Leading a design team is a complex, multifacetted task. The Design Leadership Framework describes five key areas that design leaders have to address to build a company’s design capability: Strategy, Experience, Operations, Enterprise and Team. In this article we will take a closer look at the area of Strategy.
What this article is about
Many design leaders only have a vague notion of Strategy in the context of leading their design team. They might already be familiar with developing an experience strategy or product strategy but not with developing a strategy for their actual team and design organization.
Typical questions that design leaders might find challenging are:
- How can we chart a way forward for the team?
- What measures should we implement to build and scale our design team?
- How can we prioritize and implement our internal topics?
- Our design team is facing some challenges, what should we do?
- How can we convey design as a fundamental priority of our enterprise?
These questions and similar feedback by design leaders signal to me that the design leadership lacks a strategy and therefore a clear plan to develop the team and to integrate design on an enterprise level.
Especially design leaders new to the position can be overwhelmed with dealing with the day-to-day challenges of managing a team while also having to drive forward the design org on a more long-term scale.
This article’s four chapters give an overview of developing a design team strategy and thereby building business acumen for design leaders. We will look at:
- a basic introduction for developing a strategy
- six steps to formulating and implementing a design team strategy
- the design leader’s strategy cycle
- the design team strategy canvas as a hands-on approach
Let’s start with some basics
In many companies the task of developing a strategy is considered the “high point of managerial activity“.  But at times it seemed to me that the word strategic was added just to make things sound more important.
Despite the terms strategy and strategic being used extensively, in my view, their precise meaning might not always clear. So let us start with a few basics about strategy in general before we dive into the specifics of developing a strategy for a design team.
There are several meanings of the term strategy. According to Mintzberg’s 5P of Strategy it can be seen
- as a deliberate plan
- a pattern that emerges
- a position one takes
- a perspective of the organization or even
- a cunning ploy against your enemies, much like a game of chess. 
In the context of design leadership I am focusing on the common definition of strategy as a plan. In this view the strategy is a deliberate course of action that brings us from where we currently stand to where we want to be in the future. In other words a strategy describes how the ends (goals) will be achieved by the means (resources).
There are different triggers for formulating a strategy. It can be as drastic as a crisis or just some inefficiencies or issues to tackle. In any way there needs to be a significant gap between where the organization is and where it wants to be or should be. Something that cannot be solved by small improvements alone.
Consequently, we first need to understand, where we are currently standing and what issues and pain points exist, in order to develop a meaningful strategy. Then we need to develop a clear vision or goal of where we want to be in the future. The third step is to develop a set of measures that can bring us from the present to the future state – this set of measures is what we call the Strategy. The strategy is usually tied to a given timeframe e.g. the next quarter or the next year(s), described on a timeline or roadmap.
We can summarize that in order to develop a meaningful strategy we first have to identify our current state and where we want to be in the future.
The Design Team Strategy
To translate the general definition to design leadership let’s look at an example:
Imagine, you have assessed that your team is currently suffering from a slow design process, the collaboration is weak and the design tools you are using have become outdated.
Your team’s vision could be to have a more efficient design process and a stronger collaboration with the development team to improve product quality and design velocity.
A viable strategy to come closer to this vision could include developing a design language and design system, optimizing the design tools and establishing better ways to work together in the team. The image below summarizes the design team strategy in a simplified overview.
Notice how the design team strategy does not include the actual products or services, specific product features or ideas. These belong into the area of product strategy or customer experience strategy – even though the design team and design leaders will have a large influence in developing those as well together with product management and other stakeholders. The design team strategy will focus on design outcomes in a much more general way by looking at e.g. design principles, design language or design culture.
Typical topics a design team strategy addresses:
- Designers’ ways of working and processes
- Designers’ organizational structures and culture
- Designers’ tools and workplace
- Design team health
- Quality of design outcomes
- Overall design culture in the enterprise
- Pain points and inefficiencies
The design team strategy can be developed by the team in a series of workshops, or by the design leader(s) alone or a mix of both, e.g., gathering pain points and ideas from the team and then detailing and describing the strategy in a smaller group.
Typically, the design team strategy will be summarized in a shareable format e.g. in a presentation, a video or a blog post. This is an ideal basis for communicating the strategy, receiving feedback and getting buy-in from stakeholders especially if you need resources or budget to implement your measures.
Implementing a strategy can be hard
Coming up with a sharp analysis of the current state, an inspiring vision and a strategy that makes sense is a task that many design leaders have a natural strength in. Formulating the strategy can be as creative as designing a new interface or service. But it is only the beginning regarding to this design leader:
“Creating the strategy and roadmap for our team was relatively easy. We looked at our current pain points from a team survey and developed ideas and a plan of how we could solve the identified problems. We wanted to improve our team culture and collaboration and we had to set up a proper design system to increase design quality and consistency across our different product teams.
