Insights

A seat at the table

October 19, 2018

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By Nick Haley, Product Design Principal at Idean UK

Last week I spent two days attending the Leading Design conference at the Barbican in London.

As well as design ops, a lot of the speakers talked about “design having a seat at the table”.

In the spirit of talks that were broken into five things to think about, here are five reflections on that phrase, from what I heard on the day.

First up, what does “having a seat at the table” actually mean? John Schlossberg says it’s when:

Someone is able to influence a business’s high-level decision-making to ensure the business succeeds.

1. Do you want a seat at the table?

Progressing your career as a designer always used to end up at leadership, whether you liked it or not. But new paths are emerging, including one as “maker” or “individual contributor”. Progressing in your design career might not entail attaining the mythical seat.

Judy Wert from Wert & Co shared the questions she asks when vetting potential candidates:

  1. Who do you want to work with?
  2. What is the craft you want to practice?
  3. What do you love about what you do?

If it’s staying a practitioner then that’s fine, not everyone has to be a leader.

While the “maker” track seems to only apply right now to US companies with massive design teams, it’s slowly growing, especially in the UK.

Deciding you don’t want a seat at the table also doesn’t have to be permanent. Todd Warfel talked about progressing your career as an individual and switching to management later on.

2. Do you need a seat at the table?

As well as showing off some serious dance moves, Díogenes Brito explained how influence doesn’t always need a title. As a designer at Slack, he believes authority can come from facilitation, stewardship and upholding quality.

Kara Defrias also talked about leadership being a mindset, and that leading through influence at Intuit is highly valued.

So you might not need that seat to do great work. As a designer you can help your team make good decisions which lead to a positive outcome for your work.

3. How do you get the seat?

Ok. You’ve decided you want the seat. Your dreams of design success are set on it. How do you get it? Scott Berkun described having a political playbook in his talk on design and power.

First off, you need to work out your tactics for success, based on the organisation you work for and the type of person you are. Then you could go and read some business books, but finding an ally to mentor you in the organisation is even better.

Once you have a plan, you need charm. Charm isn’t about being creepy, but it is about speaking the language of business. Rather than talking about “design”, talk about how your what you’re doing is something which will drive revenue, save time, increase trust in the brand.

4. How will it feel to have one?

The seat, it’s yours! You manage a big design team, work hard, you care, you make decisions. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, there are a lot of societal expectations at play now. You have power; you can cause harm. Amelie Lamont had some incredible examples of bad bosses. (You know most people leave bad managers right? No pressure.)

How’s it gonna feel to have a seat at the table? Well, it will probably be stressful. You might burn out. Dan Willis suggested you embrace the burnout - which sounded a bit unhealthy to me.

Mia Blume talked about limiting beliefs in relationship to the work you now do. A limited belief is a stance which holds you back from reaching your potential, like thinking you need to be constantly available or needing to solve all your team’s problems all the time.

Try mapping your limiting beliefs out and working through them.

It might also be time to get a coach to help with the pressures the seat brings, and also learn some resilience - Julia Whitney (an ex-colleague from the BBC) could be a good place to start. I really liked her distinction between finding not only meaning at work, but meaning in working.

I also recommend Headspace, which I use most days.

5. Ok, I have the seat. What’s next?

Bigger seats? More seats?

The role of design has changed, as Alastair Simpson of Atlassian said: you’re an accountable business leader now. You need to own those business outcomes you flippantly wrote on a Post-it during that design sprint. For me I’m not sure designers need to solely own the outcomes, the role of product and engineering is also important here, and how businesses empower small cross-functional teams.

You’re going to constantly need new skills, especially if you’re going to work for a long time.

It might be time to think about design ops because everything that works right now will probably break as you scale up your team.

As if getting the chair wasn’t hard enough, it’s yours to lose now.

My view on a seat at the table

Having a seat at the table is great.

You work at a place with people where design is valued and seen as important for solving problems. With a bit of luck, you and your design team can change the world. You’re part of that now. Awesome. As Aaron Irizarry said in his talk: nothing is easy, but a lot of things are worth it. In my experience, the joy you get from seeing your team achieve great things is far bigger than any personal achievement.

The fact that the chair you’re now sitting in, is in a meeting room, is something you’re going to have to deal with.

Just remember why you wanted that chair in the first place, and enjoy it.