In-house Issues: The Set Up

In-House Issues: The Set Up

After a seminar I presented at last year’s In-HOWse conference, a very impressive 40-ish man approached me to discuss a budget problem he was struggling with.  This gentleman, it turned out, was a creative director at a very large well-known company.  That being the case, I was astounded by his predicament.  He was being told that he couldn’t charge back for any non-design hours spent on projects and any non-design personnel associated with any those same projects.  What that meant was that any meetings, conference calls and research his designers were involved in and any time spent on logistics, project management, vendor management or trafficking being carried our by non-designers were not to be recognized as pertinent to the design process and therefore not billable. I told him that I wasn’t not sure how his internal could stay solvent since he was being handed an unworkable business model and was being set up to fail.

At that same conference, during the speakers’ panel event, a question was posed about how to get time on in-house project schedules to devote to creative.  My response, which was a little curter than I intended, was “Isn’t creative the most integral part of a project? How can you have a design project without the creative stage baked into the schedule?”  I knew what the questioner meant was that her team only had enough time to slap together what basically became a production project – but whose fault was that?  Any of her clients who had a tight deadline or thought they could get away with dumping a last minute project on her design team would continue to engage in those behaviors because it had worked before; perpetuating the same unworkable scenario where there was no time for creative. Here again was another example of upper management and clients who, not understanding the design process and the need for time for creative development, were trying to “maximize the design team’s efficiency” by providing minimal resources and no time for proper execution – yet another example of a team being set up to fail.

While acknowledging that there’s a fine line between pushing back and pushing yourself and your team out the door – in-house teams do need to take responsibility for not being set-up to fail or, to put it more positively, for being set-up for success.

It is a ‘damned- if-you-do’ and ‘damned-if- you-don’t’ proposition, but at least if you’re going to fall it shouldn’t be without a fight by not attempting to do the right thing.  With the ‘damned-if -you-do’ scenario, where you make a request for appropriate resources and a sustainable business model, you run the risk of making your team look inefficient, inflexible and it may contribute to the perception that the in-house model is a poor alternative to working with outside agencies. On the other hand, the ‘damned-if-you-don’t” story-line ultimately plays out with your team unable to meet unrealistic demands and expectations and again looking like a poor option when compared with working with outside agencies.

There is an approach that will give you a fighting chance, though. Setting your team up for success means asking for things your company doesn’t want to give you – more time for projects, better hardware and software, more bandwidth, office space more conducive to the design process, more flexibility to move staff around, higher salaries to attract top talent, more staff, better client feedback, a broader choice of vendors.  What in-house designer in their right mind would walk into their boss’s office with that list?  But there are ways to get what you want:

  • The incremental approach – don’t go for the big ask. Break down your needs and prioritize them. Ask for the things you need that are either the most painless for your management to give or will have the biggest impact on your team or, should you be so lucky, both.
  • Business rationale – talk numbers as in cost savings. Have a relatively detailed account of the ROI of ‘the ask’.
  • Educate stakeholders on the design process – keep it short, sweet and to the point. You don’t want to overwhelm your management with the details – just explain enough to justify your requests.
  • Share success stories and not just those of your group – find white papers and case studies of other internal teams which, when they got what they asked for, demonstrated the ROI of supplying a design group with needed resources.
  • Benchmark against agencies – considering agencies are your biggest competition and the primary alternative to your team, this is the most potent weapon in your arsenal of rationales for investment in your department.
  • Make it personal – gain the trust of your benefactors by forming personal relationships and a strong rapport with them.

The person or group most responsible for their success is you and your team. You can either be a victim or a victor – the choice is yours.

One thought on “In-house Issues: The Set Up

  1. Still In-House

    Thank you! I’m saving this article to prove I’m not nuts. I’ve tried walking that fine line without much success except that I do still have a job! As designers, we don’t get to talk to our in-house “clients” (if we try to educate stakeholders) because that’s the privilege of the account reps. We aren’t privy to any info on the agencies so we can’t even determine how we compare. Our boss doesn’t want to hear anything from us on ROI because that’s what he’s an “expert” on. Anything that takes us away from the computer is seen as a waste of time (e.g. if we were to show research it would mean we hadn’t been working). If we can’t meet deadlines, our bosses don’t want to hear about them being unrealistic, they just view us as non-productive. Sad…it used to be a nice job…

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