Extracts from a LinkedIn Discussion posted in the ‘DBA’ Group | July 2012

The author Ann Landers once said, “There are really only three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who say…What happened?”

Which of these people-types reflects you and your design team’s current behaviours – the proactive, reactive or generally inactive?

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There is only me in my team, on a full-time basis anyway Simon, but I would like to say I aspire to the 1st – for my sins.

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So long as you’re proactive to all of the above you may be alright. Watch, question, deliver.

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Personally, being a ‘driver’ and having a thirst for innovation, it frustrates me when others criticise rather than participate and then contribute no ideas of their own. If someone betters an idea I might have proposed, I am delighted and embrace it.

However, too many people look only for negatives and fault – so I would add a fourth category to Simon’s list – there are those that stop things happening!

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I hear and empathise with your frustration. I’m sure you recognise that the problem here is (largely) that it’s so much easier to criticise than to offer / originate constructive thoughts…..like a default setting it’s pre-programmed human behaviour for the majority, no?

The point with this discussion is that a little self-reflection every so often, whether that brings out positives or negatives, has to be a good thing.

My partner Lisa kindly tells me ‘you make things happen’ which I receive as a compliment, but still struggle with the act of receiving a compliment…I don’t know why.  Easier to just see myself as someone that is ‘proactive’, because I am self-employed and drive myself to remain so.

There you go…a little self-reflection, anyone else?

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Hi Simon, What do you think about the idea that the three types exist on a paradigm and we can inhabit any of them, dependent on the specific situation. This gets away from the pressure to boxing ourselves up into extreme categories but turns the focus towards the specific conditions that contribute to behaviour.

One area where attitudes have changed from boxing to paradigm is in the introvert/extrovert area. The current thinking suggests that rather than being one or the other, we tend towards either depending upon the situation, this was a revelation for me because I felt that I oscillated between the 2 but now I realise that’s dependent upon the situation I’m a lot more relaxed about it and embrace both!

If you’re interested in finding out more, some decent books on personality type: Quiet, the power of Introverts by Susan Cain and I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You: Real Meaning of the 16 Personality Types: Amazon.co.uk: Roger R. Pearman, Sarah C. Albritton: Books.

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Yes… I think you raise some really interesting points John, and in essence I would probably agree with you.

I’m familiar with MBTI which refers primarily to ‘preference’. I know some large organisations where this is the preferred business language of choice, and have put their management teams through lengthy training courses to enable the organisation to speak the ‘language’. However, my experience is these only really work when the knowledge and understanding is universal…widely used.

It is particularly useful when working with high performing teams that are skilled and active in giving and receiving feedback….and all familiar with the language, types and preferences.

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That’s a good point, that everyone needs to know it to make it work well (misused and this knowledge can be like nitro glycerin in the hands of a unicyclist on cobbles). Although I wonder if perhaps more self-knowledge is no bad thing- that these concepts could be used by the self-aware individual to better understand the environment that they work best in.

They could also be used with empathy to better understand colleagues and why they behave how they do. I was chatting to Rod Petrie yesterday and we were discussing how strengths and weaknesses are treated within the performance review context and where the emphasis of a performance review ought to be to get most out of the process for all involved. any thoughts on this anyone?

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Following on from your comment John, I wonder what percentage of the day at work people out there really spend playing to their strengths? Do I still get the feeling that when it comes to individual Performance Reviews a higher percentage of the time is spent on their weaknesses, then their strengths, then even more time on none of that stuff.

In my experience the brilliant people, the brilliant agencies and the brilliant teams all play to their strengths. Am I alone in my opinion?

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Rod I’m sure you’re right about performance reviews. There can be a tendency to ‘fix’ the weaknesses. There is, however, no doubt in my mind that self-awareness is the foundation for greater performance, be it individual, team or group, and so if reviews provide time for reflection and awareness so much the better.

Widening the context again to Simon’s original point I also wonder how different it is for leaders/business owners v team players. For business owners – taking action is a given. (OK we all might have bad days but fundamentally we would not be ‘in business’ without it). The make-up, psychology of teams and the balance to make 2+2=5 is a more complex and utterly fascinating dance.

