Navigating Design in Transformation

Navigating Design in Transformation

Words have meaning.

Words can be defined in many ways – and can be misinterpreted in just as many ways depending on the context in which they are used.

Have you ever had a conversation about ‘design’ with a development team only to find half-way through the conversation that you are talking about the UI and the Customer, and they are talking about the design of the database structures, the code, or the technology stack?

It’s easy if the context isn’t clear to get confused and get into a position of having said – or done – the wrong thing at the wrong moment.

For me the word “transformation” is one of these commonly confused – and often overused – words.

When an organisation kicks off a transformation program – as many organisations do these days – there can be a lack of clarity about what they mean by transformation. Are they transforming their products or services? Are they transforming their organisational structures? Are they transforming their approach to Customer engagement and the market?

Or are they even transforming anything at all?

Organisations with a clear strategy recognise the differences between these things and therefore know which bits of transformation they are working on, in what order, and also understand a further dimension – the maturity level of the thing they are transforming.

As design leaders, it’s fundamentally important for us to understand in what ways our organisations are working to transform their products or services. It will drive the kind of individuals we allocate to the program. It will shape the kind of external interactions we will have with agencies and design partners. It will inform the types of people we recruit. It will drive the kinds of conversations that we will need to have with stakeholders and Customers.

In short, understanding where we are in the transformation process will help us to understand its maturity – which then shapes our entire engagement.


Figure: Transformation maturity model

Understanding the maturity model and impact on the organisation

So how do we provide the right level of engagement, capability and skill at the right time? The first thing to realise is that transformation programs will typically run through a number of phases.

As in the diagram above, these will include something along the lines of the following:

  1. Fix and Deliver: At the beginning of the process, despite your best efforts to do great things, bringing together cross-functional teams will often result in identifying a higher percentage of legacy issues that require fixing.
  2. Parity: Once legacy issues are addressed, holes are filled and bugs corrected, there is a natural evolution from looking inwards to looking outwards. This can include looking at what competitors are doing to ensure your products or services at the very least offer what the competition does, but it can also mean looking across other channels of your business to ensure that your own products and services align in a multi-channel environment.
  3. Differentiate: With fixes in place, and parity achieved, it is now time to begin the act of differentiating your products and services from your competition. At this point you begin to move from a tactical delivery model to a more strategic one.
  4. Delight: With differentiation comes the possibility of delighting your Customers with your products and services. At this stage the level of Customer interaction, data analytics and design thinking are significantly higher than earlier stages and the make-up of your teams will change.

Of course, these phases aren’t just focused on your products or services. In order to progress through each of the stages above, it is highly likely that your organisation will need to change as well. Your IT systems and platforms will need to grow and evolve to support an environment where the work of your design teams is de-coupled from the underlying technology, your HR policies will need to change to attract the kind of people who can take you on this journey, your appetite for risk will have to change to enable teams to work in more agile ways, with frequent releases and updates and a shift to learning from Customer interaction and use of your products and services in a live environment.

You will likely think about People and Culture programs, but the reality is, as you begin to gain momentum in changing the way the business is organised, your culture will change. If your IT systems enable the right kinds of working, your people will begin to naturally collaborate, find ways of working that suit them, enable creativity, co-creation and don’t inhibit people’s ability from working in ways that empower them. Your company will begin to attract more of the right kind of people. Internal workflow, processes and systems won’t get in the way of delivering great experiences.

How does this maturity model impact design?

From a design perspective, understanding the phase of your program is important to understanding the level of skills and capabilities required and its alignment with vision and strategy. In the first two phases, the work is naturally more tactical and is often best suited to a purely agile delivery method, where you establish a backlog of items that your teams can tackle to fix, repair, and align your products and services as they already stand.

Designers will work and deliver in a tactical delivery process, and any agencies you engage will need to be able to deliver higher quantities of design assets in a rapid delivery process. Picking a strategic design agency, or putting too many senior designers on the program at this stage will potentially have an adverse effect on people and culture. Defining and publishing design standards and working to those standards is an imperative as the second phase will heavily build on this consistency to align and bring parity.

But as you move towards differentiation, understanding the over-arching strategy of the business and program becomes a defining factor. This is the phase where more experienced designers will provide the kind of design thinking that will make the most of Customer engagement, data analytics and primary and design-based research. It is also the place where strategic design agencies will enable the kind of blue-sky thinking that begin to help drive the kind of differentiation that will enable your products and services to surpass your competition and begin to provide a competitive edge that buys you space to begin thinking about how to delight your Customers.

In the final phase, there will still be shades of fixing, parity and differentiation, as these will become part of a continuous improvement process. In delighting your Customers your organisational transformations will need to be predominantly completed, your culture will be more advanced and your collaboration, co-creation and data analytics will have to be second nature to your design and product teams.

You will require a deeply integrated design process by this phase and innovation will be a manifestation of a beautifully working process, enabling your organisation to find new ways to deliver and delight your Customers.

And so…

It is important when beginning a transformation program – or engaging with one that is in process – to understand its level of maturity. This will help to ascertain the kind of skills you will require – and at what phase of the program. Or if you are joining a transformation program that is in-flight, understanding its level of maturity will enable you to understand if the program is working in a way (phase) that suits your experience, capabilities and interests.

It is important to understand the strategic vision of the program – if indeed there is a strategic vision – as this will help to shape the program and provide context for the work being performed in each stage. Without a clear strategy, you may find you have stakeholders expecting products and services that differentiate, while teams carrying out transformation work are fixing and providing parity. You may hire agencies expecting them to delight, and find they get bogged down in a production line process of delivering tactical fixes – at a high cost to your organisation.

Such disconnects can not only cause dissonance in the program, unnecessary expense, lack of clarity, and extreme confusion – but they can, and often do, result in the overall failure of the entire effort.