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Making the Band: Building Exceptional Design Teams at Spotify

January 2020

Article

Nicole Burrow

In this piece, Nicole Burrow, Design Director for the Consumer Experience, explains how building a great design team is actually pretty similar to starting a great band.

Two years ago, I uprooted my entire life to move to Sweden to work at Spotify. After having spent over a decade working in UX design all over the world—from New York to London to Singapore—I was excited to get back to Europe and join a company I admired as much as Spotify. After all, it's not often you get the chance to work at a company that makes a product you love and use daily.

Now here I am, leading up the design team responsible for the consumer experience at Spotify, a role that's my dream job, but one that’s also stretched me in ways that I never expected. Those of you currently leading Design teams in your organization, and those of you aspiring to be a team lead, can probably relate to what I’ve gone through and what I'm about to share within this article, so keep reading…these words might help you too.

This article was inspired by a talk I gave last fall at Leading Design London, in which I shared something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last couple of months: the challenge of making a great design team is similar to the challenge of making a great band.

From solo performer to band member

A group of people working in unison is a wonderful thing to behold. Done well, it ceases to be about you or me, one individual or another. Instead, you feel the energy of dozens of hearts and minds directed toward a shared purpose, guided by shared value.

Julie Zhuo

In her book The Making of a Manager, Julie Zhuo is so on point about what it feels like when a team comes together in perfect sync: when it's no longer about you or me, a shared purpose motivates people to perform their best.

As leaders, we spend a huge amount of time every day doing things to ensure our teams are working in unison, but how do we effectively get to this dream state where the collective becomes greater than the individual? Just like in a band, it all starts with getting people into the right roles.

Playing the right instrument

In just under two years, I’ve watched our platform add millions of new users, and our consumer design team double in size. I’ve witnessed them start to embody that quote from Julie, but as you’d expect, so much growth has brought a lot of changes in how we come together as a group to do our best work. We’ve had to change how our band plays.

When putting together a great band, we need to make sure everyone is in the right position, playing the right instrument. Design leaders can think of this as helping their designers figure out which career path they want to take, and coaching their managers through this process so they can help their designers do the same—which is no easy task. 

“Y” is that so hard?  

As designers move up the career ladder and need to decide between the expert or manager path, their role in the band can become a little fuzzier—I know it did for me, personally. Deciding to become a manager is a daunting choice for most, and, for many, it may feel like stepping away from a lead role and towards becoming a backup player, which is half true! We'll get to that later. 

On the plus side, this Y-shaped career framework at Spotify creates growth opportunities for all types of designers:

The two different career paths for designers at Spotify.

Although we offer two avenues for growth, I won’t focus on the expert journey in this post. Instead, I want to discuss the difficult choice that is to leave the expert path for management. Among my senior individual contributors and many of the designers I interview, I’ve started to see the same pattern when I ask them what path they want to go down: they’re uncertain. 

And who can blame them? One side leads to running teams and projects, to managing people and creating impact through others. The other continues along the expert journey to the mastery of the craft, leadership without the need to manage, and—above all else—shipping great work. Any well-informed designer who's spent time thinking about this won’t take the decision lightly, which could be a good sign they’re ready for managing others; they most likely realize how big of a change this will be and how important it is to go into the role with their eyes open.

Get them ready to sign the deal 

Once leaders and designers have an idea of who's up for pursuing management, it's time to audition. To do so, bear in mind that:

  • "What got you here won’t get you there": Many leaders have gone through this evolution themselves, so they know this old adage is true. What made you successful as a designer usually has little bearing on your success as a manager. 

  • Great designer ≠ great manager: Everybody has seen great designers become bad managers. A lot of us have had terrible managers, and we know what it feels like when you have to figure it all out on our own. I’ve learned firsthand that it’s not necessarily the designer’s fault, but actually, their manager’s. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to help designers decide if management’s right for them, and then put them on a path to success.

Here are three important questions that would-be managers should consider when thinking about their future. If you're coaching someone, or struggling yourself through the decision process about which path to take, it might be helpful to use these as a starting point. 

1. Are you willing to give up control of the day-to-day details of the work?

This is like asking someone to set aside everything they’ve been trained to do for most of their career. It's impossible to have control over all the details once you’re managing a team, and this can create some fear for designers as they move away from laser focus on craft and they’re no longer responsible for the day-to-day design output.

But remind your designers that a manager’s life is full of problems to be solved with design: you just design different things. Managers are designing and redesigning processes, designing a team, and designing how individuals can work effectively together to create the best possible output—these are all great ways to use your tools and creativity to solve problems.

