Growing a design team

5 questions for Alastair Simpson: Customer empathy, culture’s impact on design, and the power of saying “I don’t know.”

By Mary Treseler
November 16, 2016
Growing Hearts. Growing Hearts. (source: Karen Roe on Flickr)

I recently asked Alastair Simpson, design manager at Atlassian, to share insights from leading and growing a design team, what management has taught him about himself, and how to measure design maturity. At the O’Reilly Design Conference, Simpson will be presenting a session on managing design teams: From 6 to 126 in 4 Years.

You are presenting a talk at the 2017 Design Conference, titled “From 6 to 126 in 4 years.” What were some of the challenges of growing a team from 6 to 100+ at Atlassian?

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When you grow a team that quickly, there are numerous challenges that come with it. Many of these are also ongoing challenges that you are constantly working to improve. Just like great design we continue to learn and iterate on our team and the design of our organisational structure as we grow.

Initially, the biggest strategic challenge was ensuring that the company truly valued the practice of design. And when I say “truly valued,” I really mean that. Many organisations have large design teams, yet many of those design teams are still treated as a “service” within their organisation, rather than an integral part of how they build great products. Making design matter within the organisation was the first hurdle to overcome, and if you don’t have that right from day one, everything else can just be wasted effort.

Once you start scaling design in an organisation that values it, you bump into much more tactical but no less important problems. Issues like:

  • Retaining the core values within the design team as you grow so quickly
  • Scaling the design language to ensure that it can be used by a global team of designers
  • Giving designers the right tools and frameworks to allow them to integrate successfully with their peers in product management and engineering
  • Educating other disciplines about how to reframe problems and understand the core tenants of design thinking

All of these challenges are more tactical in nature, but extremely tough to tackle within any organisation, let alone one growing as quickly as Atlassian.

What has been the hardest part of taking the company culture from engineering driven to experience driven?

One of the toughest challenges has been building up the right level of customer empathy throughout all product development disciplines within Atlassian. Atlassian has always had a very customer-centric culture, but we have predominantly spoken to administrators who set up our products, and generally they love us. As we scaled design, we realised that we needed to create more empathy across other disciplines for all of our customers, not just our admins. We put many things in place to help us with this. We took engineers and product managers out to meet customers. We created a set of persona cards and distributed them across the organisation. We started collecting in-product feedback from our end customers, which was then shared weekly with all staff via email. We created a usability testing lab in house and allowed anyone to watch the sessions live or recorded via video conferencing. All of these activities were to help us get everyone who builds our products closer to our end customers. The increased level of empathy has helped us shift to a much more experience-driven approach to everything we build for our customers.

What were some of the keys to success in getting design thinking adopted at an organizational level?

I think one of the biggest wins for us as an organisation was how we codified design and design thinking across the organisation. Atlassian has a very open intranet with a vibrant internal culture of sharing, commenting, learning, and collaborating. We used that to our advantage. We visualised our design frameworks and shared them with the company. By sharing these frameworks it helped debunked some of the “black box” myths that many people have of design. It meant that non design teams understood the journey we were about to embark on, before we had even started bringing them into that creative process. This creates a much safer and open environment where we can be creative and collaborate as a team. This was eventually turned into a playbook, full of plays (How-to’s) that allowed anyone in the business to run a variety of design thinking type activities. Some of the plays in that playbook were recently released to our customers at our annual customer conference.

How do you measure design maturity within an organization?

There are a number of design maturity models out there on the web. I think these can be interesting guides to help you initially evaluate where the organisation you have joined sits on the scale. They can also help you benchmark as your team and organisation scales.

But ultimately, I think much of the measurement comes when other disciplines show how much they value and understand the practice of design. Design needs to have an opinion about the types of problems the organisation is solving, not just helping to execute on solutions to specific problems. When that opinion is not only valued, but a key part of the product development conversation from the get go, that is when you are truly mature as an organisation.

What have you learned about yourself as a manager growing the team?

One of the biggest lessons I have learned is the power of saying “I don’t know,” but importantly following that with “But lets sit down and work through the problem together.” As a younger manager, I thought that part of my job was to know everything, and by doing that, I thought I was showing my team leadership. Saying “I don’t know” felt like I had failed.

I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of very intelligent people at Atlassian. The company also passionately believes that teams are the key to building great products, not necessarily individuals. During our fast growth, I have faced problems that I had never previously experienced. Saying I don’t know the answer, has been incredibly powerful with my team, and has helped me build a lot of trust with them. The important leadership aspect here is to then apply the right framework to help you as a team tackle the problem together. Individuals and the team appreciate the honesty, and they often have important knowledge or bring fresh perspectives to help you solve problems faster, and almost always get to a much stronger outcome.

Post topics: Design
Post tags: 5 Questions for designers