In-house Issues: Risky Business

I recently spoke with a committed, intelligent, business-savvy in-house designer who is struggling with challenges posed by her company that are, unfortunately, typical of the difficulties faced by many other corporate creatives. She reports into the wrong department, deals with political turf wars on a daily basis and watches helplessly as clients go their own way with their branding initiatives, resulting in a fractured incoherent branding message.



Well aware of the damage these practices are inflicting on her company, she knows she should take action but, as we talked, it became clear that she was unwilling to do so. To effectively address the problems we discussed would mean spending a lot of the political capital and goodwill she had amassed as an effective, committed team player. Any attempts on her part to change the status quo might even result in her getting fired and she was, understandably, not going to risk that happening. There were areas within her department, she discovered, though, where she could make a significant positive impact, so she chose to focus her efforts there.

Being a change agent in a corporation is a risky proposition no matter how justified. In the often politically charged corporate landscape, a misstep, even in an effort to support your company, could backfire and result in unpleasant and sometimes critical consequences. Whether or not to take risky actions is a very personal choice that is impacted by the risk taker’s personality, the potential consequences and rewards of taking action and the available opportunities to mitigate the risk associated with a particular action.

The most important point is to, as much as possible, put aside the emotional aspect of risk taking (namely fear) and objectively assess the risk against the potential positive outcome of a particular plan of action. This also includes looking at ways to minimize the consequences of a bad outcome.

When viewed through a more rational prism, you’ll not only discover that you’ve probably exaggerated how your actions will be perceived by others, you may also find that any possible negative consequences aren’t as critical as you originally thought. You’ll also find that there are various ways to effect the change you believe is needed and that some are likely to cause less collateral damage to you than others.

One of the practices of risk assessment that you’ll be most prone to neglect is the honest assessment of the consequences of taking no action – not just in the near-term but in projecting what a lack of action will mean months or years from now for both you and your company. As easy as it is to ignore this, underestimating the negative impact of inaction is often the riskiest action you can take.

3 thoughts on “In-house Issues: Risky Business

  1. Diana Bergquist

    I am in a slightly different situation, but can empathize. I work for a non-profit organization (a museum) that is managed by a larger cultural organization (and funded through the city). There are three parts to the puzzle: 1) a contemporary art museum 2) a center for performing arts and 3) public art. My division and the performing arts, do have designated graphic design professionals, but the public art and the managing cultural council do not. Hence, there are areas of “shared services” that fall short and get divided support and divided messaging (or no messaging at all).

    There is room and need for a centralized creative dept. and I am going to propose a shared-service model to better support the “joint messaging efforts” and make it one happy family (the ultimate goal of our CEO). I am a bit nervous and haven’t done anything like this before, but I am eager, willing and want to see it be successful. I have many people come to me and want me to help, but the “office politics” and who is allowed to do what projects is always in question. I want to take my career to the next level too (I don’t want to look elsewhere), but am I opening pandora’s box??

    Any comments or suggestions are much appreciated.


  2. Marci


    Yes, you are opening Pandora’s box. But, it’s not a bad thing. From what you’ve said here, I can see that you have a lot working in your favor. You are eager and willing with a desire to see the project be successful, so you have the passion and the heart. You have some history behind the scenes and knowledge of the political undercurrents and potential roadblocks, so you have the smarts. You have people coming to you on a regular basis for help, so you have the skills they need and want, (and potential allies). It sounds as if you also have a solid understanding of what the CEO would like to see happen, (another potential ally).

    Start writing your wish-list. Then make your to-do list. Make small changes at first. Access results. Baby steps. Build confidence and a track record. Bring people in. When you feel ready, take a leap. You are much more ready than you may realize.

    I’m excited for you.


  3. Ryan W. Kimball

    Taking risks in a corporate environment is just as important as in any other. As long as you genuinely believe in the changes you are trying to affect, you take account of other people’s interests and points of view, and you show respect to all involved, you should have little to lose. Showing that you have the company’s best interests at heart and are willing to take an active role in shaping its future is probably the best way to set yourself apart from your peers. If your organization doesn’t at least value the initiative, vision, and hard work that takes, it’s probably not a place you want to work for anyway.