Throughout my career, I’ve made the switch from design leader to individual contributor based on the company I was at and the impact I wanted to make. After I left Black Pixel, I joined One Medical as a Product Design lead with no managerial responsibilities. During year two of my tenure at One Medical, there was a management need and I happily took the mantle again.
The goal of this article is to help you decide if design management is the right choice for you, and if it is, to help you start that journey. It will cover:
Afterward, I will provide you with key frameworks and reflection questions to help you decide if a design management career is right for you and if so, how to set yourself up for success.
The first thing to understand is that there’s no one formula for leadership . It’ll vary based on the company you work on, its scale, and situational aspects of what your team needs.
That said, being a designer manager boils down to three core areas:
As a strategist, your chief concern is whether or not the team is meeting business goals. The main priority should be understanding customer problems end-to-end and researching new opportunities to create an inspiring design vision.
As designers, it is important to connect all of the work we do as a team to key business outcomes. In your role as strategist you will be responsible for developing and tracking Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for your team. This can get a little tricky due to the nature of design work being dependent on the work OKRs of other teams.
More often than not, design team OKRs will be more lateral than vertical. Design is not only a practice, but a capability that can be a force multiplier for outcomes for the customer and company.
This could show up in many ways. For example, brand design helping marketing increase signups due to awareness campaigns that drive traffic to the site, or product design improving a feature customers have been asking for, keeping them retained as a happy customer.
In your capacity as “operator”, you’re responsible for the team running effectively. This is the most traditional aspect of management, stemming from production line managers overseeing the work. The operator’s role is to implement effective processes to build team culture and engagement, recruit and hire quality designers, and manage team performance.
The operator is responsible for setting the design cadence and the pace and frequency of feedback. One of the most important processes to engineer is the design critique (Noah Levin, Director of Product Design at Figma has a great article about how to run great critiques), and ensuring that it is a good fit for how the team operates.
A happy team is an effective team. As managers, you’re also responsible for the team’s well-being and create the most safe and positive environment possible.
You’re not going to be able to make everyone happy and will need to balance the needs of each individual as the collective team with what needs to get done at the company level. They’ll need to know when to make the call if a team member needs a break due to burnout or when things need to slow down. An offsite that recharges someone could be the reason they decide to stay when facing burnout.
Lastly, as a coach you’re responsible for providing growth and development opportunities to team members. This can be done through providing funding for workshops and classes or through coaching team members yourself.
The 1:1 is a manager’s secret weapon and the most important meeting you’ll have with their team members. It’s a way to build relationships and ensure your team members are happy, check on what barriers you can remove, and discuss career development.
During my first 1:1 with a direct report, I ask them where they want to go professionally, not only in their current role but over the course of their entire career. My belief is you want designers to thrive in their career, beyond their tenure with you and exceeding you in every way. If there is no career ladder, that is something to put in place immediately and continue to refine. From the first 1:1 together to the last, coaching is a daily activity.
One of the chief challenges of being a design manager is fluidly moving between these three roles. A manager's responsibilities will change based on what the company needs at that moment.
For instance, if a company’s goals are well-defined and growth is one of them then a manager may find themselves in the operator facet more than the other two.Then when company growth stabilizes and it is time to define new goals, the manager will move into the strategist facet.
The trick is to balance these three responsibilities as they fluctuate as the company grows and evolves. For example, in my career I’ve had various design leadership levels based on specific needs:
A great manager needs to be a strategist, an operator, and a coach, but what does a great manager not need to be?
There are some widespread misconceptions about what it means to be a design manager. I am going to cover the five myths that I believe are the most problematic.
One very common myth is that once you become a manager, you can’t go back to an IC. This is untrue and can be counterproductive.
Management in tech is littered with people in the role who didn’t receive enough training and support or felt forced to step into the role. I have switched between being a manager and IC throughout my career. It might feel like an ego hit at first when you go from a manager to an IC, but it should not.
While the best managers go into management because they care deeply about people, supporting others is just the tip of the iceberg. Design management is also operations, administration, and accountability. Coaching is not the only aspect of the job.
This might be true for some companies — but not all.
