In-house Issues: In-house Incremental or Don’t Settle for Fargo

It took an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 workers 80 years to build the pyramids at Giza, 21 years and thousands of artisans and craftsmen to build the Taj Mahal and a whopping 120 years to complete St. Peter’s Basilica. Thankfully you’re not creating 1 of the 7 wonders of the world, so it won’t take that long to build a successful in-house creative team nor will it be that painful. Still, it’s helpful to keep these facts in mind when setting your expectations as to how much time it will take to succeed in the bureaucratic culture of your company.

As designers working in the digital age we’re prone to impatience. We like results and we like them fast, so when we find the fruits of our labor to improve our status and the level of work we hope to get taking months and even years to ripen, we tend to get discouraged, and often we resign ourselves to accepting business as usual – not exactly a behavior that will ensure any big-time achievements.

Success can and does come to those who wait, or rather, persevere. Peter Sheridan, former director of the in-house agency at Bristol-Myers Squibb, is a perfect case in point. Sheridan started at BMS heading up a 3 person design team among many other internal teams, designing 1 and 2 color coupon tear pads, and slide presentations. 14 years later he was heading up one of the largest multidisciplinary creative teams in the industry, opening satellite studios in England, France and Spain and garnering the respect and acknowledgement of the company’s CEO in the pages of The Financial Times. Sheridan had a vision and he patiently, doggedly brought it to fruition through careful planning and strategically calibrated political maneuvering.

Sheridan is not the only one who patiently pursued his goals. Andy Brenits honed his expertise in design business management for over 10 years as an independent designer and consultant before he was tapped by KPMG’s National Design, Proposal & Production Services group to develop a virtual team made up of both domestic and offshore resources.  It then took him the better part of 2 years to successfully implement this team model, which is currently comprised of graphics professionals from 23 other KPMG offices as well as the 3 local designers who work with him in New Jersey. Brenits received a promotion from Manager to Associate Director for his efforts.

To truly effect change in the generally risk averse world of the corporation requires a large measure of maturity and commitment. The sort of innovation and entrepreneurial mindset embodied in the practice of design and reflected in the structure and functioning of a creative team is a difficult proposition for companies to accept and support. Realizing a vision is achievable though and there are some additional factors to making the long journey a successful one.

Finding peers, either on your team or through other affiliations such as AIGA, HOW and InSource, to share your ideas, setbacks and successes will help bolster your commitment. Even more important is seeking out and nurturing relationships with co-workers in other departments who are willing and positioned to be your advocates.

Understanding the business rationale behind your vision is also important. Without that, you’ll never be able to sell your vision to those in a position to help you achieve it. In addition, as distasteful as it may be, you need to be able to get your political game on. Like it or not, corporate culture is riddled with territorial, ego-driven office politics and you’ll need to navigate them to succeed.

Most important is the ability to be nimble and change your strategies – but never your goals. If you need to get from New York to LA and a highway on your trip to the west coast is closed you don’t just quit and settle for Fargo, you look for a different route. The same holds true for your vision: Don’t give up on it when the going gets tough and you encounter obstacles. Look for alternative options to accomplishing your objectives.

So recalibrate your expectations of the long haul (months instead of weeks, years instead of months), start appreciating small but significant incremental successes and know that there are others who have finally realized their vision for themselves and their teams and can honestly say it was worth the wait.

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4 thoughts on “In-house Issues: In-house Incremental or Don’t Settle for Fargo

  1. Brianna

    Great post Andy! This new blog has been a great resource.

    I’m curious as to whether you think there is ever a point where it’s prudent to give up the quest? That perhaps a true in-house group just isn’t in the cards for a particular organization due to lack of buy-in or general comfort level in the organization?

    1. Andy Epstein

      Good question, Brianna. I’d say that if you don’t see at least some progress over the course of 6 to 12 months, it’s probably a sign that you won’t be able to reach your long-term goals for you and your team. Should you become aware of upcoming changes in management that you think would make your company more likely to support you then you may want to stay a bit longer and test the waters. Bottom line, though, all of the in-house designers I’ve spoken with (including me) were seeing incremental gains and small steps towards our goals pretty early on.

  2. Brianna

    Thanks for your reply Andy. You just confirmed what I’ve suspected for some time. We stopped making gains about two years ago and while my boss still holds out hope, I’m fairly confident that we are just spinning our wheels at this point.