8: Consultancy Rat Blues, Part 1

In which an email from a design leader self-labelled “Consultancy Rat” spurs a wide-ranging discussion on strategic design leadership, product management, and the differences between in-house and consultancy design.

Topics: consulting vs in-house design; FAANG+; the bifurcation of UX design; product design; design as a handmaiden to engineering; why not both?; product management and product strategy; product management as UX practice from 15 years ago; the craft of product management; making the shift from consultancy to in-house; strategic and principal in-house design roles.



Peter: Welcome to Finding Our Way, the podcast where Peter and Jesse welcome you to their journey as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. I’m Peter Merholz, and with me is Jesse James Garrett.

Jesse: Hello, Peter.

Peter: Hello, Jesse. Good afternoon. On today’s episode, we’ve got a letter from a gentleman named Consultancy Rat, asking us questions about some of the pros and cons or the challenges of shifting from being a design leader in a consulting practice and being a design leader in-house, and some of the challenges and frustrations that he’s experienced. 

And, what I can say is that, it led you and I into a bunch of interesting threads talking about in-house design, consulting, design, product management, agile development, principal designers, and a whole bunch of stuff.

Jesse: Just say, check it out. There you go.


Peter: So, here on Finding Our Way, we’ve asked for listeners to send in their thoughts about what we’re discussing.

And we have one from a gentleman who referred to himself as Consultancy Rat. And his email to us goes as follows: 

“I have spent the bulk of my design career in consulting (frog and others.) I came up through the design ranks and was promoted into creative direction and management 

I generally operate under the assumption that in-house opportunities love to bring in design leaders from design consultancies.

However, I am sensing a growing divide between design consulting and in-house design. In-house design seems to be rapidly engineering itself into highly efficient, highly optimized, and highly atomized, quote design, ops unquote 

The design students in a master’s program in which I have taught for a few years, increasingly find the notion of production and shipping digital product at FAANG+ (for those who don’t understand, that’s Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google, et cetera.) to be the penultimate.

Whereas wrestling with ambiguity in new and unfamiliar spaces, exploring different methods and modes of design craft, working with and amidst other designers, while spreading the gospel of design seems less and less the ideal to most students. 

But I find this shift troubling at a community slash craft level as well as the personal level of my career in design leadership. 

I would love to hear your perspectives on this, having shifted in your careers from consulting leaders to in-house leaders. Does the shift I am referring to resonate with your experience? If so, do you think the shift is in the correct direction? How does the design consultancy leader better sell and genuinely augment their training to be more attractive to in-house teams?

I am very much enjoying listening to the podcast and look forward to what’s in store. Thanks a ton for putting it together and out there.”

Okay, so that was his email. There’s a lot to chew on there. And Jesse, it sounds like you’ve got, you’re just bursting with responses and notions.

Jesse: Yeah.

Peter: Set forth!

Our Thoughts

Jesse: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Rat for sharing your perspective. This definitely resonated with me a lot. This phenomenon that Mr. Rat is seeing from his perspective as a design leader who has worked in consulting who assumed that in-house opportunities would be fairly available to him given the skill set that he’s developed, and now discovering that those in-house opportunities are looking for something different because the practice of design in-house has evolved into something very different than, I think that’s true. 

I feel like the term UX, UX designer as a role, and UX as a function in the marketplace, has bifurcated, that depending on the organization that you’re looking at, and depending on the way that they have structured the work that they do and their priorities as an organization, what that UX role is and what that UX function is, can be a couple of very different divergent things. One is UX as our Mr. Rat is describing, as it has been practiced in consultancies, which has to do with highly collaborative blended teams.

You’re going through user needs analysis and concept development and lightweight prototyping, this traditional UX process as Adaptive Path taught for many years, as has been taught in a variety of interaction design programs out there over the years.

We’ve seen UX blow up into something that a lot of organizations can point to as a real driver of value and really kind of table stakes for them to even be in the market. But this highly collaborative and much more fluid exploration of ideas was not necessarily a clean fit for the way that those organizations went to market generally, especially in these tech companies that he’s talking about, the FAANG+ companies where they are these huge, digital product production lines. And that whole messy bundle of things that we call UX, and consultants continue to practice as UX, it’s really hard to fit into that production line. The production line needs design to be something that is atomic, something that is repeatable, something that is a lot less bespoke, ideally, that can fit designers into a larger process that makes them look as much like engineers or other kinds of interchangeable, replaceable production line workers. 

