Designed to fail: An absence of commitment

Ugh! photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I had a discussion recently with someone about a not entirely uncommon situation consultants can find themselves in. You get hired to solve a problem, but the reason they have hired the work out rather than do it internally is because they aren’t really committed to making the project a success. What do you need to know to best deal with this situation?

You can think of the absence of commitment mentioned above as a kind of apathy. Building on this, there are two kinds of this apathy you might encounter, which I refer to as benign and malignant. Benign apathy is an absence of commitment that doesn’t have the potential to burn the consultant. An example of this is a client who wants to do exploratory work for a possible new direction. They aren’t too sure about things, and so they want to see what the possibilities are. This is actually really fun work if you know the parameters and expectations from the outset.

Malignant apathy on the other hand is an absence of commitment where there is a good potential for the consultant to get burned. This is the kind of apathy where you have delivered good work but some other aspect of the product cycle has been poorly committed to or is undermanaged—resulting in poor product performance or reputation. If the a designer in this scenario is a consultant, there is a possibility that the easiest party to blame for the failure will be the “not one of us” outsider. The worst form of malignant apathy is what I call bad-faith malignant apathy. In this case, the client, or management working within the client, knows the product is likely to fail and wants to distance themselves from it. The use of a consulting designer here provides the project manager both with some distance as well as a potential fall guy. Truly evil, not unprecendented, but fortunately rare.

With luck, before you take on the work you will know whether there is apathy toward the project and whether it’s benign or malignant. In the case of benign apathy, you simply need to frame your expectations accordingly. In the case of malignant apathy you may be able to mitigate potential consequences, perhaps by stipulating tediously clear and comprehensive acceptance criteria that must be signed off on.

A natural question is whether you should take work that’s based on malignant apathy at all. You might think that paid work is better than no work, but this can be very shortsighted. If the project turns into a failure, using your deliverables in your portfolio becomes very a risky proposition at best, and being a scapegoated can be disaster for your career.

You might have the feeling that with your design skills you’ll be able to transform a client’s apathy into enthusiasm. This might be possible with benign apathy. For example, the client might be so convinced by your work that they move from concept exploration to product development. But I suggest you don’t pin your hopes to this. This isn’t the reason they have given you the job, so don’t let it color your work. When it comes to malignant apathy, my experience suggests it’s almost always a result of dynamics internal to the organization, and nothing the designer or anyone else outside the organization can do is likely to overcome the dynamic.

Sometimes whether there’s apathy at play and what kind it is doesn’t become clear until you’re well into the project. This is a bad situation to find yourself in. In the case of benign apathy, it means that you have been doing work for a goal that doesn’t line up with your client’s. Recovery will involve shifting your perspective and possibly throwing away a good amount of work you’ve already done. But if you catch this early enough, you can recover.

If this happens on a project with malignant apathy though, the situation is much worse. It’s particularly bad when you become aware of the apathy only after you have submitted your deliverables. Your best protection, and sadly it isn’t much, is to keep copious notes about your interactions with the client to support the validity of your process and work. Though you may be tempted, it’s probably a bad idea to deliver substandard work on a project with malignant apathy because it increases the odds that your work will be singled out for blame when the product fails. It may make sense to extricate yourself from the project if it’s possible, but this runs a risk of branding you a hire risk for future work—including by other clients within the client’s scope of influence.

Having said all this, I want to advise you not to be paranoid—just be diligent. Few things can negatively impact your work and toxify relationships as much as paranoia. Just keep your eyes open, be aware of the possibilities, and enjoy your work and relationships as much as you can.

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