The Hard Truth about Changing the World

The hard truth about changing the world – even in small ways – is just how big and complicated things are. We’re often at a bit of a loss when we see a seemingly easy solution and try to fix it real quick, only to realize that our efforts have made matters worse for ourselves, or sometimes, for others.
We all start somewhere – I started in industrial design. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, industrial designers design physical products, things like chairs, nerf guns, medical equipment, or whatever device you’re reading this on. They generally represent the “human” side of design, working closely with mechanical engineers similar to the way that architects work with civil engineers to create buildings that are both beautiful, functional, and won’t fall down.

Finding my naivete

In my last semester of college, I was lucky enough to land a job on the west coast working for a tiny electric vehicle company (this was before the Nissa Leaf was a thing, and Tesla was still building two-seat roadsters based on Lotus frames). This was it! I – the, uh, intern – was going to save the world!
The internship ended up being educational, but not in any way that I’d expected. I woke up every morning and headed to the “R&D” warehouse where a trickle of new vehicles were coming in to be custom converted to electric vehicles.
Of course, there were problems. Things came off the boat that looked identical to Japanese cars, just with different logos. Most of these vehicles were cheap, Chinese 3-wheeled trucks that, as a 6’2″ American, I couldn’t even fit in! There were other odd things too – there seemed to be a feud between the warehouse and the corporate office, and a lot of questionable rumors floating around.
It came to a head one day when I went up to the corporate office to talk to the chief of marketing about some ideas that I’d had. Through the window of his office, the CEO – who I’d reached out to personally – caught my eye and scowled. Afterwards, I was railed for going behind his back to have this meeting.
Naive to the turf battles that are all too common in some corporate environments, I was completely stumpped. It would be a few more weeks until things began to unfold.
One cold February day when I got to the warehouse, I noticed that everyone was crammed into the tiny office-space waiting. At 10:00, a small group of five or six people entered the room surrounding a tiny Chinese woman with a face of stone. She explained that things would be changing. This place was not being run the way it needed to be, and the proper changes were being made. If anyone was unhappy with these changes, they could leave. She didn’t pull any punches, and was as articulate as she was authoritarian. You could have heard a pin drop as we all tried to mentally build a narrative based on this new news and the rumors we’d heard.
It turns out, the company had been bumbling along for a while raising continual investment based on plans that it was never operationally able to fulfill. When it received a major investment from a Chinese manufacturer that was bidding on government contracts to produce electric vehicles in China, the stakes were raised, and the current state was no longer ok.

We have to think in Systems

There were a lot of lessons for everyone, but as a young designer, the most important one was this: design is a bubble. As designers, we’re capable of crafting visions that may fool even ourselves. But design isn’t for creating beautiful pictures to hang on the wall – it is about creating beautiful things that function in the real world.
It means that if you truly want to change the world – whether your background is in design, or anything else – you have to understand a much bigger picture. Specifically, we have to understand how to work with the builders and the business. The builders – not the designers – are responsible for what actually goes out into the world, and the business is responsible for getting it there.
The Product Owner sits at the nexus of these three areas: what the user wants, what can be built, and what can be sustained. It is a balancing act that, if managed well, can really push ideas to reality.
It is hard – it requires not only the ability to speak three languages, but to be able to translate between them. There are, though, a lot of resources out there to help us, so lets do it. Lets actually change the world.

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