Thoughts on fostering a collaborative work environment

[I just wrote the following passage for my book on building in-house design teams. It needs work, but I still felt it was worth sharing.]

Realizing the benefit of diverse perspectives requires a supportive environment where people are encouraged and comfortable sharing their work, spurring collaboration that makes the final output better than what anyone would deliver on their own.

Every member of the team must demonstrate respect to every other member, or the openness required for successful collaboration will not emerge. Dismissiveness, insults, cattiness, and behind-the-back gossip lead to people feeling shamed and shutting down, and cannot be tolerated.

Earning one another’s respect is necessary in order for the team to “get real”, because frank and candid critique and feedback are essential for upholding the high quality standards. Greatness comes from the tension and collision of different perspectives, addressed openly and honestly. Design teams that favor politeness over respectful candor will rarely produce great work.

Organizational hierarchy can stifle the free flow of ideas within a design organization – when senior people speak, it often stops the conversation. It’s now become cliche, but it’s worth repeating – great ideas can come from anywhere. Great design leaders encourage everyone to speak up, and, for themselves, wait to speak last. These leaders must also place their work alongside others, and accept others’ critique with grace and humility.

The collaborative environment referred to so far has been figurative, but it also should be made literal. Great design work takes space – places to collaborate, whiteboards for sketching and ideation, walls to show work. And those spaces should be permanent, places where the team works and sees their work all around them. Not only does this encourage continual engagement from the team itself, such spaces enable people outside the team to quickly connect with the work. It literally demonstrates openness and transparency. And instead of having occasional big share-outs (that require preparation that takes time away from productivity), these spaces support frequent lightweight check-ins that ensure the work is on track, because if it’s beginning to veer off-course, it is quickly corrected.

THE best conference for UX/Design managers and leaders…

…is Adaptive Path’s MX Conference, taking place on March 29-30 2016 in San Francisco.

I’m biased. After a few years away, I’m back and helping program and host this year’s event. We have a stellar line-up, including Bob Baxley (formerly Apple and Pinterest), Hyo Yeon (leading the design charge at McKinsey), Janaki Kumar (VP Design at SAP), Kim Scott (spreading the gospel of Radical Candor, a philosophy I can totally get behind), and many others. Oh, and me (I’ll be co-teaching, with Kristin Skinner, a workshop on “Org Design for Design Orgs”, based on what we’ve been writing in our book).

No other conference packs so much value into two days for folks who are managing/directing/leading design teams.

AND: Use the promotional code FOPM to get 15% off the registration price!

Design Team Leads

My friend Dane Petersen asked on Twitter: “Honest, unsnarky question: If design is thinking by doing and leadership means someone else does the doing, how does a design leader think?”

I’ve written a bunch about this in the book I’m writing. Here is what I wrote about the “team lead”, the person responsible for a 3-7 person design team tackling a problem.

Team Lead

Regardless of size, each design team benefits from a single point of authority and leadership, an individual with vision and high standards who can get the most out of their team. This is the most important role on the team, and the hardest job to do well.

Team leads must be able to:
Manage down. Leads are responsible for overall team performance. They need to create a space (whether physical or conceptual) where great design work can happen. They must coach, guide, mentor, and prod. They address collaboration challenges, personality conflicts, unclear mandates, and people’s emotions.

Manage across. Design leads coordinate with product leads, business leads, technology leads, and people in other functions in order to make sure their teams’ work is appropriately integrated with the larger whole. They must also be able to credibly push back on unreasonable requirements, and goad when others claim that the design team’s work is too difficult to be delivered.

Manage up. It’s crucial that these leads are comfortable talking to executives, whether it’s to explain the rationale behind design decisions or to make the case for spending money, whether on people or facilities. Design leads must present clear arguments, delivered without anger or frustration, that demonstrate how their work ties into the larger goals and objectives of the business.

In short, the best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman. And they are folks who, through, experience, find they can span the conceptual scale from 1,000 feet all the way down to 1 foot. They oversee the end-to-end experience, ensuring that user needs are understood, business objectives are clear, design solutions are appropriate, and the final quality is high. To achieve coherence, they must integrate efforts across product design, communication design, user experience research, and content strategy. They are responsible for articulating a design vision shared not just by their immediate team, but their cross-functional partners as well. No wonder it’s so hard to find such people!

