Nothing concentrates the mind like tough times. Adversity invites you to return to fundamental priorities. With the right response, you can turn crisis to opportunity, setting yourself up for success well beyond the current storm. Tough times are an opportunity to get your head right.
The digital industry is in one of those moments. Waves of layoffs have washed over the tech giants in the past several months after years of exuberant hiring. Traditional firms have pulled back on digital investment, shelving projects that are deemed non-essential. Despite signs that the US economy is growing and that interest rates will relent, companies are easing into the year with conservatism. Lean budgets are the order of the day, and execs are obliged to turn a gimlet eye to how well their digital teams and initiatives are performing.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that there’s fresh urgency for the important—a focus on what should have been in focus all along. For digital leaders, the top focus has to be nurturing a high-performing digital organization. If there’s investment to be made, it must be here. Savings and profit will both follow many times over.
For digital leaders, the top focus has to be nurturing a high-performing digital organization.
By “high performing,” I mean “doing more with less.” Become an organization that can realize the elusive trifecta of faster/better/cheaper while delivering exceptional digital experiences. The goal is hardly novel, but it’s surprising how rarely it’s an actual priority. Big Medium works with the world’s biggest companies—organizations that have the potential to realize huge economies of scale. Too often, though, their size only magnifies each company’s particular dysfunctions. We guide our clients to develop healthy processes and organizational strategy to be their best selves—to be that high-performing digital team.
Economic uncertainty is an invitation for companies to do just that, to become their best selves. So while this essay may be framed as “digital leadership in lean times,” it’s more truly a call to return to the touchstones of responsible digital leadership. As a leader, how do you focus on what is really valuable to both the company and its customers, and how do you set up your team to deliver that value? How do you tell your group’s story in a way that reinforces your ability to do new and useful things with technology?
Before jumping into it, here’s a preview of the key principles I’ll cover for leading and nurturing your “do more with less” high-performing team:
- Earn your keep
- Rally around delivery
- Enlist the robots
- Bust silos
- Mind your vendors
- Build institutional knowledge and promote radical reuse
- Innovate within constraints
- Set the vision
- Lean into kindness and safety
1. Earn your keep
First, let’s be straight about the cold calculus of your business goals: you must make or save money for the company. If your team contributes to making/saving more money than it spends—and if it can do that with a bigger margin than competing initiatives—then you earn your keep and win the budget. The more direct the connection to making/saving money, the better. It’s important that this connection be explicit in the story that you tell internally about the work—and understood by the teams doing that work.
Digital organizations make money by launching successful products or marketing vehicles—and by keeping/retaining customers through feature updates and bug fixes. Shipping and supporting these products is typically the focus for in-house teams, so chances are, you already have a handle on the research, design, and development of good products that are core to your business. The metrics to measure and the desired outcomes are generally clear and understood. But things tend to get messy in the other category…
You save money by developing processes or platforms that help get things done faster, with fewer resources, or with less reliance on outside vendors. There’s often lots of untapped opportunity here, because digital organizations often contend with lots of inefficiencies—especially in large and complex organizations. That’s where teams encounter the friction and inefficiencies of siloed bureaucracy, politics, and poor visibility. There’s lots to be done, but it means fighting the tide of corporate scale. This is the realm of slow decisions, reinvented wheels, waterfall handoffs, and inconsistent solutions.
Saving money by reducing friction and creating new efficiencies is the big opportunity to move the needle for most digital organizations. Do more with less: make more money while spending the least money, time, and resources possible. You can spot high-performing teams by their speedy, low-friction, collaborative process—complete with supporting tools and platforms—for designing and delivering digital products.
Saving money by reducing friction and creating new efficiencies is the big opportunity to move the needle for most digital organizations.
