Note to (PM) Self: Designers Just Want to Design 

cubicle people It’s been more than fifteen years since I was a product designer, and I still catch myself thinking like one. With keen observation, I watch the way people interact with their environment. I see their enjoyment, as well as their frustrations, when using certain products. I imagine re-designing the product in order to provide the potential customer with an enhanced experience.

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Let’s contrast that with what I do in my current position as a project manager for a large engineering firm. Keen observation is still an important skill that I utilize each day. But I don’t actively work as a designer. Now I provide guidance and oversight to my team while they have fun doing what they went to school for…design. This is as it should be.

Now if there’s one thing that unites designers is that they enjoy working the design process, but do not particularly like to share their designs with other designers on the team. Or let me rephrase that…I’ve noticed that most designers see design as a solitary experience and are very protective of their creations until they feel they are good and ready. Typically, ‘good and ready’ means ‘much too late to make changes’. That makes perfect sense because 1) designers tend to see their creations as an extension of themselves and 2) designers much prefer the activity of design than to communicating about their design.

This way of working brings us to a dilemma. A design is a collaboration amongst multiple disciplines. There’s industrial, mechanical, electrical, and structural to name a few. I won’t go as far as to say that a product is created by a committee, but in a fundamental sense it is. To create a successful product, the varied disciplinary members must share their unique design concerns with each other. The earlier they do, the better, as it becomes more difficult to alter a design as it acquires deeper levels of detail.

Since designers prefer not to interact much with each other, the project manager is compelled to act as their communicative bridge. This role did not come naturally to many of us since we didn’t begin our careers as managers. We were promoted into a management role because we were highly proficient designers. This transition is somewhat odd because the traits that make a successful designer are not highly applicable to managers. I don’t think it’s too far from the truth to say that most designers are at ease sitting in their cubicles for long periods of time without speaking to anyone. In fact, as a young creative individual, I’d frequently turn off my phone and email program in order to maintain focus on my primary activity: designing.

Managers can’t afford that luxury. We act as the hub for our team, as well as the link to other departments within our firm, and the conduit to our customers. We must continually check in with everyone around us in order to get an accurate view of the project. We need to fully understand the issues that threaten to derail our projects.

If left alone by the manager, a project will undoubtedly veer off course. Why? Because it’s the designers job to design; it’s the manager’s job is to observe and control. In other words, a designer’s first allegiance is to create a product that works; a manager’s priority is to see that the product is created according to the project’s plan. Without attention by the manager, the designers will not adopt the manager’s concern for scope, schedule and budget. It’s just not what makes them tick.

And that’s exactly the way an effective project manager prefers it to be. We must settle for the vicarious thrill of watching the designers having fun doing what they do best…designing.

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