CEOs Are From Mars…

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I’m pretty much a professional half-breed. You see, with both a television production background and an M.B.A., I have spent the past 20 years trying to bridge, heal, soothe, mend and otherwise repair the pervasive gap that divides “suits” and “creatives” in the business world. Along the way, I’ve played a number of roles including ringmaster, referee, coach, ambassador and even secret agent.

In an ideal world, both sides would meet in the middle and split the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

What I’ve learned is that the antagonism, hostility and resentment often felt on both sides of the equation is the outgrowth of a basic failure to understand what makes the other side tick.

What we have here is a failure to communicate
I used to believe that hard-core businesspeople actually understood their Photoshop-toting colleagues but chose, proactively and aggressively, to dismiss their skills, capabilities and talents as inconsequential fluff. The truth is much worse: many businesspeople simply don’t have the slightest idea what separates “good creative” from “bad creative.”

I’ve had executives admit to me that they couldn’t tell the difference between two competing portfolios, designs or layouts if their lives depended on it. At the same time, it’s fair to say that many designers are equally oblivious to the underlying business issues that drive decision-making in their organizations.

But, here’s the catch: design teams are the ones most likely to lose out when business requirements clash head-on with design imperatives. Because executives must stay focused on bottom-line results, aesthetic elements that seem indirectly related to the company’s business goals are easily dismissed in the corner office.

The hard part is that these design imperatives are, many times, a large part of the bottom-line results. To bridge the gap that divides business and design teams, it’s important that IAs and designers:

  • understand and respect the fundamentally different world views that separate them from most business managers,
  • commit to meeting business managers halfway (or more) when it’s time to define and articulate project goals and expectations, and
  • commit to educating themselves more completely about business issues, ideas and trends.

The view from the corner office
Try to put yourself in the CEO’s natty suede loafers for a moment: As the keepers of the fiscal flame in an organization, most executives are, understandably, more focused on the more quantitative elements of a corporation’s daily life.

They’re tasked specifically with both generating revenue and saving costs. And, at the end of the day, will be measured and compensated (or penalized!) by results that are summarized at the end of each quarter on a spreadsheet. Qualitative factors including user experience, design, content strategy and customer experience are considered a means to reach end-of-year financial goals, not an end unto themselves.

In fact, compared to complex quantitative calculations and projections, design and content architecture issues seem relatively straightforward and simple. With no spreadsheet to consult, final decisions about design, customer experience and navigation elements might seem to be based on personal preferences, favorite colors and an armchair quarterback’s appreciation of what’s stylish and hip.

Most quantitatively-focused managers simply don’t comprehend the relationship between business strategy and customer experience, or how design and content architecture serve to facilitate and articulate strategic corporate goals in the marketplace. And, without a clearly articulated business rationale to support IA and design priorities, they never will.

Finding the middle ground
Most deadly of all is every businessperson’s deep-seated allegiance to their own creative point of view. As I learned in business school, you can never convince a “qualitatively challenged” M.B.A. that a) they can’t write, b) they have limited people skills, c) their PowerPoint slides are dull, or d) they have no creative aptitude.

Redefining user experience issues in terms of business impacts and “domino effects” empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command.

Make no mistake: when it comes to design and customer experience issues, most business managers have stretched themselves as far across the divide as they’re capable. In an ideal world, this would mean meeting their IA teams in the middle and basically splitting the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

In this context, it becomes imperative for IAs and designers to take action to close the gap. And while this may mean that design teams have to take on more than their “fair share” of the burden, it’s important to not lose sight of the overall goal: delivering the best work possible.

By learning to frame creative issues in business terms and to draw meaningful connections between design efforts and the corporation’s bottom line, design teams and their projects are more likely to survive the corporate gauntlet.