The trick is that investing in projects that will save money often looks at first glance like pouring funds into an operational cost center. Hiring folks to improve process can be misunderstood as adding a layer of middle management that doesn’t directly contribute to shipping product. Building a well-considered, effective design system can be misconstrued as a costly convenience for internal teams, a distraction from building actual applications. (I’ll address the very real benefits of investing in these things later.)
To avoid this false impression, commit fully to these efficiency-building efforts by plugging them immediately into roadmap projects so that you can prove (or disprove) their value right away. For example, apply new process improvements to the scrum teams working on the latest project. Or use that project to build your design system by introducing component-driven design/development and then extracting the foundational components for the system from that project.
When Big Medium helps client companies build money-saving design systems, for example, we tuck in with production teams working on strategically important roadmap projects. We help them accelerate those projects with new design/development process—and end up with a bouncing baby design system on the other end. The efficiencies and savings from that design system snowball as it continues to be used and evolved in follow-on projects.
Working this way lets you realize the value of the effort immediately, and contribute directly and materially to money-making projects at the same time that you’re developing your money-saving efforts. But just as important, it also helps you justify the expense of these initiatives by leaning into this important fact of corporate finance:
Your CFO loves a capital expenditure
I bet you didn’t see this coming, but we’re going to take a brief detour into the intoxicating realm of… accounting. How your project is categorized by the finance department affects how it affects the company’s bottom line—and how profitable or costly your group is perceived to be.
It takes money to design and build a website, application, or platform. If that expense is charged as an operational expense (“OpEx” in the lingo), then the full cost dings the company’s bottom line for the year. However, if it’s considered a capital expense (“CapEx”), then on the books, the cost can instead be spread out over the product’s useful lifespan—typically three to five years.
A simple example: A company spends $1 million to deliver a software product. If it’s categorized as OpEx, then the company books a $1 million expense before it’s able to realize any revenue—your project just cost the company a ton of money this year with no income to show for it yet. If it’s categorized as CapEx, however, then the accountants view the software product as a $1 million asset with a five-year lifespan. The $1 million expense to build it can be amortized over five years ($200,000 per year). So the balance sheet for the first year shows a $1 million asset with $200,000 expenses—an increase of $800,000 in the company’s net worth for the year, instead of a $1 million expense.
What is this witchcraft? CapEx means “investment.” It applies to the purchase or creation of assets that will deliver value over time: buildings, machinery… and software. Capitalization is an accounting method that spreads out the cost of the asset over its useful lifespan. Even though the company lays out the cash all at once, it looks on paper like a payment plan. The reasoning is that it aligns the expense of a revenue-producing product with the timing when it’s actually expected to generate that revenue—a more accurate reflection of an asset’s financial performance. The end result: capitalization improves financial statements, enhances the balance sheet, and unlocks tax savings that can free up money for further investment and operations.
Position your work as asset creation, not operational expense. This is not only better accounting, but better storytelling: “we’re creating value, not a cost center.” It means that the company understands your digital organization as a builder of enduring, profit-generating machinery. The design system you build for savings and efficiency becomes more than an operational artifact: it is a platform. It is critical front-end infrastructure and a financial asset of enduring value.
Here’s the catch: to qualify as CapEx, expenses have to be direct contributors to the creation of revenue-generating software—building new products or adding new features. For digital products, this includes UI design, application development, QA, and some content creation, but it does not include requirements gathering, research, maintenance, bug fixes, modernization, or training, all of which are all considered operating expenses. (Here are the rules for websites.)
So don’t get it twisted. We still need to spend on OpEx efforts that reduce technical debt and keep these beautiful CapEx projects running well and delivering profit. Likewise, we need to be smart about funding research and building good requirements that will ensure the products deliver the expected revenue. But don’t miss any opportunity to frame (and fund) the work that you do as value-building capital assets. It’s not only savvy and timely, it’s also true.
Don’t miss any opportunity to frame (and fund) the work that you do as value-building capital assets. It’s not only savvy and timely, it’s also true.
