The new normal we find ourselves in has changed the way we run design teams, prioritise and measure success. Last month we hosted our fourth Design Leadership Panel where we discussed the challenges that come with managing teams that have been forced to go remote.

Alex Higgs
Alex Higgs
12th June 2020

From the panel discussion, we’ve assembled 10 themes, tools and thoughts which emerged that we can all apply to how we lead and manage teams now, and moving forward in the future.

Many thanks go to our panel featuring Dan Cordor, Head of UX & Design at Gumtree, Stuart Gomersall, Head of Digital Technology at Lloyd’s, Christine Pizzo, Studio Design Lead at Digital Products, an Accenture Studio, Dan Potenza, Head of UX at MoneySuperMarket Group and Katie Taylor, Head of Experience Design at Wellcome Trust.

Maintaining happy teams intro slide

1. Steal processes from different groups

Learn, borrow and steal from other disciplines. At Accenture, Christine has borrowed the concept of mob development and applied it to the design team. She has found it stops the ‘designing behind a desk’ mentality, is more casual and interactive, with constant casual conversations bringing natural learning from more senior peers. We love a design jam on Figma here at Clearleft, and this is an approach Dan at Gumtree uses with his team also, bringing that sense of collective creativity.

2. Assess leadership speaking down

Over-communicate yes, but make sure you mix the voices up. At Gumtree there was already a company culture of transparency, by ensuring they over-communicate at a team level, it naturally gives visibility from above without the need for more updates/briefings. At Accenture, Christine has made sure the weekly company scrums are not just leadership talking down. Getting different people to run stand-ups is a great way to get the rest of the team talking for you or with you.

3. Use real-time tooling judiciously

Breaking down barriers, and getting the closest experience to being in the room is essential. At MoneySupermarketGroup Dan has run entire product inceptions with 50-60 people across the company co-contributing to a Miro whiteboard successfully defining a proposition. But there is a danger for them to get out of hand without physical constraints - imagine translating your vast Miro boards into a real space. Remember to be concise.

4. Find the right boundaries

It’s a tricky juggle to get it right. Dan Potenza, Dan Corder and Katie had some key thoughts to check before you act -

  • Find the right balance for people and don’t push them too much. Have the awareness as a people leader that there are external stresses.
  • Ultimately look after your own work/life balance. Your family, your health needs to come first and work should, quite rightly, come second.
  • Ask what do I need to be where for, and when/where am I at my best? Ask those questions before defaulting.

5. Maintain professional development

While it may not be the first thing you think of, many of our attendees were concerned with maintaining career momentum during this time. Christine believes it is a really important time to look at it, and to create those personal growth tools and processes. At MoneySupermarketGroup they have a soft skills review yearly. This is not about scoring everyone, but helping their team open conversations - are you interested in this? Do you get your energy from here? Again this is not pushed, but available through 1-2-1s as an ongoing agenda item if people feel differently during this time.

6. Remove the formal

Avoiding the calendar based fear. There are many ways our leaders recommend making leading a team more relaxed. Katie at Wellcome Trust asks her team ‘how do you want to chat today? You choose.’ She’s found it helps to build trust and create a real relationship where your team feels comfortable to say that they’re not up to something. Accenture launched a ‘COVID connection plan’; effectively a phone tree of check-ins. Asking who has the best connection with these people? They then check-in and make a note of who needs help or is fine. This helps her by knowing everyone is being talked to at a glance, and no one is being left behind, without the need for anything more formal.

7. Translate

It’s an incredibly important time to check how your messages are landing as a design leader. For Christine, it’s not about adding additional worry for everyone but being realistic about where the business is and what we can all do about it. Make sure everyone knows how they can help and why we’re asking for things that are critical. And ask in a way that doesn’t make them fearful. Dan has found himself listening far more and picking up on signs at MoneySupermaket Group, allowing a silence in order to let people get to something they may want to bring up.

8. Iterate constantly

With parameters changing on a day to day basis, we are all having to iterate constantly. One way is to increase your commitment to research to give that sense of certainty and confidence. At Gumtree, Dan’s team had the ethical discussion on whether it was the right time to ask how the pandemic has changed how their customers transact with them. Stuart at Lloyd’s has found a similar thing, finding himself and his team asking questions they otherwise wouldn’t. Which he hopes is a positive cultural shift that sticks around for a long-time to come.

As well as increasing our research we can also iterate on team structures and skills. Christine has found when finding people underutilised or on the bench, it’s a perfect time to think about repositioning them a little or allowing them to upskill into areas that will help the business in the long term.

9. An accelerant to tackle the tricky stuff

In many ways, these times have accelerated conversations, approaches and processes that are hard but need to be addressed. Christine has found it stretches us in a way that’s challenging, but we as leaders still have to grow. Often the hardest discussions are the ones where you grow the most. Many leads may have never had to do that, so it’s good we are all tackling these conversations now, of what might happen.

10. Old-style management Vs new-style leadership

Recent times have brought a whole suite of skills that design leaders may have had, but never exercised in this way. Stuart at Lloyd’s flags that there needs to be value to interactions as they are more cognitively exhausting. Leading by example, he’s found himself feeling it’s important to challenge even the CEO/CIO to try and reduce down meeting times to encourage the rest of the team to do the same. Katie has also found that after an initial rush to have more meetings at Wellcome Trust she is now advocating for a more asynchronous leadership style.

Our next panel discussion will be in September. You can register your interest here.