5 steps to help traditional companies remain relevant in a startup world

As fast-moving startups continue to disrupt incumbent companies, more traditional organizations must figure out how to stay relevant in a world that’s now more customer experience-focused than ever.

Often, that takes the form of a design-driven business model.

Examining today’s disruptive companies, a clear theme emerges: A near-myopic focus on creating delightful, intuitive experiences for end users and customers.

This focus yields massive growth, user loyalty, and soaring revenue — often at the expense of an incumbent counterpart. Consider Airbnb versus Hilton, Dollar Shave Club versus Gillette, Netflix versus Blockbuster, or Uber versus Yellow Cab.

By prioritizing design as a foundational value, these companies, and others like them, have redefined industries – and scared incumbents to the point of lobbying governments.

To stay competitive and relevant, incumbent companies must invest in the user or customer experiences surrounding their products.

Shifting focus to design is easier said than done, but staying the same is a far riskier course of action. Just because something has worked for years doesn’t mean it will continue to, and competitors are always waiting on the sidelines.

But it takes more than a memo and a brand study to truly evolve. Companies need to take deliberate action, and it’s not a challenge you can hire your way out of.

Throwing money at the problem by hiring a bunch of designers won’t make a bit of difference if you don’t have the processes and culture in place to support their contributions. With the right leadership, companies seeking to evolve toward a disruptive, design-focused model meet this new challenge.

Here are a few steps to take to move in that direction.

Bring business and design together

No matter what, this must happen before any change can take place.

Many traditional companies have design cordoned off in their own silo. If you want your organization to compete with the design-driven companies taking the stage today, you must marry the business portion of your company to design.

Hold meetings and discussions that might be uncomfortable, and be okay with that discomfort. These two integral pieces of your team must be closely linked if you’re going to make serious strides.

Capital One is a beautiful example of succeeding in this process.

Their Capital One Labs is addressing the mundane state of banking through a customer-centric focus. By incorporating design thinking into their process, they’re “reimagining the way 65 million people interact with their money.”

They’ve committed at the senior level to cross-functional collaboration, pairing their business units and labs seamlessly.

The result? Customer experience-driven products, like their Wallet app, that are drawing a lot of attention… and new customers.

Engage the right stakeholders

handshake, business agreement

Bring them together, talk to them, and commit to a collaborative approach – not a delegatory one.

It’s only in understanding where you are that you can move to where you need to be.

By plumbing the depths of your organization for the true insiders doing the hardest work behind the scenes — keeping in mind they’re often not the leaders — you’ll gain a deep knowledge of how things are now.

Resist the urge to contradict or ignore the things you hear that don’t mesh with your idea of what your company is.

While engaging your C-suite in the process isn’t a bad idea, don’t limit your thinking to just execs.

Engaged middle managers may have a finger on the pulse of things more than anyone else, and on-the-ground workers can often tell you how it really is. At Intuit, the company implemented a design-centric approach by challenging everyone in its organization, not just the leaders, to incorporate design thinking into their work.

Recognizing the need for a customer-focused approach, and noting declines in its more traditional business offerings, IBM is using design thinking to virtually restructure the 370,000+ person company. No easy task for the longstanding stalwart, its leaders admit, but a necessary one when faced with the accelerating pace of change within digital technology.

They’re embedding more than 1,000 designers into all aspects of the business, and are training not just leadership, but also middle management on design-centric thinking.

Gain a clear understanding of your organization’s processes

clear vision

By tapping your key stakeholders, you’ll gain a thorough understanding of your company’s process. With that knowledge, do what you need to do to ensure that your company’s cadence supports collaboration, not delegation.

At its core, the process must be socialized, open, and highly communicative.

The words, “Didn’t you get the memo?” should never be uttered. Whether it’s through more focused stand-up meetings, better internal communication tools, better project management or a combination of all of the above, no one part of the team should be given a task and then not heard from for three months.

Decouple engineering

coding, development

Engineering is a critical player in creating a digital experience; they’re creating the code that turns a vision into reality. Often, though, engineering acts as a gatekeeper to progress, depending on how it’s integrated into your process.

If engineering is kept cordoned off, only consulted when you’re pretty much done with design, you risk sending them a final product that isn’t feasible, or is full of holes. Having to go back to the starting board because you pursued an ultimately doomed course of action is costly and demoralizing.

Include engineering in the conversation to ensure what you’re pursuing is doable, and as they await final specs, make their main focus research and development. They can provide valuable insight into the right tech and approach for your goals, and even inspire a new course of action.

When you’re ready to do the hand off, make sure your project is close to fully baked.

Embrace iteration

stressed, tech, computer, laptop

With increasingly available tools for prototyping, iteration, and collaboration, your company’s ability to create product prototypes that can be commented on, tweaked, and changed is limitless. This can be an uncomfortable process. Be okay with the stress of change, and lean into the frustration.

Those 11th-hour changes can be the most stressful, but also the most meaningful.

Thankfully, better prototyping means that now, the 11th hour can happen at 9 a.m.

This improved feedback process means more team members can contribute worthwhile ideas, and improved tools for prototyping enable companies to witness the impact of that feedback with just the click of a mouse. Ultimately that process leads to better outcomes, and repeating it leads to increased comfort with evolution itself.

Oftentimes, leaders will allow the process of creating a new feature or product to go on only so long as it “needs” to. Once the product is good enough, they’ll pull the trigger.

Discipline yourself and embrace constant iteration: don’t settle for good enough. A change at an earlier stage is inexpensive, both emotionally and financially, but a change post-production costs substantially more  – both emotionally and financially.

Nothing about this process is easy. It’s in embracing the discomfort, though, that you’ll succeed.

It seems like every time you turn around, a new product or service driven by thoughtful design and a close eye on the optimal user experience has popped up. Even if your organization doesn’t appear to have any up-and-coming challengers, chances are they’re waiting on the sidelines.

It’s not so much a matter of if, but when.

Settle into the challenge and pain of growth. Do it right, and it’ll be worth it.

by Clark Valberg

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