Choose metrics that matter
This has to be more than storytelling. You have to demonstrate the value your team is creating, and that means gathering and sharing the right measurements. Too many teams get swept up in measuring the wrong thing, if they bother to measure at all.
Many design system teams, for example, try to measure the success of the system by tracking how many projects have adopted it, or how complete its component coverage is. Neither is directly relevant to the bottom line. A better measure is how much money the system is saving by reducing design, development, and maintenance time: how much faster (or with how many fewer resources) can you build/maintain a project that uses the system, versus one that does not? That’s the stuff that will keep the lights on for your design system team.
All of this is about having your financial story straight for how you’re delivering value to the business. This is your first priority: get clear on how you’ll make/save money, justify your work as capital expenditure, and understand how to prove its value with the right metrics.
This asset-building mindset also establishes an important cultural and process imperative for digital organizations, which brings us to the next principle for digital leadership in lean times.
2. Rally around delivery
Everyone on the team has to understand that their job is all about actually shipping a great product. In digital design and development, it’s all too easy to get precious about the things we make along the way. I’ve certainly been guilty of this, confusing the output of my individual contribution as my end goal. And so we convince ourselves that the wireframes we build have to be exhaustive. The Figma file must be perfect in every high-fidelity detail. The design system library has to have complete coverage and be “pure” from a system perspective. We treat our work as if it’s the product itself.
In the end, none of those artifacts matter. The only thing that’s important is what actually gets delivered to customers—and what happens next. That’s where the value of your digital organization is realized. Everything else along the way is a stepping stone that will be discarded after the next phase is complete. Recognize that requirements, wireframes, designs, and prototypes are disposable—and treat them accordingly.
Document less, ship faster
Doing more with less means reducing the time and energy spent on these ephemeral artifacts, so that you can ship faster and realize product benefits as quickly as possible. At each stage, figure out what you need to do to understand with confidence what the next step toward delivery should be. Invest precisely that effort and no more. That’s the real meaning and value of the much-misunderstood MVP process.
Figure out what you need to do to understand with confidence what the next step toward delivery should be. Invest precisely that effort and no more.
This doesn’t mean cutting corners. This doesn’t mean avoiding appropriate thinking and exploration. This doesn’t mean that design is unimportant. It simply means that we should not treat every phase of planning, design, and development with the same polish that the shipping product needs to have. Instead, let’s recognize when further design work has diminishing returns and ask instead how we can push production downstream into code as soon as possible.
I discuss this approach and its implication in more detail in my essay Only One Deliverable Matters. The gist is: document only what’s necessary to communicate what needs to be done next, and figure out how/where you can express that work most efficiently. The essay stakes out these core principles:
- Words, not wireframes
- Skip the wireframe, sketch mobile UI
- Push the point of production downstream
- Code commits instead of redlines
- Cultivate trust outside of documentation
- The product is the common workspace, and vice versa
If you’re not already working this way, it will feel… uncomfortable… when you first adopt it. Hiring folks who bring this mindset can help shepherd the process and realize the associated savings. Product owners, design directors, delivery managers, and project managers are all influential roles here. Outside consultants can also help.
At Big Medium, for example, we help our client companies work in this way. Doing so lets you ship faster—and it creates a common sense of purpose and collaboration among disciplines. Instead of tossing highly polished documentation over the wall waterfall-style, you’re instead having conversations to ask your colleagues, “what do you need from me in order to know what to do next?” It’s almost always less than you think it needs to be. Do more by doing less.
3. Enlist the robots
As you revisit what needs to be done, also ask how—and whether it can be automated. The recent sudden breakthroughs and broad availability of generative AI in particular mean that our new robot friends are becoming important teammates in digital organizations.
