My awesome product partner Joff Redfern, truly letting go…

Learning to let go as a design leader (Part 1)

An inflection point is defined as:

a time of significant change in a situation;

…a turning point, if you will. I’ve been through many inflection points in my career as a design leader. I’ve gone from being a UX design team of one (me) to managing a large consultancy. I’ve gone from again being a UX design team of one (me) to growing an internal team of 6. I’ve been part of a growing design organisation at Atlassian, seeing us scale from 20 to almost 200 in around 5 years.

Early on in my career I responded negatively to some of these inflection points. I dug in and worked longer hours. I gave up on my personal life and relationships. I tried to do much of the work myself. I didn’t really know how to respond. On one occasion, I ended up burning myself out.

Over the years, I’ve learned some more positive ways to react in these situations. Below are the inflection points I’ve experienced as a design leader:

  • First time people leader. Move from being an individual contributor to managing a team for the first time.
  • Managing a team of managers. Move from managing a team of individual contributors to running a team large enough to have managers working for you.
  • Managing ever larger teams. Your team and portfolio scales past 20 designers.

As the scope, scale, and accountability of each change gets greater, you need to learn and perfect mechanisms to allow you to deal with that change. This avoids burn out on your own part and also allows you to succeed in your new role. You must learn how to scale yourself. As you start to manage larger and larger teams, you no longer need or want to make Every. Single. Decision.

Let’s work through some of the methods I’ve used that have allowed me to scale and continue to have an impact on my teams as a leader, whilst not burning myself out.

1. First time people leader

Your first foray into managing people is often the hardest. It’s the first step away from being on the tools, and it’s often the most jarring. You’re switching from directly solving product-level problems by yourself (or as part of a small team), to mainly solving people problems.

Letting go of the pixels, without letting go of the quality

I was guilty as a first time manager of trying to make my design team an extension of myself. I believed I needed to tell my team exactly how the final design output should look, feel, and interact. This belief system has its roots in the agency model, where the Creative Director rules. The design team members are really just production artists for the vision of the Creative Director. Just think of scenes from Mad Men where Don Draper changes the creative based on his own gut and experience. That’s a good picture of what it’s like. I don’t know anybody who likes being directed in such a way. It’s just not fun, nor is it productive. And looking back I cringe when I think of some of the times I delved too deeply into design decisions as a young manager.

As a first time design manager it’s important to find ways to let go of pushing every pixel, without losing the quality of your team’s output. But how do you do that?

Asking open and closed questions

The obvious one is having regular critique sessions with your team. Typically these should be at least weekly, but can be more often if you have a faster cadence. Your goal in these sessions is not to point out all of the mistakes in the work of your team, or to project your own opinion of how the design should evolve onto your team. Your job as a manager is to ask questions and help your team make decisions. I often find that framing those decisions as open or closed questions can help, depending on the specific situation.

Open questions. Open questions should encourage open answers and lots of dialog/options/ideas. If your designers are stuck on a problem, help them reframe the problem by asking open questions.

  • Why is the design like it is?
  • How does the design solve the customer problem?
  • How have competitors solved similar problems?
  • Where else could we draw inspiration from?
  • How many other solutions did the team explore before landing on this one?
  • What were the key decision points that led the team to this final design?

You are looking to help them reframe their own rationale for their design decisions. This open dialog often opens up a different perspective on the problem or solution, which the team often comes to without you telling them.
Closed questions. Closed questions encourage short, one word, black and white answers. If the team is struggling to make a decision to move forward, closed questions can help drive to a decision.

  • Do you believe this design solves the customer problem? The answer is either yes or no and you can follow up accordingly.
  • What is your % confidence in this design? The answer is a single number which you can then discuss and again follow up accordingly.

Closed questions should help the team move to a decision faster, rather than reopening the discussion.
Your job in either case is to lead your team into creating the best solution for your customer, not create that solution yourself. With all that said, there may be times when you need to step in and make decisions for your team.

Making tough calls

This one may sound obvious, but as a manager you’ll need to make tough calls. Many of these could make you unpopular with some people in your team, and in other departments. But the consequences of not making decisions are that your team will lose trust in you. Project work will suffer because it will loop, cycle, and go nowhere. This does not mean being a dictator. You can involve your team and those outside to help you form an opinion and collaborate through a problem. But at some point you need to stand up and make a call. It’s important as a design leader to have strong beliefs to help give your team momentum. Those beliefs can be loosely held, so you can respond to new information. But don’t underestimate the power of unblocking your team by making decisions and letting them move forward. Just make sure that you are predictable in your beliefs. You want your team to usually know where you would stand on an issue, even without you being present.

