This post is the first in a series about successful business strategies and design team operations. I’m honored that the friends and colleagues who contributed made time to share their experiences and insights; it’s my hope that you, dear reader, find tremendous value in it, too. –Josh
Just Enough Process
Michelle Morrison, @michelephant
Sr. Design Program Manager, Dropbox
Startups are motivated to move as fast as possible. Engineers, designers, and the people building the product get pressure from leadership who get pressure from their board and investors to get to market before anyone else does. This can lead to nimble building – or it can lead to organizational chaos. It’s difficult to prioritize a thoughtful approach when you’re building as fast as you can think. Under those conditions, process can be perceived as a bureaucratic impediment to innovation.
On the other side of the same coin, just enough process can help a focused organization move in lock-step. Simplifying the process to get work done can help foster transparency, focus, and ownership that does lead to a productive design and build practice. When everyone has the same access to information and follows even a minimal process, teams stay in sync, priorities tend to be more clear, and motivated teams can move mountains together.
It’s difficult to prioritize a thoughtful approach when you’re building as fast as you can think.
I saw this work really beautifully in my time at Square. You may have read Gokul Rajaram’s interview on using the SPADE framework. This was implemented a few years before the company went public. It brought a clear methodology for making and sharing decision to the organization, which kept the entire company informed. This prevented product clashes and lack of clarity, enabling all teams to move faster with more information. Everyone was empowered to use the framework, and it took the pain out of how to make decisions and forced you to focus on the what and why of a decision.
As organizations become more complex, operations professionals – especially DesignOps practitioners – become key hires in developing these types of systems and frameworks. Ops becomes the strategic function for scaling the business. The more people involved in a process, the more you layer in training, optimizing, and scaling, which is a primary focus of the DesignOps practice. And thus, the business can move faster – with just enough process.
Tips for implementing just enough process:
Name the process – this will help people remember what they need to do and where to reference the process if they forget.
As few steps as possible – Keep it high level, with distinct steps that are clear and actionable.
Reinforce the process – Take each opportunity to use the process and communicate that you are doing so. Include a RACI matrix in your project doc, or use a SPADE framework in your wrap up notes. This will remind your colleagues that the process works!
Train your people – When introducing or changing any process, make sure that everyone on your team knows what they need to do and why it matters. Consider incorporating info into your wiki or new-hire on-boarding to ensure everyone knows what they need to do.
Iterate – Monitor how the process is working and make changes that increase the impact of each process. You’ll know that your process is broken if teams are slow to adopt or steps are difficult to remember. Treat your process like a product and seek feedback to help you iterate to keep teams nimble and process lean.
Team Structures vs Hierarchy
Dan Mall, @danmall
I’m a big believer in self-organizing, outcome-driven, autonomous teams, as most of my career has been either participating in or helping to create them. Science has my back here. Largely due to the Ringlemann Effect where people’s efforts tend to diminish as team size increases, my most successful teams have been in the range of 3–7 people. Miller’s Law says the average person can hold 7±2 objects in short term memory, so I find an additional level of hierarchy to be helpful after about 7–9 people. That’s the point where it’s been beneficial to split into multiple teams, and possibly with someone overseeing the teams.
But, a crucial part of this new level of reporting is that the person or people overseeing the teams see their role as better supporting the teams rather than telling people what to do. When “management” or “leadership” or whatever else you call it see their positions as a way to be helpful at scale, that’s where I’ve found that the teams – and more specifically, the people on those teams – thrive.
Rules to Work By: Guiding principles for products and teams
Question 1: If you were co-founding a company with the intent of building a digital product the world will use, what are a few core values you’d build the company around?
Move intentionally and fix things.
If how quickly you ship is your metric, you’re going to move like a bull in a china shop. You will break things and you will hurt people, sometimes with deathly consequence. We’ve broken enough things and people. It’s time we made an effort to fix the real issue: Dismantle the oppressive systems and build inclusive ones.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Comfort means never being challenged, which means you’re not growing. To test our own biases, expand our own world views, and perceive the vast world beyond our narrow experiences, we must spend time in places that are new, unfamiliar, and difficult to understand at first.
Mistakes are necessary for growth. Learn how to make them gracefully.
Spend less energy trying to avoid mistakes. Spend more energy responding to the impact – reflecting, learning, apologizing, and planning for next time.
There is no best, worst, safe, secure – only better, worse, safer, and more secure.
Removing superlatives allows us to see concepts more as a continuous spectrum. Perceiving the world this way makes us more open to we can continue to push for things to be better, safer, and more secure.
Center the most vulnerable groups at your core.
Maximize design experiences for the marginalized individuals and situations pushed to the edge. If they are considered and cared for, the centered will be fine. Test the capacity for your product to be used for harm. Don’t be caught saying you didn’t consider that bad actors would exist. Vulnerable groups have no such luxury.
Question 2: How would you configure your team to get it right the first time?
We’ll never get it perfectly right the first time (see 4 above). But we can configure our team to be healthy, safe, and productive.
Cultivate a culture of radical kindness, thoughtful communication, and curiosity. Leave no room for hateful or abusive behavior, ego, or binary thinking. As a leader, I value the emotional and psychological safety of my team most. If they don’t feel safer expressing their concerns, we miss out on opportunities to identify vulnerabilities and points for harm. In the patriarchal work environment, non-men are told that to succeed we have to emulate men. (But spoiler: we still can’t because it’s not just emulating behavior.) Instead, we must subvert this approach by using anti-patriarchal methods grounded not in individualistic wins, but collective ones.
Attract and retain a team with as few common demographic factors as possible. If you successfully create a culture in (1), you will have a much easier time accomplishing this. Instead of “equalizing” the gender ratio (which reinforces the binary), we need to be thinking of how we can find more folks all along the gender spectrum. Instead of finding two South Asian men to meet your quota and calling it a day, seek no racial repeats. Express representation across the full LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Ensure you have people with disabilities. People who grew up poor, not speaking English, with close immigrant roots, who have an atraditional family structure, who practice a non-Christian religion, who grew up somewhere other than here.
Provide trust for your team with radical vulnerability and transparency.
Trust is a two-way street. But all too often the individual contributors are expected to trust their employers without any indication or promise of trust in return. In fact, there is hella trickery baked into the relationship from the onset (at hiring), with deceptive salary discussions, etc. But if leadership can provide trust first, through openness – sharing their own fears, aspirations, finances, challenges, etc, – their teams will see that being human is not only acceptable, but demonstrated.
Work with team members to set clearly-defined goals for the year, then accountable action plans to meet them weekly, monthly, and quarterly. Showing your investment in team members first will make them want to return your investment. To be successful, team members need to have a clear plan for to accomplish their life goals. By defining these together, you’re putting their fates in their own hands. Your job as leadership is to help remove all obstacles from their success and provide all the tools and accommodations that each team member needs. Sometimes those fates will mean leaving your company, which should be encouraged if it’s what’s right – it may seem weird, but if what you can offer doesn’t align with someone’s individual goals, then it’s time for them to find that elsewhere, and for you to give this opportunity to someone else.