Building Your DesignOps Org — Part 1

From hiring to maturing your team: a two-part series

Two years ago, there was no Design Operations team at this organization. There were extremely capable leaders and teams within design, each managing on their own, in their own way, but no systematic approach to the ecosystem of design. People were struggling to develop consistent processes, find their voices with stakeholders, and build culture. There was confusion, frustration, and the all-too-common feeling of design and designers being an afterthought in the product development lifecycle.

Today, DesignOps is a team of eight (and growing), and our mantra to “go forth and do” has taken us from a chaotic backlog of things-to-be-tackled to a more strategic approach to maturing the teams we support. Are things perfect? Nope. Have we made leaps and bounds toward improving design team work? Absolutely.

At our org the team is actually Creative Operations because our reach extends beyond design into other creative teams. For simplicity and SEO I’ll use DesignOps here. In some organizations the role itself is called Design Program Manager, UX Producer, DesignOps Specialist, etc. I’m using Design Program Manager as a catchall.

The most common reason people reach out to me on LinkedIn is to find out how my team came to be. How did we get buy-in? Who did we hire? How did we grow? How did we know what to do next? And it’s probably my favorite thing to talk about. Not just because I’m so flippin’ proud of my team, but because I want to see other organizations grow the practice of DesignOps. It’s good for organizations, it’s good for end users, it’s good for design, and it’s good for the thousands of talented creative-minded program managers out there.

In this post I’ll share how I got buy-in to grow the team, how I approached hiring, and how team members got started. Caveat: This is a way but not the only way to build up a team.

Coming soon: simultaneously maturing DesignOps and the teams we support.

So how do you build a DesignOps team from scratch?

Step 1: Build Demand

When I joined as the first and only Design Program Manager — a position that was considered a bit experimental in our org and not fully understood by most — I did a fact-finding tour across design, product, engineering, and technical program management to understand the challenges. Two things were immediately apparent:

There was a lot to be done

We were going to need a bigger team

Insisting on building a team in your first few weeks isn’t exactly the way to make a good impression. So I set my sights on building credibility and demand instead.

Build value and boundaries

I spread my projects across various teams so that everyone got a taste of what it was like to have Design Operations, and so I could get a better idea of what the needs were on different teams. I worked with our then VP of Design to prioritize his top 3 strategic projects, and embedded myself with design teams that needed the most urgent help. But I couldn’t get too deep with any one team or project. There was only one me, and me believes in work/life harmony.

Consider high-end brands: they create demand out of the perception of scarcity and quality. They operate on the pretense that they have something special, there’s only a little of it, and you’ll be lucky to get your hands on it. My goal in the first year was to show the value of Design Operations, but by balancing being indispensable and setting boundaries so I wasn’t completely overwhelmed, I created demand. Less than a year later, I was invited to sit down to map out a hiring plan for my team.

Note: I was not maliciously or manipulatively creating demand, or falsely creating scarcity. That is a road that will only lead to mistrust and dysfunction. Don’t do it.

“But we need buy-in for our first DesignOps person”

Someone is already doing Design Operations at your company. If you’re reading this, I’m betting it’s you, and that you’re a designer or design leader who needs help.

Some of the best advice I got from our Design VP was to monetize asks for headcount. How much of your time are you spending doing the things a Design Program Manager should do? When we evaluated the time designers were spending on DesignOps work, it came out to about 20–30% for individual contributors and 30–70% for design leaders. That’s way too much.

If you‘re paying someone $150,000 for design work and they’re spending half their time just figuring out the scaffolding needed to actually do their jobs, something is wrong. And you’re only getting half the designs you paid for.

What could you be doing with that time that would support the business instead?

DesignOps creates efficiencies by centralizing and managing the work of design as a cohesive ecosystem. So while you could say that a team of 4 designers who are each spending 25% of their time on overhead breaks even by bringing in 1 DesignOps person, the truth is that the cost savings is significantly higher because their productivity actually increases more than that 25% each.

To get buy-in, make your business case about the business. Show that similar companies are thriving with DesignOps. Put dollars to it. Then make a plan that makes sense for the business’s goals.

For a great and article about measuring the value of DesignOps, check out Dave Malouf’s Measuring DesignOps or InVision’s The Case for Adding DesignOps to Your Org Chart.

“But our leadership doesn’t believe in DesignOps”

Like organizations that didn’t value design 10+ years ago, there are still some leaders that don’t understand the value of operations in general, not to mention specialized teams like DesignOps.

