The Most Important Role In Your Design Org: Team Lead

Discussions of design leadership tend to look upward, toward the executives and directors who sit atop the organization. And while those folks are indeed important, their efforts overshadow what I’ve realized is the most impactful role in a design organization: the “lower-middle management” of the Design Team Lead.

Defining Team Lead

To make sure we have a common understanding, let me illustrate. Here’s a design organization close to 50 people, lead by a VP, who in turn has Design Directors (DD) reporting to her, and they in turn each have three Team Leads (TL) reporting to them.

teamlead

A Team Lead is, well, just that: the leader of a specific design team. In this model, each design team has 4-7 team members, spans a range of skills (strategy, research, content, interaction design, visual design, prototyping), and works cross-functionally across a contiguous chunk of the experience, illustrated here in a generic e-commerce example:

crossfunction

There are 5 squads dedicated to different aspects of the e-commerce experience. Each squad has a Product Manager (PM) and some usually around 6 to 8 Engineers (E). Instead of designers embedded in squads, they work across a range of squads (we explain that in Chapter 4 of the book). The Team Lead does double duty as both a leader, peering with a Director of Product (DP), and a Director of Engineering (DE), and working with a squad (here Search/Browse).

What’s crucial to recognize is that Team Leads are the creative leaders closest to delivery. The members of their teams are doing the detailed design and content work that will be shipped. Because Team Leads have to have a handle on everything their team members are doing, they are in the challenging situation of spanning the range of conceptual levels from Strategy through Structure to the specifics of the Surface, as shown here:

scope3Team Leads may find themselves in subsequent meetings where they’re at the 1,000ft level of discussion strategy, to the 1ft level of pixels and copy, to the 50ft level of a solid flow and structure. They must navigate these discussions without losing their place or getting the bends.

Coach, Diplomat, and Champion

Given this range of activity, Team Leads must excel in three archetypes of the design leader: Coach (managing down); Diplomat (managing across); and Champion (managing up and out).

As a Coach, a Team Lead does what it takes to get the most out of the team. They recognize that the team is not an extension of themselves, but a unit of individuals where, when orchestrated well, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. The Coach establishes the parameters for success, creates a Big Picture vision that directs the team’s efforts, provides guidance in technique, and holds team members accountable when they don’t measure up.

As a Diplomat, the Team Lead often finds themselves in challenging discussions where other functions are asking the design team to behave in a way that is suboptimal. The Diplomat must assume positive intent on everyone’s part, and educate non-designers to help them understand the nature of Design’s contribution, how Design works best, and how to integrate it in the flow of cross-functional work. The Diplomat needs to strike a balance of being a cross-team player, with some flexibility in their approach, while not being such a pushover, or get-along-to-get-along, that they neglect their values.

balance

As a Champion, a Team Lead manages up and serves as their team’s evangelist and protector. Executives and other stakeholders will regularly ask the team to do more than they have capacity for—the Champion must be comfortable with the word, “No.” Executives will fly in for the dreaded “swoop-and-poop,” and the Team Lead can either step aside, and let the crap hit their team (demoralizing them), or they will step up to be the 💩 ☂️, protecting their team’s good work and showing they have their team’s collective back.

Leverage is Power

It is because of all that pivots around them, from the details of delivery to the connecting with big picture strategy, that Team Leads are the crucial (literally, at the crux) role in a design organization. Look at the cross-team diagram above: 6 designers are working with 30-40 engineers, which suggests design efforts have greater leverage. That leverage means a successful Team Lead amplifies their team’s abilities and wields influence throughout the broader organization. But it also means that a weak Team Lead creates a black hole, dragging down not just their team, but their whole part of the organization.

Team Leads Are the Pivot Point for Scale

If you’re in a design organization that’s growing, Team Leads are important not only for the reasons listed above, but two more that are essential for successful scaling.

The first is easy to explain: Team Leads are your front line of hiring. They are motivated to make their teams great, and strong team leads will excel as hiring managers. It was because of the strong team leads I hired that I was able to scale my Groupon design organization from 25 to 55 in 18 months.

The second is a little more conceptual. As the organization grows, and their efforts are spread across more and more teams, Team Leads are essential for maintaining coherence across an increasingly complex experience. Continuing our e-commerce example above, let’s say the company has grown, and there are more product squads:

teams

In our cross-functional diagram earlier, I showed how the design team works across a contiguous aspect of the experience. That should remain true as the org scales:

experienceWe can’t expect every designer to work with every other designer. But, as the arrows suggest, we can ask these three Team Leads to coordinate with one another ensuring coherence across all these squads.

Support Your Local Team Lead

Hiring Team Leads, or promoting people into this role, must be done with extreme care and high expectations. There’s too much at stake to place someone in this position who isn’t ready yet. Senior leadership (VPs and Directors of design) must expend extra effort to recruit, train, and support Team Leads.

That effort, though, will pay off. A transformative experience occurred for me when I was at Groupon. After spending 9 months recruiting and hiring high-quality design leads around whom I could build teams, I found that how I spent my time shifted. Before, I expended much of my effort on recruiting and hiring, management, and operations. I didn’t have the bandwidth for the kind of creative leadership the organization expected of me. Once we had those leaders in place, I could shift my focus to areas that warranted the attention of a VP — strategy and vision; specific high-value hires; incorporating other practices such as creative technology. Basically, with strong Team Leads, the organization can almost run itself.