At Big Medium, we’ve begun helping our clients use AI to do production work for design and development. We’re setting up private, secure systems that use large language models (LLMs) to deliver high-quality results in seconds instead of the hours or days of our human colleagues. Some examples that we’re delivering right now:
- Writing production-ready code for design system components across multiple web frameworks (React, Web Components, Vue, etc) in the organization’s house style
- Assessing and delivering recommendations on the quality and accessibility of designs and front-end code
- Writing and communicating design system documentation (UX guidelines, developer docs, tutorials) in a context- and audience-specific manner
- Writing automated tests for code libraries
- Writing pull requests and changelogs, including high-level summaries of their impact—including breaking changes and the migration path for developers
We’ve got all of that working today, and we’re teaching our clients to do it, too. Still to come: we’re working on teaching the robots to read and write Figma files to create designs based on communicated requirements, to identify gaps between design and code, and to deliver useful code based on the designs.
Digital leaders and their teams can’t afford to ignore this. This is the time to learn, adopt, and invest in this kind of automation and how to manage it. These are early days, but it’s clear that this is where the industry is headed—and quickly. The tools and methods are available now, and improving steadily.
This is at once great news and deeply unsettling. Broad swaths of digital production are fast becoming automated commodity work. The business implication is that we can realize the value of digital products much faster and at lower cost—terrific! But the professional implications at the personal, organizational, and societal levels are profound. This is a sea change in how work gets done and by whom (or by what).
This is a big topic and more than can be shoehorned into this essay, but: as you begin to introduce your inevitable robot workforce, anticipate necessary shifts in roles and responsibilities. The technical aspect of human work will shift to training and maintaining the robots and their models, writing prompts based on clear requirements, and reviewing the design/code output. Done right, this relieves us of nitty-gritty, error-prone, and repetitive production work and frees us to do higher-order thinking, posing new questions that solve bigger problems.
This means our teams will eventually engage in more human inquiry and less technical implementation: more emphasis on research, requirements, and outcomes and less emphasis on specific outputs. In other words, teams will focus more on the right thing to do—and less on how to do it. The robots will take care of the how.
In that context, human relationships and shared vision within your digital organization become even more important. Divvying people up by technical specialty may become more of a hindrance than a help as the robots take on more of the technical work. That brings us to the next principle.
4. Bust silos
Another way to think about rallying around delivery is that you’re blurring the lines between production stages, so that the whole team is involved, informed, and invested throughout the process. This means busting the silos that isolate disciplines.
Painful design-to-development handoffs disappear, for example, when you decide we will no longer have formal handoffs. Instead, pull developers back into the design process, and push designers forward into the development process. This is what happens when you prioritize pushing production downstream into code as soon as possible. It’s also easier said than done. That’s because it intentionally blends roles/responsibilities across production stages, introducing a degree of ambiguity into your delivery process. But it also bolsters the agency of the production team and its individual contributors. It empowers the team to focus on what’s needed across disciplines for this feature right now in order to ship faster.
Painful design-to-development handoffs disappear when you decide we will no longer have formal handoffs.
Done right, busting silos improves both the speed and quality of delivery, with fewer surprises. You know it’s working when you see a decline in adversarial relationships between disciplines. By contrast, it’s a danger signal when you see frayed working relationships and lack of trust simmering between designers and developers, for example. That frustration represents a ton of wasted time and energy. You have to resolve it to stop burning money.
Is your org chart broken?
Improvements in process and personal relationships can go a long way there, but friction between disciplines is often seeded by structural issues in the organization. When a company dumps design, development, product, and marketing into completely different departments, these groups inevitably have different incentives, goals, and cultures. The structure alone threatens to turn these teams into disdainful competitors instead of supporters of a common mission.
High-performing digital organizations have cross-discipline production teams that share responsibility for shipping great features. At Big Medium, we’ve helped clients establish a variety of different reporting relationships to manage the individual contributors in those teams (designers versus developers versus product managers etc). There’s no single best org chart for high-performing teams, but there is a common factor: the reporting relationships merge not far above the production team itself.
