I joined IBM Design in January of 2016. I was a fresh-faced, young designer who had come from a world of small startups and tiny teams. I knew little about enterprise companies, working with globally distributed colleagues, and what would be in store in tough battles yet to come. On my first day, I was greeted by a cheering crowd of soon-to-be familiar faces and joined a large cohort of designers who were also arriving for their first day at IBM Design.
The Patterns program consists of early-career designers. Some of these are folks who are fresh out of school or maybe had changed careers to become a designer. The first week of Patterns is purely educational. The studio comes together, a cacophonous hive of bees — sharing our craft, helpful tips, conversations, and tribal knowledge — tracing together the patterns we use to communicate, create, and thrive.
After the initial shock wears off, and right about the time us new designers were getting comfortable, we were segmented into small groups to work on Incubator Projects, which were real projects gathered from various IBM business units for us as designers to sink our teeth into.
Over the next three months, my cohort of fellow designers would work together every day (and night, sometimes) on real IBM problems that needed design assistance. In this period of rapid education and collaboration, we learned about Enterprise Design Thinking and about the nuances of working at IBM (like scheduling, setting up video conferences, and simply navigating the space). We’d each use this time to cut our teeth to become the type of designer we’d end up as in our tenure at IBM.
IBM Design has invested a lot in the early career designer education. While this process has changed since I went through the program—it has been iterated on, designed, and redesigned—the investment in early career education has persisted.
Three years later, I stood on the other side of this program, greeting a plethora of fresh, new, nervous, and eager faces and introduced myself as a Cohort Coach for IBM’s Patterns Design Education program. Our colleagues volunteer their time to come and share their lessons in design research, experience design, content design, visual design, and front-end development.
I worked alongside a group of fellow veteran designers, and we came to be known as Cohort Coaches. As Cohort Coaches, we oversaw Patternites, an affectionate moniker for designers growing through the program. Our role was twofold: to ensure that the teams worked well together and to help the teams leverage IBM Enterprise Design Thinking in their work.
This was an exercise in time management because my fellow Cohort Coaches and I had responsibilities that were on top of our daily work. Each of us was out on partial loan from our product teams to work on this effort, and we were expected to devote 30% of our weekly time to our Patterns teams. This was certainly something that factored in to my weekly planning!
Throughout our Patterns program, our Cohort Coach team shared stories, supported each other, and learned from one another in the same radical way we each had done in our time as early career designers in the program ourselves. We each oversaw multiple Patternite teams through their design projects. In this article, I’d like to share with you a few insights my fellow Coach Karina and I gained in our time as Cohort Coaches.
Karina is a Design Researcher on the IBM Z AI & Analytics team. She is obsessed with corgis, shoes, and making some amazing chocolate chip scones.
Karina: When a crisis hits, I immediately try to save the ship. I batten down the hatches, strategize, and give out to-do’s to ensure the ship doesn’t go down. When I applied to be a Cohort Coach for the Patterns program, I knew there was a possibility I wouldn’t be able to save a sinking ship. Not because I wouldn’t have the proper skills, or because I wouldn’t want to, but because I likely shouldn’t; sometimes people have to figure their problems out on their own.
I became a Cohort Coach to be pushed out of my comfort zone and grow my leadership skills. I especially wanted to learn to be a leader who can take a step back. However, refraining from providing direct answers is hard. Once I get invested, it’s hard to let go.
As a Cohort Coach, I wanted my teams to succeed, have fun, and feel empowered to tackle complicated problems. My role was to be invested in their growth as design practitioners and IBMers, not the project itself. These new IBM designers were thrown into “group projects” (yes, I can hear you wincing) with strangers, and were then told their Cohort Coach, meaning me, was someone they could trust to guide them through the design process. I didn’t know these new colleagues, and they didn’t know me—we had some trust-building to do. I asked myself, “How did I build trust with my team? How did I provide direction without giving direct answers? It took many iterations to find a method that worked, but I got there. And honestly, I didn’t do so great at first. I compiled some tips through this experience about how to lead by empowering your teams to find their direction.
1. Asking “Was that helpful?” isn’t very helpful.
It sounds pretty obvious, right? At first, I was trying to understand what it meant to be a coach, mentor, lead, giver of feedback. Like any human being, I wanted validation. How could they possibly know if my idea or suggestion was helpful if they hadn’t tested it? This was my first course correction. I needed to allow my teams to work through very pointed suggestions, which meant giving them space and time to assess and redirect.
