Managing a design team
Serve and protect
The primary job of a manager is to manage the careers of others. Though management may not be your passion, it will be an important part of your work. As a design leader you’ll help people do great work and develop fulfilling careers, which can have a profound influence on your organization.
I used to think that if you cared for other people you need to study sociology or something like it. … I concluded if you want to help other people, be a manager. If done well, management is among the most noble of professions.
Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma
“If done well, management is among the most noble of professions.” @claychristensen @HarvardHBS
Great managers are not bosses, they’re servant leaders who wield their power to help others. Your service will be an example to your entire team, and will encourage behaviors that will make your team strong. Your actions are a far more effective coaching tool than words alone!
Rich Armstrong, the former COO of Trello, succinctly describes the responsibilities of a manager who serves his or her team and helps each person grow:
- Discover where their professional goals intersect with those of the organization.
- Remove impediments to their achievement of those goals.
- Hold them accountable to move forward on those goals.
- Show them how far they’ve come from time to time.
The way to deliver on each of these responsibilities is to schedule 1-on-1 meetings with each team member.
1-on-1 meetings are a great way for managers and their direct reports to connect individually on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and ensure that employees feel like they’re working toward their goals. These are not status update meetings; they’re an opportunity to give regular feedback and foster growth.
The 1-on-1 is the only place where I get to connect with a person to help them and the company succeed. It’s where I get to find out what’s going on in the company without sticking my nose in and micromanaging.
former COO of Trello
“The 1-on-1 is the only place where I get to connect with a person to help them and the company succeed.” @richarmstrong
Feedback flows both ways. Smart managers ask team members for insight into how they could serve the team better. These honest conversations can help everyone improve.
1-on-1s are also an important time to get to know each team member personally and build rapport. The complexities of life often follow us into work and can affect our performance. Making time for personal conversations can give you insight into a team member’s emotional state.
While it’s not the manager’s job to set the agenda or do the talking, the manager should try to draw the key issues out of the employee. The more introverted the employee the more important this becomes.
“…the manager should try to draw the key issues out…The more introverted the employee the more important this becomes.” @bhorowitz @a16z
You can keep your 1-on-1s on track and make them more productive using 15five.com. Each week, 15five.com emails team members a short survey that helps them reflect on their work. It takes them 15 minutes to complete, and you 5 minutes to review. Their responses will spark discussion in each 1-on-1 meeting.
Ask these sorts of questions in your 1-on-1s:
- Short term goals: How do you feel the project is going so far? Are there any projects you want to work on in the near future?
- Long term goals: What do you want to be doing in 5 years? What are your big dreams in life?
- About the company: What is the company not doing today that we should do to better compete in the market? What’s 1 thing we’d be crazy not to do in the next quarter to improve our product?
- Self improvement: Do you feel challenged at work? Are you learning new things? What area of the company would you like to learn more about?
- Manager improvement: What could I do as a manager to make your work easier? Would you like more or less direction from me on your work? How can I help you with your goals?
There are so many important topics to cover. Jason Evanish has published 101 questions for 1-on-1s, an invaluable source that will help you spark meaningful conversations with your team members.
Say thank you and celebrate
With all of your responsibilities as a design leader, you’re going to be busy—very busy. As you focus on pushing projects forward and running your team, don’t forget that people need to be recognized for their contributions. Make a habit of saying “thank you” to each team member for their work. Everyone needs to hear it individually and as a team.
After wrapping up a big project, take time to celebrate with your team. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment and recharge their batteries. If you move on to the next project without recognizing the team’s accomplishment, you risk them feeling empty and uninspired to climb the next mountain with you.
Etiquette tip: Criticism during a celebration will just demoralize your team. Save your feedback about the project until after the celebration!
On managing a UX team effectively
Joseph Dickerson, UX Pursuit Lead for Americas at Microsoft, echoes and expands on the design leadership guidance offered here in his Quora post entitled What Do I Need to do to Manage a UX Team Effectively.