In fact, the industry is evolving separate parallel career paths for both managers and individual contributors. Many companies have ways for designers to remain individual contributors as they level up, while also being able to receive compensation and exercise influence on the same level as a senior manager.
For instance, at Webflow, the Principal Designer role is leveled the same as a Senior Manager role and allows for a similar compensation and similar level of influence within the company. Leadership and management, while often tied together, are not mutually exclusive.
So in deciding which path to choose, ask yourself:
Not only is it not true that designer managers must be the best designers on the team — they also shouldn’t be.
While there is a certain level of skill and comprehension that you should have as a design manager to lead your team, the goal is to make every designer on your team their best — not to be better than them at what they do.
Some of the best coaches in NBA history, for example, were not hall-of-fame players; but they were knowledgeable, they knew how to motivate talent, and they had enough experience to lead.
Similarly, while you will need to draw from your core skill set as a designer in order to evaluate and critique your employees’ work, that doesn’t mean you need to be the best designer on the team.
While it may be true that you are pushing pixels less as a design manager, you are ultimately accountable for everything that your group creates.
Part of the job of being a design manager is coaching employees on their designs and helping them improve as designers. Your framework for approaching and executing designs will serve as a model for your employees.
Here’s what Cara, an Coho Design Fellow, had to say about her career path after having gone through the Coho Design fellowship: “
Becoming a design manager does not mean starting over from scratch. Even though you will be making fewer individual contributions to design work, the skills you have honed during your time as a designer will serve you as a manager. Examples include:
But while you can certainly utilize many of the skills that you have developed as a designer, you will also have to build new management skills to succeed as a manager. For example:
The truth is that while design management can be a fulfilling career path, not everybody will be happy in the role.
This is okay. Management should not be the only way to advance in your career, and individual contributors have a path forward as well. Later on I will talk about strategies for advancing your design career in different ways, but in the meantime I invite you to take some time to reflect on whether design management is the right choice for you.
Before you read my take on the following questions, reflect and answer each one for yourself. Jot down your answers or type them into a document and refer to them as you go through the rest of this article.
Ok, have you thought about and answered these questions for yourself? When you are ready, read on to learn more about which career path, whether in design or design management, is right for you.
Although this article details what a design manager is and how to become one, as mentioned above in myth # 3, keep in mind that becoming a design manager is not the only way for you to advance your career as a designer.
In the next section I’ll help you develop a game plan for advancing your career, whether as an individual contributor, or in pursuing a design manager role.
This section covers your potential as a manager, the case for management in your current role (or beyond), and how to build your portfolio.
Like many things in life, there is no way to know you’d be a good fit for something until you try it. However, in my experience there are certain attributes and behaviors that demonstrate manager potential:
The number one mistake people make in their efforts to become design manager is not letting their organization leaders know that they’re interested in the role.
That said, leaders’ abilities to offer you a design manager role will be contingent on if management opportunities are available. For instance, if the team only has three designers there may not be a value add from a design manager for that team.
However, even if something like this is the case, maybe there is a larger team at your organization or a team that is positioned for growth? To make your case for design manager, you will need to identify these opportunities within the company or look for opportunities outside your company if none exist within.
What to consider when talking to organization leadership about your management interest:
Remember that you’re in the driver seat of your career path. Build your own career development plan in addition (or in absence) of what your manager gives you.
One question I often get is, “What does a design manager’s portfolio look like?”
In reality, the answer is “not much different than an IC portfolio”.
When a hiring manager is reviewing your management portfolio, they should have a sense of how you lead humans, your business acumen, and the systems you put in place to ensure high quality work is done.
Through the earlier reflective exercise, you may have discovered that management is not for you, and that is okay.
Here are some steps that you can take to advance in your career as an individual contributor.
Step 1: Enhance Your Portfolio
Garnering recognition and earning coveted raises is dependent in large part on how you sell yourself. Tuning your portfolio is a great way to set yourself up for a conversation with your supervisor about a potential raise or promotion within your design team.
As you continue to progress in your career as an individual contributor, the focus will be on mastery and impact at the company level. Your portfolio should reflect the depth you have in a particular area and be framed on the impact and influence you have on projects at a higher level.
