The importance of putting your champions on a pedestal

Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a London council. In a nutshell the job was to completely redesign the web site to make it far easier for residents and professionals to use: no small task. It was a hugely rewarding and successful undertaking, but none of it would have been possible without one person in particular.

Our main point of contact at the council was the ‘web manager’. Let’s call her Samantha. At our first meeting it was clear Samantha was someone who was passionate and knowledgeable about the needs and potential of the redesign. She could see the points of view of both the council and the residents. She was also aware of the scale of the task, but not daunted by it – Samantha had that rare quality: a black belt in can-do. It was evident she could be a great ally to the Clearleft team and to the success of the project. She would be our champion.

I’ve been working in the digital design industry long enough to know that many an agency’s past is littered with good work clients paid for but which never saw the light of day – a wasteful and dispiriting occurrence. Many times work is offloaded to the client, the agency runs away, crosses its fingers and hopes for the best. As a designer, especially one working for an agency, it is your job to ensure that your work ends up in the hands of users. An important aspect of that is identifying your champion as the person in the client organisation who can pinpoint the barriers to a great solution going live, and who has the drive and wherewithal to overcome those hurdles.

But even champions need help. Soon into the engagement ask your champion about their worries and where the blockers might be. These are almost always deemed political and come down to individuals. As a third party you have a privileged position: you’re not bound by the same politics. Go and talk to the people your champion has identified as potentially blocking the road ahead. Make those people part of the solution. Frame your conversation as a formal stakeholder interview if that helps get the meeting, but a good old-fashioned chat might actually do the job better – you can bypass the formalities and convince them you actually care about their opinions. Seemingly obstructive people or departments are very rarely being deliberately awkward or ignorant. It’s likely they just have other priorities. Those people are probably unaware that they are being a problem and consequently will be willing to make amends. If that’s not the case you will at least know to find another tactic. This pro-active, personal approach is what making change from within is all about. It’s the practical upshot of getting design to happen.

Thinking about your champion’s perspective is key. Your champion is not just a client, they are a person. They may have got you the gig in the first place, they may have heard of you already and are excited to be working with you, or they may simply be pleased to have some additional help. Live up to their expectations and try to make their life easier. If your champion’s life is easier, your work as a designer will be smoother and less compromised.

Set up an honest, equitable relationship with your champion. Talk person-to-person with them, not consultant-to-client, and form a friendly partnership. Put an arm around their shoulder when necessary. Help your champion get the design message across – often its their job to get buy-in from stakeholders, so go out of your way to help them craft a convincing story and manage the difficult conversations. You know you’re on the right track if you’re making sure your champion looks good.

Champions grease the wheels of change. They are obstacle clearers, problem insulators and praise singers. Treat them with the reverence they deserve. Thinking back to Samantha at the council, without her the redesign would have stumbled at numerous hurdles. It’s also the case that we helped her navigate and clear those hurdles. With Samantha smoothing the way, the design maintained its (and our) integrity and it got launched to the praise of civil servants and grateful residents. Samantha may have been our champion, but the ultimate winners were the client and it’s end users.

Originally published on Medium.