Design, or be designed.
In an early coaching session, the Head of Design at a hyper-growth startup once told me that she didn’t have “what it takes” to be a visionary leader. I suspected she was underestimating herself. In our work together, we discovered she already had the necessary skills, the true problem was time management.
Time management is a pervasive issue among tech leaders because of powerful forces that can shape how we work. Contemporary open office plans paired with a plethora of collaboration and communication tools create new standards for work speed and interaction frequency. We bounce between Slack, Asana, InVision, daily stand-ups, email, and more, playing notification whack-a-mole to be good team players. And it all feels urgent in the pressure cooker of tech.
This reactive work state, in which we respond to every ping and hallway question, is the opposite of a proactive state, where we’re navigating the world in a purposeful way to address true priorities.
A reactive work state is also the culprit of much exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout. I hear design leaders use all sorts of other language to describe it: “I’m exhausted; I need balance,” “My company’s culture is ruthless,” “This role isn’t creative enough,” and even, “Maybe I should leave management. I was a good designer.” Once they manage their reactivity, however, a lot of design leaders’ woes start to fade and they show up as better leaders for their teams.
It comes down to a simple choice: design or be designed.
“Being designed” means letting the technologies and norms around you dictate how you work, losing sight of what matters and how you’re measured in your role.
“Designing,” by contrast, is the conscious act of owning your time and how you show up in the workplace.
“Design is simply to move from an existing condition to a preferred one.” — Milton Glaser
Most design leader roles aren’t rigid, and there’s a lot of wiggle room to design a work style that’s fulfilling and sustainable.
Shifting from “being designed” to “designing” requires challenging default assumptions in the tech world that feed a reactive state:
- “A good manager is available to her team, so urgent requests are important and require immediate attention.”
- “To sustain good cross-functional and direct report relationships, I need weekly one-on-ones in person.”
- “My company culture is [so-and-so]. That’s just how it is. I can’t go against the grain.”
- “We’re a highly collaborative culture, so it’s important to attend all these meetings.”
These beliefs aren’t necessarily true and don’t always help you to become a strategic, creative, and supportive leader for your company and team. When my client said she lacked strategic vision, she was actually struggling with overwhelm. She let the urgency of her startup environment dictate how she spent her time, and never got to the strategic work. But, with a few shifts in her calendar and her habits, she finally designed the time to address high-leverage, creative work. And, of course, she found she’d been a visionary leader all along.
Here are a some ideas for regaining control of your work style, and stories from design leaders who did just that.
Slow down to speed up
When clients come to me saying, “I’m overwhelmed,” they often resist stopping to assess what’s really going on. But sometimes you need to slow down to speed up. Pause, reflect on what you need, and reshape your day-to-day work life to fit those needs.
Many of my first sessions with clients start this way. When one client told me he felt frenzied, we took a look at his calendar and sure enough, it was full of back-to-back, overlapping meetings. He was also fielding emails and requests from every direction and found it difficult to focus. So we cataloged everything that demanded his attention. We created a 2x2 diagram for Impact and Effort, and started to plot his responsibilities, commitments, and activities.
To try this exercise yourself, think of everything on your plate, then score it as either high or low impact, and either high or low effort. Nothing is too small to drop in the diagram, including core work responsibilities, one-on-ones, mentorship conversations, professional learning and development, admin work, favors you’re doing for colleagues, and thoughts that keep you up at night. They should be small enough that you can evaluate when you’ve completed it. For instance, “improve team health” is a goal not an activity or task.
For example, your annual planning might take a lot of effort, but the impact is high. Approving expense reports is low effort and low impact.
This gives you a full picture of your problem space and clues for a redesign. Making big changes to your calendar and work habits does take time and administrative work. You might even need to do it again every quarter if you’re in a frequently changing environment. But if you don’t stop and look around, you’ll continue in the same frenzied state indefinitely.
Carve out time for pings
One Head of Design felt fragmented with all the Slack notifications and emails that hit his inbox all day. He’d check them while he was in and out of meetings, never fully present.
