The Donut Hole's Design Leadership Gap and Risks (Alfred Kahn)

The Startup Lifecycle

From founding to becoming established, most startups follow a path that tracks to a similar trajectory. From creation through early stage, life at a startup is a bit chaotic, with people wearing many hats and everyone scrambling just to make it to the next milestone, sometimes just to stay alive. In this world, the boundaries between roles can be very fuzzy, leadership is pretty centralized, and the organization itself is pretty flat. It can be an exciting time of camaraderie, long hours, and a lot of fun.

As a startup matures into a larger company, it establishes a robust organization characterized by a mature hierarchy. Each discipline has its own leader, leading a team and collaborating across disciplines. In this state, the product, design and engineering teams are each led by a director, vice president or chief, and there is a hierarchy of leaders below them who also collaborate among themselves. 

Between these two stages is what I call the Donut Hole. In the Donut Hole, a company recognizes the need for product and engineering leadership and hires leaders for those teams; however, these companies typically do not recognize an equivalent need for design leadership. This is a huge mistake that can significantly reduce the velocity and impact of a startup.

Impact of a Leadership Gap

Like these startups, you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? The product team is responsible for the quality of the product, why can’t they deal with it?”

The problem is that most Product Managers do not have the skill, training, or experience to lead a design team or manage designers. In fact, asking them to take on this responsibility might be putting them into a very uncomfortable position.

The biggest negative impact for the startup is that, without a design leader, it is not getting the full value of its investment in the design team. Absent a good leader to oversee the work of the team, design teams are not as efficient, often resulting in more iterations on features. This results in a fire drill atmosphere where the design team is constantly responding to urgent requests that pop up during development. In addition, this can cause strategic drift as design band-aids are applied to address these ad hoc requests.

All of these impacts end up causing a bumpy product development process, which can result in a revolving door atmosphere on the design team. As designers’ frustration level rises, it can reach a point where they leave, generating recruitment costs for the company and a huge time suck for those that stay.

Given all of the above, one might ask why more startups don’t hire design leaders. The answer is that either they don’t recognize the importance and impact of design leadership and/or they are forced to make hard choices and therefore decide to direct their resources to product and engineering leadership instead. That is an understandable decision, but it is a bit of a false choice: instead of doing without, they can hire a Fractional Design Leader.

Benefits of Fractional Design Leadership

The benefits of Fractional Design Leadership are identical to full-time design leadership, with the obvious additional benefit of containing costs by right-sizing the engagement to the need.

For the startup, design leadership ensures the efficient use of resources in both design and engineering. When designers are treated as collaborators, rather than “the wireframe people,” the company benefits from stronger solutions, less design debt, and fewer iterations on features. In fact, we should call this out as risk reduction: fewer resources are spent on rework, which increases velocity, which accelerates finding product/market fit.

For the design team (and ultimately the company), there are huge benefits to receiving coaching and mentoring: design leaders provide design direction that enables team members to learn and grow as designers. Establishing structure, process, standards, and an escalation path creates a safe, creative environment that allows designers to thrive and makes them more likely to stay.

Value of Fractional Design Leadership

A design leader is a talent amplifier who up-levels the design team and enables designers on the team to “punch above their weight.” Providing leadership and facilitating effective collaboration among product, engineering and design will smooth out and optimize the product development process, and frankly increase everyone’s productivity. 

At a more macro level, by contributing their skills and experience as designers, a design leader can improve the focus and clarity for a startup’s strategy and enable the company to scale without compromising its creativity or productivity.


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