Being a designer in a large organisation

I’m often asked about my career path through Lloyds Banking Group, by colleagues within the bank and friends outside. This is a series of reflections that might be interesting or useful for others.

The beginning

I joined LBG in November 2016; after a fairly heavy interview process I landed and was the second service design person in after my boss Alberta. At least I thought I was the second; as it quickly transpired there were several great service design brains already within the bank, and the early days involved a lot of coffee and a lot of “so what do you do?” type conversations.

Learning #1: I quickly learned it was better to embrace others with similar goals, rather than try and beat them or shut them down.

We then went about building a team and within a year we had around 15 people, enough that I had to step away from the hands on design and focus on team leadership (I’ll come back to this). I also spent a lot of time reading endless posts defining ‘service design’, and attempting the same myself. In hindsight this was wasted effort as the sooner I got my hands dirty the better.

Proving credibility and value

Alberta asked me to jump into our largest and most complex design lab, which centred around retail transformation (everything from digital service transformation to in-branch design). Again within this lab there were several parties already doing service design (third party and internal), so I didn’t receive the fanfare I was hoping for. This was partly because service design was being treated as a convoluted and highly mysterious topic that people were wary of, or was being reduced to a series of documents. There wasn’t the simple and methodical design thinking that I was used to.

I felt lost for a few weeks but then decided to focus on small and achievable goals for service design, commandeering a few workshops and showing how getting thinking out of powerpoint decks and onto the walls would help solve problems. I got involved in customer testing and showed the power of video to bring customer opinion out of the testing lab and into exec steering sessions (I remember a PO laughing that the exec hadn’t heard The Gossip before in a session after I’d used it score a video). Slowly but surely I earned my place at the lab leadership table and used design as a proxy for ‘common sense’.

Learning #2: Focussing on small achievable design tasks leads to more strategic design opportunities.

Building the team

Once the team got to around 15 I had to shift from delivery to leadership, as we had neglected basic rituals and weren’t sharing at all. Also we weren’t onboarding people effectively and some designers joining felt like they’d been thrown in at the deep-end.

Some of the team after seeing the RCA service design show

Learning #3 I learned that onboarding is one of the most important (and most often neglected) tasks that can make or break somebody’s experience of joining.

I hadn’t led a team of this size before and so again wasted time researching fancy models and methods, before settling into a groove that has served me well ever since. I blocked out regular time with each team member (and for us as a whole team), ensured I made notes whenever we spoke, ensured I followed up on actions, and made myself available. Not rocket science but in a large and ‘busy’ organisation like LBG it’s easy to cancel 1–2–1’s and manage by email.

Learning #4: I learned that people come first. Good work follows.

Leaning into myself

Entering year two in the bank, I was part of a brilliant team who were delivering brilliant work and life felt good. I went from being anonymous (it’s a weird feeling getting into lifts with endless strangers after years of working in tiny companies), to knowing people in most LBG offices. I would get emails from people who had seen me present six months previously, asking me to get involved in their project or workshop.

Learning #5: I learned the power of reputation in an organisation where people move around a lot.

Often the ask would be ambiguous:

Ross, get involved in this. I’m not sure why, but would be good to have you in the room.

Aside from being flattered it was great to be afforded the opportunity to explore LBG and make connections between the moving parts, and to revisit problems with a new lens. Compared to my agency experience where you would get a few weeks or months to digest a particular design challenge, working at LBG has given me almost four years (and counting) to become familiar with the challenges facing our customers and colleagues.

Telling stories

Big organisations generate a huge amount of internal noise, and cutting through this is a real challenge. To build my own profile and that of various teams I am involved with, I’ve experimented with different methods of telling stories over the past four year. It’s a powerpoint heavy workplace like many others, and I saw this as an opportunity to try everything but slides whenever I had to convey a message.

I’ve written many posts that I’ve posted internally and externally (here on medium), created video, illustrated maps and developed repeatable presentations for internal and external events. Mostly these stories would receive little attention initially, but I’ve lost count of how many times internal colleagues have referenced them a year or so later.

Created with our internal story-telling team

Learning #6: I learned that good stories have a long shelf-life, and often would reach the perfect audience a year or more after being created.

That’s enough for now. Might add some more reflections later.

Later…

Added this on June 2nd in response to some commentary on Twitter regarding SDN’s poorly timed ‘celebratory’ tweet. Lou was right to call this out and it made me reflect on my own role as a white male design leader.

Learning #7: I learned I can actively improve the diversity of the teams around me.

Throughout my time at LBG one of the things i’m most proud of is providing career paths and promotion for others. While heading up service design I was able to bring four non-designers into the team (three of whom are women-of-colour), after identifying they had the necessary soft skills and could be equipped with the hard design skills. We built a skills framework to help, and I’m pleased to say the four designers are now thriving in LBG.

Later when acting as retail design director, my first task was establishing a leadership team and out of six roles I filled four with women. I say this not out of self-congratulation, but more to show others that they can have an active role in the diversity of the industry.

Mum asked for a baby, dad asked for a transformer - I was the compromise.

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