This post builds on the Emerging Shape of Design Orgs.

As design organizations scale, I’ve worked with a number of design leaders who struggle with all that’s expected of them. Let’s look at the “HR Software” org I drew in the last post

No Time for Creative Leadership

The VP Design is a true design executive, and, as I wrote in The Makeup of a Design Executive, is expected to deliver on Executive, Creative, Managerial, and Operational leadership. The thing is, with a team this size, and particularly if it’s growing (as so many teams are), they simply don’t have the time to do it all (unless they work 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks). And these VPs need to focus on what’s core to their role, which are the executive and managerial aspects, and so the creative leadership suffers.

Even the Design Director is spread thin—overseeing a team of 15-20 people, recruiting and hiring, encouraging professional development, building relationships with cross-functional peers. This takes up all your time, and, apart from weekly critique sessions, they don’t have capacity to provide creative and strategic leadership to their teams. 

Which Means No Time for Strategy

Design organizations are increasingly expected to contribute to product strategy, but these structures support little more than product delivery. If the team is asked to develop a vision for the future product experience 2-3 years out, how do they get it done? 

One way is to hire external consultancies. And that can serve as a good kickstart, but such relationships should be seen as bridges toward when the design org is able to conduct its own strategic practice. 

And as design orgs scale, and design leaders develop organizational authority, a common move is to create a Design Strategy group, a small team of senior designers to tackle wicked problems outside of the constraints of business as usual. It may look something like this (building on the depiction of the growing design org from the last post):

Scaled design organization with Strategy team tacked at the end(There’s an argument to be made that the Strategy Team could be a pillar of the Platform team. The point that follows wouldn’t really change.)

Separate Strategy Teams within Design Orgs suffer the same problem that any separated team has—getting traction. Now, looking at the diagram above, you could say the same about the Platform team, but in that case, the Applications teams all understand why integrating with Platform makes sense—the Application teams can focus on the higher order work specific to their business area, and move faster. 

Now take the perspective of an Application team. That Strategy Team gets to do fun vision stuff, play in a space with little accountability, and then what… tell us what to do? And if we try to work with the Strategy Team, we’re told that they’re looking at broader, end-to-end experiences, and don’t want to be confined to any particular business area.

And so the Strategy Team gets frustrated because while folks may get excited about their ideas, it’s not clear how they get purchase within product development.

Two Birds (Creative Leadership and Strategy) and One Stone: The Shadow Strategy Team 

So, scaling design orgs have a problem. The acknowledged leaders (executives and directors) don’t have the bandwidth to provide the strategic and creative leadership expected of them, and necessary for the optimal effectiveness of the team. Building a separate Strategy team addresses some of this, but is typically too removed from the actual work to make an impact.

A solution lurks within the Emerging Shape of Design Orgs, with the addition of Super Senior ICs . Design organizations are increasingly hiring Principal Designers and Design Architects, as shown in this diagram (click/tap to enlarge).

Scaled org with Super Senior ICs added

Design Architect. Reporting to the VP of Design, they have no managerial or operational responsibilities, and so are able to focus on creative and strategic leadership. I’ve written this job description a few times over the past couple years, and here is what the “Responsibilities include…” section looks like:

  • Provide creative and strategic leadership for design and throughout product development
  • Advocate for user-centered design best practices within product development
  • Partner with product and engineering leaders across the company
  • Spearhead the development of experience-led product vision across the entire product suite
  • Provide guidance and direction for key ‘horizontal’ activities such as Design System development
  • Create strategic design deliverables such as strategy decks, customer journeys, visions of future experiences and evangelize these cross-product “blueprints” across teams
  • Build and maintain a framework for establishing and assessing design quality
  • Connect design with business value
  • Work with design, research, program management, and product leaders on process for product development

Principal Designer. This role is similar to the Design Architect, just within a specific business area, reporting to a Design Director. The primary difference is that they are also involved with design delivery, playing a very active role in design direction and critique, and occasionally serving as a “big project Team Lead,” spearheading important and challenging new product development.

The Shadow Strategy Team. With a Design Architect and Principal Designers in place, you now have the constituents of your Shadow Strategy Team. Instead of a separate group of strategic designers, they are woven into the fabric of the producing design organization.

The trick is, how to get them working as a team? That’s primarily the responsibility of the Design Architect, with leadership support from the VP and Design Directors to protect some of their time for organization-wide efforts. At a minimum, this team meets weekly to share what’s happening in their worlds, and to ensure efforts are connected across the end-to-end experience. Occasionally, the Design Architect may engage Principal Designers on vision and strategy work, with the benefit being that these Principal Designers ensure that the vision is grounded in the reality of the business areas.

Recapturing some of the Dream of UX

A common frustration among digital designers is how their practice has been reduced to production. I think a reason for this is that our organizations lacked creative and strategic leadership—we assumed it was coming from the executives and directors, but they were too busy just keeping things going. So it just wasn’t happening.

By having roles within this explicit focus, these super-senior practitioners provide can recapture the untapped potential of thoughtful, intentional design. 

6 thoughts on “Creative and Strategic Leadership in Design Orgs—Super-Senior ICs and the Shadow Strategy Team (3rd in a series on Emerging Shape of Design Orgs)

  1. The Shadow Strategy team is exactly the model I’m pursuing to scale up the design activities in the org I’m at

    This is all happening at the same time as the product group is shifting from Lean/Agile to the “empowered” approach, which is helpful. As a result, the plan is that Application-dedicated Principal Designers will partner with the Application’s product lead, and the technical architect to start stitching together the work at scale.

    And although Platform design group is still evolving in our org (and exists as a Shadow Platform Team”…), seeing it setup on this way reaffirms some of my planning assumptions, which is a relief. Wonder tho, if it would also benefit with a Principal Designer to loosely pair with the equivalent technical Platform leads, too…?

    • Peter Merholz says:

      Something I should have probably addressed in the post is why there isn’t a Principal Designer on the Platform team. Primarily, it’s because it’s not really warranted… it’s a smaller team, and the Design Managers and Design Director should be able to deliver the creative leadership necessary.
      Also, I imagine the Design Architect will be more involved with Platform than with other teams, as their responsibility is to the design org as a whole, and the Platform team also has that responsibility.
      That said, if there is a ‘mirroring’ that can happen between the Design Platform Team and Technical Platform teams that leads to stronger relationships, great. I suspect there could be value in having at least Lead Product Designers (senior IC, but not as senior as Principal) within the Shared Experiences and Design Systems teams would be valuable, and could be the one that ‘loosely pairs’.

      • Ah, right. The model I was holding was that the Design Architect was horizontal lead across all Principal Designers, but seeing how it holds that they would support, but not “lead” Platform & Principal practice areas. And then, in turn, the Shared Experiences and Design Systems would have a point person for the Technical leads to connect with. Thanks for the clarification!

  2. Chelsea Larsson says:

    Curious about why content design is only in design systems and not in the product verticals design team. My experience is that at CD is embedded in each product vertical alongside their product designers.

  3. Hi, can I ask whether you make any distinction between the different core disciplines of the designers in the design teams? Are Service Designers, CX, UX, UI etc all in the ‘design team’ in these diagrams? Or would Service Designers and/or CX designers sit slightly outside of this model? I know many designers have a wide range of skills, but also those deep areas of expertise hence asking. If you have them all together, then is the design manager needing to help manage and develop designers across all those discipline areas?

    Thanks so much, really enjoying these blog posts and reflecting on how we could better structure our internal design team.

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