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Advice on developing business acumen for your design team. 

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Understanding business strategy is critical to creative team success—and leaders have to up-level that knowledge for all.
LAST UPDATED: December 15, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Metrics matter—understanding what matters most to the business is key for everyone, not just product or business leaders. Business acumen should be jargon-free, and emphasize tangible results. 
  • Instill a culture of curiosity and learning by encouraging exploration, providing mentorship, and teaching people how to ask questions. 
  • Use design principles as a business lens to better align with the strategic direction of the company. 
  • Bring the outside in by leveraging industry trends, gathering customer feedback, and emphasizing inclusive design. 
  • Leverage strategies like journey maps and brand pillars to paint a bigger picture for team members.

Listen: Advice on developing business acumen for your design team. 

In the dynamic landscape of today's business world, design is under fire. Even with the groundswell of support in the last few years for design “maturity” and the “ROI of design,” recent layoffs at IDEO (among others) have design leaders fighting to remain relevant. 

It's urgent. Because a design team's success isn't solely determined by technical expertise or creative brilliance. Understanding and contributing to the bottom line has become a pivotal skill for career success and growth. This is the essence of business acumen and why it matters. 

It also means that creative leaders can't be the only people on the team who understand the impact of design on the bottom line. So it's on them to teach others—to speak the language of the business, uncover real business problems and opportunities, and function as partners for internal stakeholders. It's a big task that often means cultivating a change in mindset. Sounds difficult, doesn't it?

But! There's good news. Senior leaders in our InsideOut Design Leader Community recently gathered in person to share effective ways to hone business acumen for their teams. It's absolutely doable, doesn't require a whole new budget, and isn't about getting approvals from higher-ups. 

While there was a hot debate over how much business knowledge designers need, the consensus was that they need acumen, not an MBA in finance. Interestingly, the group also felt that too much business knowledge could limit the ability to innovate, bring empathy for customers, and discover new perspectives. It's a balance.

Read on for the top themes from our discussion, plus tactics to help sharpen business smarts for all. We hope this inspires you to get going.

Metrics matter—know, translate, and apply

Understanding the metrics that matter most to the business is paramount, really, for everyone, no matter their job title or department.

Whether it's objectives and key results (OKRs), insights from earnings calls, or takeaways from town hall meetings, metrics tell an important story. However, the challenge lies in connecting that story to actionable insights that feel relevant, especially for designers and the creative set. 

Effective leaders know how to do this well; it's the art of translation. So what does that look like? It's regularly making the connection between your team's work—and skill sets—and broader organizational goals. That can happen with reminders at status meetings, in one-on-ones, during design reviews, etc. A focus on metrics isn't about teaching designers to be product or business leaders. It's about showing the value of design (their skill set) to partners as a complement to their expertise. 

The beautiful thing is that when metrics become a frequent part of the conversation, people begin to speak the same language. In turn, the work starts to better align with the strategic direction of the company. And that's how people can see and feel the tangible impact on the bottom line, customers, colleagues, and beyond. Taken together, this is a huge boon to employee happiness at work, which we know correlates to retention

One important note: talk of metrics should be jargon-free. Leaders at our roundtables agreed that business acumen means having a solid understanding of how business works, not the nitty-gritty details of products, services, or accounting methods. 

Instill a culture of curiosity and learning 

Building business acumen requires an environment where curiosity and continuous learning are nurtured. Not everyone is responsible for a P&L (profit and loss), nor has even seen one, perhaps. However, understanding those tools is relevant to everyone on the team.

To start, leaders should encourage people to keep an open mind, explore new ideas, and actively seek learning opportunities. Even better: integrate business considerations into processes, like project intake, presentations, or strategic frameworks, requiring partners to point out which business goal their work supports. This approach helps with prioritization, too!

Our leaders pointed out that you may need to teach designers to ask questions rather than make statements, which may be incorrect and limit further understanding. This sounds simple. But it's powerful. Instead of just knowing how to deliver information (which is likely biased; we're humans!), knowing how to ask questions uncovers what's important, what works, and what's most valued.

Keep the learning going with a “Business Series” where resident experts pull back the curtain on things like budgeting, profits, sales, and more. Inside the group, layer in mentorship. There's always someone on the team with more knowledge or interest in business results versus others who are more future-thinking. Can you pair them up to learn from one another? (Bonus—this relieves leaders from being the only ones preaching).

Use design principles as a business lens

Designers can play a vital role in enhancing business acumen by using a design thinking lens to tackle challenges. Design thinking enables innovative problem-solving and swift iteration, and it's a system they know, which their partners likely don't.

Design thinking tends to emphasize customer perspectives and data to make smart business decisions. It turns designers into more than creators; they become strategic contributors by addressing the needs of users and solving real problems in a unique way, as opposed to through more traditional approaches, like finance or marketing.

A popular idea at our roundtable was to use IDEO's DVF Framework, which outlines the three areas key to success: desirability (to end users), viability (financial), and feasibility (can it get made?). Designers love the desirability phase because it can feel the most creative, but they can also get stuck there. Lean on the DVF system to shift the focus to viability and feasibility so the company can take real action and discover business results.

Bring the outside in

Staying informed about industry trends is vital for any team looking to boost business acumen. You can't be smart about the business in a vacuum.

Leaders should actively expose their teams to diverse perspectives. One great idea from our roundtable: lunch-and-learn sessions with guest speakers, including those within the company (say, C-suite executives). Another idea: find a means for designers to connect with real customers to gather valuable insights. Can they listen in on call center conversations? Real-world feedback can shape the team's understanding of the market and users' needs unlike anything else. 

Similarly, can you use the concept of accessibility to teach the importance of meeting customers where they are? What's more, inclusive design is an avenue to finding entirely new audiences, ensures that everyone can use your product or service, and “does the right thing” while making money. WIN.  

Paint the big picture

Effective leaders understand the importance of connecting the dots for their teams. Whether it's aligning the design team with the company's overall strategy, illustrating its position in the industry, or detailing the customer journey, leaders must help their teams zoom out. 

Strategy sessions are a great time to do this, as they offer a chance to share frameworks and demonstrate how they affect everybody's work (here's a great example—start with the intake overview at 12:15). Yet another way for teams to leverage their knowledge (like journey maps, customer insights, brand pillars, etc.) to make compelling arguments that drive business. 

By presenting a broader perspective, leaders offer crucial context and reinforce a sense of purpose, belonging, and clarity for their teams. That sense of purpose is a powerful motivator, inspiring more meaningful contributions to the company's success. 

Conclusion 

In conclusion, elevating your team's business acumen is not a nice-to-have. It's essential for success. Doing this well means using a multi-faceted approach: integrating metrics, fostering a culture of learning, articulating the value of design for partners, offering external insights, and painting the bigger picture. 

By focusing on these areas, leaders empower designers to navigate a complex business landscape with confidence while contributing strategically to the organization's goals. Plus, sharper business acumen can bolster career growth and potential along the way. 

Developing deeper business acumen really comes from hands-on experience and exposure, not a textbook. So leaders should weave the “how” of business into the fabric of everyday work, making it a familiar and inclusive dialogue. The best way to keep design in the conversation? Teach teams how valuable their design skills are to the business and how to use them.

Why do I care? My mission is to connect leaders to find solutions. If you're a senior design, experience, or creative operations leader of an in-house team at a high-profile brand and want to connect with others who share your unique challenges, let's talk. Our InsideOut community hosts small format roundtables to support the learning and growth of our members, and I'm honored to facilitate those discussions.