Jon Schlossberg

How to build a healthy design organization

May 2014

This post is an addendum to another essay on this blog, Design doesn't deserve a seat the table.

There is no correct way to build a culture. You must build the organization around what the people at your table personally believe in and care deeply about. Passion is sunlight for the seeds of culture: If you don’t have genuine passion, your culture won’t grow.

That was a disclaimer, right there. You can’t force culture to grow without lots and lots of passion beaming from the seats at the table. But you can do some tactical things that might act as fertilizer. Let’s run through a crash course.

1. Start early. Find someone who is very good at design but doesn’t boast of being a Designer (capital D). I have found this to be an excellent litmus test for whether or not someone is trapped in the intellectual design box. Ask them the three questions required for a seat at the table. If they can answer the questions thoughtfully, give them a seat at the table as early as you possibly can. Culture is a very, very slow moving ship. It is extraordinarily difficult to quickly change the course of your company’s culture. Cultures are slow. Startups must be fast. Remember this.

2. Ignore sunk costs. Read about the sunk cost fallacy until you understand it like you understand how to put pants on in the morning. Build your culture around the hyperbolic acceptance of failure. Literally celebrate failures with cake and balloons and be okay with the fact that you will look like a crazy person to casual observers. Build process that encourages employees to reflect on what is to be learned from failure and how we can apply those learnings going forward, and build process that vehemently discourages blaming those responsible for failure. Remember, we’re doing this not because failure is good (it isn’t; success is good), but because we fail 95 times for every time we succeed and we must prevent discouragement.

3. Focus on value. It’s one thing to evangelize focus on the creation of real and perceived value. It’s another thing to stay focused on creating value when you’re deep in the day-to-day trenches of trying to build a company. You must be purposeful in creating process that very clearly articulates and constantly reminds everyone of the value you’re trying to create. Commander’s Intent is the process I prefer, but there are many similar processes.

4. Live and breathe feedback. Build your culture around giving and receiving direct feedback immediately, kindly, and in the appropriate context. Praise people in front of their peers for giving and receiving quality feedback. You must be purposeful in building process that encourages direct feedback to be given immediately, because this is an unnatural behavior that must be repeatedly, positively reinforced.

5. Bring people together. In his interesting book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson describes a common fallacy: we tend to incorrectly picture innovation as “eureka moments,” when exceptional individuals, plunged in solitary thought, experience a sudden flash of insight. But making groundbreaking things doesn’t really work that way. Great ideas tend to be the product of many bright minds from different backgrounds and perspectives working together to solve well-defined problems. In order to create this innovation petri dish, you must purposefully build an environment and process that physically brings people of varied expertise together. You must actively encourage, if not force, people to be together.

6. Make small things. Van Gogh said “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” If you want to make great things at an early-stage startup, you must break your product down into its smallest possible pieces and ship them separately. This allows you to ship faster, validate that what you’re working on offers enough real value for your market, and, if at all possible, diversify your sources of revenue.

7. Play the long game. Great design takes a long time and there isn’t anything you can do to change that. You must be willing to shape your business around this fact, or you must choose a business that doesn’t require great design to create immense value. Subsequently, you must play the long game and do everything you possibly can to shield your employees from the pressures of short financial runway5 by aligning all of your decisions towards the longest product development runway you can possibly afford. Pixar takes 4 to 5 years to create one film in an industry that typically takes 2-3 years. The magic of Pixar isn’t that they have more creative people, it’s that they have a more purposefully designed organization. You obviously can’t take 5 years to build your startup’s product, but you must nonetheless be purposeful in designing a long product development runway that suits your market. When you combine this strategy with making small things, you will be surprised how easy it is to consistently ship very good products.

If you’d like more thorough information, there are many excellent books written on the subject of building creative organizations. Ed Catmull’s excellent book about Pixar is a great start.