Season 2 Episode 1: Resilient Leadership: Innovation & Creativity in Exhausting Times

Resilient Leadership: Innovation & Creativity in Exhausting Times

Welcome to Season 2 of UX Leadership by Design. In this episode, we talk to Bryn McCoy, a seasoned UX design leader, who shares her journey from a maker in tech to a design leader. Bryn emphasizes the importance of collaboration between product and design teams, addressing challenges in the tech industry, and the need for innovation in times of uncertainty. Bryn also highlights the significance of maintaining creativity and motivation within teams and stresses the importance of personal and cultural growth. The episode covers collaboration strategies, maintaining team motivation amidst challenges, and prioritizing personal and team growth for creativity.

Key Takeaways

  • Collaboration between product and design teams is crucial for successful projects.
  • Innovation is necessary, even in challenging times, and can involve retooling existing infrastructure.
  • Leaders should prioritize personal and cultural growth to maintain creativity and motivation within teams
  • Taking time for self-care and giving oneself grace is essential for effective leadership.
  • Cultivating vision and voice is key to inspiring and leading teams in innovative endeavors.

Topics Covered

  1. UX Design Team Collaboration
  2. Innovation and Creative Design
  3. Challenges & Growth in UX Leadership
  4. Motivating Creative Design Teams
  5. Resilience in Design Leadership
  6. Synergy with Product Leadership
  7. Strategies for UX Leadership
  8. Cultural Dynamics in UX

About Our Guest

Bryn is a leader in digital product, an innovation coach, and recognized as a Distinguished Woman in Science. Her work on Oprah’s Lifeclass was awarded a Creative Arts Emmy and her startup Citizen Made won the Chicago Digital Startup Initiative’s Startup of the Year.

Resources & Links


00:00 Introduction and Background
01:36 Transitioning from Maker to Leader
04:49 Collaboration between Product and Design
09:11 Challenges in the Tech Industry
14:05 Shifting Perspectives on Innovation
19:11 Maintaining Creativity and Motivation
22:11 Balancing Culture and Personal Growth
25:20 Taking Time for Self-Care
27:37 Cultivating Vision and Voice
28:39 Recommended Resources


Mark Baldino (00:01.497)
Bryn, welcome to the podcast.

Bryn McCoy (00:03.714)
Thanks, Mark. It's great to be here with you.

Mark Baldino (00:06.261)
Well, I appreciate you joining us for this episode. Super excited about a conversation we're going to be having. As most of the guests, if not all the guests, we'd just love if you could give folks a bit about your backgrounds, how you got into design. I know you've had a super interesting and fairly dynamic career. So I think the audience would kind of love to hear about your background and how you got to where you are.

Bryn McCoy (00:28.654)
Okay, sure. So I am lifelong maker in tech. I was one of the kids who rather go back to school for coding camp instead of going to sports camp as a youngin. So I moved into software engineering as a teen through college and found my way into design. I don't know, probably about 10 years into my career. I just cared a lot about what we were making and how it was showing up in the world. And I'm not even sure if UX really existed yet, but it was a perfect, you know, thinking about the experience of what we're making for the people who are using things. That was just a perfect fit to the way that I was thinking about things and making things. And so I've been still even as a design leader. I'm always making something, I think at the heart of it all, I'm a maker. And then, yeah, you just realize the importance of how you connect with the people who use the things and the people that you collaborate with. So I guess that's the short answer of how I got.

Mark Baldino (01:36.229)
Yeah, how have the roles that you've taken changed? And I'm kind of interested in that sort of maker component because I think a lot of people earlier in their career as designers see themselves as makers. Maybe they come from kind of a maker background.

And then as they start to get into the leadership, maybe management world, they're making a lot less and maybe people are making like how, how's that transition been for you? Maybe you've been able to keep yourself a maker throughout, but is that like, has your approach changed? Has the role changed? Are you still able to make?

