All good companies grow, bringing inevitable change in the process. While some organizations hide from change, others such as Shopify openly embrace it. Since 2006, Shopify has grown from a five-person startup selling snowboarding equipment to a team of over 4,000 working in five offices across North America. One of the secrets to their success is a growth mindset, and bringing on talented people who “thrive on change,” one of Shopify’s core values.

Lynsey Thornton, Shopify’s VP of UX / GM of Core Product, knows change well. Over the past six and a half years, she’s helped to grow Shopify’s multi-disciplinary design team to take on the challenges of designing products at scale. Looking forward to her Design Leadership Days presentation, “Growth: The Bull in the China Shop,” we revisited some of her lessons learned and tips she shared with InVision. Read on for insights on how to grab change by the horns and grow as a design leader.

Mind the Design Leadership Skills Gap

While discussions around business are becoming more and more prevalent in design and UX today, there’s still a sizable gap between what designers know and what they need to know to be successful design leaders. The lack of leadership training, ability and confidence poses a significant challenge for the industry. 

“There's very little management training that happens as part of tech or design degrees, that's part of the reason so many people struggle later when they are faced with the opportunity to go for a management role. I wouldn't have been prepared to understand business strategy and operations as a whole, and how to lead a larger team. Yes, you learn many of these skills on the job, but it was very advantageous for me to have that business angle coming in.”

Lynsey Thornton

Lynsey gained an edge from a personal interest in business, as she pursued an MBA in e-commerce rather than a master’s in animation. Shopify also offers in-house training to help develop new skills across the company. In terms of additional resources, Lynsey recommends books such as Don’t Make Me Think, Remote Research and Creativity, Inc., but says she’s found it challenging to find resources to address more specific leadership challenges. For real-world insights, she turns to peers, attending events and taking advantage of learning opportunities within the design leadership community.

To develop a design leadership pipeline, Shopify seeks out team members who may be interested in a leadership role, while also offering support to those who assume a leadership role, but aren’t fully ready. Shopify is also mindful of people who would like to continue contributing at an individual level rather than building or growing large teams.

Let the Reorgs Roll

As companies scale and as teams grow, they often face challenges of their teams reorganizing. In Lynsey’s experience, reorganization is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when, and trying to determine the right time for it.

Reorgs lead to “FUD” (as InVision calls it): fear, uncertainty and doubt. Lynsey’s advice is to help people understand that there is a plan, and to focus on the new opportunities that the reorg brings, and the positives. One-on-ones are effective for addressing fears on an individual basis, and mass communication helps to keep those indirectly affected informed.

“It’s almost like buying shoes for a toddler…The team is like fumbling along in shoes that are a little bit too big for it for a while, as we build up the team to fill out the gaps that any sort of reorg exposes—and every reorg exposes gaps.”

Lynsey Thornton

At Shopify, they try to do forward-planning with individual leads, to get a sense of what teams might look like in the next year, and how they should start preparing for growth. But, like any well-laid plan, things can be all tidy and set, only to change weeks later.

How to Structure Your Design Team

In terms of which structures work best for design teams—centralized, decentralized or hybrid—there are pros and cons to each. Lynsey cautions that no single model is a silver bullet. You call pull out parts of each to suit your goals. Be specific in your own objectives and what your own team and company need to determine the right approach.

Also, be open to looking outside of tech, UX and design organizations for inspiration. Organizations such as architecture firms, building companies and others operating huge creative teams can offer valuable insights.

At Shopify, they have a strong culture of servant leadership. The goal is to create conditions for great work rather than just issuing directives. Experimenting with different types of leadership such as local leadership, discipline leadership, project-based leadership and so on, Shopify found a mix worked best to support individual needs for growth as well as different project and company needs.

Design Systems for Better Products, Faster

At Shopify, they noticed that design styles and systems started to diverge over the years—they didn’t quite feel like a family. To get that cohesion back, they underwent a monumental cross-team branding exploration that ultimately led to Polaris, Shopify’s comprehensive design system. 

Now, with guidelines for content, design, components, patterns and more, teams don’t have to reinvent the wheel time and time again. And Polaris is regarded as a floor rather than the ceiling. It’s a foundation to build upon and even challenge during reviews to keep the evolution going. With some of the more basic decision-making squared away, Shopify’s design team can focus on bigger problems while also speeding up the quality and velocity at which prototyping can happen.

Thriving on Change

A lot has changed over the years, and that’s sure to be the constant going forward. One of the keys to thriving in change is an openness to continuous learning and a willingness to seek out new challenges. If you’re ready to evolve your role and organization, join Lynsey and fellow design leaders at Design Leadership Days Seattle this September 18–20.

Image via Shopify

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