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.

Design at Scale is People!

I believe the single most interesting challenge and opportunity for design as a practice and function is to figure out how to operate at scale. Upon reflection, our book was essentially about setting up your organization to deliver design at scale.

Much of “design at scale” discussion is dominated by design systems (most of which are just code-enabled style guides), because it’s an easy thing to talk about and feeds into the corporate desire for increased productivity. However, starting with systems runs exactly contrary to the true value that design brings to companies, which is a humanistic and creative problem-framing and problem-solving approach. In other words, the focus on systems could undercut design’s potential within organizations.

I am grateful for Adaptive Path’s UX Week to provide me a platform to share my thoughts and experience with scaling design, in a talk titled “Design at Scale is People!” I hope you enjoy it, and I’d love to hear any feedback you have about it.

Peter Merholz // Design At Scale is People! // UX Week 2018 from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

 

Conduct better designer portfolio reviews with this tool

TL;DR: Here’s a Portfolio Review–Set-up and Assessment Tool for you to use.


A couple years ago I contracted with Capital One to help bring some order to their rapidly expanding design organization. I focused on recruiting and hiring practices–when you’ve got ~40 open reqs, you want to make those processes as efficient and effective as possible.

Key to any design recruiting process is the portfolio review, where a designer walks people through a selection of their work, and the thinking and activity that went into creating it.

Every interview loop at Capital One includes two behavioral interviews (BIs), which have a formal and repeatable structure, and require training to administer. It turned out the topics of one of the behavioral interviews was similar to what you’d get out of a portfolio review, and in an effort to reduce the time on-site (which could get up to 7 or 8 hours) I had hoped to replace a BI with the portfolio review.

I worked with Capital One’s HR team on this, and learned that, to be a worthwhile tool, it needed rigor and repeatability. This was key to removing bias from the process, focusing it on skills and experience, not personality and camaraderie.

I had never conducted ‘rigorous’ portfolio reviews. I’d always just had a candidate show their work, and ask some questions to clarify the candidate’s role, and that was that. Such a loose approach was not going to fly here.

The goal was to make something that ensured fairness in the process, and that, regardless of who was providing feedback, the assessment would be the same.

I asked the folks at Capital One if I could share the tool, and they said yes. So here you go:

Portfolio Review – Set Up and Assessment Tool

The idea is to not just have it be a free for all. The candidate preparation helps candidates know what to expect and how to shape their presentation. The suggested prompts provide a guide to the interview team for how to probe in a productive fashion

And key to making this work is the assessment tool. When I first drafted it, for each skill (visual design, interaction design, communication, etc.) you could score someone 1 to 5. However, there was no guide as to what a “1” would be or a “5”, and so it was too open for interpretation.

So I worked with craft leaders throughout Capital One to come up with language for these skills, to provide clear guidance in scoring candidates. That, for me, was the key ‘innovation’ in this approach.

I share it with the hopes that this helps make designer interview processes better everywhere. Feel free to copy it and make it your own!

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.

 

New Team (and Role) for Big Design Orgs: Design Management (and its head)

(This post was developed with input from Kristin. Like how we wrote the whole book!)

(Also, this post is very much about an idea that is a Work in Progress. I’d love feedback to help sharpen it.)

Design organizations, particularly ones that grow beyond 100 or so (and definitely beyond 150), find themselves in unchartered territory.  To support a team at that scale requires establishing a set of roles and practices that are distinct from the practice of design, and serve to enable the health and effectiveness of the design organization. Looking around, I see new roles and sub-teams, such as Design Operations, Design Education, Design Program Management, and People Development. “Design Operations” is emerging as the oversight to address all of this, but I think that’s a mistake, as the word “operations” suggests something more strictly mechanical than what we’re talking about.

What I see is an opportunity for a new sub-org within design teams, Design Management, lead by a new role of Head of Design Management. (Let it be known that Kristin has been arguing for the role/org of “Design Management” for years now, and until recently I’ve fought her on this. I’m evolving.) This role serves as a near-peer to the Head of Design (near because they still report to them), and it addresses all the managerial and operational challenges that a design organization faces at scale, while the Head of Design, and their other reports (Design Directors, etc.) are focused on design leadership and delivering high quality work.

Here’s how I picture the scope of the organization:

designmanagement

It begins with People, under which there are the three Rs or Recruiting, Retention, and Reputation (I’ve taken this directly from Kristin). This is what tracks most closely with traditional HR and people management concerns – recruiting and hiring, job descriptions, performance reviews and promotions, developing a “talent brand.” The ultimate objective is Make Designers Happier, which is shown through such measures as speed of hiring (from posting a job to that person’s first day), internal referral rates, internal surveys of employee satisfaction, and retention rates.

