Maintaining Creative Prowess Even When It’s Hectic
As managers and leaders, we can never lose perspective on the work. This is especially important as your team grows larger and you are required to spend more time and energy on the wonderful arts of people management and team leadership. It’s natural that as you increase focus on your team, it becomes harder to maintain the perspective required to nurture great design into the world.
I started my career as a design intern at Adobe, apprenticing myself to remarkable creative talents. I learned the hard way, through tough and occasionally heated critique. When I was ready, I stepped into management. From there, my teams grew in size. From seven, to twenty, to eighty, and now to over 180. Through it all, one thing remained constant — we are all peers before the object (thanks Michael). In other words, after all the leading, managing, mentoring, supporting, and road-block clearing, the ultimate goal is to make the world a better place, to make people happier and more able, through the objects we design.
Throughout my career I’ve struggled with balancing the demands of management with maintaining the necessary focus on design. Perhaps you are struggling with it now. Here are a few tips I’d like to share that I hope will help you along the way.
Stay Close to the Practice
As managers, we deal with people. People can be complex (and absolutely wonderful) and when they work together they can be quite chaotic! Managing chaos and complexity — constantly gardening your team to ensure reasonable order and peace — is a full-time job.
Even in the face of this, we must clear our minds and engage in the work. As a designer, I try to open Sketch at least once a week, constantly explore the latest prototyping tools, and learn new techniques. Further, I make time to draw (at work and at home with my kids), lead design sprints, and engage in deep crit sessions — all the things that bring me closer to people and the work.
Mainly, this makes me happy. I get a rush from creating something harmonious or original (and as a former designer of creative tooling at Adobe, it’s a natural habit). More importantly, it ensures I can recommend best practices, that I understand what’s possible by when, and that I can empathize and connect with designers across the team.
Focus on the Foundation
Each project has its unique set of user problems, product principles, business opportunities, and constraints of all shapes and sizes. An effective design foundation combines these into a solid bedrock of truth upon which ideas are tested, debated, and ultimately supported. As a design manager, you are responsible for understanding the foundation, and ensuring your team members are capable of establishing it. If they can’t establish it, it’s your responsibility to grow and mentor them so they can. For example, at Uber we provide ready-made yet customizable templates and training to help our teams articulate the problem space, core use cases, establish design principles, enumerate constraints, and identify metrics and measurements for success.
And if for whatever reason your team can’t lay the the foundation, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and do the work yourself. As design managers this is THE thing you should have a heavy hand in. The outcome of a product depends on the quality of its foundation.
Have a Vision
The beautiful thing about technology is that it constantly moves forward into the future. It’s design’s job to provide a vision for the future that is humanistic, smart, and inspiring. As a manager and leader, you know where your project or product needs to head. You see the future and it’s a place people instinctively want to be.
For example, if you ask me where Uber’s product will be in the next five years, I’ll give you a rough outline of the future. It will be big picture, aspirational and inspirational (if you really want to ask, get in touch — I’m happy to share and I think you’ll like it). And if you ask me where our products should be in the next 6–12 months, I’ll have a crystal clear answer. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to have the vision ready at any time.
Your vision is one of the most powerful perspectives you can share with your team because it motivates those around you to give their all to make the future a reality.
Find the Local Maximum
You have the vision. Now, how to make it a reality. Each team has its own unique set of capabilities. Some teams have amazing front end developers. Some don’t. Some are driven by data. Some aren’t. Whatever your mix, diagnose your team’s strengths and weaknesses and calibrate expectations appropriately. Your goal is to determine the local maximum for quality user experience with your team — your unique team of PMs, data scientists, researchers, engineers, marketers, and designers. And by the way, your bar should be higher than others.
When considering this, try identifying the one thing you can focus on to get your project to the next level. Every team needs to make trade offs — that’s inevitable. The challenge is to build and spend organization capital to establish what is and is not negotiable while also getting the team to double down on the one thing that will exceed expectations. Which leads us to the next point on perspective.
Hitting the local maximum is what it takes to meet expectations. To exceed expectations, the team must push beyond what they think possible. This is when your perspective on the future vision is so critical. Inspire, motivate, cajole and collaborate across functions until it hurts. Magic only happens when teams accomplish more than they initially imagine.
Finally, the most important perspective you can share with your team is your clear expectations of them. Listen to your people. Empathize with them. Customize your coaching to fit their unique capabilities and learning styles. Be clear with your creative direction. Your ultimate goal is to set clear expectations with your team members and then successfully help them excel.
So, perspective. It can be difficult to attain especially as your team grows in size and complexity. But as leaders we need to be able to adopt different perspectives on a regular basis. We must constantly zoom in, and then zoom out. At times we need to provide perspective on the forest, and at other time we need to work on each individual tree — shifting back and forth all while maintaining consistent momentum forward.
You’ve read my perspective. What’s yours?
(thanks to Alice Yang for the wonderful illustrations. It’s inspiring to work with people like you Alice!)