method & matter
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method & matter

The Cadence of a Design Team

The design team at Movable Ink is unified across brand, product design, and research. This approach allows us to focus on growing the practice of design within the organization and creating a unified customer experience, but can be challenging because the various design disciplines collaborate with vastly different parts of the organization, users, and customer base. I’ll save the details of our org design for another post, but you can imagine that designers are embedded with various teams working on different products, projects, and initiatives. For design to function cohesively and strategically, we’ve crafted a meeting cadence that supports us as a team, as designers, and as humans.

Monday Planning & Friday Shipping (11am)

Who: full team

These two meetings bookend our week and orient the team towards goals, accomplishments, and reflections. The structure was taken from Nobl’s insightful book “Team Tempo” and over time has been modified to suit our context and purpose. While Monday Planning and Friday Shipping have different agendas, the meetings are structured in a similar way. Each start with an opening round and end with a closing round. In between are a number of rounds that prompt us to look at the week ahead or reflect on the week that is ending.

I won’t get into the detailed structure of each meeting (happy to share if anyone is interested) but I do want to talk about how they begin. Planning, Shipping, and a few other meetings always start with a color check-in. I learned this from the fine folks at Reboot.io and it is a lovely way to ground into the present and check-in with what’s happening internally. The set-up is simple: authentically answer the question, “How are you?” Authentically. The color check-in maps to three states.

  • Green: I’m totally here and present. Let’s do this.
  • Yellow: I’m distracted. There is some stuff going on and my mind can’t let go.
  • Red: I am in fight or flight mode and very much not here.

Once you’ve identified and shared your color you are invited to provide additional context for what is going on. Being a design team you can imagine how far outside of the three colors we go (Pantone colors, gradients, crayon colors, color wheels, etc).

One other practice I’d like to call out is the reflection round in our Friday Shipping meeting. We take 10 minutes each week to journal about what we’ve learned — challenging conversations, big wins, confusing moments, whatever it might be — and spend time writing about it. I have no idea what people write about, or in what format — the reflections aren’t intended for sharing. They are designed to create a dedicated time to step back from the getting-things-doneness and look around at what is happening, what stories are being told, where things are breaking down, and where things are being built up. The patterns that emerge over time help us navigate our own ways of showing up at work and interacting with those around us.

While Planning and Shipping meetings are structured, we make time for meaningful, connected conversation. The first five or ten minutes of Monday Planning are spent talking about the weekend, a documentary, or an interesting food fact (statistically those are the most talked-about topics). Friday Shipping starts off with a random assortment of odds and ends — I once arrived five minutes late to a Shipping meeting and walked into a room full of designers tinkering with the levers on their chairs. Everyone was in different positions, totally cattywampus with an arm or maybe a leg in the air. This carried on for another 10 until we had fully mastered every position the conference room chairs could assume (and explored a few other blue sky ideas like lateral rocking).

Often these meetings are light-hearted and filled with laughter. But they also create space to talk about larger, heavier issues. By naming what is affecting us and talking about it collectively we make room to step into more fully human ways of being. We don’t leave it outside the office because you really can’t leave it outside the office. We recognize and support the anger, frustration, and sadness that grows from what is going on around us. To look at each other and say, “today I’m not okay.” And we can sit with that and let it be — no attempts to make things better or fix things or share optimistic sayings that are usually reserved for posters with pictures of nature.

Huddle (Every other Monday, 3pm)

Who: brand team, product design & research team

Where Monday Planning looks at the broad strokes across the team and what is happening organizationally, Huddles are a chance to get into the nitty-gritty which is why we break them out depending on the focus of the team — one for brand and one for product design. The structure of the Huddles is roughly the same but the tools differ — the brand team runs everything through Airtable while product design is run through Clubhouse (it’s what our engineering team uses). Research has an entirely different set of tools but we’ll leave that for another post.

