Russ Unger: Shhhh. That still works. Shhhh. Hello, I’m Tim Caynes.
Russ: OK, I’m Russ and I’m the secret talk today. The IA Summit did a great job of covering for a very simple mistake. It’s very easy to make small things happen incorrectly when you are juggling lots of balls. They’ve been super cool about today.
Thank you for coming, and staying. At least nobody’s gotten up and left when you’ve figured out I wasn’t Tim Caynes. I appreciate that.
This talk is going to be more like the top two or three things I’ve learnt from leading UX designers.
My first real taste of leadership and management came around 1999. We called it the dotcom era back then. It was a really crazy time. I’d been bouncing from startups to startups. I was finding money and all kinds of lures to drag me from place to place.
I worked for this really cool place called A life Event Marketing Company. We’re based upon different life events like your wedding, or having a baby. We would send you a DVD ROM, and you would make a website from that DVD, push it online, and all of your friends and family could see what’s going on. Kind of neat, kind of dorky because we sent out DVDs to people. I loved, loved working there.
My first month there, I just kind of acclimated. It was a whirlwind. I was there all day and all night. My boss came up to me and said, "Hey, Russ, we need to talk." My first reaction to that was, "Oh shit, I’m getting fired." I took that long walk down the hallway, out to the hallway with him.
I remember — Rob was his name — and Rob said, "Russ, you’re doing really good. We really like you. We’re giving you 10,000 more dollars, and 10,000 more shares of the company, and now you’re leading the team."
It was like a punch to my gut because I didn’t know what that meant. I’d never done that. I was just a designer, and I was more of a graphic designer back then. As we were turning and walking back he said, "Oh, one more thing. Dan, who was leading the team, he’s now reporting to you."
That scared the hell out of me. I was completely in over my head. I had no idea how to manage a team, how to lead, how to get anybody to do anything I wanted them to do. It was a lot like…Maybe this.
Russ: We got this. That’s about as firm of a battle cry as I could muster. Since then, I’ve asked a lot of people and I’ve learned that most people go through it as a trial by fire.
If they’re lucky, they know somebody who is already a manager or a leader who can say, "Here’s some ways to motivate people." But mostly, it’s, "I don’t want to be like that jerk boss I had," or, "I think this is my preferred style. I want to be their hero. I want to be their dad. I’m going to protect them. If somebody says that another person bothered them, I would say, ‘Well, I’ll handle Steve.’"
That really never, ever worked out as I would have liked. In fact, what really happens is that, as a first time leader, particularly with people who weren’t my team, they already had their own culture. They already had their own established relationships with each other. They knew how to work together. I knew I was going to make a lot of mistakes.
That scared the hell out of me. These people were really smart and I thought I had this right way to manage, but that didn’t overlap really well with their thinking and my thinking.
In fact, even if I had an agreement on an approach to tackle something, they would often go their own routes to tackle it and I wouldn’t know what was going on. As a leader and manager now, one of my big quotes is that, "I hate surprises."
But simply put, I was a train wreck. I was a disaster. I was awful. I can’t imagine anybody’d hire me again after the crap show I put on there.
I was cleaning up messes that I was making as this bold and brazen kid who thought he could do whatever the hell he wanted. He had a little bit of power and a little more money. It was heavy stuff. I was an idiot. Frankly, I really wasn’t sure I was cut out for this.
All these leadership dreams that I had, all this power and running companies and doing things, all kind of gone away.
I’ve been lucky, though. Since then, I’ve had some coaches and mentors. If you walk through the hallways here, you’re going to see a number of them. They may not even know it, so pay attention to the people around me who are doing really smart things. They were always happy to help.
They were going to give me an honest talk, sometimes a swift kick in the ass, a smack down, good advice. Sometimes good old fashioned caring when they knew that I was just down and in a bad place. When I was extremely lucky, I had somebody near me who’d lead by example.
