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Inside the Mind of Design Leaders Featuring Lily Dart, Experience Director

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Creative, Kristie-Craft


Within this series, Kristie sits down with Design Leaders to get their insight into their successes, challenges and advice. This week, Kristie speaks to Lily Dart, Experience Designer at FutureGov 
 

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your design journey and your current role?

It all started when I was 13. I’m disabled and I had particularly ill health when I was a teenager. When I was stuck at home, I taught myself how to code. I wanted to do something creative. I wasn't great with paint and pencils, so I ended up using Photoshop to create some digital art. Once I had the digital art, I wanted to display it somewhere. So I started to learn how to code enough to create basic web pages. I did that for a few years, then decided that I wanted to go to university to study graphic design.

I studied Graphic Communications at LCC then spent a few years freelancing. My first freelance project was at 16. I designed and built an exceedingly poor website for my secondary school, and carried on freelancing from there. I rediscovered my love for code and UI design when I was working in context with real clients and real problems.

I freelanced working with charities and public sector bodies then worked with the central government at a company called DXW. I spent three years there and that was my first proper leadership role.

We grew a team from 5 to about 23 people. I got a real interest in how to grow happy high-performing teams. It was the first time I had scaled a team and I was interested in repeating that process and learning more about it.

I worked as a Design Director at the Department for International Trade. That was a huge scaling activity. I started with 1 team member and within six months I had 50 team members. By the time I left in just under two years, we had gone from 35 people to 140 overall.

As part of the leadership team, I went from leading multiple products to looking at how best to manage the overall digital team. I was responsible for operational processes, training and development. I also managed every “Head of” (design, content, tech) and we worked on quality control for each specialism. I was operating a huge scale, with rapidly increasing team size. I was responsible for both making sure the team had a good experience, but that we also produced quality work for our users.

I then went to Lloyds Banking Group for two years. I built a team to design, build and roll out their design system. It was the first design system Lloyds ever had. When I joined, people didn’t really believe it was possible. There are about 10,000 designers and developers at Lloyds. People genuinely didn’t believe we would be able to get them to align onto a single system, or that the tech would support it. It was an exciting journey.

Two months ago I joined FutureGov. I returned to the public sector in part because I found that it's harder for people in the private sector to understand the type of design I do.

There is less service design and organisational design in the private sector. My portfolio isn’t visual anymore; its case studies cost savings and organisational benefits. It describes service design work on digital and non-digital touchpoints. And how I have successfully built and scaled teams. Many people I spoke to in the private sector didn't understand that all of that activity is design. They often wanted visual or interaction design, shiny apps with good conversion rates.

The business that did understand the scope of my work, and was keen to have my experience, was FutureGov. Plus, I’d wanted to work with them for quite a long time, so I was really excited to get the offer.

At FutureGov, I'm responsible for the client and employee experience. I’m also a deputy to the Chief Design Officer. My role here is about making sure that the team is set up for success in order to scale. They have scaled up quite quickly over the last couple of years, and are already known for incredibly high-quality work in the public sector. We want to make sure that quality work continues as we add more and more people to the organisation.

At the moment I’m looking at how we are representing and repeating our vision and purpose in everything that we do. That’s one part of how we make sure that the team is aligned to that purpose and goal and that, for that goal, they understand what good looks like.  I’m also helping to ensure the vision and purpose provides value to our clients and helps them to achieve outcomes for their users.

 

With most of your more recent roles, you’ve been brought on to scale teams or systems. On that, how have you effectively scaled your team whilst successfully maintaining the team culture? And how important is it to build a diverse team?

I think to maintain or increase quality in a team’s delivery, diversity is of critical importance. Diversity can help us to hear and understand other voices, and to better understand the needs of our users. Monoculture teams can lead to no challenges being raised or misinterpreting the needs of their users. Healthy differences of opinion push us to create better products and services. 

In the organisations where diversity is prioritised, it’s often about the ratio of men to women. There are lots of kinds of diversity that many organisations are not really focusing on. It’s less common to have targets for how many BAME, LGBT or disabled people you want in your organisation.

This is a problem that FutureGov is really engaged with, which I love. We have more than 50% of women in the organisation, which is quite rare for a tech and design organisation. We also have a high proportion of LGBT people and some very visible senior leaders (including myself) who have disabilities. We are also actively working on how we can improve the number of team members who are BAME and those who come from lower-income backgrounds.

I think successfully creating a diverse team is about the culture of the organisation. You have to actively change and evolve your culture in order to make it welcoming for other people. That’s the place that people fall down, it’s been the reason that I have moved on from organisations in the past. You have to compromise. Whether by creating space for people from minoritized groups on the leadership team, or changing your pay structures or in your everyday language. Many leaders ultimately don't want to make that compromise to create a culture they feel isn't totally designed around their own needs.

