DesignOps is a transformative function that focuses on the very heart of the teams’ operative system. For this reason, a participative approach to change management is key to ensure success and impact. Yet, the importance of change management as a core skill is still often overlooked.
A successful DesignOps initiative is a transformational act that delivers value to the teams, the leaders, and the organisation by optimising and improving processes, ways of working, engagement models, and tools ecosystems.
As a process and inward-looking discipline (see here) DesignOps works on the core operational structures that enable relationships, workflows, optimisations, and efficiencies. And to achieve the expected results, DesignOps needs to effectively orchestrate actions across all cross functional and design teams and this is why DesignOps’ success heavily depends on how well the change and the transformation are managed.
Design Thinking as DesignOps’ foundational approach
DesignOps is a discipline that builds and benefits from a solid Design Thinking process to enable operational changes.
DesignOps’ Design Thinking approach is not only a strong and necessary legacy, but it is the most powerful method to fully understand the problem and the users, to explore and experiment with solutions to ensure that there are tangible and measurable improvements and the changes introduced are durable and consistent with the context and processes.
This is the classic double diamond approach that is equally effective both for Design and for DesignOps initiatives:
But when the users are your own teams, Design Thinking’s dynamics and the expected impact change, as the final solution should be a durable change in the existing process and in the current designers’ experience.
Design Thinking is a process for creative problem solving (IDEO), its focus is the final output (the solution), but DesignOps needs to ensure that the solution transforms processes to maximise benefits on the long term.
DesignOps focus is not on the output — the actions needed to deliver results os the final deliverables— but on the the outcome and the impact, the tangible and intangible benefits resulting from the project activities.
This is why while Design Thinking is essential to explore the problem and opportunity space to test and define the most effective option, however DesignThinking by itself cannot deliver durable changes that scale benefits and deliver the business goals and efficiencies on the long term.
Understanding Change management: Lewin’s Model
Organisational change refers to all initiatives that affect any of the organisation’s core operational structures, such as tools, culture, processes, ways of working. Managing this change — change management — is the approach required to ensure that new processes, new ways of working, and new engagement models are actually adopted by the people who are affected to ensure they deliver benefits on the long term (more here and here).
DesignOps operates at the very heart of the design teams’ operative system to deliver value and to bring tangible and quantifiable improvements to both design teams and the organisation.
This is why DesignOps needs to combine a Design Thinking approach with a well defined change management strategy to ensure full buy-in and engagement from all who are affected by the forthcoming transformations.
Although there are many change management models, the original archetype that has given birth to the formalisation of change management as a discipline, is Lewin’s model. This approach was developed in the late ’40s and this 3 steps model is shows the key phases of every change process (more on the model here).
Lewin’s model describes change as a three stage process, made by the following steps:
Lewin’s model shows the three critical steps and actions required to manage transformative projects and to ensure change is embedded in the organisation and the culture and delivers benefits on the long term.
DesignOps meets Change Management
If DesignOps delivers transformational projects to improve the ways teams engage, operate, spend, and work, then DesignOps does need a strong change management approach.
This why combining Design Thinking with a change management approach is introduces some minor, yet key, modifications to the classic double diamond model:
The graphic above shows the double diamond framework with a tweak at the end and it combines Design Thinking with Lewin’s 3 stages of change.
Lewin’s 3 phases can be aligned with the double diamond model, but being Design Thinking for DesignOps, there are some changes that need to happen to ensure Design Thinking meets change management in a participative way.
In fact the Unfreeze phase corresponds to Design Thinking’s initial problem setting and empathy driven approach to define the user problem and identify opportunities. This is when issues are revealed and by making problems explicit the process creates awareness and enables the need for change.
The Hypothesis and Experimentation phase, when the focus is on the solution and the actions is when Change happens and needs to be driven through influencing and engagement strategies to test and experiment changes. This phase is where action happens and where the planning and design of the transformation happens — a transformation that requires engagement, over-communication, and team empowerment.
The final step, the Freeze stage is where impact is measured and decisions are made. This is where the classic double diamond has a tweak and shows an extra half diamond to ensure the decision is made collectively and change is made sustainable and attainable through trainings and support.
In a participative approach to change management, compared to the classic Design Thinking model, there are 2 opportunities for iteration based on results and feedback, the second of which is strictly connected with the decision to Freeze.
If the experiment does not provide objective satisfactory results, the experiment needs to be redesigned and the process needs to look again at the solution ideation phase. This is the Design Thinking loop, where experiments provide measurable results to decide if the solution is worth progressing.