And so this production UX is the UX that you learn if you go to a bootcamp. It’s the UX that you learn in a lot of these “Get your UX certificate in 90 days” kind of programs that are training people for a very specific production job.

Which is focused almost entirely on high-fidelity prototyping. And to Mr Rat’s point, the management background required to run that team is something very, very different from the skills that he’s developed as a leader in consulting. But I’d love your thoughts on it as you have been on your own journey with in-house leadership and the transfer of what you learned as a consultant to being an in-house leader.

Peter: I think, one, I want to validate Mr. Rat’s thesis. I think what he’s seeing is generally true or a totally fair read on the situation. And Jesse, what you’ve just laid out holds with much of what I’ve seen. There’s, when I first left consulting and went in-house, my first significant in-house job being a Groupon, I inherited a team of product designers who looked at companies like Facebook as the model for how design should work. And that model was largely around visual interaction design, with the ability of these product designers to do some coding so that they could build their own designs.

And that was it. That was the the Alpha and Omega of design to these product designers that I inherited. And I was taken aback, because it left out 75% of what I consider design, and not only was this common view of product design much narrower, there was a smug superiority that these in-house product designers had with respect to consulting designers because they shipped stuff, man. They built stuff that people used, and consulting design, you know, you get to work on pretty stuff, you get to work on signature concepts and ideas, but that stuff never gets shipped. And consultants just, you know, hand over a design and then they leave and they’re not there to really put their shoulder in and to get something out the door. And the superior smugness that the product designers had about that I took issue with, but they raised a legitimate point, around one of the big challenges of designing within a consulting context. And part of the reason I left consulting to go in-house was to be where those thousand little decisions are made that affect what ultimately goes out the door. 

So, at Adaptive Path, we often were brought in as consultants, because the existing internal team didn’t have the strategic capabilities that design leaders realized they needed for tackling some piece of work.

Jesse: Right, right…

Peter: We were told, like, we don’t have anything like you in-house, we have a bunch of perfectly good UI designers, but when we need to figure out kind of where we’re headed, we don’t have the horses internally to do that. So that’s why we’re bringing you in. So in-house digital design has, I think, always tended towards production and delivery orientations. And in-house digital design has always found itself as essentially a handmaiden to engineering and development processes. It exists to make technology go; it did not exist to realize new business value. And what’s starting to happen though, and I think there’s some interesting confusion around this, is some companies do recognize that design can unlock new business value.

So they’re trying to bring in folks with that bent and that orientation. But then you get this internal conflict or contradiction, where these companies bring in visionary strategic designers to pull the company forward, but the practices for doing that run contrary to the standard practices of a technology-driven or business-driven company. And one of, I guess, three things happens. Often as not, the design leader just decides it’s not worth the fight and figures out how to accommodate with the dominant culture. And so you lose some of that magic.

Sometimes the design leader just bounces out. It’s just like, “this won’t work and we shouldn’t have tried this.” And they leave and they go back to old practices. And very rarely, but occasionally, a design leader is, I think, able to unlock and demonstrate a new way of working and help others realize that, yeah, there are other ways of tackling these kinds of problems.

That last one is by far the rarest…

Jesse: Yeah…

Peter: …because it requires culture change and transformation in some of the stuff we’ve talked about earlier. And that’s just–that’s just hard.

Jesse: Hard. Slow.

Peter: It’s time consuming. And these design leaders are often like, Why am I spending so much time and effort trying to push this boulder up the hill when I could go somewhere else that actually understands what I’m doing and just do what I do.”

What I’m starting to see are at least companies of a certain size, figuring out how they can have their chocolate in their peanut butter. How they can have strategic visionary customer centered design that’s driving new business value.

Jesse: Sort of big UX.

Peter: Yeah, big UX and the more delivery oriented UI slash UX working in scrum teams executing on the specific features and functionality that need to be shipped. 

So I think when you achieve a certain size, and you have savvy enough leadership, there’s a recognition that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. You can have both. But I think what often happens is, particularly in these tech companies, they’ve never been in an environment where there was strategic design. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Jesse: Right? Well, yeah, that’s true. 

Peter: It’s asking a fish to understand what it’s like to breathe air when all they’ve ever done is breathe water, they’d have no idea what even what you’re talking about.

Jesse: There’s another part of this, that I, I feel like I’ve witnessed. I have a feeling you’ve witnessed as well, over the last decade or so, which is the rise of the fetishization of the concept of “product” in the Valley and among those companies that are strongly influenced by what happens in the Valley.

