Wow, it’s been a year. Or a decade — I can’t really tell anymore. If you’re anything like me, you’d happily jump in a time machine and travel ahead a few years to see how this all turns out. (OK, travel in any form: yes please.) You might also be asking a lot of “what if” questions — about the pandemic, the election, the economy, the planet. Your own life and the life of those you love. Alternate timelines and possibilities and outcomes.
This can be stressful, especially when we wake up with it spinning in our heads at three AM. But look at the human tendency to say what if in another way, and it becomes a kind of superpower — a core skill in the world of futures thinking.
I started on the Salesforce UX Operations team just after the pandemic lockdown. I’ve never seen my coworkers in person, and I haven’t set foot in the famed office tower, though I often catch a glimpse of it during my walks on Bernal Hill. Still, our team has found ways to connect and grow together. At a recent team “nonsite” (2020-speak for offsite), I led an activity designed to help us think about the future of our team, our work, and the world.
Strategic Foresight, Activate
Postcards from the Future is an engaging, flexible activity from my service design days at Adaptive Path, where we used it to help teams imagine future contexts and scenarios for current products and services. At Salesforce, I led a Postcards session around the future of UX Operations (aka Design Operations). Our UX Ops team amplifies the impact of design teams; we help them scale and deliver their vision, and we influence and foster healthy and inspiring team culture.
Thinking about the future can be a lot of fun. It can also be new, hard, scary, or uncomfortable. That’s to be expected — the future is, by definition, uncertain. Since this activity was new to most of the team, we started with a brief intro to the discipline of strategic foresight, a structured exploration that encompasses both past and future in its investigation. Organizations and teams can use strategic foresight to identify likely challenges and opportunities, and to build a cultural foundation for contingency planning.
“Take a handful of tulip bulbs. Can we say which will grow and which will not? We cannot, with any certainty. The future is more complex stIll, and more unpredictable…. We must prepare for both the future we want and the futures we do not want.”
– European Parliamentary Research Service, What Is Strategic Foresight?
How to Think About Time
“To effectively plan for the future, organizations need to learn how to swim in different lanes simultaneously, and to think across a spectrum of time.”
–The Future Today Institute
The Future Today Institute’s Cone for Strategic Planning divides the near future into four segments: Tactical (one to two years), Strategic Planning (two to five years), Vision (five to 10 years), and Systems-Level Disruption and Evolution (10 or more years). For the Postcards from the Future activity, I like to have folks think about 10 years ahead, straddling the latter two categories — far enough to think big and remove constraints on creative thinking. (That’s not to say you can’t use this activity for shorter timeframes; as part of our career conversations, I’ve asked my team to write postcards to their future selves about what they’ll be doing/thinking/feeling one year from now.)
When imagining the future, we can look through an infinite number of lenses. To avoid overwhelm, it can help to choose an initial focus, then explore how it might affect, be affected by, or connect with other factors. We’ll start with eight broad categories: political, economic, societal, technological, health, environmental, global, and legislative.
Given this past year, it makes sense to start with health, using the pandemic as an example. This is, of course, not just a global health crisis. It’s affected the worldwide economy, with lost jobs and closed businesses. In the US, it became political, with some people’s and states’ rejection of face masks influenced by political identity. New technologies, products, and services have arisen or evolved around PPE, sanitation, delivery, and other safety concerns. Salesforce has even developed a tool, work.com, to help organizations with contact tracing and safe reopening — a project not on our roadmap a year ago. New laws govern how people work, shop, and socialize, and how schools and businesses operate. Studies even show that the pandemic has had significant environmental impact. And by thinking about how these factors intersect, we can plan for, and build, more robust and realistic futures.
Though Postcards from the Future is only a priming exercise, it can be surprisingly revealing.
Questions for Your Future Self
Our team recently used the exercise to think about the future of UX Ops. We started by considering the eight areas above. I then offered prompts to get our wheels turning, and gave team members time to respond to any that interested them, from the perspective of ten years ahead:
- Did something happen? Framing it as incident or situation can helpful.
- How have our products changed?
- How has our customer changed?
- How are people and teams working now?
- What does your role look like now? What do you do? Who do you work with?
- Does UX Ops function in the same way? Is it called the same thing?
- Does Design function in the same way?
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Now that we were swimming in possibilities, it was time to create our postcards.
