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John Maeda talking on a stage.

Last week I attended the MX conference about design organizations and leadership. It was a big opportunity for me because I have mostly attended production-oriented tech and design conferences before. The schedule was full of experienced and notable people, and all videos are already available. I took some notes along the way and would like to share the gist of the event. Here are five common threads starting from very broad and narrowing it down.

This trend was an important topic, mainly because the conference organizer was acquired by a bank late last year. Although it sounds unusual, it is not an isolated case; more and more design agencies are joining big companies. It is a recent and powerful trend.

So why does this happen? It seems there is a compatible need between two interested parties.

  1. The industry doesn’t see design as a cost any more but as an investment. People interact with technology every day more than ever before, and they’ve become more attuned to the quality of digital products. Big companies are aware of where their money comes from and want to have a competitive advantage.
  2. Design has been broadly described as “hacking behavior” and “making choices that trigger the right responses” by some speakers. As agencies mature, many want to move away from making pretty websites and apps to having more impact. Joining forces with those who have reach makes perfect sense for them.

2. Culture: intangible and important

Culture is one of the industry’s buzzwords and perfect for playing BS bingo. Nevertheless, it is essential and defines how your team or company operates daily. Main take-aways:

  • Culture is not a method you apply. You can’t just copy someone else’s outside appearance and expect the same behavior. People are more complex than that.
  • Early hires set the tone of the company’s culture. In general, hiring is either the best way to maintain or destroy what you’ve built over the years.
  • It is crucial how people in power behave because it sets the tone for others. I also wrote about modeling behavior earlier.
  • If you’re not happy in your current position or with your environment, ask yourself, “will this company evolve” and “do I believe in this CEO”? If the answer is “no”, plan your exit.

3. Team politics: it’s inevitable

Politics are everywhere, and that’s a fact of life. The bigger the team or the company, the more politics there is. If you want to be effective in an organization, accept it, and learn how to use it. Understanding politics means understanding how people interact with each other.

Bad politics—stabbing other people in the back—happens because of “social threats to status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.” This shouldn’t happen if you have a supportive culture, but even if it does, striving towards a common purpose should lessen tensions between people or teams.

Learning what the main channels of communication are is important, especially if you’re new on the team. Conversations should be moved where the traction is—who are stakeholders and decision-makers—because that’s how ideas get implemented.

4. Team communication: focus on others

There have been two big themes in this area. First, building shared understanding leads to fast and effortless communication which leads to being more effective and productive.

The best way to build shared understanding is to show, not only tell. Prototyping in high or low fidelity was mentioned a couple of times; it can and should be used in any technical endeavor from architecture to software and service design. Direct experience is the most powerful perspective changer.

Second, focusing on others will bring you and them more benefits than just looking after yourself. The shift from a traditional view of a manger to a more mentor-like role was discussed a lot. Manager—top-down communication, discourages risk, gives assessments, pushes feedback. Mentor—concentrates on growth and learning, gives advice, fosters two-way communication and encourages risk. The name of the role will probably stay the same, but the behavior will have to change.

Some good questions to ask:

  • For prioritization: “Will this matter five years from now?”
  • As an enabler: “How might we do/accomplish X?” in contrast to “It will never work.”
  • For finding common patterns and efforts: “What do other people work on?”
  • The most important one: “How can I help you?”

5. Use your hands: don’t forget where you started

Last but not least, many senior and experienced people said you should stay close to production and get your hands dirty once in a while. As designers take more responsibility, they often lead other designers so their communication and people skills become more relevant than core ones. Don’t let them become obsolete; it gives you more leverage with people you lead.

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