But then it was very hard to implement our design team strategy when day-to-day work and meetings were taking up all of our time. We had to set up dedicated time slots during the week in the leadership team to work out solutions and drive our strategic initiatives forward. We assigned different topics to senior people from our teams who were going to lead the implementation.”Design Leader, Automotive Industry
As seen in the example above, the actual implementation of the strategy might be challenging because this requires a totally different set of leadership skills. The focus is now on managing people’s expectations and fears as well as ensuring that the strategy is well executed and brought to life within the team.
It is very likely that you have more than one strategic topic and you need to have the right approach and tools to manage the implementation, such as program management and change management. You will most likely need support in the form of team members or dedicated staff such as project managers, program managers, design operation managers or similar staff, depending on your team size.
If we come back to our first example of the design team strategy above, one strategic idea was to develop a design language and design system. We can imagine how this can easily become very complex:
We would first need to plan a realistic timeframe and find people in the team that want to tackle this project. How will the team be set up and organized? How much time do they get to work on this task? Who do they report to? What are milestones along the way? What processes, structures and tools need changing? How can we ensure a smooth adoption of the new ways of working? And these are just some of the questions that could come up.
Finally, after a given time period you need to be able to assess whether your actions derived from your strategy have been successful. To measure your progress towards your long-term goals you can define a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) that you monitor regularly.
Summary of steps to formulate and implement a strategy
The table below shows an overview and short description of the above mentioned steps of creating and implementing a strategy to develop your design organization:
|Design Leader’s Tasks
|Assess Current Situation
|Understand and synthesize the current challenges, opportunities, and influencing factors for your design strategy.
|Define Vision & Goals
|Develop a vision and long-term goals that can guide the design work, unify the design team, and connect leadership activities.
|Develop Strategy & Roadmap
|Develop a strategy that will work towards bringing the vision to life and achieving the desired goals for the design organization.
|Prepare and align the design team for upcoming changes, particularly those related to organizational structures or processes.
|Manage Program Initiatives
|Set up and oversee the design program, consisting of a series of interconnected projects and initiatives aimed at implementing your strategy.
|Measure Practice & Performance
|Measure the impact of your strategic initiatives and changes, and establish a system for regularly evaluating the overall health of the team and the quality of the design practice.
The Design Leader’s Strategy Cycle
These six steps might look like quite a linear process going from defining current challenges and a desired vision to creating and implementing a strategy and measuring its success.
And it is more or less linear, if you went trough it just once. But leading a team and developing a design organization in an ever-changing environment and agile landscape is certainly not a one-off initiative. Best practices for both design outcomes and design organization can get outdated quickly in a fast-moving and still evolving design industry. You do not want to wait for things to go downhill, people to leave and quality to be lost before you start a change initiative.
The solution is to think of the above described strategy process and steps as an ongoing learning cycle of strategy development and strategy implementation instead of a big one-time activity.
The image below shows how the six steps of creating and implementing a strategy can all be connected in a continuous approach.
The Strategy Cycle shown is based on the general concept of other known and proven management cycles such as Edward Deming’s PDCA-Cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) or Pietersen’s Strategic Learning Process . While the cycle above can be used for a variety of other strategic work, in the context of the Design Leadership Framework we use it for leading our design team and building the design capability.
Excellent leaders and their teams are creating and implementing strategies on an ongoing basis to create an adaptive organization. The more often you go through the cycle the better you also become at the process of ongoing renewal itself, which is an organizational capability of its own. 
The cycle should not stop
Of course the number of strategic initiatives and how often you can go through the cycle annually will depend a lot on your team size and resources. In the spirit of an agile and adaptive organization it makes sense to go through it more regularly with a smaller set of initiatives for each cycle.
A small design team might go through the cycle once or twice a year with handful of topics to implement. A larger team might go through the cycle more often and also have more parallel topics and initiatives to focus on. This requires strong management and leadership in order to keep an overview.
But it is not important how often you manage to go through the cycle in a time period. What matters is, that you embrace the iterative learning mindset that comes with it. With each cycle the organization will get closer to its goals and improve step by step as shown in the image below.
Strategy and Change Management belong together
What is compelling about the strategy cycle in general is that it holistically integrates strategy, leadership and change management, as these really should be seen as interdependent topics.
In approaches that are linear and focus only on developing a strategy OR only on implementing a change this connection gets lost. We can see this phenomenon for example when consulting firms develop a strategy and leave it to others to implement or when HR comes in to implement some “transformation”.
