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McKinsey study of 1,700 companies reveals CEOs don’t understand design leadership at all

Designers have a seat at the table, but now what?

McKinsey study of 1,700 companies reveals CEOs don’t understand design leadership at all
[Source Images: Maskot/Getty Images, Chris Ryan/Getty Images]

Design has finally gotten its due. For years, designers complained that they needed to be brought into the C-suite to make strategic decisions alongside CEOs and CMOs. That has happened over the past five years, as 40 of the top 100 companies hired a chief design officer (CDO).

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But now there’s a new problem. According to a massive new study conducted by McKinsey, just about nobody knows what a chief design officer is actually supposed to do. McKinsey analyzed 1,700 companies and conducted interviews with 200 senior design leaders and 100 CEOs. The key discovery? A few companies have empowered design leaders in the C-suite (and previous research shows that design-led companies have 32% more revenue than other companies). But at most companies, heads of design are ineffectively, and confusingly, integrated into executive teams.

“We found that, yes, people were put into place, but they’re not necessarily being put into a successful [role],” says Benedict Sheppard the partner at McKinsey Design who co-authored the study. “Design is like a strategy that seems to mean 100 things to 100 people. The all-encompassing term of design we see is understanding user needs and creating solutions for user needs . . . [but] many CEOs [we interviewed] are still using the 1980s definition of color, material, and finish.”

The metrics are damning: Only one-third of CEOs could detail what their CDO oversaw at the company. In other words, 66% of CEOs couldn’t say what their CDO actually did, or how that success should be measured. No wonder only 10% of CEOs reported that a senior designer played a meaningful role in the company’s strategy. And only 17% of design leaders thought they were in the right position to give a company their full value. McKinsey concludes that 90% of companies aren’t using design talent to their full potential.

That doesn’t mean companies should stop hiring CDOs. In fact, McKinsey contends that properly integrating design into the C-suite is crucial to both a company’s long-term competitiveness and its near-term bottom line. Instead, there needs to be industry consensus as to what exactly a CDO is, and what exactly the person is responsible for (while accounting for the fact that a CDO role might vary from company to company depending on structure and culture).

“I think in some ways the CDO is going to be what the CMO was 20 years ago, when that role was first coming into its own,” says Sheppard. “There was a lack of clarity of scope, how you measure success, and what their role should be in business strategy.” In this sense, he believes that the CDO will grow into a more established position as a natural course of business.

The canary in the coal mine that McKinsey spotted was the topic of accountability. “You know the head of sales is accountable for hitting sales numbers, and the CEO is accountable for production numbers,” says Sheppard. What the CDO is accountable for is less clear.

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In most cases, the CDO is supposed to represent the end user, whether that’s a consumer buying a new phone, or a manager subscribing his company to a delivery service. The CDO is the voice of the customer, the person who will speak up to ensure the best experience for the person using the product. But how do you measure user experience when it’s not as clear of a metric as revenue or volume? And what should happen if a business ultimately prioritizes something other than UX—is that a CDO’s fault? Accountability, along with responsibility, are problems made worse by the fact that, in representing the user, CDOs have some natural responsibility overlap with other newly created executive roles, like the chief experience officer, chief innovation officer, or chief product officer. (Incidentally, all three of those other roles could easily be filled by a designer!)

Now, some companies really are doing well with design leaders. McKinsey calls out Logitech, and the relationship between CEO Bracken Darrell and chief design officer Alastair Curtis. As we’ve profiled extensively in the past, the two have worked together to transform the boring mouse and keyboard manufacturer into a design-led product innovation company, and to repurpose R&D spending more effectively into new products. But perhaps most importantly, they view design, not as some intangible resource, but as functional strata that are woven into everything from product execution to corporate strategy. It has worked out pretty well for Logitech, a $2 billion company that quadrupled its profits between 2012 and 2015 as it brought design into the fold.

At other companies, some of the blame falls to designers themselves for not educating themselves on the customs of the C-suite. Katie Dill, VP of Design at Lyft (and formerly director of experience design at Airbnb), believes she has grown into her role at Lyft more easily than she might otherwise because she went to business school on top of getting a design degree. “A lot of the time you see [designers] not having the impact they want to because they’re speaking a different language others might not understand,” says Dill.

Her recommendation is that designers work harder to “reach across the aisle” to other parts of the business, and admits that, even coming from Airbnb—a company famously founded by designers—she constantly had to re-explain the value of design to new hires, simply because the company was growing so quickly.

“Someone doesn’t necessarily invite me into the right room. Well, they might be busy!” says Dill. “You can’t sit around waiting for that invitation. Design is technically a newer discipline than product management or engineering, so there are some folks still searching for [their] voice.”

As Dill ultimately puts it, “I am more than happy to design my own role in the best interest of the company.” Indeed, if CEOs really don’t know what their CDOs should be doing, perhaps it’s time for designers to just tell them.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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