Some folks are asking this question. I’ve spent the past two years making the transition from designer to business consultant, jumping a lot of hurdles along the way. Here’s a little of what I learned:
- Highlight opportunities instead of bitching. As designers, we walk around in the world and feel overly sensitive to everything that isn’t designed well. We watch customers struggle when using poorly designed products. There’s an inclination to highlight these faults to executives whom we think should know about these faults. And maybe they should, but mostly they need help seeing the big opportunities. It might sound like product faults and market opportunities are simply the flip side of the same coin, but it’s the difference between being perceived as a whiny designer and a valued business advisor.
- Know your limits. When I hear a designer say, “We were doing the same kind of work McKinsey would do” I think “You really have no fucking idea what McKinsey does.” I used to work at BCG (in the IT dept) and I have yet to meet a designer with thinking, methods, and tools nearly as sophisticated as those consultants. Just consider the career path at these firms: they take the top students from the top business schools who in turn have taken the top undergrads, and so on. Then the consultants work in a demanding up-or-out environment where excellence is necessary. This culture breeds great execution much more effectively than the best design studio cultures.
And I’ve beat the design thinking drum as much as anyone, but it’s naive to believe only designers think this way.
- Invest in new hammers. Not every business problem is best solved by a product/service design or redesign. Sometimes an acquisition is the answer, or a divestiture, or hedging the financial markets. Business leaders have a lot of tools in their toolbox: marketing, sales, operations, finance, IT, HR, strategy, customer service, etc., and each of these in turn has a deep toolbox, with practitioners who all want more strategic influence. Understanding them — and knowing when product or service design is not the best approach — makes for a more well-rounded management consultant.
- See the big picture. Sometimes design does have direct influence on business strategy. But describing that influence in terms of customer experience alone can lack the information that executives want to hear. Learning how to describe design’s benefits in financial and strategic language is key.
- Be realistic about the influence of design. The current barrage of Fast Company and BusinessWeek stories on design can lull us into the impression that design is now king. In my experience, this isn’t anywhere near the case. Sure, there are great changes happening: I see more companies doing field research and more realization of the power of customer experience. But it’ll take years for the generations of business people to change their thinking and practices.
- Know what you mean when you use the word strategy. Unfortunately, strategy has become a muddled word, the meaning even traditional management consultants don’t agree on (see Strategy Bites Back for an amusing look at the situation). But this is no excuse for us to practice muddled thinking. Here’s a simple way I’ve been clarifying it in conversation:
- Product/service design: decide how to create something
- Design strategy: decide what to create, with a perspective beyond the current cycle (e.g. 3-5 years)
- Business strategy: decide what a business should do, with a perspective beyond the current cycle (e.g. 3-5 years)