6: Defining Your Charter, Part 2: The How

In which we break down the components of a team charter, and the ways it helps design leaders, particularly with people matters of recruiting, hiring, and retention.


Jesse: Previously on Finding Our Way:

Peter: Today we’re going to dig into how design teams define themselves

Jesse: If you keep doing the same things that you’ve always done, you’re not going to be successful anymore, and you are selling your skills rather than your purpose you have just sort of instantly commoditized yourself right from the start

you can get a long way without, defining a sense of purpose for yourself.

Peter: The idea behind purpose is to answer this question. Why do you exist? Why does this team exist? Why do we have a team doing design, product design, brand design, whatever kind of design? Why?

Jesse: So I think that the big question that I would have in response to that as a design leader is, “How do I get started? Like what are the tactics for arriving at this thing that is obviously going to be really important to my success as a leader, having never done this before. Where do I start?

Peter: I think it’s going to take me longer to answer that than I currently have time for. Hold that thought…

Jesse: Great. That’s great. Well, we will hold that question for next time.

And now, the conclusion.

Peter: Welcome to Finding Our Way, the podcast where Peter and Jesse welcome you to their journey as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. I’m Peter Merholz, and with me is Jesse James Garrett. In the last episode, we teed up the importance for a design leader to be explicit about defining a purpose for their team to better establish that team within the organization.

In this episode, we dig into the specific steps you can take to articulate a charter.

Jesse: Hello, Peter.

Peter: Hi, Jesse.

There are a set of steps that you can take to get there. When I’ve led this exercise, I tried to involve as much of the design team as I can. So when I joined Snagajob, at the beginning of 2017, it turned out that the entire design team was together in one spot. We usually were in multiple different offices, but there was an all-hands for the whole company, so we were able to take advantage of that. And I had 17 people participate in what I’m about to talk about. If your team is larger than that, you probably need to pick and choose, just to make it manageable. But it’s essentially either a workshop or, more recently in the era of everybody working from home, a series of work sessions, close to one another,

just because it can be hard to focus on a video conference for eight hours.

But it’s essentially to go through a series of exercises to define six things. The most important is being clear about your purpose. Sometimes you would call that a mission statement. And the way that you get at your purpose or mission statement is actually fairly straightforward or even simple.

Conceptually, it’s hard to do. But it’s to answer the question, “Why does this team exist?” Literally, that’s it. Why do you exist? Usually, you put that question out there, [then] What I have them do is have everybody come up with three or four answers to that question, and then we do grouping exercises and discussions and all to kind of get a sense of where the patterns are.

So we had all these types of topic areas and then we did some voting to identify what were the top three that we would want to move forward on and have our purpose statement rest upon.

So you don’t come out of it having written the purpose statement, you come out of it with phrases and clauses and concepts to inform our purpose statement. The act of actually writing it you do separately. 

It’s also, I find, typically a job for one person to do a draft of. If you do have kind of content strategists or strong writers on your team, usually the executive working with a writer to craft this.

Jesse: You know, this is interesting to hear you talk about this just because I think a lot of the advice, and frankly I think a lot of the instincts, especially of the new design leader who is moving into this role for the first time and taking on new responsibilities, the instinct is to step up, take charge, take ownership, take authority. And to the extent that you do end up engaging the team in a scenario like that, it’s often simply in the role of providing targeted validation of certain aspects of what you’ve developed or perhaps recruiting them to support the socialization of these ideas to the team in some way.

And so it’s interesting to hear you describe a different kind of a process and approach that is more collaborative, that is more broadly inclusive than the lone genius design leader slaving away at the details of the charter by themselves in their office. But I find myself curious about that need to assert that authority and to assert that authorship and I find myself wondering whether it’s enough for the design leader, from that position of facilitator of a more collaborative team-based process, is it enough for them to be able to hold the authority and wield the authority effectively within that context?

