Meetings are dead, long live meetings: why we’ve started doing design standups

Behind the scenes at FreeAgent: how do you embed designers in different teams and still produce great work as a design team?

Scaling our design team

It’s no secret that scaling teams is a problem. At FreeAgent we’ve done a lot of it recently — in the past two years, we’ve grown from 53 employees to over 110. The design team, however, hasn’t doubled in size — instead, we’ve embedded designers within new project teams, focusing on specific product and marketing strands.

This was a big change — historically, the FreeAgent design team tended to operate as a single entity. Designers worked on projects as a team, rather than as individuals. We hammered out the fundamentals of design problems together before splitting up to prototype and develop those ideas. Working so closely together gave us great consistency. The team was well aligned and produced some great work.

We were now doing a great job of talking to the rest of the company, but weren’t able to spend much time talking to each other.

However, while the switch to embedding designers within teams was excellent at fostering domain knowledge and local expertise (crucial traits in our industry), it meant that the design team suddenly felt like less of a unit. We were now doing a great job of talking to the rest of the company, but weren’t able to spend much time talking to each other.

Work happens daily, meetings happened weekly

We used to have two weekly design team meetings: a general team meeting on a Monday to run through the upcoming week’s work, and an hour-long “Design Crit” session every Wednesday morning to offer feedback on each other’s designs.

The team meeting tended to devolve into an uninspiring slog through everyone’s todo list, and our crit sessions were often a mad rush to critique 10 different things in 60 minutes, or a five minute show and tell of all the work that had been shipped the day before.

The formal structure we implemented actually stopped us from getting help when we most needed it.

It became apparent that one session a week was not sufficient to get timely feedback on our work — we needed decisions and feedback every day, and often ended up shipping without enough team feedback or holding fire until the next meeting. Because there was a designated time for feedback, it sometimes felt like you were interrupting your colleagues if you needed ad-hoc conversations about work at other times. The formal structure we implemented actually stopped us from getting help when we most needed it.

The penny drops

So what did we do about it?

The first thing that changed was our team meeting — to avoid a laundry list of tasks, we switched from the unstructured “what’s happening” chat to a much more directed format, based on Patrick Lencioni’s “Weekly Tactical” meeting.

In our very first meeting we discovered that the entire team was dissatisfied with our feedback process.

This time would be used to talk about our processes, instead of our work — a place to consider questions like: what are we doing as a team that is good? Where are the problems? What can we do about them?

It was a revelation. In our very first meeting we discovered that the entire team was dissatisfied with our feedback process. The loop was too long, the format too inflexible, and it was holding us back.

We identified the root of the problem: there wasn’t enough dedicated daily time to work on problems with other designers. We’d all focused so much on working well in our project teams that we’d lost the value of regular contact with other designers. We needed more frequent, shorter crit sessions.

But when should they happen? Should they be every day? Could they be ad-hoc? Would adding more scheduled sessions lead to meeting hell?

Standing up

Almost all of the teams at FreeAgent (not just the engineering teams) have a daily standup. In fact, the design team was unusual in that it didn’t have a standup. So we tried it.

We found having a daily standup gives us a reason to talk to the rest of the team every day, regardless of what we are each working on. It’s a great opportunity to raise a discussion or solicit feedback from other designers. We also use standup to schedule time later in the day for more collaboration — we’re all very conscious of the loss of productivity that interruptions can bring.

Now, standup may involve things like:

  • A quick update on work you’ve just done and are about to do
  • Showing something you’re working on
  • Discussing an idea with some or all of the team
  • Organising large or small crit sessions for later

The best of both worlds

We’ve been doing design standups for around two months now, and so far, they’re helping us get the best of both worlds — designers are working well within their project teams, and we’re also now back in the pattern of regularly collaborating with each other.

We transformed one of the most frustrating parts of our week into one of the most valuable parts of our day.

Now, every morning we’re seeing each other’s work and how it progresses — we can contribute more throughout the design process rather than just coming in at an arbitrary point. This means that we’re able to give much better feedback, and give it at the right time. We transformed one of the most frustrating parts of our week into one of the most valuable parts of our day.

The biggest lesson we’ve learned from all of this is to regularly review our processes. We now keep a closer watch for things that are not working, and adjust accordingly. The combination of a weekly tactical meeting and daily standups creates a great forum for raising those issues.

Best of all, the design team is happier. We all want to do our best work, to solve real-world problems and make our customers’ lives much easier, and now we’re much more able to do that as a team and as individuals.

Paddy Duke is a Senior Product Designer at FreeAgent, who make accounting software for freelancers and small businesses.
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