This essay is about sharing the insights and learnings I derived from my experiences at a large organisation, that can help you be more effective if you’re in a similar situation.
This is the third instalment in the series of essays.
📖 My previous writing on this
This time around, I’ve split up the essay by threads so it’s more organised and easier to follow.
The topics are written from the point of view of a senior designer but you’d find them to be relevant for other domains too.
Let’s start ~
👤 Building identity through ownership
A common side-effect of working in large organisations is not being able to carve out your identity – ‘What am I known for? What do I bring to this org?’
- If you seek to create an identity for yourself, it is possible to build one. A straightforward way to start is to be associated with a part of the product systematically – the more specific the better.
- Once you become a domain expert for the part of the product, that becomes your identity. Identity is the outcome of you demonstrating ownership consistently.
- With an identity, it’s easier to have people come to you for collaboration (because of your ownership), direction (because of your assumed understanding) and guidance (because of your depth).
- All of those inbound connects lead to an increase in your visibility across the organisation, awareness about your work and your expertise.
- Additionally, see if you can extend this expertise or domain knowledge into a ‘consultation’ role in your company across different product areas.
- You don’t own a surface until your colleagues and others in the organisation recognise that you own the surface. Ownership signal emanates from others. You have to work to create the perception of ownership. Take help from your manager and skip manager who can help with this – sometimes through a direct wider communication.
👁 Hawking information
I love this topic. In a large organisation, there’s always a ton of things happening. You cannot be aware of them all (you don’t need to). There’s a healthy amount of goings on that you can benefit from – information that can add colour to your understanding of priorities and roadmaps, and even give you some indirect feedback on your work.
You could argue that this could become too much if you focus solely on this, and to that I’ll say: Your efficacy in a company and to the product you’re working on is strongly correlated with the access to information you have in your organisation.
Think of large organisations as leaky pipelines of communication. Stuff doesn’t automatically reach you or your teammates. Even when it does, everyone’s version is different and it often feels like a giant game of Chinese Whisper.
Develop a network of folks who will share information with you. These folks would usually be your direct teammates.
If all your information only ever flows to you via your manager, you’re at their discretion for how much you come to know of.
This could limit your organisational awareness because the burden of pushing all the information is on a single person – your manager. Also, because of the single-person bias, you run the risk of lacking a rounded coverage.
Additionally, if you develop a good repertoire with not just your peers but also your seniors, you greatly expand your information influx. Your seniors get to be on meetings you don’t, so they’re very valuable for you to receive that high altitude view of the goings on.
If your own organisation chain is struggling to pass on information proactively, see if you can form a lateral bond with your cross-functional peers to work around this limitation. Sometimes your own management chain can have intrinsic insecurities (it’s possible) preventing flow of certain information that the lateral relationships can circumvent.
I’ve had great success by being tight with the PMs who can be excellent conduits of valuable information.
Remember that the more versions you hear, the stronger your understanding of the hivemind gets and the more accurately you can calibrate different stakeholders’ expectations.
I’ve often found very interesting alternate takes by talking to more people who were in the same meeting.
📅 Calendar stalking is great to build a better ‘peripheral awareness’. Most colleagues would have their calendars visible and you can learn a lot about the ongoing discussions & priorities, what’s being reviewed, projects people are spending more/less time on and so on.
I’ve been thinking how long you keep doing this in your career and found an interesting take: You chase information in an organisation until you reach a point when you generate information.
🤝 Managing your manager
People ask this to me a lot. I used to struggle with this but have gotten a lot better over the years so I am comfortable sharing some notes.
Managing your manager is key to succeeding in a company.
Managing your manager has 3 key components:
- Setting the right long-term expectations
- Continuously talking to inform and course-correct
- Evaluate at the end
That’s the long-term plan.
How can you start and what can you do day to day?
First of all, you need to get talking with your manager on a regular cadence. It is very much a journey and a long one that should result in you and the manager both succeeding.
I have some thoughts on running the manager 1:1s:
First and foremost, the rhythm and regularity are more important than the total time you spend talking. Think of manager conversations as slow concentrated drips (hmm, weird?).
If your manager isn’t aware of your achievements & wins on an ongoing basis, they run the risk of going unrecognised. To ensure you talk about them with your manager, a regular cadence of meetings is important.
