How have the design problems you’ve been asked to work on as a design strategy consultant changed over time?

I recently gave a talk to graduating designers comparing the design landscape and opportunities now to when I graduated 25 years ago. What struck me was just how much has changed, and how the pace of that change has accelerated over the last five years or so. The shift is towards a more strategic use of design, and that signals both opportunities and challenges.

To begin with, there’s a pull for design from senior management within companies—often from the CEO. Two drivers of this rise in status are the role design played in Apple’s stratospheric success, and the extent to which design thinking has stormed the boardroom. One reflection of the regard in which design is now held is the recent series of Chief Design Officer (CDO) appointments. But whether companies have appointed CDOs or not, their design leaders are being asked to tackle new and higher level problems. The character of these problems is largely dependent on what the CEO sees as the purpose of design within the organisation. Gone are the days when design’s job was just to differentiate products and services. Now we see CEOs expecting design to differentiate in saturated markets or extend into new markets, raise the quality and coherence of the customer experience, understand and anticipate changing consumer needs, generate and drive through new ideas, develop company strategy, and help inspire and facilitate organisational change.

This final aspect of helping to usher in cultural change is probably the most important – and challenging. There is a need to bring other teams along without creating a perception of empire-building. Clear articulation of roles, responsibilities and remits goes a long way to making the ride a smooth one. Aligning on questions like ‘what we do’, ‘what you do’, and ‘what we do together’ builds clarity and trust.

Although the new problems being posed to design leaders are varied, they all tend to have a softer cultural component that is resistant to spreadsheet analysis, as well as being complex and multifaceted. Strategic designers are relatively comfortable with ambiguity and the human element of problems, and their instinct to move rapidly towards concrete and tangible potential solutions is highly valued. However, their background doesn’t prepare them quite as well for the level of complexity these problems involve.

These so-called ‘wicked problems’ tend to require a greater breadth of knowledge and approaches than designers have at their disposal. Collaboration with a variety of functions, which plays to strategic designers’ generalist and multilingual grasp of some of the essentials of other disciplines. However, it also requires facilitation and negotiation skills unnecessary in the old days, when designers were left to themselves in the studio.

Another aspect of these types of problems is that roles are often less clearly defined. The widening familiarity with design thinking, which has often been presented as ‘design for non-designers,’ has emboldened other disciplines to step into roles that designers might once have expected to own without contest. As the problems and capability sets blur, design consultants also find themselves pitching against a wider set of competitors, from creative management consultancies to strategic marketing firms. Consequently, design leaders need to adjust the ways in which they articulate their value to modulate it for different contexts.

As design and innovation become more of a board priority, it no longer makes sense to entrust them only to design and R&D departments. There is a growing demand for designers to codify capabilities and ‘up-skill’ colleagues in other functions. Whether they are done through a formal training course or more informal coaching, these activities are much more effective when informed by capability development principles from HR.

Designers have come a long way from being the ones brought in to ‘make pretty’ after all the key decisions have been made, but with this new influence comes the need for know-how that wasn’t part of their training. This includes seeking advice from senior executives outside design to help identify capabilities ‘blind spots’.

A growing number of companies now value design so highly that they have created the role of Chief Design Officers.

Do you believe that design leaders have changed over time?

Internal design leaders who have ridden out the shifts outlined above have become much more sophisticated than the creative evangelists of old. As well as motivating the troops and banging the drum for design outside the studio, successful design leaders are increasingly developing some new competencies. They have learned to situate their challenges within the wider context of corporate challenges and strategy, after which they can frame the value of a design-based approach—without overstretching beyond what the design function can realistically deliver. Then they hold on to that vision, continually reinforcing the top priorities as the strategy makes contact with messy reality. They also know when to jump in, roll-up their sleeves and help resolve mission critical situations.

No matter how elegant the solution concept, design’s wider exposure to stakeholders who are often not design-orientated makes it necessary to ensure that the concept is backed by a robust rationale. The most persuasive design leaders engage heads and hearts, by crafting a clear perspective that connects the dots between design-specific and wider business factors—from market data and competitor analysis to metrics and business model implications—while retaining some creative showmanship. Like it or not, Excel is becoming a more critical design leadership tool! Creative talent and being smart only go so far: designers who get things done know how their companies really work. They understand networks of influence, or ‘power maps,’ within their businesses and build trusting relationships across them. Their antennae are highly attuned to shifts in political tides, and they can adjust their course to better align with prevailing winds. They also anticipate or uncover unspoken objections, and bend their plans to help build coalitions. Savvy design leaders also understand how rapidly design is changing and that, while the time is ripe for design to step up, the skills their teams learned at college won’t be enough. They understand the need to acquire new skill sets, from how to interpret user metrics to how to frame highly complex problems, and they foster a culture of learning throughout the company.