2. Are you OK not receiving credit for good work and taking the heat when things go wrong?

As a manager, you’re no longer directly responsible for most of the product design work, but you are accountable for it. This means you’ll probably start receiving less direct feedback on the great work you’re doing and this can be difficult when you’ve spent your career as an individual contributor getting your value at work from direct impact on the product.

However, I’ll bet you will find that the praise your designers will receive is more than enough to keep you energized and full of pride at work. It’s definitely the case for myself, and I’m sure every manager can recall many moments where they’ve felt this glow of team accomplishment. 

3. Do you have a leadership style that is focused more on people rather than tasks?

Lastly, managers have to deliver better results by enabling people, rather than by focusing on tasks and doing it all themselves.

Your goal as a manager is to optimize the people around you by empowering them to do their best work. Managers-to-be should focus on that outcome, and learn how to delegate, instead of trying to solve every single problem on their own. 

These questions are just the start of the process for any designer making the mental shift to manager. And that mental shift is really hard. Yet again, it’s kind of like being in a band. It’s not easy to go from the front to the back of the stage, but your role behind the scenes matters. And it matters a lot. 

From garage gigs to stadium tours

When everyone's finally singing the same tune, the band is ready to go from the small letters at the bottom of the poster to headlining the show. Now it's time to think about other aspects of your band. Here are three lessons I've personally learned:

1. Building the culture of your band 

As you guide your team to success, a critical part of the journey will be building your team’s culture. Every manager knows how critical this is, and yet they also know how easy it is to have personality clashes tear apart a great team. The good news? Some steps can be taken to protect a team’s culture and prevent the band from breaking up:

Hire the right people

For a manager, getting the right people for a team takes precedence over everything else they do. That's the most important part of the job, and no matter how effective their recruitment partners are, a lot of this work still falls on their shoulders. Some of us are lucky enough to have great talent acquisition partners. But no matter your situation, here’s the advice I follow: “When in doubt, don’t hire, keep looking.”

This advice from the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, seems pretty basic yet it’s critical to remember. When you’re understaffed and the team is spread thin, it can be super tempting to hire someone who seems “good enough.” But a bad hire is definitely not worth the fallout. Managers have to consciously design their teams because they’re not just hiring an individual, they’re hiring someone who could dramatically shift the culture of the entire group.

Additionally, managers need to hire diverse thinkers if they want their team to make good decisions together, and this takes time and planning. A team won’t be balanced if the members are a bunch of lead singers—the right mix of talent, skills, and perspectives is what makes a team sing in harmony. 

Welcome to the band

Once you’ve poured your heart and soul into finding the best possible people for your team, you have to onboard them properly. Research (Jobvite) shows that 29% of turnover happens during the first 90 days of employment. With a structured onboarding program, you can increase retention by up to 82% (Glassdoor).

For new starters in Spotify Design, we use this Trello board to provide an overview of the team, the work they’ll be doing, the team rituals, and a running list of tasks for their first few weeks.

In addition to work-focused onboarding, we can’t forget the people-focused part of the process. We set up new starters with a series of meetings with their cross-functional partners, invite them to lunches with their direct teammates, and pair them with a buddy who helps with their day-to-day questions.

Another step in welcoming band members is distributing swag! Joining a group is something to be celebrated, and team swag helps everyone feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It immediately signals that they belong.

Don't we all love some good swag?

A big part of the culture that our managers hope to foster is a sense of community. I'd never have expected what a big deal a seating arrangement could be, but we do spend a lot of time talking about this here at Spotify, specifically how desk logistics impact our well-known squad model. I made some changes and really stirred things up with my team. This is how our seating arrangement used to look: 

Previous seating arrangement in Spotify Design.

When I started at Spotify, the designers in my team sat individually in squads with a ratio of about seven engineers to every one designer. However, sitting this way makes it difficult for the designers to bond, and the impact was reflected in the creativity and quality of their designs and their happiness levels at work. I realized this setup wasn’t working and decided to move them into groups next to their teams, like this:

Current seating arrangement.

By moving to small design hubs next to their squads—in the middle of their product areas—and encouraging the closeness of the group, I immediately saw more creativity and collaboration coming from the team. And most importantly, the work got a lot better. 

Give them a stake early

Once these wonderful new people have been hired for the team, and they’re onboarded and happily sitting with their design pals, the next step is to get them doing what they came to do—some excellent design work! I recommend giving them a stake on a high impact piece of work right away. Figure out what excites them creatively and align their talents with your team’s needs. They’ll immediately feel invested in the company and can see the direct impact of their personal contributions. 

