The Creative Technologist Blog

There is a pervasive stereotype in the engineering community around this idea that those who build are robotic machines that ought to be celebrated based on how many work items they can move off some task list created by product managers.

Inversely, designers and creatives are often mocked behind closed doors by those very same people for not having the technical knowledge to understand how their designs are built. Usually, product managers and developers use words like "idealist" and "visual" as derogatory remarks against early-stage design concepts.

Why You Should Care

The difference between a good developer and a great developer often comes down to their soft skills and creative thinking. Understanding the end-user and how to use human-centered design principles and creative processes to add a splash of art to their development process leads to the most clever implementations. There are often small gaps in design where an engineer must understand the intention and reason behind what they are building so that the assumptions made to finish the project are as accurate as possible.

On the other side of the coin, the best creatives deeply understand their work material. Just as a sculpture knows the material science of clay to manifest their visions without fighting their medium, a designer must understand the technical limitations and how their designs are made with just enough understanding to inform their creative process. Any creative technique that is not equally attuned to the implementation and execution of any vision will fall short of making anything meaningful.

Ultimately, any project manager who wants their team to succeed needs to allow for cross-experience cooperation by exposing developers to design challenges and designers to development challenges.

The Goal: T Shaped Person

A T-shaped person has a broad range of skills with a single specialization. There are extensive articles on why T-shaped people make for ideal team members and are essential for growth. I want to focus more on how managers and directors can facilitate T-shaped growth rather than making a case for the importance of T-shaped development since the implementation is where most project managers struggle the most.

I-shaped vs generalist vs T-shaped by Jason Yip

As a director or manager on a project, especially with strict deadlines, it's challenging to imagine your creatives or technologists doing anything other than working on their current committed work items, so I can imagine the hesitancy of potentially slowing them down. However, hear me out:

You do not have to slow down deliverables or a project to facilitate personal growth among your team members.

Your team members want this as well. It's well known that money alone won't keep your best talent. If a team member does not experience growth, they will leave. It's worth investing a little time now to prevent a catastrophic long-term reduction in productivity.

Rethinking Expectations

There is a level of rigidity within the development and creative space that we need to rethink. Designs are usually made in a vacuum and handed off to developers. Instead of trickling down deliverables as dependencies, the entire team must engage the project at the early strategic concept level. Involving designers and developers in the strategy side does mean program managers need to learn to trust their team more.

Establish Guard Rails

The role of the designer and developer needs to focus on creating guard rails for the other members. In a T-shaped person, the designer will never know the development intricacies to the degree a developer will, just as a developer will never know design principles to the same degree as the developer.

Developers need to collaborate on implementation guidelines that help designers identify complex ideas from simple ideas within their existing technology stack. Designers already do this with their brand guidelines and design compositions. For this process, designers should make their compositions general and create more high-level "Do"s and "Do Not"s with assets and tokens seen more as guidelines than requirements.

Embrace Agile

If you're not familiar with Agile, it is a rapid development and design process that emphasizes short-cycle iterations that allow your team to respond to rapid changes in production requirements. There are plenty of excellent resources online for using Agile. I won't go too in-depth into Agile specifically here since people have already written about it to death. If you're not familiar, give that a read first since I'm assuming you've at least heard of it before.

A few points on Agile, though:

Most managers and directors do not use Agile as it's intended.

Instead, we see Agile ceremonies crammed into thinly veiled waterfall dependency cycles, creating rigid walls between specialties in agencies. Managers will pass ideas down to creatives, passing those designs down to developers.

Cascading of deliverables as dependencies is a waterfall.

Embracing Agile is only half the battle. Your team needs to learn how to take advantage of Agile principles to promote cross-discipline interaction within your process.

Restructuring the team

There are a few ideas here we have explored in the past. I have rated each team structure on three metrics based on the experience we've had in working alongside other agencies and creative teams. These metrics are only backed by our experiences since there is no way to quantify the efficacy of each structure. However, these three metrics give us a way to compare the systems through the same lens of analysis.

