Firm intentions, flexible processes

Toyota, still doing exemplary production line work according to this lovely piece by Scott Amyx

This is the second article in a series I’m using to define my opinions on High-Performing Design Cultures. By defining the qualities that I believe a high performing design culture has, I hope to spark a constructive conversation about how enterprises engage designers and how we step up to do our best work. I’m also keen to encourage designers themselves to look up and out, at the influences affecting our craft.

I’m not sure how many articles there will be yet….but I’ll keep a log of previous articles at the bottom of every new one.


I stole the title from one of my best friends. Her mantra “firm intentions, flexible plans” relates to one’s social life with a new baby. You know, the kind where you’re already 10-minutes late leaving the house when you get an explosive poo that sets you back another 30-minutes and makes you the last person to arrive at a friend’s birthday lunch (again).

The anxiety of trying to live up to your commitments and intentions can be crippling. Especially when control of your reality is out of your hands. Who can predict when a newborn will poo?! Well, random as it may seem, the same is true of design cultures.

Processes are important. They are important to provide rigour; to provide appropriate cadence for decision making; to provide transparency and accountability; to engender confidence; to mitigate risk; and many many more. Effective processes help us collaborate through shared norms, ceremonies and habits. Where a personal relationship doesn’t exist or is new between two people working together, processes give you something to talk about.

In a high-performance design culture you will see strong processes. Processes that empower teams and individuals, processes that allow teams to stand accountable for their outcomes, processes that effectively communicate up and down the leadership funnel.

To an outsider, to an untrained eye, it would be easy to conclude that the processes are the key. Unfortunately this is where most of us are getting it wrong.

Why processes become more important than intentions

I have seen many teams rendered impotent, victim to their own desire to ape design perfection by applying every rule, every process, every method that claims to be the foundation of strong user-centred practice. I’ve seen unhealthy addictions to usability testing (leaving teams in optimisation loops they can’t break), treacle thick inertia because of excessive discovery and upfront validation work and indecisiveness created by misguided collaboration and co-creation. In all these cases, the intention was to build a design practice that helped the organisation do the right thing. Unfortunately the outcome was paralysis, bad energy, low productivity and ultimately a bad reputation.

When you dig deep into why process and doctrine have been allowed to divert what is otherwise great intentions, you find a lack of confidence. Not just within the design team but organisation-wide. There are four types of confidence issues that I believe result in excessive process:

  • Low confidence in the organisation’s focus
  • Low confidence in the quality of decision-making
  • Low confidence in the quality of the product being made
  • Low confidence in key individuals

Low confidence in the organisation’s focus

To clarify, this is a symptom of rapidly changing and wildly disparate focus. You see this a lot in domains facing huge disruption, where leadership may be a poisoned chalice and the official mandate changes with each new leader. For example, a new leadership team comes in and wants to save money by outsourcing all development capability to a near-shore country. Fast-forward 2-years with low productivity, cost increases and a decrease in quality, it’s all change again, now everything has to be in-housed to increase quality and….drumroll….save money!

In these environments, design teams hunker down to insulate (and isolate) themselves from the turmoil. Potentially also faced with high-turnover, there is a need to build an island that seems to have its own engine, slightly removed from the madness that is going on elsewhere. The temptation is to build more process, give people certainty, guaranteed outputs and some sense of performance, all for a business that isn’t paying attention.

Low confidence in the quality of decision-making

I once worked with a client who had the most amazing multi-variate testing infrastructure. Everything they released was tested, validated, optimised and re-tested. They invested in the best equipment of the day and it was inspiring. But there was a problem.

Designs didn’t always perform as well when released live as they did when being tested. They obsessed over button placement and click-through funnels, worried that they were missing something fundamental in the detailed design. I was there to help with some qualitative testing to validate some of their testing feedback in more detail. There were several conversations where the designer’s instinct was different to what the testing was indicating. And they always deferred to the testing.

In hindsight, I never saw them question any testing affect. Was their set-up truly flawless? Did they qualify testing populations as rigorously as they did in qualitative testing? Did they ever go back to basics and maybe try starting again? This team had such strong process and tech that they had gradually lost confidence in their own abilities as experienced designers.

