Guide #004: How to elevate the role of design as an agency or in-house partner

Nurture relationships with strategy-defining partners so that you can join projects as early as possible. Get your stakeholders to express their hopes and fears. When they envision a great outcome, what is driving that?

Recognize where your project owners are on the spectrum of formulating ideas versus ready to execute

When asked to join a project as the design partner, whether in-house or through an agency relationship, first determine where the project owners are on the spectrum of defining a project scope/objectives, etc. versus ready to execute. Seek to understand how well a problem has been defined, if a budget has been scoped, or if a vision has been proposed to senior leadership. As you join projects that are closer to the execution phase, recognize that the opportunity to contribute your own strategic ideas still exists, but will most likely be limited to the scope that is already defined. If you are not in a strategy-defining role, nurture relationships with strategy-defining partners so that you can join projects as early as possible to add strategic value.

Learn how your stakeholders measure success

Ask your stakeholders or partners how they measure success, or how they know when a solution is right, or good. This is especially important to understand for stakeholders that are on the receiving end of design solutions. Give these partners the opportunity to express what they care about or what goals they're trying to achieve. Ask what types of experiments or tests they run and how they are compensated or rewarded for achieving their goal. These can often be very different from how designers measure success but no less important.

Connect the dots between design goals and business goals

Recognize the importance of revenue as you work with stakeholders that sit outside the design organization, especially as their seniority increases. When discussing design-centric metrics like usability scores or customer sentiment, these partners may not see these metrics as a driver for revenue. Anchor your conversations in metrics they care about and help them bridge the gap between design goals and business goals.

Develop a project onboarding process where you learn your stakeholder’s pain points

Establish a process—a set of questions or a collaborative exercise—to learn what motivated your stakeholder to embark on this project. Establish an understanding around the stimulus or catalyst for kicking off this project, at this specific time. Get your stakeholder to express their hopes and fears for this project. When they envision a great outcome, what is driving that? And what do they fear will not happen or go wrong within this project.

Craft a mission statement to capture the purpose of the project

Start the design process by crafting a mission statement that summarizes the goal of the project, and how success will be measured. When working with stakeholders who aren’t often involved in creative work, design thinking exercises might feel fluffy or like a waste of time. If you are getting strong signals that your stakeholders aren't in the mindset to create with you, rather than a workshop or collaborative exercise, ask specific questions to extract the information you need. Once you have clarity and can craft a mission statement, review this with your stakeholders before moving forward.

Support your point-of-contact stakeholders who lack decision-making power

Understand the factors that affect decision-making on your project. When delivering design solutions to a stakeholder that lacks decision-making power, especially within a client-agency relationship, offer to support them through the decision-making process. You need to strengthen the relationship with your partner so they feel comfortable with being transparent about what the decision-making process will be, and who actually makes the final call. Ask your stakeholder about their challenges. Offer to present work alongside them, so that you can maintain a united front and your partner is empowered through your collaborative presence.

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