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Hi Liz, agree with self-awareness as the foundation for greater performance. I wonder what proportion of ‘taking action’ involves creating a system that supports and compensates for problems compared with uncovering the true extent of the problem space and taking action to resolve it.

It crops up in my conversations with members particularly when they talk about the conflict/stress of working in the business rather than on the business. Something acutely felt by small design businesses (who let’s face it are in the majority), which pulls them in. I wonder if these difficulties create actions as reactions rather than actions which would have been chosen. The decision whether or not to enter into competition for work that involves providing unpaid creative work perhaps falls into this category (but that’s another hornet’s nest!).

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Some people need an arm round the shoulder, some people need a kick in the pants! Performance reviews leads to HR and if you get me started on that topic you’ll regret it….!

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In the end, people are people. And all you can hope to do in life is learn what your strengths are, and then try to play to them. Whilst Maxine is right, and no one wants to be around those who stop things happening, equally too many Chiefs and not enough Indians can be just as counter-productive.

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Hi Jason, maybe motivation has a lot to do with it.

I saw a good talk by Daniel Pink on TED called the Surprising Science of Motivation. He talks about intrinsic motivators having the strongest pull for people. if these are working for you, you do things because they’re part of something important, they matter and they’re interesting. In terms of job function, his view is that there is strong evidence to say that 3 things underpin our working lives to create motivation.

The first is Autonomy- the degree to which you are self-directed in what you do (quotes a couple of good examples from companies that introduced initiatives to enable their staff to work on stuff that interested them, as well as the work they had to do). I guess that one design equivalent might be pro bono charity work? Or perhaps it might be the opportunity to choose the work you want to do rather than have the work choose you (tough at any time I expect but even more so at the moment.)The second was Mastery- the opportunity to get better and better at something and to see that happening. The third was Purpose- having a purpose larger than ourselves. he quotes an interesting comparison between Microsoft Encarta (failed online encyclopedia) and Wikipedia (successful encyclopedia).

Maybe the difference between Ann Landers ‘types’ is that the first is doing something that satisfies these criteria and the other 2 have not plugged into these values in what they are doing?

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It’s an interesting discussion John and as many others have said, at the end of the day it comes down to a willingness to learn and share irrespective of position, age or status, self-confidence & above all, the generosity of spirit of the people leading and participating.

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Thanks to those who contributed.

Simon

Extracts from a LinkedIn Discussion posted in the ‘Design Council’ Group | April 2012

Owners of small design firms – to what extent are you working IN and/or ON the business?

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Hi Simon, this varies for me throughout the year and in all honesty I have probably been working too much in the business rather than on it recently…today I am probably working 70% on developing the business and 30% on actual project work!

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Too much working IN the business is why the majority of my design clients work with me. However structure and discipline is a dual-edged sword as many creative thinkers run screaming from the very idea.

Finding a harmony between the detail in each job and the blue sky above is a very important task to tackle for many creative businesses.

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Hi, four years ago I was working in the business and we made a loss of £65k at Exesios. Since then I now stand back and ‘work on’ the business and we have now been back in profit for the past two years. My main point of contact has been our accountants?? They have instilled a sense of financial discipline and forward planning that we never had when things were going well before the ‘crash’. I am now the “managing” director as opposed to a “design” director. We now plan and make our luck as opposed to ‘see’ what comes through the door. it has been a very tough lesson but a valuable one. At some point in a business designers either have to stand back and start planning or employ an experienced planner to work alongside.

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I am in the process of setting up my planning & design consultancy. I need to network people to find out what they are up to, get lessons from their experience, share experience, etc. I think IN is very important people like me entering new into business.

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Paul Vincent’s response is an excellent, concise rationale as to how we should all be running our businesses. Our business has been a chronic example of “firefighting” our way through the workload and assuming someone else will always come knocking to keep us in jobs. The work that comes in has not always been of the kind we’d like though, and for the last 8 months we’ve been redeveloping our consultancy with great advice from a mentor.

