Broad, Early Learning: Where Designers Often Fail

Ah, the thrill of a new role: The blank canvas, the ability to take all you’ve learned and unleash it upon a new set of problems with an energized, passionate group of co-conspirators. What could possibly go wrong?

A common set of failure points for designers (and others) include taking inadequate time to:

  • Learn about the business and needs of other stakeholders.
  • Identify early wins in order to build credibility.
  • Develop cross-functional alliances.

Mastering these three areas will dramatically enhance your ability to make an impact in your new role.

Learning

It’s easy to take all the creative energy and excitement around a new role and come up with a prescriptive series of recommendations and changes from day one. It’s not a bad thing to want to do things in the best way you can or to want your new team to succeed. But do you fully understand the current situation? How did the team get here? What are landmines that you may not be aware of? What are the biggest unexploited opportunities out there? What is working and what’s not?

While getting to know your team members, asking these types of questions can help you to shape all that raw enthusiasm and desire for improvement into a truly impactful form. Those critical conversations can help you to identify early wins that will build credibility and lend weight to future improvements that you seek out.

Early Wins

When you join a team, people don’t know you. They haven’t seen your work yet. Learning as much as you can about the team makes a positive impression, but taking those insights and using them to secure early wins helps amplify that impression and generate credibility. Three to five clearly defined objectives with measurable key results, communicated often and transparently is a very strong way to operate. Once you’re part of the team, know the situation and the people you’re working with, and have the ammunition of those early wins under your belt, you are much better positioned to have changes or improvements greeted with enthusiasm and ultimately embraced. Because you’re not an oracular figure from a Greek myth: Your job is not to say things and be ignored, resulting in tragic outcomes. Your job is to get results. One of the biggest obstacles to getting results is securing cross-functional alliances.

Alliances

“Run for mayor everywhere you go” — A Navy SEAL petty officer whose name I forget, from Jocko’s Podcast

Who has the power to help your initiatives and who has the power to block them? These are the questions you should be asking yourself early and often as you enter a new role. Identify those people, and make sure you spend time getting to know them, understanding them on a human level, and building familiarity with them. It’s great for the success of the team when the right people talk regularly, and it’s rare for individuals to go out of their way to consider and build those relationships, especially at a junior level. It’s much more common to just speak to those proximal to you: People on your team, of your background, with common interests. And that’s great, you should build relationships with as many people as you can. But don’t stop there. Think ahead about the impactful things you’ll want to do for your team in the coming year and figure out who may be pivotal in enabling those crucial objectives.

That ends my sage, wise words 🦉 on areas of great opportunity and risk for designers and others entering new roles. I got most of these ideas from applying The First 90 Days, Leadership, Strategy, and Tactics, and Measure What Matters to my experiences. Excellent books that I highly, highly recommend.

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