Designers — an untapped pool of Agile leadership

Posted on January 20, 2014.
Designers make great agile team leaders.
Designers make great agile team leaders.
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Implementing an agile product development process has many challenges. One that is not regularly addressed is who will lead each of the scrum teams. Many organizations default to the, seemingly obvious, answer of the scrum master. Often ill-defined (even with “certification”) this role is essentially the Agile version of the project manager. But Agile teams are supposed to be self-organizing, leaving traditional project managers without much to do. Given Agile’s software engineering roots, it is most common to see developers at the helm of these teams. However, there’s another pool of talent that’s gone largely untapped for these team leadership roles — designers.

Designers, like the Agile process, have worked iteratively since their inception. They work incrementally, building and refining experiences based on business and customer feedback. As they mature and lead organizations they’re tasked with building consensus both within the design discipline and with other departments. They bring a strong sense of empathy to the team often acting as the main customer advocate. Product strategy and scope creep can often be tempered when the debate is framed in the context of customer value. Designers do this well. They’ve developed a unique expertise in this, having spent years defending seemingly subjective design choices to stakeholders, clients, developers and executives.

Engaging customers in conversation about work in progress is one of the most valuable forms of feedback (remember “customer collaboration over contract negotiation” ?). This is the source of a team’s empathy for their customer. Designers have been involved in the research and usability testing process for many years. It’s familiar territory — and one that should be shared with the rest of the team.

Meeting facilitation is another skill top designers have. Designer-only brainstorming sessions are a common occurrence in many agencies as well as in-house design teams. Even within these “safe” confines many strong debates arise. Design leaders can engage their teams in activities that encourage divergent thinking following up with consensus-building convergent activities. These skills are invaluable when working with cross-functional Agile teams. The empathy designers have for the customer extends to their non-designer colleagues. Basic skills are transferred along with jargon leading to a cohesive team speaking the same language and viewing their product development challenges through the same lens.

Seek out the strong designers in your organization and put them in charge of your scrum teams. Their honed empathy, facilitation and customer advocacy skills will help focus your teams on the right problems to solve while iterating towards the best way to solve them.


5 thoughts on “Designers — an untapped pool of Agile leadership

  1. Amen, brother. In fact, I’d take it farther, to suggest that designers should lead front-end development teams outright.

    Delivering a product that is not just “working software” but actually advances user goals is exactly what a designer should be doing.

  2. While I don’t necessarily disagree that many designers make excellent product leaders, I’m wondering where the Product Owner fits into your team setup? I found it astonishing that the PO didn’t even come up as the lead for the scrum team, although you mentioned Scrum Master and even engineers as potential team leads.

    A Scrum Master is not the team leader. The Scrum Master is a servant leader, yes, and helps the team unblock blockages and gives them tools and support to help them organise themselves. It is never the role of the Scrum Master to be the _product_ leader.

    I think designers can take the role of the Product Owner – but it’s important to keep in mind that the responsibilities and priorities of the PO and designer roles are often different (although there is considerable overlap).

    In my experience, the best product decisions are made when product, design and engineering steer the decision together.

    1. Hmm, in my experience, product owners (even the experienced ones) need advice on where to go and how to spend their time and money. This advice often comes from the team. In our projects, the scrum master often takes lead in channelling the advice from the team and partners w/ the PO. An ambitious and empathic SM with a wide professional orientation beyond the boundaries of his/her discipline will be a tremendous force in delivering an inspired product. In our experience at Fabrique (NL), Sr UX designers often fit that profile.

  3. That second paragraph? Could we put that on a billboard in the City? Or maybe the words should flash subliminally at people passing by…

    I’ve never worked in an Agile environment, but I’ve always instinctively adopted that method of working for my own work, and the way you phrased that paragraph described it perfectly. Although, of course, I’ve read the game rules and never played the game, so who knows what secrets I’m missing….

  4. I agree organizing systematically (ie,
    creating a process in place) is the most essential step. However, its easier
    said than done. Thats one area where its wise for small business to invest
    money on professional project management certifications like

    agile scrum

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