The Perfect Company

In the last year or so, every time I’ve given a talk on collaboration or building an organization, an audience member has approached me (either privately or through Q&A) with a question about their current frustrations with their job or org. The question usually sounds something like this:

What you described in your talk sounds great. I’m at Company X and we don’t have any of that. I’ve tried to get people to collaborate more, let designers code, bring engineers into the process, but I’m not making any progress and I don’t think anyone else agrees that these are real problems. What should I do?

Typically, I’ll ask a few clarifying questions and give some light pointers. But in the end, my advice is usually for that person to quit and find a new role. The reason I give is that you need to work somewhere that values what you value. Certainly, there are many successful organizations where design and engineering are treated as services. And there are absolutely examples of strong companies that aren’t particularly design-driven or led. There are even places where design dictates everything about the product. And hey, people work at those places and are happy and successful. So, really, it’s about finding a company that works the way you want to work and cares about what you want to care about.

But, honestly, that’s only half the story.

As I’ve gone through jobs in my career, I thought I was looking for the perfect fit for me. I’ve gotten much better at finding companies with more positive attributes than the ones before. I’ve gotten better at sniffing out missions I believe in. I’ve gotten better at finding folks who care about design, who support one another and create a healthy working environment. But somehow, even with all the boxes checked, I’d get to the company and still find myself frustrated for various reasons:

Each time, I’d wind up looking for a new job without whichever set of problems I was currently experiencing. I’d get to the new job, experience new (or what I perceived to be new) problems, eventually get frustrated and leave the company. Rinse, repeat.

What I finally realized (and what has helped me change my approach) is that every company, no matter the size or type or work or team, has issues. And, much of the time, those issues aren’t even unique to the company, just slightly different flavors. Lots of companies struggle to understand and get the most out of design, even the ones that appear to do so effortlessly (making it look effortless, it turns out, is not easy). Many teams have a nebulous relationship with their executives. A lot of managers are passive and unhelpful to the people they manage (unfortunate, but true).

On top of that, some companies actually value what you perceive to be a problem. Maybe they truly believe in separating the design disciplines. Or maybe the CEO loves to stay really involved in the details of ongoing projects. Maybe the waterfall process has been tried and true for the company since its inception and it works for them. Whatever you do, do not join a company that values something you don’t believe in. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can change it, or that you can adjust to it. It’s going to suck.

The trick is in being able to identify both the malleable and immovable problems before you join (by asking a ton of questions during your interviews). If you can do that, then you can decide if you’re willing to work on and/or live with the challenges of that particular company. I spent a lot of my time looking for nirvana — a company free of difficulty where I could work the way I wanted and get good work done. Now I realize that not only do all companies have challenges, those challenges are things I should be excited about working on every day. If the CEO loves to be involved in the work, I should be excited to get her more involved. If the design team is split up into different disciplines, I should be stoked about figuring out how my discipline and the others can work together in the best way. If I’m not excited about those things, it’s a sign that I shouldn’t take the job.

Finding a company that’s perfect inside is a myth. You can only hope to find a place that’s perfect for you, one whose flaws you embrace as solidly as the bits that shine. When you’re thinking about leaving your current job, think about why you’re doing it. Which problems weren’t worth solving to you? Which are you not interested in solving? Ask about those topics in your interviews. Ask interviewers what challenges (not just with the product) they’re currently facing. Find the problems that you’d be excited to go after and solve. Find the company and job that’s the perfect amount of imperfect for you.

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