Bryn McCoy (02:13.914)
It has changed and I am still able to make. I think that, you know, as thinking about management and leadership, I've always kind of felt like a big part of that role is taking some responsibility for just, you know, how it feels to collaborate and to build excitement and for people to be enthusiastic about what we're doing. And, you know, for me, the creativity, you know, just the kind of the element we're exploring creatively is what brings a lot of that energy. So even if I'm not making on the job, like for my clients in whatever role, I always have something going on. And that's what keeps me energized, kind of keeps me close to that process. And you know, it's always just kind of stretching my perspective. So I mean, my roles have definitely been all over the place. I started my career as a software engineer. I moved into product management before even moving into design. And then, you know, even as a design leader, I bring a lot of product management into the way I work. And I think another really energizing piece of it for me is I just have this entrepreneurial sense. And so, you know, with, the management responsibilities, I'm always kind of thinking about, you know, what's important to leverage for the business and what's exciting to break through as a maker. And, you know, that tends to be a fun collaboration across all the different disciplines that are working together and helps, you know, break down those silos.

Mark Baldino (03:57.933)
Yeah, that's fantastic. And I think to the benefit of the people that you're working with, that you have engineering products, design background. I have said a few times on the podcast and I say to my team and clients all the time, like our best projects are when there's a tight coupling between product management and design and the times we struggle and I think team struggle, product, digital product design and development struggles when there's a bit of a disconnect between product and UX.

Bryn McCoy (04:27.715)

Mark Baldino (04:27.989)
In both roles, any advice, any best practices? Like, how can we help? I mean, there's a lot of overlap in what we're doing in both of these expertise. Like any lessons learned or best practices that you apply if you're stepping into a new environment, into a new environment, maybe from design or even a product perspective, for helping coalesce groups.

Bryn McCoy (04:49.75)
Yeah, well, like you said, there is a lot of overlap, but I really just try to embrace that and really think about, you know, we're all on the same team. And I think that the overlap is an opportunity to bring us closer together. Cause I also think that there can be this natural human instinct when people are overlapping in roles and responsibilities, it gets a little confusing. And then there can be, you know, a little insecurity. And it-you know, kind of feeds the competitive nature of the teams. So I just try to kind of flip the perspective a little bit more toward the collaborative side and to think about, you know, the strength and that overlap and just the strength in a relationship. And, you know, then, you know, I, I tend to feel as though a lot of the business acumen, you know, the, at least the kinds of artifacts that are going to come out in a project. Often sit more on the product side. And so I think that's an important thing to bring into a design conversation. But as a design lead, you can lean on your teammates for some of that, but still leverage it for your own insight. And then the leadership opportunities for design work, I think that gets really interesting because design and tech especially, I think, can... We get caught up in...process and playbooks and sometimes we don't fully kind of break into that That transformative magic for lack of a better way of describing it You know design really is intended to connect in deeply human ways that You know are artful and even when we're talking about, you know designing very technical interfaces

That can be a deep process and for design to have some space to really kind of lean into a lot of the messiness to figure out what might be transformative in a human way. That's stuff that product teams are not usually doing. So, you know, kind of figuring out the right ways of balancing, you know, all the jobs that need to be done so that, you know, where there's not overlap, the teams can really own that and, you know,

Bryn McCoy (07:06.294)
Do more, do more in the areas where they can really, really shine.

Mark Baldino (07:10.701)
Yeah, no, that's great. I think the, you know, that, that overlap, I like the idea of finding that overlap and finding space to work together on things and create some shared ownership. But also feel like there's parts of your role, whether it's product or design that are, are unique to that role. And you can still have ownership there when they're, when they're blended or there's muddled or leadership isn't clear. I think sometimes you're right. It leads a lot to I'm going to sort of stand my ground.