To rally around product delivery, you have to have common leadership to do the rallying. The closer that shared leadership is to the teams doing the work, the more effective it will be. When reporting relationships for distinct disciplines don’t merge until they hit the C-suite, that’s especially fertile territory for dysfunction. The silos are way too tall for collaboration to be effective, and a reorganization is almost certainly necessary.
5. Mind your vendors
Agencies and other vendors are their own silos. Although hired to accomplish specific outcomes for the business, these third-party companies have their own management structures and incentives, which can diverge in ways large or small from the interests of their clients. This divergence is made worse when you have multiple vendors working on the same projects, making coordination challenging and responsibilities murky. Streamlining your agency roster delivers cost savings, eliminates duplicate work, reduces management overhead, and lets you focus on the healthiest business partnerships.
I lead an agency. I’m a fan of agencies. Agencies and contractors play an important role in lean times, filling gaps when companies can’t risk full-time hires. But those same lean times oblige digital leaders to ask: where are my agencies taking me and to what end? Are they the right partners for the moment?
Many agencies are keen to create long-term dependencies and get as many heads in the door for as long as possible. That’s the whole business model. Their DNA rejects getting projects done in the leanest way, which means that these agencies are at cross purposes with their clients’ interests, at least in that particular sense.
At Big Medium, our goal is to enable meaningful change—in product, in process, in culture, in technique—and then step aside. We purposely avoid making our clients dependent on us in the long term. Instead, we want to empower them by teaching them what we know, making our knowledge their knowledge. We don’t create superfluous deliverables to boost our billing. We’ve done a lot of work to design a business that aligns our goals with those of our clients, and our clients tell us we leave them more effective, happier, transformed. That’s a healthy partnership. The question to ask: can you say the same of all of your vendors?
Lean times oblige digital leaders to ask: where are my agencies taking me and to what end? Are they the right partners for the moment?
Find your trusted partners, the ones that line up with your own goals and incentives, and streamline to them. If you discover that this leaves you empty-handed, then it’s time to find new partners better suited to the challenges you’re facing today and tomorrow. On the other hand, if your agency roster is still stacked, consider trimming the long tail of vendors who don’t offer unique value or services. Having multiple agencies who solve the same problems in the same way does you no good. It only costs you time, money, and attention to coordinate all the companies doing the exact same work. Consolidate to the difference makers.
Be careful not to confuse difference makers with those who introduce change for change’s sake. Innovation and novelty are not the same thing. Many agencies, especially design agencies, understand their job to be to create something new and novel and dazzling. Nothing is inherently wrong with those things, and sometimes that’s what the moment warrants. But too often the pursuit of novelty abandons valuable foundations. Too many agencies deliver product designs that ignore a company’s existing design system or standards, without creating an alternative. They create solutions that don’t show consideration for what’s come before or what will come next.
Circumstances sometimes call for dramatic change. I am not calling for incrementalism. But as you work on innovative projects with your agency vendors, ask yourself how the new thing you’re creating can capitalize on what you’ve already built. If you’re walking away from that, do it with clear eyes about what you’re gaining and what you’re giving up—and what will replace it. Otherwise your shiny new project risks becoming a money pit.
Novelty is not innovation. Continuity is not stagnation. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for building upon what you’ve already got.
6. Build institutional knowledge and promote radical reuse
High-performing teams figure out the right thing to do faster than other teams. That’s not because they’re more clever; it’s because they have good habits. In particular, they quickly identify “our team’s way” to do the thing at hand, and they have the assets, routines, and culture to stay in sync with each other and with other teams.
On the other hand, teams introduce friction (and delays and re-work) when individual contributors are never clear on the settled solution for a specific problem—and don’t know where to turn. When that’s the case, institutional knowledge, such as it is, is locked up in the heads of longtime employees. Knowledge is conveyed via direct message, which requires knowing who to ask. Onboarding is painful as new team members don’t have easy access to the basic knowledge to do their job.