Russ: Wonder woman’s bad ass. Couple of weeks ago, I saw this quote in "The New York Times," and it’s about growing up. I thought what if we changed a couple of words here and said, "There are no managers. We suspect this when we’re younger, but we can only confirm it when we’re the ones writing reviews, SEOs, slide decks and leadership retreats." Everyone’s winging it. Some just do it more confidently.
You may have heard this as "Fake it till you make it," or whatever it is, but this is something that a little bit of confidence, not arrogance, not cockiness, goes a long way. It’s hard to understand what that means, what that confidence is without kind of having the experience of having your butt handed to you a few times.
My first role, I was a manager and it wasn’t my team. I never ever got anybody on the same direction or on my side. I always felt that it was my job to be the face, or the voice, of the team. I think that was really incorrect. I always felt I owned whatever work out there that was mine, and I had to do it all by myself. I really wasn’t much of a collaborator.
Design reviews, they were these single view that were based upon what Russ though, right? I was not a Creative Director, or an experienced director. I was a creative dictator, emphasis on the first half of that word. In the dot com era, it wasn’t uncommon that I would work from 7:00 AM to 11 o’clock at night because it’s the dot com, and we’ve got this thing, and we want to get this money, and there’s these goals. That’s a wrong message.
One of the things that I think took me the longest to learn through all of this was that first management role when it was never my team. I inherited a team. That was really hard. In the last couple of years, I worked with somebody who kind of changed my perspective, and helped me understand things.
The first thing I’m going to talk about is a Team Charter. When I say the words "Team Charter", I think of how you would learn something like this from one of those "trust-fall" people. Just let yourself go and somebody will catch you. I let myself go, and I got caught, and I found a lot of really cool things.
To learn about a team charter, it’s this unifying plan that gives a team agreement, and gives them these different rules and goals and objectives.
I liken it to a persona for your team. Here’s this group of people, and here’s what we think we are, and our purpose and commitments. It takes a little bit of time. By little bit of time, at least a couple of days, tucked away privately and doing a lot of these types of things. Pulling together and finding out where your strengths and your weaknesses are, and finding out what you are.
Your real output can look a little bit like this, where you’ve got a document that tells people what you are.
The first part of a team charter is the team purpose. We spend time going through the activity of, what is it that we do as a team? What are we good at? What should we be known for? This put us in the position to have a definition for ourselves that everybody was in alignment with. We had to get this to a point that we all agreed.
We had to say, "This is who we’re going to be. This is what we want people to understand us as."
We also came up with a commitment for ourselves, for each other. How do we want to work together, and what are our expectations of each other? In this case, we knew that we wanted to be really good collaborators, and we knew that we expected people to be on time. We expected people to say what they know and what they don’t know. It’s our jobs to critic work and not people.
We made that commitment to each other. Everything we did is supposed to be at a top level.
We also walked through our focus areas talking about the types of work that we do. It’s as simple as a bullet point list. We want to be known as researchers, designers, interaction design prototyping, usability testing. These are the things that we wanted other people to go, "If I need those, we’ll call them."
We also talked about our areas of growth and improvement. One of the things I learned from Jim Henson is that, as a leader he wasn’t very good at kind of cuddling, or the warm and fuzzy stuff. He used to say to his team that, "If you’re here you’re good enough." Things like areas of growth and improvement always scare me a little bit and make me think that this means I’m not good enough.
What this means is, how do we take people who are good enough to be here, and grow them to the next level? Where do we find these areas that we’re deficient, and improve it? What we did is we would find something like experience mapping, write the rationale for why we want to learn this. What’s the value add for the business, for ourselves, for the team, and then how we know when we’ve reached it.
If we’ve done, I don’t know, one to three experience map activities for our team in a year, then we know we’ve achieved this and we’ve got a certain level of learning, or leveling up that we’ve done. We can write a new area of growth. We also talked about how we wanted to be perceived by other people. What do we want them to think of when they reach us?
That we don’t want to be the people who are seen as rounding corners. I don’t want to turn your thing blue.