Peter: I think that is what’s enough. So, so, as a design leader, you could choose to articulate your team’s charter all by yourself. I would discourage that as I think you want the team to feel that sense of ownership. And so the design leader is in a position of unique power and authority in the group and what I’ve done as the head of design is to get out from everybody else what they’re thinking. That helps me understand where their heads are at. 

Oftentimes the team comes up with stuff that I hadn’t thought of. That is great. I remember at Snagajob, one of the value statements. So, that’s another exercise that you do is come up with a set of value statements. And one of the value statements that came out of that team was “fearlessness.” That’s not anything I would’ve come up with on my own. But I really liked it and it became one of the value statements that we, we, utilized moving forward. So I think there’s a role for the design leader to create the space that allows the team comfort in generating these ideas.

And then the design leader becomes the editor essentially of this. They take all this input and they help nudge it and guide it towards the strongest outcome possible. Because you’re going to get more input from your team than it makes sense to put out there. You’re not going to simply reflect everything that the team has contributed. there’s two mechanisms by which you focus all that content. One is dot voting. We had all these themes for what could be in the mission statement. We had 15 different themes. We can’t have a mission statement with 15 clauses. So what are the two or three that we really want to focus on? Dot voting helps you get a pulse check in the room. But then the other mechanism for refining is that leader’s judgment. And I always allow for that executive privilege, in these contexts. Because the leader has an awareness of things that not everybody knows, right? The leader’s in certain conversations with other leaders and just has a broader view that is important and should be brought to bear. A good leader is often more pragmatic than their team members.

The team members, through these exercises can be very blue sky and, “We’re going to change the world!” and, high-minded about the impact that they want the team to have, and leader can be more pragmatic, not to, you know, squash these dreams and ideals, but to recognize that there’s also a reality that this is all taking place in. That they are accountable for it as the leaders, so that they need to manage that. 

When I was running the design team at Snagajob and we did our value statement, we had these four values that came from the team: fearlessness, quality, evidence, and humility. Those all came from the team. And I realized there was an additional value that I wanted us to uphold and to continually be thinking about, which we called context. And did that because I was trying to get this design team to be approaching their work in much more of a service mindset as opposed to a series of screens.

And at the heart of the service mindset is recognizing the context in which any interaction is taking place, or rather every interaction is taking place within a broader context and to be continually aware of that broader context as you make your decisions. And so that was the one thing that didn’t emerge. Not a lot of people voted on it, but I’m like, “This is important.” 

And so I’m not going to overrule on these other things, but I’m going to add my contribution that I think speaks to something that, frankly, the team wouldn’t have generated themselves. 

Jesse: You know, you touched on this idea of the leader having an awareness of things that not everybody knows, and I find myself wondering about the potential risk or, you know, the possibility of a pitfall there for the design leader in potentially over-exercising, not even necessarily intentionally, over-exercising that executive privilege, that ability to tip the scales in favor of one idea or another.

In particular, when the leader is using their elevated awareness of what’s going on in the larger organization to influence their own mandate toward organizational norms in a way that may not actually serve the needs of the design team. In a lot of cases design teams need to be at the cultural vanguard.

They need to be change makers. And that means, in some cases, they need to define the ways in which they are not in step with the larger culture of the organization. 

But I think that in a process like this, it can be very easy if you’re the only person in the room who sees something, and everybody else doesn’t see it or doesn’t have the same information that you have, you can develop a distorted sense of how important that information is, how important that perspective is, and especially if you are someone who has the unilateral authority to put things into the final charter, the temptation to exercise that authority, to represent those viewpoints that are not represented by everyone else in the room can become pretty strong and it can lead to, I think, a distortion of the charters. So I wonder what you think about the potential risk or concern there.

Peter: I think that’s a reasonable concern and risk. The design leaders should be engaged in this process from the perspective of the design team looking out, When you’re doing your charter work, including this purpose statement, you want it to be from the inside out. What does the design team believe and know and understand about itself that it wants to project out into the world?

To help others recognize how the design team wants to contribute. And so while that design leader is balancing this broader awareness of the organizational reality with the desires and aspirations of the design team, I would encourage design leaders to weigh the design team’s desires greater than that organizational reality.

