An organic design organization

An organic design organization

Photo Credit: Unsplash| Ralph (Ravi) [email protected]

Peter Merholz did a few workshops for our product design team a couple of years ago. His contribution to our thinking seeded my position as an Ops lead.

Recently, Peter has been writing more about Creative and strategic leadership in design orgs. You can read about the series on his blog.

One of his recent blogs caught my attention: “Creative and Strategic Leadership in Design Orgs—Super-Senior ICs and the Shadow Strategy Team” By Peter Merholz, as internally we’ve been ideating what makes an effective design organization. So let’s take a quick look at Peter’s thinking.

According to Peter, this is what HR software looks like with a linear reporting structure. It looks so clean, so simple.

Peter Merholz: HR Software

Because the VP of design is so far removed from the day-to-day delivery, it is tough for the VP to provide detailed strategic guidance on all the aspects of the team and each product’s elements. The situation leads to the idea of “The Shadow Strategy Team”.

“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”

Scaled org with Super Senior ICs added
Peter Merholz: The Shadow Strategy Team

According to Peter, “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.” Peter’s description of a “Design Architect” somewhat aligns with our thinking, introducing a very senior IC role to lead the day-to-day practice. Except, instead of a “Design Architect” we introduce a few very senior practice-leads to work side-by-side with our people managers. In the immediate term, it looks like this:

[note: Currently, we do not have an SVP of design. Design reports to the product SVP. Design maturity is a separate discussion I will write about later.]
Design Org Short Term Strategy

The structure starts to get complicated as the team grows. The high-level idea is to have a design leader pairing with an operation leader to run the team. Why is this pair essential? Because the pairing allows the design leader to manage up and out, while the operation leader focuses inside the design team. It is worth calling out the fact the operation leader has no managerial responsibilities. I am a firm believer that people-managing deserves 100% energy and focus. Freeing the operation leader from the managerial tasks ensures the success of the rapid, short-term growth. Supporting the design leader with managerial responsibilities is a group of design managers while supporting the design leader with product responsibilities is a group of very senior ICs is the research practice lead and product practice lead. 

The short-term structure has already started to look a bit messy. What about the long term?

No one in the industry has a magic solution that much we know because the problem on hand is highly challenging. Design org can not grow in a silo. Many factors either accelerate the design org’s growth or are the constraints of the design team’s growth. The design maturity of the team also is an essential factor itself. 

As the design team mature, there is a much complex possibility for an effective design team. Developing people and supporting the business needs are equally important for leaders, and both deserve full attention. Therefore, the structure of a team requires more fluidity and collaboration. The goal for this mapping is to achieve the following focuses:

  • Design leaders focus on the business value of design
  • Operation leaders focus on the team health and efficiency
  • Design managers focus on developing people
  • Practice leads help to come up with the day-to-day strategy for the products, advise product strategy to the leaders
  • Designers and researchers focus on providing the best end-to-end customer experience

With is thinking, a messy sketch emerges below:

Design Org Long Term Strategy

Is this a solution? Absolutely not. This diagram is more of a question than a solution. The diagram visualizes our thinking but has its limitation. There are two requirements for this diagram idea to begin to make sense:

Neither of the requirements is currently valid for many design organizations. Nevertheless, the mapping carries the hope and the optimistic point of view of design. The mapping is the beginning of a conversation.

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