This breaks my heart. In some orgs you can still change minds. In others… not so much. Make your business case. Describe the work in plain language. Differentiate DesignOps from project management. Remove the abstractness and be specific. Talk to leadership about who they think should do DesignOps work.

If you’re a team in crisis — you have a DesignOps team that’s being cut, or you’re struggling mightily with no DesignOps support in sight — it may simply be time to take your career elsewhere. Find a company that’s ready for DesignOps and be amazing there.

Step 2: Make a Hiring Plan

I had a vision for what I wanted my team to be, how to structure it, and how to help the Design team. But it required hiring about 12 people for my ideal model of a 1:1 Design-Program-Manager-to-design-area ratio. While I had support, I didn’t have a blank check. It was time to prioritize.

Find the critical needs

Every team wants DesignOps. But which teams desperately need it? To figure out critical hires, look at four major factors:

  • Team relationship complexity: more complexity = more need
  • Project volume and velocity: higher volume and velocity = higher need
  • Process maturity: lower maturity = greater need
  • Business focus: more focus = more need

Consider whether the teams’ needs are best served by embedded Design Program Managers, overarching Operations folks, or a combination. You may have critical design hiring needs and want to dedicate someone to that role. You may have vertical teams that desperately need guidance. It’s up to you to determine where those precious hires will focus.

Create a phased plan

Using the critical needs guidelines, identify your top three hires. Why three?

  • Hiring takes a lot of time and energy; more than three would wipe out your calendar (and brain power)
  • Three makes progress on your vision; you’ll prove value quickly and solidify the concept of DesignOps as a practice
  • Three feels like a team; it’s enough to build culture, which will help you hire into the future

Write out your long-term hiring plan, call out your first three hires and communicate the plan to your stakeholders (usually design leaders). That way teams know when they can expect DesignOps support, and you can budget for hiring year-over-year. Plans will evolve over time, but it’s a great place to start.

A plan should include:

  • Job titles
  • Priority/urgency
  • Team(s) to support
  • Location
  • Salary
  • Brief business justification
  • Target hire dates/months

Step 3: Design a Career Path

So you’ve got your first open positions. Yay! But how will they grow and develop? What’s your vision for DesignOps as a practice, and what are your expectations for team members as they mature in their roles?

A career path can look like a lot of things. Here it looks like a spreadsheet with columns for each level and rows for the skills and behaviors expected. No one will fit neatly into any one column — it’s more of a wavy line that lets you and your team know where people need more support, where they’re right on track, and where they can lead and mentor others. It’s also a nice way to track where you have gaps on your team to fill with future hires.

Map it out

The career path is an excellent tool in hiring and building a team because it sets clear expectations and makes it easy to answer the inevitable interview question, “What are the growth opportunities for this role?”

When you think about DesignOps growth, there are a couple of core long-term opportunities for people:

  1. Advance to a staff or principle level; someone who leads through their expertise and is a trusted resource across the organization
  2. Advance to a people-manager level; someone who manages a team of other DesignOps folks

Think future-state

Consider what the roles look like from Intern to VP of DesignOps, whether you intend to hire across that entire spectrum or not. This way you’re ready when those opportunities arise, and the pathway to growth is clearly defined.

It helps to align your career paths to your organization’s standards, so it’s an easier sell when it’s time to promote someone.

You don’t have to do this before you start hiring. But it helps.

Step 4: Hire the Best Team

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say my team is truly wonderful. And it’s this way because the team was built with an intentionality some might apply to choosing a life partner.

So before you start hiring, get clear on exactly who you’re looking for to complement your vision.

Know what you want

Establish the behavioral traits and tactical skills you’re looking for before you write your job description.

On my team we say we’re looking for natural leaders with experience helping design and creative teams reach their highest potential. Beyond the assumed program manger experience, our ideal candidates will be strong in:

  • collaboration and partnership
  • coaching/guidance
  • design and research knowledge
  • relationship building
  • creative problem solving
  • learning from failure
  • clear communication of ideas
  • diversity of experience and knowledge
  • calmness under pressure
  • balancing responsiveness and proactiveness
  • learning mindset
  • flexibility
  • confidence without cockiness

Your values might align with these — they might not. Be clear and honest with yourself about what skills and strengths are essential to the success of the teams you support. Outline your values and come back to them as you hire.

Know what others want

Go on a listening tour and ask the people who will be working with your DesignOps team what they‘re hoping for in an operations partner. Our success is based on the fact that our leaders describe their DesignOps partners as “the other half of my brain” and “the angel on my shoulder,” and that works because we integrated those leaders into the hiring process.

(Some good questions to ask when you’re fact-finding with stakeholders).

