🍎 Practical governance tips

When you build a system, its tempting to over-think governance and lock things down, especially at the beginning. It’s hard not to, right? That’s when things feel most perfect, most put put together. They’re usually not. They’re just empty. ”No plan survives first contact with the content,” and all that.

You might not know this, but I’m an aspiring orchardist. I have 15 fruit trees I’ve been tending for the last 5 years, with another 15 planned to go in this fall. This morning while inspecting my trees, I thought about a governance model I’m helping set up at work, and I was struck by how similar orchard maintenance is to healthy governance for design systems:

  1. Give them sunlight. Trees need sunlight to grow, and a healthy design system needs clear, transparent communication: who is responsible for what? how often can downstream developers expect releases? how can people find help? how can people contribute? Imperfect guidance is almost always better than no guidance at all.
  2. Check the soil. When I first planted, I didn’t realize how important the pH of the soil was. Thankfully, my father-in-law did, and he helped me check the soil and treat it, so those trees got the best shot at flourishing. You’ll struggle to have healthy trees without the right soil, and you’ll struggle to have a healthy design system without gathering insight about the teams affected by your governance and adjusting your approach accordingly.
  3. Prune to encourage healthy growth. You’d be surprised at how much you can cut back a tree in the spring and see it explode with growth by harvest. It’s better to ship a focused, valuable, dependable set of components than trying to do too much and putting your team at risk of overextending (or becoming a bottleneck.)
  4. Pay attention to the seasons. An orchardist knows that how you take care of the trees will change based on the time of year and age of the tree. Young trees are pruned differently than older trees, and trees shouldn’t be pruned in the heat of summer. In the same way, your design system governance may change. Young design systems usually need a different breadth of offerings than more mature systems, and it’s probably not a good idea to deprecate a bunch of components just before a launch.
  5. Support when needed. Last year, I hadn’t pruned my peach trees well enough, and an overextended branch got so weighed down by fruit that it begin to crack. I built some makeshift supports to keep the branch from cracking and did some emergency pruning after harvest. As teams begin to incorporate the system into digital products, they’re going to run into problems. Provide support channels. Hold weekly office hours. Check-in frequently. Are they leveraging the system or building custom? Are the tools useful or did your team miss something?
  6. Celebrate the harvest. There’s nothing sweeter than an armful of warm, ripe peaches in mid-summer, and there’s nothing like the sense of satisfaction when the first contributor submission comes in or the team launches their first project using the DS. Just like you’d celebrate a bountiful harvest, celebrate those wins. Recognize the people who have contributed to make the tool better for everyone.

Design systems work, like gardening, takes time and patience and a lot of attentive tending. You want to avoid stifling growth by overregulation, but you also want to avoid neglect and chaos. Strike the right balance, though, and you’ll create an environment where plants and projects thrive.

Jesse Gardner

Up Next: Is democratizing user research a bad idea?

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