Optimise your cross-functional product teams – with Kingfisher and FutureLearn
We chat to Russell Murton-Cole, former experience director at FutureLearn, and Chris Golding, principal product designer at Kingfisher, about some key themes on our minds, including:
- How to carve out space for true discovery work and problem solving
- Product teams vs. features team: which one are you?
- The role of strategic clarity and product vision
- Why storytelling is the people skill your team needs to nurture
- The value of slowing down in an environment that's all about speed
Get the audio transcription
How to optimise cross-functional product teams – with Kingfisher and FutureLearn
Please note: this audio transcription is auto generated and may contain inaccuracies and omissions.
Olena: Hi my name is Olena Bulygina and I am a principal UX consultant here at Inviqa. And in today's episode we will be looking at how to optimise your cross functional product teams and how to drive the best outcomes for your practitioners, for the business, and of course for your customers.
And I will be speaking today with our special guests Russell Murton-Cole, who is the former director of experience at FutureLearn, and Chris Golding, who is principal product designer at Kingfisher. And today, me and Chris and Russ will be giving a design manager and leader’s perspective on this topic, including some advice and learnings from their own vast experiences. So, without further ado, let's get started!
Chris: Yeah, hello! So I’m Chris Golding. I am the principal product designer at Kingfisher. We work in an area called Digital Colleague, so we look after in-store experiences, which include the digital experiences such as handsets that our in-store colleagues use at B&Q, Castorama, and these other DIY stores.
I lead up that domain, a team of designers and researchers and service designers to create iterative experiences working in agile teams. So yeah, I've been there about six months, trying to really instigate change and capability and get this culture to be more design thinking, more customer centric.
Russell: Hi, I’m Russell Murton-Cole. Up until recently I was the director of experience for a company called Futurelearn, which is an online learning platform reaching about 18 million people worldwide. I looked after a design team and a research team there of sort of 10 designers, myself included, and three researchers. And we were kind of one third of the product organisation there, made up of products and engineers.
Olena: That's really exciting. We have two very different examples of organisations and structures and domains, and I cannot wait to dig deeper into that. But let's start maybe of thinking and briefly discussing the anatomy of a product team? So if you could both give me please an overview of what cross functional product teams look like in your organisations and how maybe they are evolving in any way.
Russell: The way we divide the teams up at FutureLearn, there's basically two strategic areas: one is focused on the learner, and one is focused on our educators and our partners. In the learner space there are five teams, so growth, engagement, the learning experience itself, the app, and our purchase team, looking after things like checkout and subscription.
Then on the educator and partner side there are two teams that look after the course creators, so where partners and educators build the courses that they teach, and the course manager, which is basically where they look at things like data and analytics and things like that. Each of those product teams is made up traditionally of a PM and several engineers, both frontend and backend, an engineering lead, an engineering manager, and then one designer. And then they're supported by a sort of wider group including kind of SEO and user research and various other people.
Olena: What about you Chris and Kingfisher. How do teams look like in your org?
Chris: Um, probably not too dissimilar in terms of a sort of agile setup, in terms of the team structure. We tend to have domains, so a business area which could have multiple, and it does in my case, multiple product teams within it, within those teams. They are very delivery focused, I'll be honest. We do have research and designers who are part of these product teams. Um as well as part of a sort of a separate design team. But yeah, you'll have developers. You'll have your tech leads, product owner, business analyst as well, working under the product owner. And then above that, running across that entire business area or domain, you have the product manager, and he really is the person that we need to influence, and he really has the biggest say in the direction that he takes the products that we develop and design.
I think the biggest difference from where I worked before in the energy sector is we don't have, well firstly we don't really have content team. So a lot of the work we do is functional copy, a lot of that is controlled by us designers. Um, and I would probably say that we're not exactly where we need to be to be proactive and to bring new opportunities to the fore. We're very much at the mercy of what we call our banner brands. So that's your B&Qs, your Castoramas etc. who we’re essentially servicing if you like, so they have a lot of political weight and autonomy.
So a lot of what we do is delivery and demand. But I guess our challenge right now, which we're trying and addressing pretty well I think, is how do we find new value, new opportunity, and bring that back into our work.
Olena: And uh, how do you tackle that challenge?
