Does your design team need a reset?
There are infinite reasons teams might need to reset. Here are some examples:
- If you've started a new role as a design lead, your young and talented design team may have endured a leadership vacuum with no mentorship to navigate (until you arrived).
- Your design team might be suffering from piecemeal product dictated by engineering.
- A business stakeholder wants to boil the ocean with a new feature.
- The team's beloved leader left the organization for another opportunity.
- You're converting to a remote work model.
- The team may just be lacking proper inspiration toward shipping something game-changing.
Even companies with the best design-first culture sometimes need to reset their team. Whatever is driving the reset, the battle for talent is real. Retention of your key team members should be your goal along with design excellence.
Start with “what is” today.
Interview your team. I know it's hard to be impartial, but treat team interviews as if they're a research project. Ask your team what's in their way. Ask how they'd improve the team and take notes. Make sure to actively listen. If you're remote, this can be especially hard. Be sure to read my guide on remote team management.
Review resourcing. Are people overworked? Are people underworked and bored? Hopefully you have a tool that allows you to see people's time mapped to projects. Planning/time tracking tools like TeamGantt and Harvest will help you understand utilization. Teach or remind your team about the value of accurate project scoping. This way, you can share the weight of design planning and utilization. If you need help, schedule time with me and I can consult with you based on your team's unique needs.
Look at job descriptions & compensation. If you're adopting a team or for some reason don't know compensation structures, take a look at salaries and make sure designers are leveled. Even if you're aware of compensation, have another look at what's going on in the job market to be sure you're staying competitive. Review all your team's job descriptions and be sure they're modern and clear. If not, rewrite them.
Leveling ensures your team's skill sets are aligned to roles and compensation, while creating a clear path for growth.
Be honest with yourself. Are you a good leader? Do you have more to learn? Of course you do. We all do! Approach team optimization with an open mind knowing you may be playing a role in the problem. Part of this is looking introspectively at how you spend your time.
Keep observing. You'll still need to look out for the visual and audible cues of poor team health. Set aside time on your calendar with a reminder to review team health at least once a month. Reminders like this ensure you'll have time booked for this "soft" side of management.
Find the quick wins.
I know, “quick wins” sounds like something an MBA wrote. (Possibly!) But it works. Brainstorm this simple question: How might we, as a team, achieve fast, visible results? The goal is to find an initiative that brings high value to the business while bringing the least amount of pain to the team. If you can, bring in senior members of your team and host a workshop. Use a problem/solution framework to keep you focused.
Here's what some quick wins might look like:
- Process: find a way to break down design tasks to align better with development sprints.
- Culture: improve employee sentiment scores week over week.
- Team "brand" management: meet with the exec team to get them excited about what's happening in design. Senior leadership sets the tone; so use this to your advantage. Present a bang up pitch for a new feature, show process and efficiency improvements, or show awards you’ve won. Bring your team in and openly acknowledge their accomplishments often. Ask those who are comfortable to help you present.
Once you have your problems and solutions outlined, along with implementation plans, share with your team. Here's a management secret: at first, the content doesn’t matter as much as the feeling. The feeling of optimism will drive teams to deliver the formerly impossible. That said, your audience still has to trust what you're presenting, so be sure it's solid. I rarely use the word authenticity, but this is where it's due.
Leadership skill is really about comfort with handling ambiguity. Handling it for yourself alone is enough in many contexts. To be a great manager/leader you must handle it well yourself and also help the team handle it by providing confidence and clarity.
Camille Fournier, Author, The Manager's Path
Reset the foundation.
Now that you have some quick wins under your belt, make sure you check in with your team on progress. Conduct a 1-1 with all of your direct reports, and if they're managers, have them do the same and report back. You can use a modified version of my team interview template. (Get in touch with me and I'll send you the template and a quick how-to.) Make sure to clone the template and take notes for every interview.
You know this, but what works for other teams might not work for yours. Empower your team to voice this and actively help you lead. When they feel ownership, the team becomes a collective instead of a dictatorship.
Your job now is to look for the hard-to-tackle team problems. Here are a few potential problem areas to uncover:
- Toolset: Are the tools you're using best for your team's use case? This includes design systems & software, along with cross-functional tools like Slack and Jira, etc. Take stock of what’s working, what’s not, and what’s new.
- Meetings: Are your meetings valuable and collaborative? Or does your team just check a box for attendance and tune out? Remove what's not brining value. For example, if a stand up can be done virtually on Slack, then cancel that meeting and make stand ups asynchronous. Instead, schedule meetings for the purpose of connecting the team and making decisions. To connect the team, try weekly design watercooler talks. Assign the team to bring a new application, idea, or framework to the virtual or IRL table for discussion.
- Toxicity: Here's the elephant in the room. You've made the effort to listen to your team, visibly work toward improvements, and there's still discontent. Each team is unique and may need custom consulting. That said, there could be one or two individuals who are spreading toxicity. Work with them 1-1 to assess if there's something personal going on, or if the role is simply no longer a fit. As always, keep this professional and lean on your HR team if it gets questionable.
It’s a cycle.
Once the foundation is in place, set up a reporting cadence to review efficiency improvements over time. Your job is to take an objective, yet strategic stance on what’s been implemented.
Show the story of your strategy and process. This is about context. Show how you collectively got there. Overall, the story should start with a summary of the goal, the process you used, and real data. Share your wins, but be sure to share your losses and the lessons learned.
- What was the goal? Big statement describing the problem and makes the audience want to learn more
- How did you try to get there? Outline the process, people and timeline
- What did you actually achieve? Express results in numbers over time. You’ll need at two least quarters or six months to collect this data, so be patient.
- How is the team feeling about the improvements? Quotes, names, headshots
- How are customer reviews and approvals going? Sales figures, especially in the form of positive, beautiful data visualization
- What's our take on the quality of design being produced? Emoji sentiment analysis
- What worked and how did you lean into it? Show and tell
- What didn’t work and what did you learn? Show and tell with humility
- What will you do differently next time? Clear learnings expressed in bullet form. This is the foundation for your next test & iterate cycle.
- How will you be sure this process stays intact?
- What are the action items & who owns them?
- What can the team expect and when?
We lead or are lead by others. As a manager, it’s your job to navigate with confidence, humility, and clarity. Bring value to your organization by learning, building trust, and removing what doesn’t work. Most of all, be ready to iterate like hell.