Tom Takigayama, Director of Product Design at Justworks on how you can manage high-functioning teams

In each episode of our podcast, we talk to amazing product builders to learn about how they work, their processes, the tools they use, and the things that inspire them. It's an opportunity to get a sneak peek into how other builders and makers do their jobs.

In this episode, we interviewed Tom Takigayama, Director of Product Design at Justworks. Before Justworks, he was a designer at Etsy and Gilt.In our episode, Tom shares how you can manage high-functioning teams, create learning environments, and the value of sharing your work early and often.

Irtefa: Hey, everybody. Today we have Tom Takigayama from Justworks on our pod. Tom is the Director of Product Design at Justworks. Tom, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tom: Yeah, thanks for having me, and I'm excited to talk about design today.

Irtefa: We're excited too. And Tom, you have been in the design industry for a really long time. Starting as an individual contributor and as a product designer. Worked at Etsy and been at Justworks for six years now. What does a Director of Product Design do?

Tom: Well, the Director of Product Design title means different things at different places. At Justworks, it means leading the product design team. I was fortunate enough to come into Justworks earlier on and help grow the product design team and help myself grow as a design leader as well. So a director of product design represents the product design side in the three-legged stool of product design, product management, and engineering. The way I see it is we balance out bringing the empathy and the customer-focused side of things. Product managers and engineers bring that side as well, but we're focused on that side primarily. Then we balance it with the business viability and the engineering feasibility and partner up with those functions.

Irtefa: So you talk about the three-legged tools you're working with, product and engineering. What advice do you have for product managers and engineers working with design leaders?

Tom: Specifically for product managers and engineers, I would say that when designers want to collaborate early, take that opportunity to do so; in the high-functioning places I've been at, it's almost blurry who owns what. When the engineers are brainstorming and white boarding with the designers, it's either the UI or understanding what the customer needs are in the very beginning. I've observed from very high-functioning teams and product managers as well each function brings its own specialty. And bringing all those together early is the advice I would share with product managers and engineers.

Irtefa: That is so interesting you say that. Other design leaders I've talked to sort of alluded to the same thing, where it's really important to bring everyone early in the process. Just curious, why don't more people do that? It seems like it's really good advice, and it works really well for high-functioning teams, but why are people still allergic to that?

Tom: So, I have a theory, an assumption. I don't have any data to back this up. But I can pull a few Wikipedia articles. "Share early. Share often," is the mantra that I learned from Etsy, and I brought it into Justworks. The team does a really great job of doing this, but I found what's hard about it sometimes is that when you don't share early and you don't share often, you put more of yourself into the work that you do, and you end up attaching your ego to your work. And so any criticism that you get or any critique that you get turns into criticism. And it's hard to accept those things.

I came across this notion of the IKEA effect, when consumers buy IKEA furniture and they spend time putting it together, they end up valuing that so much more because they're like, I put it together. That's my thing. Even though we all know what IKEA furniture is great for. When I see designers hesitating to share early share often, then they end up putting a lot of thought into it, and then their mindsets become more hardened about a certain solution that they're working on. They end up thinking that any criticism of the solution is a criticism of themselves, which is not the case. There are many ways to approach a solution, and there's no one right way. It's hard for people when they don't experience collaborating early, it can be hard for them to see that. But I find that after a while when people see the actual value of sharing early and sharing often people understand, Oh, this is great because the feedback that you're getting is so much more impactful earlier on rather than later.

Irtefa: Totally. Two really interesting things here. The first one is if you hold onto something for too long before you share it with others, you have this weird relationship with it where you can't let go, even if it's bad. Having that criticism early and sharing early gives you different perspectives when you're working with the business side and also the engineering.

The other part that you mentioned was the IKEA effect, which I love. When you bring people in early, and they build something together, there's a lot of ownership there, and you appreciate the effort more. The product gets better as you bring people early and iterate on things early on. So that is super helpful. When you were transitioning from being a designer to a leader, what books helped you become a better design leader?

Tom: Yeah, that's a great question. When I was transitioning, Making a Manager by Julie Zo was really helpful. It was a joy to read, and had very tactical things to work on that I definitely implemented into my management. Also, Resilient Manager by Lara Hogan was very tactical; she comes from an engineering background but is a wonderful manager and leader. She put it in a way that, again, was very tactical and very useful. Those two are the ones I started with and would recommend to any designer looking into getting into management. But beyond that, some of the ones that are maybe less well known, I found Team of Teams really helpful.

Irtefa: I love Team of Teams by General McChrystal.

Tom: Yes. So again just a story of how to deal with complexity in a world of complexity. How do you manage not only a team but a team of teams and ensure that there's a foundation of trust? I love focusing on the emotions first because that's the foundation of everything. Establishing trust in the team first is huge. And then creating a shared sense of consciousness, which I just love that phrasing because it's such a well-put way of context building and sharing information and then empowering people by making sure that there's a framework for distributed decision-making. Those concepts are so pivotal as I started growing more in my management career. So that was another book. And then, if you'll indulge me, the last one, just because I have a three-year-old now. I'm not suggesting people who aren't parents read this, but Peaceful Parenting was another one that was very helpful. The gist of that book was first, you have to connect with your child emotionally, establishing that trust. And then, you have to show them. You have to coach them through it, and you can't just tell them what to do. And so those things were very much aligned with management, which I found very funny.

