The Many Faces of Operations

The Many Faces of Operations
Crystal Philcox, Government Operations Director

From the Design Operations Summit website:
To be successful, Operations has to be many things to many people. Operations might need to present a different face to innovators and designers, who might fear Ops as an imposer of constraints, than to a more established group, who are comforted by the presence of strong operations. Similarly, decision-makers, Legal, Procurement, and other silos might require different “faces” from Ops.  Crystal Philcox will draw on her experience helping lead operations at the IRS and GSA to show us how Operations can be most effective by adapting to the needs and expectations of an organization’s other major players. She’ll also help us resolve those different “faces” so that they remain aligned and true to the overall goals of an Operations organization.

Crystal has spent most of her career at the Internal Revenue Service.  It’s a government agency that touches 150 million households each year.  When she started, there were no designers, but there is a movement in government trying to change that now.  Today, she works for the General Services Administration, whose role is to help other agencies think about human-centered design.  They are trying to help bring the government into the digital age in a way that is thoughtful and user-centered.

The ecosystem is very risk adverse, and there a lot of rules.  Occasionally it leads to a congressional hearing, and possibly regulation – even if there was only one incident.  For example, a few years ago at an offsite, the IRS showed funny videos of government officials.  But as a result there is now a video review board.

So, video is used a lot, but now unfortunately there is a video review board.  Seven years later, you still have to check that box.  It is very challenging to put a design organization in this kind of environment.  To make this work, you need to plan your moves strategically in a way that maintains the trust of your people.

We need to ‘find our faces’.  In order to talk with Purchasing, or for reviewing financial guy, and a different one for your General Counsel, and another one for HR.  Some of her key learnings:

Acquire skills.  You need new skills to play in those arenas.  You can’t fake an understanding of budget.  She was working on the earned income tax credit program.  This can be as much of 20% of some family’s budget, and she was part of a team seeking reforms.  She missed opportunities to lead her team as a result of not understanding it deeply, but the second time she was engaged she really dug in so she could truly contribute and help to drive change.

Assess risk.  How much do you accept status quo, manage risk, and when do you use your political capital (when it matters most)?

Establish alliances.  Running operations means you need allies.  If you work on that, it can really smooth out your work.  They need to know you are pursuing operational excellence, so they can help you get there.  You need to negotiate differently in higher risk situations.  Learn to build coalitions. It’s not just internal allies; she has partnered with community-based organizations.  Helping low-income families file tax returns and in return, creating the conditions to help those families save, for example.

Communicate.  How do you maintain trust?  How transparent should you be?  Your team has to believe you are representing them effectively.  You have to keep your pulse on the organization.  That doesn’t just mean pushing information out.  It’s intuitive – you learn from questions they ask.  If you don’t know, tell them you don’t know.  That means you are IN communication with them, not just communicating to them.

Gather input.  Send out surveys, engage your team in small projects.  We’ve heard a lot about organizations growing, and losing that close communication.  We had an internal system that needed to change, and we worked with an internal colleague.  The design team wanted to validate with users before launch, but the internal colleagues said  “No, we just make the change and tell them what to do.”  And on the day it was rolled out, it was complete anarchy, and the chaos took a lot longer (roll back the code, make changes, roll out again).  The most important thing about the process is that it is introduces them to the ideas, to get them used to the idea that change is coming.  You have to meet them where they are and bring them to you.

What is operational excellence?

Tying operations to business strategy.  In simple terms, it needs to be easy to work there, easy to do business with you, easy to deliver, and easy for others to understand the value you bring.

For example, are you making the most of the skills sets you have?  You can’t make all the decisions, but you can help facilitate them.  Can you improve the business engagement experience, e.g. billing procedures.  Consider other dimensions such as client engagement, success metrics / stories, methods & tools, financials, learning, and internal processes as well.

What happens when your whole operating model gets turned upside down?  

How do you step back and use what you know?  Her organization had a challenging client with a lot of influence.  They wanted to transform the agency, including infrastructure modernization.  It was a big job.  Her team has engineers and design staff, but this effort would have taken almost all the staff, and even then we wouldn’t have been able to fully support the request.  So they weren’t in a position to take it on, nor in a position to say no.  So she leveraged her alliances to get guidance, and began communicating to their team.  They didn’t just answer general questions, but also asked who wanted to volunteer.  They eventually got into a better place by relying on those lessons learned from before.

Through these practices, we grow and change as the organization and our team evolves.


Our ability to find a path through thorny situations doesn’t happen overnight.  You have to grow into it.  Opt for participation and consensus over quick decisions.  Her goal and the reason she does this work is to make it easier for government to listen to people.


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