Light from the noonday sun lit up dust motes floating in the quiet conference room—empty except for our agency portfolio case, heavy with design concepts affixed to black board.
We'd agreed to convene this quick lunch meeting, sans any actual food or drink, to discuss our agreed-upon direction for a national advertising campaign with our client's supervisor. We had worked on the project for five weeks, moving from a formal creative brief to high-level design concepts to the in-depth logistical planning required to pay off our creative approach.
The supervisor we were meeting with had been CC'd on every email that contained a critical deliverable—five, to date—and all of us, including our direct client contact, viewed this get-together as a chance for us to unpack any of the perceived nuances in those deliverables, answer questions, and receive a final blessing to roll everything into execution.
However, by the time the meeting began (a good 20 minutes late) and we walked through the introductory slides that recapped our agreed-upon approach from the creative brief, we were on much shakier ground that we'd anticipated.
Or, to be clearer, volumes were contained in the following statement from the supervisor: "I'm not sure I agree with your assertions about the audience we're trying to target. But keep going… I'd at least like to see the creative you've come up with."
At this point, we weren't walking on eggshells. We were trying to keep the yolks from gumming up our beards. Five weeks of work were at risk of evaporating, all because the most important stakeholder on the project—someone whom we'd assumed was to remain informed of project progress—hadn't reviewed a key document at the start of the project. We'd never received written feedback from them about the creative brief, and that was what was now being called into question.
These kinds of situations happen all the time to working designers. They are so common that there are specific methods that savvy design professionals use to keep them from happening. One of these methods is building a RACI matrix.
Who's responsible? Who's accountable?
When starting a design engagement with a new client organization, it's important to gauge whom within that company—or outside it—has the authority to influence the outcome of your project. If you have more than one direct client with approving authority, you should consider drawing up a quick RACI matrix for the project.
A RACI matrix is a simple matrix that includes the project deliverables down the left-hand column, and across the top row all of the people that are part of your project team—both stakeholders on the client side and also from the designer's team. You then fill the matrix with the appropriate code (R/A/C/I) based on that person's required level of involvement for each deliverable.
RACI stands for the following:
- Responsible: Those who are responsible must negotiate with those who are accountable, consulted, and informed to provide you with actionable feedback for specific project deliverables. Your day-to-day contact, who is working alongside you to achieve the desired project outcome, is often the person who is deemed responsible for all deliverables—but this is not always the case.
- Approver (i.e. the approving authority for your project outcome): The person within your client organization that has the final say on a specific deliverable. Sometimes, this is a manager- or director-level employee above your everyday client contact. Sometimes, it's the CEO of the company. It may vary, depending on the type of deliverable.
- Consulted: People that are shown your work, and can offer a point of view in the room with those whom are responsible and accountable; however, they do not provide the final say on the project direction and/or the deliverable in question.
- Informed: People that are shown your work, but are not asked for a point of view. They generally only care that you finish the project or fulfill a stated milestone.
Note that the roles can shift from deliverable to deliverable based on each project participant's domain of expertise. This is especially true when working on a large-scale website redesign or a web application that touches on multiple departments within a client organization.
Common pitfalls that RACI can help you avoid
By creating a RACI matrix, you can better plan how you involve your clients in the project work. They can also help you identify the following common pitfalls when starting work on a project:
Assigning multiple approvers to a project. Often, large client organizations will identify multiple, designated approvers. This forces you to design to a committee, which is something you should avoid at all costs. At the start of the project, whittle that team of approvers down to one key person that holds the final say over the project, and place the other people as contributors. The final, shared point of view about your work is then owned by your contact responsible for completing the project.
Placing approvers last in the decision chain. Ever had to present to group after group of contributors, only to never reach the stakeholder who actually holds sway over whether your project lives or dies? Accountable clients are often clued into project progress so far down the project path, the work-in-progress is a shadow of the ideas you'd originally presented. In the example chart I'd included above, the CEO was informed of the research brief, but was an approver of the research results. Should s/he have reviewed the brief as a contributor? An approver? Be mindful of what deliverables require the highest levels of approval.
Being unaware of an approver. Clients that claim responsibility over a deliverable can also assert that they are the final approver—but this isn't always the case. An investor, boss, or co-worker might hold more sway on the approval of specific deliverables.
Being buried by contributors. Everyone that's helping out with the high-profile project wants to "add value" to your design thinking. However, no one is sifting through those ideas and filtering them to ensure that the final work product is focused and coherent. This is not wholly the designer's burden to bear—your client that is responsible for the project must also play an active role in triaging input from their organization.
Gleaning the information necessary to build a RACI matrix
In the situation I'd described at the start of this piece, we had been aware that this client was an approver, and had shared with him each deliverable via email. However, we had also thought that since we had received no feedback from our client that was responsible for the project, we were two thumbs up on the provided approach.
In reality, the approver had been buried in other projects and never reviewed the creative brief—assuming that the responsible client had communicated the appropriate background information to us.
Great project managers, as well as savvy designers, need to clearly state which stakeholders should provide approval and/or input with every design deliverable. If you have documented, in writing, the key approver for each deliverable—as well as the responsible party within your client organization for garnering that approval, augmented by those parties that should have been consulted for input—then you won't have to worry about simple miscommunications turning into major mishaps.
When starting a new project, ask your client for help in determining whom is accountable over the course of the project. Tell them that in order to expedite project execution, you'd like to establish with them the key approver and other contributors. Then make sure those stakeholders provide their input and sign off on those key deliverables as part of the project process.
This approach can be a bit daunting when you're dealing with a very large client organization or complex office politics. In those cases, project managers and designers use some of the following tactics to glean the necessary information to build a RACI matrix.
Ask your client for an org chart. Take a look through the org chart and determine key managers—both laterally and higher up on the food chain. Probe as part of conversations regarding project planning which of those managers may be approvers, contributors, or informed participants.
If they won't give you an org chart, go and look up the relevant info on the Internet. C-level executives and those people that fill director-level positions are often a Google search away. Their names may never come up over the course of fulfilling your project work—but if they do, you'll have an inkling of what sway they may hold over your project outcome.
Be aware of all people CC'd on emails and invited to meetings, especially before the work begins. Sometimes, we meet large numbers of clients when dating a prospective client, then end up fulfilling the work with a smaller team. But don't assume that any of those stakeholders that you met in the past won't show up in the future.
Note who's signing the contract and the checks. Those in accounting are always informed participants in your project, as they need to know when you're done (so they can pay you!). If your client contract is signed by the CEO, they may also be the approver on your actual work.
Ask your client to document who will take responsibility for the project in case of an emergency, as well as approve key deliverables. This information can help you clearly establish the hierarchy of your client organization, while also sending a clear signal to all project stakeholders that you're taking a high-level view of how the project will be fulfilled within the stated timeline and budget.
After you've built your RACI matrix, stick to it. Require the appropriate stakeholders to be present for your in-person presentations. Set up a formal approval process, receiving the right input by the right stakeholders at the right time.
Making a RACI matrix may seem like a lot of effort to expend before you begin a new project. However, using this tool will help you manage the implicit politics of any large client organization.