Masquerading, lying and stealing

I always tell people I am an accidental product manager and design lead. I stumbled upon this role while figuring out my place in the early days of building a studio practice, where I learnt a number of critical lessons along the way. I was happy to share a glimpse of what it meant to be in those shoes, to an upcoming batch of design school students at NMIMS School of Design, Mumbai.

This post originally was posted on LinkedIn as an article. Link provided below:

LinkedIn Article: Masquerading, lying and stealing


Good afternoon! I am Renga.

I am a door-to-door salesman - I peddle ideas for a living. Some of them work. Most of them don't. But that hasn't stopped me from trying. And that is the official version of what I do for a living. The more controversial version is that I am a:

  1. Masquerader
  2. Liar and
  3. Thief

Yes, you heard that right. We will come back to these 3 parts in a bit because that forms the core of what I am going to talk about today.

Before we start, do any of you have those annoying elders in your family who come visiting during Diwali and ask you every time, "toh beta, bade hokar kya banna chahte ho?" (What do you want to be when you grow up?) and you are like 'Itna toh bada ho chuka hoon, aur kitna expect kar rahe ho!' (This is how much I could grow to date. What more are you expecting!) That is perhaps they have not been able to figure out in all those years. And they are secretly hoping that you would not carry on that listless legacy. In my case, yesterday my 5-year-old daughter was throwing tantrums all day. Angry and flustered, I had to make her sit and ask 'Ok Anushka, what is it that you want?' and she is like 'I don't know what I want, Daddy'. And in that moment of clarity, I let go of my anger, gave her a hug and told her softly 'so do I, kiddo, so do I'.

When I finished school, my sister asked me the same question. Being candid, I told her that I wanted to become an actor. For real. Sure - I do not have the dashing looks and the best physique, but I do have a dimpled smile - and great hair (or so my wife keeps telling me). Anyway, I wanted people to laugh, cry and feel at my work.

15 years onward - that wish has, unfortunately, come true. When I started out in the digital agency, people laughed when I told them that I would like to build world-class digital products. They cried and cringed when they saw my early work. And they felt and expressed vehemently, that although I am a very nice and kind man, I should not bother leading design teams, because I did not have a pedigree in design, nor the experience to back it up. But like I said before, that did not stop me from trying.

MASQUERADE (to get a foot in the door)

So I started masquerading. For the folks who have not reached Shashi Tharoor levels of vocabulary yet, masquerading means wearing a mask. So I wore one. One of that of a skilled communicator, who understood how to interface with clients. Sure - I had no idea how to present design work. But I came to the Studio with years of experience building (mostly breaking, but still, hear me out) large scale IT systems. So I knew a bit about handling angry clients when they could not log in into a web portal, they spent months building with millions of dollars at stake. That despite the money and effort being spent in designing and building something, the core lies in understanding human relationships. And a decade of handling such relationships and stakeholders was a masterclass in empathy for me.

So when I started in the Studio, I began helping our design teams face clients. It wasn't easy, to say the least. But the masquerading helped. Slowly and steadily, It earned me the trust and faith of the same designers who were hesitant earlier to join me in my crusade.

Then we started facing clients more confidently. Confidence and success led us to more work, but it only meant that we had to grow. So we hired more designers, more engineers, more talented people that could have been assembled under one roof in India. But this expansion, this scale came at a cost. They did not know how to work with each other. And that is putting it mildly. They couldn't stand each other.

LIE (for a greater good)

Backed up against a wall and with no options, we started lying. We lied that we needed a bridge, someone who could not only talk to our clients, but also to all these wonderful disciplines to work seamlessly towards a common goal. And thus the idea of having a studio engagement lead was born. The idea of being an engagement lead was to make their job redundant. I know, I know, such a career-limiting move.

But it worked like this - you brought together a band of misfits, compelled them to check their egos at the door and work together to build something collectively, they individually could not have built by themselves. When that stage arrived with the team managing itself, the engagement lead moved to the background and picked up a different team to onboard. Form a team. Rinse. Repeat. On Loop. The lie began to take shape. It was easier said than done, and it took us a while to arrive at a place, where every discipline felt equal. But over time, these leads gained unparalleled exposure to clients and formed a great network of teams, which helped increase the maturity of our studio practice exponentially.

STEAL (the best parts of what you are inspired from)

Happy teams. Happy clients. Sounds hunky dory until this point? Sure did to us. Until we realized that the way we went about designing our work needed a shot in the arm. You see, we built products with the same finesse, the same standards as global product companies did. There was one small difference. Our work in digital initiatives enabled key business objectives for our clients, but we did not own the business metric - our clients did. So we aligned ourselves to move the needle of making our work more measurable in line with our client objectives, just like our counterparts in product companies did.

So we did the next best thing - Stealing. We stole the best parts of the product management discipline and plugged them into our workflow. And lest we got caught in the act stealing, we came up with a new name for it - we called it Business Experience Design or BXD. I know, I see your eyes rolling on yet another crummy acronym. We started plugging in market research cycles in our discovery phase to frame our problem in the market we would launch, indulge in regular testing cycles with our early customers, and then go to market with measurable metrics, so we could quantify the success of the work we were doing in line with our client's business goals.

And that is where we are. And that is what has worked for me personally - masquerading, lying and stealing. I know - completely unexpected advice from a guy whose hair color changes with the weather. But this is something I would have secretly wished somebody had told 15 years earlier to a 21-year-old me. The younger, black-haired, good-looking me. But all is not lost. I get to tell you this - so hopefully you can make some good out of this. But before you take those three words out of context - before you go home and tell your parents "Renga bhai ne bola hai mask pehenne ka, jhoot bolne ka aur chori karne ka" Mumbaiya style - let me provide some perspective in the world that you would be stepping out into shortly.

You would be expected to spend as much time communicating your work as much as you did while designing it. So be prepared to MASQUERADE, to wear a mask, that of an expert communicator, who describes their design work in line with their client's business goals and objectives.

You would be expected to be knowledgeable and conversant not only with the world that exists around your clients today, but also with the possibilities that emerge tomorrow - so be immensely prepared to LIE about a world that does not exist yet, but portrays promise and hope, even if it exists today only in your designs.

And finally, remember that your clients may not always get design. But they get their business. And they would expect you to speak their business too, because that is the only language they understand. So when you describe your work, be prepared to STEAL your client's language. And make it your own.

Why go through this whole charade, you ask?

Because your work as a designer in the real world would never be done alone, in a silo, in a cave.

Because when you design, you would be rubbing shoulders with people from various walks of life, who think they can change the world.

And they need your help. In moving the needle. In shaping the conversation. In making this present world with all its constraints and challenges believe that there is hope for a kinder, more empathetic, a more liveable world.

A world, which doesn't yet exist today, but will emerge tomorrow. All because of the efforts made by one master masquerader, liar and thief - YOU.

Thank you.