Understanding DesignOps as a Strategic Function

What is DesignOps and at which altitude should it be positioned to maximize impact? — Part 1 of 2

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What is DesignOps and where does it come from?

Design has become a central function in most businesses: in the past 10 years, due to the emergence of design thinking and its impact on business performance, many organisations invested in design and have embedded design in the production cycle (McKinsey 2015).

This new positioning of Design has led many organisations to acquire or invest in Design teams, and over time, these design units have become organisations within the organisation.

As Design teams grow within organisations, both in terms of teams’ size and number of teams, the need of harmonising design workflows and coordinating efforts and processes has led to the demand for new competencies to help the organisation to manage the complexity of their Design resources.

Despite the lack of a unified definition of who or what is needed to support organisations in maximising their investment in design, a growing number of companies are introducing a new function focused on increasing Design’s impact on business performance through improved Design’s operation: DesignOps.

DesignOps is an internal focused function that applies a system thinking approach to understand how Design teams operate inside-out and outside-in to identify opportunities and create business benefits through improved spending and operational performances.

Through the collaboration with both design and cross-functional leaders, DesignOps generates value through the understanding of design’s end-to-end processes and the definition of effective engagement models that support the execution and implementation of the Design strategy.

DesignOps delivers impact by concentrating on Design teams as their unit of work and it focuses on creating the conditions to empower design teams to collaborate with the cross-functional partners.

By overseeing the day-to-day and the end-to-end design process across the organisation, the DesignOps leader focuses on streamlining processes, building and maintaining a design community, harmonising ways of working across design and cross-functional teams while overseeing key operational aspects such as the budget, tools, and the relationship with external partners.

In short, DesignOps analyses the teams’ workflows and the organisation’s needs to identify opportunities to maximise Design’s impact on business performances.

In the past few months, the need to improve and redefine ways of working due the pandemic has suddenly amplified the hype on DesignOps, especially after some organisations have reported how DesignOps minimised disruption and made the transition to a Work from Home model efficient and seamless.

This has caused a rapid increase in the demand for DesignOps professionals and leaders, yet the lack of clear tasks, expectations, and responsibilities, and an unclear positioning of these new figures is causing confusion and it is preventing DesignOps from delivering benefits and impact. Two are the main source of confusion: the altitude of the role, and the relationship between Design and DesignOps.

DesignOps and Design Programme Managers

The first issue with the introduction of DesignOps is related to its focus and altitude: following the new trend, some organisations have re-branded their design producers and project managers as DesignOps Managers or they simply considered DesignOps to be the same as the Design Programme Manager, or DPM. These roles are very different in their remit and responsibilities: DPMs and DesignOps work together, but they operate at different levels and failing to understand this could generate additional inefficiencies.

This is because while DesignOps operates at a strategic level, the Design Programme Manager, as the name suggest, operate at a tactical one and the skills and competencies for the two roles are different.

DesignOps defines a vision, KPIs, and result-driven roadmaps that focus on design processes through a business lens, while Design Programme Management works on the execution of the roadmap to ensure the vision is delivered and the expected impact is achieved.

Design Programme Managers’ typical tasks include facilitation and logistics, tools’ administration, project management and tracking, and coordination of trainings and workshops. A DPM executes decisions: DPMs operate at a tactical level and they are generally aligned to a specific squad or scrum team, meaning that DPMs are expected to be familiar with the product development.

DesignOps leaders are strategic decision makers, they set a data informed vision for the Design operation, they define the tools’ ecosystem, they negotiate contracts and manage suppliers, they identify ways to grow the teams, they make engagement plans to increase cross-functional and cross-market collaboration, and they are accountable to identify gaps and opportunities to maximise spending returns.

A DesignOps leader acts at a business strategy level by connecting and engaging with cross functional and cross market C-level leaders to streamline design practices across the whole organisation.

Failing to recognise DesignOps’ function as a strategic executive functions and implementing only DPMs without an overarching strategy that leads to systematic and ongoing operational improvements is one of the most common misinterpretation of the role. It is indeed important to understand that designOps leaders are in fact designers who speak the business language who apply a business and analytical mindset to the creative process of design to amplify the impact of design on business performances. Design Programme Managers are the executive arm that ensures efficiencies are achieved on the ground.

DesignOps and Design leaders: complementary to maximise business performance

The second area of confusion is DesignOps’ relationship with Design leaders.
One of the biggest challenges when introducing a DesignOps leader in an organisation is the definition of their role and responsibilities with the existing Design Leaders, who may feel confused or even threatened by the new function.

DesignOps complements and expands Design leaders’ ability to maximise impact, and in fact DesignOps does not reduce Design leaders’ sphere of influence, but together they amplify Design’s impact and benefits for the whole organisation. For this reason it is essential that DesignOps and Design leaders partner to ensure the operational and design strategy are aligned and optimised.
As a simplification, we can say that the relationship between the design leader, or Chef Design Officer (CDO) and DesignOps leader is similar to that of the CEO with the COO, to the point that we can suggest a title of Chief Design Operations Officer, the CDOO.

A recent study from McKinsey (2020) has identified a set of tasks pertaining the Chief Design Officer and it provides a clear distinction of duties that CDOs are accountable for and those that they perform. The study divides the CDO’s impact in 3 main transformational areas:

  • the UX
  • the Organisation
  • The Team

The CDO performs most aspects in the UX area, that include the definition of a portfolio or service strategy, customer segmentation, user identification, project metrics, product experience and product related metrics.

But when it comes to transform the organisation, and even more so, the team, the CDO is not directly involved in the delivery of those aspects. The McKinsey study does not call out DesignOps as the leader responsible to execute and deliver on those aspects, but the areas that the CDO is accountable for are those performed by the DesignOps Leader.

When it comes to the team’s transformation, the DesignOps Leader and the Design Leader split responsibilities, with the Design Leader focusing on improving the employee experience and the DesignOps Leader focusing on spreading design best practices across the organisation and representing design.

But where the DesignOps leader thrives is the teams’ transformation: in this domain the DesignOps leader is directly responsible for all aspects, such as productivity management, budget, prioritisation, utilisation management, Quality assurance, KSA development, team satisfaction.

These tasks are strategic tasks that the DesignOps lead can carry out through an executive level engagement to ensure all needs and competing values are taken into account to define engagement models and operational roadmaps that maximise investments and satisfaction across the organisation.

Understanding the right positioning is therefore essential to implement DesignOps at the right altitude and to define the remit and expectations.


Understanding DesignOps as a Strategic Function was originally published in The Startup on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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