Leadership learnings from MX16

April 9, 2016

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San Francisco was the perfect backdrop for this year’s Managing Experience conference, where we spent two days last week learning new ideas for how best to lead the design and delivery of great user experiences with a range of events including a workshop held by Indi Young, pictured above.

Covering the hard and soft skills of effective leadership, sessions were designed to engage UX professionals from across disciplines, and together we explored solutions to common challenges faced by the industry.

We set out to learn better ways to inspire teams of UX designers and creatives, and how to create environments for the best possible work to flourish. After a whirlwind couple of days, we left San Francisco energised and inspired, and here’s what we learned.

3 things that keep design teams engaged

Keeping your team engaged, inspired and optimistic requires a unique approach to leadership. Designers tap their creativity to see possibilities that don’t already exist and to do this, they put their hearts, souls, minds, sweat and tears into their work.

As it’s easy to become discouraged the challenge is creating an environment that inspires creativity, with the following three major themes emerging from MX16.  

Find the meaning in your work

Finding meaning within work is about seeing the bigger picture. As Rob Maigret, co-founder of Popularium explained, “We connect through stories, so write the story of the success of a product before it happens. Teams that embrace that story make a better product.”

Before we begin every project at FCV, we make a point to understand the purpose, or “why” of an experience before trying to understanding the “how” or “what”. Then we communicate this clearly-defined vision in a brief that is distributed to all team members.

The products and services we work on touch the lives of many people, and when projects come to a close we highlight the positive impacts from our work and then share these important takeaways across the agency.

Maybe it’s helping someone find a new career for themselves at BC’s largest job bank, WorkBC.ca, or simply the schedule for the next Metrolinx train. When everyone can see how we’re making life better, it’s easy to see the bigger picture.

Challenge what’s possible

It’s a manager’s job to help team members grow their potential and push the limits of their creative abilities. We heard from numerous designers and successful creatives who seek out managers that challenge them, who won’t simply applaud their work, but constantly push them to do better.

Successful managers work hard to carefully build work environments that promote creativity, which can easily be overlooked. In the words of Molly Needelman, UX Strategist at Google, “Create a safe space for designers to experiment with something new, enable experimentation, take a chance and prototype new ways of working.”

In examining when creativity stagnates, veteran product design leader Bob Baxley cautioned, “Designers are not naturally apathetic. If they are not super engaged it’s a failure of managers.”

Care personally and challenge directly

To challenge design team members in the most effective and respectful way, Kim Scott proposed the idea of Radical Candour as a means to provide your team with a balance of support and critique.

With this approach there are only two things to keep in mind: give a damn and be direct. This challenges the notions of going beyond professionalism and caring about your employees in a more human way. It asks people to get uncomfortable, and choose honesty over being polite. It’s what we personally hope for from our own managers, and the only approach that pays true respect to those we manage. 

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Leadership inspires

Leadership is not just a role but a mindset that can be practiced by everyone. Overall, MX16 provided equally valuable takeaways for people in leadership and also the early stages of careers. If managers inspire creativity and provide the appropriate kind of support and feedback, design teams will grow, be engaged and focused on doing what they do best - expand the boundaries of what’s possible and make life better through design.

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