Step 2: Create Opportunities for Recognition
Perhaps you can do exemplary work, but you may still fly under the radar if you are having trouble getting your work out there and recognized throughout your company. Here are some concrete strategies that you can use to help broaden your reach and communicate your contributions to your team and beyond.
Step 3: Talk to your manager about advancement opportunities
Talking to your manager is an important step in increasing the recognition you receive for your role as well as for getting opportunities to do fun, interesting, and challenging projects.
Through my own experiences I have developed a framework for navigating these conversations by asking myself the following questions in advance:
Design management is galvanizing humans towards a shared mission while developing their professional and personal growth. You will make a great design manager if you enjoy focusing on the progression and growth of other people. I discovered that this is one of the greatest joys that I get from management.
If you find that—like me—you enjoy management, you can look towards career advancement opportunities at senior manager, director, and finally executive level (VP or C-Suite). You might find yourself expanding in other areas of responsibility laterally. As some design leaders grow, they might take lateral responsibilities and lead product as well. Design management can lead to more expansive opportunities.
There is no set single pathway from designer to manager, and that’s exciting. Remember that ultimately you’re in the driver seat of your career journey. What I have outlined here is based on my own experiences with the transition, but it is by no means exhaustive or linear. Talking with your manager or another mentor at your current firm is a great way to understand how you can chart your own path from designer to manager or how you can advance as an individual contributor.
Embark on a journey with me, as I share some stories of what got me here and how I've been really building versions of Coho all of my life.
From a humble beginnings in Lithuania to trying to find a home in European cities, and finally to the vibrant pulse of Dublin - this is a story of resilience, exploration, and the power of community. Experience the rollercoaster ride of job hunting in Galway, the gruelling lessons of the service industry, and the thrilling leap into entrepreneurship.
Discover the transformative power of design, the necessity of community bonds, and the challenges of navigating a new career path.
Come, dive into the chronicles of building Coho and my transition to a CEO role, fostering professional growth, and ultimately constructing a community rooted in shared learning and development. This isn't just a narration of events, but a testament to the power of perseverance and the transformative magic of stepping outside comfort zones. So, are you ready to journey with me?
However, this approach is not enough. Features should align with a product strategy. We should not blindly build features without properly understanding or, at the very least, hypothesizing our competitor's strategy and how it compares to ours.
In this article, I will cover a simple way to structure this information using two widely-used tools that have helped me conduct a competitive analysis, which informs my product strategy.
Developed by Bryan Balfour from Reforge.com, you can find a more detailed explanation of the framework here. The summary is that Product-Market fit is not enough and to build a successful product you also need to ensure that Distribution Channels and the Business model (how you charge for your product) are also aligned and balanced.
What I like about this framework is that it helps you think about your product through two different approaches; one regarding what the user wants (Product and Market), and what works for the business (Channels and Model).
In the article I shared above, each part of the 4 fits model has its frameworks but I only use the high-level structure to present information in a more simple way that is also easier to maintain on a frequent cadence.
During my live sessions on this topic, I compared visual collaboration tools such as Miro, Mural, and Whimsical. However, in this article, I will provide a summarized version and guidelines for you to work on independently. It's important to note that almost all the necessary information can be obtained from the product's homepage.
As mentioned before, the tools and processes I use help structure information and build a hypothesis about how competitors think about each part of the 4 fits model. It's essential to emphasize the hypothesis part because the only way to gain 100% certainty of another company's strategy is by joining them.
Once you finish this comparison, you can make more informed decisions about whether to build a feature based on the customer and market served. For example, if you are a Whimsical Product Manager and you find out, via a feature comparison table, that you are missing the +2,000 advanced diagramming options that Miro offers, you could skip this feature for now. These advanced shapes are likely tailored for enterprise users, while Whimsical is focused on SMBs.
I’d recommend this article from Harvard Business Review, it’s from 2007 but as I mentioned lines above I’m not reinventing the wheel and introducing brand-new tools.
The idea behind positioning maps is to identify a few customer-valued attributes and position yourself and competitors based on how customers perceive them. Pricing is the most common attribute used for positioning maps, but as shown in the example below, you can use any important attribute. This is an inexpensive way to understand your positioning relative to the competition on the attributes that matter. I usually perform this type of analysis qualitatively, with some high-level support. In my opinion, it is more important to have structured information to make quick decisions, rather than getting bogged down in the details of the process.
