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Before Design Capabilities — Let's Talk About Organizational Readiness

Audrey Crane Audrey Crane 4 min read

We've all seen various assessments created to measure design maturity at organizations. But what about measuring the maturity of the organization and whether it is ready to maximize the strategic impact of design? Learn how to assess Levels of Organizational Design Readiness.

In a recent blog, we explained Warren Buffet’s “Noah Rule:” simply predicting the rain (aka saying a recession is imminent) is not very productive. You need to act on that prediction and build an ark to weather the storm. 

But, just because you know how to build an ark, doesn’t mean you have the people power, skills, or resources to do it. You may need to make a case for your team to invest in ark-building measures.    

Most companies cut back during a financial crisis, but it is still important to invest in building through trying times. Recent academic research shows that “the most successful companies post-crisis were those that maintained both R&D and corporate social responsibility spending during tough times, even when they cut elsewhere.” 

For product-led organizations, design can (and should) play a key role in shaping R&D efforts. Senior Forrester Analyst Sheila Mahoutchian recently wrote about why designers should be viewed as anchors during times of economic uncertainty: 

“Designers are built for innovation. Unlike other professionals who use established, repetitive skills to solve problems that have been solved before, designers are constantly adapting their skills and tools to the problems at hand, which are usually ambiguous in nature.”

Unfortunately, design is often miscategorized as a cost center and not a part of business resilience planning. 

Erika Hall—Author of Just Enough Research and Conversational Design and Co-Founder of Mule Design—recently shared her thoughts on why trying to equate design to ROI is a mismatched assessment. She argues that “design isn't determinism. A lot of the best design is intentionally creating the conditions that allow really meaningful and valuable phenomena to emerge.” 

Preach Erika. And every other designer and design advocate who is tired of the constant conversations around getting a seat at the table, flipping the table, or whatever other table metaphors are out there. 

Levels of Organizational Design Readiness

Tables aside. You first need to consider the level of design readiness within your organization to successfully make the case for using design to shape strategy. And you need to decide if it’s worth it to invest your time and energy in making a case. If so, what kind of argument is likely to make a difference?

There are myriad indices and models for how mature design organizations are, but how many are there that look at the broader organization? 

Enter our new rating, not examining design at the organization, but rather, the organization itself and whether it’s ready for design.

Levels of Organizational Design Readiness. Level 0 - Design Ignorant: Unaware of design, these organizations lack designers and an understanding of how the absence of design negatively impacts their organization. Level 1 - Design Aware: Aware of design, but not the value it can deliver. Designers at these organizations are often stuck doing execution work and are not brought in to shape strategy. Developers and product managers are likely doing much of the design work. Level 2 - Design Agreeable: Accept the value of design, but struggle to maximize its impact. These organizations talk about things like design thinking, user experience design, and human centricity, but fail to put their words into action. Level 3 - Design Enlightened: Invest in and realize the strategic role of design. It is likely a well-established discipline that is integrated into the organization's product strategy process. Leadership supports design to help elevate its impact.
Levels of Organizational Design Readiness

Design Ignorant (Level 0)

These organizations are unaware of design—possibly “lost in the wilderness of their applications,” as Jared Spool, founder of Center Centre design school, has previously discussed. They lack designers or any real concern or awareness about how the absence of design impacts their business. 

Design Aware (Level 1)

These folks are aware of design, but not the value it can deliver. They know that companies have designers. Hey, they probably even have some themselves! We have a lot of empathy for the designers who work at organizations like this because they are constantly underestimated—relegated to execution only and not brought in to help shape strategy. 

These are companies where “shadow design teams” of developers and product managers are still doing much of the design work. 

Design Agreeable (Level 2)

People within Level 2 organizations have accepted the value of design. They talk about things like design thinking, user experience design, and “human centricity,” but fail to put their words into action. Despite touting an awareness and appreciation for design’s value, they continue to do things the same old way. 

We hear this all of the time. Designers or design advocates demonstrate all of the math on the potential value of doing something as straightforward as a product redesign. They show that the design investment is a fraction of the value of getting it right. And yet, organizations consistently refuse to put their money where their mouth is.


Design Enlightened (Level 3): 

Congratulations! If none of the above describe your team, then you’re among the few in the “enlightened” cohort. The ones who not only accept, but actually invest in design. It’s likely that you have a founder with a design background or a business leader who has witnessed the impact of design. You are not fighting for design, but having conversations about how to best maximize its impact as we head into uncharted waters. 

Levels 0-1: Elevating Your Org’s Design Understanding

It will be a tiresome, uphill battle for any design advocate to get a Level 0 or 1 organization to invest in design at all—let alone during times of economic uncertainty. 

If you’re in an organization like this, we send our thoughts. Frankly, if you believe in the strategic impact of design, you should probably seek employment elsewhere. But, if you are determined to chip away at an organization like this, here are a few helpful resources to share with your leadership team: 

Continue to tout these resources to all departments, from Finance to Engineering and the C-Suite. Consider asking questions about design in product interviews to see if you can bring on more like-minded folks. Find competitors who are leveraging design and point out how they are using it as a competitive differentiator. Try to move your organization one level at a time. 

This will take a lot of time and patience, so engage with designers in your network for support. We thank you for fighting the good fight! 

Level 2: Turning Understanding into Action

This brings us to the Level 2s—arguably the most common in the B2B tech sector. How can a Design Agreeable - Level 2 become a Design Enlightened - Level 3?  You need to demonstrate that there is no such thing as “no design.” 

Design is happening. 

It is being done by engineers, product managers, and even business people with no product experience. This is equivalent to asking a designer to write code.

 There is an expensive, hidden, poorly qualified “shadow design” team at work, doing bad design at your company’s expense.

It’s not “no design,” it’s bad design. You are likely suffering from a misallocation of resources who do not have the skills to deliver on the design demands of your software (or users!). 

Similar to Levels 0 to 1, it helps to find strength in numbers. Continually demonstrate the value of design—particularly at points of success or friction and make sure you are bending the ears of influential stakeholders. Some of those folks might be numbers driven and ask the age old: “can you show me the ROI of design?” question.

To that we say: There is no magic equation to show that Y x design = $Z (especially in B2B). Yes, you can continue to highlight proof of successful research- and design-supported decisions. 

Or you can stop pounding the pulpit and start showing how much the company is wasting on poor design. You can show them they have a shadow design problem.

In part two of this series, we’re going to give you the tools you need to have more meaningful conversations about design within your organization.

- Part II: The Cost of Shadow Design Teams
- Part III: Banish Shadow Design with These Proven Techniques