Grow your Business savvy and show you mean 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.

Business savvy is being able to see the common factors that affect decision-making

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:

  • At an individual level, business thinking provides new tools to address the vast range of organizational challenges and career opportunities that designers face.
  • At an organizational level, business thinking provides executives the clarity they need for the risks, consequences, and opportunities in trade-off decisions.
  • At the team level, business thinking provides alternate ways for product managers, developers, and designers to develop the competitive advantages executive leaders and customers expect.
  • At all levels, it's about delivering outcomes that individuals, teams, and organizations can align to rather than relying on the status quo.

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.

These articles below are my most popular about becoming a business savvy designer.

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.

5 areas to grow your business acumen

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.

With these skills you'll:

  1. Learn about your organization: Get a better picture of the business, people, and systems with empathy and visualizations.
  2. Understand functional value: Model how value is created, delivered, and captured by design as a function and for whom.
  3. Map objectives, measures, and outcomes: Link the objectives, measures, and ROI math of the company to quality.
  4. Make trade-off decisions: Framing recommendations in ways to be heard.
  5. Negotiate effectively: Align on possibilities all partners can live with.