Growing Through Breakpoints


Clay Delk


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You’re probably familiar with the concept of breakpoints in responsive web design.

As you change the size of the window or device where a site is displayed, you hit certain points where the design “breaks.” Adding more or showing less of something doesn’t work any more. You have to change the whole approach. Not just how it looks, but how it works.

This article isn’t about that. It’s about people. But I’ve learned the same thing is true about us.

Changing our layout

When I started out as a junior content designer, the most immediate way to have more impact was to take on more projects. And that worked for a while. I did more things, had more impact. People noticed. I got more involved.

But at some point, it started to break. It wasn’t necessarily the point where I broke, though that can happen. But there’s a point where adding more didn’t increase my impact or influence. 

In fact, it did the opposite. I got less done, less well, on more things. As I took on more, my impact and credibility went down.

More and more, I’d feel the squeeze (or more accurately the stretch), until finally something had to give. I needed to change my layout. Start working at a different level, on different kinds of things.

Instead of taking on more features, I learned to look across them. I found problems that lived in all of them but belonged to none of them.

At this point, I was working in ad tech, supporting multiple product teams, each with their own designers, product managers, engineering teams… and roadmaps. I couldn’t do all the work for all of them. But one recurring challenge involved the statuses for all of the things we were building—the terms, colors, behavior, everything. So I started collecting them all together. Eventually it included all of my products and several others outside my area. From there, I was able to develop patterns and guidelines to unify the system.

Not only did this project solve a system-wide issue with consistency and accuracy, it also removed a recurring speedbump that slowed us down as we worked towards shipping new features.

Teams tend to miss the things in the middle. As I looked across them, I was able to see them from multiple angles and identify them for what they were.

If you’re running into these kinds of challenges, here are some ways to rethink your approach:

  • Look for recurring challenges or patterns that can work for multiple products or projects, not just the ones you’re working on right now.
  • Document decisions and rationale, and make them available to everyone. It’ll give you a foundation to build on in future projects, and help others follow your lead.
  • Share your work broadly with design partners and other stakeholders. They’ll start to see connections and opportunities for collaboration.
  • Talk to your manager and area leads about potential projects or opportunities to work on higher level challenges. If possible, get involved in project planning discussions and documents. 

Building the capability to support breakpoints

There’s one more critical part of responsive design that’s easily overlooked: the infrastructure of the site has to support it. You can’t just decide that any old site will change its whole layout when somebody moves from desktop to mobile. You have to build and structure the tech to handle those shifts.

When we’re talking about career breakpoints, that infrastructure comes from leadership.

It’s common for a product or content designer to say, “Hey, you know what, I can’t support any more teams and still do my best work.” They may even say, “Hey, if I work on this other type of project, I can help teams outside of my product area and have more impact.”

The real challenge comes from organizing or reorganizing a team to actively support those kinds of decisions. Recognizing when someone is hitting that breakpoint and working to make it possible for them to shift their level of work. Ideally that would mean hiring more junior people to take on some of the existing work that person was doing so they can stretch. But that’s not always possible, especially for smaller companies or  in tough markets. 

So what do you do? As a manager, you can help clear the path for that person to take on higher level work.

When someone is growing into a more senior IC role, they’re looking for ways to have more impact without necessarily taking on more projects. Here’s how you can help:

  • Help them prioritize. If they’re trying to do too many things, help them take a step back, understand the opportunities, and identify what’s most impactful.
  • Look for opportunities to leverage work from one project to influence others. If they’ve solved a similar challenge in one place, help them build on it somewhere else.
  • You likely have a broader view than they do. When you see other teams working on projects that overlap or relate to theirs, connect them with your report and make sure they understand how it’s related.
  • Whenever you can, give them the room and freedom to try. If you’ve helped them identify a strategic project or growth area, communicate that with your leadership partners. Give them cover and give them time to see it through.

Lastly, one of the most important things you can do is recognize and acknowledge this new kind of work. Of course, give them public praise and include it in their performance reviews, but also let them own the space.

Learning to be responsive

Just like there are different leadership styles and approaches for management, there’s no one right way to be an IC. At the same time, there are points when the work tends to go through familiar transitions.

As you move from a junior to senior IC, there will be points when it feels like you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing, or adding more to your plate. In those times, it’s important to change your perspective, change the elevation. It’s not about scale but about leverage. Look for the things that connect, flow, and influence beyond a single point of impact.

For managers, the most important thing you can do is listen, talk, and share perspective. As you see your team members grow into these new spaces, help them find the edges. Help them understand what’s possible, what’s needed, and how they can respond.

Remember, growth isn’t a straight line, and we don’t scale linearly. We can’t just do more, spend more time, or be in more places. Sometimes we need to take a step back, rethink the capacity we have, and find ways to adapt our approach. We need to be responsive.