And to instead encourage a purpose statement and this charter work generally to push beyond what the rest of the organization outside the design team would be comfortable with. That’s okay. That’s probably a sign that you’re doing it right? If you’re a design team, and the charter plugs right into whatever this broader organizational system is, you’ve probably done too much editing ahead of time, and you’re not enabling the design team to express and realize its potential.

Jesse: Well, yeah, and obviously at the same time, and this may in some way contradict what I was saying a few minutes ago, but at the same time, the design leader can’t be held in thrall to the desires of the design team. The design leader does have a role to play in this process beyond simply being the authority in that they do have to bring their own perspective to it. But that broader perspective that the leader brings to the process has to be kept in balance with the view from inside, the view that is oriented toward the team’s values and the team’s sense of its own identity. 

Peter: Right. And, you’re hitting on what I think is another core element for any successful design leader, which is an ability to know how to strike the appropriate balance in everything they do. We were talking about how, earlier, one of these core elements was that the medium of design leadership, and probably any leadership, that medium is relationship.

So I think that’s a core element. Another core element for any successful design leader is knowing how to balance a set of, not necessarily conflicting forces, but mitigating forces in whatever decision they’re trying to make. 

Design leadership is decision-making. As you become a design leader, now you’re balancing being a good team player. It’s important for design, in order to have the impact it wants to have, designers must be seen as integrated into the product development and/or marketing efforts of the broader organization.

And so there’s a need to be a good team player, but it’s also important for the design team not to lose its identity as it integrates with these others because there’s a particular perspective, a particular set of practices and skills, a way of working that is distinct to design and that is valuable.

So you don’t want to be unicorns and rainbows on one end, and it’s all sparkle, and no practicality. But on the other end, you don’t want to be crank turning, designs by the pound, simply to help product development release the next feature on time.

And so, in everything a design leader is doing, they’re making judgment calls between these different forces. And the other thing to recognize is you’re going to do it poorly at first, probably. Your judgment is something that you build over time through doing it. So it’ll take you a while to hone that judgment. 

For the sake of what we’re discussing here, in particularly returning it to this notion of defining a team, defining its purpose, there is going to be a push and pull between, the team’s aspirational goals for itself and the impact it can have on the world, and the organization’s kind of pragmatic expectation of what the team is delivering and how it fits within those broader organizational goals, and it’s the design leader’s role to navigate that balance.

So getting back to, what are the components of a charter? How does a design leader build a charter? I went into some detail in talking about the purpose statement. The structure is basically the same. It’s just the content that’s different. So the first thing to do: Articulate your reason for being in that purpose statement. Answer the question,”Why do you exist?”

The next thing to do is to articulate your team’s values. What are the principles of your team? What is it that they uphold? What do they value? What do they align behind? So at Snagajob, the, I mentioned the, the five values that we had, humility, evidence, quality, context, and fearlessness. These were the things that we were going to uphold, particularly in light of difficulties, right? Values are what you use to return to, to know where you’re not willing to bend, much less break, but what you’re going to hold fast on. So you do a similar exercise generating values.

Then, it’s important to understand how you work. Values are about a mindset.

So how do those values turn into a set of practices? You want to articulate a set of internal norms for how the team relates to one another, and then a set of external norms for how the team conducts its business with other groups, either within the business or possibly people outside the business.

A popular understanding of internal norms these days is that of radical candor. So this is a norm that teams are developing in an effort to be able to work together directly and honestly. In design, it’s usually in contrast to what in the radical candor model is called ruinous empathy.

One of the design teams I’m working with right now, in fact, scores very high on the empathy front. When I was asking them to talk about their internal norms, they talk not only about kindness and empathy, they even talked about love. Like this is how they want to be able to relate with one another, which is awesome.

But if that stuff goes too far, essentially people are unwilling to call one another out. They’re unwilling to criticize one another directly. And so the work isn’t as strong. People aren’t developing. And that’s what Kim Scott refers to as ruinous empathy. So, that’s an example of an internal norm.

