Articles · · 9 min read

How Business Thinking transforms designers

The most effective design leaders I know leverage nuance to overcome self-doubt in five steps.

This post was originally published on on March 11, 2020.

The word “serious” does not even come close to describing the current events around the world right now. Coronavirus is dramatically impacting our communities, our families, and our friends. It’s also impacting how we work and the value of the work we do. Top of mind for me is supporting the needs of my personal and professional communities. I’m anxious about both and maybe you are too. I work through my own anxiety by reading and writing around my interests. Perhaps reading this will relieve some of your stress too you as you think about your job and your career as a designer during this surreal time.

At CDO School, I mentor and teach design leaders and teams every day. As opposed to teaching traditional design or business skills, I teach Business Thinking.

Business Thinking is a collection of methodologies to build trust and confidence with business partners, empowering designers to do great work. It's design, but the distinction is that Business Thinking introduces a structured approach to deconstruct the common factors that affect decision-making — organizational understanding, politics, leadership, culture, and change — to construct new patterns of trust, confidence, and empowerment.

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Change is hard, y'all. You know it, I know it. We have all these fancy names for change initiatives: Digital Transformation, Design Transformation, Cultural Transformation, Innovation, Re-structuring, Layoffs, you get the point. At the heart of each effort is a desire and need to change the way people make decisions so that they benefit the customers, company, and employees.

I've optimized a process to help designers gain more strategic impact with their partners at work. Over the last nine months, I've taught Business Thinking to over 100 designers from companies like Google, IBM, Atlassian, Lyft, ConsenSys, ANZ, etc. They've gone on to earn promotions, gain more responsibilities, get new jobs, empower their teams, and yes, get invited to the table.

Over the next several posts, I'll be sharing my thoughts on what Business Thinking is, how designers are using it, and how I teach it.

First, let’s talk business

Designers aren’t traditionally trained in understanding the structures and systems that exist in business, yet organizations are looking to designers to influence those structures and systems. According to a recent Forrester Global Customer Experience/User Experience Online Survey, the barriers that prevent design from having a more significant strategic impact in business include gaps in understanding design, silos and politics, lack of leadership, and overall culture. While learning MBA skills like financial accounting, market analysis, or strategic planning is incredibly useful to a designer, these skills alone don’t translate to being heard. Why? These skills don’t address the barriers.

In my experience, when designers struggle to earn trust, confidence, or empowerment, it's due to gaps in understanding, silos and politics, lack of leadership, and overall culture. If you’re not accounting for these factors while launching products, asking for resources, introducing new workshops, etc., you may be neutralizing your strategic impact. 

Designers, to have a more significant strategic impact, you have to consider these factors in everything you do.

What is Business Thinking?

Business Thinking is a process of deconstructing the common factors that affect decision-making — organizational understanding, politics, leadership, culture, and change — to construct new patterns of trust, confidence, and empowerment. It's applying the principles of design, business, and, most importantly, behavior change, to the challenges designers face in being heard; gaps in understanding, silos and politics, lack of leadership, and organizational culture.

At its core, it's a process to develop and demonstrate the ability to understand and respond to different business situations well. I've been developing this process as a way to help individual designers, teams, and organizations gain the strategic impact they seek by better understanding and navigating the politics, cultures, and organizational factors that go into making decisions.

Designers who are applying business thinking are increasing their influence and impact. They are speaking with dialects that are valued, they are perceived as equals at the leadership table, and they are maturing their organizations as a whole, not just design. These designers are pulling together what's desirable for diverse, cross-functional teams with what is operationally feasible and culturally viable for the company. The effects can be felt in multiple ways:

The process starts with taking the initiative to understand your colleagues and your company. After doing so, reflecting on what's working (or isn't) and remixing your approach becomes much more manageable. It's about embracing simple shifts in your mindset and tackling decision-making problems in a better way.

Oh jeez, another process. What doesn't work about the current process?

Design ceremonies like sprints, workshops, reflection are effective, transformational, and a lot of fun. They’re introduced, by in large, to challenge the traditional ways business leaders make decisions. In my experience, people really enjoy participating in these ceremonies inspired and full of creative energy and ideas. But as soon as they walk out of the room or the sprint ends, they become deflated when the realities of executive expectations and company culture hit.

Creative teams struggle taking workshop concepts and communicating the impact to competitive advantage. Partners struggle to take innovative ideas and match them up to the expectations of viability or feasibility. As a result, individuals lean back into their preferred approaches of problem solving and are left competing with each other rather than advocating for a collective impact. Change doesn’t happen.

The tools we know bias us to solve problems (and see problems) in particular ways. Which makes sense. We’re eager to help, and excited to help when we know how to help. However we all suffer, on some level, from putting our craft at the center of the universe.

