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The "Grassroots vs Top Down" 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 walks through two origin stories regarding executive leadership involvement, the differences between the two, and how they can intersect. Top down where executive leadership is involved and grassroots where executive leadership was uninvolved.


Transcript from the "Grassroots vs Top Down" Lesson

>> Now, every organization has really different experiences in each of these four stages. In fact, when I was first doing this specific research is probably three years ago or maybe four years ago, I really did not think I was gonna find a common model. I mean, I was I did hundreds of interviews, I had all my notes.

I remember vividly sitting in my dining room with all this paper all over, it's kind of like pandemic days. So I was home and I had just notes from all these meetings and I was just trying to make sense of it. And then I kind of found this one concept which is not that huge but it just made me realize, there's actually a way to kind of make these things work together.

And that, so I wanna shift into the next section here which is a concept called origin stories. So there's two primary origin stories. The first is top down, that means simply that executive leadership was involved, aware, and actively supportive of the first release. And then the other origin story, the other primary origin story we just called grassroots.

And I also think about that from the perspective of leadership, because individual contributors are always involved in this work, right? So it's really about the involvement of leadership. So at the grassroots origin story, that means executive leadership was uninvolved, unaware, or unsupportive of that first release. So let's talk a little bit about the difference between these two.

In the top down origin story, there's a tremendous amount of visibility, right? Some leader or maybe a group of leaders has looked at this and said, okay, we want this to be something that we do. So they are investing, their putting money, they're putting time, they're oftentimes dedicating open positions to these roles.

There's a formal budget, it's set aside and there's a sanctioned team. They're saying, you people have this amount of time to work on this thing. And a lot of times the scope is much more broad, right? A leader's looking at this and saying, the impact that I need from this system in order to make this investment has to be broad.

Cuz it's gonna cost a lot, it's gonna take a lot, so I'm expecting a broad impact, right? The scope tends to be really, really broad and not as deep and there's a lot of pressure here to deliver. Oftentimes, especially in early stages, an organization either hasn't done a design system before or they're on their fifth or sixth attempt and they've got a bunch of failures behind them, right?

So that is normal. And so there's pressure here, right, when the leadership comes in and they say, all right, we're gonna do it, but we're gonna do it right this time, that's a lot of pressure. We can contrast that with the grassroots origin story, which of course means there's a lot less visibility, right, leadership's not involved here.

So this is oftentimes one or two folks who work on a design team or on a product team somewhere or UX or developer and they just are frustrated with their own process. And so they're trying to build something that will help them do their job better. And that's actually like a very kind of innocent, authentic approach to this work that I actually really love.

There's oftentimes an informal budget, maybe their director or their direct supervisor has said, yeah, it's okay you can have a little bit of time to do this, but they're not thinking much of it. Sometimes these folks are doing this in the evenings, they are doing it over their lunch break, they are coming in early, I mean, that's literally what happens in a lot of cases.

And if there's a team at all, it's unsanctioned, maybe it's just friends of the person who's idea was at the beginning. The scope tends to be really narrow here. This is where I am solving problems for my specific role, my discipline. So if I'm a designer, that means, I'm gonna build something that works well for people who do what I do.

And then of course there's low pressure here, it's just on their own time oftentimes. So there isn't somebody asking for feedback or asking for an update, asking for scope or budget reports, that kind of thing. Now, if you're working on a design system and you're looking at these lists.

You're probably feeling like I actually have some of that and some of that and a little bit of this and maybe a little over here. Well, that's actually quite normal as well. And that's because the top down and grassroots origin stories are two extreme ends of a spectrum for how a system can come to be.

So most design systems are gonna mature with some characteristics of both of these. I like to think about designs system origin stories in this way. So the origin stories about how the initial version of the system came to be. So the differences between a top down stage 1 and a grassroots stage 1 are gonna be very noticeable, right?

In the early stages you can clearly tell, right? But as the system matures, the differences become more subtle. So that by stage 4, the differences between a top down and a grassroots design system are often indistinguishable. That's the goal, right? What we need is a balance of authority leadership saying, this is the way we work.

I'm gonna fund this, I'm gonna support the work and value at the grassroots level individuals feeling, I can't do my job without this system, right? That's the balance we need and so that's what we're going for in stage four. Now, a top down system is gonna become more like a grassroots system as it matures.

And a grassroots system is going to become more like a top down system as it matures. But remember these are the extreme pads. But there's lots of other ways through this and I've seen quite a few. This is one that I hear a lot, where a design system starts out with a grassroots origin story.

And they do some really cool stuff early on and the boss of the person doing the work gets wind of this and says, my gosh, that's actually really cool. I think the other maybe designers or the other Front-Enders or whatever could benefit from this, let me take that up to my boss.

So they take it to their boss, their boss takes it up. All the sudden there's like this, they get it, right, they start to see it and before these teams know it they're in stage 2 with budgets time. And they were just working on a side project and all of a sudden they're being asked to do all this work and take this thing to a different level.

And so you kind of see this bump up of support from leadership and buy in. And that's totally normal. And there's lots of other paths, right? There's no perfect way through this. What's important is that point in stage 4 or stage 3, stage 4 area where you are more mature and you are offering real value.

Now, there's risky situations as well. So the risky situation is that you mature without moving toward the other origin story. It's unhealthy for a system to exist without support from both leadership and individual contributors. So the straight line top down path just along the top here. That means you're too focused on the opinions and the direction of leadership, don't tell your boss I told you this.

[LAUGH] But this is a real thing, right? In this scenario, you're gonna feel like you're making progress on the surface. But the lack of engagement with individual contributors means, it's gonna be really difficult for you to build something teams want to adopt, right? So, these systems struggle to get out of stage 2, I would say most commonly.

Because the value of the system isn't really defined by the people who are gonna use it. So this is trying to build a product without talking to your users. You can't do that well, right, you're guessing. And then the straight line grassroots path, so along the bottom here, that means that your system is gonna struggle to find a valid place inside the organization.

And that's because you haven't done the work to demonstrate the value of the system to leadership. Without that validation from executives, the funding and team sizes needed to reach stages 3 and 4, it's gonna be difficult to find. And I'll tell you this, if things get difficult financially for the business and you're in this straight line grassroots maturing method, your system's gone, I guarantee it.

Because it's not connected to money and so when things get tight, those people if they are kept will get moved on to product teams. Can't tell you how many times I've had conversations with folks where that's what happened. And it's sad because a lot of times they're doing good work.

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