Liz Armistead leads the team at Dropbox responsible for telling the company's story to consumers. This means everything from blog posts to web design to massive product launches, like an event in April to unveil a host of new productivity features, including the new Carousel all-in-one photo storage solution. As a result, her small team has to be nimble enough to manage projects from beginning to end while also communicating constantly with any and all of Dropbox's 700 employees.
To do this, she says, her guiding principle is empathy—making it a priority to deeply understand the way people work individually and together in order to promote the best possible results. While project management is a discipline usually considered to need rigid structure, she finds that flexibility is actually more conducive to getting things done.
"In general, empathy [for the consumer] is really important to product design, so it's really the same for our teams," says Armistead. "You really need to understand the way people like to work, and be willing to be flexible and iterate—with a team that's growing as fast as ours, with 700 people now, you have to be willing to reassess what's working."
Here are three practices that have helped her stay on top of her team's strengths and needs for the best results.
"When we first started the group, we went on a houseboat and just had a day of getting to know each other and taking crazy personality tests and talking about our best successes," says Armistead. "Since we did that early on, when we tackle a project, it's pretty clear who is going to own what to reach our goals. With the 409 event [launching Carousel and other products], one of the girls on our team totally owned the space design of the event, another guy handled all of the logistics, parking, food. Everybody had their piece, but it was an awesome collaborative effort."
Most professional teams don't have the advantage of starting up together, but regular retreats, even a monthly lunch or relatively focused happy hour can accomplish the same goals. Don't be afraid to let your hair down and give your team a safe space to share.
"When I was at Mailbox, a very small startup with 13 people (and acquired by Dropbox in 2013), we were all jammed into a tiny room," says Armistead. "Our engineering team and design/marketing team had really different work styles and it was very hard to coexist. Our engineering team wanted dead silence, focus. Meanwhile the design and marketing team is brainstorming, talking, making a lot of calls, bouncing around.
"So I went to Home Depot and built an insulation wall to separate the two teams, and it was night and day. Everyone was so happy with the way it turned out, and it cost $100."
Now at Dropbox, which has more space and resources to experiment with, Armistead says her team does "a lot of space prototyping—we'll build fake walls all the time for brainstorming or product reviews. We use Gatorboards—seven-foot tall foam boards that you can take with you from brainstorm to your desk. Those operate as fake walls, organizers, all sorts of things."
"If we're about to launch something, we'll have something called a Bug Bash, which is getting everyone around to make sure we can work out all the kinks," says Armistead. "I also make a point of scheduling a lot of one-on-ones with people, sitting down and listening to their ideas and frustrations. If you have a lot of output, you need to make room for a lot of input. I make sure I'm learning from the amazing knowledge that exists here."