The reason that they don’t have experience with strategic design work is that those decisions that would be made in the course of a strategic UX, human- centered design process are being made by these product guys (and they are guys by and large.) 

Everybody was trying to figure out the secret of Steve Jobs’ alchemy as a leader, and the consensus that came out of it was that he was the ultimate product guy. He was looking at everything through the lens of how do we compose these software technologies and hardware technologies and all of the new manufacturing processes and all of the different stuff that goes into making Apple’s products and was able to bring that together into a holistic view of what the ultimate product should be that got delivered to people. And so the VCs looking to fund startups got to asking, like, who’s your product guy? Where’s your product guy? And every company started having a chief product officer or a VP of Product or product became a function where it wasn’t before.

And all of those things that were already underway as part of strategic design processes, the product guys, which basically this is a role that owns nothing but somehow also owns everything, decided that that piece was the piece that they could own.

Which was setting strategic direction and definition of a product vision and north star, those kinds of things. None of them are doing it from a place of design because none of them are designers, none of them have design experience. None of them have design education. They are using the tools that their VC advisors are giving them.

And none of those have anything to do with design or, frankly, with human centered principles.

Peter: What I find funny, having spoken at a few different product conferences, is how product leaders, on stage, when talking about how they need to develop a craft of product management, end up re-inventing user experience practice from 15 years ago.

Jesse: Yeah, because that’s the domain that they’ve claimed for themselves. That’s the…

Peter: That’s the problem. Exactly.

Jesse: They aren’t aware of all the work that’s been done to actually develop ways to solve these problems.

Peter: I think that’s true. I gave a talk, the first time I gave it was at UX Week.

It was originally titled “UX is Strategy, Not Design.” The thesis of the talk is that the practices of UX had gotten too closely aligned with design and delivery when in fact, much of the value of user experience work, the research, the prototyping, the ideating, the figuring out what the problem is, was strategic.

And when I first gave this talk at UX Week, the first response came from, when she raised her hand, Christina Wodtke said, “What you defined was product management,” and I had not worked with any product managers who worked in the way that I had been discussing, which was around formulating strategy developing customer centered business cases, considering a lot of ideas, figuring out the one and then as you go through delivery, kind of orchestrating that experience. And she said, “Well, that’s product management.” And I’m like, “Not that I’ve ever seen.” And this was a couple years into having left Adaptive Path.

What I’ve seen over time, though, is that there is a subtle strain of product management that does do some of these UX things. 

You have conferences like Mind The Product and this rise of a community of product managers, and I think what they’ve realized, as they’ve started interacting with one another, is that there is no consistent practice for product management. Over the last 20, 25 years, digital product design, UX design, has developed a practice such that you can take a designer in any one of these companies and they can move to any one of these other companies, and within a week they are able to be productive because the standards and practices of how we do design work have been pretty well established in this industry.

You can’t do that with product managers. How a product manager behaves at Facebook is different than how they’re going to behave at Slack, is different thing to how they’re going to behave at Microsoft is different than how they’re going to behave at Google. Product management in each of those organizations is distinct, so I think this community of product managers is trying to figure out what like, what is product management then? And it’s been interesting watching them try to articulate the craft of product management because, until recently, the way that I saw product management was defined, is product management was whatever was left after all the other practices took there bits, right? 

So engineers are doing engineering things and designers are doing design things, and business analysts are doing business analyst things and data scientists are doing data scientists things. And now with Scrum, you might have scrum masters and agile coaches and they’re doing their things, and product managers were just kind of filling in the gaps of “What are the activities that no one’s picked up? I guess that’s what I’ll do.” So if you had UI designers, product managers were then doing workflows and wireframes because no one was around to do that. So they thought that was their job. But if you had a UX designer, well, okay, someone’s doing your workflows and wireframes. so what’s my job like? They were trying to find their role, in the space left. 

One of the ways they’re defining it is very similar, as we were just saying, to this old-school UX practice, to the degree to which at this conference I was at in Australia last August, which was a product management conference, there was an opening keynote for day two. And he’s talking about his work and how he leads product. And in his 45 to 50 minute talk, he spent a good 10 to 15 minutes talking about the “design the box” exercise as a way to articulate strategy and get a group of people together to understand the direction that we want to take this product in. And Jesse and I conducted “design the box” exercises 15 years ago for clients as a UX, a UX tool…

Jesse: Right? Yeah.

