Systems thinking for DesignOps

If DesignOps is about designing processes and defining transformative strategies, it is important to apply a Systems Thinking approach to ensure the strategy delivers on the expectations and does not move inefficiencies across the organisation.

Systems Thinking is a holistic critical thinking approach that focuses on the analysis of the relationships between the system’s parts to fully assess the context (more here). By understanding how every part of the system is interconnected to the others and by evaluating how a change to one part affects the dynamics and relationships of the whole system, System Thinking becomes a powerful approach to decision making and change management to maximise impact and minimise risks.

System Thinking sees the organisation as an integrated, complex composition of many interconnected systems, both human and non-human: all these components need to work together and cooperate effectively to empower the whole (the system) to function efficiently.

If the organisation is a system made by smaller units, then a system can be broken down into discrete sub-units. These sub-systems need to interact together and cooperate effectively on an ongoing basis to empower the system to accomplish its purpose. 
Form an organisational point of view the major sub-systems are:
– People
– Processes
– Technology and tools
– Resources

And each of these sub-systems can be broken down into more sub-systems: by exploring and expanding the systems, the overlaps and the interconnectedness among the parts become visible, showing how every part is deeply interwoven to the other units of the system:

The organisation as a System is made by a number of subsystems that compose a complex system of relationships and interdependencies.
The organisation as a System and an example of sub-systems.

The division in sub-systems shows a complex web of relationships among all parts and when the system’s analysis is done to a granular level, it becomes clear how a change to any part drives potential alterations to other parts. Moreover, in the model some sub-systems are closer and embedded with multiple sub-systems: i.e., although HR is a process focused function, HR touches deeply sub-systems such as People and Resources too.

It is important to highlight that in a systemic approach there is no single way of categorising and organising the systems: each system is unique and each variable or prioritisation criteria adopted, if appropriately exploited to identify the relationships among the parts, will provide an in depth view of the context and the relationships.

Why does Systems Thinking matter for DesignOps?

If DesignOps is a transformative function that drives transformational initiatives to maximise value creation to multiple stakeholders by optimising and improving processes, ways of working, and engagement models, then the impact of every transformational act transcends Design and touches a number of relationships across the system.

The same change management approach that enables DesignOps to carry out value driven transformational initiatives needs to be coupled with a systemic approach to fully understand the benefits and extended impacts of any DesignOps’ initiative. 
The systemic approach becomes critical because DesignOps delivers business impact on multiple levels — speed to delivery, quality of output, time to market, spending efficiencies, increased ROI… — to multiple stakeholders, from the designers to the cross-functional partners, making DesignOps a systemic discipline. Moreover, Design’s positioning as a cross-functional and collaborative discipline that relies on ongoing relationships with other non-design partners reinforces the systemic nature of DesignOps and the needs to include Systems Thinking among the success criteria of any transformational initiative.

If DesignOps’ focus is to improve operational and spending efficiencies and to maximise value creation, DesignOps needs to understand the inter-relations and the deep connections among the parts of the system to exploit those relationships to enable benefits to propagate within the sub-systems and the organisation.

Where does DesignOps stands in a systemic view?

DesignOps operates at the heart of the Design sub-system and DesignOps itself is simultaneously both a system and a sub-system, because it is both influenced and it influences a number of relationships on multiple levels.
For this reason, DesignOps operates simultaneously both inside-out(from the design teams to the organisation) and outside-in (from the broader organisational level to design).

The model below shows how and where DesignOps operates at a systemic level, providing a simplified view of the different levels and diverse relationships that are touched by DesignOps.

From a Systemic view, the organisation is divided in subsystems: the business units, the teams of each Business Unit, the focus of each teams, the areas of intervention of each team. Every action taken in any area impacts the system.
A simplified systemic view of DesignOps’ placement in an organisational systemic view.

The image shows different levels of sub-systems, from the macro-level of the organisation and the Business Units, to the micr — level, the specific teams’ engagement model or resource.
It becomes then clear that an action at a lower and more granular level, like introducing a new design tool can have a broader impact beyond the design teams and it can influence engagement models, processes, and collaboration both with designers and with the cross-functional partners, ultimately impacting the organisation as a whole.

How does System Thinking work for DesignOps?

The focus of DesignOps is to create operational and spending efficiencies for the Design teams by re-designing and optimising the existing operational frameworks on multiple levels to create value to both design leaders, designers, and the organisation.

