Breaking Down Functional Silos in the Design Organization

Setting up your Operations team up for strategic success.

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Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash

When you ask, describe a creative Operations team (designops, researchops, uxops, dpms, design producers, etc.) in one word, you’ll often get answers like: Organized, Connectors, Efficiency, Process. Sure, these are all good things. But as Operations Professionals, can we shift these top of mind terms to be more like: Strategic, Leaders, Drivers, Essential?

At LinkedIn, we think our program managers and specialists can deliver more impact in this second set. Specifically, we’ve set two goals for our Design & Research Operations team:

  1. First, to bring our functions of product design, design infra, comms design, user research, content design and operations closer together in how we work. We hope to bring connection, meaning, and efficiencies (breaking down silos) across our teams. Not only is our Design organization experiencing gaps and breakdowns across work with Product Management and Engineering, we are experiencing this within our own Design org. And the gaps are getting bigger as we grow in number of people and volume of projects.
  2. Second, we are focusing on amplifying our voice. We need to be trusted partners, not just in tactical operations, but in complex projects, difficult planning, and decisions in priorities across the Design org. Without this trust, we will not be given the space to grow and deliver on our first goal.

And, here’s what we did to set our Design & Research Operations team up for success to reach these goals.

Grounded the team in priorities

As we approached planning and prioritization for our fiscal year ahead, our Operations team took a look at priorities from the Design organization, from the company, and from our own perspectives. We came up with 3 priorities that all of our work should ladder up to, no matter what project, what initiative, or what team you’re working closely with.

Our LinkedIn Operations team centered on these priorities:

  • Bring quality, trust, diversity, inclusion, and belonging to the forefront of our processes, community, and approach to building products.
  • The Future of Work is now: A virtual collaboration, community, and employee experience.
  • Planning improvements that streamline prioritization, funding, and visibility across our functions of design, research, writing, and operations.

By setting these up front for the year, you can provide focus for the team, and provide a model to say “no” to things. And, by sharing with the Design leadership team — they will have a clear understanding of the team’s intentions and be rooting for us along the way.

Examined team org design

Next, we examined our team make-up and how we assign and align our program managers and specialists. We took a look at how our team was structured, and how our team was starting to develop silos — similar to the Design org silos.

If we wanted to break down the Design organization’s silos, we needed to break down our own.

Our Operations managers got into a whiteboard space, and started sketching. We researched other Operation team structures, chief of staff roles, and compared our models to other functions. We went through quite a few iterations, and pros and cons exercises. We made sure we went back to our goals for the year and our priorities, keeping all in mind as we thought about our talent and the business needs.

Our Operations team is centralized within the Design org. Here’s how we reorganized our team, independent of functions within our Design org:

  • Community Operations — Provides people and business operations for a healthy Design organization. For us, this includes internal comms strategy and operations, and programs across L&D, talent brand & recruiting, culture, finance, events, and more.
  • Horizontal Operations Provides global foundations and workflow for the Design org to operate at scale. For us, this includes working with our Infrastructure teams (Design Systems, Trust, Inclusive Design, Tools) and our functional teams (User Research and Content Design).
  • Product Design Operations — Providing predictability, transparency, and connectedness to product teams within the Design org. For us, this includes working our Product Design, User Research, and Content Design within a product vertical or Lines of Business (LOB) team.

Created clarity in roles

We next created further clarity within each of our teams, and within our role levels. Each team will use the same method of types of work: Projects/Programs, Operational Excellence, and Planning & Prioritization. Here’s how this plays out for our teams:

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As our team has grown in volume, type of work, and impact over the last few years, we did not do a great job at keeping up with role clarity across our program managers and specialists. We are about to release new career profiles for each level, and defined at a basic level how we break down tactical and strategic.

Across all 3 Operations teams, we are ensuring that at every level, there’s a strategic voice. As you grow in experience, your opportunity to make a strategic impact increases. Also noting that in the senior levels, there will always be a piece of your projects and programs that require tactical operations.

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Created a transparent resourcing model

When resourcing our team, we need to move from reactive to proactive. We want to align to the most impactful org and business opportunities.

This year we’ve approached our work just like any other team might do — through quarterly planning. We’ve designed our plan by collecting projects, initiatives and programs through these lenses: Design-led, Product-driven, and Operational Excellence for our Product teams and for our Design org as a whole. Within each category, we stacked-ranked and confirmed our priorities with leadership. What we come up with is a source that’s transparent to measure our success, and to make trade-off calls as projects and fires creep in (because they always do). And bonus, you that mystery that seems to come with our function… What do we do? How do we explain it? Now, we can point to something.

Our Operations leaders then will resource our Program Managers and Specialists by priority, passion, and role level per quarter — but can remain resourced for multiple quarters too. We are experimenting with the advantages of gaining knowledge and relationships in one area or one team, with the impact we can make by moving around more often.

To take this further, set up a partnership model for your project or program commitments with other teams — what role will you play? Will you lead or partner on the project? Will you facilitate or project manage? Will you consult? Set up buckets such as Embedded, Facilitator, or Consultant.

And here we go…

Our team at LinkedIn is a few months into all of the changes we’ve made, and hope to learn a lot. I’m thankful for my amazing team and managers that bring passion and perspective to our daily work. If we can reach our goals of breaking down functional silos in the Design org and amplifying our voice, this is going to be a milestone of a year for our Design & Research Operations team — and for our Design org.

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Special thanks to Kalee Dankner, Stephanie Byrne, Christina Wharton, and Anna Plumlee for leadership on our LinkedIn Operations team and crafting this vision with me (and for feedback on this article).

This article was originally published on the LinkedIn platform. Cross-posting the article here.

Operations geek. Love passionate people & infectious ideas. Trying to make sense of this beautiful, chaotic world. Current: Design & Research Ops @ LinkedIn.

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