What Makes a Design Team World-Class?

Advice from The Sherwins for April 2019

Star Building


Hey Sherwins!

What makes a design team world-class?

Lately, our team has been discussing what we need to do to become a world-class design team, like Airbnb or Google. But what does that mean? We have a lot of ideas of where we need to improve—for some of us, our list of things to do has everything from “have a great website” to “clearly defined processes and checklists”. People mentioned open spaces, whiteboards, and daily stand-ups/critiques. Of course, having the best people comes as a no-brainer, but everything else is up for discussion.

I must admit that, while I’m interested in us growing into a world-class team, I’m also asking for your input in part so I can better navigate this concept of improvement and grow myself as a more senior member of the team.

Thank you very much,
V in Amsterdam

Hi V, great to hear from you. Let’s get started.

First, with that pesky title of “world-class”. Give an in-the-know designer 10 seconds to name some world-class design teams, and their examples will invariably have these things in common: US firms, somewhere in California, organized around product development cycles and processes, with a particularly obsessive relationship to both scale and technology. Oh, and money. Won, lost, real or not, but there’s always unbelievable amounts of money. Once you get all of those things, you’ve made it.

This could lead you to believe that there’s a level of discipline in US firms grown around the Bay Area that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world (which is erroneous), and that you need to be in product design in order to be world-class (which is probably erroneous, but worth noting because identifying what makes a world-class design agency is a very different kettle of fish).

Or, you could look at it another way: World-class means that you need your product or service available in more than one country, and that your team provides a consistent level of quality and vision across at least two offices. If you serve the 1.3 billion+ people who live in India or the 1.3 billion+ people who live in China, but you don’t have an office in another country, then you can’t be “world-class”. (Sorry, we don’t make the rules.)

Here’s yet another way. We started a list of more, shall we say, consultative ways of framing the notion of world-class. Things like: Your team needs to have a good understanding of their current capacities and their future capabilities. You need a place to discuss the ethical decisions that your team is making, and everyone needs to have a voice in them. Designers need clear and possible paths for their own growth on the team and within the organization. While all of these things are important, none of them screamed “world-class”. They just said “workplace that doesn’t suck”.

Really, it’s more that you don’t get to call yourself world-class. Someone else gets to bestow the moniker on you. Someone with authority or clout, someone whose opinion matters. Find yourself one of those people and convince them to give you the label. Problem solved!

Sarcasm aside, by now you’ve probably figured out there’s no way to define world-class. “World-class” means something different to everyone, including the teams that have been labeled as such.

But we’re determined to help you out on this, because your ability to contribute as a senior member of the team depends on it. In the end, there are two things that give you the greatest opportunity to grow yourself and your team. That’s it. Just two. One is structural, the other strategic.

1. Design reports directly to the CEO

Behind all of the designer-y talk about “having a seat at the table” and “moving upstream” is the need for a major organizational shift. Design must be independent and it must report directly to the top. No hiding under the umbrella of marketing, no lopsided partnerships with engineering. World-class design means that it has to cut across everything, informing the organization’s major decisions. If design reports to anyone other than the CEO, that horizontal line get broken, or worse, design gets stuck in a silo of just making things pretty.

It’s wild: we talk to some of the best designers at the best companies in the world, and they still sit around and complain that they’re just order takers, that their companies don’t realize the true value of design. As a discipline, design seems to be increasingly frustrated with the fact that their growing role in innovation has created more executional work that they are necessarily responsible for. We run into a lot of designers who want to do big idea thinking but don’t want to “push pixels”. If they’ve got the money, they’re perfectly happy to outsource all of the work to another firm. (To be frank, the whole situation strikes us as a bit whiny. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of wanting an office building that doesn’t have any bathrooms.)

We bring this up because we run into this most often with companies where design doesn’t report to the top. It’s easier to do executional work when designers understand why it’s being done, and the role that they had in creating the need for it.

