If you missed part one of our interview with Altitude founder and CEO Brian Matt, IDSA, you can read it right here. In this installment, we learn more about Brian’s management philosophies and we get a blueprint for how to create better synergy between design strategy and business strategy:
What factors are most important to you when hiring a new designer to join Altitude?
1. Excellent talent. They need to be at the top of their discipline. 2. Great attitude. No matter how genius they are, a jerk is trouble. 3. Being flexible. As a consultant, we continually have to think on our feet and adjust. A rigid person cannot do this and will be disruptive in the process.
Is there a single guiding principle you use to manage your design team?
Yes. Do your BEST: B is for “Better,” striving to leave everything better than we found it. E is for “Enthusiasm,” being proactive and energetic, aspiring to never fall victim to circumstances. S is for “Service,” to be there to help others, as well as to respect other’s opinions, processes and time. T is for “Truth,” always expecting and telling the truth while being open to the outcome. Everything we do, and all decisions we make are filtered through the BEST guiding principle. As a leader, I use BEST to transform values into actions, visions into realities, obstacles into innovations, separateness into solidarity, and risks into rewards. Is this answer my BEST? Did I do my BEST work today? Is that the BEST assistant I can hire? I am inspired by the possibilities.
What part of the product design and the development processes are most often underrated by designers?
I think that most designers underrate business acumen. Sometimes, designers focus on the object only. I think there is a delicate balance to successful collaboration between business and design. It is no secret that business strategists have discovered design as a powerful way to solve business problems and designers need to recognize the merits of a strategic, analytical approach as well. Differences in approach should be understood and meaningful contributions embraced. There are obvious differences in framing the problem, data gathering and delivering the solution that drive approaches to process. Business thinking is predicated on precise assumptions of rationality and objectivity. The logic is to be ultimately quantifiable.
In contrast, design thinking is centered about human experience organized around a [relatively] disorderly experimental processes. The logic is based around human qualities like emotion and social behavior. The asymmetry is even more profound. The principles on which each thinking system rests diverge dramatically. Business executives value and reward stability and control above all else. It makes sense because organizations are held accountable for achieving quarterly goals and increasing stock prices. Ambiguity and uncertainty make them uncomfortable; they desire predictability. For design professionals, ambiguity and uncertainty are addictive; they embrace the quest for all that is new and the opportunity to tell a story. It is predictability that makes designers uncomfortable. These differences in core principles and assumptions translate into widely varied practices.
Business strategy desperately needs design and design strategy needs business. I propose that a more symbiotic relationship be developed to solve complex business problems. This will allow a more balanced approach using both sides of the brain, one pulling the other. Companies will benefit by embracing this synergy to produce goods and services that are real, not just theory on spreadsheets. There are some common barriers to such a union of thinking. Here are the top five principles to embrace:
1) Share and learn. Through keen observation, design teaches us to work with uncertainty while business fights it. Designers always know they have more to learn while managers feel the need to teach. Designers: Include clients in your work; involve them in fieldwork. Business managers: Open your process up; invite designers to your meetings.
2) Speak the language. A common language, or at least an understanding of what others are trying to say, is paramount for successful working relationships. Designers need to learn how to speak to business people. They need to at least understand basic terms and apply them to their methods and storytelling. Designers tell stories and businessmen show spreadsheets. Designers: Stop making up words and terms! Business managers: Appreciate what design professionals are saying; seek to understand before you judge.
3) Make it real. Businesses strategy works in theory to provide the “best” answer, and design experiments in reality to target a “better” answer. Real life behavior drives consumers more than theory. Designers: Include more business information in your process. Business managers: A report is never as productive as a model.
4) Share the credit. Let’s face it, the world gives more “street cred” to business people than to designers and designers think they can solve everything. Designers: Give thanks for your opportunities; also ask for recognition. Business managers: Don’t be a professional doubter; open up to new ideas.
5) Define success. Numbers largely drive business and design is largely driven by emotion. How can both sides agree to what a successful outcome is? Designers: Uniqueness does not necessarily create value (that is Fool’s Gold); create relevant innovation. Business managers: Share what you know and realistically characterize the goals.
Both parties are well intentioned. I know that. Businesses are designed for stability and control. They may learn and benefit from design professionals that know how to turn abstract ambiguity into meaningful consumer experiences. Anyone trying to innovate in big bureaucracy needs all the help they can find. In the face of uncertainty, one should ask, “Am I optimizing this opportunity?” The answer is out there if both sides of the brain are accessed.
What is the most valuable lesson pertaining to sustainability that you’ve learned during the last 12 months?
We all want to do the right thing when it comes to the environment, but there are only a small number of people willing to pay a premium for it. Generally, consumers are fickle. They want their products to be green, but most will not make too many sacrifices to have it. Think about Frito-Lay’s Sun Chips. The company launched a green initiative by introducing a 100% compostable bag. What happened? Consumers were outraged about noisy packaging! We’re talking about a few decibels. There were so many complaints to the company that Frito-Lay discontinued it’s efforts. This wasn’t a case of people not spending extra dollars to support a sustainable change. They found the solution unacceptable. Until sustainable design actually improves the products with relevant considerations consumers care about or until sustainable practices are mandated, green initiatives may turn out to be just fads. Isn’t that disappointing? I think there are a number of companies that have solved the riddle, but more need to come. I admire Method’s approach to concentrated laundry soap for example. Why ship unnecessary water and package unreasonable containers?
That’s all we’ve got from Brian Matt—for now. You can get more insight from him and the Altitude team any time via the Altimeter blog.