In this section, I'll briefly cover a concept I explained in my previous article B2B Product Management: Inertia and Alternatives.
The concept of alternatives refers to how users solve their problems without your product. One example I like to use is Close.com, a CRM similar to Salesforce or HubSpot.
Although popular tools like MS Excel and Google Sheets are used to manage sales pipelines and prospects, they break at scale. Close.com has a blog post explaining how to build a CRM with those tools, which raises the question: why would they do that?
The answer is simple: alternatives are cheap and easy to use, but they lack scalability. Therefore, it's important to keep them in mind during competitive analysis or when interviewing users about how they solve certain issues. You should think about how to provide a 10X or 100X experience with your product.
I particularly like how the Close.com team phrased it in their blog post:
If you're a solopreneur or just testing the waters with your sales efforts, a spreadsheet can be a good choice, and in that case, you should download our (free) ready-to-use Excel CRM template.
And if you're ready to try the CRM that can help you scale your results without scaling your efforts?
In my previous writings I've focused on the neutral zone leaders traverse when they enter the role. This phase is the time in between an ending and a new beginning. It’s baffling, awkward and lasts longer than we expect. If you haven’t read that edition yet, I highly recommend it as it offers meaningful context about this phase of transition.
I faced two neutral zones as a COO — being new to the role while navigating organizational change as the company was acquired. Navigating both at the same time was an intense period of growth. While I’d studied change management in school, leading an org through a neutral zone taught me that it was more important and more difficult than I ever imagined. I wanted to share a few things I learned. There’s so much to say on this subject, it’s barely a start but a start it is.
Self management is a top priority while navigating the neutral zone. This means being able to regulate our thoughts and emotions. This might not seem like the obvious top choice. Let me explain my reasoning. Neutral zones are emotionally charged times. Chaos and confusion reign. Emotions follow. Having less context and less say in the decisions, our team can find this time incredibly stressful. This phase often follows organizational shifts.
Where once they felt like they belonged, now people don’t know where they fit. They wonder about their future with the company. As the team processes a messy present and an uncertain future, a host of emotions arise. Conversations that were once rational become fraught. Some leaders even tell me they feel like a therapist at times.
Crossing through this zone means as leaders we need to keep our wits about us. While it’s tempting to run full out, attending to every need, leaders do best when they employ airline state of mind — putting your oxygen mask before helping others. This might look like eating well, getting enough sleep, having a coach or therapist, and taking time to decompress. This might seem trivial but to often I see leaders place themselves dead last. Eventually we run out gas. We might lash out, then feel guilty. Our empty tank means we struggle with decision making. Communication might be strained or non-existent. The team feels the impact, adding to an already stressful time.
When leaders put self management upfront, we have more patience and emotional space to help the team makes sense of what’s next.
p.s. Despite our attempts to manage our energy, the chaos might overwhelm us at some point. This is expected. When it does, rather than double down on work, it’s time to double down on self care.
Know that we won’t get it all right. We will make mistakes. I had dreams about the missteps I made for months after my role ended. It was hard to shake. I wish I’d known that it wasn’t if I’d make mistakes but how many and what kind. It would have eased my mind and reduced over thinking.
In theory, change management seems fairly straight forward. Make a plan and then work the plan. That’s the theory anyway. Wrinkles always come up. A big customer we were depending on doesn’t come through, creating revenue uncertainty. A team member with unique expertise suddenly departs the company, leaving a vital hole. Those careful plans no longer apply to our current situation. Our plans need to be remade, likely many times during this phase. So have a plan, and know that it’s in pencil, not ink. In other words, be prepared for it to evolve.
Neutral zones are rarely orderly transitions. Mayhem often appears, disorienting all of us. I’m not saying to go through them without a plan. Structure will help us through. The key is finding the right amount of structure while still remaining flexible. Consistency can really help. For example, you might decide that you will communicate through an all hands every month, no matter what. And, that you will be transparent as possible. This might sound basic but when there’s high amounts of uncertainty, there’s a strong incentive to say nothing for fear of getting it wrong or having to change later. Messaging is difficult when things are unpredictable but being consistent can quell some concerns. It also helps to know there is a plan, even if it might shift.