For you, this may be an enormous task. If design isn’t currently independent, then it needs to shift. If the organization grows too large before this happens, the budgetary adjustments alone could blow up your product. Design needs control over their own budget, so they have the flexibility to shift and change over time as long as they meet the goals they’ve set for themselves. If the CEO and the rest of the C-suite don’t know how to truly leverage design across the organization, then the time spent educating them and proving value could burn you out. Does this mean your CEO needs to be a designer? Not necessarily. It’s just that the projects that design runs might not use the same vocabulary and measures of success that the marketing team’s projects do. Your CEO needs to understand that and support your goals.

A word of warning: if your organization can’t reorganize so that design reports to the top, the chances of the team being able to be “world-class” decrease dramatically. It doesn’t mean that they won’t be good, but there are structural problems that the team will never be able to overcome.

2. Design has a vision that is self-motivated and self-sustaining

When your team chooses to be world-class, it’s a mission that doesn’t include a competitor. Don’t adopt processes or frameworks or people or whiteboards in order to emulate others in the hopes of catching their success. That is not strategic. Icon-driven growth—or worse, nemesis-driven growth—is a game you’ll always lose. It’s also not design.

World-class design teams are not built by going to market with the slogan “We’d like to be better than Airbnb”. What works at Google works at Google because they’re Google. This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from the big dogs of the industry. But we have to be able to translate their actions into what’s relevant for our teams.

Looking outside is important. You need to have an eye on what the competition is doing, what their customers are demanding, and how legal policies may impact your development. You need to be able to offer designers an attractive package in your workplace. But after all of that, a world-class design team must set its own terms for quality.

Think about it like this: Every team has a North Star, right? You know, the big vision-y thing that’s supposed to unite a team and guide them through the darkest hours. The best teams choose that star together and they chase it. And then they go about following all of the rest of the normal business advice about how to keep employees challenged and their customers happy. This much is known.

A world-class design team, in contrast, builds their own star. They send it out into space and then they chart a course. They navigate the asteroids of competition, the interstellar storms of the market, and the tempting planets of acquisitions and IPOs. Nothing replaces that star.

Here’s the other thing about that team-built star: Once it’s launched, it must be regularly reached. Yes, you read that right. Too many people think that the whole North Star thing needs to be forever unattainable in order for it to be truly motivational. And sure, that philosophy works for many, many successful teams that make loads of successful products. But a world-class team must do things differently. It must reach the star, pull it down, and then send it back out. Their vision is self-sustaining.

Unlike the stars that those other perfectly good teams have, this star is not a dream. It’s not an abstract vision. The team built it. It has a clear beginning and a history. The decisions that have been made—the past products and former clients, the research indicators and customer feedback—everything that has come before is visible to you, and you have to get the team to understand what they’ve learned every time they catch it.

The team reaches the star when they’ve completed a particular set of goals that are supported by the larger vision. In other words, the core of the star (your product) doesn’t change. The framework around it, the stuff that keeps it in flight, that’s the stuff that changes. And you, as a senior member of the team, are responsible for helping everyone learn from the star’s past in order to make strategic decisions about how to best send the star back out in order to guide you.

Did the star seem unusually dim this time around? Maybe it’s time to do more user research. Has it been too long since your team felt like it caught the star? Try more tactical deliverables or improving your team’s communication skills. Did you catch the star faster than you did last time? Consider spending some time looking at your design process; the team may have gained new competencies that you can leverage. Does everyone seem pretty content and ready for a challenge? Send the star out for a longer period of time, which means you’ll be working on long-term strategic goals.

This star business is a delicate one, and it’s not happening in a vacuum. Don’t forget: if you report to the top, then design crosses the entire organization. You aren’t going anywhere without the other disciplines. You have to work together to make sure the core of the star is still true and right, that it deserves to be guiding your team, and by extension, the organization. (Star-builders must eventually become star-killers, but that’s a subject for another time.)

And that’s it, V, just those two things: reporting to the CEO and a team-built star. And even though they’ll frequently be at odds with each other, you can’t make it without them.

Just don't let any of the “world-class” conversations get in the way of doing the best work that you can possibly create. Every minute you spend arguing about what you are or what you aren’t is another minute you could be spending on the actual work.

Or, you know, figuring out how to move to California…

All best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will fade away after April 30, 2019.