An example of an external norm, and this also came up in this workshop that I just did, is when you’re working with other parts of the business. Before you get anything done, making sure you know what your team’s role is. What are you delivering in this project? Making sure there’s alignment on goals, saying we are not going to start work until we understand the rationale behind this work. 

So an external norm would be, let’s get alignment on those goals before we do any work so that we know that this is the right thing to do. So that’s norms. 

There’s two more sections in charter building that I do. The next is to define the work the team does. This seems very basic. And it can be quite boring, but it’s also helpful to know, like, literally, “What do we deliver?” if we’re a product design team. The work we do is usually kind of around our process, our methods, our deliverables. We engage in certain practices. We conduct user research and we talk to users. We develop insights. We have analysis, we develop strategies.

We make prototypes. Then at some point, maybe we’re doing wireframes and documentation and comps or detailed prototypes. And that’s like literally, you just define all that work that the team does. The idea being there’s probably work the team does that the team shouldn’t do.

And so you can call that out as a way to articulate we’re no longer doing, say, usability tests. We’re going to outsource that. That is not a good use of our time. So you catalog the work you do in an effort to be able to say what work you no longer do, what work you should keep doing, and then to start identifying work that you think you should do. And the one that comes up with every design team I’m working with is that they want to be doing more strategic work, but they often don’t have the capabilities to do strategic work. So then that becomes an opportunity for growth that you identify.

So the fifth section is around the work, and then the last section, which might be the second most important after defining your purpose, is “How do you know you’re successful?” And this is really hard for designers and design leaders to figure out, because we need put a set of clear, no-fooling success metrics for the design organization, and designers tend not to be comfortable quantifying or timeboxing those types of efforts. But it’s important, it’s key in prioritizing. If people are asking us to do work that doesn’t drive our success, then we are less likely to do it. But if they’re asking us to do work that does drive our success, then we can prioritize that as something, worth doing, worth our effort.

So you have these six areas all pulled together, become this charter, become this definition of the team that you can use for any number of things. It helps the team just look within itself and understand what they’re up to, why they exist, what they’re doing. It helps the team communicate with other functions when they start asking for things that aren’t appropriate. You say, “No, this isn’t what we deliver. Here’s what we deliver. This is what we’re up to. Ask us about these things.” 

And if there’s complaints, if they’re like, But you should be doing those things,” then that becomes something you can elevate and escalate and talk about. But it’s important that you’ve made it explicit so that it’s not just kind of a he-said/she-said type of thing or just kind of in the moment, arbitrary, but it has been written down.

Jesse: Yeah. Well, and also if you are in a situation where you as the design leader can’t always be there in the room to represent design, you need your senior people to be embodying those priorities, those values as much day to day as you do. It totally makes sense that you would define the success metrics last.

You talked about it being second only to purpose in terms of importance and there’s a sense in which the end of this chain that you’ve laid out here brings us all the way back around to the beginning, because what those success metrics should be validating is whether or not you are fulfilling that purpose and finding concrete measures and concrete evidence that that fulfillment of purpose is happening.

Whereas the definition of what the work is actually happens pretty late in this narrative that you’ve described. Whereas I think a lot of people would lead with that and say that the success metrics are there to validate whether we are doing the work correctly and assuming that purpose will take care of itself.

Peter: Yeah, so the success metrics. The reason they come last is they can help tie together all that has happened before, including, and perhaps you’re right, most importantly, the purpose. But as you’ve built this story along the way, as you’ve identified your values, how do you know you’re living up to your values?

As you’ve identified your norms, both internal and external, how do you know you’re demonstrating those group norms and practicing, as you have said, as you ought to. And then when it comes to the work, particularly, how do you know you’re growing into the kind of work you’ve set up for yourself as a goal to begin to practice? The success metrics come at the end to make sure you can capture all that. If you do the success metrics early and then you continue to build out your charter, you’re not giving yourself a chance to hold yourself accountable for those other elements. So the success metrics lead to accountability for everything that has come before. The last thing I want to say about this charter: So, I mentioned how it’s good for helping the team just understand itself, helping your colleagues better understand the team. Where I ended up using a charter most is in recruiting and hiring, is in having a clear, concise story when I am talking to a prospective candidate about our team and why that person should join our team, or maybe why they shouldn’t join the team.

