Kristin Skinner on designing design organizations

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Design investment, the importance of mindset, and creating the right environment.

By Mary Treseler
October 13, 2016
Dual Perspective. Dual Perspective. (source: Ray on Flickr)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with Kristin Skinner, managing director at Adaptive Path, head of design management at Capital One, and co-author of Org Design for Design Orgs.  We talk about managing design teams, scaling design, and what we can learn from the Golden State Warriors.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

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Helping companies realize their design investment

There’s the famous Mark Andreessen quote about software eating the world. Back in 2004, Tim Brown was on the cover of Businessweek Magazine declaring that design can help shape business. That trend has been happening over time, but it’s really been over the last 10, probably even five, years where design teams are really starting to scale. We recognize the generative qualities for design can help to realize new business value, and that the old methods of management around development, specifically, that require a real keen focus on efficiency and a real keen focus on value that you’re getting out of every hour, every line of code, etc., doesn’t fit well. It doesn’t sync up with the generative qualities of design.

We also recognized that there’s a shift right now, or a trend, where you have the raw talent. There are a lot of schools and programs now where you can actually get your certification in certain disciplines of design, but there’s really a big gap in figuring out how to scale design. Most design books, most information that you find out there, and we found this in our research to be true, they’re mostly about design practice—so, what sort of tools, what sort of methods and approaches and processes for doing the design work exist and are shared broadly, and then the case studies to show how that work has actually affected products and services out in the real world. That target audience is really meant for those design practitioners.

We believe design should be a core competency. It should be on par with sales, information technology, development, marketing, etc., but it’s not as mature a practice. That’s why we really wanted to focus on helping organizations see a path to get there and hopefully in the future be able to talk even more broadly about what those success stories look like.

Hiring: Looking for the growth mindset

For me, it’s mindset. There’s qualifications, obviously, that once you’re talking to somebody, you assume that you’ve met all of those. First and foremost, it’s mindset—especially for the roles on the team I’m building or hiring for right now. It’s things like being able to read the room. It’s having confidence. It’s being a good facilitator, being able to understand when to really push and when to lean back, when to lean in and when to lean back.

Let me see if I can give you an example: soft skills, things like negotiation, facilitation. Those are the big ones. Really, communication was huge. That’s in a bucket in and of itself. The mindset for me has always been one of the leading indicators of how successful somebody’s going to be. You can assess that pretty quickly, even through a phone call, but certainly face to face I think it’s something you can really appreciate—really understanding how people approach different problems, to how people approach their work, how people approach collaboration. Those are the areas that I really like to focus on to help figure out who’s going to be successful and who may not be the best fit.

Design management: Creating an environment to succeed

I think from a design community perspective, what’s really been interesting is seeing a lot more activity—not just here in the U.S., but globally around design management. That’s been really fascinating to see and to hear how we’ve come from ‘I just need to get the design right’ to ‘I just need to get the strategy right’ to ‘I just need to get the design organization right.’ It’s part of why we wrote the book. We even talk about it situationally—just think about the Golden State Warriors. In 2013- 2014, they had a different management team than they have in place right now. They were a team of exemplary players, and they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Management is out, new management came in, and the very next year they were NBA champions. It’s not a coincidence. There’s a responsibility from managers’ perspectives to really, really focus on creating their environment.

Post topics: O'Reilly Design Podcast