I own this and it puts up a few more walls maybe than they do. And I think you're right. It's probably around insecurity of like, well, if I lose this, I lose it and I don't own it anymore, or this feels like a design thing. I don't know why products involved here or vice versa. And people get really defensive. And I think strong design and product leadership can avoid that. And many times it's a, can be an interpersonal connection between those two leads to ensure that their teams are, they know, I don't want to say stay in their lane, but they know what their lane is and they know where they overlap. And that's where we're going to work together versus kind of work maybe independently or in, in parallel. So appreciate that. And I think it's, I don't know, this ever sort of growing disciplines of product management and design are, are still kind of being hashed out. And I think a lot of design leaders are looking for answers for how they can best work with product folks.

Bryn McCoy (08:38.89)
Yeah, absolutely.

Mark Baldino (08:41.537)
So I know, I don't know how else to say this. I think 2023 has been a pretty challenging year for the tech world in general. I mean, we talk about macroeconomics, but it's not my space and I don't get confused, but you know, it's been sort of a tough time in general. And I know I've been having tons of like one-on-one conversations with design and creative leadership. I think in a conversation we had, you've been doing the same thing. And I think it's kind of an interesting time to talk about, to take like a little bit of a pulse, like what's happening, what are you seeing happening in design leadership? And if we could pivot to what do we see might happen in 2020, in 2024, but like as you're out there talking to people in the field, like what are you seeing? What are you, what are you hearing? And you know, I'm happy to lend the full, in terms of what I've been hearing as well.

Bryn McCoy (09:34.668)

Yeah, it's been a really interesting year. It's been a really interesting few years, right? And I also, I tend to work in the innovation niche. So I do a lot of consulting when I'm spending long term on projects or on products. It tends to be in a startup capacity. And I will say that coming through 2022, I started to notice that you know, both of those areas of the industry were starting to just feel different priorities were changing really quickly. Investments were changing really quite quickly. The terms on what we needed to do to kind of raise the next round, all of it was just changing in ways I had never noticed before. So when I came into 2023, I was actually in a venture capital fellowship at the beginning of the year when Silicon Valley Bank collapsed and

The leader of that fellowship had multiple portfolio companies, banking, SBB. So I had this front row seat to realize, okay, the inkling that I had, things were changing. I'm just watching all of these things, just sort of, I don't know, it felt like implosion. And I'm literally watching leaders in the industry just visibly sweating, trying to make sense of what was happening.

So I think the good thing for me in working in innovation is it's just a messy space, even when the foundation is pretty solid, the work that we do, it's uncertain, things often go sideways, failure's part of the process. And so I tend to lean into messiness. And even with all the things that are happening in the industry, I feel like we're gonna rebound in some ways.

Bryn McCoy (11:31.394)
But we can see that systems are breaking down all around us. I mean, there's just crises in climate, in finance, in healthcare. I mean, just our big, big systems are reworking. Things are shifting. So I feel as though leadership has to figure out how to respond to this because I feel as though it's probably a cultural norm for a generation or more. So I think, you know, that can be perceived as bad news. But I think there's also a big opportunity there. And I feel as though just what I'm seeing with this year, as budgets have been cut, and just landscapes changing to figure out how to, you know, have design situated in different ways, you know, engineering teams doing more with less, everybody focusing on AI, just trying to get a foothold in an area that's still high growth. It's exhausting for teams to be doing all of this work. Leaders are just kind of learning alongside everyone else and also trying to have some cultural balance to it. Yeah, when I came out of the fellowship, I ended up just kind of doing, I was thinking about fundraising at the beginning of the year and decided this is not the year to do a seed round. So as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I ended up talking to hundreds of people and just noticing some trends. One of them I just kind of talked about just with the nature of how orgs were changing and people were just needing to do a little more with less and just working through the uncertainty. All of this piled on to...just some exhaustion of the past couple of years being a little uncertain. So, you know, but there are a lot of people who have been laid off or decided to not do their startup or whatever, who are kind of inspired by just doing something different and feeling some urgency and kind of using that adversity to inspire creativity.

