7 tips to create high functioning design teams (Part 1)
I recently spoke at the Managing Design conference in Sydney about the growth of design at Atlassian, from only 6 designers to a design team of 120+ in just 4 years. It was a great day, all about the emerging but still niche topic of managing large design teams. The slides and audio for that talk can be found here, but I have pulled out practical tips for managing design teams into a two-part blog series.
1. Make design matter
You can have the best design team in the world, but if your company doesn’t value design, it doesn’t mean squat.
The first tip is a hard one to quantify, but before you go about setting up your design team, you have to make sure that your organisation truly values the discipline of design. If your Head of Design doesn’t report equally with the engineering and product heads, your company probably doesn’t value design. If design isn’t involved from the start of the product development process, and is only brought in after the fact to “pretty things up,” your company probably doesn’t value design. If your company continues to ship sub-par customer experiences with no iteration, your company probably doesn’t value design. In all of these cases, design is most likely seen as a service to the product development teams.
If you don’t want design to be treated as a service, you need to have an opinion about what problems are worth solving and why.
I am paraphrasing John Maeda, but design is not a magical switch that gets turned on inside a company. It’s a conscious effort on behalf of the CEO and the executive team to make design matter. But that effort will ensure that your team is set up for success.
Rituals are important. Nowadays it’s hip not to be married. I’m not interested in being hip.
If you are trying to build a high-functioning team in which all members trust one another and has real chemistry, it’s important to put key rituals in place. This will set clear expectations for the team with you as a manager, and give each team member time to bond as a team.
Google’s recent project called Aristotle, a study into teams, found that the key to productive companies/teams was ensuring that individuals within teams were nice to each other. Or in more formal terms:
the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.
Here are a few team rituals I and other Design Managers use at Atlassian, which help us build trust, respect, and improved interactions amongst teams.
Design detention / Get Shit Done (GSD) days
The constant interruptions of any modern office can be the scourge of focussed time. To tackle tough, gnarly design problems you need time to truly immerse yourself in them. In response, we have design detention and GSD days. These are partial or full days where a design team comes together in the same space to spend time working individually, or together as a team. Email, chat, meetings, 1:1s are all banned. This happens at least once per week.
Other than being able to focus on a tough problem, these days help to create bonds between team members. Teams become more comfortable sharing work in early phases when an idea may be fragile. They encourage easy, unforced collaboration and help to break down barriers between team members. As the team is all together in a space, unplanned coffee outings or lunches happen, which further helps in bonding between team members.
Fika is Swedish for “to have coffee.” At the start of each week, I set up informal (and optional) coffee mornings with my teams. Even though these sessions are optional, I encourage everyone to attend as often as they can. There is no “agenda,” and it’s usually just an informal chat amongst the team. I ask everyone to go around and spend two minutes telling us what they did at the weekend, as well as what they were working on last week and problems they faced. The informal nature of the session encourages teams to share openly, as well as learn more about one another.
Office hours is an old work concept, where an office or retail space would advertise the hours they are open. As a manager, much of my role means I am in constant meetings, which makes it hard for my team to find me at my desk. So, I set up and advertise guaranteed times I will be at my desk and available to work through questions or problems with anyone in my team. This gives team members roughly 4 hours per week when they know they can informally catch me at my desk.
The Design Week event started at Atlassian in 2013. It was a simple concept; the entire design team would come together in Sydney for a week free of meetings, to learn and work together. Back in 2013, this meant a small group of Sydney- and San Francisco-based designers getting together in a meeting room. Fast forward to today, this has grown to about 120 designers, writers, researchers, and front-end engineers coming from San Francisco, Austin, and Gdansk to Sydney for an entire week. The scale has changed greatly, but the general format has not. We still spend time learning together, and then working together in a 24-hour hackathon, modelled on our ShipIt days.
As we grew, we talked about changing or even cancelling Design Week. As you can imagine, it’s a bit of a logistical challenge to organise today. But it has become a cultural tradition, one that gives our teams from across the globe the chance to meet people face-to-face. It allows us to break down barriers and get perspectives from colleagues who come from different cultures and backgrounds. In short, its value as a team ritual is priceless. Check out the 2015 and 2016 videos of Design Week.
Whatever rituals you start to put in place with your teams, just make sure that you do set them up and constantly iterate on them. Some will not work. Some will get stale. Just like design, you must continually iterate.
3. Career paths
How do you value and encourage the continued growth of not only managers, but the craftspeople in your teams? You must value the makers, tinkerers, and doers in your team just as much as the people managers. Most traditional career paths have a ceiling, where once you get to a certain level the only way up is to start managing people. But let’s face it, not everyone strives for or wants to do that. Managing people is a craft in and of itself, and it’s not for everyone.
Our career paths have separate tracks for craft and people management (see below).
The craft track goes beyond “Senior Designer,” up to “Lead” and “Principal” level. We want people in our teams to do the type of work that is most fulfilling to them and most valuable to the company. The initial move into management is also not a “step up the ladder,” it’s a lateral move. This is because you have simply moved from concentrating on product problems, to concentrating on people problems. A fantastic individual contributor is just as valuable as a fantastic manager.
If you want to hold onto your top design talent, you have to actively encourage and invest in the development of your teams in the areas they want to develop. Don’t offer a management-only career choice; those individuals who aren’t interested in the management of people will seek out alternative places where their skills in craft are valued. We will be writing more in-depth about career paths pretty soon, so follow Designing Atlassian to get updates.
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