in design organizations

You probably don’t have enough designers

On Twitter, Sally Carson asked me the question, “…how to best ‘resource’ design & plan projects when you have designers embedded on cross-functional teams?”

I gave a 140-character answer, “The simple answer is: hire more designers. Or, only do so many projects where you can deliver quality. This means saying no to some.” As I frequently am asked some variation of this question, it warrants a deeper response.  

First, I’ll start with a glib statement: You probably don’t have enough designers. When I talk to folks who are feeling some sort of pain around their design team, more often than not the problem is that they are trying to do too many things with too few people. Design teams are typically understaffed, because it’s not understood just how many people it takes to deliver on quality, and it’s more prudent to under-hire (and save money!) than over-hire.

So, what happens when there aren’t really enough designers to go around? Relevant to this discussion are a capable of paragraphs from my forthcoming Org Design for Design Orgs book:

Designers often express a couple of traits that can get them into trouble. One is a desire to please. Designers want to make others (clients, colleagues, users) happy. And so, when asked to do a thing, the default is often, “Yes.” The other is a revulsion at seeing work go out without designer involvement. So, even when not asked to do a thing, if they see that something might be shipped that wasn’t intentionally designed, they’ll try to find a way to contribute, so that what is released isn’t terrible.

While these intentions are good, the results are self-defeating. Teams get spread too thin, delivering across too many programs, work overlong hours, and ultimately deliver subpar work. A design organization is only as good as what it delivers, and if it is producing crap because it’s trying to do too many things, than the rest of the organization will associate design with crap. Design leaders need to wield the power of “No.” Design work should only be done when adequately prioritized and staffed, and when there is time to develop quality solutions. This doesn’t have to mean excessively long schedules for endless rumination and exploration. Any good design leader knows that there is a point where a design team realizes diminishing returns. What it does mean is empowering the design organization to uphold what it takes to deliver quality, and decline work that doesn’t fit.

Companies are always trying to do more than they have people to deliver on. And many are terrible at prioritization. A key means for prioritization is contained in Sally’s initial question: the ability to appropriately staff a cross-functional team should be a forcing function for just what gets done. You shouldn’t have to ‘resource’ embedded designers — by nature of their embedded-ness, they are automatically resourced. If you have to ‘resource’ designers,’ that is a symptom of too few designers trying to do too many things. If a cross-functional team cannot be created without resourcing, and sustained for the long haul (i.e., not dissolved and reformed to do a totally different thing), then that’s a bright sign that you shouldn’t try to do that thing.

Now, it’s hard for design leaders, especially those trying to earn credibility, to say, “No” to their colleagues. But it’s imperative. Stick to your guns. Show just how good the work is when the team is appropriately staffed. When people see that, they will clamor to get more folks on the design team.

That leads to a whole other problem–recruiting and hiring. But it’s a good problem to have!

  1. I agree that there is most design teams are under staffed, and sometimes the reason for this is because they deliver subpar quality (and hence do not get first priority when assigning headcounts). So it is a catch 22 and I agree that design managers need to learn to say no.

    if talking about allocating designers to cross functional teams, I do believe that they should be at least hired and ideally also be a part of the design team. When e.g. an engineering manager is asked to hire a designer, they often hire “coders that have done a bit of UX or design work” instead. These people will then risk ending up as pure coders and the design team has then lost the control of these.

    My point is that is that I think that a good design manager should be able to also staff cross functional work – and there can be different ways to do it, like assigning a certain percentage of the team to these other tasks and at the same time requesting additional resources. Or if no extra resources is an option, the design manager would have to say no to even more programs/design tasks if staff for crossfunctional teams is needed. And Design people without a solid base in a design team will also often lose their ability to deliver quality and they may end up even destroying work done by the design team (e.g. changing things coming from the design teal to please the coders). So, in my mind, embedded designers should as a minimum have a dotted line to the design team, if not a direct reporting.

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