2. Don’t give a laundry list of suggestions.
Initially, I would list off a million suggestions with the hopes they catch my intonation that indicated which one I thought was best. (In retrospect, I find it hilarious that I thought this would work!) (It didn’t.) I further confused my teams, added complexity, and left them even more aimless than before. Instead, take time to filter your feedback; you are not expected to have an answer immediately. Run through your list of suggestions, extract 2–3 that you identify as top priorities, and share those with your team for them to try. If those don’t work, then you still have your other 999,999,998 ideas to suggest.
3. Ask more questions. It helps you understand what they understand.
To prevent tips number 1 and 2 from being necessary, ask questions instead. What have you done up until this point? Where are you in the process? What are you working on? I had my teams play back (the Enterprise Design Thinking term for “present”) their progress. This helped them understand the material and helped me understand what they were understanding. This approach helped one of my teams realize they were completely misaligned. Instead of pointing that out, I helped them get there. I piped up and said, “It seems like you all have different opinions on the current state of the problem,” and they nodded. So I went further and asked, “What does that mean?” Then they finally got it. They realized that they were all misaligned. Although this takes more effort, it yielded the biggest reward, not only for me as a Cohort Coach but for my teams as well. Letting them come to their own conclusions empowered their learning.
4. Look for signs they are depending on you for answers and validation.
Things became alarming when my teams asked, “Is this right? What do you think we should do? What should we do next?” These phrases caused a siren to go off in my brain; it meant my teams were depending on me for answers. When this happened, I would turn the question back at them by asking, “What is your gut telling you to do? What can you tackle with the time that you have?” It seems simple, but reframing their questions reinforces that although you are there to guide, you value their input and opinions.
5. Tell stories.
In addition to tip #4, whenever my teams were asking for a direct answer, I would bust out a story. Teaching them through my own experiences showed that I am also human. It’s always nice knowing that you aren’t the only one who has faced the same struggle. I talked extensively about my problem-solving methods throughout my career at IBM. My teams responded incredibly well to this method. Besides, the great thing about stories is that everyone takes away something different and it can lead to a productive group discussion about the next steps.
6. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything.
Being a Cohort Coach meant that, naturally, my teams saw me as an authority figure, even though that wasn’t necessarily true. Perception is the reality. It’s easy for people to look at an authority figure for validation and answers (see tip 4). However, I am human, and it was good for my teams to see that. I always told my teams that acknowledging when you don’t know something is a good thing, so practiced what I preached. One day, one of my teams asked me a question about IBM’s Carbon Design System. My main discipline is research, and I didn’t know the answer to the question. I told them, “I don’t know, but I know someone who might.” Letting them see that I am a flawed human being made me seem more approachable.
7. Let them fail
Sometimes providing the best direction is when you don’t provide direction at all. It’s like when you are a kid and your mom tells you to not touch the hot stove, but you do it anyway. You start to panic, then cry, and then get annoyed at your mom. Nevertheless, you learn to never touch a hot stove again. I applied this same concept in my coaching. (Note: I am not endorsing an absent style of leadership, but there is validity to letting teams fail in the process.) This one was hard for me because like I said before, I always try to save the ship. However, sometimes the only way to get through to people is by doing nothing at all.
For example, one of my teams had spent a better part of their week defining their project direction with very little time focusing on how they were going to articulate their project to the key stakeholders. Regardless of how many times I reminded them that their project direction would be pointless if they couldn’t explain it in a consumable way, they left their presentation to the very end and spent more time working on the visuals than the actual content. I knew I had to let them work through this and teach through failure. Needless to say, their presentation was a flop, and it lead to some very confused stares from their stakeholder team, all while I silently whispered, “I told you so.” Was it satisfactory for me to know I was right? Of course! However, my team learned that while your project direction might be brilliant, if you don’t know how to present it to your audience, then what’s the point?
These are just some ways I navigated providing direction without giving answers that ended up working for me. It took me a while to get there. The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize I was doing all these things until after the program ended. I am super thankful that IBM has these opportunities to practice leadership in shallow waters, it made failure easier to navigate.
