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.

Puerto Rico Se Levanta

Credit: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times

Originally published August 8, 2018

When I read about the island of Puerto Rico, a US Territory lost in 11 years of a recession, there is a plethora of data about corruption, poverty, lack of medical access, tremendous brain drain, and how tourism and tax shelters are the only things the island has left. But if you visit, and listen to the people you would hear a different story. One of passion, depth and wealth of culture, the desire to stay on their Isla – to rise up. Listen to the people who maintain their optimism under some of the direst of circumstances and continue to try and rebuild even in the consistent face of adversity, both manmade and natural.

The data would tell us many things that are grounded in truths –  after Hurricane Maria the loss of the economic and technical infrastructure (dependent on a reliable electrical grid) has driven hundreds of thousands of people off of the island. However, if we listened we would hear about the committed; the accelerators trying to bring Puerto Ricans back to the island, the start-ups, the innovation around agritourism pivoting into a regrow mission, and people like the independent chef selling her annual coquito or pastelles to people in New York that is the prize of the holiday season.

So the question becomes, how do we really hear these stories, how do we take the data and dig deeper? How do we qualify the quantitative so we can better understand how rebuilding a community can be supported by access to online tools that can support them and their business so that even when an entire infrastructure gets knocked out, there is still global access to the goods and services of which these business owners livelihoods depend on. What is the responsibility on those of us with access to the infrastructure, and the means (if even modest) that we take for granted? If we are curious and listen to the stories we can start to solve for better design of our products so that they provide access to those not only on the other side of the digital divide but support them in times of crisis. Often times organizations question the validity of qualitative research, not enough numbers, too small of a segment splice, but what I have consistently discovered is that one of the most meaningful differences between quant and qual research at its core is the difference between what people say, and what people do. The ability of the qualitative approach to building up our own muscles around cognitive empathy so that we can better understand these customers underlying motivations and as an organization, design products that truly serve their needs. To be able to prove that need through our work in a way that is most impactful at the end of the day is what will resonate with the communities that will continue to be marginalized if those who have the ability to buoy them, instead allow them to be left behind.