This point above will explain the agenda I created for my manager meetings. The agenda format ensures I can give a continuous narrative and that the manager is aware of the achievements.
Agenda for your manager 1:1s: At a high-level, structure your 1:1 conversations around your work situation and your response to that situation.
- 🔥 What are you dealing with? [complexity of projects and challenges along your way]
- 💦 How are you responding to it? [your work & progress so far, next steps, impact and achievements]
- 🧯 How can the manager help? [blockers, escalations, career conversations]
Sharing your situation with your manager informs them about the difficulty & complexity of your job, and sharing your response informs them about your competence & impact.
In performance reviews, you’re rewarded for both - getting into complex situations and responding with impact.
If you ever need to skip your manager 1:1, move it instead of canceling it. It’s hard to bridge a several weeks long narrative gap by talking for 1 hour straight.
This regularity builds trust. Your manager starts to empower you even more and sets you up for more scope and success.
Let’s zoom out a little and look at the larger picture –
🏆 Expectations & evaluation
Periodically, your should co-evaluate your performance against the expectations you set with your manager. This can be a quarterly, 6-monthly or a yearly exercise. If you’ve done your regular cadence right, there shouldn’t be many surprises in the evaluations and you should expect to be rewarded fairly.
Assume positive intent. Your manager has good intentions and wants you to succeed. It’s their job to help you succeed.
Ask for help when you need it. Your manager wants to get involved and would love any chance to help out. This could be about many things – offloading extra work, needing time off, brainstorming for a dead-end project, escalating a difficult situation and so on.
Recognise what’s above your paygrade and engage your manager when you do. Your manager should be your default line of communication for all your issues that you cannot solve yourself. For the ones you solve yourself, you should still always FYI your manager.
If you report to a manager who isn’t involved in your area of work, it’s even more of a responsibility for you to aggressively overcommunicate. You can add them into email threads where you demonstrate impact, you can forward them threads where you resolve a complex issue or you can even keep sending them small updates every other day.
Managers aren’t interested in micro-managing as much as they are in keeping aware of how things are going for you. When they reach out or have questions for you or your work, it’s to fill gap(s) in their understanding so that they can represent an accurate picture upwards (to leads, directors and so on), so don’t fret and reply promptly.
Good managers stress way more about getting the direction right compared to the velocity or destination. They keep nudging you to sweep your radar wider and wider before you zero in.
Some of you might have a hybrid IC-manager. This is a great opportunity to have crits where you can go deep into your work and debate with them about the details of your craft. Although these could get tricky if the manager oversee projects themselves but there’s still enough room to turn this relationship into design partnership – a valuable bond nonetheless.
📢 Creating strategic megaphones
There are mainly 2 strategies here:
- Building artefacts for your work
- Using your allies to amplify those artefacts and you
The order is important here because your allies cannot do much without you doing the work first.
📝 Building artefacts
The organisation usually is very bad at relying on memory, understandably so because there are so many people and they’re all busy with different things.
So what’s the solution? Create an artefact and name your work. This is literally the first skill you learn in order to be effective in an organisation.
You cannot talk about something (even your work) if you cannot name it.
So let’s get to building them –
An artefact is a living document that shares a story of why your project exists, what it does and how it works. It’s also shareable and collaboration-friendly.
Specifically, artefacts are tangible documents / slide decks on your projects. The Figma/Sketch files are not the artefacts because they still pose an entry-barrier to other stakeholders and hence are relatively inaccessible.
Once you have the artefacts ready, they basically become eyeball magnets – the more your work overlaps with other designers, the more you’d have people looking at your artefact, commenting on it, appreciating the thought and effort that went into it and so on.
Create a memorable link, open up the artefact for comments and share it out. Send a few emails starting with your immediate team, then your manager, other peripheral teams/members and so on. Get some traction going.
Here are some benefits you can expect from this exercise –
- People get interested in your work more
- You align ideas + execution approaches with your narrative
- Colleagues share out the artefacts without needing you (impact multiplication)
- Artefacts become tangible proofs of impact at perf evaluation time
Now let’s look at the second important piece of this – Building your allies.
💪 Building your allies
We talked about seeking out information from the organisation in this essay. The information that comes in… but what about the work and its impact that needs to propagate out into the org to be recognised and multiplied?
This is where having allies is useful.
