The Paradox of Change

When I came into tech, I had over 15 years of experience as a Design Consultant. With that I brought some pretty definitive notions that I could basically apply everything I had learned as a client partner to the work I would be doing on the inside. As a consultant, I remember always thinking, “Why is this so hard? Why does our work never see the light of day?” I would  always chalked it up to the fact that even though a client had hired a big guns design consultancy, they weren’t actually ready. 

What I didn’t acknowledge was that implementing change within an organization requires more than a single vision or a few workshops. It takes careful orchestration throughout the organization to become a part of the working fabric of day-to-day operations.

In the first few months at my first in-house job, I did a listening tour to begin to understand our designers and the design organization. At the same time, I began to build relationships across the company with a handful of other partners. My idealistic mind thought – if I could just bring them all together, magic will happen. It was only when I began to uncover a bit of resistance that I was forced to reckon with the fact that design and development generally did not collaborate.

This is not uncommon. I have spent a lot of time speaking with other DesignOps and Design leaders and have learned the partnership paradox lies between the desire to collaborate and the reality of the day-to-day. It is in this process that silos naturally form. Connecting all the dots and building bridges is not a small task but when it comes down to it, communication and connection on a human level are the most fundamental of ways in which you can set the conditions for change to be received. 

Taxonomy of Skeptical Partners

In my experience, having surveyed the landscape enough times, these are a few potential partner archetypes I have encountered:

Legacy Subject Matter Experts

These are the people who have been at the organization since its inception. They have built the product from the ground-up and developed a reputation based on their great work – being known and cherished for it.

Shadow Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

When new hires (anyone from outside who didn’t grow up in the ecosystem and are now mandating change) are brought in at executive levels – the legacy SMEs convert to shadow SMEs. They still have a significant amount of respect and trust, as they should, but how do you find them? This takes time, trust, and willingness to be an active listener. 

Underutilized Designers

The underutilized designer generally lives in limbo in organizations with a ship it first mentality (or where marketing leads product.) It is in these instances that design lends the finishing touch. A pixel polisher who’s been kept busy doing production design, but hasn’t been thought of to assist in leading strategic UX design. These designers can feel stuck and skeptical that change (for them) is long term. 

Efficiency Engineers

Engineering as a function operates very differently from design in that their inherent value is in delivery. Likely the most skeptical. “Design slows us down” is a common refrain which is why at times this partnership can be the hardest nut to crack. Often design research is an afterthought which causes friction when trying to build a shared understanding of the problems that need to be solved for the customer.

There are plenty of people who will see what you’re doing and be curious, defensive, envious (if needed change happens in one part of an org and not another), and will take a back seat on the ride of “high likelihood for failure.” 

Things I thought I knew, and then some

Mental models are meant to be broken, if you aren’t ready to break them – other people will break them for you. Failing at big and small parts of leading change forces you to quickly realize how wrong you are, while also learning how to pivot and grow from those experiences. Without building bridges, the changes you want to put in place will have nowhere to go. Setting the groundwork for these bridges is the way to build strength and resilience during times of change. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve developed as a kit of parts for my toolbox:

Build an advisory council

Probably one of the most important first steps as this is key to learning, buy-in, and scale. The first item in this HBR article speaks directly to this: “Most successful transformations begin with small groups that are loosely connected but united by a shared purpose.”

Ideas are easy: Execution is everything – John Doerr

In most product-driven organizations – engineers ship. There is no patience for design as it is perceived to slows things down. Therefore strategy and execution happening at the same time are critical. Build your roadmap and knock out the lowest hanging (but most impactful) fruit first. It’s all about the quick wins to build trust and gain momentum. 

Signal to noise

There will always be a lot of noise, even without change happening. Try to listen to the noise to hear the signal, trends always become clear. 

Lead with tactical empathy

When we have gone through the journey, it’s easy to forget about the full experience, the entire emotional journey. How during times of change for individuals, teams, organizations – emotions tend to take over, and anxiety looms large. Always try to dig into the underlying motivations behind people’s reactions.

There are ways to walk around, under, and with the elephant. Org transformation is hard, culture transformation is harder. Invest in the time it takes to understand the specifics of the organization you are working with in order to set the conditions for dynamic change. A deeper understanding of the process will allow for the level of change engagement it takes to reach a shared outcome. 

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