I’ve been a manager off and on for more years than I’ll likely admit. Naturally, as with any skill, it’s taken a lot of practice, patience, and pure force of will to get me to this stage—the stage at which I’m confident that I have insights to share with others about how to be the kind of manager who’s worthy of a wonderful team of creatives. For the sake of consistency, I’ll use the Meetup design team as my prime example of how I managed being a manager at a place that really mattered and for a team that really rocked.
Hiring & On-boarding
One of the first pieces of advice I got when I became a manager was that hiring would be the most important part of my job. Of course, I agree with this wholeheartedly, but it still took me a while to figure out how to do it.
One of my core beliefs is that the best design comes from collaboration. This is not the most popular view among the majority of designers, and so it became my most important point among my hiring criteria. You can’t tell from a résumé or a portfolio whether someone will get along with the rest of your team, so we had other ways of finding out. First, I built in an hour-long whiteboard sketching session on a real-ish design problem with another designer, an engineer and a product person. Second, we planned a lunch with the design team. Third, I looked into references.
Ability to get along with other designers, earn their respect, and work on things together was something I weighed more heavily than any specific skill, experience level, or stunning portfolio piece.
I also learned over time that a good on-boarding plan is really important. New people are eager to show their usefulness, and when they are clear on what’s expected of them they feel supported and gain confidence in themselves and the organization. A good team-specific handbook that covers everything from broad team attitudes and expectations, to project backgrounds, all the way down to the small stuff like how to ask for time off, and who to ask for a better monitor, saves a lot of time and stress.
There were a lot of issues when I took over the Meetup design team, so the first thing I did was set about cataloging our challenges. I took each designer out to lunch and took copious notes when I asked them to describe all of their problems. I wanted to see what the patterns were, how bad things were, what was most urgent, and—hopefully—what I could do to help make it better.
This helped me formulate my plan for building a design culture, but it really proved to be most handy when I wanted to see if I was making progress. I dumped all my notes into a spreadsheet, assessed progress, and wrote notes about what had changed. About six months later I revisited the list, made a couple of new columns and went through the exercise again. This more of an exercise to rate my own progress as a manager and my effectiveness in creating a design culture than it was to check in on individual or team performance.
This helped me get some perspective on what was—or was not—having an impact and it helped me uncover new issues.
In addition to my initial interviews, and to the regular company-mandated review cycle, I wanted a quick way to check in and see how the team was feeling. Every few months, I asked the team to take a few minutes to fill out this 12 question Gallup survey.
It turned out to be a really quick and practical way to catch issues before they became real problems. Here’s a great example—we had almost always been a very close tight-knit team, and scored highly on the “do I have a best friend at work” question. Then we hired three new designers within a few weeks, and we saw a sharp drop off in that score afterward, so I knew that we weren’t doing a good enough job of bringing them into the team, and I was able to quickly course-correct.
The structure I was accustomed to from previous companies was to pair visual designers with UX designers. But Meetup started out with a small design team with one designer per cross-functional team that handled everything from research to assets, and sometimes code. In the beginning, we all met at least weekly to show our work and get help and feedback from each other, but as the team grew, this kind of collaboration became an issue. In order to strengthen design collaboration, and clear up some issues regarding ownership and decision-making, I came up with a new team structure.
This structure assured that every project would have someone who was in charge, another person they could rely on for support and feedback, and at least one other subject matter expert weighing in on their work. At any given time every designer was a “primary” on at least one project, and a “secondary” on at least one project. This meant that decision-making power could be distributed among the team, and those decisions were checked and balanced by at least two other members of the team.
Process & Values
As organized and collaborative as you can get your design team to be, it makes little difference unless the rest of the organization is in step. When I first started at Meetup, cross-functional teams were almost completely autonomous, which was great for some things, but it made it very hard to appropriately coordinate between teams, to resource teams effectively, and to plan for the future. Read more about creating the design culture here.
We found that even though we could let teams make most decisions themselves, we at least needed to be on the same schedule and have explicit, regular ways for people in the company to find out what was going on with a given project—and to pitch new work.
And of course, being on the same schedule and having access to other teams only goes so far if you all make decisions differently. For example, if one team is focused on cleaning up junk and reducing debt, and another team is focused on quick experiments, this can lead to internal strife, new debt, and poor user experiences. To truly move forward as a company, we needed a shared set of values to belief and to follow.
We spent a lot of time, and many iterations, before landing on a set of shared decision-making criteria to which we could all agree. It was a deep and painful process but we knew we’d hit on something that really worked when it came up in almost every conversation. I’ve been involved in this exercise to define values with several companies over the years, but until this one, nothing really stuck.
My biggest contribution to this project was the insistence on the format of “something over something else legitimate.” A value like “nice > mean” doesn’t really help you make choices, because most people would never chose to be mean, but something like “lives > money” tells you exactly what to do.
In conclusion, I suggest that you…
- Build your hiring process around the most important thing for the team’s success (for me and the Meetup design team, it was collaboration)
- Support new team members with a solid on-boarding plan
- Find a way to keep track of how—and if—you’re doing what you and your team set out to do
- Keep checking in with your team in low-friction ways to find issues before they become real problems
- Set up explicit roles and expectations within your team structure that scale
- Create autonomy through clear structure, distribute decision-making power, and avoid micro-managing
Your team can only be as organized as the organization lets you be, so treat it like a design problem and manage up until you find a process and shared values that work.
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