Chris: Um, yeah, to be honest, we tried to tackle it by beefing out the time we have available on a particular ticket, on a particular piece of work, to explore it in more depth and to do some more sort of iterative discovery. But actually I think we found, and from experience of the people I work with over the last year or two, that that's kind of hitting your head into a brick wall a little bit, so what we're trying to do is spin up a parallel track basically, a discovery track where we can do discovery work in parallel to the main sort of delivery wave, which is three month waves we work. So the idea is that myself, the researchers and, in time, the POs, the developers, anyone who wants to will get involved in discovery, come and do research firsthand with us, get involved in ideation, sketching sessions, all that good stuff.
So this discovery track is established. You know, it’s set up and it does run parallel to these product teams, which in essence are delivery teams. Um and I think the idea is that, rather than trying to eke out time within some predefined pre-planned work, you'll actually just have the time and work in a sort of parallel roadmap of discovery ahead of the waves that will feed into the future wave work.
I think that's the only way that I can see us sort of marrying up the business demand with finding new opportunities and new value. So it's slightly hypothetical, but it’s happening. It is working on a very small scale at the moment, but we’re really hoping to ramp it up and to get further influence.
Olena: Okay, okay I'm really glad we jumped straight into the challenges of managing and establishing the uh, the proper cadence for a cross-functional team. I was wondering, Russ, what would you list as the main challenges for yourself as a leader and that your teams face in daily work?
Russell: Yeah, I think Chris has touched on it really well. I think particularly what we see, not so much with research but very much with the design teams that I lead, is that when we work in I guess cross- functional teams there's a default tendency to move to working in Agile, working in two-week sprints. And what we've found in various companies is that the opportunity to do deep discovery work just really isn't there, or it gets massively condensed so that you don't actually get any real value out of it.
What you find is design teams are sort of just very quickly rapidly iterating on existing features, or very quickly turning out new features. For me, it's not really a product team, you know it's a feature team. And I think there is a big difference between the two. I certainly see a lot of frustration from designers when that's the model because they like to really unearth the problem and the opportunity. But also they, you know they like to iterate on their work, they like time for critique, they like time for research and feedback. And a lot of those things go out the window if you, I guess, treat the Agile manifesto as a kind of Bible or a playbook per se.
Olena: Ah that's, I think, an interesting question for you, for both of you, would be: how strictly do you take the Agile manifesto as a gospel? Or, how on and off maybe? Are there basically any diversions? And if yes, then where?
Russell: There has to be, right? Chris, would you like to go first on this one before I rant!
Chris: Hah ha. Yeah, I certainly don't feel at the mercy, if you like, I mean we are in product teams, but ultimately I see us as a design and research group of people, a team that’s dispersed. But yeah, so I can see that the product teams have a focus on cadence, on outputs I suppose, the amount they get through, a points system almost. For me, I’m very focused on value, finding true value. You kind of track everything you do up the pyramid.
Ultimately it's all about how much money is it worth, how much retention of customers, all that sort of good stuff. That's where my mind is at, not, you know, is this Scrum Master super happy and patting me on the back, that sort of thing (which hopefully they are anyway!). But I think it's um, it's quite important, that you just have to have your eye on where true value is, and I suppose for me and the team, from a personal perspective, you want to see value.
You want to see where the work we do is adding true value to the customer. That's kind of where we get our buzz from: seeing happy customers engaged, and they love the brand, they love the products that we create. Without that, we’re just ticking boxes. And that's not what we're here for.
Olena: Russ, what are your thoughts on taking off from the Agile manifesto?
Russell: Um, yeah, pretty much the same really. I think you can't be beholden to it, I think if we go back and look at when that manifesto was written, and who it’s written by, it was a bunch of engineers in Silicon Valley. And it was ultimately written as a kind of new way of thinking in terms of shipping code and engineering work in order to deliver digital products faster. It doesn't really take into account research and design and things. It's very much more of an engineering thing and I think it's absolutely amazing for that. Um, I'm by no means anti-Agile. But I do think that those practices need to very much evolve to be suitable for modern product organisations.
Olena: Uh yeah, 100%! Here I also can rant – about how different research activities just don't fit within two weeks, by nature! And no matter how lean you take your research – it almost sounds derogatory to be honest – but no matter how lean you take your research, you just cannot do a proper large-scale explorative study in two weeks and analyse it and come back to the business with the real impact on where innovation happens. Um, you can not just make this rich, actionable insight by using evaluative methods.