Think of a water plumbing infrastructure for yourself in the organisation – water is your work, ideas and artefacts. But you need the pipelines to make the water flow and reach places. The pipelines are people and communication channels.
To start building ally-ship with your closest colleagues, you need to involve them in your work. You can discuss your approaches to solutions in your weekly 1:1s with them, and use that time to drive alignment.
Once your closest colleagues buy into your work, their connections, meetings they get to be on and their visibility to the leadership – all become the outlets for your work and thinking.
You cant reach everywhere in the organisation yourself, so you need influential colleagues to help spread your work and artefacts around. The more connected and aligned you are with your colleagues, the farther your ideas reach.
Here’s what I do – right after I finish an artefact, I share it to my senior PM, engineers and a few group aliases to start the initial momentum. Once I do that, the people in the email thread start adding more folks to the conversation and it snowballs into a movement.
Then you add the link to your team newsletter email, mention it in the team meetings and weekly syncs and so on. Folks start leaving comments in and more specific and advanced conversations begin. A job well done.
Here are 2 specific cohorts where you can look for allies –
- Circle of control: These are people for whom you control a specific domain (design, product, engineering and so on) and are responsible for making direct contributions to that domain.
- Circle of influence: These are people (and teams) on the periphery of your direct team – these are folks you can influence (but don’t control nor contribute directly to) with your work.
🌊 Choosing flow over formatting
A common reservation I hear from people against the velocity of creating artefacts is the inherent desire to make it perfect. This is counterproductive.
In most cases, an artefact with a coherent narrative created in a timely manner is way more important than one that is ‘perfectly formatted’.
There’s also an interesting paradox – Formatting is overrated not only because it takes a lot of time and adds overhead, but also because formatting is unnatural to consume and hinders the flow.
Write and document things to be read. Design such that it can be understood.
Create artefacts in service of a conversation. The goal of driving your point home should supersede your need to maintain a structure in your artefacts. Resort to a conversational tone instead of striving for a symmetrical structure.
When you create artefacts that always force a title, subtitle, narrative, fixed-sized mocks and a certain content structure, they leave no room for an organic conversational tone. They are devoid of human voice. Use just enough structure and not more – optimise for speed.
Keeping artefacts conversation-friendly would take away your overhead and make it comparatively low-effort to churn out more of them in time.
⏳ Managing your time
A very interesting topic indeed, let’s talk about it.
Working in a large organisation is a lot like trying to meditate while sitting out in an ongoing storm. There is a ton of things going on everyday.
Your inbox is constantly flooded, you’re being looped into meetings and conversations, you’re asked for last-minute designs for an exec review, there are 3 chat windows open with the dreaded ‘Hey!’ …we’ve all been there.
I told you a few sections ago above that once you establish an identity and surface expertise in the organisation, you’d have a lot of people reaching out to you for collaboration and consultation. While this is great, you need to be strategic about this: Of all the requests you got, which ones are high-value with high-impact? Prioritise them.
For incoming requests about collaboration or work, I ask for a note over email. Based on the note I can defer or delegate the work better. If I have to defer, this is how I do it: The less context I have on the request, the farther out the meeting goes.
Spend time on things you have high context of. Getting immersed in too many projects with low context is counterproductive (bad for holistic impact, bad for perf and certainly is bad optics).
I’ve never regretted asking for more time to finish something. In fact, this has made people respect my time and attention more.
You don’t need to do a 110% job at all the things you take on. Do exceptionally well on a few chosen things and an OK job on the rest. Take help of your manager for this pruning exercise.
You can say no to more work. In large organisations, you decide what comes on your plate and stays there. You don’t have to keep doing the work you don’t enjoy.
Create a personal work tracker and share it selectively. This tracker can help you keep track of all projects you’re working on, the artefacts you create, the people you’re working with for each of the projects and so on. This tracker will help you at the time of writing your performance assessment and also show you who you need to talk to to get topical/project-level feedback. Here’s a sample format of my tracker – edit it to suit your needs.
- I slice my work by weekly themes. Usually our projects follow a pattern where roughly every week, there’s a specific project workstream in full effect. This makes my job easier because I can then focus on that workstream for the 4 out of 5 workdays that week. Find out what cadence works for you.
- Try to achieve ~3 things everyday, not more. This has been beaten around a lot so it may sound cliched but it’s very effective nevertheless. Keeping it to 3 keeps your expectations in check and makes sure on most days you do get around to finishing them.