Which is a real thing. I mean, trauma often does inspire really creative thinking, really creative solutions. And then, you know, we end up having major breakthroughs. So that's what I'm hoping for.

Mark Baldino (14:05.378)
Yeah, well, I mean, thank you. A great sort of summary of what you're hearing out in the market. And I definitely want to get to the latter point around exhaustion and kind of taking a step back and how you can maybe in a creative space pivot into something new, like having a breakthrough. I want to go back to this sense of being in the innovation space as team sizes are getting cut. Roadmaps are, this is what I'm hearing, right? Team sizes are getting cut, spending and budgets definitely being reduced. Every team, every person being asked to do more with the same or less resources. I've seen a pretty big shift to, you know, let's look at shoring up our revenue and revenue producing items, but not big strategic transformations. Let's put those maybe a little bit on hold. Being in the innovation space, like, I mean, I love the idea of playing off of kind of the chaos and getting into the messy middle and sort of like pulling it apart. But are you also like, are you changing how you talk about innovation? Are you doing things differently? Do you find yourself, and I don't, when I say tactical, I think people get offended by it, not you. Like people think like, oh, we can't do tactical stuff.

I, we do tons of amazing tactical work at Fuzzy Math to move digital products and platforms for it. And I'm proud of that work. Like, are you shifting how you're talking about innovation? Are you not like not using that innovation with a little live or some big eye, like what's, how's it changed in how you're presenting to folks and talking about it, or even in the work you're doing, and maybe it's the same, but I'm curious if it's

Bryn McCoy (15:52.326)
Yeah, well I do see, you know, I see value in doing what needs to be done for the incremental growth and I tend to talk about the tactical stuff as the incremental growth where you're, you know, we're still up leveling and maybe optimizing. We're still doing things that are, you know, just more directly tied to, you know, just financial benefit in short order.

And innovation is risky, but I think it's also risky to not do it. And especially when we're, we can see that all these systems, and even, I mean, just a lot of, infrastructure. I, when I think about innovation, it doesn't have to be doing what's never been done before. It's just, it's just kind of a pretty radical undertaking. So it could even be retooling some of the infrastructure that's crumbling right now. So I feel as though the parallel path.

I feel like that's always been kind of the key to making this stuff work in a business, and it still is. I know with everything being a little tighter this year, I mean, the year's almost over. So those people who have been thinking about, okay, how are we going to leap forward when the interest rates are back under control or whatever the pinch is, they're gonna have a head start and they're going to have ways to kind of rebuild the war chest coming into the next couple years. So, and I just, I feel like with the work that we do, I mean, part of what I think inspires a lot of designers is, you know, just making things better, making the world a better place. And so I do feel as though there's a lot of problems to solve, let's kind of use some of the creative energy and keeping people engaged. I think that's one thing to kind of mitigate how you know, overwhelming and exhausting everything has been, you know, big challenges, even though it seems like, you know, it's a big lift, it can really renew the spirit at a time where a lot of teams need it.

Mark Baldino (18:02.561)
Yeah, I mean, this is great. So, because I think you're right. And I think a lot of designers who are being asked to parallel path or maybe work on the more incredible.

Mark Baldino (18:16.181)
And by the way, love parallel path. I have lots of parallel path slides. Hey, we can't do this yet, Mark and Fuzzy Math. How can you tackle both these things at once? So I like the idea and I think it's just, I think it's a smart way to describe how design can be adaptive to the environment of business, how we can deliver on short term and help, you know, short term goals and still set some longer term targets. Let's say you have a design team and they are getting exhausted, it's been a tough couple of years. They're doing work that may not feel like it's the most creative in nature. How do you lead a team through that? Do you do side projects? Do you do encourage personal projects? Like, how do you keep the creativity going? And if it connects to some of the exhaustion comments, great, if not, I definitely want to go there because I think it's an interesting space. But how do you keep people motivated and creative in an environment where...