So yeah, I'm with you both! And just as the Agile manifesto was inspired by changes in production – on conveyor belts, right, because of faster cycles, faster feedback, faster shipping – I do think it needs to be amended a bit. Um, you know what is also interesting: if you would look back on yourself and your teams a year ago and now, what are top three things that you know now that you didn't know back then? And how did they come up to be?
Chris: Um, number one is politics, the internal politics is massive isn't it? I think with that it was, for us, identifying someone who we would say has the right level of influence within product in general. And is ultimately our UX champion. So we have our product manager, who heads up our domain, and that's the person that we absolutely need on side and needs to understand how we want to work in discovery, in our sprints, and will support us in that and support us in changing culture around that. And sort of fly the flag with us when you've got a lot of demands coming in.
And the banners, you know the other brands we look after, with their own agendas or own ways of working, we need someone at that level to be a vanguard for what we want to do, to push back up the chain and say: hey, there’s so much value in this opportunity, in this bit of exploration we've done. Let's go with it, let's roll with it. So, in a long-winded way, that's number one: UX champion – a champion of our ways of working, absolutely.
Um, something I've noticed recently, you know, with a little bit of recruitment we've done in KingFisher that would by my number two would probably be people with attitude. You kind of need people who want to make change and want to be disruptive. I say people, I think for me, it's the designers and researchers, that community that I directly work with, as much as the product team.
But really, you need people in your – you know, your right hand men, your right hand ladies, etc. all of that good stuff. You need people working with you, with a can-do attitude, get stuff done, don't mind rocking the apple cart (because there is an apple cart there to be rocked, it has to be rocked!). You just need the right mentality. You don't want people who are just happy to sort of tick along with the status quo. Because the status quo doesn’t get us anywhere. Um, so that's yeah number two.
It probably reflects on me that I'm very people focused with what I'm saying here! It's the people who can help me. So number three – I mean, I'm gonna go for the full set, I’m gonna be for another person, which is quite boring of me, but that's just where my head's at and how you influence people! Um, we have a head of product design at Kingfisher, a lady called Anna Burrell, and she's very influential. She's got the ears of the right people and she's very well respected. She's one of the most positive people you'd ever meet and when you have someone at that level, you know, alongside your product manager, also got the head of designer research who's driven and doesn't mind disrupting and has the right level of influence, I guess it just enables everyone below her if you like, or within her sphere, to have space to grow and have a bit of backup. Which I've not always had. You know, I’ve only been at Kingfisher for six months. Before that I've been in the energy industry, as you know, Olena. We've worked together before, haven’t we? So um I think having that, from a higher level, gives you space to explore and push boundaries.
Olena: Agreed, thank you, thank you. Um, so many things for me to think about! Um Russ, what about you?
Russell: I mean, I don't know if these are new things that I've learnt in the last year, but they’re certainly things that I've kind of seen in the last year. And I guess the first would be the importance of strategic clarity? Um, we've recently got a new CEO at FutureLearn, um a chap named Andy, and one of the things that Andy and his team have done is really put an emphasis on the company getting super clear strategically, which it wasn't always. And I think just in terms of being able to communicate to the entire business where they want FutureLearn to go and how they see that happening, and why that's important, in very clear terms, has been massively important in terms of turning an organisation around and getting a whole bunch of people to back the vision that Andy and the exec team there have got. So hugely important.
Which I guess leads on to the next point, which is about simplicity. And I guess how you communicate that strategic intent. But also in terms of things like how you measure success and metrics. I think there's sometimes a tendency in our industry for us to over egg on that side of things and, you know, for product teams to have sort of ten different metrics, and leading metrics, and secondary metrics, tertiary metrics etc. I think often what I've seen is that those things just kind of confuse cross-functional teams and that the simpler you can make that strategic intent, how you’re going to measure success, the key objectives that the teams are trying to achieve, then the more effective those teams can be.
And I think the last point, this was certainly true of my team at FutureLearn, was around commercial awareness. Which I think's potentially a big challenge in particular in the design industry, and particularly within the digital space, like with in-house teams and things. I don't know what it's like agency-side, Chris, but I think people not understanding business models or people. And getting a lot clearer as to how their own company generates money, and the money that the company spends. So there's a certain amount of transparency that's required in order for people to do that. But I think when product teams are commercially savvy and commercially aware again they're able to be a lot more effective, because they understand the way that their work contributes towards the wider picture for the company.
