The Rebalancing of Design Management

Anyone who's been reading my blog since I started managing is probably acutely aware that I've historically seen management as a people-first endeavor. For many years managing and leading teams, I viewed my role largely as a people support role - hire well, encourage folks, make sure they have what they need and then just try my best to stay out of the way. In leadership meetings, I spent a lot of my energy trying to create full autonomy for teams, and could always be counted on to resist telling a team or person exactly which direction to go unless asked.

And I wasn't alone. There have been countless articles written, podcasts recorded and conference talks given reframing management as a purely supportive role: start every 1:1 with asking how the person is feeling and ban talking about their work, resolve interpersonal conflicts but leave product and quality decisions to the team, manage every person's career and check in on their professional goals every week. Stay out of the work. In the design profession, this swing made a ton of sense when it started. I've experienced first-hand the negative culture and work-quality impact a dictatorial, micromanaging Creative Director can have. And I've hired many designers who were trying to escape a toxic management culture. We needed to find the other extreme, and it's done us a ton of good as a profession and as an industry.

At the same time, however, that swing has left design in a bit of a pickle. In a job where quality goes beyond "does this code work" and "did we finish on time," being a purely people-focused manager shouldn't be enough. However, we've been training design managers to explicitly not get involved beyond the people and operational side of things. I can't count the number of times I've had a design manager ask for help looking for a job, and when they share their resume or deck with me, there's zero mention of the actual work that happened on their teams or any sort of upleveling of the design and product. Just how many people they hired and managed, how great they are at talking to people and resolving conflicts, etc.

And on the other side of things, I constantly hear from industry peers about designers struggling to think outside the box. In a world of ready-built design systems, UX problems that have already been solved elsewhere (so why not copy them?), and, to be blunt, an over-focus on UX skills over strong visual and interaction design, it's now less likely that quality-focused design managers find themselves trying to hold a designer back from going way over the top and redesigning stuff that they should leave alone. Instead, they often find themselves trying to push folks to try something new, to not worry about the design system for a moment, to design something that makes the team feel a little uncomfortable in service of finding a better pattern or novel solution. And when those managers investigate why that is, so many times it's because their designers weren't being prodded by past managers to do those things. Their only feedback loop was their peers and their cross-functional partners.

The balance is off. And the problem is that if managers aren't actively driving business outcomes using all their knowledge and expertise, and if designers aren't creating work that not only solves user problems, but meaningfully differentiates your product from a competitor's, then all the people-focused work we all care about doing isn't going to matter because the product won't exist for long. Too many times, I've heard a design manager or leader described by their cross-functional partners as "not strategic enough," which often is a signal they keep the design work and product strategy at arm's length, focusing instead solely on team dynamics and people-focused work.

Design management needs to swing the pendulum back a bit. We need to get off the bench and take on a little more of that old Creative Director energy: get in the details, push our teams to take one more pass at things, try something totally weird that probably won't work, challenge and inspire their peers in engineering and product. We need to be close collaborators when it comes to what's good enough to build, what's good enough to ship, and what success looks like. At the same time, we should not lose the empathy and care we put into helping our team succeed and achieve what they want in their careers. In fact, by getting more involved in elevating the actual work, we can help supercharge their growth. It's not a binary choice. Trusting your team doesn't have to mean not guiding your team.

I guess that's the thing. We've created false choices: managing the people or managing the work, focusing on people or quality, reliable user experience vs new and creative ways of presenting our products. We can have both. We have to.