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I've just joined a SaaS company as Head of Design in which I'm leading a team of Product Designers. I learned after a couple weeks that there are also designers under the Marketing team who seem to be treated as pixel pushers for Sales and Marketing, creating sales docs and making small changes to the marketing site. Basically an endless stream of requests from Sales.

I'm thinking of pushing to create a Design structure at this company in which no designer reports to a non-designer and we can create shared design goals. Essentially, all designers, regardless of specialty, would belong to my single Design team with shared goals and be embedded in different teams, such as Marketing. This way I can have my designers' backs, we can easily learn from and collaborate with each other, and we can tackle the entire platform in a more holistic way.

Does anyone have any experience with the structure I'm proposing or see any holes, red flags, etc? I'm also curious of any particular examples of this structure. Politically, this is pretty tough since it can be seen as stealing resources so I need as much ammo as possible.

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  • Are you also in charge of these designers that are currently with marketing? If not, who is leading them?
    – DarkCygnus
    Jan 17 at 20:57
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    "designers under the Marketing team... basically an endless stream of requests from Sales" - if this drives revenue, it sounds a useful setup. Check before you make changes. A single Design team with shared goals sounds nice, but how does it benefit the rest of the company? Jan 17 at 22:29
  • You're going to run into conflicts. Marketing departments tend to be more in "right now" mode and oblivious to software release cycles.
    – Xavier J
    Jan 18 at 17:08
  • @DarkCygnus, they're currently being led by the Head of Marketing
    – CalmTom
    Jan 18 at 19:06

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I think the question you haven't answered in your post is what problem are you looking to solve, and how will your change solve it? I've worked with both types of organizations before- single function teams and cross functional teams. The have different pros and cons, I wouldn't say that either is 100% better than the rest.

Cross functional pros:

  • Who is responsible for helping on a project is clear.
  • The contributor is close to the group working on a project and is more informed about the project. This makes it easier for them to work towards those goals.
  • Individual contributors are more responsive, it's easy to get requests through.

Cross functional cons:

  • Lack of support for developing skills.
  • Lack of organizational support for the goals of your specialty. (For example, tackling tech debt, or optimizing for company wide branding changes)
  • Your direct manager may not understand your specialty.

If you have a problem with one of the cross functional cons, changing structure may help. But it will come at a cost of the pros. So build your argument around what you think the problems are, how this will solve it, and how you'll avoid the cons of a single specialty team structure.

In particular, you seem to have a problem with lots of change requests. Will this actually fix it? Or will you still have a huge incoming stream except now there's more red tape around it? Why do you have so many change requests- would it be better to address the root cause of that (bad requirements, lack of an approval process, other specialties not understanding/valuing the amount of work changes costs, etc)? I actually don't think just changing org types will fix your problem. You'd need to change org types, then you'd need to use your now more concentrated political power to make changes to actually reduce the requests. So you're at least 2 steps out. Unless the lack of political power is insurmountable, it may not actually be the fastest way to the end.

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This is the classic problem in any matrix organization: do you draw reporting lines along functions or projects? If one approach would be clearly better everyone would be doing it, but that's not the case. Most orgs bounce back and forth occasionally or do a hybrid that's tuned to their specific needs.

If you want to try this, here are things to consider:

  1. Do your homework. Clearly identify the problem, the possible solutions and work in detail through the pros and cons of ALL possible solutions, not just the one you are proposing
  2. Focus on the business outcome of each solution. What generates the most revenue, shortest time to market, lowest development cost/overhead, etc. Whatever the current business metrics of your organization are. "Looks better on an org chart" is not going to cut it
  3. If your solution looks the best by objective & quantitative metrics, you can proceed.
  4. Now that you have convinced yourself, you need to figure out how to convince the rest of the organization
  5. Focus on the people who would mostly be negative affected by the change. These would probably be project managers, whoever is accountable to shipping on time and budget and the current managers of the people you want to grab (since you are reducing their head count).
  6. Talk to them: Make sure you fully understand their current situation and point of view. Identify how THEY would benefit from the solution and explain how you will accommodate their needs.
  7. Once you feel you have critical mass and support, you can flesh out a detailed plan (including new org chart, roles and responsibilities, transition plans, staffing plans, etc.) and shop it around for review.
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Does anyone have any experience with the structure I'm proposing or see any holes, red flags, etc?

Sounds like you are proposing quite a big change.

You need to understand why the current structure exists and who put it in place, before you attempt a power grab, IMHO. You need to figure out who will benefit (beside you) and who will lose out. Your structure might make sense or it might not. But knowing the "why" and the "who" can make your push more powerful

I'm also curious of any particular examples of this structure.

I worked in a company that likes to do reorgs quite often. I consolidated everyone in my domain who was previously disbursed and had them all working for me at one point and I liked it. Pretty sure my team did too. It seemed to work very well. I also had my team broken up and working for other department managers. I didn't like that much and the team members I lost didn't seem pleased either. It didn't matter to the company - they did what they wanted. I was told consolidating was better for the company. Then later I was told disbursing was better for the company. I didn't have enough clout and had to go along with it. Oh well. Later on, I was reorged to work for a remote boss who had completely different ideas altogether. So it goes.

Politically, this is pretty tough since it can be seen as stealing resources so I need as much ammo as possible.

You need to have a pretty good reason for such a change and need to find a way to convince management that it's in their best interest.

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In general, cross-functional teams have some advantages, but having good working relationships between the designers or the developers allows your organization to improve cohesion between different projects and the development of common ways of working.

Especially in design, it might be helpful if everybody knows, agrees with, and helps move forward the corporate identity rules across projects. Similar for developers, where shared knowledge and values may ease horizontal mobility between projects according to demand and may help create a mature development culture.

My suggestion would be to keep the team structures intact but reserve some resources for cross-team collaboration on issues that are important for the organization as a whole. This could mean reserving some time for workshops on design or development topics, or creating virtual meeting spaces for discussing issues related to the specialist's area.

This would still require change, which is something that needs to be well-motivated, but it's not as disruptive and therefore might have better chances of being implemented. In particular, if you emphasize the benefits such a structure may have on the organization as a whole in terms of mobility and improved quality due to cross-team interchange, you might be more able to sell this to higher management.

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