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Smart Ways to Lead Design Teams in a Radically Changing World


Though the concept of leading through change is not new, no one can argue that 2020 has brought about tremendous challenges for design leaders that require drastic transformation. From economic uncertainty to a global pandemic to concerted efforts for social justice, major forces have disrupted every aspect of our lives.

For most companies, design is at the center of this disruption as leaders search for effective ways to stand out in an increasingly crowded communication stream. Meanwhile remote workers continue to struggle with the intersection of work life and home life, and simply keeping staff connected is difficult enough. In this chaotic climate, shifting to new processes and business strategies - across dispersed and distracted employees - can seem like an unsurmountable goal.

Our InsideOut Design Leader Community met in June to share insights, real-world issues and best practices on leading through radical change. Below are actionable learnings gathered from 6 roundtables with senior leaders from high profile brands to help you lead through recent events and beyond.

Start With Why

Made famous by Simon Sinek's book and TED talk, the idea of engaging teams by tapping into the reason why a pivot is necessary is fundamental to lasting transformation. Leaders in several of our roundtables pointed to getting buy-in as a first step to connecting staff to a vision they can get behind.

  • Look Inside. Leaders in our roundtables shared two interesting perspectives on this point. One attendee suggested figuring out where the team's fear is coming from before moving forward. For example, finding out that staff fear losing their jobs (not the change itself) prompts leaders to overcome those concerns directly and focus energy on progress. Another participant reminded to check yourself first. If you don't believe in where you're headed, your staff will struggle to follow.
  • Look Outside. Leveraging industry and financial pressures is a powerful way to show why what's happening outside the organization requires innovation. As inspiration, Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter explains how external realities (an iceberg, melting!) can dramatically impact internal decisions and create a sense of urgency to move forward.

Mind Your Mindset

The culture of your company and your team can play a huge role in slowing or accelerating progress. While some businesses embrace constant evolution, many are risk-averse and favor self-preservation over anything new. And of course, every staff member is unique, so uncovering their motivations and goals is important, too.

  • Set the Tone for Change. One VP shared his experience in two large organizations with very different approaches to achieving progress. While one company accepted evolution as part of their DNA ("We're smart, so we'll figure it out"), the other was apologetic and noncommittal ("We're going to try this"). Setting a bold, confident tone will draw employees in and encourage their participation in what's next.
  • Find Common Ground. Strong leaders know there's more than one way to achieve a goal, and the fastest way to involve employees in that effort is to go where they are. One senior leader proposed keeping an open mind and first figuring out what you have to teach and what you have to learn. Instead of imposing new ways of working, tap into your staff's knowledge and build common language. Another participant collaborated with her team to create levels of service (bronze-silver-gold) for project intake to get on the same page quickly.

Craft Your Narrative

One VP shared a quote in our roundtable that really resonated: "If you don't tell your story, someone else will." From showing your team's value to crafting an inspiring vision for your employees to grab onto, effective leaders are passionate storytellers.

  • Learn How to Brag. When budgets are questioned and leaders above you are making tough decisions, you better make sure they understand the value your team adds to the company. A senior leader in our NY group suggested the book Brag: The Art of Tooting Your Horn without Blowing It as a good resource for learning how to tell your team's story in a way that keeps you off the chopping block. He creates and distributes a monthly report to leadership that highlights successes, impact and blockers, and ensures their story is known when a seat at the table may not be available.
  • Create a Vision, Not a To-Do List. Another quote shared during our Chicago roundtable illustrates the power of vision: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In other words, don't just tell your staff what to do, show them what the outcome will look like and draw them into discovering how to get there together.

Set Clear Goals - and Follow Up

Perhaps one of the most difficult yet most important parts of change leadership is defining clear measurements that will guide your group through transition. In fact, setting and celebrating quick wins can prevent disillusionment early in the process. Developing agreed-to milestones up front helps everyone involved see what's working - and what's not.

  • Show the Path to Success. Having goals is only half the battle in change management. Effective leaders structure and publish the entire path, crafting detailed communication plans, sharing specific success metrics and providing transparency to roles, responsibilities and reference materials. A few leaders pointed to Fisher's Personal Transition Curve as a valuable tool to show what the shift actually feels like and openly discuss how to handle the emotional stages. Reinforcing change by coaching in 1:1s adds personal accountability, so be sure to bake individual goals and actions into your discussions.
  • Consider a Pilot. Another executive in our Chicago community suggested starting with a smaller group to prove the value. Though not every evolution can wait, gathering real results first sets up larger transitions for success and enables leaders to sell by showing the impact, not just the idea. Pilots also make it easier to pivot without moving the entire ship in a new direction as you learn.

Leading through change is no easy task, and in today's world, it's an ongoing responsibility with no end in sight. Building a resilient team that expects and engages in progress is the best way to guide your staff through the challenges of today and prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow.

As a final tip, one senior leader in NY is helping staff realize they have a choice and teaching coping mechanisms like breathing and stillness to improve their response to transitions. That's a true human approach! No matter what adjustment you need to make, remembering to connect in an authentic way will no doubt have long-term benefits.

During our InsideOut roundtables, leaders shared several resources they are using to continue their professional development and target specific skills needed to be successful.

Resources for Leading Change

See? We learn a lot in these roundtables! If you’re a senior design, experience or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let’s talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual roundtables to support the learning, growth and sanity of our members, and I’m honored to get to facilitate those discussions.

For a fun visual of combined insights from all our InsideOut Leading Through Change roundtables, check out our sketchnote:

sketchnote_Inside_Out 7_15_20

Have tips of your own on leading through change? Please share in the comments. Stay safe out there. Let's keep learning together!

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