We’d long searched for an appropriate mentor with the right balance of business and design skills. As designers, our sole concern is not with “the bottom line” and at this point in our working lives we wish also to improve the creative potential of our work alongside functional product design and development. Our mentor has been – and continues to be – worth her weight in gold! She has the vision and enough emotional distance from the business to recognise what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, as well as extracting from us what we’d most like to be doing and helping us to construct processes to get to this point.

Since using her skills and vision, the work we’re starting to take on is already more interesting and a valuable use of our skills and experience, which in turn improves both income and “creative wellbeing”.

So, the short answer is that a mentor can be as useful as good accountants (we have those thankfully) and assuming you can find the right one for you, possibly even better!

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I’m pulling myself out of working ‘in’ so I can focus on working ‘on’ the business. It’s less fun, and less satisfying, but a lot more responsible!

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I’m lucky as I share control of my business with my business partner, he works 100% IN the business (he is ultimately responsible for the making of our models, prototypes and components), whereas I work 70% on developing the business and 30% working IN the business, but my involvement working IN is limited to taking care of the general management of the company (inc working with suppliers and taking care of the finances) so that my business partner is shielded from this distraction and can focus solely of what goes out of the door.

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Hi Simon, I totally agree that working ON the business is vital – especially for small companies, such as ours; where ‘feast and famine’ keep a strong hand on the business activity.
After reading a lot of the other threads on this group I feel we all have a HUGE job to do – not only in helping our own businesses, but in promoting the further understanding of what design can offer to business in general.
There is a lot of discussion about the ‘value’ of design and the fact that designers feel they are not understood by clients, manufacturers and the public in general, leading to a ‘degrading’ of the profession.
My feeling is that we are all responsible for this misconception and misunderstanding of design in general and that we should all be working on this! –
One of the places that we could start is by explaining to the ‘outside world’ what it is we do, how fundamentally it can impact on all aspects of business and then get to grips with why ‘everyone thinks they are a designer’!
We need to start to explain our profession in simple terms (design our approach) rather than using the complex jargon terms and ‘mystical psycho-babble terms’ that designers are so fond of (or too lazy to try to communicate without trying to look clever?) so that the world at large will begin to see the real value of the profession.
I like the terms you’ve used – as for once I can understand what is being proposed.
So what I’m saying is we all need to get working “ON” even a little bit more generally, as this is going to help all of us in the long term.
Sorry to babble on – But thank you Simon, this has made me think a lot about how we present ourselves!

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What an interesting dialogue your question has started Simon. It is one that has been rolling around in my consciousness for the long,long time that I’ve been a designer. I have run successful design businesses and been a Partner in one famous one and Consultant to another and the ‘ON’ and ‘IN’ position has often been a question to ask of all of them.
I should have come to a conclusion but I am ‘creative’ at heart which brackets me not as a responsible adult director but a (nearly) long haired hippy determined to bring creativity to my most unreceptive client! A perception only far from the truth on some days.
I firmly believe in working ON the business and sure, it’s difficult not to work IN, especially as my own business is now smaller and busy with detail decisions for our projects. It seems to me that balance is what is required.
My input here in my studio is about creative leadership followed by good client relationship and with an eye to business structure,change and flux in the market and the financial future of this consultancy. I think that has been the situation in all of the organisations I have worked with and includes many of the client bodies too!
As for expanding a message to help our clients understand I’m very surprised that the design bodies operate without much direction on that front and have singularly failed to develop a simple guide to design and designers for industry and the general public. The degree to which people are mis-informed can be seen by the number of young people lining up to get into Design Groups for work experience – they just don’t know what we do.
So work ON the business, don’t give up working IN the business and have a mentor. The more the merrier and the easier to understand. Its not easy this multi-tasking but it makes sense.

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Glad if this discussion thread has got you thinking about the whole ‘value of design’ conundrum/debate Roger which is undoubtedly a long and well trodden road.

I agree with your views and would add that the more agencies put themselves in the client’s shoes and ‘challenge’ their own offer and behaviours the more they are likely to connect with clients and find the common ground. I have some useful material on my blog which may help here.