In a participative approach though, even if the objective results achieved and even if the experiments deliver satisfactory results, if the leaders, teams, stakeholders do not accept to adopt the change in the Decide/Adoption stage, the change is not implemented (frozen) and another iteration of the experiment is required until all those involved in the change agree to adopt the transformation.
For change to be implemented, transformational initiatives need to achieve both positive objective impact and teams’ acceptance. Without acceptance, no change can succeed on the long term.
Bringing participation at the heard of DesignOps’ transformations
For the reason stated above about acceptance, the biggest addition to the classic double diamond is in the highlighted focus on participative elements, formalised in the LISTEN and SHARE activities: ongoing two-ways conversations with design leaders, designers, and cross-functional partners are necessary to ensure DesignOps operates in a transparent and participative manner and all feedbacks and concerns are taken into account in a timely and open way.
The combination of Design Thinking and change management makes DesignOps a participative user centred transformational approach. By putting the users, the designers and stakeholders, at the centre of the process and by ensuring that all involved are engaged and part of the decisions is key to deliver long lasting benefits and value.
A case study
Change requires and takes time, so while the graphic looks straightforward, transformational processes require time and patience. The following example described high-level actions and the rationale of an ongoing experiment.
Step 1: Unfreeze and understand the problem
A survey and interviews were run with the teams to understand their biggest pains and what could improve their experience as designers.
It emerged that one of the top asks was to learn more: more trainings, more opportunities to be inspired from experts outside the organisaton.
Step 2: Share and create the need for change
Learnings form the surveys and interviews were shared with both teams and leaders. Sharing with leaders meant sharing the findings, the analysis, and also providing full transparency and access to the raw data. To establish trust and build the future engagement it is important to act with a full open and transparent policy and provide access to any working material. The ask for raw data generally helps leaders to better understand their teams and it is a way to maximise the impact of any data collection effort.
Sharing with teams is key to ensure they trust the process and they see the impact and value of their feedback. Designers need to acknowledge that they influence and determine their own ways of working: sharing with the teams is a way to empower and engage everyone.
Participative and ongoing sharing is a win-win strategy: nothing creates the urge and need for change more than realising that an individual pain is actually a collective shared one.
Step 3: Change! Making hypotheses and designing experiments.
After learnings have been shared and discussed, DesignOps needs to do its magic and turn a problem into an opportunity by defining what success looks like and creating hypothesis and experiments.
How may we foster a learning culture and bring more training opportunities to scale up designers’ skills?
Again, every solution, idea, option was shared openly: stakeholders needed to commit and agree on the solution, teams had to understand what was happening, and most importantly, why and how they started this transformative initiative with their feedbacks.
Step 4: Share and learn from comments!
The planning approach to define what would become a 6 months’ Academy looked at all aspects: trainers and speakers, times that would work for all, time zones coordination, calendar synchronisation… The participative approach consolidated the first experiment: every week, for 6 months, designers would be invited to 60/90 minutes sessions with external subject matter experts.
Step 5: Testing and measuring
To be able to test impact, it was necessary to clearly identify which behaviours and parameters the experiment needed to affect. What would success look like for an educational experiment? Designers were invited to complete another survey to assess confidence in key areas the Academy would address. These data created the baseline to assess impact and change in an objective way.
Step 6: Shall we Freeze? Evaluate and Decide.
After 6 months, it was time to collect structured feedback. Teams and leaders were shared comments on an ongoing informal base and it became clear after 3/4 months that there was need to improve some aspects of the experiment. But which aspects were relevant to leaders and which were key for designers?
Another survey measured the impact on designers’ skills and explored the overall experience to decide if the experiment was the right change and if it was ready to be consolidated or if we had to go back (more on this experiment, here).
Although the objective impact and the lift in confidence was satisfactory, the feedback from the teams and leaders were against accepting this as a permanent change. This has meant exploiting the elements that have delivered the lift in the objective impact and improving the experiential aspects that made the majority of those involved refuse to adopt the change.
Everything has been constantly up for reviews and conversations making this a fully Bottom-up transformational initiative, where the initial input was originated by teams and the final validation came from them again.
DesignOps is not a top-down approach: delivering transformation requires an approach that is participative in nature, user centred, and inclusive, where everyone’s voice is heard and addressed to ensure transformation is owned by all who are involved.
Success in DesignOps is never immediate as transformational initiatives may require objective results to be fully aligned with user acceptance and adoption.
Operational transformations need to be designed and driven with a clear view and an approach that combines seamlessly both the power of Design Thinking and the transformative impact of participative change management.