Of course sometimes you will make bad judgment calls and you will be wrong. But as a manager you need to make sure you learn from them. You also need to take full accountability for them, don’t pass the blame to anyone else.

Go 1:1

Outside of formal critique sessions make sure you are spending time with your designers 1:1 to discuss both project work and their career goals. Just as any great design is impossible if you haven’t uncovered a real customer need, it’s impossible to help a team member grow in their design career if you haven’t spent the time uncovering career goals. Once you do this, you can start having open and candid conversations about how you can help them develop. There are lots of frameworks I’ve used to help with career growth, but the four dimensions of job fulfillment from Margaret Gould Stewart stands apart. As with any framework its best use is to start a conversation. It won’t magically give you the answers, but it helps you delve deeper into the mind of your team member.

Show, don’t tell

The next key thing I learnt was to lead by example. I actually learnt this at a young age, whilst playing competitive soccer. One of my early managers (himself a 3 time European Cup Winner) would always be first at training. He would be last to leave. He would pack away equipment. He would tidy up the dressing room. He would ask questions during training about how the session was going. He would even take part in the drills, despite being in his 40s. I didn’t realise as a teenager, but looking back he was showing us how he wanted us to behave. He wasn’t telling us to do things (although sometimes he did), he was actually doing them himself and naturally the majority of the team followed suit.

Show your team the way you want them to behave. When you are on vacation, do not answer emails or chat messages. When you are sick, stay at home. If you are still doing a small amount of design work, lead by example in every facet of how you approach and share your work. Make sure you spend more time on defining the problem you’re solving than on solutions. Share your work early and often for critique. Collaborate with your team on solutions. Encourage feedback from your team and act on it. Speak in terms of the customer problems it solves. Get customers across your work as early as is feasible in your environment. Make sure you have a clear goal and success measure for the work you are producing. Do all the things we should be doing as great product designers and that you would expect from your team.

During meetings, actively listen rather than shutting down conversations. Try to be the person in the room who speaks the least and listens the most. I admit, I still find this one of my biggest personal challenges. I am a socialiser. I’m a talker so it comes hard for me. But knowing this weakness I actively try to curb it. Encourage people in your team to speak up, if you see someone who is quiet or who hasn’t contributed, actively bring them into the conversation and then reward them for this.

Hiring and developing talent are now your most important jobs

Finally, as a 1st time manager you will start being accountable for hiring decisions. Hiring talented designers who are more talented than you, or who have the capacity to get there will make you a better leader. You need talented people in your team whom you can trust to deliver amazing work. Make sure that you over-invest time into hiring. Find out how companies you admire make hiring decisions. What process do they have? What questions do they ask? It may not be your job, but if you can hone your own hiring process so that you make excellent hiring decisions, your team and company will move faster.

As well as hiring you need to invest time in developing the talent that you have. Understanding the development needs of your team, supporting them with design craft and the soft skills needed to thrive in any organisation, is hard but critical work as a manager.

Your calendar will change, so change your own habits…

When you become a manager for the first time, your calendar will change from one with lots of big chunks of deep work time, to a calendar that looks as if a bunch of colour spray cans have exploded in a room. It can often be an unwelcome and negative surprise. The reality is that this will happen, you just need to adapt with that change. But how?

Prioritise. You’ll need to ruthlessly prioritise the meetings that are most important each week. Be prepared to cut some things from your calendar each week. As a rule I will always try to cut 1:1s with my team last. Your team should be the most important thing to you and so treat these as sacred. Set aside a time on Friday afternoons to specifically go through the following week’s calendar and ensure you are set up for success.

3 things. What are the top 3 things that you need to get done in a week (outside of normal 1:1s, design reviews, team meetings, etc.)? List them out in your Friday session and then place specific time slots into your calendar to complete these tasks. The more specific you can be, the more likely you will actually do that task. Try to avoid just adding generic “Work time” blocks to your calendar.

Include allthethings. Add everything into your calendar, including commute times to work, kid drop-offs, exercise time, meditation, etc. This means that you are being realistic about what you can get done in a given day.

Read on for part two.

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