Creating a dual-track design leadership structure for large teams

athenahealth provides network-enabled services for healthcare and point-of-care mobile apps to drive clinical and financial results for its hospital and ambulatory clients — we employ 85+ designers globally to support those efforts

Think of all the great designers and design leaders you’ve worked with — did they all have the same strengths and weaknesses? Would all of them make great managers? Inspiring leaders? Or were there some who were wizards of strategy, others who could execute the details with perfection, and yet others who had a knack for leading a team by balancing input with enablement?

How can we best handle these different strengths in the world of corporate promotions? The cynics might quote you the Peter Principle which states that: “people are promoted to the level of their incompetence”. A recent study looked at the promotion of successful salespeople into sales management roles and indeed they found that frequently the best performing individual contributors became the worst performing managers. It’s been headlined in the popular media as proving the Peter Principle true but the reality is more nuanced as many people know and as one of the media articles clarified, quoting a study subject who said people were “promoted not to the level of their incompetence, but rather out of the area of their competence.”

In a company where the design team needs to rehabilitate and grow a massively complex product, one that powers health care for millions of people, we can’t afford to make that mistake. We need to retain, grow and apply our best senior individual contributors, and we need the best design managers growing and guiding our teams.

Context

In a separate article we described our “design org re-organization” in response to athenahealth’s transition to true Agile and a structure centered around scrum teams. As part of the transformation we decided to reexamine our management structure and career paths. With scrum design now the foundational building block, how would design leadership ensure the design of coherent products, provide paths for different designers to grow their scope and skills, and mesh effectively with the rest of the organization?

In addition to addressing the demands of the Agile / Scrum structure, we set some targets for the new design org which included:

Create deserved focus on:

a) Applying design talent to longer range strategic work, and

b) Driving the creation and implementation of quality detailed design

— AND —

Allow different growth paths for individuals with different strengths by separating talent growth from organizational hierarchy (including making promotion less intertwined with role availability)

As we were designing our org, the product management and engineering teams were also shuffling in response to the agile transformation. We quickly realized we would need to align with our much more numerous counterpart org’s to some extent. As one might expect, product areas of 40+ scrum teams were divided up into smaller more manageable “zones” of 3–6 related scrums teams — these zones became a key organizing principle for the whole company. Additionally the engineering group decided to create distinct people leadership and technical leadership (individual contributor) career paths.

Recognizing that design is an equally technical domain we jumped on the dual-track model which HR professionals long ago determined to be a better approach for technical disciplines — learn more about the pro’s and con’s of this approach in this 2003 article.

Iteration #1

Our first attempt didn’t work — we split our roles purely along the people / technical leadership divide and though this worked reasonably well at the Product area level, where we created a Design Architect and Design Manager role, the model struggled at the Zone level. We rapidly found that scrum designers were confused about who to listen to, technical leaders (Design Theme leads) felt unempowered and the people managers (Design Guides) felt left out of the design action. We also got some “constructive” feedback from our PM and engineering counterparts — they were equally confused about who to consult for what. This last point helped us realize a key axiom: ultimately successful design impact is achieved through collaboration, so cross-functional peer partnerships are the node to design around.

Iteration #2

With this learning in mind we created two new roles at the Zone level:

  • Design Zone Leads who are tightly partnered with their Product Management and Engineering counterpart Zone Leads. They are responsible for strategy and execution for ongoing initiatives resourced with scrum teams, and have people leadership responsibilities for the scrum designers on those teams.
  • Design Discovery Leads who are assigned to complex or early initiative work. They may work closely with a Product Manager exploring a new market, or with an Engineering Architect establishing a new microservice. Either way they are focused on ensuring user needs and experiences are understood and have an advocate at the earliest and deepest strategic level as a new initiative is kicked off. Their “floating” and more project-centric resourcing allows them to help connect the dots across zones where needed, and to dive in where strategic design work is needed most.

In our largest most established Product areas we aim to have e.g. 3–4 Design Zone Leads guiding 10–12 Scrum Designers, augmented by 3 Design Discovery Leads.

An illustration of how people in each of these roles might expect to spend their time.

Growth paths

We also wanted to be able to recognize growth in capability, impact and value delivered by an individual without always needing to wait for a particular hierarchical role opening to become available. Growth is necessarily somewhat dependent on scope, but people can be promoted through several cohort levels at each tier of scope and in both the individual contributor and management tracks.

Important realities — this isn’t a magic model that solved all our problems

In this model, leadership can come through directing strategy or directing teams but it always requires influence — either influencing the design team or our colleagues throughout the company. So in all of these roles, the designer needs to partner with their engineering and product counterparts to be effective — too much designing off in a corner results in either rejection or the classic failings of waterfall.

At the scrum level, the designer works with the scrum Product Owner and senior developer. At the zone level the Design Zone Leads work closely with the equivalent Product and Engineering Zone Leads. The Discovery Leads collaborate more fluidly — going where the problem is and influencing more through the deep dive work they do than the relationships they have.

Interestingly we’ve found that whereas at this second tier, the hybrid Zone Leader is the natural partner to the other disciplines, at the Product Area level the IC Design Architect role is better positioned for that partnership. This actually makes sense — the key role for a senior Product Director is setting product vision and strategy, and this is the shared remit of the Design Architect. Their peer, the Design Manager, creates space for that work by focusing on execution and team capability. We’ll write about these senior roles in future articles but in the meantime here’s a great thought piece by Peter Merholz that gets at the topic of Design Management.

Some caveats to finish

Of course all of this only works with large co-located teams. In resourcing smaller product areas or geographical offices we’ve had to break our system and revert to more traditional singular roles. Some people are still not convinced that our smaller team numbers justify the dual-track approach — engineering has over 1000 staff, we have only 60 in our product design group — can we really support dual track? Where processes are running smoothly, design debt is low and collaboration is already strong a single track may be sustainable in the short-term. But we see less senior staff burnout, higher quality of management and greater strategic design output and impact where we take the dual track approach. It is certainly a more complex model to learn and implement but generally we’re only gaining confidence that a dual track model is a more sophisticated and effective approach to design team structure.

Have you tackled design leadership in a large team? Have you considered or tried a dual track model? Please comment below or get in touch with your experiences and learning.

We have a variety of design roles open in Boston, Austin, Bengaluru, Chennai and Pune. If you’re interested in working with us try here and here or get in touch via LinkedIn, Twitter etc.