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My awesome product partner Joff Redfern, truly letting go…

Learning to let go as a designer leader (Part 2)

Alastair Simpson
May 16, 2018 · 7 min read

Welcome back for part two! If you’ve not read part one about being a first time manager, you can find it here.

A reminder of the inflection 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.

Lets look at 2 and 3.

2. Managing a team of managers

This second inflection point happens when your team gets large enough that you now have managers managing your individual designers. Whilst many of the same techniques listed in part one hold true, you now need to change your approach somewhat to help empower your managers and allow them space to build their teams. It becomes a tricky balance to know when to stay close, and when to give room.

The most important thing that you can do with your direct reports, is to make sure that it is very clear exactly what you will hold them accountable for in your design organisation. There are multiple ways to do this. At Atlassian we generally use the OKR method. Once you have agreed on the outcomes that you both understand, you then need to leave it up to your lead to decide how to get there. Your lead is an experienced designer, they should have a full toolkit of UCD approaches to solve complex problems. Give them the freedom to pick the right tools to get to the agreed destination. Be available to them as a sparring partner when they need it. Guide, coach, mentor, take the heat when things go wrong. But ultimately, let them be in control of how they get there. Letting them learn through their own successes and failures is the only way they will grow as leaders in your organisation.

Alongside this, make sure it is very clear who owns each decision. There may be decisions that you need to become the approver on. But, again make sure that is clear with your lead where the changeover of accountability is. In my opinion these are the two ultimate gifts that you can give your leads to help set them up for success.

One of my managers had noticed a pattern I had with him, which he had started adopting with his team. He coined the term ‘planting seeds’. It goes something like this: You may have a strong belief about something, but the last thing you want to do is just tell your lead to do something, or give them a solution. Taking the pen out of someone’s hand is the ultimate way to show that you do not trust them to solve it themselves. It completely undermines them. Instead, plant the seed with them. ‘What if…?’ statements help here.

What if we did X? How would that help solve the problem? Have a think about it.

So long as it is framed as opinion and not direction, and you have a healthy trusting relationship with them you should spark a positive discussion. What I generally find is that it helps my managers rethink a problem, they often take that idea and make it into something much better with their team. Or they come back with very strong rationale for why it doesn’t actually solve the problem.

As much as I firmly believe hierarchy doesn’t matter, it is ideas and solutions that best fit customer problems, not who the HIPPO is in the room. You must remember that as a manager of managers, you are now multiple degrees of separation away in your org chart from the team members doing the actual design work. So if you attend a critique session, or comment on a design in your collaboration tool, remember that your opinion carries weight, whether you intend it to or not. Casual comments can come across as firm direction because it “came from the top”.

A good way to think about this is to “Seek first to understand”. This has affectionately become Atlassian’s sixth unofficial company value. It essentially means to ask questions and gain context, before jumping in with your opinion or solutions. The problems we solve are often very complex and you should ensure that before you spout off opinion, you have done your due diligence.

Because of the hierarchy issues discussed above, when giving feedback make sure it is very clear what is an opinion versus a direction. There will be times when you need to give clear direction and other times when you just want to express an opinion, but make sure that this is very clear at all times which one it is.

Consider how you engage during critique sessions. You need to allow your lead the space to run their own critique sessions with their teams. It may not be appropriate for you to attend these anymore. Again, consider the change of environment it brings when the bosses’ boss attends. You need to find other ways to keep across your team’s work by working closely with your leads, rather than directly with the team.

You must create an environment of psychological safety within your team. Trust has been proven again and again by research like Google’s Project Aristotle and Patrick Lencioni in his book Five Dysfunctions of teams to be the key ingredient in building successful teams. There are many tangible ways you can build trust with your managers and your entire team. John Cutler created a very handy list. Make sure you are as available as you can be to your entire team. Your calendar will be full, so consider trying office hours, where anyone (not just managers) can drop in and chat at a set time each week. Try and meet every new hire into your team. Build relationships with them and make sure everyone in your team is comfortable challenging and questioning you. Be open with them. Consider sharing your own personality profile and growth areas with them like Atlassian’s Co-founders and CEO does.

I have mentioned this in a few points above, but I feel it is worth pulling out separately. Make sure you have regular ways to keep in touch with the work that is going on, and with senior members of your team. You need to tread carefully here, as you do not want to overstep and take accountability away from your managers. But you also do not want to become so aloof that you have no idea what is being discussed and designed day to day. Find non invasive ways to stay plugged in. If you do this right, it will ensure that your team has a healthy respect as it will show that you still care about the design work they are creating for your customers.

3. Managing ever larger teams

Lastly, if you work across a large organisation you will likely start managing a portfolio of products. Again, many of the techniques above hold true. This inflection point is where you will move furthest away from the actual work.

Your job as you become a more senior design leader is to start setting clear long term direction for your teams. It can’t be to be involved in every minuscule design detail. As your portfolio expands that becomes impossible. More so than ever you should be working with your partners in product, engineering and senior members of your design team to set a clear vision and mission for the groups you manage. Set enough guardrails that then allow your team to start filling in and refining that high level vision into actual strategies for their own group. Coming back to one of my first points, nobody likes being told what to do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t set high level direction and then work with your team to let them shape it.

Linked to the above, you need to start thinking in longer time horizons. As a manager of a single stream of work or product you will be thinking in terms of today out to about 12 months. As your team gets larger and your accountability grows you need to start thinking 18 months and more ahead and ensuring you are making the right decisions for your products and teams now, to set them up for long term success. Some of the decisions and tradeoffs you make today, will only be realised in 18 to 36 months. Thinking in longer term time horizons is critical as your scope expands.

Peter Merholz and Kristen Skinner discuss in their book Org Design for Design Orgs, that you need to ensure you have ~10% of your team dedicated to more strategic design activities. As your company grows I believe you have an obligation as a design leader to start exerting a wider impact across the organization. If your organization has grown to the stage where you have large design teams, you need to ensure that your company truly understands and values design. That means going far beyond the pixels and into the reality of organization design.

Think about how you can change how your entire company thinks about product development, problem framing and how to work through solutions. Do you have a playbook to allow you to tackle large problems organization wide? How can design help facilitate and influence long term strategic discussions? As designers we can help frame those discussions to maximize clarity. We can then also help visualize what the future may hold for the company. Doing this effectively, design can play a much stronger role in how your organisation operates and functions.

Lastly, take time for yourself. However large and “important” your role becomes, it is never more important than you or your family. You need to keep sight of your own health and build in coping mechanisms to allow yourself to scale with your role. Yes you will likely take on more stress, need to work some longer hours, make tougher decisions, it can be extremely rewarding but should never come at the expense of your health.

If you read this and missed part 1, check it out here.

Did you enjoy this post? Want more of the same? Consider following Designing Atlassian.

Designing Atlassian

Tales from the Atlassian design team

Alastair Simpson

Written by

I help teams create engaging, sustainable product experiences…with the help of pencils, sharpies, post-its and collaborative thinking…Design Leader @ Atlassian

Designing Atlassian

Tales from the Atlassian design team

Alastair Simpson

Written by

I help teams create engaging, sustainable product experiences…with the help of pencils, sharpies, post-its and collaborative thinking…Design Leader @ Atlassian

Designing Atlassian

Tales from the Atlassian design team

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