To lead people, walk behind them. – Lao Tzu
This ah ha moment was actually an entire year. But what made it pivotal was the 5 years of my leadership that lead up to the pivotal moment.
In the beginning...
I was thrust into leadership positions after 1 junior design position. I now understand why - I am naturally assertive, a systems thinker, quick learner, and not afraid to fail. This was great for the 90's NYC tri-state area start-up environment where so many people were jumping into the industry with no idea of how to do their job.
My first position in a creative team - a subteam in technical, gave me a strong understanding of the relationship of technology and design, and my second position gave me a strong understanding between marketing and product which I synthesized with my design/tech knowledge. I understood the needed process, who needed to do what, when, and how. As a manager and lead I told people how to do their job, when to do it, and how they fit into the overall picture. Everyone was fine with this because they needed to be told what to do. This worked for 5 years as I moved into working with agencies and consumer product goods until the last agency I worked with in the area.
I joined as the first creative to an Interactive department complimenting their direct mail, promotions, and packing design teams. The previous interactive team left to form their own agency. The VP brought me to lead creative and help rebuild the team. He also recognized the value of UCD and UX - for me it was exciting to work with a VP who knew UCD and UX and wanted me to practice it! But I didn't know how to work with the experienced Direct Marketing and Promotions Art Directors and Editors who had ideas of digital work - more visual design than interaction or information architecture/content strategy. I pushed my ideas through without buy-in. My work performed over industry averages and our clients - such as Unilever, immediately understand the research-driven approach. HR pulled me aside and told me that people didn't like me, and were only tolerating me because my work was so good. I didn't know how to be a leader.
I was recruited by Lockheed Martin Information Technologies to support SSA's effort to modernize the disability process. I accepted a role as a junior analyst to be trained in research and testing and applications and systems design. I spent the first year in a support position while I was trained in the disability process, how to be a consultant, as well as the formal research and testing methodologies. I was treated as I had treated people - I was micro-managed to a stifling point. I told myself to do what you are told, and when you get to be lead you can do the work you want to do and assign your support to do the less desirable work. Over the next year I saw others were miserable, and there were certain people we hated working with. I realized it sucks to work in these conditions. At some point I decided that when I get to be a lead, I want to focus on a positive environment and to harness the skills of team appropriately. I knew what each person liked to do, what they thought they were good at, and what they were actually good at, and I focused on ensuring a successful project and team morale. Our work was good, and I still did the undesirable work at times, but also did the latent work of catching balls and coaching my coworkers to make them feel a sense of individual success.
The Power of Collaboration + Buy-in
During this experience I learned the power of collaboration. We would kick-off a new initiative with stakeholders - anywhere from 6 to 20+. Our success was to get them to agree on one design, and they all had their own agenda and a few of them had a point on their agenda to disagree with someone else in the room - just on principle. We also needed to ensure the solution was usable to ensure our client was successful. I also learned that everyone in the room had valuable information necessary to create a successful, viable, and usable solution.
We relied on workshops to create opportunities for collaboration early and often throughout the process. This also empowered everyone to talk consistently about the effort to their teams and leadership. We broke down hierarchy and create opportunities for everyone to express their ideas without conflict, and facilitate collaboration that got everyone to hear and acknowledge each other. We exposed latent requirements and business rules early to reduce hasty design changes later in the process and/or delays in releases. We fostered a sense of ownership with everyone's contribution acknowledged and addressed, we produced more effective solutions with the multi-discipine collaboration, and everyone worked more efficiently throughout the process.
Working successfully in one project also set us up to work more successfully in the next project as we were also able to passively educate the organization about the methodology and create demand for our support.
What it means to Lead
Being a lead means being accountable for the success of effort, the morale of the team, and the success of each team member. The success of the solution is always shared by the stakeholders, which includes the project team members.
I learned a lot about myself during my 4 years supporting SSA. I learned that I feel more successful when I empower my team members to be successful, enjoy their work, and help them grow. I was also a successful mentor. Today mentoring is one of the facets of my work that I enjoy most.
I also learned that perfect designs do not get implemented, and the most successful, innovative designs are created through multi-discipline collaboration. Today I rely heavily on collaboration with clients, team members, and users to ensure an innovative, viable solution.