Not Just Making It Up

Last month I attended a dinner for senior design managers and leaders from various well-known technology companies around Silicon Valley, and one of my fellow attendees lamented the industry-wide lack of discussion and support for the practice of design management. Another attendee agreed this was sorely needed because we "just make it up as we go along," followed by nods of assent around the table. 

It sounded like another meaningless platitude that we say to each other in polite company, but it just didn't feel right to let that stand. One of the stated goals of the evening was to chat candidly, so I raised my hand to speak (a habit I've picked up at Netflix), smiled and said, "I'd like to call bullshit on that." Politely. 

Surrounded by this small group of senior design leaders representing some of the industry's most well-known companies, one can't ignore survivor bias or selection bias. Unless you did an actual randomized study (including those who may have tried to manage but failed, those uninterested or have never pursued design management, etc.) it would be difficult to say with any certainty that any quality we have in common is a determining factor in our relative career success. 

I also think it's disingenuous. If making it up is how all successful design managers do it, then it's an innate talent that you either have or don't have. It's difficult to make this case given that almost all other disciplines have formal or informal training for management. It unnecessarily mystifies design management for those interested in doing it, regardless of their capabilities or motivation. 

Good design leaders I've worked with aren't just doing things randomly; there is a method behind their madness. There may be an element of trial & error, but those who move ahead are the ones who got more of it right than wrong for the right things (there's an element of luck that you can't ignore). Over time, they learn to do more of the former and less of the latter. Their instinct and judgment gets better, even if they are unable to clearly articulate how they do it. They train others by example, whereas others explicitly teach. 

I have been managing for about 15 years, and I continue to learn how to do it better bit by bit every time I go to work. I learn from other leaders and managers around me, I try things out, I make mistakes, I learn from them, I get and solicit feedback, I read, and I mindfully practice the discipline of design management. I believe that many others do the same. 

However just as there has been a growing need for designers and the respective increase in the number of design-related courses, certificate programs, and degrees, I agree that there is also a need for design leaders to help each other grow and to build up the discipline of design management. 

It made for much more interesting dinner conversation.