Can there be Design Leadership without Decision making Prowess?
This is a question that a few colleagues have asked me in the past, and rightfully so, since Designers, particularly as they move through the ranks and aim to achieve positions of leadership, there’s also an expectation of what exactly that will translate as when it comes to decisions which impact Product and Team outcomes. This is a topic and an answer that ultimately depends on the structure of Organizations and their level of maturity when it comes to envisioning the Design Group in particular (and Design as a Initiative & Discipline in general) either as a partner or as a Service Provider. In my professional experience I’ve witnessed both, with these divergent scenarios also translating into profound and vastly different realities, with direct implication on aspects such as team dynamics & longevity, process establishment & efficiency and ultimately quality of outputs. I’ve come to realize that in organizations where Design is indeed a Strategic ally, this typically manifests itself across a variety of venues. Firstly, on a leadership level, which includes having a Senior representative of the discipline itself as part of the leadership team of the Organization, in parallel with representatives and seasoned professionals representing Product and Development initiatives. This senior level professional(s) generally advocates and understands the responsibility and powerful narrative which a robustly designed product solution can have, across all its ramifications (including the Design process itself, anchored in Research practices, Validation Efforts, and integrated Iterative cycles). When it comes to Decision and impacting outcomes, in Organizations where Design (and its professionals) is a peer, this typically equates with Designers providing direction and guidance, in partnership with their peers in Product and Development, but ultimately these professionals always remaining alert, vigilant, and providing the consistency that the product solution should have as a whole (which ultimately aligns with the strategy being outlined). This scenario obviously implies Designers have a profound impact on outcomes, where their decisions are clearly defined, visible and ultimately measurable. With this level of responsibility, also comes a layer of accountability, and these two elements walk hand in hand, allowing professionals an opportunity to enhance both their career footprint and their career paths. These parallel paths are of course of paramount importance, since responsibility and accountability walk in tandem, and one should not exist without the other.
In situations where Design is viewed more as a service and not as an equal standing partner, the scenarios I’ve witnessed have traditionally and largely translated into less than optimal outcomes. In these Organizations, Design was viewed as a tool to execute directives hailing from Product initiatives, who were solely responsible for the direction and strategy of those Product undertakings. While Product teams and their responsibilities do include understanding the market canvas, and outlining the strategy for what the organization is going to pursue (both in terms of products and features), doing so without partnering with Design, Development, Customer Support, Marketing, Inventory teams, among others, ultimately means that the vision they’re defining is myopic, focused solely on a very specific point of view which they’re using to ultimately establish a decision: their own. When decisions are established in a silo without taking into consideration other groups, or for that matter and for the sake of this article, understanding what Design across all its possibilities and instruments can bring to enhance value to strategy, ultimately means that the groups that are part of the process, are always a “means to an end” type of resources. I’ve witnessed how this perspective typically extends to internal teams, to outside vendors, and this typically translates into products and solutions which lack insight, where consistency, seamless, orchestrated, optimal solutions are nowhere to be found. These types of Organizations usually provide very limited responsibility to Designers and close to none decision making process when it comes to impacting the output of the product. These scenarios while at times sustainable, are more and more abandoned, for a few reasons. Firstly, products chaperoned under these situations typically lack much longevity and growth, quickly fizzling out. Secondly, Design as a discipline has gained more and more visibility, and the power of a good and successful narrative speaks for itself. Thirdly, solid Design professionals possess a combination of being task masters, but also strategic thinkers, innovation catalysts, scavengers of information (or research addicts), among many other qualities they tend to cultivate, and therefore are less inclined to be focused on solely implementing/completing tasks and not being able to partner and devise the strategy which underlines the initiatives being established. These professionals want to have the ability to also have a decision making input, and not be merely part of system where a cog, is simply a cog.
Leadership and decisions are both aspects that in order to flourish, need nourishment, belief and also understanding. With these also comes the need to demonstrate results, which continuously boosts more credibility and sustains the discipline and its professionals for long fruitful careers. However for all these to happen, Designers should always understand the Organizations and situations they’re walking into, and adjust their expectations accordingly.