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The Struggles of Innovators in Old-School Businesses

Posted 3 years ago by Gabriel Colombo

Work is work and will always be. Some people love it, some just roll with it. Like a service, the impressions we have about our jobs is based on how well the company culture, relationships, and work environment contribute to achieving our goals.

As design professionals, we know that not every company praises the value provided by design-oriented approaches. Production-oriented companies are focused on efficiency over quality. This approach can limit opportunities for change, frustrating their employees.

Criticism towards company cultures is fairly common when it doesn’t align with our personal goals.

“Designers tend to have a hard time inside strict enterprise environments.”

Designers are valuable assets for a business. They have the ability to push entire teams and processes towards new horizons (and also drive people mad, sometimes).

This is a profile that some companies don’t really know how to handle. Old-school managers tend to have a hard time dealing with these argumentative, out of the box thinkers that seem to have an attitude towards authority.

One way of explaining this culture clash is based on the theory of disruption. Let’s have a look.

A word on disruption and collaboration

Quoting an adapted definition from Professor Clayton Christensen, disruptive individuals are those who are able to develop new ways of approaching problems that are simpler and more innovative than the current solutions available.

They introduce different ways for collaboration by sharing new ideas that others may not be aware of or have the skills and authority alone to execute. This behavior allows people from different areas to interact and learn more effectively, which leads to new relationships and fuels personal and professional growth.

“Disruptive individuals are those who develop simpler and more innovative ways to approach problems”

The problem lies with the fact that for some companies it is unattractive to have these professionals aboard due to the abrupt changes they can cause on the company’s culture.

Most of the time, the end result is somewhat predictable: Either the person quits, or gets fired. Harsh.

The struggles

Designers tend to have a hard time inside strict enterprise environments. As their mind constantly looks for a fresh point of view, a set of standards based on old-school management feels like a prison for creativity.

The most common struggles can be roughly categorized into three topics:

Abiding by the rules

Getting there on time, dressing accordingly and talking to your superiors like everyone else can be kinda difficult.

Timetables are a pain for everyone. Designers like to collaborate and learn new things, so it’s easy for them to lose track of time while dedicating themselves to solving a problem. Please clarify the consequences for arriving late, but don’t drag people down when it happens. Lots of different events can cause unexpected changes in timetables (e.g traffic), so try to avoid applying penalties without letting the person give an explanation first.

“It’s easy for designers to lose track of time while dedicating themselves to solving a problem.”

It is often said that during work hours you’re representing the company you work for. That includes everything from behavior to clothing and even speech patterns, but not everyone is comfortable with this. It doesn’t feel natural if you’re not used to acting in a certain way.

Some people don’t like office wear and this is not just superficial. For some people, it is physically uncomfortable, while for others it can affect how they feel. This impacts performance and creativity, therefore the results won’t be as great as they could be.

If they’re not in one of the touchpoints of your product or service, perhaps considering a less strict code of conduct, even if it’s a small change like allowing people to dress casually on a Friday, certainly makes a difference.

Lastly, have you ever heard from your peers’ something like “How can you question the boss? So crazy!” or “You won’t last very long acting this way”? If so, you know how it feels. I’ve heard both phrases a couple times myself, and it’s a bit upsetting.

“Designers just wanna understand the reasons behind the decisions so they can maybe offer a different approach”

Designers don’t mean to be stubborn (except when pixels are misaligned), they just wanna understand the reasons behind the decisions so they can maybe offer a different approach. Please, don’t crucify them for doing so.

Innovation and creativity freedom

Old companies have been through a lot. Technology changes in an insanely fast pace and professionals must keep up with it, but sadly it doesn’t apply to the business as a whole.

Companies tend to renew their technologies without reviewing their internal processes, causing people to create workarounds in order to keep things running.

“Companies tend to renew their technologies without reviewing their internal processes”

The major complaints on this topic emerge from two different situations:

When facing these situations, think how you can improve things on your end first. Then, show your achievements to your coworkers and see what they think.

This way you are able to progressively display the value that a particular change can bring to the process, making it easier to be discussed and (hopefully) adopted.

Feedback and encouragement

Once while grabbing a coffee I heard a couple people talking about a project from my team. They said it ended up great, and I hardly believe they knew that I was the one who coded that piece of UI.

The entire moment barely lasts a minute, but I felt great. It encouraged me to improve my work even more.

Encouragement reflects the quality of any project. A single person can impact the performance of an entire division. If people feel like they’re working for the sake of getting things done, then the quality of your product will certainly decrease.

Try it. Go out and ask people how they feel about your project, congratulate them for delivering quality work for a week and see how it impacts the end result.

Overcoming these barriers

Honestly? Just go one step at the time.

Don’t freak out if things go wrong or if you think that things are not good enough. Help your managers to make better decisions. Give them clear information, ask questions in a way that allows them to express their thoughts without judging and try to expand on them.

Also, reduce dependencies as much as you can. When able to work more independently, start experimenting with new ideas, perhaps team up with a coworker and present it to your manager. Explain why this is a better way of doings and listen to what he has to say.

Results speak louder than words.


Old-school businesses have been running the same way for a long time. It is our job to propose new ideas that will improve the company as a whole, not just videogames and colorful furniture. Struggles will appear in every line of work, so try to understand them and progressively improve things, ensuring that you and the business can learn from the experience.

“It’s our job to propose ideas that’ll improve the company as a whole, not just videogames and colorful furniture”

This post was based on my personal experience along with opinions shared with me. If you don’t know how it feels to go through a similar situation, some of your friends probably do, so please share it 😀

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.

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Designer, Front-end Developer and coffee addict. In love with tech and writing about it. Say hi on Twitter!

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