Building a Design Team & Culture

Building a Design Team & Culture

In the course of my career, I've been on some outstanding, high-functioning teams. I've also been on some low-functioning, non-performant teams. I've gathered some concepts over time around what contributes to the success of groups and what inhibits them.

In my mind, the first point for any team's success is the belief in a well-stated collective purpose. While this may seem obvious, a lack of alignment can be the number one downfall of a team. Any good design team needs to understand the answers to a few central questions - "WhoWhat, and Why?" - the answers to these questions help shape our collective purpose and keep us aligned as we iterate through our design processes. Note the absences of "How" and "When" - for me, these questions are answered respectively by our design process and careful resource planning.

What are some ways we can get answers to these central questions? It starts with our team culture. As designers, the first vital characteristic that tells me a team's efficacy in answering these questions looks directly at their level of curiosity.

Curiosity on the part of team members means that someone is constantly asking our central questions. Those successful design teams continually look for ways to improve their outcomes. Curiosity is one of the critical characteristics you should consider when scaling any design team. When bringing in candidates, irrespective of seniority, their ability to dig deep with questions should shine through.

Curiosity leads to fun - here, my team is setting up a blind taste test for different cola products.
Curiosity leads to fun - here, my team is setting up a blind taste test for different cola products.

That said, curiosity as a team principle is not enough to help us build the collective purpose we need for our design teams to succeed. Another critical characteristic of a successful design team is how they go about socializing findings after asking and answering our central questions. Socializing amongst the group helps to build clarity, and clarity drives shared purpose and vision. For me, another critical indicator of success from a candidate is their ability to bring context and clarity to any situation. What are their communication strengths and weaknesses? It's not particularly fair to expect a Junior Designer to present to a C-level effectively. However, they should have confidence in sharing thoughts and ideas that align with the team's thinking with their peers and working partners in other groups closer to their level of impact. Working in this manner brings clarity to purpose and helps to build consensus towards outcomes quickly.

As a Design leader, I believe my responsibility is to provide as much context and clarity as early as possible to facilitate my team's success. Helping my team get to answers that I can unlock is a core function of my job as a leader, and using my leverage to get those answers is somewhat of an organizational cheat code that I'm unashamed to use!

Now, moving those two core qualities aside, we can delve into what keeps a good design team humming. Earlier in my career, I was introduced to Tuckman's stages of group development, and ever since, I've thought about and called them out to my team as we progress through them. As a leader, an essential step to pay attention to is the Storming phase - this is when your team can lose sight of collective vision in favor of individualistic notions. Conflict or disagreement can quickly knock alignment askew.


One way I've found success in keeping the team on track during a Storming phase is to introduce regular, bi-weekly (two days a week, not every two weeks) design critique sessions. These sessions help designers hone their craft while getting feedback from their peers in a low-to-no-stress environment born out of mutual respect and understanding. This internal critique cadence means designers share their work outside of their regular working partnerships and iterate in a healthy way to think about the problems they're solving differently. It allows them to defend their design direction and hone their presentation skills, as well.

Ultimately, as design leaders, we're responsible for shaping and instilling culture into our teams. It's a big responsibility that I take seriously. I love being able to share my ways of thinking and seeing folks from my team go on and succeed.

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© 2021 - Nick Mason