When it comes to neutral zones, expect the unexpected. Nothing will go as planned. When we stay in the mindset of flexibility, we’re more easily able to flow with the changes and guide others through.
The tangible bits aren’t the hardest part. It’s tempting to focus on team assignments, strategic priorities, reporting structures and so forth. Tangible changes do need to be sorted — they’re just not the hardest bit of leading through transition. More difficult is helping people process the change and the emotions that come along for the ride. People might experience loss, guilt, excitement, anxiety or dread — sometimes many of these emotions at one time. Just as you experienced confusion when your role changed, they will to. Making it more difficult? They’re navigating changes they may not have wanted or have had any say in. This makes the situation all the more disorienting.
As a leader, our job is to help the team navigate this phase. This means we have to help people let go of the old so we can move in a new direction. This is difficult for just about all of us. That’s not to say you’re responsible for the emotions of others. Absolutely not. However, you can create an environment that makes the process easier.
When guiding others through the neutral zone, think of the tangible bits as the iceberg you can see, the intangible bits lie under the surface. This means we can run into them if we’re not careful. Make space in your plans for the intangible pieces. William Bridges’ second book, Managing Transitions is a solid resource with many tips on leading through transition. I highly recommend it.
Neutral zones are full of change. Most of us find change challenging. Leading others through it? Like playing on hard mode.
Make sure to focus on your own well-being, not just that of the team. Know that there isn’t a right way to guide through this bewildering time. Remember to include the intangible parts as part of the transition.
Finally, if you find leading through this phase difficult, know that you’re not alone. Be sure to get support.
Few transitions are as difficult as transitioning from being a manager to a leader. Manager to leader - what’s the difference? There are overlooked prerequisites that make these moves hard and often result in missed expectations. According to Gartner, 49% of people promoted within companies underperform up to 18 months after promotion.
Becoming a leader requires a change in mindset, capabilities, relationships, and focus.
I share 5 principles to accelerate your next level of growth on your journey to becoming an exceptional leader. You’ll get smarter faster, be more effective, and succeed for yourself and your organization.
The expectations of you as a leader differ from those of a manager. Managers are expected to be tactical and action-oriented. Leaders are expected to be strategic, visionary, influential.
Early in my career, I got a coveted promotion in consulting: engagement manager. One of my first assignments was to lead a team to craft the strategy for a multi-billion dollar merger.
I no longer simply executed the strategy - I set it. I was also responsible for managing client relationships, mobilizing and motivating my team, creating an environment for high performance execution, and managing upwards to senior leaders.
I learned quickly that the capabilities that got me to my role were no longer sufficient.
Focus less on how to solve a problem. Focus more on defining and deciding which problems should be solved.
In the first two weeks of the project everything seemed to go awry. Client leadership were misaligned, bankers wanted to push up timelines, deal assumptions and deliverables were constantly changing. The scope, scale, magnitude of complexity, and responsibility felt overwhelming.
I needed some serious coaching. I called the Partner in charge of the project.
Me: “I’m managing the situation and stakeholders as best as I can. I’m quarterbacking, but the plays aren’t landing. Things are going south.”
Partner: “sometimes you need to be the quarterback. Other times you need to be head coach or general manager. Watch from the sidelines, observe the people and situation, and re-strategize the play”.
Anyone close to me will tell you that sports, especially American football is not my strong suit. But the analogy made sense. I was experiencing a new dimension of growth, one that felt familiar, yet distinctly different.
I needed to shift from running plays to recognizing when to shift roles and influencing the game strategy and dynamics.
As a manager, your focus is on designing process and tactical execution. As a leader, your focus is on aligning people, driving clarity, and influencing outcomes.
This requires you to think fluidly - zooming in and out of details, inferring patterns from various data points, and generating conclusions that lead to decisions. It also requires you to have the confidence to “call timeout”, regroup the right set of thinkers and players that can help you draw up new plays.
An HBR Study found that 70% of employees are most engaged when senior leadership continuously communicates strategy.
Pro tip: You don’t need to know all the details; but you do need to know how to ask questions that lead to meaningful insights. This will help you define the people who can give you the right insights on work that should be done to deliver exceptional results.
