We often define ourselves by the roles we play and the boundaries of our responsibilities. But is it really a bad thing to “trespass” across those boundaries and take on tasks that may not be traditionally within our domain of expertise?
When mentoring designers, I all too often help with struggles about unclear boundaries of the designer mandate and about what “rights” a designer has. Frustrations about being part of a “feature factory” where the designer role is one to prettify the ideas of others is all too common. It might even be what is actually going on. But is that really what top management, product mangers, stakeholders, and designers wanted? Or did it just end up like that?
Are boundaries between roles and responsibilities in product teams limiting our ability to truly collaborate and come up with the best solutions? Is it really a bad thing for team members to cross functional lines and engage in each other’s work?
It can definitely lead to collaboration anti-patterns if feature suggestions aren’t met with critique or put into context: if they are just taken for granted, and not as a starting point for discussion.
Crossing functional boundaries can be the missing link to make good collaboration work. Trespassing each other’s boundaries can be the opening that leads to a shared understanding and in turn leading to stronger outcomes and more innovative solutions.
By encouraging co-creation and input from all team members and a focus on establishing a culture of constructive critique where egos are set aside, we can foster a safe space for team members to share their thoughts and ideas, even if they may be rough or “ugly.”
Crossing functional boundaries and stepping into each other’s roles help us evaluate and incorporate more diverse perspectives and inputs from all team members – and in turn build a stronger foundation for further investigation and testing.
Anti-pattern: "Quickly design something that works"
To suggest that any individual, regardless of their domain knowledge, can “quickly design something that works” is to undermine the expertise and value of the design role. While it is crucial to encourage co-creation and elicit feedback from all stakeholders, it is equally important to defer to domain experts when it comes to executing on design solutions.
However, this does not mean that non-design team members should be discouraged from contributing ideas and participating in the design process. On the contrary, diverse perspectives and input from all corners of the organization, as well as from customers, can lead to stronger outcomes. It is simply a matter of respecting the boundaries of each team member’s roles and responsibilities, and allowing domain experts to effectively connect the dots and synthesize the most important insights and perspectives.
Setting egos aside to establish a safe space to fail
It is equally important to foster a culture of constructive critique, where egos are set aside and ideas are respectfully evaluated. That is, establishing a safe space to fail where team members feel comfortable enough sharing their thoughts and sketches, even if they may be rough or “ugly.” And even if boundaries between roles are trespassed.
It should be okay for a designer to ponder about and suggest new revenue streams, cost cuttings, or go-to-market strategies. Similarly, it should be okay for a Product Manager to ponder about and suggest new ways a check-out page can be enriched with upsells, a new feature can wired out, or to interview a customer.
The design might be ugly. The revenue model might be crude. It might not work. But it’s a good foundation to continue.
The results of such role-boundary trespassing activities are assumptions and hypotheseses that can be further examined, explored, and tested.
The interesting question is whether we as product managers or designers are able to put our egos aside and see the incoming suggestion as a starting point for a co-creation process of further investigation. As input that, because its shared across disciplines, will help build up a shared understanding of the product, its context, and its inherent opportunities and challenges.
It’s a communication problem
A team will always produce better work than a solo person. Teams would benefit from designers taking over from the product manager, whenever the product manager is away (vacation, sabbatical, or sick leaves). A fruitful designer and product manager collaboration is a closely aligned one.
Many product managers lack the confidence to draw what’s inside their head. Probably because some people down the line told them they can’t draw or that’s not their role. But the last thing you want as a designer (or product manager) is having good people around with good ideas, but being afraid to bring them forward.
Communicating to team members that there are kinds of work, they are not allowed to do – due to their role, mandate, or responsibility – will hinder the team in reaching their full potential.
Allowing yourself to spend energy being annoyed with team members trespassing the boundaries of your role, is putting a break on building alignment, a shared understanding, trust, and ultimately your own autonomy as an individual contributor.
Inception vs execution
However, we shouldn’t mix up the phase of divergence, collecting problems, ideas, and building a shared understanding, the the phase of convergence. In the latter, designers are the domain level experts in connecting the dots between customer problems and proposing thought-through solutions bringing the most important customer insights and perspectives into consideration.
Similarly, design execution and specs (if you do those) will be done by designers – although I would argue that a team should always ask themselves whether a designer is needed or if it’s such a small change that a developer can take it on.
Paint more ugly mock-ups, please
So product manager: go ahead and draw more ugly mock-ups!
As long as we respect each other’s critique in a constructive way, leaving egos behind, ti’s all good. If you are lucky enough to work in a cross-functional team, embrace it’s diversity and get the most out of it. Giving people of all skills a chance to enact and share ideas is crucial to your teams success.
You might be surprised how some of the most basic and crude illustrations done by stakeholders or customers spark great ideas and help provide direction to an entire project.
As product managers and designers, it is important to recognise the value of each team member’s expertise and roles within the organisation. But we shouldn’t kill a good conversation starter.
There can be significant benefits of encouraging team members to contribute ideas and participate in the design process, even if it means crossing into traditionally “off-limits” territory.