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Do's and Don'ts of Scaling a Design Team

Scaling your business — or a team within your business — is a tricky proposition. Research shows that around 70% of businesses struggle with scaling, particularly since there are many potential pitfalls along the way. That said, it's well-worth the effort! Data suggests that when done right, scaling can have a dramatic impact on your organization's bottom line.

How your design team functions within the company is unique to your organization. Ideally, you want to hold onto your top performers and create an awesome design culture that lets everyone thrive and perform at their best. So, before you get started, make sure you've got a good grasp on your design team's mission. If you haven't already, define that vision and the team's central principles that define how consumers experience the company's products or services.

There's no set blueprint that'll tell exactly the steps you need to take to scale successfully. But these four do’s and don’t can help smooth the way.

Don’t: Confuse Scaling With Growth

Before you make a single move to scale your team, make sure you really grasp the concept. It’s all too easy to use the terms “scale” and “grow” interchangeably. But understanding the distinction is critical. When you grow, you boost revenue by adding more resources. That could be getting an infusion of capital, hiring new people or adopting new technology.

Here’s the crucial difference: Scaling increases revenue without requiring any significant increase in resources. Scaling doesn’t replace growth, but it is a very different strategy. Growth tends to be linear — you might increase revenue by $50K, but you’re also spending about the same in resources — scaling lets you do more without much extra effort. Consider this: If you want to send a letter to 100 people, it would take more effort and time to write each one by hand, particularly if you want to increase your recipient list to 500. Picture that scenario as “growth.” But if you write an email, you can send it not only to those 100 or 500 but exponentially more recipients without any extra effort.

Do: Maintain Consistent, Clear Communication

When you’re scaling a design team, there’s bound to be tons of change and upheaval. That can leave your employees feeling fear, doubt and uncertainty. It’s natural and normal. But left unchecked, it can derail productivity and erode motivation. As you scale your design team, there's bound to be some shifts in roles and responsibilities. But with strong leadership and excellent communication, you can get ahead of that doubt and uncertainty. You can smooth the turbulence that your team's likely to experience by being upfront and clear about the changes happening now and those you're considering in the future.

Don’t: Dismiss the Possibility of Cognitive Load

Depending on how you approach scaling your team, you might be adding more people and/or technology. For example, many teams opt to adopt a design system as they scale their teams , allowing everyone to access the same kinds of components across offices or locations. It helps decrease mistakes and increase consistency. Great, right? Absolutely.

But whenever you add in new elements, the team has to learn how to work within the new environment. That initial complexity can present a challenge: Cognitive load. The theory was developed back in the 1980s, supposing that the working memory can only hold so much information at one time. Overloading it can derail progress. As applied in this instance, as teams grow, so might interpersonal problems. Worse, it could create so much chatter that the overarching important messages get lost.

Case in point: The Oracle USA sailing team started their America's Cup training with five crew members. When they expanded to 11, everything fell apart temporarily. Everyone had headphones and a microphone so they could communicate, but it quickly got so loud that no one could really focus. It wasn't until half the crew removed their microphones and earpieces that things started coming back together.

Be aware of extra complexity as you’re scaling your design team. And if you see signs that cognitive load is derailing your productivity or culture, consider taking steps to minimize it. For example, you might need to temporarily reduce responsibilities while everyone adjusts or break the team up into smaller, more nimble teams-within-the-team with design team leaders.

Do: Leverage the Power of Data

Data and design might not sound like they go hand in hand. But designers at big name companies like, Zoom and Spotify would quickly beg to differ. Using data can actually help designers get closer to their customers, better capable of delivering an amazing customer experience and increase context within your work. As Max Steitle, product designer with Zoom says, “Designing with data helps build a connection to the people who use your product every day.”

It can also help you and the rest of the team understand the impact of the work you're doing — both on the business and on its customers. This, in turn, can help strengthen the team and the organization’s design culture.


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