For many professionals, today is the end of the work year. It also the end of my first full year as an independent consultant, and I thought I’d reflect on experiences and realizations I had, if only to remind myself that time has, indeed, passed, and it’s not somehow still March.
This will be a grab-bag. Bear with the assortedness. Here’s a TOC:
- As Design teams scale, they need to define themselves
- Leadership roles need better definition
- The Resurgence of the Super-Senior IC
- Recruiting and hiring isn’t taken seriously enough
- Finding Our Way podcast
As Design teams scale, they need to define themselves
5 times this past year, I helped Design teams draft their charter. Each of them had reached a scale that they could not be managed informally any more. Perhaps more importantly, though, they had each come to the realization that their work had been defined by others, by non-designers, and that they had been placed in a mode reactive to the needs of others.
These teams sought greater control over their work, but weren’t sure how to establish that. They worked with me to develop a charter so that they had a firm grasp of their purpose, values, norms, output, and measures of success. By actively defining themselves, they’re better empowered in internal discussions about just what they work on.
Leadership roles need better definition
Another type of engagement that became common was helping companies better define their design leadership roles. A few times that was the most senior role, and that lead to the thinking shared in The Makeup of a Design Executive. I also helped define the distinct leadership roles of the team. Core to all this was something that Janice Fraser clued me into decades ago as we were building Adaptive Path:
For every role, particularly leadership roles, you need to align:
- Accountability (how the role’s success is measured)
- Authority (what decisions this role gets to make)
- Responsibility (the areas which this role oversees)
More often than not, pain that individuals in leadership face occurs when these areas are not aligned. Particularly, when people are held accountable for things over which they have no real authority.
The Resurgence of the Super-Senior IC
Over on the Org Design for Design Orgs blog, I wrote about the “Emerging role in design orgs: The Super Senior Individual Contributor (Principal Designer, Design Architect).” Some took me to task for the word “emerging,” saying it had been around for decades. And while that’s true, it had really only gotten traction in savvier tech companies, particularly those that already had dual-track career ladders for engineers. If you look at the comments on the post on LinkedIn, you’ll see just how pioneering this role still feels.
As design orgs scale, I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of this kind of role.
Recruiting and hiring isn’t taken seriously enough
For all the talk of “people are our most important asset,” most companies do not take the activities of recruiting and hiring seriously enough. They toss off job descriptions, have no clear career ladders or levels framework, loosely structure hiring interviews, and leave candidates hanging, or provide only the most cursory follow-up.
This past year, I had the fortune to really dig in and develop a thoughtful and thorough recruiting process for a big enterprise (who were needing to hire rapidly), and I surprised myself as I realized just what it takes to create a process that’s fair and equitable, that appropriately assesses competencies and skills, and that’s manageable for an internal team.
To build such a thing is quite onerous, as when you pull on the recruiting thread, the whole org design unravels. You need to understand levels, professional development, have a clear taxonomy of (technical, strategy, professional) skills and an understanding of what progression looks like, and a view of how the work gets done (embedded in scrum?, dual-track agile?).
You then need to structure a recruiting process that sources and vets candidates efficiently, effectively, and fairly, that doesn’t waste people’s time, and leads not just to hiring, but successful fit that lasts.
This is all real work, and it is exceeeeeeedinly rare to find companies willing to put in the effort.
Finding Our Way podcast
Recording the Finding Our Way podcast with Jesse has been perhaps the professional highlight of my year. He and I hadn’t worked together since I left Adaptive Path, and I missed our conversations. We are grateful for the overwhelming and positive response we heard from the community—we seemed to tap into some themes and concerns that were on many minds.
A few episodes stand out for how they reshaped my thinking:
You cannot successfully lead for any length of time without a basis of trust. But deconstructing trust demonstrates just how slippery a concept it is. I think we do a good job poking at it from a variety of perspectives, and what we unpacked here became an undercurrent in later discussions.
Our second season featured conversations with design, product, and research leaders, all of whom I learned from. This discussion with Melissa Perri helped us realize just what degree design leaders have been gaslit about product management practice.
Jesse and I have known Erika for about 20 years, and she’s always been a useful provocateur. This discussion possibly ranged the farthest, while retaining remarkably high signal.
While many discussions helped me better articulate what I already felt, this conversation with Vivianne actually changed my perceptions, specifically around the practice of user research, and the responsibility we have to those who conduct the research and the participants. I’m still grateful for how Vivianne opened my eyes.
Here’s to a new year!
While 2020 was an undeniable crapshow, I’m grateful that it proved to be fruitful for my work. I look forward to thought-provoking opportunities in the new year, and appreciate all of you who take the time to read what I write, and share your thoughts with me.