📅 Some calendar tips
- Block out time on your calendar with specific notes for people to know what’s okay in that time-block. I have 9am - 11am marked with ‘No 1:1s’. In 1:1s you require focus and attention and I’m not a morning person, so this block allows me to start my day slow. Group meetings are fine since I can just listen in.
If you’re an IC, meetings are not work. You need to work but also attend meetings. Choose wisely the meetings you decide to attend. Decline the rest.
- Cluster meetings to avoid hard context switches. My afternoons are full of meetings, but mornings are when I work solo.
- It’s better to jump on a 15 min video call than to try and parse a long chat/email thread you’ve been cc’d into. A video call can be a lot more efficient than wading through emails.
- Try 15 min default duration for meetings. People’s motivation to show up to shorter meetings is way more for shorter meetings.
🌅 Tip for a 4-day workweek
I’ve seen people straight up take entire Fridays off or Mondays off.
Here’s a better idea if you don’t want to completely block off an entire day –
Start your work at 1pm on Mondays and end early at 1pm on Fridays.
This smoothens out your week nicely – start easy on a Monday and end quietly on a Friday. Compare that to a Monday where you have stressful meetings, presentations or even a review which probably means you’re having to work your Sunday evening. Yeah, not fun.
So I decided to take no meetings on Monday mornings and also blocked off my entire Friday afternoons. It’s worked so far.
📩 Get the best out of your inbox
These are very straightforward, let’s breeze through –
Label your important emails so you can reference them later. I use the following labels to recall stuff later when needed:
- #Impact label: For emails that demonstrate you making valuable inputs using your domain expertise
- #Launch label: For emails that contain internal launch announcements
- #Appreciation label: For emails where you are praised for your regular or stretch contributions
- #Me label: To filter all emails out with mentions of your name – you need to read these
- #Manager label: To put emails from your manager at the top of your inbox, you don’t want to miss those
- #ImpArchive label: To remember all the software licenses, employment emails, HR benefits and perks and so on
Your specific labels could be different but the buckets I shared are useful. Pick what you like but set up a system.
😴 Working better
This section is very interesting. There are no 100% right answers here but I definitely have personal guidelines that have helped me a lot that I can share.
I’ve observed that by changing your response to commonplace scenarios at work, you can not only get better results but also significantly reduce stress.
Responding to pings right away and turning around work at a moment’s notice are traits I used to laud. These have not scaled well at all from my startup days now to a large organisation. Things get worse if you end up setting this ‘expectation’. This expectation is very difficult to break out of – “You used to respond instantly, what happened?”. Make sure you don’t end up setting your default behaviour into crisis mode.
Forming a habit of responding slowly is liberating. The only thing I ‘watch’ throughout the day is my calendar – if someone puts a meeting on it, that’s when I know it’s urgent and needs to be discussed.
Be reasonable to work with, open to changing your mind and good with micro-apologies. After a passionate debate, a short “I’m sorry it took me so long to understand this, thank you for taking the time to explain.” doesn’t hurt.
Form opinions slowly. Change them quickly.
And then welcome people when they change their opinions. It’s one of the most refreshing human traits.
Don’t speak with certainty when your confidence interval is large (when you’re not sure). In a discussion, reveal confidence intervals quickly. Example 1: “I believe this is the right way forward but I can be convinced otherwise.” Example 2: “I believe this is the right way forward but I don’t feel very strongly about it.”
Avoid sarcasm, self-deprecating humour and micro-aggressions. Occasional jokes are fine (in smaller forums though).
Try not to make sweeping remarks about anything – usually done by avoiding ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘only’, ‘mostly’ and so on.
Structured procrastination is very useful, you might already be doing it.
Often, issues go away if you ignore them (not the ones in Jira though and certainly not the ones in life – tread wisely).
If you hold back your response for a while, you might realise that a response wasn’t necessary at all.
Use Schedule Send.
Phew! If you made it this far, awesome – I applaud your patience. This essay took me over 8 months to draft and about ~1 month to edit. A lot of it was of course me procrastinating and finding reasons to not work on this.
Work right now is hard and we’re all trying to do our best so some of these notes help you with the difficulties you may be facing at work. Don’t hesitate to write to me if you want to talk more about any of this.
In the end, I leave you with this serene view from the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco –