Today I was working with a visual designer, a developer, a charity’s campaigns manager, a UXer and a project manager on a web page for a series of podcasts with celebrities. ​I’m a content strategist, but today I was wearing my Information Architecture hat. An eclectic bunch.

Ellen de Vries
Ellen de Vries
25th August 2017

The interesting thing about this piece of design work is that none of us are ‘leading’ it, or all of us are leading it. The leadership is equally distributed (nice). But it is unspoken (risky). 

If you work in a project-based line of work, like in my agency life, you might have experienced how ‘leadership’ sometimes feels like an ambient term that hangs around waiting for a definition - or for someone to claim it. It’s particularly great when it finds it’s own way, organically employing itself evenly across the team: decisions happen and the weight of responsibility is divided. It feels good. Sometimes it can be equally comforting to have a single leader emerge, and then follow their vision.

But I get the feeling that you and I like to be a little more certain than that. Perhaps even more calculated about it. We like to know how a team is going to look from the outset of a project. 

When the stakes are high, when the enthusiasm is filling the room or when you have a group of experts who are feeling competitive, establishing leadership could descend into a monkey-like struggle to establish hierarchy - get in there quick!

There’s a healthy way to do this.

Whether you think you need leadership or not, it’s important to acknowledge the question of “Who is in charge, and how” with your team - which means discussing it in the open and documenting it. 

Many teams make the assumption that looking for leadership means they’re looking for a single person to be in charge. But leadership can be distributed, particularly in teams where innovation and creativity is key to their remit. 

Establishing leadership is effectively the same as asking the question “How are we going to make decisions and resolve any conflicts that may come up?” 

You could try actively distributing leadership across the team. Instead of thinking of one accountable person, think about putting various people ‘in charge’ of aspects of your collaboration. 

Here are some creative and not-so creative ideas for roles that could help you define a distributed leadership in your project team:

  • The key stakeholder - the person who gives the green light at various pre-defined project stages, they have the final say or the vito on decisions that need to be made.
  • The manager of logistics - scheduling, meeting arrangements, and other day to day housekeeping such as being in charge of the use of the budget, and how people use their time.
  • The expert lens - you need to be careful with this one. If your team has many experts on it, allocate certain times when the experts are allowed to lead with their lens on a problem.  
  • The outside eye - this person may stand in the shoes of the end user or the audience you are working with and make sure you craft the work to meet their wants and needs, they might be an ambassador for any principles you need to uphold. 
  • The facilitator - this person helps you make progress in your work by drawing out ideas, and by asking questions. They may also keep an eye on the agenda and make sure you’re not veering off course. 
  • The buddy - This person’s role is to support people in the team either in terms of their well-being, or as a person who offers a second opinion.

I’d be interested in other kinds of leadership that teams might require. Let me know on twitter @eldevri if you have any ideas.

My next Webinar on Collaboration techniques is with Gather Content on the 12th of September 16:00 until 17:30 (BST, London Time). 

And speaking of leadership, tickets are still available for Leading Design our annual conference in London, 25-27 October 2017.