It’s what you cultivate that matters most.
All the truly great Design Operations folks I know (and I know quite a few) are passionate catalysts. They care deeply, are natural leaders and helpers, and they’re compelled to make their teams the best they can be. It’s lovely, really.
They also tend to be the type who feel not only an intense need for the end product to shine, but a personal responsibility to make it so.
And this is where DesignOps can get a bit… messy.
You helped gather the requirements, you built the relationships to get buy-in, you raised sky-high scaffolding to protect the project from scope creep and stakeholder creep and all the other creeps that attempt to sneak in to dismantle the work. You cultivated this thing and now you want to ensure the outcome is as perfect as its beginnings. But at the end of the day, it’s the designers — not DesignOps — who make the thing. It’s their vision, not yours. It’s their craft, their portfolio, their success (or failure).
This is particularly challenging to come to terms with for DesignOps People who used to be Design People. Those who made the transition because they were running things anyway (and liked it) and miss having a deliverable at the end of the day.
But it’s not only design outcomes that vex us so. Meeting outcomes, presentations, stakeholder interactions; we often feel like it reflects on us, even if we’re not in the room. We can develop this misplaced accountability, like we have a personal responsibility to not only enable delivery, but transcend it.
I am guilty of this myself.
A couple of weeks ago there was a big and long-anticipated meeting with the higher-ups that went a bit sideways, and afterward my boss asked if I’d felt like I was responsible for the outcomes. “Well, yeah.” I did. I was holding onto it as a personal failure. And then in a very Good Will Hunting-inspired moment he looked straight into his camera and said, “It’s not your responsibility.”
As someone who also leads a team, I have a double ownership complex, both over my projects and my (quite amazing) direct reports. My management style is to provide what some might call radical autonomy, which is at odds with my historical (at times hysterical) need to ensure the best outcomes are realized.
So how do you let go? How do you know when to coach and when to direct, when to step in and when to step back?
Be the Farmer
I was interviewing a candidate this week who said, “I plant the seeds. I fertilize the ground and water it and all that. I tend the garden as best I can. But I don’t control how many leaves will grow or how sweet the fruit is. That’s where my job ends.” Now, as my team is CrOps (Creative Operations) we positively adore a good farm metaphor. And I love this one in particular because it sums up so well the struggle DesignOps can feel.
At some point you have to trust that those seeds will do what they’re supposed to do. Sure, you can prune. Use stakes to support messy vines. But the responsibility for the end result is out of your hands.
There’s only so much we can do. Like farmers.
Reframe Your Focus
DesignOps is a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s a newer title for a conglomeration of roles that have existed for years and is therefore a little muddy. Expectations can vary from organization to organization, team to team, and it may be that in your org the expectation for outcome ownership is at your door.
So let’s reframe this. I won’t define DesignOps here (there are so, so many articles doing that already) but I will offer up some areas that deserve — even beg for — DesignOps accountability.
It really comes down to three major focus areas: happy teams, better workflows, smarter systems.
Onboarding and orientation
Events and connection
Strategic thought partnering
Training and education opportunities
Planning and prioritization
Tools and tech stack
Agency and vendor management
Once we focus more precisely on the outcomes we’re actually accountable for, we can start to let go of those we’re not. And these outcomes? Yeah, own them.
We can’t control all the outcomes. But we can give our teams and projects a foundation for strong roots and healthy growth.
The rest is up to them.