Often times in design (and especially at design industry gatherings), we collectively suffer from storytelling that doesn’t tell the entire story. I generally leave conferences feeling a bit behind the ball, as the stories told are often success stories that leave me questioning my own methods and experiences. But if you catch someone afterward, they will usually give it to you straight. So, I have often wondered, how do we share that authentic story? The ones about failures and learnings. Falling down and getting back up — because we’re gonna fall down a lot. Especially as the trailblazers in this nascent discipline (in a relatively nascent field), we are going at it alone, which makes that failure feels so much more acute.
As a person coming from design consulting, I definitely thought I could basically apply everything I knew to how things should work on the inside. At my first job in tech, my boss often referred to my style as the Marvel character Domino because I continually jumped in and out of burning buildings, putting out trash fires. Coming up with solutions to fix symptoms, generally being super lucky in my approach — until I wasn’t. He wanted me to be a little more like Captain Marvel, more thoughtful and intentional, certainly less reactive.
So, where does Design Operations fit into this very structured model of how change management as a discipline has evolved because most of us haven’t gone to school for this and are generally winging it. I have often found myself wondering if I should get an MBA, as an affirmation, or a tangible way of proving I know what I am doing. Design Operations in the last three years has evolved from the question of relevance to building a case for its existence, to actual tactics with many people doing ops both at large and small scales. Basically, we’ve become the hottest gig around. But what does that actually mean when so many of us are figuring this out as we go along?
The nature of design is inherently to change an organization. At some level, things are changing at every organization. Design Leadership and change are inextricably tied. How do we lead through change when most organizations, and people, are unwilling to change but know they have to?
Many books have been written about Change Management — this is not new. During the most significant shifts in history, corporations have had to respond to changing technology and competition. In the early 2000s, when so much was changing, Change Management methodologies pressed the hot button of the “burning platform” to push the urgency behind the risk of staying the same. During this period, change management moved into how we generally think of it today as a management consultancy thing steeped in organizational systems theory. But what does that mean? What does the future hold for those of us who aren’t steeped in academics but are steeped in both the art and science of our industry?
Let’s talk about the art in that science. That soft layer to what has traditionally been a very scientific field and how we, as design operations leaders, are those specific types of change agents.
Hiring for design ops conversations usually goes like this:
Hiring Manager: We need someone to do DesignOps, which to us means… (lists one million things which all basically boil down to fix our entire infrastructure and in turn, customer experience.)
Me: Great! Just a few questions… Does this have buy-in from the top and cross-functional stakeholders? Who are the organizational partners?
Hiring Manager: [crickets]
These people seem to understand that a design operations lead will be focusing on the people within design as well as the processes by which they develop, grow, and produce. Still, they underestimate what it means to actually scale design throughout and organization. Change requires more than a single vision or a few projects. It takes careful orchestration throughout the organization to become a part of the working fabric of day-to-day operations.
It is a process, by design.
“ ‘This is a giant hairball.’
What a disgusting term!
Wait a minute! There’s a time when there is no hairball. So where do hairballs come from?”
Orbiting the Giant Hairball — Gordon Mackenzie
This quote is particularly relevant because so many of us (I would bet) come into each new situation with our 30/60/90 day plan and spend a majority of the first 6–12 months just trying to unravel the hairball.
Suffice to say, Design Ops is not just about design, and if we aren’t considering the system, then we are destined to fail. How do we begin to unravel the hairball? How do we think beyond our immediate context, learning to anticipate how change might be received or the ripple effects it could have. Striking the right balance is a delicate dance. I have often said, “I am not a designer,” and some excellent (and supportive) colleagues pointed out to me that process design is also design. How we think about applying the foundational principles of Design Thinking to our work as a system, as a journey, will allow us to open the aperture and approach our work with a broader understanding.
It’s easy to reference change management theories as that path feels somewhat chartered, like a perfect baking recipe. It doesn’t necessarily consider how much of it is relational. How much of it is about building an environment where change is ready to be received, which involves psychological safety, trust, empowerment, and community.