That’s not us. We need to talk to users. How do we get them to know this? How will we know when we’re there? It’s similar to the previous one. We want to be perceived as experts about our users. We would walk through how we could get there, what’s our plan, and how we knew when we had reached it. That helped us really define who our team was so we all agreed to this.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t facilitate this activity. I paid a professional to come in and lead us through this. If I sat up there and said all of this stuff it quickly becomes Russ Unger’s thought of this team, instead of an external facilitator who really wasn’t a part of us. There was no misguided leading. Finally — something we’re still kind of working on — but signatures. We have to all agree to this.
We have to say that we’re going to commit this to each other. We’re going to operate like this. We saw a lot of benefits. We went from a small team that’s probably almost tripled in size in the last couple of years. The core of that team before the big growth understands this. We all kind of understand how to operate.
We’re starting to share this with each other and with the new folks who come on board, and make sure that they can understand how we operate as a team.
Now, one of the other things that I learned a lot about is critique. If you’ve been to this conference enough, you know, plenty about Aaron and Adam. Really solid guys who can tell you just about anything in the world about critique. We spent time thinking about critique. We did some exercises. We had Adam and Aaron talk to us on the phone about this.
One of the things that we struggled with…In fact, one of the things I had said was, "Everybody talk to at least one or two other people about your design work, and make sure that they’re not on your team. We’ll call that doing critique." It’s a really easy thing to write down on a goal or an objective. Yeah, we’re doing critique. It’s also a big fat lie. Nobody has time to do that. I didn’t know how to do this.
In some cases, I was the design review person, or the critique person. When your team grows pretty big, it’s hard to do that, and be the "be all" and all, and have your own work to do. I kind of started thinking about something that Kim said at Interaction Design in 2009, which was "Each One, Teach One." We couldn’t see that as the good single pairing. It’s "Each One, Teach Many" in our organization.
I invented this thing called "critique buddies." It’s an awful, awful name. I absolutely realize that. I checked in. I absolutely didn’t make up this back crap stupid name. I got other names like [indecipherable 13:25] Squad. No, these things happen. They’re memorable, right? We know what they are. Critique buddies, for a staff that we were at, we’re, I think…You’d probably need about six or so people to pull this off.
I’ve been insanely busy and I wasn’t able to be this, and help people. That’s really sad. I created this framework that essentially was each one teach two or three people. I created these things called Critique Leads. If two people who, I think, are doing fantastic in their design roles, and for the first quarter of a year they’re critique leads. Those people assign themselves three to four buddies.
Working with my critique leads, it’s like picking dodge ball teams. Kind of say, "These people to these team." We’ve got a very, very simple plan. We’ve got weekly 30-minute meetings. A critique lead and a critique buddy have to meet once a week like a one-on-one meeting with a manger, or something.
They can always skip one week in a row. Meaning you can’t go two weeks without having a meeting. They can cheat a little bit. If you’re the lead you can have somebody critique your work.
These 30-minute meetings are just to review current work. It’s also then 30-minute meetings that leads with me. Right now, every Friday at 8:30 in the morning I have a talk with my critique leads about the critique reviews they’ve done for the week. It means that I don’t have to review everything. It means nobody has to rely upon me.
Frankly, the design work that I’ve seen is better because I’m not a bottleneck, and frankly I’m not the best designer on the team. The buddy meetings are really kind of simple. For the first two to three weeks, the buddies get to know each other. Usually it’s on the phone, or if we can do video chat we’ll do that. They review what they’re working on, and it’s driven by the critique lead.
It’s kind of getting to know each other. Understanding how to work together. Then after about three weeks or so, we shift to agendas. Slightly more structured, and it’s led by the critique buddies. It’s no longer the leader saying, "This is how we’re going to do it." It’s this buddy is saying, "These are the things I want to talk about, and this is how we’re going to talk about these things."
Finally, we have these leader meetings once a week that I talked about. We report on progress of the team. We’ve got this critique manual to guide through the team. The next time we choose a new leader, they understand what they’re getting into. Buddies kind of have these set of rules that they can follow into.
This is all based upon work that Adam and Aaron produced, which is fantastic they let us borrow this stuff frequently.
