Over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more companies building internal design capabilities. This finally feels like the recognition our sector deserves; moving from an outsourceable commodity, to a core business competency.
But in the rush to prove their value, some companies are starting to suffer as a result...
I think it’s safe to say that the majority of companies still have more design work than they have designers. There’s a global shortage of designers at the moment, which makes it difficult to hire and retain the best talent. I regularly have conversations with design leaders who bemoan the challenges of growing, nurturing and retaining a team. It often takes six months to recruit a new designer and get them up to speed. With the average designer moving roles every 18 months, that leaves a very short window of productivity.
As a result, there will always be a market for pre-built design teams, made up of experienced designers who are able to deliver high quality work quickly. These sorts of teams are perfect when a company is facing a resource or time crunch, and needs to throw a project over the fence quickly.
I think this is how most organisations view design agencies, and it’s a sensible way of engaging. But I think internal design teams may be missing a trick here.
In our experience, internal teams fall into a natural cadence of internal meetings, workshops, 1-on-1s and status updates. They also find themselves settling on tools, processes and procedures that maximise consistency and interoperability.
This all makes perfect sense. However, what starts as a logical and practical process of rationalisation, quickly becomes “the way we do things here”, and if you’re not careful, your team starts to atrophy.
Over the past six years, the bulk of our work has shifted from delivering standalone projects to augmenting internal teams. Sometimes this is just a capacity issue, but more often than not we’re being asked by design leaders to help them stretch the teams we’re embedded with and create an engine for internal innovation.
In-house teams often get stuck in a particular cadence, and can feel trapped on the treadmill of Business As Usual. Injecting some external energy can do wonders for team moral, and their ability to deliver. So we usually leave teams with a renewed vigour and pace.
This is especially true for senior team members, who can quickly hit your internal glass ceiling. It’s hard to grow if you’re the most experienced professional in the room, so having an experienced external practitioner to bounce ideas off can be great for individual growth. By bringing somebody onto the team as a player-coach, it’s possible to provide new skills, speed up delivery and develop your key players all at the same time.
Another benefit of partnering with an external agency is the sheer number of design teams they’ve worked over the years. So while a typical internal team member may have only worked with two or three other companies before, an external agency will have worked with dozens. That’s why external partners are in a great position to help recommend operational improvements.
Sometimes this is as simple as suggesting the creation of a new design language or pattern library. At other times it may be helping to improve internal workflow or governance strategy. Either way, having an external perspective–from somebody who has done the thing you’re struggling with a dozen times before– can be a boon to both newly minted and experienced design leaders alike.
If design leaders are lucky, they’ll have a couple of senior practitioners they can work alongside on strategic initiatives. But more often than not their team are so focussed on product delivery that there is little time to strategise. We regularly find ourselves supporting design leaders with more strategic initiatives; everything from developing business cases and prototyping new product ideas, to creating a digital service manual and organisational vision.
These are the sort of things that internal teams often have going on the the background, but rarely find the time to execute. With a good agency partner delivering a whole program of improvements, these tasks become significantly easier.
This external support is especially helpful for design leaders looking to demonstrate the value of design to their board. In fact more of our coaching work is focussed on helping leaders manage up and out, than down. One of the reasons agencies like Clearleft are so effective at this is the fact that they’ve been selling the value of design to boards their entire life. So they’re well placed to work alongside internal design leaders to grow their influence and the impact design can have.
There are dozens of other ways a strategic design consultancy can help support internal teams, beyond simply outsourcing delivery. So when you’re considering partnering with an agency, don’t just think of them as a means of delivering a specific project, but as a team of individuals who have spent the past 12 years understanding, optimising and operationalising design-led teams.