2. Fine-tuning your team

I want to go through how I've helped to fine-tune our team at Spotify and how they've gone from simply functioning to achieving synergy as a group. If I could name three big wins, I'd pick our product design briefs, the way we plan out our work, and how we open up our design process to the rest of the company.

Product design brief

A key ingredient in team success is ensuring they have all the context they need. I introduced this collaborative brief that designers develop alongside their product counterparts, so they always have the “why” defined before they start ideating. This helps us align on what problem we’re trying to solve and why this is important to the business at the outset of the hypothesis development stage. 

Product design brief at Spotify.

Planning and tracking work

We have so many awesome projects happening at the same time, and it can be pretty tricky to keep track of it all. Using a Trello board helps us keep track of all the work we have in flight and ensures the team is pointed at the highest priority problems.

Open up the design process

We want to bring more people into our process and make sure we’re not designing in a bubble. That’s why it’s so crucial for the team to showcase the work they’re doing and welcome input from around the company. We paste the work up on the walls, invite non-designers to crit, and share design decks on internal channels in order to collect feedback from outside stakeholders.

Design work showcase during Design Days, our annual design offsite.

3. Preventing burnout

Everybody knows stories about bands taking some time off after being on the road for too long. Sometimes they realize they have to stop touring in order to take care of themselves, and design leaders often follow suit: sometimes, we need to take drastic steps to protect our team's health, and our own health. None of the steps I’ve mentioned earlier matter if you're not taking care of yourself and making sure you're in the right mindset to lead. Here are a few tips: 

Build your own internal board of directors

When you're a manager, it can be lonely at the top. You're often in charge of most of the people sitting around you, so whom do you turn to for advice? Build a trusted group of peers, a network of individuals who can support you on this journey. Rely on your fellow design managers, but also on managers from other disciplines. For example, the engineering org has often solved a lot of the problems that the design team is trying to solve, and at a really large scale.

Be vulnerable

Contrary to popular belief and the constant pressure we put on ourselves, we don’t actually need to have everything all figured out. Bring your team into the decision-making process. Your team members will benefit from being included and feel more motivated, engaged, and empowered. This can even encourage them to stay with your team longer.

Show you value their input and constantly seek ways to improve

Design leaders should open up, show they make mistakes, and invite input. Simple phrases like these will encourage team members to be open and to share honest feedback:

  • “This is just my two cents.”

  • “Of course, I could be wrong here.” 

  • “What am I missing?”

  • “What do you think?”

If we as managers want to encourage a growth mindset in our teams, we need to exhibit a desire for growth in ourselves. We should always be on the lookout for ways to improve, and our teams are a great resource to help us see our blindspots. 

Take care of yourself

We also have to recognize that self-care—whatever that looks like for you—is important, so you have to schedule it into your calendar as if it were a doctor's appointment. Otherwise, you just won’t do it.

Take care of yourself religiously.

Get support from Design Ops

Finally, recognize the value of design ops in helping to support and execute the vision you have for the team. All the things I’ve mentioned in this article can happen about ten times faster if you have a Design Ops function to help build team culture, create visibility for the work your team is doing, onboard new hires, strengthen team rituals, and more. 

We're so lucky to have Cliona O'Sullivan, one of the best design ops professionals in the industry, heading up our design community at Spotify. Cli is the best, and she's shown me firsthand how impactful this role can be. If you want to know more about her journey at Spotify, you can read the article she wrote for our Design blog: Dialling Up the Joy, Turning Down the Pain: Design Ops at Spotify.

What does your band need to get to the top of the charts?

The only way a band can succeed is if everyone knows exactly what role they’re playing. And being ok with the fact that sometimes a crucial role ends up hidden from the cheering crowd. 

Next time you see a band playing their songs on stage, remember that what you get to see is actually just a tiny part of the whole production. From sound and lighting technicians, to costume and stage designers, to roadies and producers, to the people who remove all the brown M&M’s from the candy bowls in the dressing rooms, all roles are equally important to the final result. 

At the end of the day, being a manager is also finding yourself away from the spotlight. But if you or one of your team members are there, take pride in that! As challenging as it may sound, being responsible for great achievements—even if invisible—does make you feel like a rock star anyway. 

Thank you to my band of designers at Spotify for showing me every day how rewarding it is to be a design lead!

Credits

Nicole Burrow

Senior Design Director

Nicole is an American living in Stockholm. When she’s not obsessing over every design detail at Spotify, she’s probably obsessing about her next great meal.

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