3 skills design managers need in their team


Originally written for Wake in 2017. See the post on their blog here.

Building a successful design team requires so much more than you read in a job description. Nowadays, anyone can hop in an online class and pick up a few new technical skills. But what creates a powerful team goes beyond what’s often taught to designers – collaboration, communication, openness, and vulnerability.

When a group fosters these soft skills their collective output far surpasses the sum of everyone’s individual skill sets. Because, no matter how talented, a room full of technical experts isn’t guaranteed to produce great work. What helps a team’s productivity and success are the things that lie beneath the surface.

So what specific skills determines a team’s success? What do managers look for in their design team that will lead to a productive group dynamic? Here are three things to focus on.

1. Openness to feedback

If you’re naturally curious, an openness to feedback will come instinctively because you’re more interested in the problem than you are in your specific solution. Even if you can feel yourself digging in to defend an idea, do your best to pause, take a breath, and invite others’ opinions. You’ve designed something great, and your team is only trying to make it even greater.

Even if you consider yourself an accomplished designer at the top of your game, don’t discredit how valuable feedback can be. Stephen Curry, possibly the greatest shooter in NBA history, and Steve Kerr, his coach, illuminate exactly how valuable an openness to feedback is. In speaking about their relationship, Kerr says “He’s easy to talk to. I’m really, really lucky to coach a star player who’s so willing to accept criticism and respond positively to critiquing.” Is it a coincidence that someone so willing to hear feedback was unanimously voted league MVP? I think not. Hearing and internalizing feedback will allow you to continue to hone your craft.

Criticism requires vulnerability and that can be hard to foster in a workplace where everyone is paid to be an expert in their field. What we’ve found in talking with other design teams is that embracing vulnerability can be contagious. As Laszlito Kovacs from WeTransfersaid in our interview, “On the leadership team, we are incredibly open, and we expose our weaknesses,” and it’s clear that has set a tone in the company that encourages others to share and accept feedback.

2. Ability to brainstorm

Another critical skill for everyone on a design team to have is the ability to brainstorm. This sounds simple enough, but it can be hard to do well. There are many more complex and structured brainstorming methods out there, but as long as everyone is conscious of these two basic ground rules, you can have informal and productive group sessions.

(1) Share the floor
In a study on traditional brainstorming methods, Leigh Thompson found that in a group, a few people will do 60% – 75% of the speaking. The whole point of gathering your team for a brainstorming session is to get everyone’s input, so don’t turn the meeting into your personal TED talk. Be conscious of sharing the floor. Hold your tongue if you’re a natural talker, and do your best to speak up if you’re more introverted. If it’s still hard to strike the right balance, try Leigh Thompson’s method of brainwriting.

(2) Don’t fixate
If there’s one purpose of a brainstorming meeting, it isn’t to find exactly the right solution, but rather to surface as many ideas as possible. It can be tempting to linger on an idea that catches the group’s fancy, but it’s crucial to keep the momentum going.

In improv, comedians abide by the law of “Yes, and…” meaning that you take what another participant has said, and build upon that line of thinking. The beauty of this approach is in it’s simplicity. Starting with “Yes,” insures that you waste no time or effort on criticism – it’s not the time for that. And following that with “And,” keeps the group’s momentum up. Building this rhythm in a brainstorming meeting will communicate to your team that no idea is a bad, and will make more people willing to share.

This mental playfulness is so important that more and more companies are inviting job applicants to participate in whiteboarding sessions. This is a great way for a manager to feel out how capable someone is of building on other people’s ideas.

3. Cool communication in conflict

An openness to feedback and being a constructive member of a brainstorming session are great skills, but they assume a certain level of cohesion or agreement. But what happens when you find that you disagree with someone? This is when clear communication becomes incredibly important.

All too often when two people disagree, they spend time talking at each other, then at some arbitrary point, call it quits. But communication is much more than simply expressing your views. Communication is the act of transferring an idea to another person, which means that you must also consider how your message was received.

We won’t belabour exactly how you should express yourself, but there is one trick you can use to make sure ideas are being exchanged, and not just words. Reiterate your understanding of the other person’s points. This sounds simple, but it demonstrates that you’re trying to understand the other person’s perspective, and also gives them an opportunity to correct you if you’re not fully grasping their idea. Doing this will encourage them to do the same, and you will be able to talk about your perspectives more directly.

These skills represent only a fraction of what it takes to build a strong team, but they provide a great place to start. Encouraging curiosity and healthy brainstorming will ensure a stream of fresh ideas, and putting thought into communication and feedback will help your team stick together when sifting through all those ideas. These skills are easier to develop between people who are comfortable with each other, so don’t forget to create environments for relationships to build.

Will FletcherComment