Framing Design Leadership — Pt.1

Tackling the invisibility of design leadership

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s what Newtons’ third law of motion states. But when it comes to a negative experience, I like to believe that more good than bad can come from it.

Recently, I had a knock back. In truth, I’ve had a few recently. Those that have read some of my recent posts will have guessed that.

Rather than getting angry. Rather than getting depressed. I like to bounce back. So, this post intros an effort that Martina Hodges-Schell and I have just started. We’re going to be developing things further this week. Using conversations with peers at Interaction 18 conference in Lyon to discuss design leadership.

Increasing leadership invisibility

More and more designers are getting nudged up the mountain of leadership. Incentivised by money, power, and greater influence. Or maybe, just helping others, doing better for our clients. Our motivations are likely to be different. But orgs often treat people the same. Whatever the motivations, there is often the dream to ‘amplify design’.

But there’s a huge set of challenges, that we didn’t see from below. New obstacles to navigate through. Politics. An incredible fickle market to recruit from. Cool companies using treats luring our teams away from us like child abducters. A senior management team with different motivations. Different understandings of what it takes to be a design leader. What your organisation needs. And the big one. A huge gravitational force dragging back down to the fields of design delivery below.

An early metaphor for design leadership

The big challenge is that all this wasn’t visible to us when we were down below. We had enough to worry about. Demanding team members. An ever changing field. Client or departmental pressure. We didn’t always respect the work our managers and leaders were doing. For us. For the organisation. For clients. It was largely invisible. Like dark matter.

At last November’s Leading Design conference, design leaders from across the globe gathered together. They put their hearts on their sleeves. Provoked tears in our eyes. Shared wisdom from their struggles.

Adam Cutler from IBM describing importance of humility

We were all struggling. All making it up as we went along. With the guidance and support of coaches, each other, and a lot of trial and error. Much of this invisibility was given form. But we wanted to do more.

Motivating the framing of design leadership

Early thoughts on audiences for our work

When we sat down last week, we wanted to go back to some of our work the preceding week. To come back to what we wanted to achieve with our efforts.

We resolved to something like the following:

  • Help others understand what design leaders do, and why
  • Help organisations identify what they need when hiring or promoting people as design leaders
  • Help design leaders understand where they are and where they should invest to get to where they want to be
  • Help aspiring design leaders understand what it takes to be a design leader in the future

Bringing form to design leadership — an early framework

Our previous session had exposed huge lists across several key aspects. Leadership roles. Leadership styles. Skills, capabilities and characteristics. How we represent ourselves to others. Responsibilities. What design leaders need. What barriers stand in their way. The value of design leadership.

Our lists were huge. We have a google doc of it, if you’re interested. And we wanted to get feedback and input from others in Lyon. So we needed to distil into an inaccurate model. A strawman if you like. A prototype. Stimulus for discussion. You know what I mean, right? I’m just trying to reinforce that we are not saying this is right.

Early distillation against typical design leader roles

We came up with a series of axes that we could use to map expectations, comfort levels, relationships, and investment areas. Have a look at the following to understand our first punt.

An early framework for discussion
  • Vision 
    Creating the direction and plan for the design offer, team and its culture
  • Community
    Engaging the external community of designers, peers, and different industry sectors
  • Advocacy
    Promoting (selling) the design offer and the team around the business, to clients or to partners
  • Capabilities
    Mapping, tracking, resourcing, developing capabilities and skills across the organisation
  • Team 
    Growing, supporting, nurturing managing the design team of individuals
  • Collaboration 
    Working with peers, other departments, other disciplines, other styles to get work done
  • Quality
    Encouraging quality of product/service thinking (doing right thing) and design solution delivery details
  • Practice 
    Developing a toolkit for the team. Methods, techniques, principles, the environment and processes the team needs to function most effectively and efficiently.

We need your help to break and remake the model

We want to hear from you if you have had experience as one of the following. A creative director. Design director. VP. Head of. Lead. A Director. A design manager. Or a hirer, or peer of one of those.

We want to use the model as a way to spark the conversation. To gather interesting anecdotes, data, perspectives. To challenge our hypotheses.

In fact, in the past couple of days, we’ve already started. It’s been really interesting.

If you’re in Lyon for Interaction 18 — come grab myself or Martina for a chat.

Or if you have comments and thoughts, share them here, and/or get in touch.

NB, This is what we look like on a good day

Martina Hodges-Schell, Head of Product Design at Pivotal Labs
Jason Mesut, Director of Resonant Design and Innovation
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