Team Lead: What is it and Why Do We Care?
Here at Gaslight, we structure our teams very intentionally. Typically you’ll find one designer, two developers — sometimes you’ll find two designers, two developers, sometimes one designer four developers. While each team makeup is dependent on project needs, one thing is always present: a team lead. Now, you may be wondering, “Well, what the heck is that?” And you wouldn’t be crazy for asking; I asked the same thing when I started a little over a year ago. Luckily, that’s what I’m here to tell you. During my time at Gaslight, my understanding of a team lead has evolved dramatically. And in order to best explain how I’ve come to understand the role, I’d like to start at the beginning. Well, my beginning.
Started from the bottom, now we ‘ere.
When I started at Gaslight we had a lot of people who were really good at being a team lead, but no clear definition of what it meant to do so. Everyone had their own definition of the role and, while there was some overlap, those definitions differed quite a bit. Granted, I didn’t survey all of my co-workers for their respective definitions, but of the definitions I heard, the underlying theme was that team lead didn’t have a significant, distinct role within the team. You’d hear people explain team lead as the ‘point person’ for the client. Someone the client could reach out to with questions or concerns, or place responsibility on for what was happening with the project. Some people explained it as the person responsible for communicating with the client and scheduling the meetings. Really, I came to know the role as mostly a facade to help ease the client’s mind. I was wrong.
As I said, my understanding of the role has evolved. That evolution began when I started on my first project as the sole designer, ComputerEase. They’re pretty great. The project started with Doug as our team lead, who is a developer and co-founder here at Gaslight — he’s pretty great, too. About halfway through the engagement, Doug was needed for another project, which left us needing a team lead. I was fortunate enough to step into the role, and into one of the best learning experiences of my career. Our pretty-great-client-and-team-lead combo set us up for success, which really allowed me to focus on what it means to be a team lead without the distractions of fighting fires along the way. From that experience, I distilled the responsibilities of team lead into four areas.
1. Shared understanding
Shared understanding is something that we Gaslighters find invaluable. It’s about making sure that everyone is on the same page as far as goals, strategies, features, context, etc. You name it, we want to understand it at the same level as each other and our clients. It mitigates risk and keeps everyone happy and feeling good. But, for a team lead, it isn’t about shared understanding as a thing. It’s about facilitating it. It’s about asking the ‘dumb’ questions so that others feel comfortable to do the same. It’s about sharing your own understanding to make sure that it matches everyone else’s. And it’s about ensuring everyone feels comfortable at the end of every conversation.
2. Setting and reaching goals
Setting and reaching goals is a vital part of a successful project. We need to really dive into the ‘why’ of each project and build a shared understanding around it. And from that, we need to keep our goals at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s far too easy to get lost in the weeds and lose sight of what we’re really trying to accomplish. As team lead, make connections between what’s being done at a feature level and the goals and then make those connections visible. We have to keep an aerial view of the project to make sure that we don’t wander off track.
3. Maintaining focus
Building on the previous, we need to maintain focus. While we certainly need to keep an aerial view of our projects at all times, we also don’t need to know all the things, all at once. We need to keep our goals and our plans in mind, but we need to prioritize and focus on one thing at a time. “We don’t care about that yet,” is a common phrase you’ll hear during our project planning sessions. Trying to consider too many things at once only degrades our shared understanding and slows down our throughput — ain’t nobody got time for that.
Speaking of focusing on one thing at a time — making sure that we keep our focus on the right thing and not just anything is incredibly important. Prioritization is done through two filters: business goals and user goals. As a project team, we’ve been hired to help our clients reach their business goals, so we help our clients decide which features are going to get us there fastest. As designers and developers, we are advocates for our users and our top priority is building what’s best for them, while also reaching our client’s business goals.
We’ve come full circle
After the ComputerEase project ended, I started to organize my thoughts and learnings on what it means to be a team and reflecting on my previous understanding. I quickly realized that the team lead role is the furthest thing from a facade for the client’s benefit, but I also realized that I wasn’t completely off base, either. The role of team lead doesn’t have unique responsibilities: a team lead is just a really good Gaslighter. Everyone on the team is capable, encouraged and empowered to facilitate shared understanding, to remind the team of our goals and to keep us focused on the right things. The distinction comes in that the team lead is held accountable. It’s the responsibility of the team lead to make sure that those conversations happen, whether they’re leading them or not.