Organizations that follow a waterfall development process keep people working really hard, but often without delivering the desired outcomes. Teams are told what features to build rather than thinking deeply about the problems. From my experience of working like this in multiple large organizations, we did deliver some great things. But when we were able to plan a bit more, look ahead a bit more, and build teams the right way, we achieved so much more.
When I worked at BT a few years ago, we built the first internal design organization BT had ever had. Prior to that, BT had outsourced almost all of their design work to multiple different agencies.
By moving design in-house we had instant demand from the different departments, meaning that we had to expand the team much faster than expected. But that's really not something that should catch you by surprise. If you're building a good team, you're probably going to grow faster than you think. So it's very important to plan for growth.
What planning for growth means is really concentrating on your initial senior hires, because they will help you to establish the right culture and ways of working. You can take some more risks with later hires once you have the foundations in place. Contractors are incredibly useful to scale quickly, but some companies keep contractors in place for too long a time. In my experience, contractors behave differently from full-time employees because they, understandably, are thinking about where their next hire is coming from. They're less willing to rock the boat and make a hard decision to advance your strategy or to advance a better outcome in the future. And so while contractors can be great in the short term you should plan to convert them into full-time hires or replace them with your own staff.
At Reed, we carefully plan the roles required to support the needs of the entire business. An example of the benefits achieved is when we embedded a designer within the marketing team. One dedicated designer is now producing five times the outcomes that we were delivering before with multiple agencies. It's obviously saving the business a lot of money. But the biggest thing for us in Product, is that now we can deliver really consistent experiences from start to finish of our journeys.
Ensuring that teams stay focused on user outcomes is also critically important. We use a dedicated user research team to support all of our product teams. Rather than having researchers sitting within a team, we train, facilitate and support all our product teams to be able to conduct their own research. This is really useful for teams who might be lacking UX experience.
An example of how we saved time and effort was with our mobile app. We were getting requests from multiple customers about a new feature. The feature made sense and in the past, the company would have just built it. Instead, with just one day of testing with five users, including some of the original customers who suggested this feature, we found that no one used the requested feature. It didn't actually solve their real, underlying problem. One day of testing saved two weeks of wasted development for the full team.
And then on the other side, we work very hard on ensuring that the company mission, purpose, goals, strategy, and current business outcomes are all understood from top to bottom. At Reed, we use OKRs to achieve this. We plan them annually and have weekly, monthly, and quarterly tracking to ensure that everything we're doing can be traced back to the strategy.
The structure of a team influences its ability to be truly enabled. Returning again to the example from my time at BT, we built a large team producing great outcomes, but design was isolated from the other product development functions. So we moved all of the product team members into one huge new organization across the whole digital realm of BT Consumer.
This resulted in a huge change in roles and ways of working. People used to be quite specialized as UX designers or visual designers, but they all became product designers. And we worked as fully agile, fully enabled product teams using a modified version of the tribes and squads model from Spotify. This was the right thing to do, but the change was hugely disruptive and stressful for a lot of people.
We did lots of training and workshop sessions to ensure that everyone had the skills for these new ways of working, and to help people understand how different the setup would be. While the change was difficult, it led to immediate improvements across the board in terms of efficiency and achieved outcomes.
But the real problem was that our structure wasn't ambitious enough. We had mostly remapped our existing people without planning for what the products, and product teams, really needed. Each team tended to have a dedicated product manager but other resources like designers, developers, and other specialisms, were shared. What that meant is that very few people working in this new model were actually focused on one product, and were constantly having to switch context. This impacted both individual efficiency and team happiness. BT has continued to iterate on the structure since then to continuously improve outcomes.
Product Team First
Product designers and developers need to be embedded within product teams with everyone working from one team backlog and working on continuous product discovery together. This allows teams to be self-sufficient and empowers them to produce the outcomes that they're being asked to deliver. At Reed, this is the structure we aim for, with different teams having different needs and issues, requiring regular assessment.
The best results always happen when product teams truly own their work; they’re the ones devising solutions and are accountable for their outcomes. The challenge with independent, empowered teams is that it can create silos within your business. This can then lead to redundancies, duplication, and teams working at cross-purposes. Teams aren’t always motivated to communicate, which means that they can lose sight of what other teams are doing.
As a leader, it's really important to create avenues for communication. This is even more relevant now in our largely remote or hybrid workplace, because you can't rely on the random conversations which used to happen in the office, when people worked side by side. We plan frequent workshops across all our product teams, to showcase our work and ensure there is that cross-team awareness. We also have guild meetings for specific disciplines.
We have a career progression framework set up for engineering, product and design. This has been really successful for us to quickly develop people by identifying gaps in their skill sets and making closing the gaps part of their personal development. The clarity around roles and what's required for the next level has helped to improve team satisfaction.
At Reed, we focus on qualities and behaviors over extensive experience. One of the biggest things is that we look for self-starters. We do our best to ensure that the work required by teams is clear but you can’t plan for everything. When it's not clear, we want people that will push through barriers and won't accept things not being right. Self-starters have an internal drive to have all the information they need and to achieve the best outcomes.
We also look for someone who has a real passion for what they do. We can build up experience, and we can close the gaps in what people know and potentially the way they work, but you can’t teach passion for a role and an ambition to get better.
Finally, empathy, curiosity, and a demonstrated ability and desire to collaborate are hugely important.
If you can find a diverse group of people with these qualities then you'll have a really strong, high-performing team. The challenge is getting these people to apply for your job. That's where our research on what job seekers are looking for can help.
Based on our research of 2000 job seekers and 250 hiring managers in February 2022, unsurprisingly, salary is the most important criterion for job seekers when looking at a role. But despite that, 44% of hiring managers don't always display salaries on job posts, for a number of reasons. But 78% of job seekers view this as a negative signal about the company because it means that applicants must negotiate their salary which has been shown to lead to lower pay for women and minorities. The net effect is that job ads that display a salary get 37% more applications than those that don't. So if you're looking to hire, showing the salary will have a huge impact on the number of applications and potentially the quality of candidates that you will eventually hire.
Pay is the most important factor, but location, commute time, flexibility, and perks are still very important as well. Comparing our research in February 2022 with similar research done six months before that, we found that the importance of flexible hours actually went down. While this may seem at odds with anecdotal evidence, our hypothesis is that it’s not less important to people, but is actually now becoming more standard. People expect to be able to work remotely so it's now becoming a standard feature rather than a nice perk.
A Four-Day Week?
Related to that, and this is more of a fun suggestion at this stage, is to consider introducing a four-day working week. Our research shows that 89% of job seekers would be in favor, for obvious reasons, but the change may not be as crazy, or as far away, as it seems right now. A large-scale trial study in the UK testing the four-day week across a variety of industries was recently completed, with over 90% of the companies planning to continue it afterwards. There are obviously significant business impacts to consider, but a four-day week could be a very powerful recruitment tool.
Building teams requires planning for growth. If you are reactive then you will not be able to meet the inevitable increase in demand that comes from building a successful team.
Working in silos doesn’t produce the outcomes that we need. Product teams, with dedicated designers and developers, are the best way to empower people to solve problems for customers and take accountability for the business outcomes. Great things can happen.
And finally, hire people for their ambition, drive, and behaviors because skill gaps can be filled but drive can’t be taught.
Head of DesignReed UK
Mike leads a multi-disciplinary team of designers and user researchers at Reed.co.uk, leading UK Job and Careers site. Previously he built up design and research organisations at Eurosport, Discovery and BT.
Mike is a champion of user-centred design, empowered teams and cross-business collaboration. He’s passionate about improving design maturity and transforming businesses, and customer experience, through quality product design.
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