Olena: So what we currently have is a list of six things, starting from importance of strategic clarity, then simplicity and again strategic intent and communicating it. Commercial awareness of the whole team, and sounds like across teams as well. But also, what we also have, is the importance of establishing influence through UX championship. Getting the right calibre of attitudes. Not just talent, but also qualities on top of that, such as proactiveness, probably a certain degree of autonomy, desire to lead, for example. And also, disrupt the status quo and understanding who your sponsors within business would be. So that is a whole set of challenges and things to tackle. So could you both think about one challenge of this that you took and talk me through a bit of details of how you approach them and what was the result?
Chris: I mean I can take you through how we've spun up discovery and it wasn't as simple as you might imagine everything that entailed. I guess to spin up this discovery track, I'll be honest, we did work very closely with a partner, with a digital agency, just to give us the time and support to get to a good base level. You know to eke away and find the time within your day jobs as a relatively small group of designers and researchers. It would have taken us a long time, but within a few months we've got to a place where we have a research network.
So on the colleague side, where I work, where it’s in store experiences and the UI of the devices etc. Um, it's quite a complex beast. There are many many stores across Europe that we need to be concerned with, different profiles, different types of people and behaviours and processes. So we've actually um, working with our partners, we've created this research network on our team's channels which just allows us to communicate and connect with the people we need to record our research, the purposes of them, just be a bit more controlled around that.
And then I suppose with discovery sprints in general, that's something that I believe has been relatively new to Kingfisher but I've been doing it since I've been here, that's something that we've been doing in a very structured, very frequent fashion. And including commercial teams and marketing teams and other, you know, banners, our polish friends, our French friends from Casterama.
So we really have broadened our network and included people in these discovery sprints that we've been doing. We call them discovery sprints, they’re design or discovery, or a bit of both. It's just, you know, finding what the challenges are and working through them. So that's really the biggest success that we've got to a really good base level of allowing us to do research frequently without annoying our store colleagues or store managers. You don't want to go in and repeat the same research you've done before, two or three people going in asking the same questions.
So we're hopefully avoiding that and it's really, I think our political influence around the business should now be, and I believe it is, greater than it was a few months back. I think it may be my own influence and that the research and designers in our domain is that much stronger, just because people know who we are and they know how we want to work and they know, they've hopefully now seen, the value of that.
And that we want to listen to them and take on board their insight. You know it's almost like we're, when you do first-hand research with your stakeholder or your stakeholders and your people – I’m mean we’re in-house, if you like, but we're still having to sell what we do all the time.
And I'm sure Russ you've probably had the same thing. You're always having to sell the value of what you do. But if you can show the value of what you do by people seeing the process you go through, firsthand, continuously, it’s just so much slicker. So success has been engagement frequently with our processes, with what we do, with the work that we're doing, firsthand. And now the challenge really is just to keep the traction going.
We're doing 100% in-house now, so it's maintaining a growing contacts, maintaining relationships, keeping up with our ways of working, with doing discovery sprints, with planning our work out. And really being quite thorough and organised and that, of course, is in addition to BAU, in-wave work – the regular, delivery supported work. So it's maintaining traction on this discovery track, this parallel track. We need to find a way to make it as efficient as we can. But I think, you know, early signs are that it's working really well. So I think that's my biggest success story I can probably tell.
Russell: Chris, can I ask you a question?
Chris: Yeah, of course!
Russell: Um, how do you manage to sort of I guess balance the efforts that go into the discovery sprints and the discovery work along with what you call BAU work that's happening in product teams? And how do you make sure that you get access to all the right sort of stakeholders and inputs and people that are involved? Do they understand the value of doing that work?
Chris: Yes, they do. I think the groundwork's been put in place through the amount of sprints that have been run so far. Almost like, once you’ve got the ear of the right influential people then that can broaden out quite quickly, can't it? You know, people give you the benefit of the doubt. They'll come to discover a day's workshop and if they see that it's good and valuable, and creative and engaging as well, it really gets people throwing their ideas in. They feel empowered. So I think the fact that the quality of workshops and the quality of discovery work gets buy in, because people are engaged.
And then your other point was how do I balance our resource and time? Yeah, that's very very difficult. But um, what we have is, so we do pi planning at the start of a three month wave. Within that, what the design team and I do is plot our own view of in-flight work, or flight work for the next wave. So you'll have the different domains and product teams that we are concerned with, as a bunch of swim lanes, and in addition to that we'll have our roadmap swim lane of our discovery track.
