Episode 29 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Peter Merholz. Peter is one of the co-founders of Adaptive Path, an influential user experience design consultancy that was acquired by Capital One in 2014. After leaving Adaptive Path, he has served in design leadership positions in several organizations. He also co-authored Org Design for Design Orgs1, which is the book on how to structure and scale design teams in organizations.
Now Peter has started a consultancy called Humanism At Scale, which helps design organizations reach their potential. Why the name? As he explains,
I see design as the Trojan horse for humanistic thinking within companies. Design is an obvious contributor of value, particularly in digital contexts and software contexts, and so companies are building design organizations in order to create these digital experiences. What they don’t know they’re getting with it is that design, when practiced fully, is situated within a humanistic frame that also includes social science and subjects like user research, it includes writing, rhetoric, composition, with things like content strategy…
And so I see design as this lead… It’s the tip of the spear, but what’s behind it is a full kind of humanistic understanding that design can help bring into these companies. And the importance of that is companies have been so mechanistic, so analytical with their either kind of business orientations, MBA orientations, spreadsheet focuses, or engineering orientations. They’ve been so mechanistic that design has this opportunity to bring a humanistic balance into that conversation.
Our conversation flowed into the impact that the structure of organizations has on what they produce and how their customers experience them. In this context, Peter brought up Conway’s law, which he explains as the idea that “whatever [an organization] delivers will be a reflection of how it is organized.” This law, he explains, implies that
if you want to deliver a meaningful experience — a sensible experience to your customers — you have to reorganize your company in a way that makes sense to your customers.
If you’re in a leadership position in an organization — and especially if you’re a design leader — you will likely find our conversation insightful.
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