Then they modify the program. We’ve probably made shifts to this program two to three times, probably per month, as we’ve been going through it, and we select our next critique leads. We find out who’s doing really well in critique and can be really good at providing that actionable feedback. That’s it. It is that simple of a thing that has provided me with an insane amount of benefits.
For that little tiny bit of thing, I have more time, I’ve seen who the leaders are in my organization, we see the growth needs that we have. Again, it’s not like anybody is in trouble when we see that somebody might need more experience on wire framing or training with [indecipherable 16:25] . We can find that. The critique that’s in our organization now is so much stronger, so much better.
Every time I talk about it I just grin because I just look at everybody leveling up. I’ve got team members that are in Texas, California, Michigan, Minneapolis — wow, I went form a state to a city, sorry — and Connecticut. Those team members don’t always get to speak to each other.
This is giving them a half-an-hour a week where suddenly they know their friends, or their co-workers, and they start to become friends with them.
That’s pretty cool because it starts to feel less like just different islands out there that don’t talk to each other. Everybody is getting better at facilitation and presentation skills. The design across the team has also leveled up. I think it’s fantastic for something that is easy to describe at a handful of slides. It’s huge.
Finally, time. I have been lousy about time over the years. Hell, I know I speak fast. This is a great quote that we found which is "If you don’t spend time doing planning, when you jump right in you might have to do something twice." Plus, we have a really cool job. We get to talk to people. We get to design things to make lives easier, better.
If we’re not doing anything other than chasing it really fast, how can we do that? How can we have fun? I’m a big believer in work hard. I work hard. I think I probably work too much. The play hard thing I think is crap. I think that when you work hard you do so, so people can go home and spend time with their families.
My thing that I’ve learned is, if you’re going to plan a work activity, plan it during work time. The least you can do is give that up to people who give you so much. It shouldn’t be a quote and quote reward to spend six hours after work having a beer.
Sorry, but people have families and lives, and while you’re co-workers are cool people, they aren’t necessarily always your friends, or at least the people that you want to hang out with all the time. Sometimes you just want to be with your family.
Great quote here, "Everyone plays harder. I don’t want to play harder. I want to work smarter with smart people who know how to work so I can go home and spend time there."
One other thing, heroes, those people who work like the idiot that I was from seven in the morning to 11 at night, you’re only as good as your last heroic effort. Every time you pull a miracle out, somebody believes that that’s just the way it works. If you get a three-week task done in three days, I guarantee you somebody is going to call you and ask you for another one, and another.
Not only is that a bad pattern to get into, but when you’ve got one hero, you got a whole other team of people who just can look bad by doing their jobs the right way. That’s not good for morale.
In general, I also think that, with time, I need to lighten up. What I mean by that is, I don’t always agree with things that Jason Freed says, but he talks about how he was at a presentation with Richard Solomon, and he’d given a talk. Richard gave a talk, and Richard asked him, "How’d it go?"
Jason kind of stood up in posture and kind of got into an attack mode. Richard Solomon quote was, "Hey man, give her five minutes." What Jason learned form that is something I thought about a lot. Take a breath. Wait five minutes before you respond. Wait 24 hours, and see if it’s a panic tomorrow. You don’t have to always get right up there and do things.
Bonus, smile when you write an email. It makes a big difference when you’re pissed off. The other one is, I like fives, but five years. Will any of this matter five years from now? If you’re losing your mind in whatever situation you’re in, think about that.
That’s helped me a lot. Helped me distress quite a bit. The big [indecipherable 20:01] why have I gone over a couple of minutes into Tim’s presentation? All of these things, for the most part, are non-technical skills.
Russ: That’s a big statement form the Batman. It’s not about you. It’s more than just anything than I think it is. It’s always about the people around me. When I see somebody struggling I look at myself first in earnest and ask, "How did I fail them to not allow them to succeed."
Then, the bonus number two here is, keep on winging it confidently. A little bit of confidence will go a long way. That’s my time. If there’s any questions I’ll be out in the hallway. Thank you very much.