Design Leaders are Business Leaders

From Designing Atlassian:

Image courtesy of Death to Stock

In October 2018 I was lucky enough to speak at The Leading Design conference in London, put on by the wonderful folks at Clearleft. The full talk about growing design at Atlassian is online now.

As we have grown and scaled the design organisation from 6 to over 150 at Atlassian in just 5 years, I have come to a few personal realizations about my own role as a design leader. That can be encapsulated by this one quote;

We are no longer just design leaders. We are business leaders and we are accountable for business outcomes.

I want to expand on exactly what I mean by this statement with a few tangible examples.

Design needs to stop naval gazing

In his talk at UX London in 2018, Paul Adams from Intercom asked us as a group of design leaders to stop naval gazing. I firmly share his beliefs. In most modern companies, we already are seen as an equal partner in the leadership teams we participate in. And we need to accept that, instead of whinging about wanting to sit at the leadership table or be invited to every important meeting.

We are already there, we are just not acting like it.

We are still too focussed only on design problems, or pretending that as designers we seem to magically be the only ones who can represent our customers. Spoiler from Pauls talk, other departments actually spend more time with customers than we do. Design is not the centre of the leadership universe. We are now an equal partner alongside engineering, product, marketing, support, finance, marketing and many other departments. As an equal partner we still need to focus on our core competency (design) but we also need to fully participate as part of a functioning leadership team.

Design needs to own outcomes

So we have a seat at the fabled leadership table. Now what? By being there it means you are fully accountable for outcomes end-to-end. It is no longer acceptable to simply throw mocks or personas over a wall and then move to the next project. Or if that project you supplied the mocks for fails, casually saying “I told you so” because you felt you were not solving the right problems, is no longer good enough.

You have to speak up. You have to own outcomes end-to-end. This is hard.

Sometimes this also means that as a design leader you may be asked to do things outside of your normal remit. You may be the lead or sponsor of a project (Instead of just a participant). As an owner of an entire stream of work you will have more stakeholders than you ever had as a design leader. Again, you can’t simply point fingers at other departments if things go wrong. You need to lead. You need to take accountability for the success or failure of the project. You can’t give in when things start going badly. If you have owned the project end to end, made courageous trade-off decisions, thrown everything you possibly can into making the project successful and been an excellent communicator throughout, I guarantee that even if you fail you will build trust as a leader. You will have shown that you have what it takes to own an outcome end-to-end, instead of just participate in the process.

Kristen Skinner and Peter Merholz illuminate this point well in their book, Org Design for Design Orgs;

If designers shield themselves in the cloak of “creatives” as a way not to engage with the business, they will lose impact and credibility. Designers need to understand how their work contributes to business success.

Design needs to play the long game

In my talk, I used the example of NPS usage at Atlassian. When we first adopted this metric this many designers questioned why we would use this metric as it obviously has some negative uses in product development. However, as a leadership team we understood that this wasn’t the end game. By collecting NPS, we also started receiving thousands of pieces of qualitative feedback every week. We were categorising these and listening to a much broader range of our end-users than ever before. This fundamentally changed how we prioritised feature development.

Once we had started more deeply listening to our users, we started to refine the metrics we collected and are starting to move away from NPS. We are now focussing on more nuanced in-context task based metrics. We are currently trialling HaTs (the happiness tracking survey from Google). We are rolling out top tasks across our products. In short, we are evolving. NPS was never the end game, but it gave us momentum. As you grow and mature, you also need to grow and mature how you listen to and respond to your users at scale.

Design need to be amazing partners

When you are an equal partner in a leadership team you have to earn trust. Trust does not come for free. You need to engage and work hard to build this with your peers. Building trust is the number one thing that will make you a successful part of your leadership team. Owning outcomes versus just the design thing will help with this. But you can also do this by being an amazing partner in your leadership team. Show up as a proactive, caring partner to every meeting and fully participate.

This means caring about the problems your Product / Engineering / Marketing etc partners have. When was the last time you asked them about their own disciplines problems or goals? Can you help facilitate a workshop for them to help them navigate a specific problem? Do you really understand how your product makes money? How are you tracking versus forecast? If you don’t know the answer to these questions, it is hard to participate in conversations and harder to be a valuable member of your leadership team.

This means that in meetings you need to be engaged. It is no good switching off and saying “Call me in when we discuss the design stuff”. It indicates that you don’t care. You have arrived at the big stage, but you have nothing to contribute. Whilst you may not be an expert in many things being discussed, you are a smart, senior leader in the company. And your full presence at meetings is required to help steer your business unit in the right direction. You are equally accountable and culpable if you haven’t raised concerns about (for example) marketing decisions you feel will negatively impact your brand.

Design needs to disagree and commit sometimes

Amazon have this wonderful phrase “disagree and commit”. They believe that teams will never fully agree on everything and often they need to just disagree as a group but commit to publicly backing the person accountable for making the decision. As a leader part of a multi-disciplinary team you need to stand up for design decisions you strongly believe in, but also know when to disagree and commit.

We cannot always just moan and complain when a particular user experience is not prioritized. We have to have a broad view and understand the business and user trade-offs, which you as a leadership team need to make. Obviously ensure you don’t do harm to your users, fight for things you truly believe in. But at the core of great design and business, is about making extremely hard trade-off decisions. This shift from design to business leadership magnifies the level of trade-offs you will need to make.

Tip; One of my managers has even brought the essence of disagree and commit into the physical space with his leadership team. They each have a physical card they can play once per half year. That card means that even if the other person disagrees with a decision they have made they will publicly back them.

Building on the quote I started this article with;

We are no longer just design leaders. We are business leaders and are accountable for business outcomes. Embrace it. It is worth it.

The core craft aspect of our role does not go away. We are still accountable for great design work. This article is not an excuse to stop caring about design and building amazing products that users truly love. But as we become equal partners inside of our companies, we need to embrace the shift in expectations of our roles. We must build on top of the design superpowers we already have; customer empathy, reframing problems, visualizing solutions and more. We must engage the business and partner effectively with those in our leadership teams. We must make sure we truly understand how the business operates, both strategically and day to day. There are interesting business problems begging for innovative answers and companies hungry for our leadership. If we do this effectively and don’t hide behind the designer cloak, we have the opportunity to be business leaders today and in the future.

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Design Leaders are Business Leaders was originally published in Designing Atlassian on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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