So we, as a group of people, can share also transparently with the product teams, can build up this picture and stagger our time and effort and work accordingly and not overload one or two people or overload research. And that's the theory. It's not perfectly slick, but it will get there, I think, with the right tooling. Right now we do that in Miro, we built up a bit of a view in Miro –
Russell: Yeah, as everyone has!
Chris: Exactly, you can do anything in Miro, can’t you! Nothing it can’t do!
Russell: I think one of the things that you touched on there as well speaks to the importance of strategy and product vision as well, and the ability to see six months, twelve months, even eighteen months into the future in terms of the direction that your company's kind of going. And it's only then that you can run those kind of forward thinking discovery tracks. I know in other companies that I've worked in there've been challenges around us sort of doing planning on a quarterly basis. But if you're planning for the quarter that you're delivering at the time you're delivering it, then there's no opportunity for design and research to work ahead. So it really is important to have a clear idea of what's six to nine months down the pipe because as you say, Olena, that stuff can take that amount of time to do that work properly and thoroughly.
Chris: Yeah, it has to be ahead of the wave doesn't it? It really has to be getting ahead of what's been planned and fed into the future wave. So um, yeah, I think hopefully we're on course for success. I'm feeling very confident that we're gonna keep the traction going. Um, we’re currently creating a roadmap. We don't really have a roadmap. But what I would say is our next steps are to make sure everything we have in the roadmap, which our product manager does have in mind, marries up with OKRs, marries up with these North Star objectives. Those are the things that are very hard to argue against, those are things that tie into what success looks like for our product teams, for our product manager, and by proxy all of us in the product teams.
Olena: One thing that I'm personally attracted to is the fact that how much your roadmap becomes not just a shared agreement, but also, in a way. a tool for communication to keep the other teams kind of in check, sometimes accountable, but always visible on what is happening within each team, right? And who is responsible for what. So it goes beyond just the goal setting, beyond like continuous innovation, beyond thinking about new capabilities or delivering pre-agreed feature set.
But also it becomes kind of a shared agreement, always on public view. And also something, Chris, you said, that delights my heart, is visibility for the larger business. As we know the first rule of fight club is to establish the visibility with every stakeholder that’s needed! And yeah and it's very impressive what can be done with the proper research track, when people just see how much it benefits them by action. And Russ? How do you feel about tackling one of your challenges?
Russell: Yeah, I think one of the biggest challenges that teams face in general is this idea of trust. And we hear a lot about autonomy, particularly product teams and teams want autonomy, and Marty Kagan is often quoted in terms of, you know: hire smart people and give them big challenges to solve and let them get on with it. And I think the thing people miss from the rest of that article, or the rest of that speech, conveniently, which talks about things like accountability, or talks about things as we say like vision and strategy. All of which are fundamental for teams to be successful. Ultimately a lot of this just comes down to trust so you can't give teams autonomy if there's no kind of wider agreement across the business as to the direction that everyone's trying to go in.
So if you don't have a vision for the product and if you don't have a strategy, you don't have a series of objectives, then ultimately you've just got product teams kind of almost spinning off features or ideas. But there's nothing to say that those ideas are all contributing towards the greater good, as it were. So it's very much a two-way street and I know in various companies I've worked in I've seen it both succeed and sometimes not go quite as well and often that's been down to both clarity of strategy.
But also in terms of just trust from those senior stakeholders in product teams to deliver. Um, I think when teams are not trusted there is that tendency for leadership to just give them a list of features to build because ultimately leadership are taking on that accountability. I think for product teams to have autonomy they have to be willing to take on that accountability. And again this kind of comes back to what I was saying before about commercial awareness. It can't just be about the delivery of features. It has to be about meeting certain objectives that speak to your business strategy.
That's definitely been the biggest challenge I've faced recently. And trying to find the right balance in that stuff. We did it reasonably well at Photobox just before I left there, where there was a clear strategy for growth and teams were all given kind of missions and areas to own. And from the strategy we pulled out a bunch of objectives that we had to achieve. But how the teams achieved those objectives we were relatively agnostic to. And so teams were basically given autonomy and, you know, we’d take the strategy and ask ourselves what would have to be true in order for us to achieve this.