Maintaining culture when scaling a team can be difficult. Culture can become a side effect of who is in the team rather than something we thoughtfully create. One way to reduce that risk is to give your team tools to help them make decisions, to measure success or to give feedback to each other. Vision statements, principles and defined behaviours are common examples.

For me, getting those kinds of tools in place and repeating those messages consistently is the key to scaling team culture successfully.

 

 

What are some of the top challenges you’ve faced as a Designer and in more recent years, a Design Leader?

The biggest one that I faced personally was early on in my career. As a first time manager, I absorbed everybody's problems and made them personal to me.

I had a breakdown a couple of years ago and ended up taking four months off work. I was deeply invested in everyone in my team, and unhappy when they were unhappy. I felt like it was my duty to move the earth to try to make them happier.

But as a single manager in an organisation, there are always going to be things outside of your control. When I couldn't make those things change to make them happier, I got very frustrated. My stress levels increased and combined with some serious events in my personal life, and I burned out.

I was in therapy while I was recovering. My therapist told me that her job was to sit and listen to people's problems all day. As a therapist, she is required to have her own therapist. This is so that she has someone to support her, and to stop her from absorbing other people's problems. She said I was doing all of the work of the therapist without any of that support in place.

That comment really helped me to think about where my boundaries were in terms of work and my team. To help me structure and set better boundaries for myself so that I didn't become overwhelmed.

I see this same pattern commonly with lots of new managers, particularly with women or people from minoritized groups. We tend to be a little bit more attuned into what is going on emotionally. Partly because we're at risk. If someone gets angry or upset with us, as a minoritized group that can often mean the impact could be more severe than it is for other people.

Learning how to set boundaries is not something we're taught by anyone. It's really critical for us to succeed and allows us to carry on working while having happy personal lives. In reality, we're taught that we should do what our employer tells us to do. That we should work whatever hours that we need to do to succeed. Actually the success is often about setting boundaries and having a healthy balance between work and our personal lives.

My biggest problem with the organisations I’ve worked in has usually been about lack of clarity.

If the organisation isn't clear on what it's trying to achieve, it often creates conflict. We need to give our teams direction for them to be successful. If things are shifting and changing in the management teams above us, it can be difficult to give that direction in a meaningful way.

You can add a lot of value by just creating certainty in the team without addressing the wider organisation's direction. But there is only so far you can go before the team needs to be working at the same pace as the organisation. 

That said, I’ve seen many leaders in this situation just sit still and wait for clarity to come to them. I'd love to see more leaders proactively trying to define clarity for their teams, even when the management layers above are struggling.

 

How do you keep your team aligned with your vision? Is it a challenge?

Keeping people working to a vision is not so much of a challenge, but it is very hard work. And the level of work required is underestimated.

You have to find the right mechanisms to use to deploy the vision into the team. Things like design principles, progression frameworks and yearly reviews are all opportunities to repeat the vision.

These everyday tools are places where you can reinforce your vision. For example, explaining how you can show your alignment with the vision to progress through the company. But you have to keep repeating yourself, over and over. And you have to do the hard work to make it simple for the team to understand.

This is often one of the points where organisations fall down, particularly when scaling. They believe that progress towards vision should somehow sustain itself. And often it does for small teams. It’s easier with small teams because the work is small, and as a leader, you can see and direct all of it. For larger teams, you can’t just put out a single vision statement and expect people to agree with it or even understand it. All alignment, ultimately, is hard work that needs time and investment.

 

What are some of the principals that you’ve been taught in your previous roles that you continue to use and teach?

The first one is about enabling the team. I've seen lots of junior design leaders go from being very hands-on, to not having the time to be hands-on as a leader. The first instinct when going into a leadership role is to try to continue to be hands-on. We feel like we’re in charge, and being in the detail is what keeps the team producing quality work.

That doesn't scale - individual humans don't scale - and there's only so much you can do in a day. You have to discover the tools and mechanisms that allow the team to solve problems for you.

For example, I was quite resistant to written briefs when I was a junior leader. My brain doesn't absorb information that way, so I assumed it wouldn’t for others. That meant that the team found it difficult to understand what I wanted. I've had to learn that not everyone operates that way, and people can't psychically see what's in my brain. The team needed something that they could access and absorb easily at their own pace, in order to understand what problem to solve.

There's a lot of content design in successful leadership. Being able to distil your message into something that's understandable.

There's also a lot of user research. I do a lot of writing stuff down and testing it with a team. I get their feedback, iterate it, help them to feel like they've been brought into the process of it being created. But also making sure that they do actually understand the information in the way that I intended it. Using that iterative, user-centred approach to manage a team. 