Low confidence in the quality of the product being made

The first two areas of low confidence naturally lead to this one. Sh*t in sh*t out I’m afraid. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle. Low product quality also carries the symptom of blame culture. It’s engineering’s fault. We haven’t got enough developers. The designs are clunky. Product don’t know what they’re doing. Supplier x don’t know what they’re doing…etc.

More blame simply results in more entrenchment which creates an even greater barrier to increasing product quality.

Low confidence in key individuals

Companies are notoriously bad at dealing with the under-performance of an individual. People are bad at dealing with the under-performance of an individual. It’s a conversation no line-manager wants to have. Even worse when the person clearly under-performing is your boss. Whilst an issue like this exists, people form processes and workarounds that avoid that person and/or their issues. It never works, but it is often done. You’ve been there so I won’t dwell on this one.

How high-performing design cultures flex firm intentions with flexible processes

I believe that it is firm intentions that drives the confident use of processes within high-performing design cultures. These intentions are beliefs strongly held by every member of the team AND the organisational environment they live in. The intentions give birth to strong processes and cohesive norms, but crucially, the processes are only there as scaffolding and can be changed as needed. The reason the whole thing looks so slick to an outside eye is that intentions are sometimes unspoken. They become baked into visions, design principles and goals. They underpin roadmaps so seamlessly, they can be hard to detect. So let’s look at them in their bare form.

N.B. These are a hybrid between truisms and design principles. They are rightly obvious, but often misunderstood. Most importantly, living up to them is never the same in any two organisations. Effectively putting them into practice is subject to strong leadership, and the unique set of people and problems that exist in that environment.

  1. Be user-centred…for ALL users

This is obvious, but is often misunderstood. The mythical end-user is not the only user, your first users are your colleagues. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it should not feel like a foreign land or a prestigious halo. The ideal scenario is that it is allowed to be ingrained in the fabric of the organisation.

Internal teams are responsible for producing the outputs experienced by external users. Therefore, if you want to create better experiences externally, you have to address the internal experience. Bringing our design training to bear on challenges with creating a cohesive digital agenda is key. This means working on internal products (usually in servicing functions), fostering a culture of constructive (not vacuous) collaboration, educating and up-skilling people on how to exploit digital potential so that they feel empowered by the presence of their new digital design colleagues, not alienated or threatened. For designers, it means recognising that our mission is only possible with the participation and support of others in the organisation.

Most importantly, it means showing our internal users the same humility and commitment to adding value that we prioritise for external users.

2. Be goal oriented, and measure what matters

Businesses make conscious choices to embark on digital transformation and hire new skills into the business, recognising it as an investment towards a future outcome. As designers coming into these environments, it is imperative that we understand this anticipated future outcome, help the business validate it (again, using our core skill) and then align our agenda to it. Trying to set an alternative goal for a design function within a business that clearly has other ideas is a failing mission.

I talked about the importance of a commercial conscience in my previous post. When you build processes around this, they involve helping to visualise the outcome, potentially automating the pipeline that provides status updates, building out a digital experience and/or product roadmap that speaks specifically to the key metrics, and reporting regularly on how user experience and the core commercials correlate, ideally showing that positive improvement in one (the experience) directly causes positive improvement in the other (target commercials).

Doing the above is hard, and it means getting involved with the organisations core to a depth many design teams don’t necessarily feel comfortable exploring. It is unbelievably easy to become a design team so convinced of its own importance that so called ‘right activities’ become utterly divorced from the core goals of the business.

High performing teams don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

3. No us vs them, just us together

When digital specialists enter an existing organisation, one of the biggest points of friction can be culture, essentially the behavioural practices that come with ‘digital people’ as opposed to ‘IT people’ or everyone else. Often, it looks like the new digital people are anarchic. Usurping existing power domains, being shown extensive favour by leadership, changing the look and feel of their physical environment and creating ‘otherness’. Writing on the walls, endless supplies of multi-coloured post-its and index cards, having meetings standing up and even, as I heard one person complain, “they don’t even wear shoes!”.

