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Making Design Bets to Knock the Blurs into Shape
This article was originally published on the First Round Review.
I have a confession. When we first started building Percolate’s design team four years ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
It was only through practice and diving head first into experiments that the milestones gradually came into focus. It was a lot like the first time I decided to run a half marathon and had no idea what it was going to take until I started doing it. There was no real science behind my approach to design management either. No amount of reading Harvard Business Review or listening to deep breathing podcasts helped. I kept coming back to the same three questions:
How can I build a productive team while still making a contribution myself?
How do I avoid spending all my time planning and coordinating our team’s schedule?
How is the team going to achieve the standards I expect without me staying involved every step of the way?
I imagine many other managers have had similar thoughts. But the thing is, we shouldn’t spend our time answering these three questions. They’re fragmented and full of panic. They lead us in ineffective circles. The only way to break this pattern is to stop worrying about ourselves and focus on what we can do for the team. With this mental shift, I was able to figure out ways to inspire trust and for our team to accomplish things, together.
This article is about my journey getting to this point.
Stop Worrying About the Work
When you’re at a purpose-driven organization, you’re building things designed to last. Percolate, Facebook, Airbnb, Patagonia, Google — they’re all purpose driven organizations. Their work is aspirational and never done. At Percolate, we want to create technology that builds the world’s best brands. Airbnb wants to make people feel at home anywhere on the planet. Google wants to organize the world’s information and make it accessible. This is what inspires employees to get out of bed every morning.
As a manager, you need to get comfortable with the idea of purpose.
You need a lens to help you find clarity every day when you’re orchestrating the activities of the team around you. It’s not just the purpose of the organization that matters either. What is your purpose as a leader? Why is it important that your job exists?
If your immediate answer is to produce the best work, you need to take a step back. Instead, think about a single point of truth that you can use to ground you and shape the decisions you make to empower other people. That’s what you’ll be judged on. The performance of your team is far more important than your individual contribution. The quality of your team is the real mark of your success.
A good ‘single point of truth’ is a managerial value that you strongly believe in. It should be a statement that looks to the future in a way that helps people grow. It should motivate individuals beyond themselves to create success for the entire team.
At Percolate, we employ designers at all stages of their careers in a high-growth environment. Lots of things are in flux, and we often find ourselves chasing moving targets.
Here, my single point of truth is that my job is to create confidence in our designers.
Having worked as a designer for years before becoming a manager, I know firsthand that the number one challenge any individual designer faces is to get the team to believe in the solutions you propose. So it follows that the best thing I can do as a manager is to help them think through ways to earn this respect from their peers, present their ideas clearly, build consensus, get others excited, and see their visions through.
Here are the questions I ask myself every day to help each person on our team succeed in this way:
How can I help designers get the most out of their days?
Day to day, it’s easy to lose hours to small tasks. This leaves designers feeling constantly behind and unable to catch up. They start accepting that they’ll tackle things the next day, no wait, the day after next. This is how people stop being inspired by their work.
To solve this, I set up a few simple guides to help us all balance important and urgent tasks. The first asks people to tackle their most important tasks that require the deepest, most challenging thinking in the morning when their minds are clear. I advise them to keep away from email and meetings. The second half of the day can then be devoted to urgent things like logistics, administration and production of easier items like creating icons, style guides and storyboards.
I don’t do anything hard and fast to enforce this pattern of work. Rather, I casually check in with folks one-on-one or in small groups to see how they’re approaching their days. The informal setting encourages them to be honest, and gives me the chance to make light suggestions about how they should plan their time if they’re feeling stuck.
Leading by example is more powerful than you could ever imagine.The team has told me that they see me come into the office early, tackle tough projects at the start, and hold meetings in the afternoon. Now when the team needs to schedule new meetings, they default to finding time in the afternoon because it’s widely accepted that morning is reserved for deep thought and the most impactful project work. New people who join the team quickly pick up on our habit by following the example set by their teammates.
How can I get designers to keep pushing the standard of their work?
It’s natural to have a diversity of strengths across a design team. At times, this can result in mixed quality of work. One approach to solving this inconsistency is to define your standards as a team. These standards are best born out of celebrating the work of individuals who excel and whose processes you admire.
I share these examples at team meetings, in casual callouts in front of the team, and via emails. This is much more positive and effective than offering one-off feedback on projects in development. As a byproduct, high performers feel rewarded, and I’m able to set an implicit expectation for the whole team.