Peter: …to get a team of people together.

Jesse: We were teaching design the box at least 10 years ago, and probably longer ago though. 

Peter: in some organizations that more strategic and visionary UX practice is seen as the responsibility of the product person and those product people are usually either technical or business folks.

So they’re not doing it, which is why now the design teams are like, “Oh, no one is doing this work. We need to now hire strategists internally, service designers, people internally who can drive that conversation.” So it’s still being figured out.

Jesse: That’s great. ‘Cause I have not been hearing about that. I have been hearing mostly about, you know, the trend in the other direction,

which is toward production line UX. 

Peter: With the 500 designers at Capital One, I’m assuming there were some design strategists in there. I’m assuming that there was an opportunity for people who’d been doing this for 20 years, that they were able to flex their muscles. Did you see that?

Jesse: Well, Capital One is a difficult organization to characterize in any holistic fashion because it is a highly federated set of businesses each with their own unique needs, especially from a design perspective. And so the answer to that question simply depends on who you’re working with, depends on what part of the business you’re in and what their needs are, and, how sophisticated their stakeholders are. 

To your point about product management seeking its center, there were a bunch of different approaches to product management across different groups at Capital One, and they were all in their cases trying to optimize for the problem that was right in front of them. 

Peter: So that’s the product management world, but what about the design world? To what degree were design teams pushing forward…

Jesse: Well, the design teams, to your point, design fills the space that product management allows them, because product management is still, you know, calling the shots. 

Peter: I mean, the other thing I’ve gotten to learn about product management as a practice, particularly as you get more senior in that role, you’re running product, you’re running a specific product, you’re maybe a director level all up to VP level and above is, it is a really stressful role, because they’ve got stuff coming at them from all sides.

And in particular, from the top down. They’ve got executives leaning on them with their expectations of what they’re delivering, usually outcomes, usually metrics. And so the product manager’s just like, “I am accountable to deliver on some set of, OKRs, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make that work. Because I am the one who’s accountable. You all have to listen to me because it’s my butt in the sling if this doesn’t work. So I need to feel that sense of ownership.” So you get that on one side. On the other side, you get, where product managers on one side have executives barking in their ear about what they need and on the other side, have designers barking in their ear the question, “Why? Why? Why? Why?” and they’re kind of in the middle, like, I have to do this thing, this, like, they’re not given enough time in the day. 

One of the leading thinkers on product management is this guy, Marty Cagan.

And he wrote a book called Inspired, and he says, flat out, product management is more than a full time job. If you’re looking for simply a 40-hour-a-week job, product manager is not the job for you, because in order to do that job right, you need to be able to work 60 hours a week, which is insane.

But this expectation is that you’re now this superhero contributor who’s managing all these different functions, all these different sets of expectations. And it feels like the way the job has been defined, or ill-defined, the only way to succeed is if you put in these 60-hour weeks.

So it’s no wonder these folks are having their struggles, given the context in which they’re operating. And one of the things I’m looking forward to as this product management community starts to gel and develop its own sense of self, is that they start kind of defending or protecting themselves from these unreasonable expectations that others have on them. We could go down a pretty long rabbit hole there, but I actually want to get back to some of Consultancy Rat’s points…

Jesse: Well, I actually do want to ask you a question about product management as it relates to Consultancy Rat, because his central issue is like, “I thought all of this consultancy experience was going to set me up for an in-house job when I get tired of all of the things that come with the consultancy lifestyle, which is also not an easy lifestyle.” And one that a lot of people do for a while, and then they get out of. At some point you want to get out of that hamster wheel, or at least many people do.

And so his question is “What are the opportunities that exist for me now as someone with this experience leading design from a consultancy footing.” And it sounds to me like implicit in what you’re saying is that if you want to have that same level of influence, if you want to be engaged in and driving those same strategic processes that you were a part of as a consultant, the place to go in-house is not design, it’s product management.

Peter: That is not not true. It’s going to be really hard for a consulting design leader to be seen as a credible product manager.

Jesse: Then his other question was, “How does the design consultancy leader better sell and genuinely augment their training to be more attractive to in-house teams?”

Peter: It depends on the nature of the role that you want in-house. If you want to work in a fashion where the work that you do looks not unlike the work you did as a consultant, i.e., probably more strategic, more big-picture, meatier projects, what you need to do is find companies, and they are usually going to have to be of a certain size, that are hiring principal-level product designers or, as we call them, at one of the companies I’m currently serving, a UX architect. So some of these bigger companies, we have friends at Zendesk who are principal product designers.

