Setting Goals for 2012: What Designers Should Ask For
It’s annual review season at EightShapes. Admittedly, it’s my favorite time of year. I get to talk to the most talented design team on earth about their aspirations. We then work together to assemble a plan to achieve their goals.
As with most other things at EightShapes, Nathan and I designed the annual review process to improve upon poor experiences in prior jobs. Before 2006, I can’t recall a meaningful conversation about my professional development. My managers could not resolve the key problem: if they didn’t know what kind of projects were coming in next year, how could I plan my development? If the business didn’t win work for mobile or intranets or e-commerce, how could I expect to deepen my expertise in those areas?
Because of this disconnect, all of my professional development plans fell short, unable to move me closer to objectives.
In my current position, on the other side of the table, I see things a little differently. We’re still restricted by what kinds of projects come through the door, but there are lots of things designers can ask for as part of their professional development plan. In making plans to achieve your objectives for 2012, think about asking for some of these things:
People mostly ask for a portion of their week to be dedicated to working toward an objective. A good professional development plan frames up an account of how that time will be used. If you tell me that you want to spend 8 hours a month working on “learning about content strategy”, I’ll expect you’ll have specific activities and milestones, such that the objective is measurable at the end of the year.
Since we generally expect people to devote about 10% of their work week to non-client work, this should be an easy request to accommodate. On the other hand, much of that time is dedicated to operational and planning activities. Therefore, designers are challenged to keep ambitions in check, not making sweeping changes to their skillsets in less than 4 hours a week.
Ask for: Additional non-project time to pursue your goals, but be sure to include a plan for how you’ll use that time.
It’s easy to forget that the most valuable resource for professional development is the person sitting at the next desk. A mentor is someone you turn to regularly for advice on both day-to-day activities and long-term career aspirations. You maintain a relationship with them so they can position advice in terms of your ongiong development.
The most effective mentoring relationships I have amount to an hour-long conversation each month, with free reign to interrupt me any time during the day to ask quick questions. From a business perspective, mentoring translates to time: you’re asking two people to give up some of their non-project work time to dedicate this. With a well-structured mentoring plan, however, the time commitment be trivial.
If you include this on your professional development plan, make sure you talk to the prospective mentor first. Sketch out a plan for what that relationship looks like, so you can set expectations about the commitment.
Ask for: An hour a month to meet with a mentor.
Less of a commitment, and more targeted than mentoring, coaching is ad hoc course correction during a project. You may lean on different coaches for feedback on various aspects of your work. There isn’t necessarily a long-term relationship here–just an experienced person you can turn to for quick feedback.
This model can encompass aspects of our work beyond design, too. You can get coached on writing an email, preparing for a meeting, facilitating a workshop, or drafting a project plan. The cost to projects is minimal, requiring another 15 or 30 minutes here and there throughout the project.
Ask for: Extra time on projects to ensure adequate coaching reviews.
4. Portfolio reviews
A designers’ portfolio is a great barometer for growth. It’s an artifact that can help you tell a story about your progress and how you overcome challenges. The portfolio you would use for these reviews is different from the one you bring on job interviews. The monthly or quarterly portfolio review focuses on all recent work, the good and the bad, to drive a conversation with your mentor or manager about growth.
Ask for: A 30-minute meeting every month or every quarter to review portfolio updates with your manager.
5. Team configuration
As we get new projects and assign people to them, there is always more than one option in configuring the team. We can pair people with similar skill sets or complementary skill sets. We can assign a lead, but include a “subject matter expert”. We can provide a junior person to support a senior person. We can offset some management responsibilities to a partner or the design manager.
In short, we can experiment with different combinations to achieve the same objectives. Designers can use this flexibility to their advantage. By asking to collaborate with different team members, you have an opportunity to learn from them and to exercise your skills in a different way.
To make this request effective, reflect on the team configurations on your 2011 projects. Did you work with the same people over and over? Record observations about what worked and didn’t work about different team configurations and discuss options with your manager.
Ask for: Opportunities to work with specific people, or team members with particular skill sets.
6. Additional project responsibilities
Rather than focusing on the kind of design work you’ll be doing, make your professional development requests about responsibility. Since many projects follow the same general set of activities, revolve around similar sets of milestones, and rely on the same roles, you can make some assumptions about the range of responsibilities on incoming projects. Use professional development as an opportunity to take on additional responsibilities.
If you’re far enough along in your career, your additional responsibilities could include playing a creative direction role throughout the project. If you need to work on your planning skills, you can pair with the project manager to take on planning and execution responsibilities. Facilitation, brainstorming, training, analysis, and writing are all broad responsibilities that happen on every project.
Ask for: Opportunities to perform specific tasks on different projects.
7. Ad hoc project participation
Some project activities are ideal for ad hoc participation, even if you’re not assigned to the project. Two ways we involve people outside the project is through peer reviews and brainstorming sessions. You can ask your manager to participate in these kinds of activities, where you get exposure to lots of different design work, and can work on crucial skills like brainstorming and critiquing. Don’t be shy about advertising your availability for these exercises to the rest of your team.
Ask for: Leeway to nudge your way into other ongoing projects to participate in brainstorming or peer reviews.
8. Project design
Finally, you can ask for projects that let you experiment with different approaches, methods, techniques, and processes. While this may be controversial, depending on your organization, slight changes to project structure can be opportunities for growth without diminishing the value to clients.
Changes can be as simple as introducing an additional usability test or trying out this “sketching studio” technique you’ve heard so much about. It can be scheduling your kick-off meeting after your initial stakeholder interviews, or establishing a different rhythm for design reviews. Such nudges to the typical structure of the project will introduce new challenges and directly influence growth.
Ask for: Opportunities to shift activities or outputs on a project.
Align requests with objectives
Whatever your request, make sure it traces back to a development objective. Looking to expand your leadership skills? Ask to be put on a team with some junior members. Need to beef up your IA chops? See if you can get some mentoring time with your organization’s top IA. Think your client communication skills can use some polish? Ask for more client-facing responsibilities and then schedule coaching time with your company’s leading diplomat.
Don’t expect to get everything you ask for. But simple mantras and straightforward requests, with direct path to objectives, help managers retain that direction when it comes to planning. In our planning conversations, if we can think “Pair Tim with another senior designer” or “Get Jane on a research project” we can make decisions quickly and for everyone’s benefit.