DesignOps to design orgs is like what permaculture is to gardens. Here are three takeaways from permaculture design to challenge the way you do DesignOps.
Analogies are powerful ways to innovate, so by utilising permaculture techniques for building design orgs, we can hopefully try something new and increase our chances of success.
Permaculture is an approach to land management and settlement design that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. Gardeners practice permaculture design by taking a holistic approach to optimising their gardens. This is similar to DesignOps in the sense that DesignOps practitioners are looking to optimise their design orgs and often take a holistic, design-led approach.
In permaculture, it is common for someone to start off with a piece of abused land and fast-track its conversion into a fully thriving forest (often a food forest). One could plant all the fruit trees they want straight away, but the soil, wind and sun won’t be in the right condition to support the fruit trees from the beginning. So what they do is use pioneer species (Like nitrogen fixers) to pave the way and create the right conditions for fruit trees to be grown at a later date.
These species are called pioneer species because they are often found to grow in otherwise baron landscapes and are resilient to harsh conditions (unlike fruit trees). When building up a design org in an organisation that doesn’t otherwise understand the value of design, let alone DesignOps, we can also use the concept of pioneers. The linear, reductionist approach would be to create the org of your dreams straight away and hope it will work. You will look at all the parts of the ecosystem as individual entities and try to get the best of the best in there. You will hire the best designers, subscribe to the best tools and plan out the most efficient end-to-end design processes. After you have your perfect system in place, you will likely find that despite having the best of the best, they still aren’t performing as intended. As a harder will wonder why their blood orange is not flowering, so too will you wonder why your org isn’t performing. Even the best designers will struggle under harsh conditions, but so too can your average designer thrive in the best conditions.
If you instead of this reductionist approach took the holistic approach, you might find people within the existing organisation who are willing to help you on your journey. They don’t have to be rockstar designers or even a designer at all (they could be a business owner), they just need to pave the way. Find the people who can champion your message and show your value. In the long term, these people probably won’t be part of your ‘permanent culture’ design org, but they will be necessary to get it started.
When an ecosystem is disrupted, like in permaculture when a tree is chopped down (or chickens pick through the soil), there is suddenly an abundance of opportunity. Not only is there more space for new trees to grow, but the old material can be re-used to make excellent soil. By observing disruptions in your organisation, you can identify opportunities to grow and strengthen your design org. This might be when a restructuring occurs or when a key figure leaves the company or changes role. You do however need to know roughly how you want to evolve, but by taking advantage of opportunities when they arise in an emergent way, you will be easier able to grow as you are going with the flow and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. You don’t have to create the opportunities yourself, which might be like trying to swim upriver, instead you allow a confluence of existing factors to pull you along.
The linear, reductionist approach might be having your plan set out from the beginning without deviation. This relies on everyone else voluntarily moving out of the way for you, but as all these people usually have their own agenda in which the design org plays little part, they will be tricky to even convince. Look for the spaces in the organisation as they come and these will become your opportunities to grow.
You can also use disruption within your design org to keep it in form. For example, moving designers around between teams, or rotating who they are paired with can create opportunities for them to grow and their expertise gets spread around. The key insight here is to not stagnate. You might be prone to having your perfect org laid out in your head and when you reach it you think awesome let’s keep it this way. That will lead to a monoculture of results and not drive your organisation’s ability to innovate. In order to constantly improve, you need to constantly adjust. There is no optimum point you are trying to adjust it to, the power is in the adjustment itself.
In ecological systems, the edge effect is the effect of juxtaposing contrasting environments against each other. It is said that these edges become the most productive relative to the entire ecosystem. For example between a forest and a field or where the land and sea meet. Permaculturists take advantage of this by maximising the edges of any given area. They can even take this to the extreme by implementing spiral-shaped gardens.
We can apply this principle to design orgs by maximising the area in which your design org interacts with the rest of the company, and through this interaction, you will maximise your impact. What if you had designers working with sales, finance or HR? What kind of innovations would they come up with? Creating new collaborations between people who wouldn’t conventionally work together will create new outputs otherwise not possible.
Cross-functional teams are a great example of creating maximum interaction between different linear orgs. Unfortunately, they are still prone to reductionist concepts and usually isolated to product orgs. This means there is greater collaboration between developers, product managers and designers, but what if you were to sprinkle in your sales and marketing people too? 🤯
To be innovative, we need new ways of thinking. There are a lot of opportunities to be created by mashing up different design disciplines. Here I have just laid out a few examples from permaculture, of which there are many more opportunities to be found. I recommend you dig deeper into permaculture design as there is a lot of crossover with DesignOps. Experiment with these new ways of thinking and get innovative with the way you build your design org.