Scaling Yourself + Two Tricks for Clarity & Stakeholder Management

Every week I spend my days coaching design leaders. And in these short videos, I reflect on common themes and questions that come up. Last week. I talked a bit about meta communication. This week, I want to talk about a question that’s come up fairly often.

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You’ll find more reflections here and on my YouTube channel, as well as my podcast and newsletter.

How can you scale yourself?

It’s often been a question of leadership of the design leader, which is how can you scale yourself? Now there’s a kind of problem inherent in this already with this idea of, you know, people are human beings and they’re not just kind of a thing to scale. But I think the ask behind the ask of this is how can you not be the bottleneck and the only arbiter of quality and a process and of sign-off and things that this. Because as design teams do scale. You know, you cannot be the only one who kind of gives the thumbs up, like the Roman emperor.

And I think one way of approaching this is to be explicit about your kind of internal algorithm or heuristics. Rather than trying to get people to reverse engineer your thinking. And by this, I mean, you often see junior designers they have conversations and they’ll say something like, oh no, don’t do that cause Andy likes this. And when I’ve ever heard that, it’s horrified me because obviously I’m not the one to be pleasing here. Ultimately, either the stakeholder or certainly the end customers are the people you want to be pleasing. And so I think what’s going on there though, is this idea of like, we don’t know how something makes its way through to the next stage.

And so we’re trying to kind of I work there, the mystery box inside that design leaders head. So one of the ways of scaling yourself is to really actually take what probably has become quite intuitive. Now. Over many, many years of practice, which is you will have a whole, lots of internal pattern library of things that, you know, work avenues to to close off because you know, they are unlikely to work or you’ve been there before and, and avenues to pursue. And in that sense, you have like a set of qualification criteria for projects as they go through. Some of them will be about quality, right?

About what’s an acceptable or desired level of quality. What does good look like? You know, and if your response is well, you know, I know it when I see it. That’s problematic because that doesn’t really scale, right? You need to be able to make that explicit and externalise it. And that’s going to be through a bunch of examples of finding stuff that’s going to be through showing the things you’ve already made as a, as a team and having that library. Things that you bring in and you have a kind of session, you know, once a week, once a month, where you are looking at other people’s work externally and talking about it, critiquing it in, why is this good?

What is good about it? What is good to look like? It’s useful to have other people’s work from externally to do this cause then the sort of politeness goes away of not wanting to offend each other in a kind of internal crit session. Other things might be around the different stages of work.

So when have we been, when have we done enough research and need to move on and actually get to that bit where we start ideating and coming up with things. When is something ready to go to a stakeholder or a client? And when is it not? And rather than you being the one, just saying, well, I don’t think that’s ready yet. What do we all agree is a kind of acceptable level of quality of work. What does it look like?

So what you’re really trying to do is it’s like the director’s commentary— if you remember those from DVDs— of your own process and make that much more external. I think this sounds very obvious when I kind of say it like this. What I do notice though, is it’s not sort of obvious at the time for a lot of design leaders.

A lot of the time there is an internal thing. It’s it’s maybe been the sort of secret sauce, if you like, maybe been what’s led you to the position of getting into a senior role or a leadership role. But actually it’s really kind of important to get that stuff out of your head. The added benefit of this is the more you do that. The more, you’re able to explain your decision making to other stakeholders.

Although there, the shift is going to be talking less about sort of design and design process. More about impact and how it’s going to help the business.

Two Tricks

So I have two tricks for you. And these are two things that I, I use over and over and over again. And one of them is a question. And one of them is a kind of. A mental trick.

So What, Who Cares?

The first one is when you’re trying to think about why design matters, whatever it is you’re trying to do. All right. So whatever you’re with, you’re trying to change your process, trying to increase collaboration, trying to get designed involved in conversations earlier on in the process. If you’re trying to get resources for more designers or whatever it is it’s very tempting, I think, as designers, because we spend a lot of our time talking design to other designers. It’s very tempting for design leaders to do that again to stakeholders. And basically say we need more design because design is good. And therefore we need more of it.

And you end up in this kind of circular argument and it’s not very convincing.

One of the, kind of shocking truths, as you get higher up is you realize that a lot of stakeholders and senior stakeholders, the C-suite, they kind of really don’t care about design. Why should they really, why is it any different from any other function in the business that is this kind of special thing? What they do care about is going to be some metrics there’s going to be whatever, you know, it’s usually around kind of growth of some kind it’s usually around efficiencies. It’s usually about whatever priorities they’ve said. Whatever it is you’re trying to do with the question you can ask, the sort of magic question is very, very blunt. And it’s this: “So what, who cares?”

So if you’re saying, well, you know, we need to do more research at the beginning of projects. “So what, who cares?” And your answer to that might be why, you know, because we want to be more accurate about designing for people’s unmet needs.

Okay. “So what, who cares?”

Well, that’s going to be because we want to make sure we are putting one, our resources in, in a direction have confidence of where we’re going. You know, well “So what, who cares?” And you can just keep laddering up. Eventually you’ll get to something along the lines of, because we want to avoid wasting resources or we want to avoid risk. Or we want to avoid redoing things.

And most of those things you’ll find the right level or depending on the stakeholder you’re talking to, you’ll find something that actually connects to something they care about. They can kind of follow the chain back and you’re still saying what, you know, we want to do more designed research in this case, because I know as a designer, that’s a good thing and it’s going to help our process. But no one’s gonna really care about that.

What they care about is the, is the impact at the other end. And “So what, who cares?” really is a very useful question. I use it all the time for a whole bunch of other stuff, too. It just gives you clarity. And it gets you out of this sense of your internal bubble. And it makes you think about, “Yeah, actually, why is this important?”

Invert the question

The second trick is inversion. So I think a lot of the time in organisations where we think about doing stuff doing more, so, you know, how can we increase our innovate innovation? How can we become more collaborative? What should we do to improve the quality of our work? What should we do to grow and all those things. And it’s very additive, right?

We don’t really kind of take anything away. Or consider taking anything away. And if you’re focused on the doing thing and doing more, you can often add to the chaos you can often make things worse. Because the, the possibilities of what you might do, a kind of infinite, right. Whereas, if you invert the question and just ask, “Well, why isn’t this happening already?” Or “Why are we not spontaneously, more innovative or more collaborative?” And you ask that of people like everyone knows the answers.

They won’t just go “Well, I dunno”. They will absolutely say, “Well it’s because our teams are siloed, it’s because we spend too much time in meetings, it’s because we don’t have the right tools or the way we communicate is broken” and so on and so forth.

All of those things are really tangible. And the nice thing about things that are really tangible is all of those things are redesignable. So inverting that question gets you past the assumptions as well. Often leadership will say something like, “We need to freshen our UX or UI.” That was that actually a thing that came up in a coaching session this week. And what does that mean? There’s the, “So what, who cares?” Why does that matter? You get through the, ask behind the ask, and then if you ask, “Why isn’t that happening already? What, what went wrong? Why, why don’t we have a, kind of a fresh, whatever that means, UX and UI?” Then you’ll get the tangible reasons why that didn’t happen. So those two things, those two little tricks. I use over and over again.

And I think they’re very, very useful to bring clarity to something that’s often laced with a lot of kind of jargon and vagueness.

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