In Huddles we look at all projects, briefs, and cards that are in flight during the week and discuss dependencies, topics for Open Studio, and identify key themes that need to be communicated outward. On the product design side the meeting results in a “Bi-weekly Design Comms” deck that is shared across product and engineering and reviewed in weekly sprint planning meetings. This is to keep as much information flowing across teams as possible and identify conflicts and bottlenecks before they bite us in the ass.

Critique (Tuesdays and Thursdays — 10am)

Who: full team

Critique! Who doesn’t love a good critique. We definitely love critique. When I first started at Movable Ink the design team read Aaron Irizarry and Adam Connor’s “Discussing Design” in order to ground our critique in best practices. New members get a digital copy of the book and a cheat sheet before they dive into critique. The full design team is in attendance because it helps us keep visibility and coordination across the work we are doing. And critique isn’t just for brand work or product screens. We share research initiatives, run through presentations, and figure out our Medium publishing process. On the product design side we also run asynchronous critiques through Abstract which has been a godsend to everything we do.

Open Studio (Every other Wednesday 1–5:30pm)

Who: brand team, product design & research team

Designers are embedded in the cross-functional teams they work with, which is great, but it means that face-time with the design team is hard to come by. Last year we started running Open Studio — an afternoon dedicated to, well, anything the team feels is the most valuable and impactful thing we could be working on (design systems, design principles, presentation workshops, workflows that span the entire Movable Ink platform, etc). Sometimes we cancel them if we’re heads down on other work, and sometimes we only use two of the four hours. But we keep them on the calendar and as long as we are thoughtful about when and how to use them, everything works out well (there was a time when they didn’t work out so well — a topic for another post). Typically Open Studios are broken out for brand and product design but in 2019 we’ll be running some combined studios. We’ll also start bringing product and engineering in. And who knows — maybe the rest of the org will want to join too!

1:1s (weekly)

One on ones are sacrosanct. These happen weekly and are open to any topic a designer wants to talk about, work related or not. These are not a time to check-in on projects that are in flight — there is plenty of time for that during the rest of the week. Designers set the agenda and share it any way that works for them (Slack, email, verbally at the beginning of the meeting). My personal style as a manager is to take notes throughout and share them back via a Slack post (we have private 1:1 channels, Rands style), along with any action items, areas of inquiry, or practices that came up during our conversation. Sometimes we get out of the office for a coffee or a walk in the park, though winter tends to find us indoors all the time.

Retrospectives (quarterly)

Who: full team

Once a quarter on a Tuesday we take two hours to review what happened the previous quarter, celebrate wins, and course correct where needed. The set-up is pretty standard: good things, not so good things, question, ideas, and action items. Because we have a flexible approach to working from home we run everything through Trello so you don’t have to be in the office to participate.

Cards are generated for five minutes or until typing slows down, and then we run through everything in a lane and move on to the next one. We always run out of time so action items are generated throughout the week and re-visited during our Thursday critique following the retro. We try and revisit these at least once a month to remind ourselves of our commitments to change.

Team outings (every 6–8 weeks)

Who: full team

We like to get out of the office and hang together as a team. These events take many forms: Cooper Hewitt, MoMA, Drunk Shakespeare, Second City, Into the Spider-Verse, jazz clubs, team dinners, etc. This meeting type is pretty self-explanatory so I’ll leave it short and sweet, since the rest of this article has gotten more lengthy than I intended.

Off-sites (Yearly)

Who: full team

Off-sites are important for getting away from the daily cadence of the office, spending time together as a team, stepping back to look at the bigger picture, and having some fun! These often take the shape of team building, workshopping, and conferencing. We use things like the Learning Style Inventory and Clifton StrengthsFinder to understand how we work individually and what makes us work well as a team. We’ve built team charters, mission statements, and metaphors. And lots of memories.

So, that’s it. The cadence of our team. I’m sure it will continue to change as we change, but what’s important is that we are all reflecting and changing it together.

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Thoughts on leadership, management, and team building for people who care.

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Andrea Mignolo

Andrea Mignolo

Coach, advisor, designer. Obsessed with time. Design, decoloniality, systems, learning. She/her. www.methodandmatter.com

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