Design leadership is change management

Successful design leaders (IC or management path) are masters of change management.

I read a post the other day where the author talked about how tired designers are of this continuous need to explain and fight to be heard. I have thoughts about this. Many, actually, but let me focus on one of the solutions that can help us designers have more influence without burning out.

How many times have you heard people say something like:

  • that’s how we’ve always done it (when you present your suggestions)
  • that won’t work (even before you finish articulating your idea)
  • it will take us too long (before a developer even takes a look)
  • our clients will hate it (will they? How do you know?)
  • it’s not possible (what does not possible mean?)
  • etc.

I bet you’ve heard each of these and more multiple times throughout your career. -sigh- My experience is that these kinds of statements are often said to prevent shaking the status quo.

But we must shake things up if we want to raise design maturity.

If we see design as problem-solving, we must also see it as the driver of change. And a change needs change management.

John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of several change management books, emphasized the importance of a structured approach to introducing change and created an 8-step system.

  1. Create A Sense of Urgency
  2. Build A Guiding Coalition
  3. Form A Strategic Vision
  4. Enlist A Volunteer Army
  5. Enable Action By Removing Barriers
  6. Generate Short-Term Wins
  7. Sustain Acceleration
  8. Institute Change

I believe if we applied the 8-step process to the design process (on a high level), we can minimize disruptions (to our team and users), minimize risks, increase stakeholder engagement and trust, and increase the chances of success by arguing for continuous improvements.

What would it look like if we applied all of these to our organizations?

This is my imaginary story of design leaders who are also masters of change…

Design leaders in this story are masters of change management. They’ve learned to identify and prioritize the needs and problems of their users. Knowing which needs to be addressed first, they create a sense of urgency by communicating to stakeholders in the language they understand. They clearly present the why, benefits, and downsides.

These leaders are amazing bridge builders. They continuously form and strengthen connections. They see stakeholders as team members and not as scary executives. They build trust to increase their influence.

They make sure that the design team has a vision they believe in. They are aligned on the end goal and can create smaller goals leading them there.

These designers are great communicators. They can communicate the vision to stakeholders and get early buy-in. They use different communication tools and respect everyone’s time.

What is important to them is that they have an impact through their team and that the team is empowered to act on the vision. They know they cannot execute the vision alone. They need to delegate and support the team to shine. They can do this by providing mentorship, coaching, supporting their development, providing the best tools, etc.

The leaders in our story also don’t let wins go unnoticed. They give credit where credit is due and help to hold the momentum of reaching stepstone goals. They ensure that stakeholders and other teams see the impact of the team’s efforts.

Once the organization notices changes and responds positively to them, they use the momentum and (gently) push for more involvement, visibility, and bigger projects.

I know the leaders in our story sound like superhumans. As I said in the beginning, this is a made-up story. And yet, I wish it would be the story of every design leader, and maybe one day it will truly be.


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