When there’s no clear “our way,” designers and developers burn lots of time and energy to find answers. And when they can’t find them, they wind up reinventing the wheel by solving a problem that’s already been solved… somewhere. Quality, consistency, and velocity all take a hit. Design and technical debt abound.
This is the whole reason for design systems, of course. They are repositories of institutional knowledge—libraries of solved problems. They’re all about encouraging radical reuse through the principles of Atomic Design, the methodology created by Big Medium’s Brad Frost. Done right, design systems provide a single source of truth with common language, clear guidelines, and grab-and-go elements for designers and developers.
In lean times, developing a mature design system has to be an area of focus and investment. It pays off quickly in stanching redundant work, wasted time, and poor-quality design & development. Creating design and code libraries for common patterns has become table stakes for a healthy digital organization.
It’s also not enough. High-performing teams have design systems, but having a design system won’t make you a high-performing team. What makes the difference is how you operationalize that system to fit naturally into the everyday workflow and practice of teams and individual contributors. That is the real work: establishing the processes to use, govern, and contribute to those systems in ways that elevate the team and deliver bottom-line value in shipping product.
High-performing teams have design systems, but having a design system won’t make you a high-performing team.
This effort requires committed leadership—especially for large, siloed organizations that tend to favor local solutions. In our work with big companies, we often see similar-but-different design systems spring up in different pockets of the company. Companies bring in Big Medium to bridge the gap, unify systems, and help teams work together. The fact that this is happening in the first place, though, is a sign of teams trying to create institutional knowledge and radical reuse within their spheres of influence—but their effort to reduce duplicative work is only duplicating the work of others elsewhere in the organization.
That’s a signal that design system work is no longer a team issue. It’s a leadership issue that demands silo-busting and collaboration organization-wide. The result sweeps away ambiguity for common use cases. Getting the design system implementation right means teams can spend less time on reinventing old boring solutions and more on solving new problems. Speaking of new solutions…
7. Innovate within constraints
When you consolidate what you already know how to do, you create time, energy, and resources for exploring the new. That’s how companies make space for innovation projects in lean times, and it’s what we’re seeing right now.
Confronted by flat or shrinking budgets, high-performing teams are deploying all the efficiencies described above in order to protect space for exploring new technologies and opportunities—especially AI. “There is a reallocation of resources from noncore areas to projects such as AI rather than hiring new people,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Another Journal report surveyed CIOs and found that “while their budgets for the new year remain flat, they’re under pressure to deliver new innovations, especially using generative AI. Getting the cash for that means that the cost-control priorities of 2023—from reducing cloud usage and consolidating vendors to negotiating discounts and leaning on automation—will remain in effect into 2024, they said.”
“Doing more with less” also means doing new with less.
“Doing more with less” also means doing new with less. When there’s no contingency budget for failed projects, you’re asked to reduce risk even as you chase big results.
Choose innovation projects with care, selecting the ones most likely to return high value, with limited risk. At Big Medium, for example, we’re helping clients adopt AI in the service of delivering roadmap projects. Our client teams develop new skills and explore new features without the risk of giant moonshot projects.
This approach transforms AI from daunting next-generation technology into a practice of making software with casual intelligence. (Designing for casual uses of AI has been a focus of ours for several years now; here are some examples from my 2019 talk, AI Is Your New Design Material.)
From there, as your team’s skills grow in pace with demonstrated product benefits, innovation efforts can become bolder. That’s the maturity path we’re following, for example, when Big Medium helps companies use AI to write production code, as described earlier—moving from using AI-supported features to AI-produced applications.
Here are a few key concepts as you follow this trajectory with tight resources:
- Keep innovation projects rolling even in lean times—but grow those features in step with the growth of your skillset, and vice versa. If you don’t have the skillsets you need, hire those skills—or hire a consultant like Big Medium to help you get them.
