The Permissionless Collaborator

Over the last 13 years, I've worked on teams at startup, mid-market and enterprise companies.

And depending on the situation, there are four areas of variance experienced by design contributors:

  1. Breadth vs. depth of work
  2. Research fidelity
  3. Strategic agency
  4. Collaboration

And after years of interviewing designers across company sizes, only one of these areas stands out as being consistently different across company maturities: collaboration.

If you're working in an immature product environment, your career can be impacted by dysfunctional collaboration experiences.

I'm going to give you some examples of permissionless collaboration in those situations.

"What got you here won't get you there."

If you've never worked in a mature collaborative environment, it might be hard to have a sense of self-awareness about what it means to add value as a designer through cross-functional collaboration.

Let's quickly explore why this happens.

​Harvard Business Review details the 5 phases of organizational growth:

  1. Creativity: Bias towards action to achieve product-market fit
  2. Direction: First stage of job lanes, directors leading the charge
  3. Delegation: Departments take shape with POCs
  4. Coordination: Formal planning activities and systems
  5. Collaboration: Strong interpersonal collaboration to overcome red-tape

Earlier stage companies benefit from more creative and scrappy activities while later-stage companies would surely fail without more structure and coordination.

It's not to say that supporting your team through their methods is necessarily bad. Sometimes, this is the best way to add value.

But if you find yourself wanting to work for a more mature company and you're being rejected, your lack of experience with mature collaboration is likely part of the reason.

The following examples aren't perfect - and they require stepping out of your comfort zone - but these are real-world examples of how I've helped companies when the organization lacked maturity.

6 ways to empower your partners without asking for permission

1. Partner: Product Management

Ask PM where they're at in the early stage of a PRD. Help them out by creating a quick ERD (entity relationship diagram) of known entities and how they might map to one another in the product. This will facilitate a productive conversation with engineering, give you a headstart on workflow clarity, and free up some time for PM.

2. Partner: Growth or RevOps

Ask about Product Growth's upcoming initiatives. Create a small library of UI visuals that they can use when proposing new experiments to stakeholders (e.g. feature activation, onboarding, etc). Your visuals will strengthen their case for a priority they believe in and speed up the delivery come time to implement.

3. Partner: Customer Support

Ask Support about how they're capturing "how to" documentation. Create a scrappy process for helping them document new UI updates to reduce the cost of future UI changes. Formalize this process with the rest of your design team and improve the acceptance rate of proposed UI improvements.

4. Partner: Sales

Ask Sales about the most common customer rejections. Invite them to a 60-minute workshop to capture their solution. Surface this solution as a neat idea to a relevant product team (and tag the sales team for credits). They'll appreciate being heard and you might identify a worthwhile pain point that wasn't obvious to others.

5. Partner: Product Marketing

Ask Marketing how they're messaging the upcoming feature release. Identify a marketing POC and meet with them on an infrequent but regular cadence before feature releases. The goal is to sanity check that the customer's in-product experience matches the expectation being messaged (e.g. using the same naming conventions, product screenshots, etc).

6. Partner: Engineering

Ask Engineering how they're referencing reusable components. What documentation are they using? What is great about that documentation? What would they improve? Take their feedback and make improvements. Send engineering pods a brief weekly e-mail outlining new features of the documentation (e.g. URLs of new libraries, new components, etc). Providing visibility into knowledgeshare improvements will increase usage and earn more trust.

It's easy to forget the value of design is ultimately amplified by our ability to improve the conversations happening with our customers and within our teams through the use of visuals.

Consider how you might help your cross-functional peers improve the quality of their conversations and regardless of the activity you choose, you'll be on the right track.


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