I see the whole charter as a kind of beacon and it’s a beacon that should attract those who are sympathetic to the culture and values and practices that are communicated. And it’s a beacon that should discourage those who don’t want to work that way.

And by making it explicit, you make it very clear what you have to offer, what it will be like to work with you. And I find that can help me recruit and hire in competition with other companies that might be able to pay more or might have sexier brands, but they can’t make the cultural commitment to the candidate that I can because I’ve done the work of making clear what we stand for.

Jesse: I think this is an important constituency that we’ve come close to, but haven’t really directly addressed yet, which is the constituency of prospective candidates to join your organization. We talked a little bit about Scott Zimmer at Capital One, and how he made some strategic moves that were able to change the story he was telling the candidates, that enabled him to scale that organization from 40 to 400. And that’s just one example of, I think, this broader way that design leaders need to be thinking about these charters and these expressions of culture and purpose, that they will be the filter that determines who joins your organization in the future.

And, to craft a charter that is authentic and true to who you are, while also acknowledging who you are becoming, who you want to be, and the kind of people who are going to get you to where you want to be and making sure that you are already embodying those values before those people even walk in the door.

Peter: That’s much of the reason that I co-wrote that Org Design for Design Orgs book was because every design leader, knowingly or not, is on the frontline of a global war on talent, or global war for talent, not on talent. That would be

bad. But it’s on the frontline for this global war for talent, and you need every advantage that you can muster to both attract great talent, and then to retain talent. And activities like building these charters attract talent because it makes it very clear what you’re about, but it also helps retain talent because now the people within the team, especially if you’ve inherited a team, or you’re doing a charter kind of later stage where there’s an existing team, if those team members start getting a little, maybe they’re starting to look around, getting a little antsy, the creation of a charter helps re-energize their focus within your organization because they’re like, “Oh, right, this is what I’m signing up for.”

And by making it explicit, it gives them something to hold onto. If you don’t make it explicit, it enables them to look elsewhere more easily, because there’s no kind of higher order or greater purpose within the company that they’re working for, that they can latch on to.

And so much of what motivates me is about talent retention, because if you were to poll heads of design at most companies, the number one problem is recruiting and hiring and retention. It’s talent, across the board. The way that most of them tried to address it is through turning the crank of recruiting and hiring.

That’s obviously important, but many of them forget that there are foundational things to do, such as charter building that sets them up for success. When they do turn that crank, that crank will be more successful because they’ve done the foundational work to define who they are as an organization.

Jesse: And I think this kind of comes back to what we were talking about earlier with the way in which designers frequently will instinctively believe in the intuitively self-evident nature of the value of what they do. And operating on that gut reaction level can again be a disservice to you when you have to engage in these larger relationship building, community building, brand building kinds of activities.

You pointed out that’s Zimmer’s background in branding and marketing gave him an advantage and then he was able to sort of brand design as an endeavor at Capital One and was able to carry that branding forward into the recruiting process. That, is an element of the branding guy mindset that carried over very naturally from his earlier work that someone coming from a UX design background may not have.

Peter: Exactly. Exactly.

Jesse: I feel pretty good about this. I feel like there’s a lot more here about charters and their uses and especially the role of having purpose as a touchstone for your organization on an ongoing basis. So I have a feeling that this topic of purpose is going to be one we’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the future, but thank you, Peter.

Peter: Sure. My pleasure. 

That wraps up another episode of Finding Our Way, and as always, Jesse and I are interested in what you have to say. Find us on Twitter. I’m @peterme, he’s @jjg. Send us an email through our website, https://findingourway.design/ and let us know what you think of this episode, what you’d like us to talk about or anything else that comes to mind.

Jesse: Thanks everybody.

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