- Prefer lots of little bets to one giant bet. Don’t send a team into an “innovation cave” to disappear for a year in hopes that they come back with a company-saving product. Instead, do lots of experiments as targeted product interventions, measure the results of each, and then based on those results, decide what the next intervention will be. Over your time, your “small” experiments will get bigger. (This, again, is what MVPs are intended to be and do.)
- Mind the difference between innovators and implementers. The people who dream up or demonstrate the new idea aren’t always the best ones to take it forward—and often don’t want to be. Inventing and operationalizing are different tasks, often best handled by different people or teams. In lean times, make sure you have the right people in their best place.
8. Set the vision
Where does all of this effort and innovation take you? Where are you headed? Much of what I’ve covered so far has focused on the management and operational considerations of nurturing a high-performing team. But once you’ve got this team zipping along like a sleek and nimble jet, where will you fly together? Building, fueling, and flying the jet are all different from imagining its destination—and persuading people to come along.
That’s vision, and a leader isn’t a leader without a vision. Vision provides the “why” for all the “how” and “what” that occupy everyone’s day to day. This is the flag that you plant in the distance to orient your team, to show them where you’re leading them, and to what end.
Vision provides the “why” for all the “how” and “what” that occupy everyone’s day to day.
Peter Merholz shares a good example from Kaaren Hanson, chief design officer at Chase Bank. Kaaren had four near-term initiatives—each similar to the principles I’ve described so far—all of them focused on making her team more effective: build a senior team, nurture executive relationships, establish UX metrics, and evolve product development processes. These initiatives were concrete goals intended to serve as stepping stones to the long-term vision that Kaaren staked out: to create “one freaking experience”—a seamless, coherent, and consolidated way to navigate all the bank’s many-faceted services. The near-term initiatives were all in service of that longer-term vision.
The vision—“one freaking experience”—is so simply stated, yet it’s brimming with implicit value for both the business and its customer. It’s a simple container that contains tons of complexity, suggests many stages, and prompts lots of inquiry, yet also provides clear directional orientation. It describes to Kaaren’s team of 800+ people why they’re doing their work. It is the desired eventual meta-outcome for the team.
Naming the simple “why” is important for several reasons: the vision provides mission and clarity for your team; it provides a strong organizing principle that guides you to make clear and deliberate decisions as a leader; and it takes us all the way back to our first principle, “earn your keep,” to tell the story of how your team provides real and meaningful value to both company and customer.
I want to highlight the word “meaningful” for a moment. One of the common characteristics of high-performing teams is a culture motivated by a strong sense of purpose and meaning—specifically work that benefits others. David Burkus writes:
More and more people desire to do work that benefits others. Knowing the reason behind their work’s importance isn’t enough — employees also want to know who their work is serving. One study even indicated that when people hear stories about how their colleagues’ work benefits others, they become more motivated to engage in helpful actions. This suggests that when people hear how their work is positively affecting others, they’re more likely to set their own goals and desires aside and focus on the needs and objectives of the team.
What’s your vision for your team? How does that vision benefit colleagues, clients, or the community? And how does your vision dovetail with undeniable business value for the company? Expressing that vision provides comforting reassurance and motivational purpose for your team—both of which are especially important in lean times.
9. Lean into kindness and safety
The importance of purpose in your team’s work is a reminder that high-performing teams are built on more than technical skill, good funding, or effective management alone. Teams that “do more with less” emerge from healthy and supportive culture.
While it may be tempting to apply pressure to teams to wring more out of them, fear and adrenaline are not sustainable management methods.
Lean times introduce a ton of stressors—tight budgets, the threat of layoffs, changes in leadership, shifts in how we work. You may not have control over all or even any of the factors that leave your team unsettled. But you can still help your team find professional grounding in ungrounded times by fostering a culture of kindness and psychological safety. This kind of healthy culture not only boosts individual satisfaction but turns out to be the essential ingredient for effective team dynamics.