Read: A more beautiful question
Leadership is a team sport. While there are many books on leadership (Developing The Leader Within You 2.0, Good to Great) there’s no playbook for every scenario you’ll encounter. You’ll need a set of people you can trust and with whom you can bounce ideas.
Why should you have more than one person to reach out to? I believe in having a set of thinking partners.
You’ll encounter scenarios that will require you to have different leadership modes and outcomes. In one day expect to make swift decisions, learn a new domain, deliver tough news, or be an inspiring speaker. Each of these require different capabilities.
In my situation, I looked to the project Partner for coaching on overall leadership acumen. I also tapped subject matter experts in my client’s industry to sharpen my technical acumen and understand success factors for similar transactions.
Having a set of trusted mentors that you can reach out to and help you get smarter faster is mission critical.
One of the most distinctive shifts from managing work products to leading an organization is making decisions that are good for the business as a whole.
Your performance is tied to the performance of the entire enterprise. This means you’re dependent on lots of teams and people to make you successful.
You’ll have a deeper sense of how you might partner for better shared outcomes. You’ll also learn to speak and understand the language of other functions. This is important as you’ll be in a better position to make trade-offs and explain the rationale for decisions.
In my scenario, I set a learning plan to broaden my perspectives. As I expanded my mentor circle, I asked for additional names of people with whom I should connect to learn more deeply about a topic.
Here’s my tactical plan that I recommend you leverage:
Pro tip: tap people outside your firm who have a similar role. This helps with alternate views to compare and contrast approaches.
“Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.” Peter Drucker
How you allocate your time and your presence is crucial for your effectiveness and for the success of the organization you lead. Where you spend your time is also a reflection of how you lead and what matters most to you -- which trickles down to the organization.
The key to spending time on what matters most is to make room for those things.
Critical question: how do you spend your time now?
In my example, I took an inventory of meetings I attended, activities I spent time on, and compared these to achievement points. I found that I needed to reallocate my time to more value added areas that enabled important priorities: reset strategy, align stakeholders, re-direct my team. (see principles 2, 3).
Read: How CEOs Manage Time
The transition from manager to leader is an exciting journey. It’s also hard work. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you simply took on a similar job with larger scale and scope. You took on an entirely new responsibility with a new set of performance measures and expectations. Be proactive about attaining the next set of tools for your success toolkit.
As the last king of Rome lay siege to Ardea, his sons grew weary of the inaction on the battlefield and left for a surprise visit to their home. On their way home, they stopped in Collatia received by the hospitable Lucretia, wife of Collatinus. Lucretia’s beauty sparked a lust in Sextus Tarquinius (the king’s youngest son), eye he returned to claim in the middle of night, sword drawn, coercing her to yield to his sexual demands. Lucretia soon took her own life soon thereafter, after confessing to what transpired in a written message to her husband and her father.
A revolt followed which brought an end to the kingship of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and marked the beginning of the Roman Republic.
The Senate was not granted power to transform Rome into a republic, it was taken. The Senate abolished kingship forcing Tarquin into exile, transferring most of the kings responsibilities to two consuls who were elected to one-year terms in office. Brutus and Collatinus, Rome’s first consuls had equal veto powers that acted as a check on his colleague. If a consul abused the powers of his office, he could be prosecuted after his term expired.
Magistrates were civil officers that carried out the law for a geographic region appointed by the Senate. Magistrates power came from the people of Rome and had certain constitutional powers, including the authority to command a military force — mostly as a means to maintain diplomacy and the judicial system. Collega was a check on the magistrate’s power — which meant each magesterial office would be concurrently held by at least two people. Provocatio — an early form of due process was another check on the office, protecting all citizens from coercion.
The Roman Senate is celebrated as one of the most enduring institutions in Roman history — surviving barbarian rule, the Roman monarchy and even the fall of the Roman Republic spanning across multiple centuries. For all the merits of the Roman Senate — it had a serious flaw. The influx of slavery that enriched the aristocracy at the detriment of the peasantry. This drove civil unrest which led to a class warfare that sparked a series of civil wars.
… Shall Rome stand under one man’s awe?
