How to Lead a Design Team
Takeaways from David Silva’s Beer and UX Presentation
Good leadership can exponentially multiply a team’s collective creative abilities.
The Beer and UX community was recently joined by David Silva for a talk titled “How to Lead a Design Team,” drawing from his own career experience as a design practitioner and leader. David who is currently the Senior Manager User Experience at PwC, offered an intro to DesignOps and then shared his own keys to effective design team leadership. It was a compelling talk packed with actionable insights.
For those who want to watch the presentation in its entirety, we have uploaded a recording to our YouTube channel.
Now, onwards to some of our favorite takeaways:
Make sure designers actually have time to design.
Increasingly, David pointed out, design teams are growing at a faster rate than the rest of the company. As teams grow, so do their needs and as a result, management strategies must evolve. When mismanaged, adding more people to a distributed team can be disruptive, but there are some great frameworks out there to avoid that. The pillars of DesignOps for example, can help leaders think about how teams work together, how they get work done, and how that work can create an impact. The outcome of embracing this process is consistent, quality design deliverables. Documentation and prioritization are especially important. Documentation helps facilitate onboarding for new hires, while prioritization addresses resourcing. A team’s capacity is both quantifiable and finite, so building in efficiencies is key. As the leader of a design team David asserts, you are responsible for establishing objective and consistent methods to plan your sprints and refine your backlog. The end result is that your team will have capacity do what they do best: design. Educate other teams and stakeholders on the value of user centered design.
This is two-fold, David explained. First, it is important to track and share the success stories of user centered design within your team. Second, design leaders should look to help other teams learn about and leverage user centered design methods in their work. In addition to being a framework, DesignOps, David explained, is a mindset. By introducing other teams and stakeholders to these methods and ways of thinking, they will grow to appreciate the contributions of designers within the organization.
David shared that in his own experience, facilitating workshops for other teams has been an effective way to build enthusiasm for user centered design across an organization. It’s not merely about designing something, but rather: offering people a new lens through which to solve problems.
Protect your team’s creative space and process.
This may require leaders to act as a buffer between their teams and other people in the organization. However, David also noted the importance of defending your design team. As the leader, it’s your job to create environments that encourage collaboration and effective communication, without compromising the quiet focus time we all sometimes need. In some cases, this means creating some physical separation from other areas of the business, shielding designers from the distractions of administrative and operational functions. In corporate environments that are slow to embrace new, collaborative ways of working, the design manager’s role includes advocating for and defending their team. It is important to help them your team feel embraced and empowered within the larger organization. As a leader, you need to be willing to take on that challenge and defend the methods and behaviours, applied and embodied by creative teams.Sometimes that requires demystifying design and socializing stakeholders to the creative ways and processes they may be unfamiliar with.
Provide purpose and empower.
From the moment you hire somebody, it is important to be invested in their development and progress. David reminds us that good leaders are invested in helping their team members achieve their professional goals and that these things are worth discussing as early as onboarding.
“If you love your designers, let them be free,” David says. There isn’t a better motivating factor than being empowered to think for yourself he explained. Team members are more invested when they are trusted. “The importance of working in a free environment where self-management is encouraged should not be underestimated.” Creative people are driven and want to contribute meaningfully. When you communicate a larger purpose to your team, they can find the drive to contribute work that they believe in. This requires building a personal connection and creating space for people to bring their whole selves to work.
A team lead David explained, should not be sitting in an office with a physical barrier between them and their team. This means creating opportunities for one-on-one connection, leaving some room for error, encouraging team building and being available. A good leader creates lasting relationships with their team and is invested in their development beyond this role.