In design, context is key. When we design workflows and products, especially complex ones, we focus on providing the necessary context to users in order to help them make the right decisions at the right time. Without a way to predict every single user scenario, providing context becomes a key element of providing a seamless user experience.
Same with how we design for end users, we should design for our own teams and their dynamics. Driving towards decisions with context should be how we lead design teams too.
It's generally easier to provide people with plans and checklist items. It's less time consuming to share next steps and action items. It guarantees clear understanding, well-articulated expectations, and drives alignment. However, it doesn't really build a team or prepare team members for leadership.
Good leaders should aim to provide the context of the problem the team is facing and drive alignment and next steps by soliciting perspectives on the problem itself as well as the solution. Sharing context means preparing your team members for the paths you might not expect. It also means arming them with an understanding of the goals, principles, and overall environment.
Mike Tyson famously said: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." The job of a leader is to prepare their team for their "getting punched in the mouth" moment (hopefully, it won't get to that literally) versus articulating and rehashing the plan prepared in advance.
Our goal as leaders should be to prepare our teams, especially our leadership team, to lead not just to execute. Leadership means helping the team understand the who, the why, and the what and then working with the team to develop a plan of next steps.
Like any solution focusing on a balance between the short and long term results, leading with context is generally difficult for managers, including myself. It removes a sense of ownership from you and delegates it to your team. Losing a level of control is a difficult feeling. As we delegate more work, we need to start focusing on the outcome we want or the problem we need to solve together, not the specifics of how we would've solved it ourselves. This is a difficult transition to make.
Leading with context also takes longer, initially. It takes a few minutes to sit down and hash a specific set of action plans to execute on. It takes hours to set context together and discuss the details of the problem we're trying to solve. However, these few initial hours pay dividends in the long term. Understanding context means team members can change course based on a changing environment without having to go back to their leadership team for permission. It allows team members to default to action and be empowered to actually lead. It grows leaders across the organization versus that one single leader in charge of decisions. It also builds a team that feels empowered to tackle challenges vs. a team that's comprised of a set of producers waiting for next steps. It builds a better culture for all of us.
Lead with context even if it's a bit harder to begin with.