Are your team members respected as individuals?

I’m co-writing a book on building in-house design teams. Occasionally I’ll write a passage that stands on its own and feels worth sharing. 

A byproduct of bureaucratic work environments is that they encourage treating employees as cogs in a machine, not as the idiosyncratic people that they really are. Job titles suggest equivalence and interchangeability for anyone with the same title. Discrete numbered levels are used to assess seniority and salary ranges. Org charts delimit access and authority.

Actualized design teams overcome such practices by treating team members as individuals, with all the messiness implied. They recognize job titles are imperfect, and two people with the same title may have different skills. That’s okay, though, because everyone knows those people’s strengths and weaknesses, and makes sure that they’re set up to succeed. Seniority levels are seen as guidelines, not strict containers. Reporting structures are there for communication and mentorship, and do not limit anyone’s ability to share ideas and have an impact.

The reason companies adopt bureaucratic methods in the first place is to manage people at scale. While maintaining this individualistic perspective is challenging as the design organization grows, it’s worth the effort. Designers, perhaps more than other professionals, are a sensitive, empathetic, expressive, and quirky bunch. Reducing them to labels and levels removes their individuality, blunting their engagement and, in turn, their work. Instead, celebrate their individuality. Let their freak flags fly.

The Personal Professional Mission

When I work as a direct manager, my primary concern for anyone reporting to me is their professional and career development. I’ve learned that there are many ways for people to grow, and I want to be sensitive to the particulars of each individual on my team.

To get at that, there is what I call the Personal Professional Mission. I ask each team member just what is it that motivates them; why, in a universe of opportunities, have they made the choices that land them in the role they have. It’s a big idea that most folks have never been asked about, and haven’t considered deeply, and require some time to develop an answer. However, I find it to be the key to understanding how the person will want to grow, and the guidance and mentorship I can provide them on that path.

To help them understand what I mean, I share my personal professional mission: to make the world safe for great user experiences. This has pretty much been my animating principle since I first started blogging in 1998, and was perhaps most fully realized in the creation and development of Adaptive Path. It also spurred my departure from Adaptive Path, when I felt that I could best tackle this mission from inside the enterprise, as user experience no longer needed a laboratory for development, but instead required operationalizing in-house in order to deliver on the promise.

I was sharing the idea of the Personal Professional Mission to a design director looking for guidance in her career. And as I was explaining it to her, I had an uncomfortable realization: I don’t know if my mission still holds true for me, and I haven’t figured out what would replace it. This isn’t something I had thought about recently, and it caught me by surprise. But it also helps explain why I’m a bit adrift right now. I’m in the process of figuring out my next professional move, and the universe of options is a bit overwhelming (I know, it’s a good problem to have). I’m thankful I’ve uncovered what is at the root of this uncertainty, as it should help me address it. We’ll see where it takes me!

Keep design weird… but relevant

Historically, most formal design has been practiced by design agencies, which were environments set up to deliver optimal design output.

As design increasingly moves in-house, into environments that are not only not optimized for good design practice, but can prove quite hostile to it, a measure of a design team, and its leadership, is how they navigate this.

Many design teams find themselves at one of two poles.

I’ve now seen a number of teams, whose leadership comes from the design agency world, try to protect design by insulating the team from the rest of the organization. Essentially, these teams try to re-create the studio model when moving in-house, but in doing so inhibit connection with the rest of the company. This may lead to great design work in the abstract, but it also ultimately leads to ineffectiveness, as without those connections, the work of the design team is not realized through the product.

The other pole is one of total integration. Product design molds itself to whatever product development process exists, usually some flavor of agile. While this integration allows design to have some effect, the quality is subpar, because design is a different kind of activity than engineering, and what works for technical development is not ideal for great design. So, by trying to be accommodating team players, design loses what makes it interesting in the first place.