The intersection of art and commerce
First, it’s important to take a close look at the organization from the inside out. Understand who’s writing the check for the project and what results they are being held accountable for. Ask:

  • How do project goals connect to the overall mission of the organization (if at all)?
  • Who stands to benefit from the project’s success?
  • What expectations—right or wrong—are associated with the project?
  • How long will it take the organization to see a return on their investment in the project?
  • How will the projects success and/or failure be measured at a corporate level?

For example, many corporate websites are created, primarily, to reduce costs associated with customer service (e.g., call centers, product documentation, software upgrades). To that end, the extent to which call center volume decreases and use of web-based tools or FAQs increases provides management with some indication of the site’s effectiveness.

Then, consider your project and the organization from an “outside in” perspective. Ask:

  • Are internally-driven corporate goals aligned with real customer needs?
  • Which customer needs is the project meant to address?
  • How are your company’s competitors responding to these emerging needs?
  • How will the new project impact other stakeholders (e.g., vendors, partners)?
  • How is success defined in this larger context?
  • Are there any related examples in your industry (or in other industries) that you can reference and learn from?
  • Have similar initiatives worked for other companies?

In the case of the customer service-focused website described above, it would be important to understand whether or not users are likely to accept a new form of customer service. Would an online option solve a problem for them or cause additional complications?

Armed with these two critical perspectives, a design team can begin to craft arguments that are solution-oriented and in line with the corporation’s bottom line.

Returning to the online customer service solution one last time, a business-savvy design team would focus on those elements that have the greatest impact on a user’s customer service needs. In this case, superior content, information architecture and user interface design are critical to the customer’s ability to find information and, by extension, solve the immediate problem that brought them to the site in the first place. If a customer in need becomes confused by the site’s navigation or search capabilities, they will never return to the site. By extension, their opinion of a company offering such a sloppy and incomplete solution will surely diminish.

Defining these kinds of business issues and “domino effects” also empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command. By anticipating questions and providing managers with the language to describe each design choice and associated business solution, projects are more likely to be spared endless rounds of questioning and negotiation.

And don’t forget to embrace and support those rare business managers who actually understand and support of your design team’s issues. These managers can be terrific allies and can also serve as a resource while you’re crafting the business case for your project.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste
You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation. On an ongoing basis, make a personal commitment to increase your general understanding of business issues, ideas and trends.

You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation.

By taking the time to study various industries and macro business issues, it becomes clear that there are business basics that drive every company. By finding parallels and lessons in other industries, you can begin to make better sense of your organization’s issues and challenges.

Understanding, for example, that Southwest Airlines actually considers its primary competitors to be railroads and bus lines (versus other regional airlines) not only provides you with insight into their business strategy, but also offers a great lesson in thinking more broadly about the dynamics of your business.

Begin picking up a Wall Street Journal once a week or, very simply, browsing the business section of your local newspaper. For more in-depth stories, the Harvard Business Review, despite it’s lofty and journal-like appearance, is a wholly approachable and practical source for new ideas, case studies and best practices across a number of industries. In fact, I have often recommended an article called “The Ultimate Creativity Machine: How BMW Turns Art Into Profit” from the January 2001 issue. It describes the challenges faced by the head of BMW’s German design studio as he seeks to ride the line between aesthetic, engineering and business requirements. For yet another look at emerging business trends, monthly magazines Fast Company and Business 2.0 scour the world for the most innovative and radical new ideas, companies and executives.

Business classes and seminars offer an opportunity to connect with other students to share new ideas. They are also a valuable resource for expanding your network of professional resources. This face-to-face interaction is critical. Imagine trying to learn a new language without having someone else to talk to.

Can’t we all just get along?
Remember that corporations are living, breathing ecosystems that are given life by the people who populate them. By making a conscious effort to focus on the big picture and bridge the gaps that divide the organization, you are contributing to a company’s overall success and, along the way, making your day-to-day working life, ultimately, a little less stressful.

Alma Derricks is the founder and principal of REV, a unique business strategy consultancy that provides firms imaginative strategic guidance, new revenue-creation models and fresh insight into what motivates and inspires customers. She can be reached directly at .