What, Rome? My ancestors did from the streets of Rome the Tarquin drive, when he was call’d a king.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser (Act 2, Scene 1) Brutus regale as he reflects on his ancestor’s role in overthrowing Tarquin’s father and the Roman monarchy.
There have been a series of significant changes to the workplace culture and even our expectations from work from the late 90s to the present. The way we define power has shifted from titles to capability. We’re moving from traditional hierarchical models to flat organizations that foster partnership.
The executive era is over and the end user era is in full swing. In this era, the end user is in the driver’s seat. Users expect consumer grade experiences, especially from enterprise software. Design is driving strategic value — and the design maturity of an organization, is now a litmus test of how well the organization can adapt and react to the needs of their users.
You’ve probably seen a rendition of the three legged stool at some point. You know, the one that consists of design, product, and engineering each designated as a leg.
Don Norman first visualized “the three legs of human centered product development”: technology, marketing and user experience (Fig. A) in his book The Invisible Computer. The irony is the human is no where to be found in this so called ‘human centered’ approach .
Along the way, several thoughtful renditions as well as utter bastardizations of Don’s three legged stool came and went. Alex Schleifer, the VP of Design at AirBnB coined the EPD stool which illustrated the value of each table leg being equal in length (Fig B.). In Alex’s version — he advocates the value of collaboration and equal empowerment of roles amongst engineering, product, and design with a council of cross functional leadership team. This is a major step in the right direction — and no surprise it’s coming from a design lead organization like AirBnB but there’s still one major problem remains unaddressed.
The reality is (Fig. C), that stools are meant for sitting — which made a seat, ripe for picking by an authoritative figurehead. In most cases, this is a PM who is titled as the ‘owner’ of the product by sitting on the stool — is literally sitting on the product and the cross-functional team.
How did we get here? How did the spirit of something so democratic turn autocratic? The cross-functional consuls of experts in tech, marketing and user experience have been usurped by a figurehead that’s assumed control of them, the product and the customers.
Marty Cagan’s infamous book for product managers called Inspired (spoiler alert: actually not that inspiring) is considered essential reading for product managers. Marty’s book is fantastic rallying cry for product leaders to better understand their role, the function of a product team and get inspired to become great leaders.
The book however, is also riddled with contradictions almost as if to intentionally display a conflict of conviction throughout the book. On one hand, Marty defines a product team as “a set of highly skilled people who come together for an extended period of time to solve hard business problems.” (Cagan, 86) And on the other, he encourages product managers to operate as a mini-CEOs of product teams made of empowered missionaries that include a product manager, a designer (optional), and an army of engineers.
Marty makes it explicitly clear that product owners do not have any people management authority over their teams. Yet, his language assumes ownership over designers by using possessive pronouns. For example, “Do whatever you need to do to have your designer sit next to you.” (Cagan, 129)
Marty defines the role as a product manager as “the sole individual responsible for evaluating opportunities and determining what gets built and delivered to customers (Cagan, 100)… The honest truth is that the product manager needs to be among the strongest talent in the company. If the product manager doesn’t have the technology sophistication, doesn’t have the business savvy, doesn’t have the credibility with the key executives, doesn’t have the deep customer knowledge, doesn’t have the passion for the product, or doesn’t have the respect of their product team, then it’s a sure recipe for failure.” (Cagan, 86) Later he writes, “not one of the impressive product managers I feature in this book has an MBA — or that you need to have all these skills yourself. You must simply have a broad understanding of how a product can affect a business and work with people from your team and across your company to cover everything that’s important.” (Cagan, 113)
Is it realistic for every company that hires product managers to aspire and meet all these virtues? And what happens if they don’t meet that standard? Are they all doomed to then fail? The product role has become a single, critical point of failure for many companies — when they can’t hire product managers to meet a high standard and without a formal educational track it’s hard to understand what sort of product leader you’re getting until it’s already too late.
Inspired advocates for virtues such as lean product development approach, deep customer knowledge and creating empowered teams. Unfortunately, the due to its’ hypocritical nature, the book is also prone to poor translation by aspiring product leaders. For example, a product leader recently told me “PM’s should be authoritative.” This isn’t the first or the last time I’ve heard this from a product leader.