When I lead this activity in person, participants fill out real postcards. This time, I created a Google slide deck with a template for each person. To create a communal feeling, I asked everyone to keep their cameras on, and we listened to a shared playlist as we worked.
Here’s a step-by-step plan for the activity:
- Set the scene: Greetings from the future! You’ve stepped from your time machine into the year 2030. Over the next  minutes, we’ll be designing and writing a postcard to someone back in 2020, telling them about what [UX Ops] is like ten years in their future.
- Step 1: Find the postcard with your picture on it. Fill out your profile. Now choose someone close to you — maybe a friend, family member, or coworker — to address your postcard to.
- Step 2: On the front, create a design that expresses what the world of [Design Ops] looks like in 2030. You can grab images online and make a collage, or draw something and insert a photo of it, or whatever you want to come up with.
- Step 3: Now add a short message to your recipient, describing what [Design Ops] is like in 2030. It’s a postcard, so keep it descriptive and conversational, with specifics of your (imagined future) life and your role in [Design Ops].
- Step 4: Share your postcards (5 minutes per person).
- Step 5: Discuss your experiences. Did common themes and patterns emerge? What surprised you? Which futures do you hope happen? Which do you want to avoid?
Back from the Future
Each of our postcards envisioned the post-2020 world as very different from today’s, and from each other’s. In some, we hadn’t learned from our mistakes; others were more hopeful, the result of clarifying what matters. The common feeling was that today’s world is an inflection point — the choices we make now will have extra impact. And in that realization, we felt the import of our work, and our time, together.
I loved the postcards our team came up with. Some highlights:
2030 Profile: Title: COO, Experience Orchestration. Location: UltraWifi-enabled Remote Office. Commute: Everyone is remote; cars are in museums. Hobby: I play bass in Journey’s garage band up the street.
2030 Profile: Title: Hacker Anarchist | Location: Unknown | Commute Style: N/A | Hobby: Survival Skills
2030 Profile: Title: Global Design Operations. Location: Spain in summer and fall, SF in winter and spring. Commute Style: Walking. Hobby: Ceramics Artist.
2030 Profile: Title: VP, DesignOps, Government Cloud, Salesforce. Location: East Bay Burbs. Commute Style: Office three days a week, work from home two days a week. Hobby: Gardening.
2030 Profile: Title: UX Ops Elder. Location: Venice, LA. Commute Style: VR. Hobby: Beach Pro
Themes and Predictions for the Future of DesignOps
So what does this all mean for the future of DesignOps? Some common themes we found:
People and community first. The design operations role prioritizes designing healthier, more equitable, human-first products and environments, inside and outside our organizations.
There is an increased focus on health, authentic connections, wellbeing, community, and prosperity. We see more balance in our professional and personal lives; we work to live instead of living to work, an attitude reinforced by our organizations. The work of Design Operations is largely about helping people reach their potential while creating good in the world.
Automation assists design operations in moving from tactical to highly strategic.
Tactical orchestration of day-to-day design work is no longer needed — Ops has transitioned that work to automated tools, with the added benefit that information on how teams are working supports iterative updates, quickly improving work experiences. Most of us are freed to work at higher levels, solving more strategic operational challenges. Design and design operations skills are recognized, valued, and used by organizations and governments to help solve the biggest problems of the day.
The “goodness” of design operations expands beyond design.
Design is no longer the only function that benefits from our work. Our expertise driving cross-functional collaboration and delivery is leveraged in new ways, across marketing, HR, product, and elsewhere — and not just by organizations but by customers and the community, including via DesignOps products that drive business value.
Design Ops is leading innovation in a work-from-anywhere world.
A digital-first, distributed workforce is here to stay. Whether via AR/VR, telemetry, or wholly new communication methods, DesignOps helps teams adopt the tools and practices they need to work in new ways, with people around the world.
With a shift in how design is created, more designers make the career switch to strategic design operations.
Changes in how we work, along with our expanded scope and reach, have expanded the skills needed in Design Operations. We attract talent from many new places, including designers who can apply design approaches and methodologies to solving operational and team challenges.
One thing our team has learned from our postcards exercise — and from this year — is how thinking and talking about the future can help us connect even when we’re apart. Even more important, strategic foresight, and future thinking in general, is essential to creating the worlds that we want to live in. That’s as true in the life of our communities and societies as it is in our teams and jobs.
🙏Thank you to the Salesforce UX Operations team, and to Lisa Stonestreet for your feedback and edits! Thank you to Zach McNulty for the banner design.