And as long as those things are true by certain checkpoints or milestones, we don't really mind how the teams make them true. And that's where teams get autonomy to almost be in charge of what they design, what they build, what they create etc. But it's a very difficult balancing act I’ve found. It's something that's very easy for people to say, but not always easy to achieve.
Olena: That's, that's really interesting. And, aside from basically being accountable for delivering according to commercial awareness, and basically what drives business, are there any practical approaches that, let's say design leader, who is in a position to kind of tackle this challenge of the balance between autonomy and accountability, what could be the first steps to take, or first things to look at?
Russell: I think you have to build trust and you have to reassure people constantly that you're going in the right direction. So product teams can't sort of disappear off and come back at the end of the quarter and say: we've built this, this is how we think we're going to solve this, and everyone goes: oh no, that's not going to work. So I think having kind of those continual interactions with senior stakeholders, and also speaking to your customers as often as possible to make sure you know that the hypotheses and theories and roads you're going down are actually going to meet the needs that your users have.
We do a lot of work in various design teams I've worked with around proof of concept, which is almost these kind of both design and technical spikes. We usually use it for larger projects that have slightly more risk associated with them. But it's a very quick way of validating your product approach, design approach, technical approach to, again, build that trust and that security with both your senior stakeholders. But also you can then user test really effectively with users just to ensure you're going down the right road there. So yeah, there has to be a kind of a continual conversation happening between those three points of you, your stakeholders, and your users.
Olena: Yeah, I'm also thinking about something else. It is a bit tangential, but I realise that a part of that conversation, the continuous conversation that you just mentioned between the team, the stakeholders, and the users is uh – help me understand: how would the North Star metrics fit into it? How do you see it being connected with this equilibrium.
Russell: So I mean, essentially your company strategy should meet the needs of the business whilst benefiting or meeting the underlying needs of the users. Jobs to be done is great, it's a kind of research methodology. Once you're doing that you can work your way backwards, so from the thing that you're trying to achieve for people. And that could be, you know, increased retention, that could be around acquiring customers, that could be around bringing new products to market. And once you know what that overall goal is, you almost work backwards from that point as I say, and ask yourself what would have to be true? What would we need to do? What would we need customers to validate in order to work backward from that? And that will ultimately define the kind of work streams that you end up going into.
Chris: Do you mind if I build on that a little bit, Russell?
Russell: Please do!
Chris: So I think with that, what I’m seeing is transparency, and how we tell stories, it’s storytelling, right? It’s all well and good the work we do mapping to a North Star and objectives, and going down the right track. But you need to persuade people, persuade your stakeholders, convince them continuously. You can't just do it once or twice, as well. Everything we do, you can't do it in isolation, even if we know we're doing the right things or focusing on the right areas.
Yeah, it's something that I'm quite mindful of. It's an area that we need to grow in Kingfisher. Having a go-to approach for telling stories. We can do it very well on Miro, but it's different audiences as well, right? Who are you trying to convince? What amount of information do they want, or would they have time to see, even? So I think that's just something that I'm mindful of. It's an area that I want to grow, and maybe it’ll end up a bunch of templates, I don't know. But it's a ways of working thing that I want to put a lot of focus on.
Russell: I think you're right to as well, and I'm glad you brought it up. You know, storytelling is an incredibly sort of powerful tool, right, and I think particularly now. And you know we're more focused on numbers and data and metrics than we've ever been. And all that stuff is incredibly important, right? But it's when it works hand in hand with great storytelling or, you know, great insights coming from individuals, from people behind those numbers. That's when it becomes really powerful.
I've been practising [inaudible] for about 19 years, almost 20 years. I used to work agency side, so I can remember when we used to do a lot of pitchwork, right? And often the key to winning a pitch was telling a great story. It wasn't necessarily about the design work, or even the metrics that you promised to drive through the company you were pitching. It was often just about great storytelling, and I kind of feel it's becoming a little bit of a lost art form. And it's something that we must really put a lot of emphasis on, keep doing.
Chris: I mean think about it, like, even what you and I are doing now, Russ. Like I'll be honest, I'm not always the most confident speaker, but I'll do it and I say yes. It's these soft skills that maybe some of us take for granted. We need to encourage that with our teams, don’t we? And there’s a lot to it, it's not straightforward. I mean I've done some training, actually with Inviqa, on presentation skills. And there is a science to it. There’s a science to engaging the right people, and in the right way.
