Enterprise Design Systems Management

Authority, Value, & Tradition

Ben Callahan

Ben Callahan

Enterprise Design Systems Management

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The "Authority, Value, & Tradition" Lesson is part of the full, Enterprise Design Systems Management course featured in this preview video. Here's what you'd learn in this lesson:

Ben discusses how to combat destabilizing forces with a combination of authority, tradition, and value. Identifying risks such as regression and avoiding authority is also covered in this segment.


Transcript from the "Authority, Value, & Tradition" Lesson

>> I have two main kind of concepts to share with you. So one is a simple framework for how to maintain stability, and one is a whole section on culture and how that impacts the work you're doing on your design system. So we'll start with the stability. So I think originally I didn't even think about this as something to sort of investigate further, but I kept hearing these stories that people were doing really good systems work and everything around them was changing.

[LAUGH] And almost without any fault in their work, they were feeling the repercussions of everything around changing. And I mean a lot of stuff, I think of these now as destabilizing forces. So things like the industry changing, or the market changing, or your leaders just all of a sudden leaving and getting new ones in.

The structure of the hall or the tooling your organization decides to support, there's thousands of these things, right? There's a handful, right? All this stuff, it's just our organizations are just in flux nonstop. So, it's really hard, actually, to create some internal tooling that can withstand all of these destabilizing forces happening around it.

And you combine that with the fact that a system will not show you value until it's been around for a while, and it's sort of ripe for this destabilizing to win. [LAUGH] If it can't survive a lot of this stuff, it will never show value. So I realized pretty early on after having some of these conversations with folks, there's got to be a way for us to be more intentional about creating stability for the system.

So I started asking a bunch of questions in this and looking at organizations that have done this well or survived a lot of these kind of things happening. And I identified three kind of primary stabilizing forces. The first is authority, the second is value, and the third is tradition.

So as I mentioned earlier, a lot of this stuff kind of is interrelated, so you're gonna see some concepts resurface here. But let talk about this quickly. So the authority stabilizing force simply means that leadership is actively supporting the system and their goals. The design system team has confidence, right, to carry out their work knowing the leaders have their back.

And the key word here is active, actively. So if you can't point to very specific things that your leadership is doing, that means you're not really benefiting from that as a stabilizing force. The kind of things that you can see in design systems that have this stabilizer are things like real budgets, dedicated time, dedicated staff.

And beyond just encouragement from leadership for the work to happen for people to use it, there's actually an encouragement on the part of people with authority inside the organization for subscriber teams to contribute back in some capacity too. So they see it as everybody's job in some ways.

Value, which we've talked about a bit already, it just simply means the system is offering real value to the folks who you want to use it. So it actually helps them with their work, it's something that makes them faster or more consistent. It solves real problems for them instead of introducing new ones.

And the kinds of things that you see in design systems that have this stabilizer are rapid adoption, right? I've made something to people, it's valuable to them, so they will use it. There's a lot of feature requests, these teams get more bug reports than anybody else. And that's weird thinking this is a really valuable thing, but it's because they're having more use.

And there's a sort of a default willingness to help evolve the system in some way. And the third stabilizer is tradition. This means the system has become the way we build interfaces inside an organization. And really, once the system has taken root, there's a lot of stability simply in its acceptance, right?

Change is hard, so it's hard to get people to use it. But once they use it, you can count on the fact that if it's embedded, it's got some tradition, those roots will hold it in place. A sign that you have this stabilizer is when you hear folks from different disciplines talk about the design system as if it's a single source of truth.

That's a common phrase I hear when tradition has kind of taken root. Now, tradition is a little bit different than the others, right? It's really about having authority and value over time. It's something that you earn, it's not a specific thing you do, right? It's just having these others over time is what gives you that concept of tradition.

And remember we're still asking people to change how they work, so only after that change has been made which is hard [LAUGH] will you get this force of tradition. I like to show them in this way because I think about them kind of as the legs of a tripod, right?

Having a single one of this means you can kind of fall over in any direction, any destabilizing forces, you're gonna fall. But having two means you can only fall in two directions, so I can receive some destabilizing forces from a couple directions. But the goal, of course, is to get all three, and that means you're stable on any surface in any situation, and that's kind of what we're looking for, right?

So we've talked already, and you're probably seeing similarities here about top down and grass roots. So the common top down origin story is that it's likely in that scenario that your first stabilizing force is gonna be authority. So you're gonna get authority kind of easier out of the gate if you're top down.

And in that case, you've got to focus primarily on evolving the system in a way that makes it extremely valuable for different subscribers. And that moves you towards the center of this Venn diagram by way of the value stabilizer, and only after you've proven that value can you earn the tradition, stabilizer.

And the opposite is true. If your system was initiated by individual contributors, you're gonna to earn that grassroots or you're gonna earn that value easier, right? That's gonna come to you a little easier, and it's likely that'll be your first stabilizing force. In that case, you've got to make sure you're educating leadership, engaging with leadership on the value of the system regularly.

