Product design and research leaders are facing a shift from peacetime to wartime conditions. With shifting priorities, layoffs, budget cuts, and higher demands from senior management, it can be difficult to know how to lead your team through this difficult time.
☕ Wartime - peacetime design leadership
(Thanks for the topic idea, Gabor!)
Over the last couple of months I’ve been reading a lot of alarming articles about the state of the UX industry, and talking with friends and mentees I see similar things, forming a pattern. Something is not right. While the broader discussion about why is certainly interesting, I’d like to focus on what the changes we see mean for product design and research leaders, and what can we learn from this situation.
The shift seems to be what can be described as going from peacetime to wartime. This means for most companies and design teams that growth, clear visions, long-term strategies, focus on raising maturity, and experiments on processes and things like design systems or research practices are suddenly halted. Instead, design leaders and teams need to deal with shifting and foggy priorities, layoffs, budget cuts, and much higher demands from senior management.
To acknowledge something. Wartime within the context of software creation means one thing, and it’s a completely different thing when your country is in an actual war, for example with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Obviously, the leadership it takes leading your team during real wartime is on a different scale.
I went through one peacetime -> wartime transition during my leadership career, though I presume the other direction is less sudden and relatively painless. The company I’ve worked at had already gone through the shock of COVID, when we had an upcoming IPO to prepare for, and also a leadership change with a significant culture shift. The general strategic context ceased to exist, while the demand for the team increased significantly.
The most important point to keep in mind in these cases is that while you can prepare with your team for such situations, in the end, it’s not about us. The wartime shift most often happens to us. Burnout is a real danger, and if a design leader wants to keep supporting their team, they need to take care first and foremost about themselves. So don’t waste too much time blaming yourself, when a dramatic shift happens outside of your control.
Also, blaming others won’t help either. Sudden increased demands from partners and senior leadership will signal an overall pressure that merits response and cooperation from the design team. What helps is focusing on the right tasks (things that solve critical issues or generate revenue), making some hard choices regarding priorities, and increasing the cadence of working with the team.
The design team will look up to the design leader to provide support to them. This includes giving them a context to their work and updated rules of engagement. Leaders can build on what was achieved in maturity, while new initiatives need to take the backseat. Processes and rituals will need close scrutiny to keep or ditch them. People will struggle, so will need additional help getting things done.
A blame game might start too. When things don’t go well, the voices talking about how design is slow, and how research takes too much time might get louder. Blaming things on the design team, rather than trying to search for solutions that involve everyone. Product development’s basic unit is the product team, so design leaders need to look for solutions holistically together with product management and engineering leaders. Instead of taking the blame at face value, try to understand where the other parties coming from, and things can be changed to fit everyone.
I love working in design, as designers are intrinsically optimistic. We believe that the world can be changed for the better. This feeds hope, which is a powerful force to counteract fear, that wartime conditions might induce. While outside forces might have started the wartime, and peacetime might be coming slowly, our hope and activities open the door to get there.
🥤 To recap
- Design leaders are facing a shift from peacetime to wartime conditions, characterized by shifting priorities, layoffs, budget cuts, and higher demands.
- First and foremost, leaders need to take care of themselves to support their teams during this difficult time.
- Focus should be on working on the right tasks (those that solve critical issues or generate revenue), making hard choices regarding priorities, and increasing the cadence of working with the team.
- Leaders should provide support to their teams by giving them context to their work and updated rules of engagement, building on what was achieved in maturity, and providing additional help to those who are struggling.
- Design has the power of counteracting fear with hope and optimism, this is important to keep in mind during wartime.
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🍪 Things to snack on
Hang Xu’s LinkedIn post talks about the grim mood of people in the UX field. The disillusionment is mostly focused on topics that supposedly provide a good environment for creating great UX and high maturity, including collaboration with partners, working on real problems, and focusing on the depths of solutions. While the designers who seem to be happier are looking more inward at things, like developing technical skills.
UX Directors are in a world of hurt is a somber description of what we are facing by Peter Merholz, that probably applies to not only directors but to every design leader. While middle managers are generally under fire from multiple sides, UX directors are in a particularly bad situation. They work with executives who don’t know how to guide their teams. They work with product management partners who don’t know how to do their jobs. They are under-leveled by their peers. They are usually the most senior person in the design org. To combat these, design leaders need to be pragmatic and play the game in their organization, which is very different from what designers usually do.
The differences between wartime and peacetime are differences in worldviews according to John Cutler. In Productivity (The Clash) he writes about how habits that worked in peacetime, suddenly don’t work. Depending on culture and perspective, there might be a large variety of narratives on what the issue is, and this leads to clashes between disciplines, managers and reports, and people from various countries. There might be no rational way to resolve these differences, other than listening to building bridges.
Peacetime Design Leader / Wartime Design Leader is an overview of the differences in tactics used by design leaders by Dmitry Nekrasovski.
Mia Blume has a few great tips on how to weather a storm in Storm vs. calm leadership tactics. In peacetime, a leader can focus on a few things to prepare for the storm: create a vision, invest in quality, build the skills of the team, and build a culture of innovation. When the storm comes, there are seven tactics to lead through: 1. Know your business model and the current stakes. 2. Get real about efficiency and prioritization. 3. Manage performance swiftly and hold people accountable regularly. 4. Increase communication around value generation. 5. Level up the people you have. 6. Tighten review and critique loops to keep momentum and quality up. Build sustainability into the system.
With the flurry of layoffs, it often seems design orgs, and particularly UX research teams suffer the most. Some say this is a crisis on also what research as a discipline should do, Judd Antin’s The UX Research Reckoning is Here is a good take on this. The article argues that researchers were focusing on the wrong type of research, centered around supporting the broader product development (“middle-range research”) while pushing to the background both strategic research that would influence business decisions (“macro-research”) and technical usability (“micro-research”). I thought the reasoning about what went wrong is right here, and the proposed focus on micro and macro fits well into how wartime and peacetime leadership differs. Be sure to also read the follow-up, Discussing the Reckoning.
Gergely Orosz has a longer article over in his newsletter, The Pragmatic Engineer, but his Linkedin post sums up the difference in challenges for engineering in wartime and peacetime. To succeed in peacetime, focus on quality, long-term initiatives, doing things the right way, and avoiding the risk of stagnation. To succeed in wartime, get things done quickly, work on things needed right now, try to set up a good pace, and avoid burnout.
Written at the start of COVID, Wartime Product Leadership by Ben Foster describes the challenges of product management in the changing environment. In peacetime, there is a clear view of the far horizon, so the focus is on the delivery speed of outcomes over flexibility. Wartime is different, planning is much more difficult, and more flexibility is needed as direction might radically change on short notice. This includes reallocating or even removing resources, including whole teams from certain initiatives. The article also gives five steps to transition from peacetime to wartime. 1. Stop anything that doesn’t have an impact right now. 2. Don’t worry about the next year, but focus on the next few sprints. 3. Priorities set need to be tightly followed. 4. Cross-functional communication is important to get new or save existing revenue. 5. Large changes might be needed based on what the markets do.