Maybe the CEO is like, hey, do these 50 things as quickly as humanly possible, because we got a release that's gotta go out and everyone's like running around and it doesn't feel like the most creative.

Bryn McCoy (19:20.982)
Right, yeah. To that I would say prioritize. Then for the, you know, just figuring out how to be resilient and just to continue to renew that creative spirit. I'm fascinated with this topic. I have always been personally invested in how I do this for myself. Also as a working parent, I mean, there have just been years that I've been stretched way too thin and so, you know, I adopted a lot of practices around personal development for myself. And then, in 2020, started to think more about how I should be connecting these dots in my professional culture. Because, like I was suggesting at the beginning, a big part of leadership role is thinking about the energy in the creative culture and how are people collaborating and do people even wanna show up to work, let alone break through and do something innovative.

For a big chunk of 2020, it did not feel like anybody had any extra umph. And of course, it was also just a time of maybe survival. And so I think there's a balance of what we do personally to just feel like we have the kind of safety and security we need. From there, I feel like relationships are key to just kind of this exponential growth and perspective. And that can be really exciting, just starting to see things in new ways. And then experimentation and doing more work, taking on the side projects, taking on the personal projects. I kind of see that as the next layer where you have to have a few other, I think layers of capacity built into a practice and sustaining. I mean creativity just takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of reckoning with uncertainty. There's a lot of courage really to just show up and kind of face things that you don't really know the answers and you're going to lead the way through it and into it and take responsibility for it and put money on the table for it. So.

Bryn McCoy (21:36.802)
You know, I actually have spent a lot of my extra time just training more about how to coach people through this, the psychology of creativity. I love biohacking, thinking about neurologically what's happening and how to kind of, you know, just strip some of the thinking out of the process and just really think about like what's happening actually, physically with our energy.

The whole smattering of that tool set ends up being pretty effective.

Mark Baldino (22:11.221)
Yeah. I mean, that's great. I think a lot of design leaders struggle with that balance, or business leaders in general. How much do we focus on culture? How much should we focus on personal growth? How much do we... Therefore, it seems like you could sacrifice professional growth if we're really, really focused on culture. And we're also focused on the bottom line. And I think it's a lot to balance. I can see how an external coach like yourself could help folks prioritize that cultural health within their organization. And do you have any like tips during your coaching? And I just plug for you if folks need this set of services you offer it, which is amazing. And I'll allow you to provide ways to contact at the very end. But are there a few are there a few tips? Is it really about prioritization of effort and energy that you advocate for?

Bryn McCoy (23:09.066)
I think so. And just for, you know, every, I think about everybody as a leader. And so, you know, in the one-on-ones and in the connection points with every person on a team, there should be part of the conversation that's about the nuts and bolts of what needs to be done for the job. But then a part of it that is about, you know, their growth as a person, their growth as a creative leader and what's going to help them level up, like what's really exciting for them.

And it can be just a small part of a recurring conversation. And over time, it really adds up. People feel supported and feel as though taking those risks that kind of set them apart as a leader, that kind of move their work in really big steps forward. That's where I see it. I really see it in the relationships and the conversations and just thinking holistically about growth, and then just kind of looking for the little opportunities to apply it in the day-to-day things. And then, you know, it gets a lot more nuanced from there. And a lot of the people who are having the one-on-one conversations, you know, may not feel, you know, well equipped for all of the coaching conversation. I think it would be great if all teams, innovation teams, just teams that are doing creative work. And I think of engineering as highly creative work, just had coaching resources of people who really understood the kind of personal nature of this and just how to set people up for doing the best work of their career.

