In Design Operations, I think a lot about the way we work. Our discipline is all about figuring out the best ways to reduce pain and increase a sense of purpose for teams who need to get sh*t done. I recently had to stretch the limits of my imagination on the role of Design Operations in helping our company transition to Virtual First.

My team and I are partnering with groups across the company to guide the development of new practices that everyone can adopt to make work and life easier in this new reality. This effort is not just a one-off change management project—it’s about fundamentally rethinking how work gets done at Dropbox and beyond. This is not an easy or overnight change, so understanding the principles of designing a practice can help drive adoption and understanding of the changes we want to make.

Because developing new practices is foundational to delivering on this change management strategy, I thought I’d share a little about what great practices look like from the perspective of someone who helps design them. Specifically, I’d like to share how we think about practices that promote innovation.

Practices for innovation

In doing this kind of work for over a decade, across industries and companies of all sizes, I’ve noticed some persistent themes. One is that smart people don’t like to be told what to do. Another is that conflict arises when teams who are trying to collaborate have different styles of working. That’s why we promote practice over process in this radical shift.

Today, Dropbox has amazing opportunities: lots of talented people, great culture that values design, and ambitious product strategy. But we have some problems, too: people are exhausted from sitting in meetings all day, it takes too long to reach decisions, and we’re sometimes inconsistent with how we ship across teams. These are common problems for any software business, but ones that we can shape through strong practices.

When kicking off the behavior change process to shift to Virtual First, we saw it as a chance to redesign the way we work to be truly innovative across the company. We have a unique opportunity to cut back on the things that slow us down, and lean into the things that move us forward. The pandemic created an environment to establish new norms, so we seized the moment to evaluate how we work and redesign our model to fit the needs of the team and business. (A boon for design ops practitioners!)

The difference between process and practice

As it turns out, this kind of change management is not about writing a bunch of policies about process; it’s about deep design work to establish new operating practices for our teams.

Why the distinction between process and practice?

  • By definition, process is a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular result. Process is rigid. Process helps you complete a specific task.

  • Practices, on the other hand, are flexible and adaptable ways of working. Practices are the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method. They are guidelines that should empower individuals to be creative problem solvers and innovators.

Understanding the kind of change you want to make allows you to focus at the right altitude. When you work with innovative teams, practices tend to be more effective than process because they promote critical thinking over policy compliance. In other words, it’s a mindset shift that helps us move from a process-based system to practices rooted in philosophy around why and how we work, not just what we do.

Tools Illustration
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Practical application

One model I look to for inspiration is the way that IKEA works. IKEA is operationally effective because they flat pack their products. Every box comes with DIY tools and a very handy instruction manual that allows customers to build their furniture at home with no need for additional equipment. It is an approach that they apply across all departments within the company to drive cost savings and innovation. This keeps prices low for the customer while helping the business scale. A win for all!

But have you ever built a KALLAX bookshelf? (I’m writing to designers, so I know you have!) It takes multiple people, lots of time, and a commitment to following the instruction manual. It can be an emotional journey—potentially a domestic drama—to turn a flat-packed box of pieces and parts into modern furniture for your home.

In this context, process is like an IKEA instruction manual. You can’t really assemble your KALLAX bookshelf without following the step-by-step guide or your end product will turn out all wonky. You have to use that one wrench and 25 bolts and screws exactly as stated in the manual to get it right. It’s a very functional process, but things can go wrong.

A good practice might be identifying roles and responsibilities before you begin the build. Who is the lead builder and who will translate the instruction manual? How will you resolve conflict if it arises? How do you stay on the same page with your fellow builders? Practices are the approach and guardrails that ensure a process is successful. A practice helps to navigate conflict, confusion, or crisis while building, leading to a great result without compromising relationships!