Russell: Absolutely. Yeah I think I've seen teams at Moonpig (we used to share an office with Moonpig, they're owned by the same business), but also the teams at Futurelearn doing work with Rada, with theatre companies and things like this, to learn to really own a stage and project yourself and tell great narratives. And again I think if you can combine that with data and metrics and I guess a slightly more scientific side of it, that becomes an incredibly powerful tool for convincing people that the thing you're saying we should do is the right idea.
Chris: Yeah I suppose as an individual if you're presenting it's important to have or to show a level of charisma, to keep people's attention, to get people excited. Especially stakeholders, you want to get them excited. So yeah, you couldn't deliver a message, even if it's a really good story, through let's say a slide deck, you couldn’t deliver that in a flat tone. You'd have to really ask questions, get a two-way conversation going. So yeah, there's a lot of soft skills I think that need focus. I'm not gonna say that they've been undervalued or, but I'm mindful that that's exposure I need to give to my team and guidance.
Russell: Yeah, yeah I think it's great if you're investing in that space with your team as well.
Olena: Yeah, and if you think about it, storytelling is an ancient art of selling and persuasion. And we neurologically are wired to respond to stories. And facts may drive a couple of key points, as well as numbers, but it is the story that we respond to as a species. So yeah, I also think that a big part of narratives, of being attached to narratives, is also relevant not just for presentation, but also for, if we think about our topic of today, for product teams, is also teams crafting their own narratives and driving them forwards within the business.
And the narratives about themselves, what research do we do, how exactly we are commercially aware. Or like, we as researchers and designers, we do help the rest of this human business gain clarity on decisions. And essentially we help them to make the best product decisions that are possible, within the conditions that we're currently in.
And I want to flip the topic a bit and ask you, if you think about how you started leading a team, your very first steps of that leadership, what practical advice would you give to someone who is currently in your position?
Chris: I think, Russ, you probably have to go back maybe further..!
Russell: Hah ha! What are you trying to say, Chris?
Chris: I’m just being mean! Nothing at all. No, so I mean my first leadership experience was, I became a manager of a small UX team in 2019, maybe something around there? So I think it’s, I wouldn't like to say I'm a blagger, but you’re just brave. You say yes to things, you put yourself forwards, and just play you know, have confidence in yourself that you're probably not going to drop the ball, and you might not make an arse yourself.
So I think, for me, show confidence. You know, a leader doesn't want to be showing self-doubt. Speak with authority. Remove things like: I think this, I think that, or perhaps. Be direct, be self-assured, even if you're not. Come across like that. So I think that was something that my manager at the time was guiding me on. Because I was very much at the time like: oh how about we do..? No, when you’re a leader, you need to be the one to say: I'm the expert in this field, you will need to listen to me because I'm so convincing. So that's my little nugget, is, even if you're not super confident, pretend you are! Or show that you are.
Russell: Fake it till you make it right? I think there are things you can do as well to increase your confidence. Like again, if you're using research and data, but also there is a lot to be said for intuition I think. Again, if you're able to tell good stories, and you're able to back those stories up, people will buy into what you're saying, ultimately. So no matter how many, you know, years you've got on the clock when it comes to management on leadership, so –
Chris: Yeah, yeah I guess that's, for me, Russ, the beauty of user experience. Really it's having been, if I go a bit further back in my career, a web designer, a graphic designer. We even further back. Your opinion only holds as much weight as you can convince something. But if you have data behind you, and a story to tell with that data, and even better if someone's lived through that through the research with you. That's so watertight. Now, that's a very difficult story to argue against. We've proved this innovative bit of work, the value is X. Yeah, that's a very robust Argument.
Russell: Yeah I agree. I think from my side, advice to young managers…I was really lucky I think when I was put into my first certainly management role let alone leadership role. It was at Sapien Nitro (I think they’re now Publicis Sapien). I worked on a big team that were redesigning and rebuilding the website for Marks & Spencer. I was the design manager there, but there was also another design manager, an amazing designer by the name of Anna Parriada. And Anna and I managed the visual design team together. And that was an absolute Godsend to be honest. We’d kind of be texting each other each morning and really supporting each other, especially when we were going in to present to the clients, or if we were particularly nervous or unsure about something.
