Designing leadership in difficult times
I. Welcome back & follow up
Good Morning and thank you again for inviting me into your inbox. I write about insights and provocations on the evolving nature of digital design. You can always subscribe here.
I received more comments on last week's Question Framework for Content Moderation including one that stumped me asking “What is fair?” in terms of posting content. I’ll most likely explore that in a future edition.
BIG by Matt Stoller pontificated if the real problem is social networks broadly recommending content, not the content itself.
Ethan Zuckerman argued “I think we’re trying to fix social media in part because it’s too hard and too scary to fix our political system.”
Lastly, with tens of thousands of individuals in the US having accounts silenced, are we now paradoxically infringing on democracy by trying to save it? At what point does censorship turn into broad suppression?
Plenty above to think about, but for now, onto the weekly topic.
II. Designing Leadership in Difficult Times
Recently I shared that 2020 was our studio's best year ever rounding out our portfolio with DreamWorks, Universal, and Facebook. I’ve documented how we approached our distributed working policy, how we needed to support each other, and how we adapted to the changing environment due to COVID.
From that I received questions asking how we kept our creativity alive and how we turned 2020 into an opportunity.
Previous to 2020, my style was focused around design and work quality. Entering 2020, as contexts and needs shifted from COVID, my leadership style also had to be fluid and shift to stay successful. My leadership style now started to focus around four (4) areas - Empathy, Clarity, Culture, and Operations. I break each of these down below, and for other Design leaders, notice none of those four words is Design.
Our change in approach was the crux of our success and at its core, being able to shift styles and approach was a design problem. An understanding that a change in environment and contexts means a change in leadership style to meet the teams needs and goals.
Empathy - Leaning in
When you are provided with no other options, as a leader, you need to look at what is available to you, and make the best of it for your team. Always present what you can do, not what you can’t! When lockdown happened, my stance was never that this was a hindrance. It was only to find a path forward.
Over our first month, there was no understanding of expectations. We have a global community in our studio - people were concerned about relatives or friends, especially those who were elderly. While I would praise the team for their dedication during this period, I also explained that anxiety was ok and pressed the need to check on each other. It was important we acknowledged the concern.
I said this at a team meeting early during lockdown.
For us I think we’ve been just extremely lucky. But in talking to many individuals one-on-one I also want to make sure that despite saying, “Hey, look we’re great at adapting, we’re being efficient, we’re very lucky” — all these positive things… it doesn’t negate anxiety, it doesn’t negate concern or fear or anything like that. So I just want to make sure that we’re acknowledging that, and it’s… you know …. I know everybody doesn’t always feel great and excited, and that’s perfectly ok.
My primary focus as the Studio leader now shifted to building teams before business, focusing on emotional aspects first and work second. We had a strong Studio Leads layer and I trusted they would ensure strong work. This allowed for me to step back and look at the emotional impact of the situation on the studio.
I held many more one-on-one meetings than I had previously, and would often ask people how they felt today. My goal was to ensure the team knew that someone was steering, ensuring we kept moving forward, and cared about what was happening around us.
Clarity - Becoming a lighthouse
For months, we were faced with overall confusion and a sense of general calamity about the world.
During this time I remembered a conversation from Microsoft where I was extremely frustrated and stressed with product shipment delays. During a conversation with my manager, he seemed calm and unconcerned. I curtly said “Why aren’t you worried about this? How can you not be stressed?” He responded simply “What good would it do you if I were stressed? What would that achieve?” In remembering that, I know it was my role to provide calmness and direction in times of stress or general crisis.
In one example, as the lockdown would drag on, we recognised that we needed to provide some level of remote working policy to assist with clarity in times of ambiguity. We had team members who wanted to return to home countries, or travel outside of Amsterdam, and there was a growing level of frustration from the uncertainty on what we would allow as a studio.
From that, one of our Design Leads led a studio survey on remote working to collect thoughts and desires. Directly from that we developed our studios policy for the rest of 2020. This now allowed the entire studio to know the boundaries they could work with for the entirety of 2020.
Culture - Turning individuals to teams
As we adjusted to lockdown, and even began to enjoy it, we also noticed an overall estranged feeling across the studio. We started a Monday morning meeting to share how we felt as a studio and had a Friday meeting to share our work. Our standard rituals went virtual with different activities keeping us social. We had advocates in the studio to plan these events and ensure the studio connected socially.
As we drifted apart physically, it was more important than ever to remember our cultural and shared values as the foundation that bound us together. During the latter part of the year, the entire studio created a series of tongue-in-cheek posters that represented these values as a way to celebrate them. It was a way to both remind us, and reconnect us
These posters, led by various designers, represented the pride and soul of the studio. For 2020, leadership came across at all levels. With distributed teams, individuals can often feel isolated or alone. Make sure you build your culture, stand for something, and bring individuals together into teams.
Operations - Making the machine run tighter
A move to distributed working, must also mean an alignment of tools for work. Teams can’t work apart effectively if they are on different tools for work, communication, or storage. The ability to have quick access to work at all times is paramount - especially as a global company.
Having our global teams move to Slack ensures a more fluid conversation and the ability to connect conversations to quick video calls to sort out issues quickly. On the design side we completely moved into Figma which allowed everyone to build off each other and provided a more efficient, and asynchronous, foundation.
A small investment into DesignOps may go a long way.
Everything in the last year has now led to how we start 2021 and how we create our future. As shown above, management and leadership style must be fluid based on the contexts of operation. 2020 demanded a War Time Studio Leader. A leader who will provide focus and eschew anything that may distract from the core business needs. In this way, we strengthened our team and built our business.
Now in 2021, again, an adjusted approach to leadership is needed. We are still at “war” as long as COVID is raging, but we can see the slow transition into a Peace Time Studio Leader on the horizon. That is a studio and leadership based on exploration. Building on top of who we are now, we’ll work to reconnect with the beauty of design, to build new skills, and strengthen our creative vision.
If you focus on the future, you will pull the present forward.
As always, thank you for reading.
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