And you have to do so using their language as we've kinda talked a little bit about. And that moves you towards the center of the Venn diagram by way of the authority stabilizer. Only after you've gathered support from your leadership can you earn that tradition stabilizer. Now of course, it's not enough to earn these things or to get these things, there is also the possibility of regression.

So earning one of them doesn't mean that you're done with it. If you, as an example, slow the evolution of your system or stop engaging with your subscribers, you can lose the value stabilizer, and that puts you up in this risky spot, right, the overlap of authority and tradition.

That means that authority and tradition are requiring individuals to use a system that is not helpful in their work, it's not valuable to them. So this makes those individuals feel like they're not trusted, it's a really risky place to be. And then here's a very specific example. One of the first massive design systems that my organization worked on was for a really large retailer.

Online and in-store, they had multiple brands and you've probably shopped there. It's a big organization, they hired us originally to come and to do, this was way back, to do a responsive redesign of their product detail page. That was probably about seven or eight years ago that we did that work, and it took us a year.

I've never worked for so long on a single page, but we spent an entire year working just on their product detail page. Because that's the decision point for this organization for $4 billion or something [LAUGH] every year, so there's a huge risk to make changes here. So we just did it slow and steady, we did lots of iteration, lots of testing.

And we did really good work, we showed massive improvements and it was a, by all accounts, a really fantastic project. At the end of that engagement, they said, this is great, we wanna continue, can you take some of this work? Can we use it in other parts of the flow?

Let's tackle category, listing pages next or whatever. And so we were like, yes, but give us just a couple of weeks to take a look at something. So we spent a couple of weeks sort of prototyping, moving some of the work we had done on that single page experience into a more systematic approach, so it could be reused across other parts of their e-comm site.

And we went back and we said, look, we did a really rough prototype of this in a week. I think if we spent a month or two here, we could actually take what we've done on your product detail page, turn it into the beginning of a nice system for you.

And that will enable us to do the rest of this work a lot more quickly. And so they said, that sounds great. And at this time, I'm just interacting, we're just working directly with our contacts, right, the people who own the product detail page. So we spend a month or two doing that, then we jump into this other work.

It works really well, we started getting subscribers across the organization. At the end of that year, we had 12 different groups throughout the company that were using the system in some capacity. And I will never forget the day that we got the call from them saying, stop all work on the design system immediately.

And I thought to myself, what the heck? [LAUGH] We just did all this amazing work for you and it's clearly working. And at the time, we were a smaller organization and this was a large part of our revenue, it was a scary call to get just to be honest.

And I look at what happened now, and I understand it so much more clearly. But apparently, what happened internally there is that the amount of money they had spent on this thing called design system crossed some threshold that bubbled it up in a spreadsheet or report somewhere that some leader saw this thing in a budget report and said, what the heck is design system?

I never approved money for that. And what happened in that very situation is this, right? We had built something with a tremendous amount of value, it was earning tradition, but we had never gone up to leadership to say, this is worth it, it worth the investment for you to put money towards this.

So they just pulled the plug like that, one phone call, done. Now, [LAUGH] we knew how valuable this stuff was, and so did our partner inside the organization, so we were really fortunate. We sat down with them, and they said, you know what? We have great relationships with all 12 of these subscriber groups, so let me go to them and just ask.

So the ask of those groups was, okay, do you remember that project we did with you where you use the system last year, can you tell me roughly how long would it have taken you to do that without the system? And so this is definitely finger in the wind kind of guesstimate type stuff, but we got back some numbers from each of these groups, we put all that stuff into a spreadsheet to show the impact.

And what we learned is that for every dollar they had invested so far in the design system, they got $3 back just in developer efficiency just over the course of one year, right? So clearly, it was like a no brainer for them to continue to invest. They took that up to that executive, got the sign off, and we worked with them for another six years or something on that.

So that's the risk, right, those things. That leader will cut you off in a heartbeat if they don't understand what's going on, and that's why it's really risky to be in this space. So, this model has helped me a lot, so I think about it a little bit like this, it's not super pretty.

But it really gives us a way to think about and just to be conscious of are we actually creating stability, or are we living in this sort of risky right side of this stuff, okay? And it's again, hearkening back to the origin story, concept, and just really making sure that we're balancing the needs of individual contributors with the goals that your leaders have.

So one thing that you can do and we don't necessarily have to take time to do this now. But it's actually helpful to sit down and just sketch this out and actually think through like, what are the things that I can show that demonstrate that we actually have authority as a stabilizer?

So what are the things they've done for me in the last two weeks? What are the things they've done in the last month that have shown support? What are the things that I've heard from subscribers that mean that we actually are offering something valuable to them, right? By keeping track of some of that stuff and just pausing every once in a while, sketch that out and make sure that you're not drifting into these risky areas is actually really helpful for you.

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