Introducing new management layers
As your team grows, you’ll need to introduce additional layers of management to keep the team and their projects on track. You’ll know it’s time when you no longer have enough hours for all of your 1-on-1 meetings.
When you reach that point, you’ll be anxious to get extra help to relieve some stress, but fight the urge to take quick action. Putting the wrong person in a position of authority will only make your work harder.
When you’ve identified a prospective manager, assign them just 1 employee to manage and observe how they handle the shift in work. If they neglect their new management responsibilities in favor of design work, you know you’ve got the wrong person for the job.
If the team member performs well, add additional direct reports and remove design tasks from their to-do list. Continue to monitor and coach them regularly to help them get their bearings.
Twitter has a unique approach to how they transition individual contributors into management. In other organizations, career growth is often closely connected to a company’s org chart—to make more money you have to become a manager, which incentivizes the wrong people into positions of power. In contrast, Twitter sees the transition into management as a lateral move, and there is no pay raise associated with it. Raises are performance-based, which incentivizes the right behavior—designers who want to further pursue their craft will develop their career without sacrificing their passions.
Management is not a promotion, but a separate track.
“Management is not a promotion, but a separate track.” @alexoid @Airbnb
Right person, right project
There are 2 very different types of designers: hunters and farmers. Each is essential to a design team, but—as Aarron Walter discovered while leading the UX team at MailChimp—when matched with the wrong project, chaos ensues.
Hunters and farmers
The MailChimp UX team was shorthanded as it wrapped up a key project, and to help us meet a deadline I brought in another designer to help. The product workflow had been sorted out—we just needed some details polished. After reviewing the work in progress, the new designer immediately started redesigning everything. These were interesting ideas, but none of the work was in the project scope. In the end, the designer pushed the team further off course, making it even harder to hit the tight deadline.
I had sent a hunter to do a farmer’s work.
Late 1 year, with some extra time on our hands, I asked 1 of my designers to begin exploring ideas for a major redesign of MailChimp. She created dozens of concepts, but I could see it wasn’t going well. Her stress was palpable. She continually sought guidance, but we had little to offer—we were venturing into new territory. After 2 months of exploration, she could take it no more—operating without constraints proved too stressful.
I had sent a farmer to do a hunter’s work.
Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths, and look for traits in each of your designers to identify farmers and hunters:
- Love constraints, and feel lost without them
- Enjoy slogging through existing products to find a more refined design solution
- Thrive on product iteration and refinement
- Excited by freedom to wander—too many constraints deplete their energy
- Comfortable with uncertainty and unfamiliar territory
- Thrive on new products and redesigns
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen
You’ll hear echoes of farmers and hunters in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, in which he compares the creative processes of Dylan and Cohen, and Picasso and Cezanne. Turns out farmers and hunters exist in every creative medium.
Conflict is uncomfortable, but it’s inescapable as a design leader. When conflict arises in your team, confront it early to maintain the health of your team.
Each 1-on-1 meeting is an opportunity to listen for the stirrings of conflicts. Don’t wait until deadlines are missed or the team seems ineffective. If a designer reports conflict between other team members, talk with everyone individually before taking action. Matters can be blown out of proportion when information is second hand, and you can make things worse if you act before you’re fully informed.
When you’ve identified a conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard, and don’t conclude the meeting until you’ve collectively identified a pathway to resolution.
- Conduct regular 1-on-1 meetings to establish rapport and foster career growth with each team member
- Take time to thank your team members and colleagues regularly. People need recognition to feel their work is valued.
- When your team has reached a big milestone, celebrate. It’ll make your team closer and communicate your respect for their contributions.
- Before moving someone into a management position, let them test the waters by managing 1 person. If they perform well, add additional direct reports.
- Avoid pay increases when transitioning someone into management. It incentivizes the wrong people to seek positions of power.
- Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths. Pairing the right designer to the right project is key to keeping your team productive.
- When conflict arises, do your research before you act. Trust, but verify the claims made by your team members.
- To resolve conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard.