Design as an Effective Agent of Change

As software continues to eat the world, digital systems’ conceptual structures matter more than ever. It’s easy to nudge users towards particular choices by making them more prominent. We can use this power for good or bad.

For example, are we helping people eat healthier? Or addicting them to unnecessary services? Alas, choices aren’t always as clear. And even in “clear” cases, we may not be the best arbiters of “good.” Often, the lines between good and bad are blurry.

For example, some retailers tweak search results towards commercial goals. Is that wrong? It depends. Are customers still seeing relevant results? Will they benefit? Same with navigation: It’s easy to bury “undesirable” choices deep in menus.

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Meta-IA

My friends Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz recently wrapped up the first season (my phrase) of their podcast Finding Our Way. The show is about “navigating the opportunities and challenges of design leadership,” and it takes form as an ongoing conversation between the co-hosts. (And occasional guests, including yours truly.)

Peter and Jesse are rendering a tremendous service to the design community by having these conversations in public. They’re experienced practitioners reflecting on what they’ve learned both in their own journeys to design leadership and through advising other design leaders. If you haven’t heard Finding Our Way, I encourage you to listen.

Episode 25 (“The Reckoning”) is especially worth your attention. In it, Peter and Jesse reflect on emerging themes in their conversation. An exchange early in that episode resonated strongly with me. Peter observed that “the crafts of (design) leadership are communication and information architecture.” He elaborated:

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Making the Company’s Vision Tangible

An article in the Harvard Business Review offers a reminder of the importance of having a clear company vision. It also makes the point that you don’t have to be the CEO to contribute to that vision:

A simple, bold, inspirational vision can feel almost magical: it brings people throughout the company together around a common goal and provides a focal point for developing strategies to achieve a better future. Unfortunately, however, building a vision has become more associated with a company’s top-level leadership than the managers in the rest of the organization.

The article offers three ways in which managers and leaders can help form the organization’s vision:

  • By helping the CEO in his or her vision-building efforts
  • By translating the vision to make it relevant to individual teams
  • By catalyzing a vision from the bottom-up

It’s not mentioned in the article, but I’ll say it again: making the vision more tangible is one of the great (and often, unacknowledged) roles of design. Many companies see their design functions as tactical. They see designers as the people who make engineering’s work more engaging, appealing, or usable. This perspective misses an important part of the value of design.

At a more strategic level, design offers organizations the ability to make possibilities tangible. It’s not just about production work; it’s also about helping the organization test what can otherwise be abstract or ambiguous directions. It’s one thing to tell people about your vision for the future. It’s quite another to demonstrate what that vision will look and feel like with real artifacts you can put in front of people, to test new ways of being in the world.

The power to do so is latent in all design organizations. Actualizing it calls for a reframing of what designers do. Production work is a significant contribution, but helping make visions tangible (and testable!) is a more valuable strategic role for design.

You Don’t Have to Be CEO to Be a Visionary Leader

“We Will Meet Again”

Leaders move us to action through skillful speech acts. Their words are worth studying, which is why I’ve written before about extraordinary speeches by President John F. Kennedy and NASA flight controller Gene Kranz. Last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II broadcast a rare televised speech about the COVID-19 situation. It’s the best message I’ve heard from a national leader about the pandemic. You can hear the entire message here:

What makes this speech so effective is its framing of the situation in context of the broader history of the UK. The Queen highlights the resilience of the British people by referencing her first broadcast to the nation, which she delivered with her sister during World War II:

We as children spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones, but now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do.

She closes with a message of solidarity and hope:

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor. Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.

At 93 years old, the Queen is part of the segment of the population most threatened by the virus. As a result, the assurance of meeting again strikes the right tone of resolute yet straightforward optimism in the face of hardship. It’s another reminder of the British response to World War II.

Until now, I hadn’t fully understood the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy. According to The Royal Household, the Queen “acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” In other words, the Royal Family is an important part of the “institutional memory” of the nation.

This speech is a perfect articulation of how the monarchy can do this, by broadening our perspective in time. Electoral cycles are relatively short, but kings and queens have life-long roles. As the world’s longest-serving head of state, Queen Elizabeth has lived through a lot of history. No other world leader could evoke her people’s courageous and stalwart response to events that happened eighty years ago as credibly as Elizabeth II. She was there, after all.

Leading in Information

Chip Cutter and Jennifer Maloney writing in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

The new coronavirus’s spread in America has prompted corporations to close offices, factories and stores, sending tens of millions of people home, where a swath of the workforce—from customer-service representatives to chief executive officers—have had to figure out new ways to work.

The result is perhaps the most radical and swift change in U.S. business in living memory. That’s posing a monumental management challenge of leading employees—those lucky enough to have kept their jobs—to sustain operations from home while also keeping them calm and safe.

The article goes on to profile CEOs of companies of diverse sizes, and the challenges they and their employees are facing as their workforces move to work remotely. These challenges include the loss of camaraderie, feelings of insecurity, managing young children while trying to work, the loss of structured daily routines, and more.

Instilling a sense of direction and purpose is hard enough in normal times when regular communication channels are intact. But leading during difficult times, when conditions are changing fast, and normal channels break down, can be extraordinarily difficult.

Thinking about the issue of leading remotely, I’ve been reflecting on this tweet, which highlights New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s communication style during the current crisis:

This list strikes me as an excellent communications guideline for leaders. But not all digital channels will lend themselves equally well for each attribute. For example, I’d expect authenticity, tone, and empathy to work best over synchronous video calls, where people can hear and see each other. Conversely, asynchronous channels lend themselves to frequent, clear communications.

The times call for leaders with excellent communication skills, but also who can adapt those skills to this new world in which we all interact over digital channels all the time. We can learn communication skills, but adaptability is a harder attribute to learn. I expect people to give each other the benefit of the doubt in the early days of the crisis. We’re all trying to cope with the changes, and will be more patient with each other’s clumsiness. But as time passes, we’ll expect leaders to get their stuff together. The sooner, the better.

With Business Turned Upside Down, CEOs Face Monumental Leadership Challenge

The Kranz Dictum

On the afternoon of January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 — astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — were killed in a horrific accident. The men were sitting inside the sealed command module of their spaceship during a launch simulation when a fire broke out. Fed by the pure oxygen environment inside the cabin, the conflagration spread quickly. The astronauts didn’t have a chance.

The Monday morning after the accident, NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz — the person responsible for coordinating Flight Control during a mission — addressed his team. This is what he told them:

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How Designers Can Help Bust Silos

When I talk with folks in large organizations, I often hear a familiar lament: “We’re very siloed here.” By this, they mean the organization is divided into​ groups that don’t play well with others. Each group functions like an isolated “silo” that acts independently from the rest. They each have their own internal goals, incentives, processes, etc. which make it difficult for them to collaborate.

Siloing impedes the organization’s ability to respond effectively (and in a timely manner) to changing contextual conditions. Because it involves organizational cultures and incentives, it can be a tough challenge to overcome. People in silos have an especially hard time seeing things from others’ perspectives — especially their colleagues.

A big part of the problem is that people in these situations​ tend to communicate in abstract terms. Often they’re unaware of using language that reinforces the distinctions between them. With our emphasis on making things tangible, designers can help them bust through these barriers.

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Designing the Right Things

At a high level, design teams in organizations face two challenges: Doing things right and doing the right things.

“Doing things right” is about efficiency: making the best use of time and resources. When seeking efficiency, leaders ask questions about their team’s production function:

  • Do we have the right roles?
  • Are relationships between roles organized optimally?
  • Do we have the right people in those roles?
  • Do we have enough people in the team? Do we have more people than we need?
  • How do we recruit the right people into our team?
  • How do we nurture leaders?
  • What tools, systems, and processes can help us do our jobs better?
  • What mental models can help us do our jobs better?
  • Is our team culture conducive to producing good work?

For the most part, leaders trying to answer these questions have peers in the organization they can partner with: HR, IT, and operations. As design matures within organizations, there’s also more professionalization of the discipline without; this manifests in the growing interest in design operations and the documentation and sharing of best practices.

In other words, when looking to do things right, today’s design leaders have several starting points. But what about doing the right thing?

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JFK’s Apollo Vision Statement

Complex projects require coordinating and aligning the efforts of many people in different roles and groups. The job is possible only if everyone is clear on what they’re striving towards, and are compelled to do so. This calls for leaders to clearly articulate the project’s vision.

The importance of having a clear, compelling vision is one of the great lessons of the Apollo moon program. U.S. President John F. Kennedy laid out the vision in a speech delivered to Congress in 1961. This speech was meant to convince lawmakers of the worth of investing in space exploration. Essentially, the President was asking his stakeholders — Congress, and more broadly, the people of the U.S. who they represent — for funding for the project. This is something anyone working in a leadership position can relate to.

President Kennedy’s presentation is a model of how to clearly articulate and sell a vision, so it’s worth studying its highlights. The speech starts by framing the space program in the broader geopolitical context of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had by this point made several impressive technological advances, including launching Sputnik (the first artificial satellite) and sending the first man into space. U.S. efforts were seen as lagging behind the Soviets’, so the President started his remarks with the following statement:

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