Coaching Creative Teams:
Adjust your management style throughout the design process to get better outcomes.
Head of Design, Asana
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I enjoy managing creative people, and how managing creatives is different from managing those in less creatively intense roles. One thing that I observe is that what creative people need from me as a mentor and coach changes drastically throughout their design cycle. Generally speaking, there are 5 phases to the design cycle: discovery, defining, design, development, and deployment. Given that each team I work with is at a different phase in their creative process, it’s important for me to tune my style several times throughout the day. As I begin a 1:1 or feedback session with a project team, I’ll think about where they are in the creative process and tailor my contributions accordingly. I find that this helps keep the team more energized and leads to better design outcomes.
In the discovery phase, I’m in the position of championing a project. Here I’m selling it to the team, making the case for why it’s important. I’ll explain why the particular project is critical to users, where the creative freedom is in the project, and why I’m personally excited about it. My goal is to generate a feeling of commitment on the part of the team. I’m hoping to give them a vision of what success looks like, and to create a sense of urgency to deliver.
Once a team has committed to the project, they next go through the process of defining the problem. In this phase, I’m watching to ensure that the team creates a framework for execution that gives them confidence. For creative teams, it’s absolutely critical to define the constraints around your work and the metrics you will use to measure success. Even in situations where the project is so large or open that there aren’t many development constraints, it’s important to create some artificial constraints to help guide thinking. I’ll work with the teams to break a long project into phases or pieces so that each problem feels easier to think through.
In the define phase, creative people can tend to feel overwhelmed, so I’m working to generate confidence and momentum. I’m also managing the team’s expectations. Often times a creative team will want to fix every problem at once. I’ll guide them to prioritize and think carefully about which part of the experience need to be outstanding, and which can be good. I’ll ask questions to help the team align on the information they should have before beginning design. What are the features people will talk about? Which pieces are critical to making an emotional connection with the user?
The biggest shift in management style for me comes from switching from the define phase to the design phase. In this phase, creative people go from being overwhelmed to having an idea that they are excited to see through to fruition. They go from needing support to feeling stifled by a manager that can be too involved. I love watching teams shift from overwhelmed to confident and obsessed, and in this phase it’s important for me to get out of the way.
When I do contribute, I encourage several options before narrowing to one solution. I coach myself to know that early ideas will be rough, and the team needs time to refine them before I might feel the impact of their idea (read: don’t be super critical or squelch ideas that just need more time). I’ll work with stakeholders to help them feel like they are part of the creative process and bought in to the proposed solution. If I’m concerned about an idea I might suggest a lightweight test to validate the idea with users. Often times in this phase there are a set of problems that have easy solutions, and a set of problems that the team is struggling with. I’ll work to create space in the project for those more difficult things, and let the team marinate on those longer in the hope that inspiration will come.
Once the project moves into development, the team begins to see how the idea feels in product. It’s a period of excitement and rapid iteration as learnings come in. During development I try to foster a feeling of oneness between the engineering team and the design team, and to provide continuous celebration during the refinement process. I’ve learned that some of the best ideas and learnings come in this phase, so it’s important to allow for iteration to the design in development. By moving to development as quickly as possible, you save creative energy to iterate in code.
As deadline pressure arises, a team can sometimes become blocked creatively. Here I help to generate ideas (even bad ones) to force the team to look at the challenge from a new angle. Other times a team can become bogged down in design details. It’s important to over communicate the vision of the project — even into the deployment phase — so that the high level vision is preserved.
In the deployment phase, many designers feel a sense of satisfaction in having delivered an improvement to the world. That said, most creative people will also feel fatigue and even disappointment — even in cases where the design outcome was extremely positive. I notice some of the most talented creative minds becoming self-critical, fixating on areas they don’t feel are good enough. In this phase I find myself recognizing and appreciating the team, revisiting the before and after of the product so that they can get a real sense of the impact they’ve made.
As managers of creative teams, it’s our role to get the best outcome for the business, the best outcome for the customer experience, and to instill confidence in our design teams so that they are in a mindset to do their best work. What can be surprising to some managers is that highly creative people feel more satisfaction in the process of designing than the completion of the work. It’s in the process of designing that we are learning. One of the most important evolutions I’ve made as a manager is to tune my coaching style depending on where the team is in the creative process, so that they get what they need when they need it. It’s thrilling for me to manage people who build new and innovative things, and I love reacting to the needs of each team each day.