- John Cutler,

Our current processes are excellent for problem-solving from different viewpoints but do not address the complexities of behavior change. Gaining the trust of our colleagues and increasing our confidence in strategic roles means we must go beyond our craft. We must change to influence change.

The magic of behavior change

Mapping motivation to understand behavior
Mapping motivation to understand behavior

When I became a Sr. Design Manager for the first time about ten years ago, I was excited for the opportunity to build a team from scratch and have a strategic impact on the organization I joined. That first year was overwhelming. Despite learning many business skills, my anxiety levels rose day after day because those skills did not translate to having the impact I wanted. I was frustrated by the slow pace of bridging those skills into acumen.

By observing the behaviors of my colleagues and stakeholders in meetings, workshops, or hallway conversations, I better recognized that my colleagues behaved one way when acting in their role and another way when acting as an individual. Acknowledging that these differences existed allowed me to know whether I needed to address a decision-making problem with an individual (micro-level), the team (meso-level), or the organizational (macro-level); whether it was a trust, confidence, or empowerment issue.

There was something magical about addressing the motivations, frustrations, and annoyances across teams while aligning on a strategy or plan.

The shape of Business Thinking

There's a process to addressing these emotions and behaviors; that process has a shape. Rather than just create something new, I've experimented and tweaked known shapes a bunch over the last few years. Simply put, it's a loop, and I call it…wait for it…The Business Thinking Loop

The Business Thinking Loop
The Business Thinking Loop

If you think you've seen a model like this before, well, you're right. Perhaps you've seen the IBM Loop or The Creative Process Concept Map by Dubberly. The Business Thinking Loop works exceptionally well for in-house designers and design teams, but external teams can be successful with it as well when it's part of the project scope. I use this shape while I instruct, so it's always getting better. 

The loop shows the need for dedicated time to understand, reflect, remix, and reflect again to improve, and improvement is something we want to repeat.

This side of the loop is where knowledge-gathering happens. It's essential to get to know the viewpoints of people you work with or the industry and market you're trying to improve. Equally important are the models, strategies, or objectives in place and how culture or politics play a role. I use three different sized loops to represent the pace at which designers will understand the organizational, team, and individual systems at play. A simple way to think about it is it will take a long time to understand how organizational culture works, so the loop is small, and you'll need to complete many loops to develop a full picture. Conversely, it takes fewer loops to understand how individuals work, so you'll need fewer passes.

Reflection, whether as an individual or as part of a team, is a significant (and necessary) step to process new information. It helps you analyze how that further information strengthens or modifies our viewpoints and prepares us for progression.

The right side of the loop is all about your toolbox. As we’ve seen with Design Thinking, non-designer colleagues have been able to transform their mindsets by using new tools and methodologies. Designers can mature in the same way by learning the tools and methods beyond design. In adding, removing, or changing elements of your approach, you modify what you know works well to see if it works in a new way. Including familiar details in things that are new can help to reduce the anxiety your colleagues or partners feel—basically, Weird Al Yankovic-it.

Reflect again
Don't forget to reflect after you try something new! Once you remix your approach, it's essential to reflect on how it's working. Without further information, we won't be able to adjust our understanding.

The categories of Business Thinking

While the loop provides us a consistent process to learn and improve, Business Thinking applies that process to specific categories. You apply the understand-reflect-remix approach to each area and the learnings from each connect through reflection. Rather than a step-by-step linear process, reflection provides the space for analysis and adjustment to move across these categories.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing more about these categories. They are a constant work in progress, but here’s a quick overview of each.

The Business Thinking categories
The Business Thinking categories

Category 1: The organization
Get a better picture of the business, people, and systems with empathy and visualizations.

Category 2: Functional value
Model how value is created, delivered, and captured by a job function and for whom

Category 3: Objectives, measures, and outcomes
Link the objectives, measures, and ROI math of the company to quality

Category 4: Trade-off scenarios
Framing recommendations in ways to be heard

Category 5: Negotiating commitment
Align on possibilities all partners can live with

Running the Business Thinking Intensive at SWD

Designers, leaders, and organizations want to have more impact and learn what's working, but it takes time to mature these insights at scale. I've compressed the lessons I've learned over the years into a process, and now I teach this process. I've ditched complaining about my situation or my co-workers and intentionally focus on understanding, reflecting, and remixing what I learn to deliver the trust, confidence, and empowerment I seek.

I’m still learning throughout this process, but I’ve run enough cohorts to be confident this process works well.

I’d love to hear about the tricks you’re building business acumen or maturing decision-making at your company or with your clients. What’s working for you? What’s helping your company create the competitive advantages it seeks? What’’s giving you a sense of relief or excitement while progressing in your career?

My thanks to Sarah Mills, Susan Price, Katie Kovalcin, Keith Aric Hall, Joshua Bullock, Chris Wilkinson, Greg Storey, and Dan Turner for their amazing feedback and sharing their time.

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