I have tried to boil down some of these change management academics into four snack-size principles.
Do not come in hot.
This was one of my biggest mistakes, thinking I knew it all. Remember, this is a process that should lean on Human-Centered Design practices. Discovery, which is, in good part, listening to learn. Figure out the partners that want to work with you, and the ones that don’t (both matter) understand the “high risk of failure” at your specific organization to come up with the right strategies. Maria Giudice calls this a “coalition of the willing.”
When you’re first trying to figure everything out, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. I have learned that identifying a small area with great potential for impact can lead to the traction that will have a ripple effect and give you the runway you need to unlock other areas ripe to follow.
Talent resource management, for example. This is one that flies under the radar as a latent need. Most product-driven organizations don’t really know who’s working on what and how that ladders up to the broader company goals and roadmap. At a design consultancy, this is absolutely critical. Because what projects people are working has a direct impact on the P&L. In my experience, I am not sure if it should be that different in house, just approached with a different lens.
In advertising, the term “effective frequency” is used to describe the number of times a consumer must be exposed to a message before the marketer gets the desired response (7.) This model can be applied directly to messaging within an organization. Those steps can be around:
- Interacting with the people it will impact
- Targeting the message to those people
A strong communication strategy and plan is a big part of the success of how you bring people along with you. Rinse / wash / repeat
Don’t celebrate too soon, it’s a game of inches. When one part is complete, there’s more to be done, and you’ll have to start all over again. But don’t despair — you’ll have all your shiny new learnings from all your shiny new failures to put in your toolbelt to take with you on your next change journey.
There is something to be said for the level of maturity of an organization before Design Ops is brought in. In the InVision model, DOps is usually brought in somewhere between level 2 and 3. That doesn’t necessarily have to do with the ability for the organization to adhere to the practice of what design operations actually means beyond the day to day tactics (remember the hiring manager conversation.) Be mindful of what level your organization might be in, and retrofit your plan to what that stage might have an appetite for.
So much of what we are seeing and will see is a common pattern of behaviors. The situations are different, but so much of the work is the same. This is why frameworks exist (and why those system theories books exist for that matter.) We are all building from scratch, but the tools are beginning to fall into place. When I was in consulting, we all felt we could build something from scratch because it made it feel more authentic. Losing time and expending a ton of energy and effort when we could have been leveraging each other’s best practices and focusing on the customization of those best practices. Now that we have so many people building systems, we can identify the patterns and leverage those patterns to build on them, as a community.
So how do we actually walk the walk, when there is so much talk? Recognizing at the end of the day, it is not about design, engineering, or product — it’s about the customer. To push ourselves to deliver on the best and most cohesive end to end experience, we need to do more than introduce new or modify existing products or services, we need to change how our companies work and perceive innovation.
This is our job.
So how do we set the environment for change to be received? Think about those you are trying to lead through it, how do we allow them to inform the process? I like to imagine all the players are sitting at the same table. Some of them hate each other, some of them love each other, some of them tolerate each other. The fact is they are all there for a common cause. As Design Ops leaders, we haven’t only invited them, we have set the table.
And there will be a lot of noise at this table, so much it will at times feel like chaos. Listen for the trends and keep your ears open for the signals, mine that noise for gold. Most importantly, listen with tactical empathy. It’s easy to forget how, during times of change for individuals, teams, organizations — the emotion and anxiety loom large. We are all human. Always try to dig into underlying motivations when working with others so you can listen to learn, to understand, before expecting change to be received.
My former colleague and dear friend Alexis Lloyd said this often, and it applies so well to what we are trying to do. To have both resilience and grit, you must be able to absorb it all and keep going.
As you chart your path, you will hear and read stories from some fantastic leaders about their incredible experiences and tactics. I challenge you to take them all in, rationalize their stories with your own, and leverage that as your frame of reference for when you inevitably fall down and get back up again.