  1. As creative director of a meeting production company, I face this problem every day. You’ve articulated it perfectly. You are so correct in pointing out that we need to learn more about the business goals and objectives of the companies we work with — it’s the only way to sell them on a creative idea. At my company, we do extensive research and stakeholder analysis before we begin the creative — it takes discipline — but it works. The result is that we can pretty much sell a concept on the first time through without much trouble. Our research enables us to nail it — and the freedom of knowing that what we are doing is right for the company (or client) allows us to be even more creative.

    Hey, it worked for Darren Stevens…

  2. This was a poorly written and disrespectful article. It insulted business people and patronized design people.

    While there were kernals of truth found in the article, phrases like ” …the CEO’s natty suede loafers” and “…managers simply don’t comprehend” caused me to doubt the authority and professionalism of the author.

    If the jist of the article was about understanding the business side, my feeling is the author doesn’t. Don’t make fun of your customers or your opponents; they will sense this and dismiss you.

  3. I think the questions in bullets are excellent and plan to draw on them in my own project pitches and launches.

  4. In my experience, the rare occasion is the one when designers or IA do not understand the business objectives and the target audience.

    The tension starts to build when designers/IA are asked to do the impossible:

    Either to sell a product or service that does not accommodate human behavior or perception (i.e. web banners), or to accommodate unreasonable task in order to meet numbers (“I don’t care if it’s not possible, but the numbers say you have to be %125 utilized”).

    Another point of friction is lack of respect and therefore understanding for the designers/IA skills and role (i.e. “my daughter is very talented, even her art teacher said so, I’m going to bring her in on the next design review” or “this is beautiful, can you just change the background color, I don’t like green. What do you mean it’s not that simple, just use that bucket thingy in photoshop, even I can do that”).

    And then, of course, there’s the famous “I didn’t understand that signoff means that I can’t change everything anytime I wanted to”.

    Bad design is bad business. There is enough research and facts that prove it. It should be part of businesspersons’ training.

  5. In a recent interview at the studio where I work an IA candidate was told “I need someone at level 7 or 8 in Visio”. When said IA asked “Can you explain to me what that means?” there was dead silence.

    I won’t even tell you about the “gorilla marketing” memo.

  6. Most of the “business” types aren’t – really! If they were business-oriented they would immediately understand the old Arabic saying, “If the merchant doesn’t have what the customer wants – he has nothing!”

    Sorry Carolyn, but if the business types focused on satisfying the Customer’s needs they would find the bottom line would overflow…maybe even enough for some more natty suede loafers. //EKJ//

  7. It’s been my experience that not only do designers and busness personnel not work well together, but the architects and the visual designers don’t either.

    Food for Thought, but you have forgotten the underlying issues that most artists(visual designers) have working with IA’s.

  8. It’s great that the communication industry, whatever it’s discipline, still is unable to communicate to itself. Designers dress in black and suits know nothing – what agencies do you guys work in?

  9. It seems that CEOs are from Mars, quite literally. I was given a task to develop metrics to assess a creative group’s creativity, productivity, and quality. Anyone ever had to do this? Please e-mail me and let me know!

  10. THE TOILET TEST ~ Design and the bottom line.

    Peter Phillips: []
    really puts this in perspective when he tells a story about meeting a CEO in the company toilet. The dreaded “Hi I’m the CEO what do you do for us…?” conversation ensued, and Peter had to very quickly come up with a tangible, business like and commercially astute description of what he did. The CEO remembered this slightly awkward conversation, remebering a creative/designer type who seemed to understand ‘the bottom line’ and began calling Peter regularly for advice on design issues…

    It’s an odd technique, but think about it. What would you say if you met your CEO in an awkward place, and they asked you what you do?

    Here’s what I’d say:
    “I design new and better opportunities for our current and potential customers to interact with us online that influence them to continue doing business with us”

    I am still waiting for my toilet moment though…

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