The challenge for in-house teams is to figure out how to keep that creative spark that makes design such a valuable contributor, without isolating it so much that it’s simply out of sync with the rest of the organization. It’s one of the (many) reasons I advocate for what I call the Centralized Partnership–centralization allows design to maintain it’s mindset and community of practice (i.e., it allows design to remain a little weird), while the partnership ensures those connections with the rest of the organization that keeps design relevant.

To maintain this balance requires vigilance and continual adjustment. This is a key aspect of any design leader’s role, ensuring that design doesn’t get run over by development processes, and not being so precious that it’s never put in a position to be realized.

Facilitation is a necessary design skill

(I’m writing a book on building in-house design teams. This brief passage struck me as worth sharing.)

In a networked-software-services world, to render an entire customer journey is a matter of managing overwhelming complexity. No team of designers, no matter how talented and capable, can acquire the necessary deep knowledge across so many domains to deliver robust work. This means that the design team can no longer rely solely on the hard skills of their practice and craft to succeed. In order to arrive at the most suitable solution regardless of context, the design team needs to practice the soft skill of facilitation. This is because designers are not the sole creators – there are too many moving parts, too much specialized knowledge necessary to fully appreciate a situation. Designers need to facilitate the creative output of others throughout the organization, tapping into a resource often left dormant. If working in a hospital setting, get nurses, technicians, and doctors to ideate around their specific problems. In a call center, have the customer service representatives pitch how they think things should be. The point isn’t to be slavish to the input from other functions – the design team still has the crucial responsibility of refining, honing, and executing these ideas. But it’s a recognition that the problems we’re solving are too big for any one team to have a complete handle on.

9 Principles for Superlative Design Teams

For the book I’m writing on building in-house teams, I was wondering if it was possible to articulate the Ideal Design Team, in order to have a frame of reference, of comparison, against which to judge any team. A quick chat on Twitter made it clear that this was a foolish proposition, but Leisa Reichelt suggested a developing a set of principles that could work regardless of organization.

I’ve spent the day noodling on this, and arrived at the following. I’ve tried to articulate them the way I would experience principles for a client — brief statements, hopefully memorable, that help drive decision making when thinking about establishing your team.

  1. Shared sense of purpose
  2. Dedicated, focused leadership
  3. Authentic user empathy
  4. Render the entire journey
  5. Deliver at all levels of scale
  6. Assert quality
  7. Real artists ship
  8. Nurture team members
  9. Manage operations effectively

After I posted these to Twitter, Jess McMullin suggested: “10. Understand, articulate, and create value (for both business & users),” which I don’t think I can argue with.

For the book, I’ll dig into each of these. I’d love to hear y’all’s take on them, any glaring holes, or what you find most resonant.

How to structure your centralized design team

I’m co-authoring a book on building in-house design organizations. In it, we advocate for what I call the “Centralized Partnership,” where design remains wholly centralized, and broken up into teams that are committed to different aspects of the business. We propose some radical ways of structuring your design organization, and I thought I’d share a rough draft of what we’re thinking.

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Don’t just mirror the product organization or business units. In order for your team to successfully collaborate with others, it’s important to understand how the rest of your company is organized. However, it’s insufficient to have your design teams simply reflect that structure. Organizations grow and evolve over time, and the reasons for how they arrive at a particular structure are varied (e.g., acquisitions, firings, failed initiatives) and might not make sense for your team. A design organization that is not wedded to the structure of the broader company can help maintain a stable customer experience when the inevitable reorganizations occur.

If you can organize by customer type, do so. A fallacy is to have designers obsessed with the products and services they work on. Product and service features are just manifestations of parts of a user’s relationship with your company. Instead, you want your designers obsessed with their entire user’s experience. So, organize your teams by types of users. Many companies have clearly distinguished audiences — marketplaces have buyers and sellers; banks have personal/consumer, small business, and institutional customers; educational services have teachers, administrators, students, and parents; and so on. When a design team focuses on a type of user, it can go very deep in understanding them, and that empathy leads to stronger designs that fit the users’ contexts and abilities. So, for a marketplace, have a “Buyer Design Team” and a “Seller Design Team.”

