The Partnership Lens

A former colleague and friend called me recently and said: “I’ve started my own business, I am only a few months in and I could desperately use your guidance.” Coming from someone I admire, a classically trained industrial design leader, I was flattered. We had worked for years together when I was in consulting and had developed a great partnership across all of our client work. But for all the years I was in consulting he was only one of a handful of people who actually treated my role as equal to theirs. In Design, the designer reigns and operations have traditionally been seen as the necessary evil. Specifically, the operations role has often been seen only through the lens of the tools we commonly use – spreadsheets, Gantt charts, meeting scheduling, research coordinators, etc. (In fact, the icon that was used for my group at the time was a clipboard.) But in truth, this myopic view diminishes the real power of operations as the critical partner to the designer.

As Design exponentially becomes an integral part of many major company’s business focus, the field of Design Operations is taking mature shape. The kind of work I have been doing a majority of my career is being recognized as a vital and emerging discipline that enables organizations to not just bring design in-house, but to actualize design potential. At the heart of this actualization is the realization that the work of designers and the work of design operations are inextricably tied. As in any good partnership, it is driven by a Yin and Yang element, similar but different.

“How seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.”

There is so much opportunity in the field of DesignOps, and to avoid it getting relegated back to the work of spreadsheets (although yes, this is a real thing) and clipboards, we must begin to unpack it’s potential. Much of this starts and ends with partnerships.

There is design, and there is business value, and the talk du jour often conflates the two. When I sit with my friend as he tries to plan for how he is going to get past the reactive phase of building his business, we can both recognize that he is skilled in ways I will never be but overwhelmed by the prospect of planning and operationalizing his business to maximize its potential. There are hundreds of articles about the habits of the most successful people, none of them include finding the right partner/s and having the self-awareness to hire for your weaknesses.  Charles Eames understood that Ray was an equal partner in their creations, and he was always eager to acknowledge her integral role. “Anything I can do, Ray can do better,” he said.

There is already a plethora of great DesignOps material out there to help drive our discipline forward. As the field and everything around it evolves, we must not lose sight that the consistent core is founded in the relationship capital of great partnerships. It is in those partnerships that we gain velocity towards a shared goal.

Published by sntdo

sntdo is short for Sentido, Spanish for "Sense." All things sense-making / True Yorker / kid wrangler / Head of Design Operations @InVision / @automattic @frogdesign @hotstudio alumn / Design Diplomat / Hostage Negotiator / Boricua