Org Design for Design Orgs

Opening Keynote: Org Design for Design Orgs
Kristin Skinner, Head of Design Management at Capital One

From the Design Operations Summit website:
As the move to establish in-house design teams accelerates, it turns out there’s very little common wisdom on what makes for a successful design organization. Books and presentations tend to focus on process, methods, and tools, leaving a gap of knowledge when it comes to organizational and operational matters. Kristin Skinner, Head of Design Management at Capital One and co-author of Org Design for Design Orgs: Building and Managing In-House Design Teams, will shine a light on the unsung activities of actually running a design team, the operational challenges and considerations, and what works and what doesn’t. Drawing on her experience managing design teams and organizations at Microsoft’s Pioneer Studios, Adaptive Path, and Capital One, Kristin will discuss how what happens “behind the scenes” and how a focus on design management and operations can ultimately affect a design organization’s output, quality, and effectiveness.

Kristin is an author, speaker, workshop leader, and most recently head of Design Management at Capital One.  She was Managing Director at Adaptive Path before that.  You can follow her on Twitter @bettay.

No matter how much we plan, the plan always changes.  But we need to be ready at the individual, team, organizational level.  How do we coordinate ourselves, who keeps the plan up to date, making sure that the plan is achievable and practical?  What is important to recognize is that we are helping to define this thing called design operations, together.

The Golden State Warriors began a turnaround in 2011, with new leadership and new talent.  But what they were building fell apart.  They won 50 games but lost in the first round of the playoffs.  There was internal turmoil – a command and control environment where people that disagreed were fired, and team members pitted against each other.  The new leader had a joyful, inclusive leadership style, an he recognized that they ended to arrive at decisions together as a team.  The next year with no significant talent changes, but they won 67 games and won the NBA championship.

Do we just need to get the design right?  We also need to get strategy right.  But now we are starting to recognize that the unseen stuff behind the scenes that unintentionally affects quality needs to be designed as well.

She and Peter wrote a guidebook – how do you go from a team one of one to a team of 500.  How to help design teams scale effectively?  As companies invest in design, they are not really realizing their full potential.  Business leaders don’t understand a craftsperson perspective.  Kristin and Peter talked to people at many other companies as well in preparing the book.

Seven or eight years ago, Kristin was working at Microsoft as a lone designer in a team of 400.  When she left there, she went to Pioneer Studios within Microsoft – it was an innovation lab with 25 designers.  She went to Adaptive Path for consulting experience, and she has spent the past seven years there.  One big focus was Design Program Management practice as as discipline – including a focus on fiscal responsibility.  Now they are the in-house service design team for Capital One.  She has a sponsor (this was three years ago), and he asked her about her vision, because they had 60 designers across 8 locations, and were planning for growth.  At the time she didn’t have a vision, so she and her sponsor built it together.


Lesson #1 – “Designers need to show up like business people first, just like any other discipline.”  Bob Schwartz, GM Global Design, GE Healthcare

We hear a lot of media chatter around this – things like:

  • “Don’t ship the org chart.”
  • Products don’t have single point of failure, but our design organizations are not given the same level of consideration.
  • “Your organization is perfectly optimized to get the results you’re getting.”

Lesson #2 – much of what causes designers to stress about their work is the result of flawed organizations.

A team should be 5-7 people for leverage.  In addition to a head of design and four product designers, you want a content strategist and a communication designer.   In stage 3 of 5, you reach the point where you need another team.  As a result, you need a team lead.  They are the knowledge base, but always managing people.  Once you have two small teams, then you can hire a researcher who is highly leveraged.

At this point the Head of Design may be struggling with an organization of 25+ people.  At this point you need to start to think about design leads, and eventually design program management, design operations.  This brings so much relief.  At this point it might also make sense to bring in a service designer.

What does the DMO do?  The little “o” in Operations includes dealing with ‘sand in the gears’, scheduling and budgets, tools and procedures, communication and coordination, measured by effectiveness.  There is also the big “O” Operations, which includes things like annual planning to ensure adequate headcount, compensation packages that are fair for the market, adjustment to performance reviews to suit designers, facilities and IT to support collaborative work styles, and policy changes to support real customer research.

She is going to start by telling the story of her last 18 months, starting in Fall of 2015.  Scott Zimmer was her sponsor, and the mastermind behind bringing Adaptive Path to Capital One.  Their original vision was “to be strategy partners who ensure cross-functional collaboration to create user-centered design”.

A high-performing Design Management practice coordinates efforts and knowledge sharing, facilitates prioritization, guides quality and effectiveness, and enables an environment where designers want to grow.  In essence, “Designer managers make things go”.

In that 18 month period they went from 4 to 25 people.  The original vision was to partner them with VP level heads of design.  Let’s call them Design Practice Managers; they are responsible to partner with heads of design to manage the business matters of design.  This role was in addition to the Design Program Manager and Design Operations.  They were listening for issues, challenges, road blocks … and helping to foster collaboration.  The team has now grown from 60 to 450, but these core roles have a significant amount of leverage.

Through their work, they have been able to create toolkits, establish collaboration with finance, recruiting, intake and prioritization processes, and determine what their community of practice looks like.

Over time (in Stage 5), leadership is increasingly distributed.  Design Directors oversee a group of teams and helps them integrate across.  In their case, at this point they brought in a Creative Director, a Director of Research.  And they also have a role called Creative Technologist for prototyping (not a front-end developer).

Lesson #3 – There is no one one size fits all for design operations.  

Lesson #4 – But it does take a relatively small team to have impact.  

Lesson #5 – Share generously, judge conservatively. 

For all of us who are on this journey, we are still defining it.  Be a diplomat.  There is no reason that design operations can’t be a force for changing organizations for the better.


When you think about structure and making sense of structure, it’s all Information Architecture.  You have to think about things are going to fit together.  You have to have some kind of framing, a drawing, some kind of role.  The key idea is there has to be a well-thought out structure, which is adapted along the way.   Designers have complementary skill, but often a leading still like IA.

When you describe those three core roles … what does the Head of Design, do?

Depending on where you are, what stage you’re in.  In a large organization, you are probably working with your partners to help them understand how to work with you.  You are also introducing design to parts of the organization that have not yet been exposed to your work.  Working with HR on things like standardizing job titles.  Collaborating with Finance.  And mentorship is a huge part of it as well.

At MailChimp we hire artists, and it is hard to explain to them that operations is a thing?  How do you make space for design teams in worlds like that.

Really great environment for show versus tell.  Maybe find someone who has the skills, and try to.  Context and language matters.  You don’t want to force a role on someone.  But ultimatey it is a leadership problem.  So it may be time to say (top down) that we’re going to try this thing.

How important is it for someone to have a design background to get into design operations.  The talent pool is so small – what do you do?

She has had really good experience going broad.  When she was selling ideas at Microsoft, she did that work (designer and front-end developer).  But in Finance they have had great success in hiring people with finance experience.  You can realize benefits of having complementary skills.

1 Comments on “Org Design for Design Orgs”

  1. Pingback: Дайджест продуктового дизайна, ноябрь 2017 | Юрий Ветров об интерфейсах

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