Beyond Pegs and Holes: An Ecosystem Approach to Hiring

 

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Bringing a team of designers into a non-design organisation can be daunting: there’s a very broad range of skills within and adjacent to the design landscape, and it can be a challenge defining exactly which of these are going to bring the most value to your business.

Moreover, the way designers tend to work is different to most other disciplines – the average tenure of most designers is about 3 years in any given role, not 10 or 20. We tend to stick around long enough to get a detailed understanding of how things work, learn the tools and skill sets that are new to us, and put those into practice, ideally delivering one or several products or services into the bargain. Then we move on to new challenges – either a different sector, a different kind of company, a role that will stretch our skills in new ways, or simply an interesting new problem to solve. Our career paths can be a real challenge to traditional management.

I find it helps to think about design careers in terms of chapters. Each chapter brings something new to the designer, but the changes can also be positive for the team – if they are understood and managed properly.

Instead of thinking of your design team as a list of job titles, think of it as a complex ecosystem of skills and collaborations. Working with a new team member gives the rest of the team a chance to absorb some of the benefit of the newcomer’s skills and experience and assimilate those into their own skill set. When one team member leaves and another joins, the members who’ve remained will need to put their skills to work slightly differently, learning again from the new addition and picking up in areas where the leaver has left a gap. It’s not like swapping out a fuse or a light bulb, and it shouldn’t be – a certain amount of turnover and change is healthy for a design team. It helps keep us fresh and on our toes, which enables us to keep solving problems in new, creative, productive ways.

As long as the core skills you need to deliver against your business goals are always present, you can embrace career chapters as a way to enable a lot of diversity and a healthy variety of experiences and perspectives to flow through your team. Seeing the people behind the job titles is the first step. Once you establish a healthy ecosystem, every new chapter will bring fresh energy and creativity into the team without compromising the critical path.

Working in an ecosystem is a great way for designers to develop, too. Instead of being defined (and limited) by their job title, they can gain experience in a variety of roles, exploring new areas of interest and possible new career directions while taking satisfaction in delivering great work. And we designers like to tell each other about the places we’ve loved to work. This is how companies become known as great employers in the design world. And once your business is known as a place to do great design work, you’ll become a hub for great talent.

It can be difficult to look beyond the square-peg-square-hole norm, but the effort is hugely rewarding.