This kind of organization proves quite radical in certain companies. Banks and other financial institutions typically organize their teams around products or lines of business (basic banking, credit and debit cards, loans, mortgages, etc.) that behave as if in silos, and rarely coordinate. However, the same customer is engaging across these products, and can find the lack of coherence frustrating. To have a “retail consumer” design team that works across these products should lead to a better customer experience but will be difficult to maintain in the face of a company that incentivizes business units through their specific products’ success. This might require executive sponsorship to demonstrate just how crucial a cohesive customer experience is for the whole company.

Organize by the customer’s journey. If your company is successful, you’ll need to grow those teams. Keeping in mind that no team should have more than 7 people, consider splitting them up along a customer’s journey. For example, if you’re a travel service, you could section the teams into “Plan Your Trip,” “Book Your Trip,” “Take Your Trip” and “After the Trip.” Remember, this is regardless of whether the product or business teams are organized this way. Organizing by the journey allows each team to shift focus from features (search, browse, booking) to the overall experience, and the design work on those features will fit within the broader whole.

These specific teams will still roll up into a broader “Traveler Design Team.” It’s important that they remain in contact, even if it’s just a weekly meeting to share out what each sub-team is working on.

A ramification of this approach is that you might have designers from two different teams work on the same feature where your different customer types interact. One example of this is in a marketplace, where a buyer wants to book an appointment with a seller. From a product management and engineering perspective, “Book an appointment” would likely be the responsibility of a single feature team. In a decentralized organization, the same designers would work on the user experience for both the buyer and the seller. When you organize by customer journey, however, the concern shifts to figuring how this feature fits in the buyer’s and seller’s respective workflows. You want the Buyer Team to design the appointment feature in the context of the broader Buyer experience, and likewise on the Seller side. It might feel like inefficient overhead, but it should result in better conversion as the designs are mindful of context.   

New Logistics Hot Take: Uber Rush (powering merchants) v Postmates (powering shoppers)

This morning, Uber launched its expanded same-day (same hour?) delivery service, UberRush. As the current marketing shows, Uber is directing this at merchants as a way to help them delivery their stuff to customers throughout their city.

When I first heard about this program, I assumed this was a shopper-facing program. I hadn’t read the Shopify x Uber announcement closely enough, and figured this was another option Uber was presenting its app users, much like UberEats. I thought it was pretty genius, Uber getting people to buy from Shopify merchants through their app, and then overtime, as they build their own systems that more deeply integrate with merchants, just take those customers away from Shopify.

Instead, Uber is simply serving as a carrier, a service for merchants that doesn’t have a consumer-facing component.

This struck me as odd, because I believe, right now, the real opportunity is not simply to power merchants, but to become the Aggregator (or intermediary) between shoppers and what they want. This is what Postmates does — they provide a window to all local businesses, and through them you can get anything you want at those businesses. While some of those businesses integrate with Postmates, the vast majority do not. Whereas most services (Instacart, Caviar, Doordash) require the merchants to have ‘bought in’ to the system, Postmates does not. A key challenge for marketplaces (such as Groupon, where I worked), was having both the demand (shoppers) and supply (merchants) in equilibrium. That shit is hard — Square finally through in the towel after attempts like Square Wallet and Square Market. The genius of Postmates is that merchants aren’t necessarily knowingly on the platform. They’ve solved the supply part of the equation.

Currently when you search Postmates, you search on businesses. It doesn’t take much imagination, though, to see that in a near future, you’ll be able to search on any specific item — and once they do that, Postmates has shifted the power from merchants and their assortments to themselves and their ability to aggregate. It’s what Amazon has done in online retail (you can pretty much find anything in their search box) or Google has done with search.

The Uber approach is surprising because it means Uber is taking a back seat, a secondary role. This is a company that has been very aggressive in getting its name, its brand out there. Now, we’re still quite early in Uber’s life, and who knows what their long term play is (i.e, simply getting merchants more comfortable with them, developing the network so that they can take over the consumer-facing aspects, learning more about ecommerce and delivery before the really invest whole hog, a fundamental shift where at least part of the business is willing to be simply behind-the-scenes, like Amazon is with AWS).

It intrigues me that a day after I wrote about The New Logistics and Exponential Experiences, this is announced. This space is crazy active right now and surprisingly fun to watch. Grab your popcorn and enjoy!