So I think making sure you've got the right people around you to support you on that journey when you first get into leadership. If you've been recently promoted or hired into a management or leadership position don't assume that everyone expects you to know it all. If you're in a really healthy organisation you'll be surrounded by people who will acknowledge that you're on the first steps of that journey. They'll support you. And they'll make sure that you get the right training and coaching and guidance. Because you don't suddenly learn to become a leader or a manager just because your job title changes. It can take years to learn that skillset, certainly to learn to get, you know, half decent at it. So yeah, just make sure that you surround yourself with the right support, set yourself up to succeed I think.
Chris: That's really nice to hear, I think, yeah I can relate to that. So I had a head of UX at the time at the SSE brand where I worked, Lee Courtney, and he was very supportive and actually what he said a couple of weeks after my promotion to UX manager was, you know: I know you, I know what you're good at, and you're in this role for a reason; so I know you're not very experienced as a manager, as a leader, but I don't expect you to be the finished article. It's almost like a self-assurance you had the support and the space and the empathy from the manager. So yeah I think you're kind of alluding to mentorship, Russ, and I think that's quite important.
Russell: To a point, yeah. I think also I guess just going easy on yourself a little bit, right? We've got this culture where everyone wants everything incredibly quickly now, and I think an industry that's half full of kind of 23-year-old creative directors and things like that. And I think there's a lot to be said for just taking your time to learn your craft. Not just in terms of design, but also in terms of management and leadership. Not trying to sprint to that finish line and be the sort of top dog straight away. But just just enjoy the journey, you know?
Chris: Yeah, I like that: enjoy the journey. That's a good takeaway!
Olena: I also think that, if we think about the journey of leaders, and the journey of the teams, what do you think? What is – I'm not asking you to make a flashy prediction on what is next for product teams, be it like the structure, the shift of responsibilities, the differences on the scope of tasks and vision that may be happening. But what do you think is next for product teams?
Chris: I mean we are going through an unprecedented time, we're trying to get back to normality in hybrid work and, you know, I would say influencing our product teams to be as concerned with discovery and the opportunities as they are with knocking demand out of the park. Relationship building is important with that. For me, with the product teams that I work in, it's getting them excited about being involved in user testing and discovery, firsthand research.
So I don't think a lot of them have been exposed to it, which they might well have been if we'd been office workers for the past a couple of years or so. I can't say what's next for the product team. There is a big challenge in, if you take a product team as a whole, we all know that everyone has different triggers or different ways of thinking. How do you engage, let's say, some developers who might be super introverted, or might really enjoy just head down, I want to knock out a bunch of code? You empathise with them, understand them, but what we really want is a product team to take ownership from a to z of the product lifecycle, of unearthing an opportunity.
So I know where I'd like us to be, but I don't really know what's in between. I guess it's the case of, I mean, we all here are very excited about what we do, we’re in product design and UX and all that good stuff, because it's cool and it's exciting and we get a buzz from it. I'd like to think we could give a bit of that buzz back to the people we work with, and get them a little bit sort of up out of their seat. And with that, with excitement and engagement, maybe attitudinal change will come. Whether that's the case I don't know, we'll find out, but I'll give it a go!
Russell: I think, yeah, I'm going to build on your point about attitudinal change. I'm going to go out on a limb, because this is probably not going to happen, but I think that teams are going to slow down. Um, the reason I think that is that we've just seen a few years where everything's been about speed and everything's been about moving fast and breaking things and yadda yada yada. And everything's been about really fast growth and how quick companies can acquire customers. And I think, as those companies are getting a little older now, and perhaps a little bit more mature, what they're realising is that things like customer retention are incredibly important.
They can't just be about hoovering up customers as quickly as possible and then kind of exiting and selling your business. I think the companies we’re going to see succeed and have really sustainable models that last, you know, not just for the next ten years, but for the next hundred years, are going to be the ones that actually slow down and just ensure that they make the right decisions, and move in the right directions. Rather than kind of running around like headless chickens, which can sometimes be the case in digital products, right?
Chris: Right? I agree!
Olena: Uh, I, for one, am welcoming that change!
Chris: Thought you might!
Olena: Yeah! Definitely slowing down and looking around. And also thinking about second order effects and potential consequences, intended or unintended. I think to me it is a great point to end on today: on the importance of slowing down and rethinking our own pace of work and deliverables. So thank you both so, so much. It's been such a pleasure to host you both. Thank you!
Russell: Thank you for having us.
Chris: Yeah, thank you very much, Olena.