At the same time, it’s important that everyone goes through the exercise of setting a high bar for themselves. There’s a few ways to prompt this discussion.
For example, in 2012, our team built a series of simple, visual presentations based on each stage of our design process — from how we explored a brief to how we created wireframes and more. The presentations each talked about the ideal ways these steps would be executed, and were subsequently used to onboard and train new team members to initiate them into the standards we all created together.
This year and last, we started building out a resource library with all of the team’s processes and guidelines documented in one place. The goal is to create a system that allows us to document and easily discover standards in a lightweight, clear, instructional way.
How can I help designers see how much they’re growing?
Designers at all levels want to know they’re making progress. Positive feedback is a must, but I found that I needed to go beyond verbal praise. People want something tangible that will motivate them to focus on building new skills.
To help people understand how far they’ve come, I rely a lot on documentation. For example, during a research project the team did last summer, I had each member keep a brief, unedited diary in a Google Doc tracking the developments and decisions they made every day. Most of the daily entries summarized activities — interviews they had carried out, user flows they were considering, sketches they had made etc. The idea was to get a sense for how they were spending their time without taking up too much more of it. Here’s how Melissa, a product designer, described the experience and what it meant to her.
The diary entries were helpful for me to track and support what they were doing. It also gave each of them the space to reflect on and learn from decisions they made after the fact while showing them the momentum they were building to solve high-level, undefined problems. Finally, it gave me something to share with stakeholders across the company to demonstrate the craft and rigor of the team.
Along the same lines, I also felt the need to facilitate concrete growth in our quarterly appraisal system.
During this process, every manager meets with their reports at the start of a new quarter to set fresh goals. The format of the meeting has shifted from setting specific projects as goals to outlining three actions the employee will take and three actions I will take as their manager.
These actions are all geared toward helping that employee achieve their long-term growth objectives. These objectives are drawn from a documented ‘growth profile’ we ask everyone to create when they come on board — a simple task that asks them to write down their motivations, career goals and current strengths and weaknesses related to those goals. That way, we’re always tackling wants and needs that are immediately relevant to their broader aspirations.
As we’ve iterated on our quarterly appraisal system, a few things have stood out as especially useful:
Collecting testimonials from colleagues in order to deliver authentic recognition from all areas of the business.
Confronting employees with new challenges that are slightly outside their scope of current abilities and their comfort zone.
Being serious about action items for both me as manager and the employee. My action items might include things like coaching them on new responsibilities that speak to skills they want, connecting them to people outside the business who can help them grow in new ways, collaborating with them on process experiments etc.
This approach has helped designers focus on growing in realistic, incremental ways that will add up to dramatic improvements for them and the company. It’s also raised their sights above day-to-day tasks to increase their connection with the work and Percolate.
To keep people excited and focused in the short term, you need to tie their day-to-day work with a greater sense of purpose. You have to develop a multi-year track that appeals to them. And to do this requires making bold long-term bets that everyone can rally behind.
Placing Big Bets on the Future
The number one attribute of any healthy culture is commitment. If people on your team share this quality, you’ll be able to drive real improvement over time. These are people who are consistently seeking ways to grow the team — not just in size but in quality, skills and sense of community — and to help the organization take on new challenges. Making bets to take your company to the next level is what will inspire this type of commitment.
Making bets draws out the people who are willing to put in a huge level of effort to achieve outstanding results. They encourage people to introduce new ideas, tactics and tools to the team, and look for ways to improve existing processes.
In the past, we’ve had people create new meetings, devise new types of critique sessions, and introduce new prototyping tools. At times, these initiatives ask people to sacrifice personal time. Convincing them requires going the extra mile to not just stand out as an individual but to create a strong bond between people too.
To establish and maintain this type of long-term commitment, I needed to build everyone’s confidence beyond the raw skills that helped them produce great things week to week. I needed to think about opportunities for them to go ‘all in’ and stretch beyond their job descriptions. They needed opportunities to showcase their efforts on the Percolate blog, speak at company events, build out our training materials and develop agendas for our team offsites and dinners.
To this end, I’ve made a series of bets around the future needs of our design team, the company and the community around me. How did I think about placing the right bets for the company? Wired Co-founder Kevin Kelly puts it well:
Betting on the future is more than just entertainment. It’s also an engine for study, rigor and planning.
