Surviving Design Projects

Jun 23

Pattern: Show your work

Expose other members of the team to the design process. While designers and other creative people are generally tempted to show only the result of their labor, pulling back the curtain early in the process can be helpful. Besides involving people in the creative process, showing work can help explain the challenges and justify the decisions made.

Showing work might entail revealing early sketches or concepts, describing the thought process, or including people in brainstorming, critiques, and other conversations along the way.

Use when:

Pattern: Assert your process

Set the tone, rhythm, and sequence for your process. When embarking on a project, the team may discount the importance of the creative process in problem solving. Other factors — stakeholder schedule and expectations, business milestones, or technical deployment schedules — may influence the approach more than the creative process. Be clear about what the team needs to solve the problem.

Use when:

Pattern: Sneak peek

Offer a sneak peek of your work to a lynchpin stakeholder or team member. By holding an informal, one-on-one conversation you can cultivate an ally for subsequent discussions. Incorporating the feedback of a trusted stakeholder creates a sense of ownership, which can help with facilitating large-group discussions.

Use when:

Pattern: Call the bluff (or Logical conclusions)

Take a challenge to its inevitable conclusion. For example, when a project manager asks for faster delivery cycles, you can ask whether the stakeholders will be able to assemble their feedback in reasonable time. In these situations, the person making the request does not usually anticipate subsequent impacts of their request.

Use when:

Situation: Uncoordinated collaboration

"So, which one of us is doing this?"

Some projects have no plan, no overall direction of where it’s going long-term and the activities required take to get there. Other projects may understand the objectives, have a general sense of the activities and outputs, but have no structure for how people will work together: how often are we meeting? how are we using those meeting times? when can the team expect to see outputs? will we review the outputs prior to getting together? what’s the best way to communicate feedback?

The effect: When people don’t know how they’re working together, they don’t know whether they should be making decisions individually or as a group. They don’t know whether they need to focus on building consensus or getting buy-in. In short, they 

The challenge: This situation may stem less from poor planning and more from an anti-collaboration culture or mindset. Deep-rooted reluctance to collaborate, either in the corporate culture or in the individuals, will be difficult to change.

Situation: Efforts ignored

"This stuff doesn’t really matter because we’re working on a separate track."

Members of the team choose to ignore outputs, recommendations, and solutions provided by team members assigned those activities. The quintessential example here is a disenfranchised design team — where some team members discount the value of their contributions.

The effect: Without alignment on activities and outputs, the team will fragment, wasting time and money. Business stakeholders will also waste time trying to reconcile disconnected efforts.

The challenge: Disenfranchised teams may have no control over their disconnectedness. It may be driven by politics up the ladder, a defensive colleague, or irrelevant interpersonal conflicts.

May 14

Situation: Lack of context

"There’s a lot going on behind the scenes here…"

Teams do not have insight into the organizational, business, or operational context surrounding a project. Context is crucial to the success of a design project because it allows designers to gauge what approach, process, and solution will be the best fit. Context establishes constraints, not only for the project, but for the design itself.

The effect: The project team runs into unanticipated roadblocks in the design project.

The challenge: Stakeholders may see “insulating” the design team as their responsibility, and be reluctant to relinquish that role.

Situation: Excluded from planning

"It’s a shame she’s not in the meeting. All these action items are for her."

The people responsible for delivering and executing are not included in the planning process.

The effect: Project teams spend more time reconciling plans (or easing the anxiety of the producers) than necessary.

The challenge: Collaborative environments tend to favor the path of least resistance, which in this case entails making decisions on someone’s behalf when they’re not there. One flavor of this scenario involves actively excluding key producers because they are seen as not essential to the planning process.

Situation: Poorly planned presentation or discussion

"I hate to put you on the spot, but…"

Project stakeholders do not understand the design work because the design team hasn’t assembled a meaningful narrative. Designers may have been asked to present concepts without sufficient notice, or the design team neglected to anticipate questions from the stakeholders.

The effect: Progress on the design work may be held back until stakeholders buy into the design concept. High quality work may be undermined by a poor presentation.

The challenge: Design processes balance spontaneity with deliberation. Presenting a design at a moment’s notice is not necessarily unreasonable, but the project team must understand the potential risks to the project.

Situation: No Time to Design

"Just get some rough ideas down by tomorrow, OK?"

Forces outside the design team establish an unreasonable schedule for producing design ideas.

The effect: Designers confronted with this situation will resent the project team if forced to prepare outputs without sufficient time. If they comply with the unreasonable request, they may find themselves committed to a design concept that doesn’t effectively solve the problem.

The challenge: The design team may be eager to dive into the problem or to prove their value, ignoring the risks that come with short-changing their process.

See also: Mike Monteiro’s Design is a Job, Chapter 6, Sticking to Your Process.