Management by Design

Jul 16, 2001

Designers, by all rights, should be fantastic managers. They understand how important motivation is to creativity. They are tuned in to context and are good at seeking input from others. They know how sensitive people are and how radically different their productivity is when they feel good versus bad. They know about planning and needs assessment and how important it is to do these things before starting to design anything. They understand complex problems with hundreds or thousands of variables that need to be considered simultaneously. They demonstrate the ability to create something tangible out of someone’s vision practically daily. They are smart people with high world awareness who can take on any project and get it done. Anyone who can do these things should be fabulous at planning, running, and maintaining a business enterprise. But we all know that’s frequently not the case. Too often, the best designers don’t prove to be the best managers. On the contrary, they may be the worst managers! And that’s dangerous in design-led companies (companies run by people who are designers by education and experience). How can this expected deficiency be overcome? Here is my thinking: Stop making it acceptable. Sure, this is easier said than done. But why is it OK for someone to be a good designer but not know what a budget is or how to delegate a simple task to a much less experienced co-worker? It’s not! Leaders who witness unacceptable behavior or attitudes and tolerate them are a big part of the problem. Encourage pursuit of a business education. I have known more than one architect or engineer who, after getting an MBA, came to a real revelation. Ignorance is not the same as a lack of intellect. While the professionals who get a design or technical education may not know much about management when they come out of school, they are certainly intellectually capable of understanding it if they are given some education. This is where you come in. You may need to formally support (with your checkbook) continuing education for your people, particularly business education. Many firms in our business don’t. Encourage people to read about business. People need to read and study on their own without necessarily aiming to get a degree. Does your firm subscribe to Inc. Magazine? Fortune? Forbes? Fast Company? BusinessWeek? The Zweig Letter? Are these publications as accessible as the design or technical publications that you subscribe to? If not, why not? And there are plenty of other sources for business know-how and inspiration that people could go to if they knew you thought it was important. Open-book management. It’s the way to train people— share information with them and let them connect the input with the results. I just don’t understand why some people still resist this idea, but many do. No matter. Open-book management practices that include publishing summary financial data and critical firm performance metrics as well as some interpretation from the CEO or CFO are critical to your ability to get others to understand how the business operates and how money is made. Proper role models. I’m not talking about Howard Roarke here! I’m talking about having some people in the firm who are good architects, or good engineers, or good scientists who also know something about management and selling, and demonstrate this in their daily activities. Yes, I know there is a dearth of this type of talent! But it is out there. And I find, in many cases, the people who have these abilities are not interacting with those who don’t. They are hidden away in offices or clustered together with others like themselves while the rest of the staff is working in bullpens, for the most part isolated from their potential role models. That’s a problem! Cultural clarity. Firm owners who say they want good managers, but then respond with pay, promotions, and ownership status to those who squawk the most or to those who don’t demonstrate managerial aptitude send the message that good management skills are secondary to other qualities. That’s not good! Originally published 7/16/2001.

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