An evolved client agency relationship

Attracting the best designers to work on your project 

The world’s best companies have always understood that design can be a competitive advantage, helping to create compelling products and services while building a customer-centric culture that helps drive business strategy. 

Yet, while product development has generally matured and become commonplace in business, elevating the practice of design is an area that remains challenging for organisations and this is predominantly down to attracting, developing and retaining design talent.

As with software engineers, the best designers in the market have a world of opportunities right now — whether it’s working with an exciting fintech disrupter, the design of our future cities, autonomous vehicles or even quantified-self, precision medicine and the reinvention of healthcare, talented people have a lot of choices and attracting people is getting harder.

Alongside the talent draw issue, the creation of an optimum in-house design and product development team is also challenged by how innovation happens within organisations. Broadly, you have two types; incremental innovation, which sees a culture built around evaluation and adjustment (think Dyson and his 5,127 prototypes over 15 years), and you also have (arguably the most powerful form of ideas development), recombinant innovation where you apply something from one domain or context to another, which, to reference Matthew Syed from his book Rebel Ideas, is rather like sexual reproduction where genes from two separate organisms come together to form something new and cumulative. 

To this end innovators need variety in their work, to see patterns in healthcare that apply to financial services for example – this is one of the key advantages that a design consultancy has over any in-house team – broader domain experience and an ability to drive recombinant innovation, a skill in moving swiftly from one domain to another.

That said, ideas without influence and awareness of what went before (call it organisational memory), are almost worth nothing and the in-house designer has in their armoury deep and contextual business understanding and extremely nuanced skills in navigating the political landscape.

So when it comes to building an in-house product team and design capability, you want the best talent available to help elevate the role of design and its impact on business, and you also need broad expertise to stimulate innovation – and when selecting where to work designers face this choice, influence on their work or variety in their work.

For businesses looking for design to have more impact within the organisation (as the best businesses do), you need the right combination of internal and external designers – strategically driven, culturally sensitive, experientially broad, kick-ass designers.

A new kind of client/agency relationship

For businesses where digital products and services play a key role, long gone are the days of wholly outsourcing to a digital agency. Thankfully it’s now commonplace to own the management and delivery of most digital products and services, working with specialist partners to do so. With a maturation of skills in software development, product ownership and data science amongst others, it necessitates designers working in very close proximity – so the traditional agency ivory tower model has probably seen its days numbered. 

The ELSE rotational model

At ELSE we understand that we work best when in combination with our clients, powering up their capability with ours, working with their organisational expertise. This largely means that our clients come to us for a couple of key reasons; our expertise/creativity across product and service creation, design and management and critically the perspective we bring to their domain via our experience. 

In our experience, our clients want the flexibility to be able to scale design capability as needed and to do so in partnership, rather than through a traditional external supplier relationship. Meaning that innovation, creative capability and design-ops are in-sourced. 

To support our clients need for highly-skilled, culturally sensitive designers that maintain that valuable cross-sector experience, yet work in close proximity with client-side teams, ELSE have developed an engagement model that balances continuity and flexibility yet ensure a fresh perspective formed by working within other sectors and industries. Our team can augment the culture of that organisation, to positively influence the workplace, and not just to be seated within it temporarily. 

To ensure ELSE teams are continually fit for purpose and maintain perspective and objectivity, we use a rotational model that allows different team members to rotate around client ‘hubs’. Design leadership is kept consistent and we ensure a progressive rotation, rather than swapping entire teams at once. There are a couple of key benefits to working in this way —

  1. It creates a bench of ELSER’s that understand and are familiar with the clients business, allowing us to pick capabilities that suit different projects. This means that at any time we can draw on this shared knowledge and short-cut the usual onboarding process. 
  2. We remain fresh, bringing new ideas and techniques to each hub. This cyclical knowledge sharing can be very practical around tools and techniques, but also can bring new ideas around team management and collaboration as well as having the obvious benefit of seeing patterns in completely separate industries.

Putting it into practice

Since 2016, we’ve been working with T. Rowe Price, a leading Asset Management Firm, to establish design capability within their business. Starting life as the ‘Digital Lab’, working on sales-enablement focused projects, the model has now matured to become a ‘Centre of Excellence’ that works globally across all digital tools and platforms, critical to the growth of the company.

We’ve recently worked with design leads across the business to create a global design system for use across all the digital estate. Run remotely and with participation from contributors and collaborators, we’ve developed a new Figma based design system. This kind of global initiative has been a demonstration of how internal design leads can work with an external partner to deliver something of huge value. 

We also work with O2 on Priority, driving product and service innovation. Working as an integral part of their product teams we bring strategic, design and user experience capability to work in close partnership with their Product Owners, Developers and partners to design new releases across web, iOS and Android.

Driving a shared creative culture

It’s not always the case that businesses have a mature view of design like T. Rowe do and have board-level sponsorship to use design to create business advantage. We support businesses at all levels of design maturity and it’s seeing change happen that’s the most rewarding for our design teams. Being a positive influence on how a business uses design, not just the output of it.

With every engagement, fostering the right team culture and working environment is also critical. The most important thing is having alignment on where the business is, and critically, what it wants to achieve. With clear shared goals and objectives, we can operate as one team, even if the individual skills and resources continually change to meet that goal. Our talent proposition is one that promotes positive co-working behaviours.

We are deeply invested in R&D and use a 4-day week to develop and learn — you can read more about that here. We believe in continual learning and development, which means that we find opportunities to grow and learn together, benefitting workplace culture.

How Might This Work For You?

ELSE specialise in helping organisations utilise design as an on-going strategic advantage for their business — whether that’s helping to launch a new proposition, redesign or optimise an existing product or service. 

Our Design Maturity Review helps business leaders identify where they are, where they want to get to and the plan that needs to be put in place to get there.

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