I see a lot of designers who know how to do that with users. We know how to communicate, how to think about what user needs are. But we often don’t use those skills when it comes to our own teams. We don't think ‘Can I put myself in the shoes of that person for a minute?’. ‘Can I do some test and learn with people?’. Or ‘what are the ways that I could capture user needs or do an internal research activity?’. You can replicate all those tools successfully to create better spaces for people to work in.

Another principle would be to steal from other specialisms. Rather than relearning things from scratch that other industries or other specialisms already know. There is a bit of a default in design where we try to design our own processes from scratch. Design is different, and it's creative. We want to think about things in a different way. But hundreds, if not thousands, of people, have solved these problems before. I try to steal first, and then create new things if necessary later.

The last thing is just about how I create sustainable change. Sometimes, when you're trying to create change in the way your team delivers, you feel like you have to add a new process or responsibility to your team members. I’ve had a lot more success in not creating a new process. Instead, I try to connect the new goals or actions I want to happen with existing processes.

Your team has a lot to think about, and already has full-time jobs. The more you load onto them, the less you’ll get done. Adding new things just doesn’t scale over time, unless you have the money for a giant team.

One example of where I am doing this at Futuregov is to connect knowledge management responsibilities to our Communities of Practices. People already get together in the communities to talk about how we deliver various practices in the business. By asking that they also document the outputs for reuse, it’s not adding much additional time. The more common route is to ask every individual team member to do their own knowledge management, and usually, this fails.

 

 

Blogs, books and podcasts. Are there any resources that are helping you now or that have helped you in the past?

I have to admit, I'm not reading or listening to anything at the moment. I think in this current coronavirus context I'm just trying to focus on the simple things. I'm sure you've seen the threads going around – ‘If you haven't come out of the lockdown with another skill than you haven't tried hard enough’ - and I just fundamentally hate that. I'm just focusing on keeping healthy and functioning right now.

For new leaders, there's an InVision podcast on Design Leadership that’s really worth listening to. Lots of different and interesting experiences from other design leaders explaining how they do things.

More broadly, I find Twitter to be an amazing source of knowledge and insight, but it has to be actively curated.

When people ask me about the first steps to understanding what the needs for minoritized groups are, I always say start with Twitter. Make sure that you are following BAME, disabled and LGBT people, particularly trans folk. By listening, you can start to understand the context that they live in and the day to day experiences they have.

Make sure you have a diverse group of people you're following. Most importantly - make sure you are listening to them and not responding. Lots of people see posts from minoritized groups that they feel are directed negatively at them and have an urge to defend themselves.

That discomforting feeling is your privilege. Learning about how it surfaces inside you is a small part towards being more inclusive, and more able to support minoritized groups. But you have to address that feeling internally, not by battling it out with people on the internet.

I'm gay, disabled, a woman working in tech. I still have those moments where I look at stuff and I'm like, ‘Oh, that feels like it's directed at me’ and feel upset and angry. But you can teach yourself to not respond. To sit with those feelings for a bit and process them through. To not take that feeling to the person who is sharing, very kindly, their experience with you. And probably getting a lot of backlash on the internet for it already.

It’s also important to be mindful that you're absorbing those experiences from real people. They are providing value and service to you. They have rent to pay, and food to buy. In many cases, you can donate to them or contribute to a cause on their behalf. Where you can pay for the value you receive.

 

In the current global situation with COVID-19, is there any advice you can give to other leaders that might be in the same position as yourself with starting a new position remotely, and how do you effectively manage people you haven’t met yet?

We have an awesome People/HR team at FutureGov and I've been working with them to pack out some of the advice we're giving managers in this situation. Partially from my own mental health experiences.

One of the big things I would flag to leaders in this situation is that there is a high risk of people burning out. Professional burnout is a real medical condition and the World Health Organisation recognises it. Burnout can happen when we've got lots of emotional things going on and are under a heavy workload. It can take years to recover and sometimes people don't entirely recover from it.

Not everyone will have the emotional tools in this situation to be able to work through the feelings this brings up. Being mindful of what the symptoms of burnout are and looking out for any changes of behaviour in your team is important. As is making sure that you're proactively suggesting that they take time off. Even though we're at home and it feels like we're resting more, we're not really, because we're living through a national crisis.

We have a duty of care to people in our team. Both to look after ourselves, but also to make sure that we're not pressuring them to keep on working if they are having a difficult time.

We've got people who are caring for kids or family members, as well as doing full-time jobs. Everyone's routine has been tipped on its head, and there's a lot going on. Not everyone will be able to identify what is causing them problems, and not everyone has the tools to be able to ask for the boundaries or the time they need to deal with them.

 

Thanks Lily.

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