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How have the buyers of design services changed?

Ten years ago, our clients’ roles broadly fell into two categories—design directors and marketing directors. Briefs from design functions tended to revolve around consumer insights, trends, and aesthetics centred strategies, whereas those from marketing often boiled down to ‘How do we become the Apple of our category?’ Our clients within companies are now more varied and the briefs more sophisticated. In-house design and innovation departments have grown in size and sophistication and have more internal capabilities to support design activities. They’re now looking for support in how to make a more commercially savvy case to the rest of the business. Non-design functions no longer ask for their firm’s product strategy to be ‘Apple-ified.’ They now understand that Apple’s success was built on much deeper foundations than mere aesthetics. Our clients now include heads of consumer intelligence, organisational learning, and new business ventures. And although the character of the briefs has become more varied, all are looking for new and more joined-up approaches to tackling ambiguous problems.

How have management consultancies changed the design landscape?

The move of management consultancies into design—including an acquisition spree—is one of the most notable trends of the last few years. Even at this early stage a few design leadership challenges are apparent. One is the difference between design and the acquiring cultures. Common themes are that the acquirers are more commercial, less flexible to design exploration and value the quality of design execution less. It’s unlikely that the big firms will bend much in the direction of designers’ ways of working, so the question becomes how effectively the acquired and hired designers are able to adapt to their host cultures. A second issue is talent strategy. The most immediate obstacle to rapid progress is the flight of the best people to more design-friendly environments. Some attrition is inevitable, but leaders should focus on retaining the talent with the potential to adapt, and hiring the right type of designers for the new habitat. Beyond these two challenges lies a massive opportunity to scale design to previously unimagined levels. Host organisations are often huge and offer a breadth of reach and level of senior management access that most design consultancies can barely comprehend. Although many designers view management consultancies as a threat, we may look back in 10 years’ time to see this move as one that drove a huge expansion of the design industry, enabled its further professionalisation and changed the meaning of design.

How has attracting talent changed?

Design leaders have long complained that they cannot find the right talent. But a number of factors have made it harder. The rate of flux can be bewildering: As the range of design problems widens and shifts, so does the range of skill sets required to crack them. And as the old role titles become less descriptive of what is required, many of the new ones (UX strategist, anyone?) only add to the confusion. Many of the new skill sets are also harder to assess, especially by flipping through portfolios. On top of this, there is greater competition for design talent, with the likes of IBM and McKinsey in the market alongside traditional in-house design functions and design consultancies. In our networked age, talent is also far more aware of the options, since alternative roles are shared via multiple channels. So here are some tactics that I have found improve the odds of making better hires:

Define your needs.

Work with HR advisors to define the skill sets your team needs, as concretely as you can, in language your team can incorporate as their own. Assess your current team against these—to spot weak areas, but also to identify how the capability sets tend to cluster and are distributed among individuals in ways that often vary more then you anticipate. This capability list can then become a core development and hiring tool, providing a sound basis for personal development planning and building job descriptions to hire against.

Model your culture.

I initially assumed it would be perceived as HR hot air, but when I overcame my scepticism and began to explicitly discuss the values and behaviours the team wanted to aim for, the response was uplifting. Not only did it help the team align around cultural principles they felt were authentic, it has also proved powerful in the hiring process, when communicating our core beliefs and way of working.

Hire for culture over capabilities.

Having a clear idea of the capabilities you’re looking for does make it easier to locate them in individuals, but as your needs change it also gets harder to find all the required skills in one person. So in the likely event of not finding Miss Perfect, bend toward hiring someone with the right cultural fit and the potential to quickly acquire missing know-how. It’s much, much easier to coach capabilities than it is to teach culture.

Cultivate a learning culture.

Once you accept how hard it is to hire-in missing capabilities, the next step is to ramp up your up-skilling infrastructure. Start by ensuring your senior team is clear about its priorities, and engage them in generating development ideas. As well as helping to plug knowledge gaps, this has two additional benefits: It helps retain talent, the best of whom always want to learn, and it attracts talent—they see that you take capability development seriously.

Play the long game.

The best people are often happy in their jobs and have to actively filter out job approaches, because they get so many. It takes time to identify them, and it takes even longer for the time to come when, for whatever reason, they are ready to discuss a new challenge. Many of the best hires I’ve made have been the product of multiple conversations—often over the course of years.