Lessons from leading design prototyping

// leadership

I spent a good half of 2019 trying to lead a small team of smart, creative folks in design prototyping. As an individual contributor, transitioning to a leadership role was a painful journey. I’ve had my fair share of self-doubt and really low days, thinking if I took a wrong turn down this path. I’ve even thought of giving up for good, persuaded that I’m just not cut out for this.

If you are going through something similar and are having such thoughts, you’re not alone. Things will get better. I also hope that this reflection will help or encourage you in some way.

Just to set the context, our team’s focus was on exploring future scenarios through design prototyping. It was an area of work that is inherently abstract by nature, and sometimes speculative. That means your team members will often feel lost and will look to you for answers, of which you have none.

Learn to design by proxy

One of the first things I learned is that I no longer have direct control over the outcome. It’s no longer as straightforward as, “I have an idea, I’m gonna build it now”. It’s also not, “I have an idea, let us go build it now”. Creative people have ideas of their own. They have their own direction, opinions and unique ways to achieve what they envision. This means that disagreement becomes the norm, and that the old-school command-and-control leadership style will fail miserably.

Effective design leadership is not just about having a vision and being able to tell a convincing story about it. It’s about drawing out, harnessing and amplifying people’s innate creative energy.

Spend your time on framing and reframing problems to help designers think from unusual perspectives. While you can’t think on their behalf, you can shape the trajectory of their thinking in a certain direction. And don’t be afraid of crazy ideas. Love them, embrace them. It is much easier to tone down on a wacky idea, and almost impossible to amp up a boring one.

Opportunities to design by proxy also comes in the small and fleeting interactions with people. Creative people rub off on each other’s energies. If you’re personally always learning new things and experimenting, the things you talk about will naturally be inspiring to the people around you.

Have some patience

It is common for designers to get stuck. Whether it’s in the beginning of a project where people are absorbing information and brewing ideas in their heads, or in the middle of prototyping and they hit a wall. There will be periods of time where they seem to be producing nothing. And I get it, it can be an excruciating wait.

It’s tempting to jump right in and sort things out for them. When you do that, you deprive them of precious opportunities to learn. It is in such moments that designers unlock new ways of looking at things. Prod and drop hints; don’t solve their problems for them.

Also, you can’t squeeze blood out of a rock. Don’t floor the pedal and add even more structure, processes, and deadlines. Start looking at other knobs to turn when underperforming becomes the norm. I personally choose to believe that humans are creative by nature; it’s the circumstances and environment around them that cripple that power.

Get out of the way

I learned this from my boss: design your way out of the team. Strive to not end up as a critical factor to the team’s daily functioning. Instead, you should be striving to be valuable to them. It’s tempting to want to have the last word in meetings. Your team members might even want you to have the last word and “close off” meetings. Reserve these for the most delicate and important issues, ones that can’t be resolved without your input.

When it comes to letting go—as in delegating—the catch is knowing when to do it. When you’re first starting up a team, it’s natural to have more responsibilities fall on your shoulders. Let go too soon and your entire team will be in disarray. Too late, and you might end up shoving your team into a state of learned helplessness.

Take care of yourself—and others

This one hit me right out of left field—the feeling of being alone. Find support. Even better, offer support. Reach out to other people going through the same struggles as you. You’ll get more out of what you give. It’s natural to shrink back and ask what others can do for you, but leadership is about asking yourself what you can do for others. You may feel like you’re out of your element or that you’re messing things up, but you’re still capable of listening and offering support to other people. Getting out of your shell when things get shitty will help you feel better.

You might also feel immense pressure to demonstrate both technical and leadership chops, especially when you first start out. First of all, it’s an unreasonable expectation. Remember that you’re learning to lead, and are in the midst of transitioning. Don’t beat yourself up too hard when you’re practically new to the job.

Make progress visible

Make your team’s progress visible. If you notice that the team’s thinking has moved forward, it’s worth the time recapping and reiterating what they’ve learned. Declare a checkpoint and say, “this was where we were last week”, and “this is where we are now”. Doing this helps to create a feeling of making progress, despite still being stuck on a problem.

Also, try to recognise and celebrate small wins. This world is already as harsh as it can get; we could use more encouragement and compliments from each other.

Make room for creative tension

In my opinion, one crucial factor in producing novel work is the ability to think divergently. Free-association tends to lead to unusual combinations between ideas, and has a better chance of yielding creative solutions. How you can help with creating such an environment is to be more aware of complements when it comes to pairing, grouping or hiring people. Two is better than one, but in this context, only if they’re not a carbon copy of each other.

It’s dangerous to go alone

I’m incredibly fortunate to have learned many things about creative leadership under my boss, Phil. Being able to see a walking, talking role model in him is a tremendous blessing. I’ve also learned a great deal from inspirational friends and colleagues around me, some of whom are not even designers.

Look beyond your circle, and you might find precious gems hidden in plain sight.