empowering Legal Team
  • Internal Aspirations

Small Groups, Small Meetings

Large groups and teams often struggle to latch onto something, anything, as an anchor for the discussion, leading to a “dual miss” in alignment.

The first miss is in the actual content of the creative activity. Everyone in the meeting has a unique perspective on the subject matter—they view the problem, constraints, and context differently. But language can become an imprecise shortcut. The words “platform,” “experience,” and especially “design” can derail entire conversations, simply because of a mismatch in definition.

The second miss is how they think about a creative process. Are your participants comfortable with ambiguity or do they need to know the goals and steps before they start an exploration? Does the group need a complete picture of the context to feel comfortable, or are they okay with a limited view of the problem landscape? Is the group comfortable saying things that could be seen as silly or incomplete—or are they self-conscious and reluctant to participate? These answers are different for every member of a group and that often mean a large portion of a meeting (or project) can be spent discussing, debating, and deciding how to do things, rather than actually doing things.

People in a small group can be just as misaligned in both content and process, but realignment is much, much easier. If two people disagree on how to run a creative session, they can quickly talk through the pros and cons of each approach and either agree on one or synthesize the ideas into a new, hybrid method.

But in a large group, it’s a spiderweb of agreement—a nearly impossible and ever-evolving task of figuring out how people work best and then merging those needs into an approach that incorporates different personalities, learning styles, and priorities. People may agree to go along with your process, but if they don’t really believe in it, they won’t champion the outcome.

When we see 10 or 20 people in a “brainstorming” meeting or “working session,” it’s a sign of consensus culture. Are creative decisions really being made in these meetings? Usually the answer is no—and we encourage clients to consider cancelling these meetings entirely, or limiting attendance, and coming up with other ways for smaller teams to be involved in projects that are more impactful.

Transparency of Strategy

A consistent leadership-driven strategic update that focuses on products or services (not organizational dynamics) indicates transparency and a respect for the maturity of the team. An indicator that a culture struggles with a lack of transparency often is the amount of time spent blaming leadership, lamenting about how out of touch management is with the realities of the day-to-day work, or how frequently management changes their mind. Many companies hesitate to share where the product or service roadmap is headed. These are all signs that projects will struggle with big-picture alignment and follow-through.

Of course, there are limits: too many meetings become disruptive and make it difficult to focus on day-to-day decision making. Oversharing can lead to tangible sense of worry, or even pessimism, about strategic decision making.

Some companies are reluctant to provide information to their teams because they fear the team won’t be able to contextualize the information. But creative practitioners need a north-star, one that rarely shifts, and they need to understand why broad decisions are being made in certain ways. A regular “stay the course” message—with context—on product and service delivery helps creative teams who internalize that direction and underscores commitment and regularity.

No Rules

Rules—big ones and small ones—act as signals to designers that someone other than themselves knows what is “best” for a given project. It may not seem like small operational rules such as “do not move the furniture” can hamper creativity, but when a team is repeatedly told what they can’t do—like putting things on the wall or changing the temperature of the room or wearing certain types of clothing—it reinforces that there are right and wrong ways of doing things. This bleeds over into strategic innovation, implying that someone else has the answer and the job is to figure it out, rather than invent it.

“No rules” doesn’t automatically lead to success. A culture without some ground rules can fall into “bro land,” where nerf darts, beer, and language create a toxic environment—though when this works positively, it can lead to an environment that is quiet, well-structured, and mature. Ultimately, it comes down to building trust and respect. Creative teams need to know they have the leeway to push boundaries in order to innovate—based within a culture of safety and collaboration.

A sign of this type of freedom in culture during our first introduction to a team. We observe subtleties like the ease or frustration of booking a meeting room, ordering catering, delivering a file via email, or finding an HDMI cord, all of which provide insight into how much latitude there will be to paint outside of the lines during a creative exploration.

Focus on Customers, Not Org Structures

Our primary focus is always on helping our partners solve a problem. But in some cases, the majority of our conversations revolve around the internal hierarchy of the company instead of the products, services, strategy, or customers. Understanding organizational structure is critical in large businesses because it indicates how many people will have input into a creative activity—and who is ultimately responsible for approvals. Projects have a limited amount of time to drive impact—that time can be spent on internal politics or customer needs.

A focus on internal organization is not an indicator that design won’t be successful—large organizations are often the best equipped to deliver value at scale—but it is an indicator of the speed at which design will happen and a predictor that a slow and politically sensitive process will follow.

Well-Funded Front Lines

Sometimes, our projects focus on an in-the-round view of strategy, and as part of our evaluation, we call a company’s call-center. It’s a great view into both the experience customers are having and how the company thinks about tradeoffs.

Customer service representatives are often the “face” of a company, but these roles are treated very differently from one organization to the next. Are they empowered to support customers, doing the right thing even if it means doing something expensive or out of policy? Or are these activities seen as a necessary evil? Lowering the budget of customer service means incentivizing representatives to be fast, rather than thorough.

There are a variety of touchpoints that extend beyond products and services—and these often provide clues about what a company values and whether they see experience as systemic or holistic. When push comes to shove, will they choose to do things that benefit customers, or minimize costs?

An Empowering Legal Team

Risk mitigation can go hand-in-hand with positive experience. When a company reaches a certain size and scale, they begin to run into issues of compliance, and lawyers start to play an instrumental role in product decisions.

Companies that are ready for design have legal partners that empower product teams, instead of limiting them. When they work through product decisions, the lawyers advise and make suggestions on how to improve, instead of simply saying “no.” This is an indicator that they view their role as advocates for people, rather than policies.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are companies where legal is feared. Teams anticipate that, when their work is presented to counsel, their design will be buried under user agreements and opt-outs, or worse, the functionality will be removed entirely based on a risk-assessment. In these companies, innovation is purposefully tempered and the product team may try to hide what they’ve made or make it as innocuous as possible.

Internal Aspirations

One of the most telling signs of a design-ready company is the way they talk about their design goals. Some companies describe what they want to do in terms of their customers, their employees, and their organization. They use phrases like “We want to provide our customers the ability to…” or “We want to empower our employees to…” This internally-focused language indicates that leadership reflects on their own competencies, strengths, and weaknesses, and see themselves in the context of the people they serve.

An opposite perspective is to describe design goals by focusing externally. They say things like “We want to be like Apple or Nike” or “We need to keep up with our competitors.” These are perfectly reasonable goals for a company to have, but the language is a strong predictor for how they will respond during a design process. An external market focus leads to a feature competition—instead of exploring product innovations or decisions that are best for customers, project teams are often encouraged to focus on feature parity. And when leaders focus on external company models, they may reject or ignore the commitments and risk-taking aspirational brands made—and the length of time it took them—to establish their company culture. You don’t become Nike in a year, or two, or five, or even ten—they’ve been working (and reworking) since the 1960s to become the design powerhouse they are today.

Signs of Opportunity

A lack of one or many of the traits described above are early warning signs that design teams will face challenges. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or can’t happen. It’s often the desire to embrace some of these positive values that sparks a design strategy push in the first place.

When you start to see a sea-change around these traits, it’s a great sign that the company is shifting, and that the pain of creativity will start to dissipate. When these positive traits become visible, design will start to flourish. And often, design can be the very catalyst to help these traits emerge.

Want to read some more? Try The Divisiveness of Design Thinking.