Here is what that practice could look like for a collaborative partnership in assembling said bookshelf:

  1. Assign a lead builder. This person will own the instruction manual, interpret diagrams, and do the actual assembly.
  2. Assign a helper. This person’s primary job will be to gather, unwrap, and organize all the pieces.
  3. Check in before you start. Does everyone have a shared understanding of the goal? Does everyone interpret the instructions in the same way? Which angle will everyone be looking at? Any watch-outs?
  4. Get to work.

The lead builder can ask for clarification or support interpreting, but once the ground rules have been set, don’t second-guess the builder’s instinct. It’s all reversible and there are checks and balances for mistakes (see next step).

As you move on to any big next steps (like moving from shelf assembly to wall mounting), do another check-in to make sure you’re thinking critically about where you might make mistakes.

Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

So you might think, “Process is lame! Practice is the way!” The truth is that both practice and process are important as well as essential to running a business, but they solve different problems.

Some situations require process, while most things we do as designers really only require a practice. In the case of the IKEA bookshelf, the practice helps you achieve something that the instruction manual won’t, which is the ability to collaborate in a smart way (with as little pain as possible).

Learning from industry leaders

I learned a few great practices from the team at Netflix. They are known for their highly autonomous culture. Autonomy requires trust, and trust is built through good decision making, critical thinking, and strong communication.

When a team at Netflix wants to make a decision that will impact the customer experience, three members of separate teams—one from product, one from engineering, and one from design—come together with data to support their hypotheses regarding the best way forward. They discuss (maybe debate) their ideas in order to reach a consensus. A decision is confirmed once two of the three representatives have agreed on a path forward.

They use the disagree and commit practice and document their rationale in a decision log. This practice empowers teams to make customer-focused decisions while fostering transparency and alignment across the company. This also means the person with the highest title doesn’t make the decision—the teams do—which leads to better results.

There are several great practices nested in here that support critical thinking and autonomous decision making: customer data-fueled debate, 2/3 decision making, disagree and commit, and transparent decision logs.

Like the teams at Netflix, creative teams everywhere need to put the right practices in place to support innovative thinkers in doing their best work. Great practices help you do more with less, go deeper, and work smarter. If you get practices right, they’ll lead to autonomy, mastery, and purpose—and, ultimately, happier employees. You can expand the capacity of your team and cut back on unnecessary process. If you focus too much on process, people will disregard the steps and you’ll lose cohesion along the way. Like I said earlier, smart people don’t like to be told what to do, so the focus on practice over process will increase purpose and reduce pain for teams as well as people.

Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Rethinking the way we work

The pandemic has, for better or worse, afforded us a rare opportunity to completely rethink the way we work. As you think about building practices for your team, consider them to be strategies that help you navigate tensions and stakes. Researcher Jennifer Brook introduces this model in her article on 21st Century Design Skills. We are building on this research and perspective by offering a set of practices that will transform the way we build and ship products. If we get it right, our teams will be more resilient and people will have more impact. It’s a huge opportunity for us as craftspeople.

If you are considering reshaping how you work, follow these steps to help you form core practices for you and your team:

  1. Read the Virtual First Toolkit, which includes introductory practices for shifting your mindset and the way you work.
  2. Audit your calendar and communication habits and trim down to just essential meetings. We are makers and need to reclaim our maker time.
  3. Assess your team health. Signals, like energy levels, can help identify where to focus. Put a plan together for how you’re going to sustain your wellbeing and resilience as you make this shift.
  4. Start thinking about what feels broken, because now is the time to edit what no longer serves you. Host a retrospective or pre-mortem with your team to figure out what challenges you may face.
  5. Identify which practices you will employ to make your work more inclusive, humane, and purposeful.
  6. Put a plan together to make it happen!

These steps should help you refocus on what matters most. I’d encourage you to reflect on the way your team works during this transitional time. Examine the way you work—are you relying on processes that are causing you problems? Can you work smarter by focusing on practice over process? Change gives you an opportunity to leave behind what your team, or maybe even industry, no longer needs. By doing so, you can help shape the future of work.

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