Influence at scale, part 2: Designing healthy habits for the design organization

“Design is a behavior, not a department”

– David Milne

This is part 2 of my article series about Samantha Soma’s workshop at the 2016 Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio, Texas. Read part 1, about understanding the context of your company, and structuring the design team.

Samantha Soma spent the next part of her workshop speaking about the kinds of behaviors that create high-functioning design departments.

The kind of team we’re looking to build

According to Soma, we should focus on building a culture around daily behaviors. In order to do that, we need a ‘north star’ for our design department. We need hallmarks that we can use to evaluate the strength or weakness of our team’s behaviors.

  • Trust each other
  • Purpose
  • Be honest and express opinions
  • Roles are clearly defined
  • Goals are shared
  • Disagreement is accepted
  • Criticism is constructive
  • Everyone pulls their own weight
  • Interactions are light and fun, tensions are diffused
  • No individual is more important than the team – individuals support the team
  • Learning and education is valued

Community (trust) building

Have better meeting hygiene

I’ve written about how to hold better meetings. These may seem like trivial things, but consider how much time we spend in meetings. Meetings alone can consume from 30-50% of a person’s schedule. By and large leave these communication methods out of the scope of creating better processes. We ignore meetings and leave them to individual fiat.

There are ways to run better meetings. We need to create a culture around crisp meetings. The alternative is schedule bloat, meandering gatherings and wasted time.

Meetings should have an agenda, have a purpose and establish clear action items with accountable parties. They should almost always end early. If you want to see your co-workers delighted, end your meetings early.


A huge part of our work – email, in-person meetings and Slack (or other chat apps). Emails should be concise, bulleted, transparent and appropriate.


Farnum Street blog has a fantastic blog about holding a ‘pre-mortem’ on projects. This exercise identifies potential obstacles, risks and issues with a new project. By imagining how things can go wrong, we navigate and side-step potential issues and guide them towards successful completion. Samantha Soma recommended that we do this exercise at the beginning of projects.


We need to learn from the work we’ve done. It’s a mistake to finish a project and jump right to the next project. We need to pause and learn from our successes and from our mistakes.

Lunches, happy hours, birthdays and anniversaries

We need to take time to honor those who we work with, and respect the time and dedication they’ve put towards work. In stressful times these are often the first things to be forgotten. These are the things that hold us together the most and should not be forgotten.

Design campfire

Time to talk about design in general, unrelated to work. It’s important to foster a culture of learning and discussion and to treat design as a discipline.

Next, Samantha Soma went into great detail about critiques. Critiques are a double-edged sword. They help us get better as designers and are absolutely necessary to a healthy culture. They can also be suffused with tension, and it’s easy for a culture of negativity to come roaring out. She outlined a way to hold critiques that help us be better while also honoring relationships and strong bonds.


Feedback is a gift

Samantha spent quite a bit of time on this subject. Feedback is a hugely important part of a designer’s career. Oftentimes, we have sessions to give feedback without having a universal standard of what it means and how to give it. Feedback can be useful. It can also be destructive.

Structured feedback

Feedback needs to be agreed on before time, so that designers have rules and bounds for the kinds of things to say, and the kinds of things to receive.

  • Feedback should help people change
  • Feedback does NOT equal critique
  • How vs. the what
  • Scripts can help teams be better givers and receivers of feedback

Radical candor

We need to encourage open, direct and caring communication in the teams that we lead. This is incredibly important in high-functioning businesses. Samantha Soma recommended Kim Scott’s take on Radical Candor.

The secret to Radical Candor: you actually have to care about the person you’re giving the feedback to. Without true respect and care for that person, the directness is going to come off as cold. You’re going to seem like a jerk, especially if you are in a position of power with that person. Here’s how Soma recommended that we proceed to give honest, caring feedback:

  • Say the emotion behind the feedback, and be specific about why
  • Practice difficult feedback beforehand
  • Remember to be conscious of what the other person perceives – this is much more important than the words spoken, or what you think you said
  • If you do this wrong, you can repair as long as you approach this difficult area while caring about the person professionally and personally
  • Give this feedback 1-on-1, NOT in a group setting

Culture comes roaring out in feedback, in emails and in meetings. The important part of culture is not ping-tables and happy hours – culture is the cumulative behaviors of the team as they work together towards a shared goal. If we’re deliberate about how we structure our day and our week, then we can change the culture of a given group with intention. We can use design thinking to create an environment where the likelihood of success is much, much greater.

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