Exposing Your Workload to Everyone
In addition to talking regularly with your manager—which I’ll get to later in this column—exposing your workload to all of the project sponsors with whom you work usually solves most workload conflicts before they become a problem. Let all of these project sponsors see the other projects with which they’re competing for your time. Create a spreadsheet for each of your ongoing projects and, at the outset of a new engagement with a project, share these spreadsheets with the new project’s sponsor—especially if you anticipate lofty expectations for your level of contribution or availability.
Go even further by demonstrating transparency with individual product-team members as your engagement with a team ramps up. Discuss your competing workloads during Daily Standup Meetings (DSUs) and in recurring communications. While you might not think gaining knowledge about your other work would benefit seemingly unrelated product teams, it does. Being transparent about your workload affects all your product teams, regardless of whether they realize it. Briefly discussing your competing workload might reveal previously unknown insights about cross-linkages and redundancies that exist between projects. Moreover, you can help product teams avoid duplicate efforts. You could save a product team the significant time they would have otherwise spent solving a problem for which a solution already exists.
Plus, if you foresee upcoming time conflicts, immediately share them with all your product teams so you can avoid periods during which you go dark—a problem that can be difficult to overcome. Be consistent. Consistency fosters predictability, which in turn fosters efficiency, which ultimately saves you time and effort. If you do fall behind on your work, you’ll lose momentum, and the time it takes to recapture your momentum can perpetuate a vicious cycle of being behind on your work—unless you work those long hours or weekends that, of course, lead to burnout.
Finally, maintaining transparency with all your product teams makes individual team members more sensitive to your availability, potentially encouraging them to give you more lead time to complete tasks. A win-win.
Getting Involved in Projects Early
As I described in my column, “Choosing Your Battles, Part 2,” when you’re onboarding with a new product team, engaging with the project as early in the product-development lifecycle as possible helps prevent your needing to play catchup or experiencing unnecessary churn. Lacking the necessary context or having to spend time unraveling ponderous design solutions resulting from a UX vacuum—which often happens when product teams don’t engage UX designers soon enough—squanders precious time.
Try to get involved in planning activities with each of your product teams as soon as possible. This enables you to better understand each team’s unique problem space and have a deeper impact on the resulting product user experiences. Moreover, earlier engagement lets you fail faster with your product teams, when risk is lower. If you must help one product team with late-breaking changes or reversing critical mistakes—which often leads to long hours and stress—all the other product teams that depend on you will experience that stress, too.
Choosing Your Battles
We must always choose our battles, but knowing when to acquiesce instead of taking a firm stance is a difficult skill to master—especially if you’re in an early stage of your career in User Experience or are new to your organization and still getting a feel for the culture. As I described in “Choosing Your Battles, Part 1,” you have a finite amount of capital in environments where User Experience is immature.
So don’t dig in your heels on issues that don’t merit that level of commitment. It just results in your own fatigue and contributes to that of your product teammates as well. Earning a reputation as someone who quibbles over minor pixels, but fails to recognize broader business dynamics or engineering realities makes product teams reluctant to engage with you when it matters most. Be selective about which issues deserve your energy and attention. Maintain a broad perspective. This is especially valuable and necessary when you’re working with a diverse set of product teams because you cannot be everywhere at once to fight every battle. Nor should you be. Getting too far into the weeds with a single product team compromises your position as a knowledgeable resource who can provide the higher-level perspective of a user’s journey across multiple products—a valuable vantage point that benefits all your product teams.
Of course, it is fulfilling to feel that you are an integral part of an individual product team. But it is important to avoid fixating on minutia—especially issues that are not related to User Experience, which you can leave to dedicated product-team members. Becoming distracted by such issues would only burn you out.
Keeping Your Manager Well Informed
Regardless of the quality of the relationship you have with your immediate manager, it is your manager’s job to help remove obstacles that hinder your ability to perform your work. Share your challenges with your manager. Don’t do yourself a disservice by suffering in silence if you feel your workload is overwhelming or your product teams are demanding deliverables that you are not qualified or sufficiently knowledgeable to create. Demonstrating candor and a willingness to ask for help are crucial skills in any job, which become especially important when you’re working with multiple product teams that don’t understand the unique challenges you face and may not even be aware of those challenges.
However, your manager should have in-depth knowledge of your project capacity and current workload and be prepared to offer the assistance of a colleague if necessary or even shift some of your responsibilities to someone else. Either would be a far better outcome than letting product teams—and your manager—believe you have all of your responsibilities under control.
If you don’t get help from your manager when you need it, burnout can ensue quickly, leaving you exhausted and dissatisfied with your job. Moreover, this could affect your relationships with your coworkers, family, and friends.
As with the perception that working long hours makes you more productive, the mentality that working with more product teams makes you seem more valuable to your organization is dangerous to your well-being. It can lead to your saying yes to additional responsibilities you don’t have the capacity to take on. While it is true that you can and should manufacture time for deep work, do not make time for things that do not add value at the expense of your own well-being or your performance with the product teams that are already depending on your contributions. Get help when you need it. A brief discussion with your manager is often all that is necessary to stem the tide of overwork. That is your manager’s job.
Juggling multiple product teams can be highly rewarding when you’re doing exciting, fast-paced work with different people across various parts of the organization. Diversity of experience is a core component of a successful UX career, and you should take pride and satisfaction in meeting such opportunities. However, as your portfolio of product teams grows over time, the need to cultivate solid communication and time-management skills grows proportionally with it.
You must manufacture time for yourself to engage in deep work because, without effective time management, you cannot contribute to the best of your abilities. This is especially challenging in our modern world of distractions, where the line between our personal and professional lives is often blurred. Establish boundaries. Your attention and time are precious resources, and you do not have the luxury of wasting them on needless activities that result in your having to work longer hours, which can lead to burnout.
Expose your full workload to everyone on your product teams and all of your project sponsors. If you withhold that information from them, they won’t be able to relate to your workload challenges, which could lead to misconceptions about your commitment to their project. Try to get involved in projects early. Coming onto a project too late and having to get up to speed quickly or having to reverse poor design choices can create unnecessary churn.
Choose your battles effectively. Resolving minor nuisances is not worth your time and effort when you’re working with multiple product teams. Keep your manager well informed throughout the lifecycle of your product-team engagements. Your manager should be in a unique position to understand the totality of your work and help you navigate conflicting or shifting priorities, helping you avoid burning out or failing to deliver on your commitments.