Whilst I thoroughly believe that the cultural rigidity seen in some non/pre-digital environments limits creativity, I also see why our culture can be problematic when we enter the picture.

This intention therefore, falls squarely within the remit of organisational leadership (including design leaders). Opening up the business to a digital agenda ultimately means enabling transformation everywhere. How about ensuring that everyone gets to opt into new laptops and software? Or allow teams to decide how their immediate environment is kitted out, flex dress codes (where appropriate) and hire transformation support throughout the organisation, making new processes and tools available to all to embrace and use.

Co-written with Dave Hrycyszyn whilst we worked at Head London (now Zone Digital), our take on how orgs should tackle digital transformation. Have a read.

This allows the digital newcomers to act as examples of how these new tools and environments work rather than present as privileged few. Equally, it directly enables designers to actively reach out to the business and involve them in the process of creation.

You can’t collaborate on Slack with colleagues who are not allowed to have Slack on their machines.

4. Hack the toolkit, constantly

Our design experience is a toolkit. Over the years we’ve built confidence in using a variety of processes and software products to achieve a desired outcome. Our experience allows us to understand the limits of each of the tools in our toolkit. We adapt, break down, combine and re-purpose whilst maintaining appropriate levels of rigour and reliability. This is not a boast, this is fundamentally what I believe all designers should be experienced in doing.

The pace of technology acceleration is far beyond any of our wildest predictive capabilities. Our users, and even we ourselves are continuously adjusting and changing how we respond to technology. Nothing stands still and nor should it be expected to. The challenge is that many organisations are built on their ability to very quickly standardise and systemise their processes and tools.

This slightly old-world economic model does not work as well in the digital-led economic era we are in and so it is critical that we lead the charge on demonstrating that adaptability is a constructive attribute. We start by making sure we are always willing to question ourselves first.

5. Flex everything around the above intentions

I said earlier that every environment is unique and I genuinely mean that. As much as I am spending time documenting the attributes of high-performing design cultures, you cannot lift and shift from one organisation to another. Success comes from recognising how to adapt and flex the intentions above to suit the unique conditions within each environment. The reason the intentions can be hard to detect is because they get co-opted. And rightly so.

Go on then, who is doing this well?

The best example I can point to at this point in time of a design culture that holds firm intentions and flexible processes is the original UK Government Digital Service and its wonderful off-spring. In 2011, the UK Government launched their Digital by Default agenda. Political context aside, for me it represents one of the strongest examples of high-performing design teams in the last decade, not least because of the feat that is Gov.UK, but also because of its legacy*.

The foundations laid by the initial programme allowed the Ministry of Justice, Department for Working Pensions, and HMRC to launch their own digital transformation programmes. Each shares a core set of intentions (and even a common design system within GOV.UK) to put people first and design policy around behaviour. Beyond that, their journeys are unique. Have there been problems? Yes. Not least with the change in leadership and a complex political climate.

Have the issues changed the fundamental mission, the intention of these programmes? I can only speak as an external observer with friends and ex-colleagues working within in these teams, but from what I can see, the answer is no.

Ultimately, the commercial aim was to bring down the cost of providing government services by embracing digital efficiencies. Doing this meant focusing on the people before policy (lest they created more catastrophic IT projects). The original intentions remain, even while the language has been refined and each department and even country (e.g. 18F in the US, The Digital Transformation Agency in Australia).

We don’t all get to work at GDS

Maybe working on civic projects allows us to be firmer in intentions than processes. But we also don’t have the luxury of being Silicon Valley start-ups with ridiculous amounts of investment capital, and yet we seem to want to adopt the west-coast digital culture.

The crux of this post is to remind us all that the best teams are clear on their why (intentions), and learn how to flex and adapt their how (processes) in line with their reality. We should all aspire to this.


You can read previous posts in this series:

Designers need a commercial conscience

Lola Oyelayo-Pearson

Written by

Design & Product Strategy | Evangelising user-centred design | Decentralised Design.

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