All Money on the Alpha

12 July, 2013 09:11PM · 4 minute read

I’m a great believer that good design comes from having a design lead that sets a high standard and won’t compromise, is open to different ideas and is humble enough to admit when their designer has the better idea. The team of designers is diverse and people are free to be themselves but are also inspired by their lead designer to accept the umpires call when things don’t go their way.

If this sounds a bit too much like fairyland to you, you’ve clearly worked in the real world at more than just one company. Of course situations like that described above do happen but they are the exception rather than the rule. It depresses me greatly to observe this happening and over the years I’ve tried to understand why this is so rarely the case.

The best designers so rarely enter management because they usually realise it’s either not what they want to do or it’s not their strength. Managing people is hard but managing people that do work you don’t understand is a recipe for frustration and pushes the better designers and leads out the door. The problem is that with so few talented designers moving into management positions (there is a growing trend for talented designers to simply leave and start their own companies) those management roles are filled by people that lack the grass roots experience of the job they are managing.

Management push the leads because that’s their job. They push on schedule (and hence cost) and they respond to action and deadlines being met. An experienced and good design lead would consider a younger designers inspiration even late in the game if the trade-offs were worth the disruption and their innovation was a good one, but try to sell THAT to a budget and time sensitive management chain. A grass roots manager might understand the tradeoffs but one that isn’t, probably won’t, and defaults to focusing on schedule.

When this starts to happen the good leads leave and management tend to appoint someone who is a confident. All of their money is on the Alpha. Perfect for the job they arrange the chess board (whether it needs arrangement or not - and yes that’s a metaphor for the people in their department) just the way they want. It’s their way or the highway. Certainly they can be very inspirational, just don’t tell them you’ve got a better way to do something. Before you know it there are new dress standards, everyone in the team must be in the building between fixed hours, lunch hours are now at their discretion and everything is your fault and not theirs.

Before you say, that’s over the top, I’ve seen people become the Alpha. I’ve seen them change from reasonable designer to ruthless dictator over the course of a year in control of a department. It’s terrible to watch but pride and ego are things all of us possess and hence we can all be sucked in by power and it does corrupt. The final problem though isn’t how much you like your boss (or how many shades of Alpha your boss may possess), it’s what happened to the innovation?

The more people are forced to conform to one persons way of thinking, one method, one set of rules, the faster innovation dies. Of course there’s always the possibility that our Alpha is themselves innovative. The sad truth of the matter though is that most individuals aren’t a tap (faucet) of innovative ideas [usually half-baked stupid ones and that includes loads of mine]. People can get lucky, for sure, but truly innovative companies don’t rely on one individual to innovate for the rest of them.

It sounds like a cliché but it is true that the company’s greatest asset are its people but also their ideas. Letting their ideas be shared means the good leads can pick the most innovative ideas. When balanced against end to end cost fairly these small innovations in turn lead to successes and the company will prosper. Forcing everyone to conform to one way of thinking stifles innovation and although the mileage may vary, the company will inevitably do the opposite.