And this may be a bit crass, but: fear is bad for business. Fear of failure, fear of losing work, fear of management, fear of speaking up—all of it hurts creativity, motivation, and team collaboration. A work culture that is adversarial, intimidating, impatient, or judgmental will not take you where you need to go, a fact that’s doubly true in tough times. While it may be tempting to apply pressure to teams to wring more out of them, fear and adrenaline are not sustainable management methods. The better thing is to encourage people to show up as their whole selves, not as robot exemplars of efficiency. Done right, the results are remarkable.
A decade ago, Google embarked on a study called Project Aristotle to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some were way more successful than others. They looked at team composition, personalities, social relationships, and management style, but no strong patterns emerged from those. Instead, the secret of high-performing squads turns not on who is on the team but how team members behave with each other. The common element: team psychological safety.
The term was coined in 1999 by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson: “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This is a professional context where you can be confident being yourself (including your confused or uncertain self). It emerges from “a blend of trust, respect for each other’s competence, and caring about each other as people.” Project Aristotle and a bevy of other studies have found strong links between psychological safety and improvements in performance, creativity, resilience, and learning.
Leaders cultivate team psychological safety by encouraging input, replacing blame with curiosity, and perhaps most important: by offering their own vulnerability and trust to the team. The trust is offered by openly acknowledging uncertainties, failures, and even personal weaknesses. This is interpersonal risk, for sure; it runs counter to the instinct of many leaders to front a false confidence, especially in times of crisis. But offering this trust is rewarded with a culture where nobody is expected to be perfect—a place where it’s safe to admit mistakes, share half-formed ideas, and ask naive questions. Instead of being a leader who has to have all the answers, it allows you to frame questions for your team to answer—and give them confidence that they won’t be punished for trying.
Kindness is not weakness. Psychological safety is not at odds with demanding standards or industry-beating outcomes. On the contrary, psychological safety delivers those outcomes by providing the space for a constant flow of new ideas and critical thought—and the confidence to explore both. Critique and hard conversations remain critical; the difference is that the critique is always understood to be about the work, not the person. In lean times it’s especially important to be clear about expectations—and to listen when those expectations aren’t realistic.
At Big Medium, we think a lot about how to promote this kind of healthy culture, especially since we’re constantly forming new teams by joining forces with our clients. We’re told by those same clients that we not only deliver fast, highest-caliber results, but that we’re also kind—and awfully fun to work with. (That rings true, since we look for the same in our clients.) We care about the challenges of the teams we work with—and of the people that make up those teams. We’re invested in their success and we’re interested in their ideas, both the ones that work and the ones that don’t.
In every engagement we lean into process, habits, and norms that foster this kind of kindness and safety in our client teams. We know the engagement is working when we’re all enjoying our work together, not only the results. That makes all of us real partners at a personal level in making our client’s vision real.
In lean times, who could ask for better friends than that?
Let’s return to fundamentals
Leadership is always a tough gig. The squeeze is hardest when money is tight and you’re called upon to do more with less—all while giving teams what they need to do their best work. The good news is that digital leadership in tough times is basically the same as what great digital leadership looks like all the time. So let’s get back to fundamentals. Focus on what delivers value, and create the circumstances for your team to get it done.
From accounting to AI, from automation to Atomic Design, from vision to vendors, from innovation to institutional knowledge, from constraints to a culture of kindness… you have a lot of tools and methods to meet the moment.
And hey, Big Medium is here if you need help. We help complex organizations do big design, and nurturing high-performing teams is what we do. We can help your team to:
- fit AI into into your products (and production process)
- realize all the benefits of a design system
- design and build websites/applications that deliver value and earn your keep
- build the skills, process, and culture to deliver better products faster
- and much more
Get in touch, and we’ll help you do more with less.
Is your design, development, or product organization struggling with AI, process, delivery, or roles & responsibilities? Need help designing and building your next great product? We can help. Big Medium helps complex organizations do big design—building and shipping great digital products at scale. Get in touch to find out how.