If I were to write a second edition of Org Design for Design Orgs…

It’s been about two years since Org Design For Design Orgs came out. After having worked with it, taught it, and spoken with many design leaders and seen many design orgs, there’s a list of things I know I’d want to address if we wrote a second edition (note: no plans to do so).

Make dual-track career growth more explicit. In the book, we presented a single levels framework, with the idea that it could support career growth either as a manager, or an individual contributor. In retrospect, those paths are different enough that it warrants calling out, as I have in the levels framework we developed at Snagajob.  I’m also intrigued with the work Athenahealth did on establishing “Dual Track Leadership.”

In the “evolution of design organizations,” go beyond stage 5, to at least stage 7. We charted 5 stages of organizational evolution, from the “initial pair,” all the way to “distributed leadership,” where there’s about 70-80 people on the team. We yadda-yadda’d beyond that, saying, “just keep doing this, but more.” Since writing the book, there have been an increasing number of design teams that go beyond 100, and it’s clear that there are patterns in that development. It’s worth addressing what comes into place when the team hits 150 (stage 6), as  that’s when Design Operations / Design Management becomes quite robust, and again when it gets to about 250 (stage 7), where it can support deeper craft leadership, “principal” or “distinguished” designers, and also when it’s time to consider–should it remain as a single centralized org?

Dig into the crucial role of the Team Lead. In chapter 4, we dedicate a page to the role of the Team Lead, including the line, “the best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman.” That line became the seed for my talk on design leadership, and the process of writing that talk, and sharing these ideas at conferences and inside companies, has shown me that there’s much more to share about this crucial role. In fact, I consider it the most important role in a design organization, more than any VP or Director.  (That will be the subject of a future post on this site).

Go deeper on Design Operations / Design Management as a role and practice. Though the book has been called “the bible of design operations,” we don’t really tackle Design Operations / Design Management head on in a thorough way, particularly around matters of Program Management (budgeting, scheduling, coordinating efforts), Education (internal training and skills building), and Measurement (tools, systems, and approaches for understanding the impact of the work).

Do a better job distinguishing between Product and Communication Design. In our utopian desire to merge all design activities under the rubric of “service design,” and have product designers and communication designers working side-by-side on design teams, we neglected to delve into the very real differences between delivering product design and communication design. They operate on different cadences, work with different parts of the organization, and most of their time, simply don’t interact. That said, there is real value in having product and communication design on the same team (it was essential when we rebranded Snag). This is still a point of contention for many design orgs, and so warrants more honest, pointed discussion rather than our hand-waving of “it’ll be great”.

Soft power as a tool for distributed teams. However much I believe a centralized design organization to be the right way to go for, like, 95% of design teams, the reality is that many function in some kind of distributed, federated, siloed fashion. For those organizations, I’ve been applying the notion of “soft power” as a tool to get these distinct design teams aligned with a common goal, purpose, and set of practices.

Even more about recruiting and hiring–Portfolio Assessment Tool and design exercises. Even though it’s the longest chapter in the book, it turns out there’s still more to say about recruiting and hiring practices for design. The community still is at odds about the value of design exercises (though we’re not). Also, since writing the book, I’ve had the opportunity to craft a Portfolio Assessment Tool that brings a needed level of rigor to the practice–a clearer set of prompts to guide the discussion, and a guided worksheet to aid people in assessing a portfolio as to remove bias and focus on the content of the work.

What do you think?

So, these are the ideas I’ve had. And I’m sure Kristin has a bunch of things she’s considering. And I am wondering: for those who’ve read the book, what more could we address that would help you?

 

 

Read about athenahealth’s smart, pragmatic approach to scaling design within an agile product organization

For the kind of nerds who dig this website, I suggest visiting athenahealth’s Experience Design’s recently updated Medium site, with 5 articles related to design org matters.

Of particular note are:

  • Embedding Product Design in a Large Agile Organization“, which addresses the challenge of having ~85 designers work across >200 scrum teams while maintaining quality and not losing their minds
  • “How we approach DesignOps at athenahealth”, with the different functions DesignOps fills (measurement, research at scale, and design systems), in an attempt to realize efficiencies in order to deliver in an organization where the ratios conspire against you (that whole 85 designers across over 200 scrum teams thing).

There’s good stuff here, and it’s all the better as it’s real deal (actual application of different org models and structures), recognizes initial shortcomings (they iterated on their dual-track design leadership ladder), and offers details that can help others figure out how to begin considering these approaches on their teams.

 

Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, Architect – My talk from Leading Design

In October, I gave a new talk titled Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, Architect, where I dissect these four archetypes of the design leader, and share the difficult news that, in order to fully succeed, that design leader must embrace all of them. It’s my first new material in a couple of years, and though I ended up having to speed through it at the end (I typically put too much stuff in a new talk), I think it came out well.

Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, and Architect: The Leveraged Design Leader: Peter Merholz, Leading Design 2017 from Clearleft on Vimeo.

Pretty much every talk was worth watching. Some personal favorites include Stuart Frisby sharing his experience growing design at Booking.com from 6 to 100 (and beyond), Kim Lenox’s frank sharing of how her personal growth allowed her to become a better leader, Ben Terrett’s funny and real grappling with being the bottleneck, and Cap Watkins’ confessional on the neuroses of the design VP.

Some videos to queue up for holiday viewing!