How to Adapt & Thrive in Different Orgs as a Designer
Increase your design influence by understanding and adapting to your org’s decision-making style.
As much as we may dislike it, navigating office politics is an essential part of being a successful designer within any company. No matter how good your technical craft is, it’s useless if you can’t influence others. Experienced designers often advocate for the importance of storytelling and communication skills for this reason. Your design doesn’t help anyone if it never ships; building a product will always be a team effort.
Competing Values Framework
To increase your design influence and make your product vision a reality, it’s critical to understand how decisions are made within the various levels of your org. The “Competing Values Framework” was developed by researchers Robert Quinn & Kim Cameron to describe the spheres of influence and the competing forces that exist between them within any org.
The model divides decision making cultures into four quadrants: (1) clan, (2) adhocracy, (3) hierarchy, and (4) market along with two axes: (1) focus (internal vs. external), and (2) risk tolerance (flexibility vs. control). Focus refers to the inputs considered during the decision making process; external focus means they place emphasis on competitors and market, while internal has an emphasis on coming up with ideas from the team.
This model can be applied to multiple levels from the individual, to the team, and to the entire org. It’s common (and often intentional) for there to be multiple decision-making cultures across teams and disciplines. A good designer can identify these different decision-making cultures and adapt their approach accordingly.
Clans (Flexible x Internal)
Clans focus on collaboration and consensus and tend to be more common in non-profits and human resources and support teams. Think of them as “elephant herds” that take care of each other. Clans are identified by traits such as participative, communicative, emphasis on mentorships, nurturing, and tight social networks. Clan cultures include leadership habits like attentive onboarding, a strong focus on mentorship & coaching, and strong internal bonds. However, clans also tend to be slower since everyone seems to have an opinion you need to account for, and decisions can’t be made without consensus.
To influence clans as a designer, focus on involving everyone in the process as much as possible and be extremely receptive to feedback (even if it’s bad). Show your work as early as possible and at various stages of fidelity. You want to avoid working in a silo and “handing down a finished design as it makes others feel “left out of the process.” Find ways to show clan members how their ideas have helped shape the product vision. I often call out credit where it’s due. Even if you didn’t take someone’s idea, if it sparked inspiration or invalidated an assumption, it still adds value. Try phrases like “this feature was based on X’s idea”, or “Y’s feedback helped us validate this assumption.” Consensus often requires getting many people into the same room, which makes scheduling and delays a nightmare. To avoid potential roadblocks, set up 1:1s and feedback sessions in advance with people who are likely to have disagreements. Your role as a designer is to help clans see the big picture, and keep them moving forward.
Adhocracy (Flexible x External)
Adhocracies focus on creating new and innovative things. Adhocracy cultures tend to be more common in startups and engineering teams led by a product manager. Think of them as “bird flocks” always moving forward (even if they’ve deviated off course). Adhocracies are identified by traits such as entrepreneurial, inventiveness, adventurous, aspirational, and fast-paced. However, adhocracies tend to experience a lot of chaos & churn as they keep shifting priorities towards “the next big thing.” Team members in an adhocracy tend to also be resistant to anything that sounds like “process” and allocating time and resources towards user research (often starting work before the research is complete). They believe that any work that doesn’t contribute to making tangible progress (i.e., shipping a new feature) is not worth doing which can be frustrating for a designer.
To influence adhocracies as a designer, take an iterative and scrappy approach. Ideally, you should be able to articulate the value of each deliverable and how it moves the project forward. You can’t ask for two weeks to do user testing “just because it's the right thing to do.” Try phrases like “the insights from our research allowed us to choose the best potential solution out of numerous candidates'' or “we leveraged user testing insights to rapidly iterate and scope down the MVP allowing us to ship faster.” Frame your work in terms of progress towards launch and resources saved over the long term. If you need support from the team, try to explain the cost of being too hasty. For example, if you’re being pressured to make a design decision you’re not confident in, explain why the assumption is risky, and how expensive or hard the decision will be to revert. Bring just enough process to adhocracies and nothing more.
Market (Focused x External)
Markets focus on numbers and quantitative validation for their work. Market cultures tend to be more common in sales-driven orgs and sales teams. Think of them as “wolf packs'' hunting prey. Markets are identified by traits such as competitiveness, goal-driven, focused, and individual accountability & productivity. However, markets tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on hard data metrics, and will sometimes resort to dark patterns in the blind pursuit of improved performance.
It’s up to designers to understand how changes impact the end user, and advocate on their behalf. To influence market cultures, back up your decisions with as much quantitative data as possible. You’ll have to learn to “speak their language.” Try to connect the qualitative data with the quantitative data. Metrics only tells one side of the story. Use anomalies in the data to initiate research initiatives to understand the “why” behind the “what.” For example, if you observe a low 90-day retention rate with your customers, you can use qualitative research methods to figure out why they’re churning. By showing how qualitative and quantitative data can work together, you’ll be able to influence the org towards making better decisions for the customer.
Hierarchy (Focused x Internal)
Hierarchies focus on top-down leadership and tend to be more common in mature enterprises. Think of hierarchies as beehives where the queen bee holds all control. Hierarchies are identified by traits such as logical, stable, efficient, comfortable, and respectful. However, hierarchies tend to have a lot of “red tape,” “chains of command,” and the dreaded “executive swoop and poop” which negatively impacts innovation and progress. When dealing with a hierarchy culture, your priorities will feel like they’re constantly changing based on whatever mood an executive is in that day. You might also discover that a single word from an executive could throw months of work out the window.
Hierarchies are the most political; you essentially need an executive sponsor to get meaningful work done. An executive sponsor is a senior leader within the org that’s willing to defend your process, work, and vision. The challenge is having the autonomy to be creative without defaulting to whatever the HPPO (highest paid person with an opinion) says. The best approach is to create higher fidelity deliverables that paint a vision an executive sponsor can get behind. Spare them the process and details, and talk about the potential impact of your work if it succeeds. Try to position yourself as their strategic partner. You’ll need strong salesmanship and the ability to project confidence in your technical skills to be successful.
Depending on your personality, seniority, and goals, certain cultures may be better or worse for your career development. Regardless, there will usually be multiple intersecting cultures within any org. Therefore it’s worth investing the time to understand how to thrive in each of these cultures.
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