He assumed that, as a manager, he should always be available to unblock issues, and worried that people would complain if he wasn’t. But this constant fragmenting of attention was affecting his ability to focus and effectively contribute. So, with a gentle nudge from his coach, he experimented.
He removed messaging apps from his phone and turned off notifications, and only checked Slack and email during pre-scheduled blocks at the start and end of each day. Within a few weeks, he felt far more focused and effective in meetings — and no one commented on his availability. The red dots no longer controlled his attention.
Meetings are a major source of attention fragmentation. Here are a few good rules to improve their impact.
- Require that every meeting you go to has an agenda and goals.
- Don’t blindly accept invites, especially recurring ones.
- Find out whether your direct reports are already maintaining relationships that you can fully delegate.
- Try not to use meetings for status updates. Instead, use digital tools and reserve face-to-face time — whether it’s in person or remote — for dialogue and debate.
- When someone pings you to have a discussion, ask about its urgency and importance then schedule accordingly. In many cases, a simple “Can this question wait until our one-on-one later this week?” will still give the person what they need.
- Group meetings by category. At Pinterest, I grouped one-on-ones with my direct reports on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which became theme days: “T” for Team. Other days were for critiques, cross-functional meetings, or strategy. I could stay in the zone for one type of activity and find flow.
“Have meetings with purpose” sounds obvious, but we can all be more rigorous here. When I see design leaders with recurring meetings and no concrete reason for them, it’s usually for perceived relationship building, perpetuating this idea that quantity of time correlates to the quality of the relationship.
For example, the client who did the 2x2 exercise realized that many of his meetings with cross-functional counterparts were duplicative. He consolidated some recurring one-on-ones into triad meetings, and delegated other relationships to reports, which helped them step up and grow, while giving him more time to focus on high-impact projects.
Schedule thinking time
Leaders need creative time as much as individual contributors do.
A client recently reported that she’d scheduled one hour of thinking time every week on Wednesdays. “Good news,” she said. It was a nice start, but when we reviewed what was expected of her in her current role, it turned out that the most important aspect was to be an inspired leader creating the face and future of her product. She couldn’t do that in one hour per week. Did her calendar really set her up for success?
Set aside enough thinking time to meet your high-level expectations, and pay attention to your personal rhythms to schedule it at the right time. I’m most creative in the mornings, so now I only schedule meetings after lunch. These days, Mondays and Fridays are for special creative projects, too.
At Pinterest, I started a practice of taking an hour on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons to plan. Mondays were about setting clear priorities, and Fridays were about reflecting and preparing for the week to come (and sharing progress, plans, and blockers with my manager as well). This helps you feel like you’re making progress on what matters in the sea of meetings and emails. Many clients have adopted similar practices for themselves.
Dare to design
When stressed design leaders say they can’t change their work situation, I think, What do you mean? You’re a designer. It’s what you’re built to do.
I usually challenge their objections:
“I’m worried what people will say.” It can feel scary to set boundaries with coworkers, but they’ll understand. Be transparent about what you’re trying to do and explain that designing your time will give you more insight into product vision, more focus in meetings, etc.
“My company culture won’t allow it.” If everyone around you is overworked, it’s easy to shrug and assume it’s the culture. But culture emerges organically from all the factors and actors in a work environment, including you. You’re not bound by the default, and chances are you’ll change it for the better.
“This sounds like a lot to do.” It can be. But there’s no need to overhaul everything at once. Start small and experiment. Make one change, then feel empowered to make more.
When looking at the way we spend our time, it takes a little upfront work to define the problem space and the desired end state (as with all design problems). The result is a more fulfilling career and a more effective team. Your work style can take you from a stressed state to a state of clarity, confidence, creativity, and balance.
All it takes is a little design.
Mia Blume is a Design Leadership Coach living in San Francisco, California. A former design leader at Pinterest, Square, and IDEO, Mia founded Design Dept. to transform the way creative leaders work. In 2017, Mia founded Within — a series of leadership retreats for women in design.
Illustrations by Script & Seal.