Optics and pragmatics: The politics of design

One of the toughest lessons I’ve been learning as a corporate design leader is the political nature of designing, in terms of the actual activity of shaping a novel form or behavior that overthrows an existing model. Hey, it’s some scary stuff for people used to doing things a certain way :-) 

First let me clarify. By politics, I don’t mean long knives sneakily sharpened by duplicitous faux allies. I’m instead referring to the constant argumentation over resources and priorities and agendas–which is a conversational ebb and flow, resting on shifting subtleties of flawed personalities, not deftly wicked impulses. There is a factual limit to the number of hours, people, funds, tools, and so forth that can be committed to a design endeavor. And dutifully, such people in charge of this resourcing seek purposeful, transactionally sound, pragmatic resolution, a balance of aims to achieve satisfying compromise for everyone involved. However, the same folks want to selfishly claim their objective outright for their own benefit–it’s only human! 

To truly design something is to deliver an outcome that is feasible and desirable, satisfying a range of contingencies and constraints, not some theoretical vision exercise–this is “The Real World” ;-) And this requires dealing with various people who are concerned about risks and tradeoffs and availability of resources, massaging the message, nuancing the details, persuasive campaigning, etc. It’s the art of politics, plain and simple–via diplomacy and negotiated compromise, while preserving your principles and convictions. Not easy!

To complicate things further, you must hold a vigilant outlook for the optics of a situation, how does it appear to the other stakeholders (whether internal business owners or external vendors/clients) in working out the politics. How does it look for you and your team against your client or other departments/teams? Perception is reality for people, as a general axiom. And shaping that perception can affect your negotiating position towards effective results. Again, it’s not underhanded or duplicitous in intention, simply having extra diligence for the flawed human natures at work–because, as a lot we’re greedy, egotistical, temperamental, judgy, and needy, in varying degrees, of course ;-) How does it look for the PM to have to make a hard call without data from the User Researcher, or when creating a next-gen prototype that Engineering is having difficulties building out, will that erode your position, cause colleagues to feel embarrassed or less willing to support you? How can you work out a balance of practical issues while supporting perceptual & emotional matters accordingly, so you reach that win-win position? Hmm.

There’s no easy answers but paying attention to the pragmatics and optics of working with other people when delivering a design (i.e.,politics) is essential to leadership success.

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