The most successful design-focused firms know their success is inextricably tied to their designers’ continued creativity. They do everything they can to inspire, enable, and realize that creativity. This requires a mindset embracing messiness – as far from the order of a production-focused organization as you can get.



The framework for What It Takes To Accelerate Through A Strategic Inflection Point is laid out that earlier article. The main point is that you must align your culture, organization, operations and CEO’s real job around one of four strategies. This current article explores the organization required to support a design strategy.

The elephant in the room, moose on the table, mouse in the house is how everyone else in a design-focused organization feels about the designers.

A cop-out approach is to use the river of ideas analogy with ideas flowing from design through production and distribution guided by finance through marketing and sales to customers and consumers. That analogy asks who’s the most important group in an organization:

  • Design – because they are the source of all differentiated value?
  • Production – because nothing has any value until it gets made?
  • Sales – because they actually generate all the revenue?
  • Marketing – because they create the demand that sales fulfills?
  • Distribution – because they get things to the people that need them?
  • Customer service – because all value is created by the customer?
  • Finance – because they direct resources to the highest value-creating places?
  • Human resources – because nothing happens without people?
  • Management – because they inspire and enable everyone?

A more deliberate approach is to figure out which functions are and are not strategically important. The general prescription is to invest in the strategically important functions to make them best-in-class or world class and simplify or outsource the rest to make them just good enough.

Pushed to its extreme, this suggests you never, ever want to have a “strong” function. Best-in-class is superior, in the top 10% of the world. World class is parity with the best, in the top 25% of the world. Strong is above average – and no man’s land. You’re not good enough to be world class or best-in-class and you’re more expensive than those that are just good enough.

In a design-focused organization, the designers should be best-in-class and everyone else should be subordinate to them.

Apple, the world’s first trillion-dollar company, is design-focused. It wins by out innovating others. They’ve outsourced production to Foxconn and others. They’ve outsourced distribution to UPS, Fedex and others. Their customer service is barely acceptable. Don’t be fooled by their Apple Stores. Those are not about distribution. Those are about marketing. And every company has to sell and market.

The turn-around at Gucci has been stunning by any measure. Their sales, profitability, reputation, staff swagger are all through the roof. While Gucci is bigger than any single designer, there’s no question that this current resurgence was sparked by CEO Marco Bizzarri’s selection and embrace of Alessandro Michele as head designer. Michele’s ideas have driven everything about Gucci since then.

Implications for you

As the Marco Bizzarri of your organization, you have to be design’s chief enabler. This means you have to create a culture of independence (& flexibility,) learning and empowerment. This is about freeing the designers to design. They have to feel independent. They have to be allowed to be flexible. They have to be encouraged and rewarded for learning. And they have to be truly empowered.

As the chief enabler, you set the guiding principles so the designers know where to focus (as much as they do choose to focus) and everyone else knows how to help them. Your support and the support of everyone else in the organization has to be geared to freeing up the designers to create.

Creation is a messy process. There’s going to be lots and lots of waste and re-work. There are going to be spectacular failures. This is as far from the order of a production-focused organization as you can get. Know what you’re signing up for in a design-focused organization. Embrace the valleys. Enjoy the peaks.