Shortly after finishing the Patterns program I was given the opportunity to lead a team in IBM Z, where my style of leadership keeps evolving. Some days I think I am killing it, and other days I feel that the world is crumbling. However, acknowledging those feelings and working through them is better than pretending everything is okay. My biggest takeaway from being a Cohort Coach is that there is no one style of leadership, failure is great, and donuts always help boost team morale.
And finally some tips for me, your narrator. My name is Ploy Buraparate and I’m a design researcher and design thinking facilitator at IBM Security. When I’m not working, I spend my free time perfecting my pad thai recipe, writing horror novellas, and playing tabletop role-playing games.
Ploy: The Patterns program was a great time for me to take on work that was different from my normal day-to-day. By being a Cohort Coach, I was able to dip my feet into the management and leadership side of the business — far from the craft of design and research.
The Cohort Coach experience was a great way to have a sample of what a management experience would be like. It was a peek behind the curtain into the “back end” of the designer experience at IBM. IBM Design has created a lot of helpful information to guide early-career designers into having career conversations, and by using these materials, I had began to have an existential crisis about my career. After working as an independent contributor for so long, I was “management curious”.
As an early career designer moving into my mid-career phase, a common conversation I had been having among my peers and colleagues was a discussion of ‘what lies ahead’. Over the past year, I had felt like there was a mid-point decision I would have to make to pursue either a move into management or to continue my path as an individual contributor in the future.
I decided that regardless of the path I might take, I wanted to understand and develop my personal leadership style, and this role as a Cohort Coach was a great way to sink my teeth into a new adventure.
Here are a few tips I learned after tripping and falling all over myself:
1. The psychological safety of your team should be your priority.
The Patterns Incubator Projects can be a pressure cooker. As someone who had been on the other side, I empathized when my teams felt like they were swimming through this process. It’s important to make space and time for your teams. My favorite part of this program was the one-on-one time I had with each member of my teams. I highly suggest when you go into one-on-ones with your teammates that you put away your computer and let them do the talking. It was time to take my skills as a design researcher and focus it on my teams. In the conversations, I tried to triangulate: “What are the insights from these conversations? What are the underlying issues? Are there any unhealthy behaviors or tension bubbling up? What can be done? What can I enable these team members to do for themselves?”
2. Don’t be afraid to jump in and clear the path.
Being able to read a situation was crucial as a Cohort Coach. Sometimes it was good to step back and let teams sort things out for themselves, but it’s imperative to understand when you need to step in and do some trailblazing so teams could thrive. For example, if a team is having trouble articulating their research, jump in and help them create an outline and key points. It was my role as a coach to use the knowledge I had of the inner workings of IBM to accelerate my team’s ability to be successful in their communication with their executive stakeholders.
3. Reflecting on your actions will make you a better leader.
Things move fast here at IBM, and they move even faster in the Patterns program. It’s easy to make a decision and then immediately continue forward. The weekly retrospective we did as Cohort Coaches gave me a moment to deeply reflect on the actions I had taken, note the victories and the failures I had observed, and learn from other Cohort Coaches about their experiences. The retrospectives helped me to not feel as isolated as a Cohort Coach. Without taking this time and approaching the retrospective honestly, I doubt I would have gotten as much out of this experience. It made me realize that inaction is also an action, and it forced me to step up more to stakeholders when I saw something that could spiral into scope creep for my teams.
Growth is such an interesting thing. When we’re young, it’s easy to see that we’re growing. When we move through our elementary, secondary, and higher education experiences, these phases in our lives are benchmarked with clear assistance and indicators of success — teachers, grades, and graduations. However, as we enter the rest of our careers, the growth we create and the milestones we celebrate are our own.
Being a Patterns Cohort Coach was a milestone in my career at IBM. It felt like completing a huge orbit — from a jittery early career designer to a seasoned professional at one of the largest enterprise companies in the world. Completing this program and being on the other side as a Cohort Coach enabled me to give back to a community that had given me so much.
Special shout outs to the Patterns team: Seth Johnson, Katie Parsons, Nicole Umphress, and Debra Staff; and to our fellow Cohort Coaches: Simon Finney, Sam Winslet, Nicole Roppel, Caitlin Gettinger, Yen Loftin, and Nat Watkins. And of course, to each of our Patternites. Thanks for making our time with y’all so special.
Co-written by Ploy Buraparate and Karina Campos. Illustrations by Ploy Buraparate.
Ploy Buraparate is a designer at IBM based in Austin, Texas and Karina Campos is a designer at IBM based in New York, New York. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.