It is a director-level role, but it’s an individual contributor role and it is meant to be that product strategy, design strategy, experience strategy type of role. Coordinating the efforts of a lot of other people under the umbrella of a single vision and customer journey, some understanding of the experience.

So you are starting to see in-house roles that provide that opportunity. Let’s say you’re in a consultancy and you’re a creative director or an ECD, and you’ve got however many people reporting to you and you like that management relationship and you want to do that in-house, that’s in some ways a harder shift to make. Just because I think a lot of companies, whether you’re tech or not even tech, but just companies who are hiring folks for in-house design teams, they are going to default by looking for people who have run in-house design teams.

There is a perception, and it’s not untrue there, that the challenges of running an in-house design team and the challenges of running a design consultancy team are different. Occasionally, people make that switch. I’ve seen startups hire as a head of design someone with a consulting background. Usually, that person has been very senior in that consulting capacity and probably most importantly has worked on shipping product, and has had a consulting relationship with a client where they were maybe an agency of record and were able to release a stream of products for a client.

Jesse: It’s not just a matter of finding a role that’s a good fit for your skills and experience. It’s also that knowing that you’re not going to fit the mold, you have to be looking for a company that wants to break its mold, it has to be something of a strategic move on the organization’s part to bring you in because you’re not just going to be drag-and-drop into their organization.

You’re not going to look like a typical product manager, or you’re not gonna look like a typical production design leader. In either case, you have something else to offer and you need to be working with an organization that recognizes that  something else. I do think also that those opportunities to oversee that design production work definitely still happen.

Even in the context of Adaptive Path, I personally have overseen some pretty extensive screen delivery in my day.

Peter: This is actually where external recruiters are playing an important role. in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, there’s a couple that we actually mentioned in the org design book. Amy Jackson, Talent Farm, who we worked with, Karen and Marta. There’s a bunch of others. Anyone who was in the position of Consultancy Rat who’s interested in making a shift in-house, recognizing how difficult it’s going to be to just try to submit resumes and portfolios directly to in-house opportunities because that person doesn’t really have the profile that is typical for these in-house opportunities, a recruiter can be, a helpful bridge. These recruiters have relationships with in-house companies. But they often understand the backgrounds and the experiences of consulting designers, and they can make translations for those in-house companies to help them understand how a particular candidate’s consulting experience would translate.

Also vice versa. Right? They can help these people with consulting backgrounds. sharpen their story when it comes to how they engage with these in-house opportunities and help them figure out what to focus on in terms of their experience that will resonate with that in-house team. And so, if you’re finding yourself in a situation like this, I would encourage you to work with recruiters, too, as a means by which you can manage that gap between the in-house and consulting worlds.

Jesse: And yeah, I think across the board in any kind of transition like this, your storytelling is really essential. but especially as you are potentially making the leap, both from the consulting context to the in-house context, as well as from a more strategic frame to a more delivery-oriented frame. Being able to orchestrate the details of your own story. To be able to sell yourself as a leader is really key.


Peter: Our response to Consultancy Rat’s email proved to be longer than we can fit in a single episode. So listen to the next installment of Finding Our Way to hear more of what we have to say about these subjects. In the meantime, you can reach out to us on Twitter. I’m @peterme, he’s @jjg, or through our website at https://findingourway.design/, where you can send us an email and maybe we will spend an hour talking to each other about it. 

Something else I’m wondering is whether or not you prefer our episodes to remain in these roughly 30 minute chunks or for something such as this where we have about an hour’s worth of stuff, you would prefer that to just be one hour-long episode. Let us know. And look for that next episode of Finding Our Way.

Hidden Track

Peter: So you’ve been thinking, you have notes…

Jesse: …Tuning up. Oh, well, yes, I’ve been, I’ve been thinking about the letter. I have actually have quite a lot to say about the letter. I’d be surprised if we got to anything but the letter today…

Peter: …from Consultancy Rat?

Jesse: Yeah. Consultancy Rat.

Peter: I think that’s what we call him because–

Jesse: No, it’s a, it’s, it’s like when, you know, when people write into Dear Abby or Dan Savage or whoever your favorite advice person is, you give yourself a cute name.

One thought on “8: Consultancy Rat Blues, Part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s