At some stage or other we have all been burnt by the internal politics of our retail clients. It’s the reason why earth-shatteringly good work doesn’t get implemented and if you think corporate politics is bad when working externally, try working internally where the word takes on a whole new level of significance. But what actually is it?
Politics is the natural result of how organisations are structured, so to help you understand here is a brief synopsis of a typical retail structure. The first aim of any retailer is to ‘get product to market’, so the Buying Department is important, as is the Logistics Department, which works out the most cost-effective way to get the product to the outlets. The Property Department buys and manages these outlets and the Display or Format Department fits them out based on drawings received from the Planning Department, which, in turn, produces its plans based on the Merchandising Department’s planograms, which it works hand-in-hand with the Buying and Planning Departments to produce (with me so far?).
The Marketing Department also works hand-in-hand with the buyers to create a price and promotions structure, and therefore also has to work with the Logistics and Merchandising Departments to ensure enough promoted lines get to store. The Marketing Department also deals with brand values.
Who have I left out? Nothing would work if there were no staff, so HR is vital, then there’s the Finance Department and these days there might also be an IT, a PR, and even a Design Department. I could go on but I’ll spare you the agony.
All these departments work closely together for the greater good of the organisation yeah, right. Organisations, like society in general, worship the individual; individuals, not teams, get promoted or demoted and are given share options. Individuals get recruited for their specific expertise and are made redundant once the need for their skills has passed. It is these same individuals, with all their insecurities and secret ambitions, who run the departments like their own personal empires and turn corporate life into one big game of chess, constantly manoeuvring and positioning themselves in the hope of corporate advancement (or at the least corporate stalemate). Sounds exciting, and it is, but it can also be destructive and counterproductive.
Into this already hostile arena throw a design project and a new external ‘player’ and watch all-out war ensue. A large-scale design project will have a direct impact on many departmental heads, but can be managed by only one, forcing the other departmental heads into a situation where they will be held partially accountable for something they are not responsible for producing, which is quite a risky position to be in. The result is often managers either desperately trying to influence a project when uninvited to do so or desperately trying to wash their hands of it when their input is critical to success.
So, what to do? Simple, don’t leave the management of internal departmental heads to other internal departmental heads, do it yourself. It may sound like a lot of effort, but the pain inflicted when a project goes wrong or ‘turns political’ is a lot worse.
Isn’t that the role of the design manager? In theory, yes, but internal managers are often too busy to do their jobs as well as they’d like, they may have bad working relationships with other managers already, or just be bad at their job. It’s too important to leave to someone else and, in reality, it doesn’t take long to sit down with people one-to-one and explain what you’re trying to achieve. It’s only fair, you’re about to throw their world into chaos, at least try to understand how it will impact on their workloads and processes and take on board their comments. Try to involve them in the process at all times; send them copies of presentations, so they can inform their teams and see how their comments have been actioned. It’s about managing the managers, good communication and expectation management, something we in the design industry should be good at, but rarely are, as it takes time and effort that could be spent on creativity.
Ultimately organisations aren’t political; individuals are. There is no such thing as corporate politics. There are only good and bad managers, both on the client side and, more relevantly, in design consultancies themselves.