A while ago, I asked a question out loud as a thought experiment. What happened next, went beyond my imagination and was eye opening. In the thread you will find everything from product managers who experienced the tweet as a personal slight, to designers concerned they would become as miserable as a PM, to death by workshops and empathy!
And then something unexpected happened! Marty Cagan chimed in with his take on the thread!
The interaction on this thread really inspired me to go deeper into this thought exercise. I started looking for examples of design lead organizations.
Harley Earl, was a renowned automotive designer at General Motors in its’ heyday where he was designated Head of Design and then later Vice President. Harley is credited as one of the first designers to be appointed an executive position at a major corporation in America.
Joe Gebbia, co-founder and chief product officer of AirBnB was trained in industrial design, a graduate from RISD.
I then stumbled upon this tweet..
and discovered more examples of design-led organizations, not just in the consumer space ( AirBnB, Pinterest) but enterprise too (Linear, Quill and Envoy to name a few)!
Design is the natural foundational knowledge for product leadership. The pandemic only accelerated an already declining demand for positions requiring an MBA. This is primarily happening because alternative educational programs are providing industry focused degrees such as CCA’s design strategy MBA. Whether it’s engineering, data science or design — all of the alternatives teach a specific trade alongside business, product and financial knowledge.
The argument I am making is perhaps it’s easier for design leaders to step into product leadership roles than the other way around because of the foundational knowledge of design in this Era of End User.
Kim’s tweet isn’t just sublime, it’s an example of how designers have a better understanding of a product manager’s job than some product managers do.
Concurrently, the role of the traditional product manager seems to be of increasingly diminishing in value as products become more complex requiring more specific knowledge to make. Notice how late the first product manager is hired at some of the most prominent startups.
The first hires at a startup are the most important and all bring specific knowledge that provides a unique capability to help the startup unlock high growth. That’s not all, I’ll go one step further.
Data Science, Behavioral Science, Psychology, Experience Design, Engineering, Anthropology, Growth Marketing & Sales, User Research, and Financial Modeling are some examples of the specific knowledge it takes to make some of the best experiences today. The collaboration of these specific skills creates a successful business.
I took some creative liberty to visualize what that model might look like — keeping consistency with our furniture based analogies.
Growth marketing and sales is a combination of sales, marketing and data science skills that uses experimentation to drive towards a specific business goal. Growth starts with a deep understanding of product value for customers.
User research focuses on identifying and making sense of user behaviors, needs and motivations in order to design meaningful products and services. Research is a profession, not just an activity for a product manager to lead with a broad understanding. It goes far beyond conducting customer interviews to validate your ideas.
Naturally, a pillar of any business organization is how they make money (revenue model), scale operations and invest in the business to grow. I purposefully put a lot of the ‘business’ responsibilities into this capability so it’s more specific.
Whether it’s software, electrical or mechanical engineering, this is the core function that’s focused on the craft of making a product or service. This grouping includes data science, and business intelligence amongst other roles.
In this analogy, design is the table top — joining all four core pillars of growth, research, finance and engineering to collaborate in equal partnership and empowerment to make a product or service that is meaningful for people.
I purposefully left out product from this model for a few reasons:
Authority isn’t given, and though it can be taken -it’s empty and short lived. True authority is earned through knowledge, experience and effort in the form of trust.
Design is built for navigating uncharted territories, which is precisely where our economy currently finds itself. Design focuses on learning from failure — which most organizations self report being quite low on. Design is self interested in constant change and the lens of this quarantine will only accelerate cross-functional collaboration necessary to compete in today’s market. Design alone will never solve everything, but it does encourage a better framework for collaboration than product leadership ever will.
If you’re a designer, I encourage you to stand in front of the room and aspire to foster cross-functional empowerment for your teams.
If you’re a product manager, I encourage you to gain specific knowledge and make space for distributed ownership of the product.
If you’re the CEO or founder of a company, please consider putting off creating a product organization altogether, for as long as possible. You don’t need it. Instead, hire people with specific knowledge, empower them to collaborate cross-functionally and distribute the ownership of the product amongst leaders that exhibit skin in the game.
Viva la revolución.
A special thanks to the leaders of the design industry that have encouraged me to find my own voice, use my own creativity to share what I observe and critically think. It’s nice to know you’re there and that you care!