This is a critical step as well, because different people need different things from DesignOps. Some need help managing analytics, others are all about stakeholder relationships. Some want all the overhead off their plate, others are looking for a strategic thought partner. Some think they need one thing but actually need another. It’s your job to suss that out and find the right match for your supported teams.

Whatever your partner teams need, hire people who can fill those gaps (and evolve with them).

Snag the best people

This is an in-demand field and job-seekers have plenty of options. As you write your job description, think about what differentiates the role at your organization. Candidates consistently reference the same line in our job description as the thing that inspired them to apply. (Seen one of our posts? Comment on what you think that magical line is.)

So, what sets you and your teams apart?

Make your job descriptions honest, clear, and inclusive. Describe expectations and culture. Call out what makes the role special.

Help DesignOps candidates shine

How do you interview to get top DesignOps candidates to accept your offer? Talk to people like the humans that they are. Don’t waste time asking trick questions, quizzing, or trying to stump them on technical details. And for goodness sakes, don’t intentionally intimidate them.

You’ll get a much better sense of who people really are by engaging in a two-way conversation. If you’re a master facilitator (and I assume you are if you’re going to be leading a DesignOps team) use your smarts to draw out the information you need. Be curious. Be honest. Help them shine and you’ll see what they can really do for you and your organization.

A formula that’s worked well for us so far:

  • Let the candidate know what you’re hoping to get out of the interview
  • Introduce yourself: who you are, how long you’ve been with the company, why you joined, what you do
  • Share context about the team and the people you support. What problems are you trying to solve? Where do you need help?
  • Invite the candidate to share how their experience might add to the team given the context you shared
  • Listen, engage, ask questions
  • Save some time to talk about company culture and at least 10 minutes for candidate questions

When I interview for Design Program Managers I look for excellent storytelling as I ask about their approach to stakeholder management, process and planning, design advocacy, and introducing change. You can tell a lot about how someone collaborates, organizes, and communicates by understanding the way they think about these areas.

Hire collaboratively

DesignOps is a true partnership between the Design Program Manager and the team they support. And that partnership starts with hiring.

Your hiring team should look something like this:

  • Hiring manager
  • Design partner(s) the person will be working with (probably a design leader)
  • Design team the person will be supporting
  • DesignOps team (if there is one)
  • 1–2 senior-level people who have a vested interest

You’ll also need a recruiter who gets design and program management (I happen to work with an outstanding one).

Make sure each interviewer knows exactly what their goals are and how to facilitate the interview by providing an interview guide that outlines the things they should focus on.

Here’s what you want to hear from the hiring team: “Oh my gosh, that person was amazing! I can’t wait to work with them!” If the feedback is lackluster, the DesignOps relationship will not be successful. It just won’t. Hire the people who light a fire for the team.

Step 5: Plug the Holes

Yay, you found someone amazing!

Whenever you hire someone, the first thing they’re likely to need to do (after conducting their own listening tours) is start plugging the process holes. This will take at least the first 90 days, often the first 6 months to a year (depending on the team’s maturity).

First 30 days

Your new team members should spend the majority of their time learning about the teams they’ll support, doing informational interviews to understand what the teams need, and getting acquainted with people and processes.

They can call out (maybe even implement) some quick wins for the team. This time is all about building trust.

First 60 days

Now the Design Program Manager can confidently identify the short-term needs, along with a longer-term vision that they and leadership agree on.

This is the time to think strategically about how to set up the supported team for success (process, documentation, culture, relationships, etc). By now the supported team should understand what DesignOps can do (or plans to do) for them, and they should be feeling optimistic.

First 90 days

Now you can expect to see change sprouting. Your Design Program Managers should be thinking systematically about operating internally and within the ecosystem of the organization. They’ll have built relationships with partners and stakeholders and established themselves as the go-to for the team.

It’s time to work toward those longer-term goals. The supported team should feel well taken care of — like they can relax and do their jobs knowing that DesignOps has things handled.

Beyond 90 days

Supported teams will no-doubt have miles of ideas they want help implementing. Prioritize and plan them just like any other project.

Looking longer term

The first year is critical for building trust and laying the foundation for your supported teams so you can spend the next year-plus executing on the big stuff. But it’s not just the individual supported team that has potential to mature in the first year. It’s DesignOps itself.

In the next post, I’ll share how we set our sights on maturing DesignOps as an organization and solidifying our place as a highly-valued, critical function.

If you’d like to chat about setting up your DesignOps team, connect with me.

Creative Operations leader, growing a team of very fine individuals.

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