If the organisation is the system, then by creating value to the organisation, DesignOps potentially touches all other sub-system pertaining to the main system that have both a direct and indirect relationship with Design.

Every single sub-system can be touched by changes happening within the Design teams: If DesignOps changes one aspect of the E2E design process, such as adding a new prioritisation process, this new process can impact cross functional engagement models, changing how teams and team members interact. And this change can also drive new needs for tools or resources that will move from Design to other parts of the organisation, such as finance or other leaders.

By transforming the teams operational models to improve efficiencies, those same efficiency-driven initiatives can impact and propagate across different teams and sub-systems within the organisation. Therefore being able to apply a Systems Thinking approach to assess both the immediate, medium and long term potential consequences of change becomes a critical skills that enabled DesignOps to maximise impact on multiple sub-systems.

It’s the intrinsic collaborative nature of Design that calls for a systemic approach and this approach can unveil any potential silos or unexplored relationships within the system (the organisation).

The best tool to assess the impact of changes are Scenarios: scenarios are a path through the system to explore one or multiple flows and to analyse the impacts of possible future events on the system performance by considering diverse alternative outcomes.

Scenario Analysis are used in Systems Thinking to probe how any change influences the systems and sub-systems. Scenarios explore potential use cases of all possible implications looking at the impact on relationships and exploring consequences on people, processes, and business. 
Scenarios lead the definition and assessment of any potential outcome that may emerge from a change in one part of the system through a set of probing questions to evaluate the systemic impact. Some obvious questions that can drive the definition of the scenario may be: 
– How would this change propagate through the system?
– Which are the sub-systems affected? 
– How and when would the sub-systems experience the impact of the change?
– How would people outside design / the current sub-system react to the change? (assuming a participative change management has been applied to define the solution)
– Which of the existing frameworks and ways of working may be directly and indirectly affected by this change?
– What are the consequences on the ways of working and collaboration?

To effectively exploit the power of scenarios it can be important to have clear metrics from the experiments and from the DesignOps’ approach as described here: measurements and a baseline help defining the potential impact on various dimensions (Time, Quality, Resources) and by probing how the system would respond to a propagation of new initiatives, a scenario would provide an outlook of future possible downsides or opportunities. By quantifying potential positive and negative impact through scenarios DesignOps can therefore assess impact and the value of the transformation across all teams and sub-systems.

A practical Example

When assessing the importance to introduce a research recruiter service to help the design teams to work faster and smarter, the initial efficiencies were focused on Design teams. It was clear that there were major inefficiencies stemming from the Design teams, whose economic impact was over $500,000 / year with a significant burden on teams’ life/work balance.

So the solution had to focus on Design teams’ operational capacity to impact financial perfomance but it also could influence the organisation as a whole to maximise ROI and to open additional opportunities to non-design teams.

So if the explored solution was to introduce a new role, a Research recruiter that would handle all participant sourcing needs, what would that mean for the system and sub-systems?

Assessing the potential impact of an action means creating hypothesis and attributing credible and achievable success metrics that provide an assessment of the potential impact across the organisation by looking first at the direct impact on Design teams, such as:

  • Reduce lead time to recruit (-20%)
  • Reduce costs (-25%)
  • Increase number and variety of research participants (+35%)
  • Increase quantity of test, making testing easy (+30%)
  • Save designers’ time! (-25%)

Some of these metrics, such as saving Designers’ time would also impact other subsystems, such as life/work balance, which would impact churn…

After the definition of possible quantifiable metrics for the Design teams, it is important to assess the consequences for the non-design teams:

  • Increase number of user engagement and research sessions for all Business Units and teams (+50%)
  • Improving spending efficiency for the organisation (-35%)
  • Increase ROI of engagements with users by multiplying engagement per session
  • Creating opportunities to join research sessions through cross-functional visibility of research initiatives
  • Increase organisation’s empathy and understanding of the user

Knowing how change propagates through the systems at all the levels is essential to plan and execute the change beyond Design.
Scenarios were used to define the business case and to stress test the systemic impact on the organisation. Scenarios were also key to set the expectations and define what were the expected and the extended benefits be for the system of the suggested solution.

DesignOps needs a System Thinking approach as by improving the engagement models, the tools, the processes, and the operation of one team, DesignOps implicitly touches also other teams because ways of working are all collaborative and strongly intertwined and the very nature of DesignOps is systemic and transformational.

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published on our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

Published by Pat

DesignOps alchemist