Escaping the Donut Hole (Alfred Kahn)

Escaping the Donut Hole

In my last post, I introduced the concept of the design leadership “donut hole.” The donut hole is the period between a company’s beginnings as an early-stage startup and its evolution to late stage or growth.

Typically, as a startup climbs the maturity curve from the early-stage scramble to the finish line into a mature, growth-stage company, it goes through a period where it has hired product and engineering leadership, but little or no design leadership. You can get more information regarding the risks and challenges associated with the donut hole in my previous post; in this post, I will discuss how to tell if you are in the donut hole and how to escape it.

Are you in the “donut hole”?

The simplest answer to this question is, if your company has more than 3 designers reporting to a Product leader, then you are in the donut hole. Very few product leaders have the skills and experience to lead a design team; in fact, having to oversee design is likely a source of stress and anxiety for them, and not a great experience for the designers.

Perhaps you are not convinced that just having a leaderless, growing design team puts you in the hole, so let’s look at some symptoms that might shed some light on your situation. These symptoms fall into four categories: Design Effectiveness & Efficiency, Product Development Process, Strategy,  and Design Team Engagement.

Design Efficiency & Effectiveness

Lack of leadership can have a significant impact on efficiency and effectiveness. The first symptom of this is that the team is frequently scrambling to get the design done in time. This may be the result of a number of causes, such as not having clearly defined design requirements, not having designers engaged early enough in the process, or not having a process to manage the design backlog effectively. There are a host of other potential causes, but most of them are the result of the absence of an articulated design operations function.

Another symptom is that design deliverables require significant rework once development begins. This is often the result of some of the same root causes mentioned above: not having designers engaged early enough and/or not having clearly articulated design requirements. Without either of these, designers are forced to make assumptions, and if those assumptions are off the mark, then the design needs to be reworked.

A second indicator is that engineering is not sufficiently engaged in the design process. Without developer engagement, it is difficult to uncover potential technical challenges which might have been avoided. While it is much less expensive to adjust the design than add complexity to software, regularly having to do rework that could easily have been avoided is demoralizing (see Design Team Engagement below).

The third symptom is that it feels like you are starting from scratch every time you design a new feature. One of the benefits of design leadership is that someone is maintaining an overview across all the design efforts in order to keep an eye on consistency and look for ways to reuse designs. Not only does reusing design boost efficiency, but it is also a value-add for users: they have fewer things to learn and gain confidence using familiar tools.


Do you know what the design strategy is for your company? If not, you are likely in the donut hole. Without design leadership, most companies do not have a clearly articulated design strategy that is socialized across the organization. Also, the design strategy should be obviously based on, or aligned with, the product strategy. If you cannot make that connection, then your company is likely in the hole.

Another symptom related to strategy is that there is no design voice in strategy planning or road mapping activities. The design team should not just be a consumer of the strategy and road map. The design of your product is an essential aspect of it, in fact, to customers, the user experience often is the product, so not having any design representation in strategy and road mapping activities is a significant risk for both activities. 

Product Development Process

All of the above are typically the cause and result of a low level of collaboration among product, engineering, and design. It’s a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop that produces an extremely bumpy product development process.

Design Team Engagement

Finally, being in the donut hole has a significant impact on the design team itself. All the issues mentioned above have an extremely negative impact on the team and can result in low morale. Designers are in high demand (yes, even in the current environment), and if things get frustrating enough, they move on. So, if your team is experiencing low morale and a high churn, you are likely in the donut hole.

So how do you get out of the donut hole?

Fortunately, there is an easy fix to this: you hire a design leader (all it takes is money!). Obviously, that can be challenging for early and mid-stage startups with limited resources. The good news is that you probably don’t need a full-time design leader if you have a small design team, what you need is a fractional design leader. 

Hiring a fractional design leader gives you the benefit of their high level of skill and deep experience without the financial commitment of hiring them full-time. Even fractional design leadership will quickly address the challenges of the donut hole, and has the additional benefit of giving you access to:

  • Design Strategy
  • Design Direction
  • Optimization of Product Design’s role in the product development process
  • Design team focus on outcomes/impact on business problems
  • Building team (structure & hiring)

Hiring a design leader will transform the design function from a tactical resource to a strategic partner, increase the impact, effectiveness, and productivity of your design team—and move your business out of the donut hole!


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