We’ve all been there. You get hired for your expertise in a specific domain, and yet for some reason the powers at be seem to ignore your input, make a bunch of random decisions you think are at best ill-informed or at worst just plain wrong, and then hand it to you for implementation. If only they’d have consulted you sooner and you might have been able to avoid this mess.
Why does this keep happening? Well the obvious answer is either your bosses are idiots, they don’t value (or understand) your expertise, or have some hidden agenda they’re not telling you about. You’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably all three. However is this a fair assumption?
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been responsible for getting a big project delivered in a large organization, but it’s super hard. Hell, it’s hard enough getting even a small group of people to agree on where to go for lunch. One person wants Thai, somebody else fancies pizza. One person is gluten intolerant, another is Vegan. One faction is pushing for a long pub lunch, but a few need to get back early for a meeting. Now imagine this, but for something that actually matters.
Designers see this challenge most often in a workshop setting. You gather a bunch of input from people, stack rank the answers and come up with the solution that gets the most votes, in the hope that you’ve done enough to get the solution over the line in the time available. However, despite everybody agreeing that this is probably the best (or least worst) solution you have, it often feels like there must be something better available. So there’s always somebody in the group who opens things back up. What about X? Have we considered Y? Why don’t we ask what Z thinks? This is super frustrating for both the facilitator and many of the team, who simply want to get a reasonable sounding agreement and move on. Now it looks like we’re going to need to start the whole process again, but this time with even more people.
This is how decisions get made in large companies. Or actually, this is how decisions don’t get made in large companies. Because actually making a decision is scary, and it’s almost certainly going to piss some people off. Every time you get close to making a decision, somebody invariably comes up with a new proposal, suggests undertaking a new bit of research to help better inform the decisions, or wants to loop in somebody from another department. The longer this goes on, the more ideas that get thrown in and the more people who get consulted, the more complicated things get; often to the point that companies get overwhelmed by choice paralysis and the project runs aground.
Canny operators — those people who are actually able to get shit done inside organizations — realize this problem. To get round this organizational entropy they know that they need to keep the decision making circle as small as possible, the time to decision (TTD) as short as possible, and say no to anything that might reopen debate. This is why companies end up focusing on outputs rather than outcomes. Because an output is a tangible decision that can be agreed upon by a small group of people, estimated against and put into production before Maureen from Marketing or Barry from accounts have a chance to mess it up (or propose their own solution). This is the real reason why they ignored your recommendations to spend 6 weeks talking to every key stakeholder in the business to gather their input, or spend 3 months coming up with a variety of possible solutions. It’s not because it’s a terrible idea. In an ideal world it’s actually an excellent idea. It’s just incompatible with how decisions actually get made. It’s been super hard to build consensus; we can only hold people in agreement for so long before the whole thing implodes; so get this one thing done and we’ll look at following a better process next time.
But there is no next time.