Getting back onto the question of ‘to what extent designers are working IN / ON the business’, you’re right David that finding the right balance for your own situation and people arrangements is key. It is also about having a framework or structure to your working week that you (do your level best) to remain disciplined around.

Also, the more accountable/experienced your staff, the more owners should be able to delegate responsibilities confidently, which in turn should help to create the space required to be able to spend more time working ON the business. Designers are prone to employing the younger ‘more affordable’ staff that can be ‘shaped’ which can be appropriate for some but prove to be a false economy for others.

I’m interested in hearing some percentages. As a guide, it is my view that owners should generally be in (or manufacture) a position to be able to spend 50% or more of their time working ON the business, however that is achieved through each working week.

What would you say your % is?

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Hi Simon – I’ve worked in-house at several ‘big’ agencies and their rule of thumb is that senior management should spend about 60-65% of their time ‘on’ the business. But as they’re big agencies they have the staff to do the ‘in’. I would say that your 50% rate is probably about right for smaller agencies.

Like you, I’m a now a consultant, and what I’ve found with smaller agencies is that the biggest challenges are around softer things. Agency owners know that they need to focus on the ‘on’, but often it’s extremely difficult from a psychological perspective for them to ‘let go’ and not be in control of everything.

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Hi Simon – I agree with Stef, many agency owners feel an obligation to roll their sleeves up and exercise a degree of ‘doing’. Some of the agencies I’ve worked with over the last two years actually seem to benefit from a hands-on approach by the leaders. Conversely the work I do with agencies reaps dividends when it’s implemented or championed by someone who’s not too involved in the nitty-gritty. It’s a challenge for agency owners and always will be.

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Good discussion stream, Simon, and one that’s very much needed in our sector.

It’s about balance isn’t it? And it’s something, as we all know, that can be hard to achieve. Making time for the ON is tough when we’re busy. I’m a great believer in a good, old-fashioned, expertly facilitated away-day every so often. Assessing the current picture; identifying and facing future challenges and making plans to deal with them; learning from failures; celebrating achievements. All equally important.

I would just add that the most successful design firms worldwide seem to be those run by designers who not only have the vision, the skills and the passion, but who have also invested in the necessary time and trouble to train properly in business skills (which are nowhere near as difficult as design skills, by the way). Or those which have in place a closely-bonded director/management team with differently-skilled people – whether in-company in larger firms or external in the smaller ones – who between them can take care of all of the operations in the firm.

What doesn’t seem to work long-term is when a businessperson is solely in charge. The firm’s ‘product’ – design – inevitably suffers, and the firm’s reputation rapidly declines. And although we constantly hear that a firm’s greatest asset is its people, I think it’s a myth. In my view, a design firm’s greatest asset is its good reputation, which is based on a great product delivery. Without that, it’s nothing.

ps Even some of us ‘consultants to the consultants’ can find it challenging when we’re busy to make the time to do the ON as well as the IN (well, maybe not you of course, Simon). Now then, back to that forward business plan…!

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Thanks to those who contributed.

Simon

Extracts from a LinkedIn Discussion posted in the ‘DBA’ Group | January 2012

Your views on how designers build ‘valued’ relationships with their existing and/or prospective clients.

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Offer attractive retainers.

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Research & build a body of knowledge & future trend predictions within a sector, (that can also hold Intellectual Property) and interpret & apply that knowledge & trends to businesses within the sector. Use that to open up the door to client businesses you wish to work for and seek to elevate your business to ‘partner’ status not merely a supplier selling their wares.

Consider different ways of doing business that do not rely purely on fees for services.

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Understand the client. Understand the sector. Understand the issues. Be able to solve them. Become an expert in their field. Read what they read. Be aware of market trends and key considerations. Open discussion that shows you have a genuine interest in the business, their competitors and the future.

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Make their job easier by building a design business case with each project. Help them with a measured ROI.

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A less obvious way is to share your business objectives with your client. Don’t just talk agency and creative solutions but let your client know what part they play in your business and what your goals are. Your client(s) will often feel valued because you have shared this information with them and they can have an input, which can actually help you. Also, don’t overlook the opportunity to show your client what you are doing for other clients. I’ve found many clients very receptive (and impressed) with work done outside their sector/industry.