Mark Baldino (24:51.885)
Yeah, that's fantastic. And I think, thank you for sharing and for offering a vital service. I also think there's just component of giving ourselves a little bit of grace too, right? Like the creative endeavor is, it can be an energy suck. The leadership can drain energy and the interpersonal stuff, especially for a lot of folks, a lot of folks that I work with who tend to be a little bit more introverted than extroverted. There's like, there's like kind of an, it's a lot of energy to do that. And it can feel like a little bit of a burden and you kind of, I like your point about, do this in small pieces to start and make it a consistent kind of rhythm in conversations you're having with the people that you lead and try not to take on too much and give yourself a little bit of grace that this is gonna take a while and that this is hard.

And it is draining and to take time for yourself as well. Because I think a lot of leaders carry a burden and don't always step back from that. And like I said, okay, made a mistake or I learned from that, or I need a little bit of space here to recharge and feel they can take that.

Bryn McCoy (26:10.954)
Yeah, yeah. And you know, I think there's a lot of overlap in leadership and creativity. And it's always made sense to me at the heart of both of those, we're cultivating vision and figuring out how to use voice. You know, use our voice, use design as a means to our voice and the voice can be for a brand. But you know, getting those two things right, I mean, it's simple that there's two things, but then.

It's, you know, there's a lot of complexity, I guess, to doing that in a really resonant way in ways that are really aligned with business goals, with the cultural moment, you know, really truly being able to deliver on the impact. And so, you know, being able to be clear on vision and confident about vision and know that this is going to connect you, you are so confident it's going to connect that you will lead, you know.

Dozens of people and millions of dollars down this path, that takes a certain level of connection to, you have to get out of your head. There's just different intelligence centers and people think about slowing down or disconnecting as maybe just something to restore, but that's also where you kind of tap into that visionary work and where you really get the confidence to kind of move things forward to innovate. So it's necessary. And I think there's a reason why most executives all have coaches and people who can remind them. It gets very busy and very chaotic at times. And you just have to step back and figure out what's the vision here and how does this really feel? And all of us, I mean, our industry, and there's so many smart people, we are just all in our heads so much of the time and that's about a third of the intelligence we need to win in this space.

Mark Baldino (28:14.305)
Yeah, right on. That's fantastic. I have a quick question as we sort of wrap up. Are there any resources that you recommend, a good book on this that could help? And then please let folks know where they can find you, because you offer these coaching services. And I'm quite sure that, you know, you might get somebody reaching out after the podcast that feels like there's space for them to.

Bryn McCoy (28:39.358)
Okay, yeah, absolutely. So, well,, I try to keep things about design and leadership there, and then Made by Mineral is my coaching brand. And I'm trying to think of good books. I have this whole smattering books back here. I'm constantly reading stuff. And I mean, I guess, you know, the biohacking is the most interesting and kind of just like easily applicable things that I've been working with lately. And I've been really interested in Dan Siegel's work. Dan is a Harvard MD and then has moved into a lot of work in mindfulness at UCLA and has a book called Aware that really, I think, has an easy to assimilate and practice model of just kind of paying attention to what's going on around us and then being able to tap into all that intelligence I was just talking about. So that's, I think about the resources for ourselves a little more than all the business books and all the strategy books that are out there. So I kind of feel like we're moving into a phase where we need new strategies, we need more innovation. So I'm all for supporting the leaders to make it happen.

Mark Baldino (30:04.825)
Fantastic. We will link to both of your sites, the personal site, the coaching site, and then LinkedIn as well, which I'm sure people can reach out to you. But Brynn, I just want to say thank you for your time and energy today in talking to me and the audience about I think a really critical topic in terms of creative leadership and taking time for ourselves and personal development and cultural development. That I think everyone is on everyone's mind, but we're not always to your last point, stepping back and thinking through it. So I just really appreciate the conversation today.

Bryn McCoy (30:45.61)
Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Mark.

Mark Baldino (30:47.969)
Yeah, you bet. All right, thank you.
envelope mail-envelope-closed file_pdf arrow-up chevron-left arrow-left close x linkedin twitter facebook mailbox search
Work with Fuzzy Math
Small teams of passionate people working towards a shared vision.