This is definitely the conversation worth having.

As far as I know, there are two kinds of organizations in a company (at least).

Business orgs and service orgs.

The business org is held responsible the the health of the business, the service orgs for the quality of their service.

So a GM in a business org (at Yahoo they were things like autos or search or travel, at Linkedin they were recruiting, or communications or search) chooses what services she needs to support her efforts, and allocates headcount to the service orgs, who then hire for those roles, usually wiht approval by the GM or one of her representatives like a PM.

In a classic matrixed organization, you work for the business but you report to the service org head. (that never causes conflicts in prioritization!) (that was irony!)

With accounting or engineering, I think quality of service is a bit easier to determine. We more or less know what good code looks like, or good bookkeeping. But what is quality service from a designer?

Let’s call these table stakes:

  • Skill set — do they design well (this is highly subjective from what is “good” to what is “design.”)
  • Collaboration — are they an effective team member?

But then it gets trickier, as you consider what other skills you need to hire for:

  • Business understanding — do they make decisions that help the business? Everyone agrees this is useful, but different groups value it differently. The head of Design may feel design craft is more important, the GM/PM may not value it because “I’ve got those! What I can’t do is photoshop!”
    But business understanding is a survival skill. Let’s say the business has decided to make a decision in the feature set that your boss, the Design Manager, feels is bad for users. The Design Manager is pushing you to fight that decision, which will cost you a lot of social capital. Now you are stuck, because it almost doesn’t matter what the right decision is (and it’s unknowable.) You, the designer, are caught between the person who gives you a raise and the person who can make your daily life hell. If you don’t understand enough about business to make a good argument to somebody, you are just a pawn.
  • What team has their loyalty? — In Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni discusses the idea of “The First Team.” Your first team is where your ultimate loyalties lie. Is it design, with whom you share interests and skills, or the multi-disciplinary team you build things with? Who do you eat lunch with? Who do you complain about, and who do you complain with?
    Is this hire a “designer’s designer” and likely to be tribal, or is willing willing to truly be a team player with the business?
  • Skill vs Articulateness — in a tough hiring market like today’s, a hiring manager can’t always get both a great designer and a great communicator. Often a hiring manager will pick the person with craft, then treat them as a “resource” because they don’t have enough communication skills to collaborate effectively. If you are being left out of strategic meetings, it might be you.
  • Social skills — an employee can’t be passive aggressive in a culture of straight talk, and vice versa. You have to be able to read the room and communicate in a way that can be heard. “Fighting for the User” works in one environment, and is certain death in another.

Too often we determine quality from a designer is

  • Good design work (pretty/complete/accurate — rarely effective.)
  • On time delivery
  • Good order taking skills

Thus product designers who do what the PM says can thrive, and those who argue for a more effective product can get fired.

I think the only way to change these dynamics is

  • Determine what “good design” is before you hire, and hire to that.
  • Hire for collaboration as much as craft, and don’t compromise on it.
  • Make sure everyone knows who has final call if there are disagreements.

And I still think that is a Product Manager.

It’s the PM who is no good, I hear you say! Well, who is going to arbitrate that? The GM? The GM hired that person, and manages them. If the GM wanted them gone, they would have fired them. You can share your observations (preferably in the safety of a 360 review) but you can’t do much except find a way to communicate with your PM. But a bad PM doesn't mean the role of Product Manager is unfair. It just means you are working with a jerk.

So wait for change, quit or change roles. You want that own that call bad enough, become a PM. I’m not sure you’ll like it.

Written by

Designing business, and the business of design.

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