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A regular dialogue with clients and an agency’s network generally is so important.

Measurement is tangible in any design. You just need a datum point where nothing changes but the design, whether it is a logo a brand a seat or a piece of packaging. This article helps to put it into perspective. http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/oct2009/id2009105_225354.htm

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In my opinion the way to create value with customers has several issues:

1. Doing a good job, obviously.
2. Making the Customer see the good work. Many companies hire advertising and design and don’t value the work and creativity, the take it for granted. A lot of businessmen believe that this work makes anyone. Many sales people have much contempt for advertising professionals and design, creativity. The reason is that they do not understand. And they cannot do. Unless you make them see that this is important, you should know and be creatives and generates significant results. You have to explain the work. Explain the importance of different aspects.
3. Involved in the client’s business beyond the work he has been asked strictly. The customer sees the interest in your business or agency part of the study. Propose ideas, business ideas, discuss topics related to your business that you have read or learned that would be helpful. Customer knowledge that can serve beyond the work of one.
4. Having a good relationship with the customer. Hear it. And if possible, sometimes give you a taste.
5. Sometimes, it’s good to contradict them and make him see that you are the expert and that what you are doing is going to benefit more.

These ideas worked for me.

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Building relationship which many claim as an attribute, in general seems to be restricted to the project in hand and then seeking the next ‘project’ to continue their idea of the relationship. That is not building a long term relationship.

Relationships need time investment and commitment beyond taking the client out for lunch and ringing them sporadically to see if they have any more projects for you. And ‘knowledge is power’ – so long as you know how to interpret & apply the knowledge that is.

Applying pro-active thoughts and ideas’s (under-pinned by knowledge not assumption) is also valuable.

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Not just in this discussion thread but in others I’m reading on design Groups, there is a theme and more consistent voice emerging. Thankfully, this is highlighting that many design agencies need to review their behaviours, their ideas and their expectations around client retention, development and prospecting for new business.

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I think the most important in the relationship with the client is involved not only in the specific job but in the client’s business. Familiarity with your thinking, your market and your business. In this way one is able to contribute much more than what you are asking, able, to new ideas, suggest, discuss issues and knowledge of the market where the customer is developed and is anticipating future events. It is really helping the customer’s business to work better. And in that sense, one will be more valued. It will go from the studio or agency, to be a “partner” much more than virtual. Besides gaining a lot more experience and knowledge.

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In short, much of the business relationships are based on the “this guy I like” or “I do not like.” Unfortunately it is one of the most influential factors, but the greatest in all business relationships.

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Many of the problems arise from clients thinking that the conclusion is more important than the journey… many client individuals struggle with the idea of them versus the idea of an objective collaboration… and there are designers who are the same! Context, content and objectivity (and integrity) is fundamentally important… being able to look outside ourselves.

Designers have to be prepared to argue the toss and coherently – there aren’t many that do and it can be a lonely road if you are one of them! The problem is that most clients think that they have to drive the solution, when really their role is to define a clear need and provide all the background information and legwork that’s required to make the journey as easy as possible.

Like any relationship, you’re likely to click (or not) with your client the first time you enter the door, it’s as simple as that… then it’s important to say what you truthfully believe is correct… and then to exercise every creative sinew to change your clients mind if it’s required… in my view!

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I think that the first element to create a valued relationship with our clients is listen to them carefully and ask and listen and ask… If we understand their needs, their priorities and even their misconceptions about things, the possibility to create a strong link with them is higher. Of course then the next important thing is how to use that information to give to the client an off the shelf solution or a creative one.

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If you are clear about your big vision and values and share that with clients, and help them to find theirs and a better way to communicate with their own clients, I think is a good starting point.

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Always try to give the impression that your client is at the front of the queue, even if that’s not strictly the case. In meetings and discussions, use ‘we’ and ‘us’ to mean both client and designer as one team. When this becomes instinctive, it really works. Get heads round the primary objective in any project – all else should flow from that.

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Just sometimes express a few words and gestures of kindness that speaks of the person. Sometimes little things say a lot.

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Thanks to those who contributed.

Simon

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