Consultant Thursdays: When Clients are Institutionalized

In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman described inmates who have been in the prison system  too  long  as being  “institutionalized.” In my opinion, this phenomenon also occurs at large corporations, where departments become silos and team members use bureaucracy to hide their shortcomings and inefficiencies.  In a word, everyone has become institutionalized. People forget how to work together and function as flexible, dynamic project  teams. In these instances, clients don’t really hire UX consultants to solve a design problem. Rather,  these companies  get into a rut and they just want some fresh blood to shake things up a bit.

From my experience, the best  products don’t come from one individual or department.  Rather,  it takes an  iterative  process with input from  various  angles of expertise.  Even if a forward thinking manager proposes a scrum approach, it becomes like a begrudging behavior change and  not a true conversion in attitude. This type of situation can be volatile for a consultant. You have no idea of the political landmines you’re walking into or whose toes you’re stepping on, and those with crushed toes are too willing to throw you under the bus.

So what’s a consultant to do in these situations?

  • Do your homework. Conduct careful analysis and research to justify your design decisions, because they will drill you and throw you under the bus. Get ready to be roadkill!
  • Provide the service you were paid to do and sidestep the politics.
  • Be a consumate professional, but speak your mind. There’s a reason why you were hired. I am known to be very direct and I believe companies hire me for my brutal honesty.
  • Have a sense of humor. Sometimes humor is needed is to buffer egos from constructive criticism and makes for easier negotiation.

Don’t expect that your design will prevail in the end. Realize that you  may  just be the catalyst that change the process. When in doubt, tell yourself, “At least I don’t have to work here full time. At least I’m not institutionalized.”

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