Leading By Design

Design Leadership

In my career, I’ve spent a lot of time learning from great design leaders. The best stand out as creative, thoughtful listeners, able to persuade with grace and speak hard truths, while uniting the team around a focused vision.

Through my involvement in Cooper U’s Design Leadership course, I’ve learned techniques to repeat the success of these leaders. Recently, I had the privilege of co-teaching with two of Cooper’s design leaders, Jenea Hayes and course creator Kendra Shimmell. In the class, these bright ladies presented tools that help the rest of us become leaders who can sell a vision, unite a team, and achieve organizational consent. The following overview captures a small slice of the course content from general principles to practical applications that are simple yet powerfully effective ideas for all of us.

Show, don't tell.


Kendra nailed it in class saying, "Don't try to sell the value of design. Be valuable."

When we need to persuade others about the value of design remember, actions speak louder than words. Jenea suggested, “Instead of trying to persuade your manager to invest in design research, just do some quick and dirty research and show how it made the product better. Next time, the budget conversation will be a lot easier to have, and then you can do research right." Kendra added “Don’t get dragged into justifying the ROI of design, instead establish success metrics and keep track of how the team’s design decisions impact business outcomes. That’s your ROI story to tell next time.”

Make the vision concrete and rally the base.

When running fast in Lean or Agile environments with intentionally light deliverables, it’s easy to neglect to communicate the design vision internally. Kendra frames it, “Agile without a design vision, is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle when someone threw away the box. The team needs to see the picture on the box.”

It's Cooper's position that a design leader is responsible for socializing the vision, the end-to-end experience, and why it is meaningful in people’s lives. Once development and business teams understand and believe in the vision, they will advocate and sacrifice to get the product right. Kendra created the analogy, “Think about the design vision like it’s a political candidate running for office. You’d never put a candidate out on the campaign trail without first introducing them to their base—you’ve got to rally the base.”

Apply your UX skills to your organization

The design leaders I've admired always have a message in their back pocket tailored to each stakeholder’s concerns. I never understood how they did it. The Cooper gals thoughtfully craft those messages well in advance, based on knowledge of the stakeholders gathered by using their UX skillset onto their client’s organization.

Understand your team.

Many of us make a huge effort to understand our product's users, but neglect to even observe the goals and perspectives of those working with us. When we do that, we pass on a huge opportunity. In our recent class Jenea encouraged all of us to “ask yourself what do you know about the motivations, concerns, language, and even evaluation criteria of those working around you? What are they for your product manager, your development lead, the marketing manager, the CEO or your boss?” It is only when we take the time to understand their perspectives and expertise that we can learn how to turn our skeptics into advocates.

Structure + Clarity = Success

Great leaders have successful meetings, reviews, and pitches not only because of their knowledge, but also as a result of the thoughtful application of structure and clarity.

Structure your reviews.

Left to their devices, most meetings and reviews fail to achieve the goals we set out. They often can waste time, accomplish little, get hijacked, or lead to endless additional reviews. It is the job of a design leader to contextualize the conversation. Jenea outlined the following structure you can follow for your next review:

  • Limit: Focus the conversation by being thoughtful about who is invited.
  • Recap: Like the beginning of a complicated TV show, catch the audience up on where you are in the process and what role they can play.
  • Rules of Engagement: Help people understand how to contribute in your meetings by establishing clear rules, such as holding comments until the end and using a parking lot for tangents. Articulate the evaluation criteria, establish what level of participation you need, and your expected outcome.
  • Flow and Story: Re-establish the persona, and scenario(s).
  • Value: Show (don’t tell) the business value that your design concepts address. Present how your concepts stand out in the industry and talk frankly about how you address risk.
  • Detail: Only once you have established all the preceding can you effectively dive into the details.

Break the cycle of meetings. Workshop.

Are you creating designs, but lack some critical context? Have you ever gone through endless rounds with a stakeholder who will only know the right design when he sees it? If so, don't schedule another meeting, design a collaborative workshop instead. Kendra and Jenea emphasized that when we involve decision-makers in crafting a solution, we not only get the detailed information we need, but we sidestep endless reviews. Best of all we create design champions that are personally invested in the success of the design.

Keep Learning!

Continue adding to your toolkit and exchanging ideas.

I could share more of the of the great thinking Kendra and Jenea presented in the latest Design Leadership course, but then you might never come and learn for yourself. Leadership is crafted through continual learning and cross-pollination, so join us at Cooper U to learn more about how to use your UX skills on your current organizational challenges and how to become a leader people want to follow.

For more Design Leadership goodness follow Design Leadership instructors Kendra Shimmell (@kshimmell), Jenea Hayes (@jeneahayes), Teresa Brazen (@teresabrazen) and myself (@kcurkowicz).

Karin Curkowicz

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