(And bonkers, of course, is an anagram for broken).

What is design

I don’t mean graphic design (graphic design is just as important). I mean the other kind: design is the step in the planning of work where experts edit the plan.

Design doesn’t only come before work. Effective design is iterative: it happens before during & after. Good design culture is aware of the tradeoff between too little planning and too much waiting. Carl von Clausewitz said ‘It is better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past’. Finding this balance is in my opinion one of the lessons new managers have to figure out before they can be effective.

My goal in this post is to describe broken design culture in technology organizations and motivate you to fix it.

Measuring design breakdown

Axiom: your team has decisions to make that require careful thought, that take more than 30 minutes of concentration.

Hypothesis: somewhere in your chain of command is someone who quashes careful thought whenever he or she finds out about it; who can’t participate in an iterative process.

Proof: (this is the hard part).

Bring a stopwatch to sprint planning or wherever work is planned & assigned. Wait for someone to bring up a question that requires new information or a risky decision. Start the timer and measure how long before:

  1. someone gets frustrated and changes the subject
  2. irreconcilable differences bog you down (and you move on to the next subject)
  3. kindergarten is in session (someone on the team isn’t tech-savvy enough to participate) and you change topics
  4. or (and this is the healthy outcome) someone creates a plan, however simple, for collecting information or doing an experiment to move the decision forward.
  5. or (this is a healthy outcome too) makes a unilateral decision that saves time and isn’t clearly wrong.

If 4 or 5, you can close this tab.

Maybe design isn’t happening in sprint planning. Maybe it’s happening in smaller meetings or individuals are sending out design docs. Go through your email history – have you ever received a careful summary of ‘this is what we need to accomplish’, ‘this is how’, ‘here are the problems’? Did that email go through further mutations as others thought carefully about it? Or was it translated to JIRA immediately, or worse, never read.

Is your team even conscious of design? The way to test this is to say: ‘we need more information before proceeding’. Does anyone on your team tag in and help gather the information?

(Hint: don’t actually bring a stopwatch unless your coworkers rule. It will make them paranoid. Keep your phone or laptop out to keep time).

Symptoms of the disease

What are the outcomes when design bogs down? If your organization doesn’t have any hard decisions to make, nothing. If only one person in your organization knows anything, aand that person makes all decisions, also no problem. Neither of these scenarios is realistic.

More likely, your org has expertise and information distributed into nooks & crannies in the brains of different people across different departments. When decisions & plans are finalized without input from these people (and plans should never be finalized at all, period), you’ll get the following familiar outcomes:

  • unrealistic deadlines: or worse, flapping between ‘we’re not doing this yet’ and ‘we need this monday’
  • tower of babel effect: plans which can’t be built or worse, which make no sense except to the person who wrote them
  • the four horsemen of divorce (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling) because plans are unrealistic
  • loss of ideas and loss of morale when good ideas aren’t permitted to ‘bubble up’ from the ‘wrong people’. This can be product ignoring engineering, engineering ignoring the C-suite (it happens more than you think), product ignoring sales, or even sales ignoring engineering (i.e. selling something other than what you’ve built).
  • loss of agility: when business needs change after plans are finalized, managers who don’t understand design can’t pivot – either because they view backpedaling as a loss of face or because they aren’t aware that needs & plans are related
  • inefficient ordering: ‘if we do A before B they’ll both take less time’ will be met with ‘B is a higher priority, do it first’
  • organizational aphasia: your org loses the ability to state its needs internally and so instead of collaborating towards clearly-stated and collaboratively-defined goals, your org is struggling to implement, or even resisting, bad plans.
  • slowing of all thought processes: when your managers & builders can’t brainstorm about how to achieve goals, your org stops operating like a brain. It becomes an immune system inflamed against itself. Not pretty.

I don’t know the solution

I wish I knew an easy fix. Fire all your bad people? Who will hire their replacements? Unless you have a hot startup with publicity or can get away with hiring new graduates, hiring is really hard.

danluu claims he’s never seen bad change to good. I’ve seen teams that became dysfunctional when a manager left, or which only planned effectively when a spread-thin manager was in town that week.

I’ve seen various outcomes:

  • total disaster: missed deadlines, lost clients.
  • out-of-band solutions: someone with technical chops and political power is able to resolve by organizing a few all-nighters after the crisis hits. But you don’t always have the luxury of a crisis.
  • parallel planning: the people who know what’s going on work around the people who don’t and deliver something similar to what they expect.

In all cases the real work is getting done in cleanup sessions and overtime. This approach will waste most of your team’s time, create burnout, and kill morale.

What I haven’t seen is bad design culture resolve itself without some kind of external change (usually personnel). Curiously, I also haven’t seen a manager get fired for anti-design behavior. My theory is that senior managers who are capable of understanding design are in turn incapable of hiring managers who will screw up too badly in this area.

Final thoughts

If you’re a manager getting complaints about this from your team: give them sign-off power on plans. Be clearer about goals, and if you don’t believe in your goals enough to state them clearly, find better goals.

If you’re a builder suffering under broken design culture: start shopping for a new job unless you’re willing to take the full weight of organizational goal-setting on your shoulders.