Kedron Rhodes Thoughts on Design, Innovation & Leadership

Dangers of Success

How to avoid becoming a victim of your own success

Success isn’t always a friend to professional growth.

I’ve worked in 3 professional service firms over the last 16 years, and each one has been successful from their own perspective. While at GSL Solutions, we won more Congressional Management Foundation awards than any other firm, year after year. Atomic Object is one of the most efficient and scrupulous software engineering firms in the country. Agathon Group has diversified their business model to be a full-services technology partner. Each one, truly successful.

Success breeds a host of positive aspects within a company ranging from the ability to attract top talent to healthy bottom lines and happy customers. I’ve seen it breed less than positive aspects as well. Here are 3 that I’ve witnessed, and ways you can combat them.

Craftsmanship skills atrophy

Waning skills are often the easiest to spot, but one of the most thorny topics to engage with. I’m guilty! I don’t like hearing that I’m slipping or that I’ve missed the curve on a new approach.

This is the classic case of resting on your laurels, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. The feedback loops often encourage it. Let me explain.

Quite often the only catalyst moving us forward is pain. We respond to pain by making a course correction. In the professional services industry that pain often comes from angry clients. The client gets mad, and we respond with improving our process, sharpening our skills and raising the bar.

If you’re reasonably good at your job however, you don’t have angry clients very often. This fact lulls us into thinking we’re at the top of our game. The danger in measuring success based on happy clients alone is that, in many cases, the client isn’t a good judge of your craft. By the very nature of them hiring you, they are expressing that you do better work than they do. If your feedback loops only consist of opinions from someone less skilled than you are, you’re bound to atrophy.

Another danger of measuring success based on happy clients is that you’ve left your fate in the hands of someone who is not likely to be a fair or accurate judge of the quality of work. This gives ALL of the power in the relationship to the client, which is neither ethical or wise.

Becoming an echo chamber

Echo chambers are harder to spot, but just as dangerous. They are harder to spot because they require dissent to be heard, evaluated and acted upon. The major challenge here is actually hearing of an area of weakness over the constant drumbeat of success.

Finding someone brave enough to point out an area of weakness can also be hard to find, but when we do, it’s important to pause and reflect.

Blindsided by industry growth

While unaware that our own skill sets aren’t growing, the rest of the world continues to advance.

I recently had a conversation with another design professional whose first experience with research driven personae was when the client brought them to the project. If you’ve been paying attention to the design profession within the last 10 years, personae should be old hat by now. They are so common and expected that, as a professional services provider, more and more clients are bringing research driven personae to project kickoffs!

The important takeaway here is that as the design profession continues to mature, design process, artifacts and strategy spill over into other disciplines. This is a clear sign of design success! It also requires the designer to stay current because we’re required to bring more value to the table than the client can muster on their own!

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