Then you have Practice, where the work is to build the skills and capabilities of the design team. In support of an objective of Make Designers Better are a suite of activities dedicated to the content of the work—professional development and skills-building, developing content, training and education, codifying process and methodology, and hosting internal events. I’m stuck on how to measure improvement here. Much of the impact of this will be shown in the employee happiness and retention numbers.

Finally there’s Program, which is also what many think of when talking about “design operations,” and the idea here is to Make Designers More Effective. Program management helps design with planning and prioritization activities (including forecasting headcount needs), measuring effectiveness, standardizing tools and services that the design team uses, wrangling facilities to ensure the best working environments, evolving corporate policies that may obstruct the best design practice (particularly around user research), and owning the contractual relationships with external staffing, whether agencies or individual contractors. For measurement, I’ve used internal surveys for cross-functional teams to assess their satisfaction working with the Design team, but I think there should be more. An effective organization is one where the Design team is really humming along, feeling productive, seeing their work in the world. “Amount of work shipped” may be an indicator, though I’m wary of quantity measures.

Originally I had “Culture” as a component of Design Management, thinking primarily on how culture is articulated, codified, and transmitted throughout the design organization. Upon further reflection, I’ve set it apart as a joint responsibility with design leadership.

Roles in this Org

It’s not until a design organization gets to be about 100 that you need to consider a distinct Design Management sub-org. Up until then, the People and Practice activities are the responsibility of practicing design leadership, and there should be a team of Design Program Managers paired with these design leaders (typically at Director-level, maybe at Manager) who handle all the stuff under Program.

Once you get north of 100, and definitely beyond 150, economies of scale set in where it makes sense to have people dedicated to People and Practice, particularly if the design team is continuing on an aggressive growth trajectory. For the former, you may have a Head of People Development (such as Laura Kirkwood’s role on Capital One’s very large design team), and for the latter, a head of Design Education (my pal Billie Mandel is in this role at Atlassian). And as these teams continue to scale, these heads, in turn, may need their own small teams to keep things going.

Where is the Design System?

Conversations about design operations inevitably turn to design systems, which are not explicitly called out here. I consider a company’s design system a “tool and service”, and thus partly a responsibility of the Program team. From what I’ve seen and heard, the most successful design systems (particularly in large companies) are built and run by fully staffed cross-functional product teams, such as the one that maintains Polaris at Shopify.

What Do You Think? What Do You Do?

I’m keen on hearing about other models for addressing the organizational, managerial, and operational concerns of a design team. Please let us know in the comments!

Stop separating product and marketing design–how rebranding Snag showed me it’s all one design

On my personal site, http://peterme.com/, I’ve written a four-part series on how we rebranded Snagajob to Snag (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4). In the context of “org design for design orgs,” there’s a key learning worth sharing.

Some context will help. Traditionally, when building internal design capabilities, companies distinguished design for marketing, which would report up through a marketing executive, and design for the product, which reported up through product management or engineering. This may have made sense in a pre-Web era where what was developed, and how it was packaged, advertised, and sold, were vastly different activities. Product design involved industrial design, hardware design, user interface design. Marketing design involved the design of the packaging, the sales support material, advertising across a variety of media. These activities were often outsourced to different kinds of firms that specialized in one or the other.

In this post-Web, post-mobile era, where products are becoming services, and the media and modes of use are the same as the media and modes of marketing, these distinctions become blurred. Old Webheads like me saw this repeatedly in the early days of digital transformation. I worked with a number of traditional companies that had their marketing team in charge of the website, because they initially saw it as a platform for acquiring customers, only to then realize that the website was also a way for existing customers to conduct business (think online banking). These companies would have wholly different teams working on the “public” and “private” parts of the website, which would lead to vastly different designs and experiences pre- and post-login.

As digital services evolve, these distinctions are meaningless. Is the home page of Snag a marketing page or a product page? The answer is yes. But if you have two different teams, reporting up to different executives, working on it, they’re distinct mandates (“drive acquisition!” “drive engagement!”) will conflict, and will cause consternation.

This is why, in the book, we argue for taking a service design mindset, one that orients on the customer journey, and that recognizes that “marketing” and “product” are simply way stations on that customer journey, and what matters more is orchestrating that entire experience.

Getting back to brand

In rebranding Snag, particularly in developing a new brand identity, I had marketing and product design leaders involved throughout. And I couldn’t have imagined it any other way – while marketing is responsible for how we communicate about our business, the product designers are responsible for the day-to-day interactions with our services, and those interactions define how people experience our brand. It might seem obvious to say, but I feel obliged to say it, as I know of rebrands that were wholly run out of marketing, where the product development teams were at best a stakeholder, and typically simply a recipient, of a style guide built without their direct input.

Having marketing and product people work closely together to build our new style guide and design system made the brand identity work much stronger. And this works best when those marketing and product designers are on the same team, with the same boss, and have developed great working relationships over time, and aren’t just thrown together for the first time on something as hairy and arduous as a rebrand.