On Twitter, Sally Carson asked me the question, â€œ…how to best â€˜resourceâ€™ design & plan projects when you have designers embedded on cross-functional teams?â€
I gave a 140-character answer, â€œThe simple answer is: hire more designers. Or, only do so many projects where you can deliver quality. This means saying no to some.â€ As I frequently am asked some variation of this question, it warrants a deeper response. Â
First, Iâ€™ll start with a glib statement: You probably donâ€™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 itâ€™s not understood just how many people it takes to deliver on quality, and itâ€™s more prudent to under-hire (and save money!) than over-hire.
So, what happens when there arenâ€™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, â€œYes.â€ 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 wasnâ€™t intentionally designed, theyâ€™ll try to find a way to contribute, so that what is released isnâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€œNo.â€ Design work should only be done when adequately prioritized and staffed, and when there is time to develop quality solutions. This doesnâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 Sallyâ€™s initial question: the ability to appropriately staff a cross-functional team should be a forcing function for just what gets done. You shouldnâ€™t have to â€˜resourceâ€™ embedded designers — by nature of their embedded-ness, they are automatically resourced. If you have to â€˜resourceâ€™ designers,â€™ 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 thatâ€™s a bright sign that you shouldnâ€™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 getÂ more folks on the design team.
That leads to a whole other problemâ€“recruiting and hiring. But it’s a good problem to have!