“As long as strategy and change management are kept in different boxes, there will be a costly disconnect between them. But you can close the gap by thinking of strategy as change management.“Tony Manning 
Developing a strategy for your design organization has many benefits. It sets a direction and focuses efforts and coordination of activities. But depending on the circumstances, a strategy can also be too rigid and shutting out new possibilities or perspectives. This is especially true, when we develop strategies for very long time periods. In this case the approach of a complete strategy cycle might show its limitations.
As leaders we need to find a good balance between following a plan but also the ability to react to the unexpected and adjust our plans and actions. When you look back a couple of months or years you will find that what has really happened oftentimes was down to a mix of mostly planned and a few emergent, reactive strategies. 
Design Team Strategy Canvas
To support design leaders with a lightweight approach for creating a strategy I have developed a simple canvas that can be filled in individually or as a team activity.
The canvas consists of four areas:
1 Current pain points: This can be filled in in a simple exercise using (digital) post-its. Collect and cluster what is currently not going well in the team or regarding the design capability in general. Select the 3-5 most important issues that you want to attend to in the near future.
You can do this exercise directly on the canvas or copy the results of a prior team assessment e.g. a team survey, team workshop or from using the assessment template (also free) of the Design Leadership Framework.
Examples: “The quality of the design outcomes is oftentimes compromised by the Product Owners.“ or “Designers have no clear career paths in our team.“
2 Vision & Goals: Write down your vision for the design team in the form of 2-3 long-term goals that you want to achieve. These should not be too specific and should not include concrete measures yet. They should be more like an inspiring direction or “North Star“ that the team can identify with and can work towards. If you like, you can also add Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), but they can also be defined at a later stage.
Examples: “We are known for delivering best-in-class designs that are user-friendly and innovative.“ or “Improved collaboration between designers and developers to increase the design speed and design quality.“ or “We create long-term relationships with our designers.“
3 Strategy Ideas: Collect and cluster ideas and possible initiatives that address your pain points and could bring your design team closer to the defined vision and goals. Consider this an open brainwriting activity, you do not need to judge yet which ideas are promising.
Examples: “Define career paths and publish on our wiki.“ or “Weekly meeting for showcasing new designs among the team“ or “Monthly event for socializing after work“
4 Strategic Initiatives: Cluster the ideas and select the three most promising topics that you want to implement in the team. Add more details to describe them. For prioritizing ideas, you can for example use a dot-voting exercise. Afterwards you could add some details to further describe each topic, e.g. using break-out groups if you are in a team workshop. Again, you can add Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each initiative already, but they can also be defined at a later stage.
Examples: “Define Career Paths: We will define career levels and paths for both managerial roles and individual contributors. The necessary skills and prerequisites for each level will be described. We will publish the information in our internal wiki and update regularly. A short team meeting will be held to clarify any questions or gather feedback. We will collaborate closely with HR for this task. We aim to develop and publish the new career model within the next six months.“
Depending on your team size and your overall expectations, filling in the canvas can be a short exercise for yourself, a two-hour-workshop for a smaller group or adapted to a longer team exercise including more time for gathering insights and discussion.
The Strategy Canvas is only a first impulse
The Strategy Canvas can provide discussion and alignment within the team, more clarity through reflection of the team’s status and a first idea of how to move forward. Consider it a first impulse for developing your team strategy. It is not a substitute for a more thorough analysis and creative thought process!
After completing the canvas it is the task of the design leadership team to further develop and finetune the results of this activity into a coherent strategy. Besides the team’s input other important factors such as trends, industry best practices or internal objectives need to be considered.
The result should be a comprehensive design team strategy, possibly also including a timeline in form of a road map that allocates the different initiatives. This can be the basis to get feedback and buy-in from the team and other stakeholders before starting to implement the measures.
This is an article based on my upcoming book „The Design Leadership Framework – A Practical Guide for Leading Design Teams and Building the Design Capability.“
In the book I describe the six phases of the strategy cycle including many best practices for methods and tools to use in greater detail. It also contains best practices for the other areas of the Design Leadership Framework: Experience, Operations, Enterprise and Team.
Sign up for my updates to stay informed about the book launch as well as other new content or events.
I also offer consulting and coaching to help you develop your strategy for your team and guide you with the implementation.
   Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B.W. and Lampel, J. (1998) Strategy safari: a guided tour through the wilds of strategic management. New York: Free Press.
 Pietersen, W. (2002) ‘The Mark Twain Dilemma: The Theory and Practice of Change Leadership’, Journal of Business Strategy, 23(5), pp. 32–37.
 Pietersen, W. (2014) ‘The Strategic Learning Process’. Available at: https://williepietersen.com/strategic-learning/.
 Pietersen, W. (2010) ‘Translating your strategy into a compelling leadership message’, The European Business Review, pp. 4–8.
 Manning, T. (2001) Making sense of strategy. New York: Amacon American Management Association.