Basically, my job is to bet on things that will help us learn more, strive for greatness, and get more clarity around where we’re headed. As a design manager, my bets need to develop the team and attract new people to come in and shake up the status quo.
Looking back at the last four years here at Percolate, we’ve made a number of bets to shape the design team for success. Here are the bets we’ve placed and the actions we’ve taken as a result:
BET #1: Technology companies only need one type of design role.
With this in mind, we only hire designers who have the potential to operate across all stages of a project. Visual design sensibilities are standard while user experience and research skills remain the most critical for everyone on board. Our training efforts reflect this. Everyone on the team should have the skills and knowledge to jump in and help at any point.
Here’s how we’ve grown to reflect this emphasis on a single role, and our team-wide education that reinforces this value:
BET #2: Investing time in growing a company of designers will set us apart.
In addition to guiding the career paths of designers, we will introduce scalable design practices, resources and tools everyone across the company can access and readily use. These pieces will build empathy around our client needs and empower anyone to create on-brand materials as soon as they need them.
Here’s what we’ve done to create tools and materials to make design a defining pillar of the company’s character and future growth:
BET #3: Having an open team culture will help us adopt new practices.
We believe that encouraging people to work closely together to build the design team will lead to the growth of individual designers. This bottom-up approach will make it much easier and rewarding for designers to bring in new practices and experiments while ensuring that responsibility for change and thoughtful evolution is distributed to everyone equally. When this happens, everyone feels a sense of shared ownership over the company, and there is no better fuel for productivity and commitment.
Here’s how we’ve progressed as a result of building an intentionally open culture:
BET #4: Our design process needs to adapt to new technologies.
The mass adoption of mobile technologies and whatever comes next will inevitably impact the processes used by our design team. We need to be ready to change our deliverables, how cross-functional teams work together, and how roles are shaped in order to continue making products that not only meet people’s needs but are far ahead of the curve.
Here’s how we’re anticipating these types of changes and building flexibility into the company to stay nimble:
BET #5: Building community will lead us to amazing talent.
Helping Percolate develop a visible presence in the design community by sharing and hosting experiences with many amazing companies and designers will establish Percolate as a leader in the space. It shows we give a damn. Our commitment to the practice of design will attract the best designers and partners to the company.
Here’s how our community efforts have mapped out since starting the design team:
BET #6: By engaging with educators, we will be able to rethink design training.
We will engage with design schools to test new methodologies and contribute to design education programs wherever we can. Our impact here will increase awareness among students, teachers and academics of opportunities for designers to get involved with Percolate and our work.
Here’s how we’ve gradually gotten more of the education community involved with what we’re doing:
As you can see, realizing big initiatives like these takes time. When we began as a design team of one, it was naturally an all-hands-on-deck situation. We were able to set up the basics but not much more. As our team has grown and become more capable, we’ve scaled up the firepower behind each of these bets accordingly.
It’s no coincidence that our biggest developments in each of these areas have aligned with team growth. This has also been a challenge, because as more people join and dynamics shift, it’s easy to lose these large initiatives in the mix. We’ve had to continually refocus on making regular — often slow — progress on all of them.
I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with things taking a while. For example, as a team we talked about launching the DesignTalk event series for well over a year before it became a reality.
The real value of placing large bets isn’t just the outcomes, but also the experience of working together as a team to manifest a vision.
The process of bringing these ideas to life based on share beliefs has refined our thinking, made us more biased toward action and kept us in learning mode.
Today, I find myself working with rising design managers and a team of designers who are confidently leading projects and developing new ways to work across the company. My purpose to create this confidence has also pushed me to go far beyond helping people manage the work in front of them, or even the hard results of that work. Now, I’m more focused on the relationships and environments that are enabling great work to be done.
Somewhat surprisingly, the development of my management approach has demonstrated a lot to me about my character. I’ve had to put myself out there, speak candidly about my experiences both good and bad, and be frank about my weaknesses.
Being able to be transparent about who I am and what I’ve done has helped the design team document what we collectively believe good leadership looks like as we grow.
Now, when I sit in interviews with senior candidates looking to join Percolate, my favorite question to ask is: “What’s your leadership style?” I watch and listen to see what their immediate answer says about their focus, interests and poise. I want to know how they’ve made sense out of chaos, found direction in the noise, and knocked the blurs into shape.