Why design consultancies, used to focusing on small products or service engagements, need to build big-picture partnerships with companies
At a meeting with the embedded innovation group of a massive consumer packaged goods company a couple of years ago, a vice president at the table compared new product and platform development to changing the course of a supertanker: You could turn the wheel as hard as you wanted to, he said, but the scale of the organization made any progress excruciatingly slow and laborious. As he explained it, this problem causes companies to approach innovation as a series of contained and incremental improvements, achievable in the short term and defendable, but ultimately not tied to any clear mandate. To counter that, groups like his fight to create a vision of the future that can be harnessed to create change, transcending politics in the process. For it to be successful the critical elements of that vision are a shared belief and trust that change will occur.
Design consultancies like frog used to focus on small product or service engagements that lasted only a few months. These were love-'em-and-leave-'em affairs that would allow for a quick acclimation, idea generation, a suggestion of improvements, or new ways of addressing a certain industry. Now, for a variety of reasons, we're seeing many far longer, cross-disciplinary engagements occur in our industry. This marks a shift in the traditional creative consultancy model, allowing for deeper integration into client organizations. The benefit of that integration is two-fold: A consultancy becomes familiar with a business while remaining isolated from the rigidity of hierarchy or segmentation. This allows consultancies to speak truth to power in an environment where social mores may prevent internal employees from doing so.
Ultimately, as designers, our goal of introducing the best possible product, system, or service to market remains the same.
The lifecycle for organizational change in large companies far outstrips the career expectancy of employees within those organizations, and it's increasingly recognized that simply chasing higher profits in the short-term won't create long-term success. Instead, there has to be a higher, value-based goal beyond personal career motivations to carry something through.
Inertia can be a comfortable place. Change is hard because, in many organizations, internal parties are encouraged (by design or inadvertently) to compete with one another. Cost centers and business units are often compartmentalized; visibility and hierarchy may be confused and obscured. It's often easier to simply close the door on ideas and cannibalize the technology for an existing offering rather than reinvent the form and break down organizational boundaries.
But massive change does happen. Often it comes through fear of an outside threat. Less frequently it will come from a desire to counter potential future-states, long before they may become real. Even then, when the threat is obvious and the mandate for change comes from the very top, it's difficult to get everyone to agree on what the end-result might be. While there are dozens of examples of companies unable to transform and dying out (Borders, Blockbuster, Polaroid) or being gobbled up or broken apart (as we saw recently when Cisco killed the Flip Cam), occasionally an organization does succeed in transforming its vision completely to meet the demands of a changing marketplace.