Irtefa: Let's dig a little bit deeper there. I love the idea of using parenting books and applying that to management. Can you give an example of one of the things that you learned from there that you apply to level up your people?

Tom: Yeah. One of the mistakes that I made earlier on in management was directing versus coaching. And so that is a really hard thing to do. You're being promoted to being a manager because you're good at what you do, but then once you're there, you have to shift that. And I struggled with that. One of the things that they talk about in Peaceful Parenting is guiding the toddler through how to do something rather than saying, "Okay, this is what you do next." Showing them how to do it is really about letting them explore, letting them make their mistakes and let them learn too, but doing so in an environment that isn't going to hurt them tremendously.

From a management standpoint, it was really about creating an environment where it's okay to experiment, it's okay to fail, and learn from it. One thing that we focus a lot on at Justworks is not necessarily the end results but how we got there and the insights that we learned. It's not always about hitting a metric, it's also about learning something as well. So those are some of the ways that the book has influenced my management.

Irtefa: I love that you also mentioned something about when kids are in that safe environment, it's okay to let them make those mistakes and learn from them, and you're just a guide. The same principles apply to management where you, as a manager, can understand where the consequences are, big or small, and depending on that, you can guide your people to learn from their mistakes if it's a safe environment within that framework. I love that idea. Okay, so what podcasts or YouTube channels are you watching or listening to?

Tom: Yeah. I used to be a big podcast listener when I was commuting into the office. My podcast listening has gone down, but the one I still go back to is Hidden Brain by NPR. It's a psychology podcast, but they do it in such a narrative way. It's an entertaining way to learn about some psychological principles or theories that they have. One of the ones that stood out was called the Edge Effect, where Yo-Yo Ma brings people and musicians together from different types of backgrounds. Yo-Yo Ma is a classical musician, but then brings people from jazz and rock. Brings them all together for the sake of just experimenting and trying to create something new. And in this podcast, they were talking about the edge of the ocean or the edge of the forest, where there are a lot of different types of vegetation that grow, and it's this transition point between the two that creates this beautiful moment. And again, talking about the environment, a beautiful environment for experiments and things to thrive and create. Basically a place for creativity. So Hidden Brain is one that I often go back to. Some of the YouTube channels that I watch one's called Studio Binder. They have one series where it breaks down the director's style, it's like Martin Scorsese and Tarantino, and they do it in such a systematic way. They talk about story, color, narratives, characters, lighting... it just breaks it down. It has given me such an appreciation for cinema and what directors do, and how intentional they have to be about every single decision. I really like watching those series. One thing that I actually used in at Justworks was color theory. In the series, they talk about color theory choices and how to apply them. And two concepts really stood out. One was the transitional color. The most well-known example is Breaking Bad, where the main character goes from green to dark red.

Irtefa: Oh, wow. Yeah. I don't remember the dark red, but I totally remember how it was a greenish color when Walter White is a school teacher.

Tom: Yeah, and there's this one great scene that they call out where I think he's talking to his wife in their bedroom, and he has a red jacket on, and as he is revealing something really dark, he takes off the jacket and has an even deeper red shirt on signifying this transition point. And I'm like, that is amazing. I'm sure people who study film know this. But I was like, this blows my mind, how intentional it's.

Irtefa: I love that detail. Just looking at the theme here, Tom, everything that you do that you like has a thoughtful aspect to it. Like you're thinking about psychology, you're thinking about building trust among team members. Like all of those little things, follow the central theme of being thoughtful about whatever you do. Were you always like this? Or how did you get into this mindset?

Tom: Well, there's a saying of your greatest strengths are also your greatest weaknesses. Or there's a fine line between the two. I'm naturally an over-thinker. I think way too much about things, and it gets me into trouble a lot when I should just not think too much and just do something rather than analyze it. I'm very thankful for finding design, especially UX design, where so much of it is based on a customer's need or finding their thoughts and feelings behind what they're using. It's just naturally something that I would do, overthinking, but was able to shift it more into something that is professionally fulfilling. Applying that overthinking, getting it down on paper, getting it in a prototype, putting it in front of people, actually getting feedback, and applying it that way.

Irtefa: So, for the over-thinkers out there, if you don't know what to do, start designing via UX designer. Tom, what advice do you have for all the designers listening to this podcast or aspiring designers who are listening to this podcast?

Tom: Yeah. We did go over the share early share often, which is one of the biggest things. But since we covered that, I would say aspiring designers know what you're good at and what role you play within a team. So designers, in my opinion, our superpower is empathy. Focus on the emotions, focus on people's needs, and understand the behaviors. Bring that to the table, but also be open to other perspectives. There's a business perspective that product managers bring. There's a technical perspective that the engineers bring. It's really about bringing all those together and focusing on what design is good at, which is bringing the emotional side and understanding the user needs. Because while your partners may be good at that, that's not what they're optimizing for. Pushing for that balances out the three-legged stool and really helps to do what's best for the customer in a way that's good for the business and able to be executed.

Irtefa: Love it. Tom, thank you again so much for joining us today on this episode and chatting with us. I had a blast, and I can't wait to share and for other people to listen to this podcast. Thank you again.

Tom: Thanks for having me. This is really great. I look forward to hearing more about the other interviews that you do.

Here are links to things discussed in the podcast:

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