Metric Description
Cross-Pollination The number of opportunities for collaboration and T-shaped growth. The more walls between specializations, the lower this score the system will receive.
Individual Agency The level of control individuals have over their work. Rigid hierarchies and approval processes tend to correlate with decreased individual agency.
Predictability How predictable is this team? Giving more agency to team members can sometimes come at the cost of predictability.
Complexity How difficult is this to organize? More complex team structures require additional ceremonies and more burden to the leadership teams.

Now onto the team structures; for this, let's assume six positions: a developer, a designer, a copywriter, a project manager, a creative director, and an account executive. These are common positions across ad agencies, development agencies, and even internal digital teams at brands (replacing the account executive for a stakeholder such as a program manager).

We're not going to focus on the particulars of each role here. Instead, we want to focus on the idea of the team structure and apply that to whichever roles you have in your organization. These ideas will apply to any creative production-focused team.

Scrum Team

Metric Rank
Cross-Pollination ⭐️⭐️
Individual Agency ⭐️
Predictability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Complexity ⭐️

Scrum teams are traditionally how these teams are organized. We'll often see a scrum master included in the mix too. These are the simplest teams to manage and are likely what you're used to.

These teams allow for predictable workflows and are fairly rigid. They draw strong lines between each discipline—work items from the primary stakeholders down to the workers linearly. There are few opportunities for cross-collaboration due to the nature of this structure's deliverables. However, what is lost in sacrificing cross-pollination is gained in predictability.

This is great if you're building something mission-critical that cannot fail; however, most of us are not building spaceships so this level of risk aversion is unnecessary.

Innovation Cells

Metric Rank
Cross-Pollination ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Individual Agency ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Predictability ⭐️
Complexity ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Innovation cells move incredibly quickly by empowering small strike teams to take on aspects of a larger project. Instead of handing down requirements, we hand down micro-briefs that outline a specific outcome expected by the central cell.

The central cell comprises our primary stakeholder, project manager, and creative director. They work to translate stakeholder requirements into micro-briefs that are passed along to each innovation cell. Each cell is ultimately in charge of how that outcome is accomplished without oversight from the central cell. The central cell's only job here is to write the acceptance criteria for the outcome they want to see.

In an application development scenario, this might take the form of a feature request documented by the central cell that is entirely researched, designed, and developed by the innovation cell.

Or in an advertising agency, this might take the form of a specific production project completely owned by the smaller cell without oversight from the creative director.

This structure maximizes cross-pollination by forcing small teams to work together in startup-like conditions. This does come at the cost of predictability and leadership needs to give a significant amount of trust to their teams for this to work.

Innovation cells are the most successful when time is invested in creating guardrails that prevent deliverables from the innovation cells from deviating too far from possible acceptable outcomes. The need for robust brand guidelines and strategic alignment makes this system much more complex than traditional scrum teams.

Sociocracy Circles

Metric Rank
Cross-Pollination ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Individual Agency ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Predictability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Complexity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sociocracy is an entire management framework for enabling democratic processes within larger organizations. This remedies some of the predictability problems of the innovation cell model at the cost of even more complexity and slightly reduced individual autonomy.

Since Sociocracy is a complex team structure and project management framework, we'll only touch on the surface. However, the idea is to have circles and sub circles that contain and own aspects of the project.

This framework strikes a balance between predictable deliverables and allowing cross-discipline pollination of ideas. At Wyrmix, we've found this structure produces the most opportunities for T-shaped growth while enabling project managers and account executives to communicate expectations with stakeholders.

You can learn more about Sociocracy here:

Sociocracy - basic concepts and principles
Brief overview of sociocracy: basic concepts and principles, history, its use in organizations, its limits and differences to voting, consensus and hierarchical forms of organizing.

A Small Piece of a Larger Puzzle

Team structure organization is one fragment of a fractally infinite number of ways to set your team up for success. A director or manager's goal for their team should always be T-shaped growth for their team. In the future, we'll publish more about how to nurture T-shaped growth in a creative production team.

You’ve successfully subscribed to Augmented
Welcome back! You’ve successfully signed in.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.