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Growing a Product Design Consultancy: Management at Scale

We seem to be in a golden age of design, with companies from Disney to GE extolling its strategic advantage.

One happy consequence of the business world’s embrace of design is the opportunity for consultancies like ours to grow. This needs to be an intentional choice, because scaling a business and culture is no simple task! I can tell you this from experience — we’ve more than doubled in size since 2014.

I’ve been thinking a lot about design as a business and the ways Bresslergroup has tackled the work of designing our business as our team grows. In the spirit of transparency, I’ve compiled a few of the challenges we’ve faced, plus some lessons learned along the way:

How do you balance creativity with business efficiency … as your team grows?

The dreaded crisis of red tape! Business efficiency means making sure you’re profitable across a growing number of projects and clients, which requires a level of process and compliance procedure that tends to work in opposition to creativity. There’s an inherent tension between efficiency and creativity. Part of the riddle is how to be efficient while freeing creatives from the constraints of a prescribed process.

If you sense a rising tide of red tape, here’s how we suggest mitigating it:

  • Hire dedicated project and account managers. When our team was smaller, our designers and engineers did triple-duty as client manager, project manager, and design or engineering lead. In the past couple of years, we’ve hired dedicated project and account managers to focus on project profitability and client relationships. This frees the designers and engineers to do the creative work and keeps projects on track and profitable.
  • Check your process. Growing companies tend to overdo process for the sake of process, and it can quickly become too much. Take the cautious path, and make sure each add has clear benefits.
  • Listen to your creatives when they tell you it’s too much. That’s a clear sign to step back and reassess. Many consultants have experience working in corporate environments and have firsthand knowledge of the burden of process.
  • Be careful about language. Instead of calling everything “process” or “policy,” calling it “best practice” suggests flexibility. You can stray from “best practice” if you’re confident your method will produce a better outcome, but “policy” is not to be disobeyed.
  • Pick the right mix of projects. As management, make sure your team is engaging in a mix of projects that gives them enough opportunities to be creative.

How do you maintain close collaboration between disciplines … as your team grows?

When we moved to 1216 Arch Street, we took over the entire 7th floor — and soon discovered we needed more room. About a year later, we took over most of the 5th floor, and risked killing the close collaboration we’d always enjoyed.

Don’t move anyone to Storage B.

Here are some of the ways we’ve remained tight despite the elevator (or two flights of stairs) between us:

  • Co-locate disciplines. When we moved interaction design, industrial design, and user research to the 5th floor, we put everyone all together in an open floor plan — including me! I’ve witnessed an uptick in communication and much more cross-functional resource sharing than when everyone was spread out and adjacent only to their own teams.
  • Make collaboration a priority. Know that collaboration only happens spontaneously if you work at it proactively.
  • Make good use of digital tools. We message over Microsoft Teams and share links and knowledge over an intranet.
  • Plan extracurricular activities with co-workers. We’ve just started holding directors’ dinners outside the office to get to know each other better.
  • Make sure there’s direction from the top to focus on multidisciplinary projects. Left on their own, each discipline director might be more inclined to operate independently.
  • Identify the problem, and make it a design project. We held some brainstorms about ways to connect the 5th and 7th floors, and a few actionable insights ensued. (One example: We realized all the project managers are on the 7th floor, so most meetings are, too. Now project managers are more proactive about scheduling meetings on the 5th floor.)

How do you onboard new disciplines who come with their own ways of working … as your team grows?

We’re not unusual in the way we’ve grown — most design consultancies were founded as industrial design firms, then expanded using some configuration of the following: adding onto the front end with user research or onto the back end with mechanical engineering; and again onto the front end with interaction design or back end with electrical engineering. (Pictured below are mechanical and electrical engineers, working side by side in our lab.)

The blurring of lines between digital and physical in product design demands a multi-disciplinary process with project teams pulling from user research, industrial design, interaction design, mechanical and electrical engineering. How do you reconcile this when every type of professional comes from a different process culture — agile, stage gate, etc.?

If your firm is expanding, here’s our advice for integrating new disciplines:

  • Plan time for learning. Expect any new discipline to come from a different process culture. Dedicate time to research the differences, and align expectations in terms of integration.
  • Even with the planning, don’t expect things to fall into place on day one. Some of it will be figured out after the fact, in the flow of doing business. A lot is trial and error — prototype, test, iterate!
  • Adding electrical engineering? Been there, done that. This post about integrating electrical engineering into a speed-to-market culture might give you some ideas.
  • Adding interaction design? This was our earliest adventure in discipline integration. Read an article I co-authored in 2010 called “Creating Effective Interactions: Integrating Industrial and User-Interface Designers” and a later blog post, “A Plan for Integrating Hardware and Software.”

How do you preserve and evolve your company culture … as your team grows?

We’ve realized the need to be mindful of how small changes can affect a company culture. As we’ve grown from small family to mid-sized company, we’ve managed to carry over the essence of what makes us Bresslergroup.

If you’re worried about scaling culture, here are some things to consider:

  • Define your company’s personality. During our brand refresh two years ago, the entire staff participated in defining our brand personality traits: curious, clever, and nimble. This brand positioning work was critical. It’s easier to work toward and maintain something concrete.
  • Hold onto your employees! The Bresslergroupers who were here prior to and throughout our period of growth are instrumental in maintaining the tone within their disciplines and throughout the company at large.
  • Hire likeminded people. The brand positioning work I mentioned above helped us define the type of hire who’s likely to support our culture, and that has affected our approach to hiring. We’ve adjusted our recruiting and onboarding process to attract those people and to set the right tone before their first day.
  • Support your people’s hobbies. One of our company perks is to pick up the tab for a group club as long as an employee can recruit enough interested co-workers. This has resulted in leagues for broomball, football, beer brewing, drone racing, and more.
  • And encourage their passions. We encourage creative pursuits by publishing them on the blog as side projects. Sometimes they relate directly to our consulting work. Our own Seth GaleWyrick, who is passionate about sustainability, is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in biomimicry and giving a talk at next month’s IDSA International Design Conference, called “Biomimicry for Innovation: Good for Business & Good for the Planet”.

As Your Team Grows

How does your product design business grow? I hope this peek into Bresslergroup’s experience and solutions will be helpful. Reach out and let me know! And make sure not to swap anyone’s Swingline. …