Have you ever been part of a winning team? I don’t mean an aggressive, beat-them-at-any-cost team; I mean a team that could tackle any challenge while simultaneously bringing out the best of everyone involved. The kind of team that makes valuable contributions to the organization and/or society while also making you excited about going to work every morning. There’s something about such a team that’s hard to quantify. Perhaps not every member is a star, but when they come together, everyone shines. Whole > sum of parts.
From my experience, such teams are rare and fragile. I was once part of a winning team. Everyone was world-class at their jobs. We had a great manager who articulated a clear vision and set realistic (but challenging) goals. Our remit cast us as outliers, a select group tasked with disrupting “the mothership.” We worked out of scrappy quarters that, far from discouraging us, fostered esprit de corps.
If you experience lousy service or poor quality, it’s probably not solely the fault of the person who talked to you on the phone, dealt with you at the counter or assembled your product.
It’s the boss.
The boss didn’t design the system properly, didn’t align incentives, didn’t invest in training. The boss isn’t thinking hard about hiring the right people. And the boss isn’t listening.
I’m glad to see someone with Mr. Godin’s prominence highlighting the benefits of having a systemic perspective. Many people still think of the products and services they interact with (or worse, manage) as though they exist on their own, in a vacuum.
Of course, they don’t: All products and services are manifestations of systems that influence their performance. The front-line customer experience is the outcome of such a system. To improve the offering, improve the system. But you can’t improve the system if you don’t see or understand it. You must make it tangible to make it “real.”
Design can help: systems mapping and modeling are established practices. What’s needed is for “the boss” to understand that design doesn’t start with giving form to products/services. Instead, it’s a holistic practice that can bring coherence and alignment at a much deeper level – if it starts at a much earlier stage in the process.
Are you “the boss”? Do you understand the systems you’re participating in or creating? Do you know the degree to which your products/services are enabling such systems? If you lack visualizations that help you understand these systems, ask yourself: what do I need to do to see the big picture?
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.
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.
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:
The websites and apps you interact with are parts of systems. These systems are often commercial organizations with responsibilities to various stakeholders, including the owners of the business, its employees and managers, its customers, and — more broadly — the rest of us who live in the society where the organization operates.
The people who “own” these digital products and services — product owners, business line managers, etc. — are tasked with being good stewards of these systems. They’re called to steer them towards greater value for stakeholders in the short and long term even as conditions around the systems change. Design decisions will change these systems — even if slightly. For example, the team could develop a new feature, fix an existing (and underperforming) feature, or address an entirely new user audience.
These are systemic interventions. Their effects are seldom limited to the task at hand; a seemingly minor alteration could have a large impact downstream. As a result, product owners must look out for second- and third-order effects; they’re looking to intervene skillfully as the system faces perturbations in its context.
To do this, product owners must become aware of the possible options open to them and their potential effects. Their ultimate goal is to achieve dynamic stability: for the system to continue serving its intended purposes as it evolves over time to address changing conditions. This calls for these folks to become systems thinkers.
One of the central tenets of cybernetics — the science of systems — is the Law of Requisite Variety. It’s relevant to people who aim to control systems. In cybernetics, the word variety has a special meaning: It refers to the number of possible states of a system. The Law of Requisite Variety suggests that skillful control of a system requires (at least) an equal number of possible responses to its number of possible states. This is usually articulated as a maxim: only variety can destroy variety.
Translation into humanspeak: a system with few possible states requires a small range of responses, whereas a system with many possible states requires a broad range of responses. This idea has proven to be useful in a variety of fields, including sports, ecology, management, medicine, and more. The more complex the system you’re dealing with, the more states it can be in. Controlling such systems requires at least an equal amount of flexibility in your ability to respond to changes.
Of course, not all digital products and services aim to serve the same purposes. Some are simpler — and less ambitious — than others. Simpler systems will have — and require — less variety. But many digital products and services are very complex and can have many possible states. A digital system that aspires to become the de facto environment where we interact — socially, commercially, civically, etc. — will have a huge range of possible states. The folks who design and manage these systems face a great deal of variety. To intervene skillfully, they need a larger range of possible responses. Among other things, this calls for greater diversity in their teams.
Erratum: an earlier version of this post made it sound as though this concept was my idea. My friend Christina Wodtke rightly called me out on it; the cone of uncertainty is a concept with a long history in project planning. I must have read about it at some point and buried it in my subconscious. Apologies for any confusion this may have caused; I’ve edited the post to clear it up.
“The beginning is always today.”
— Mary Wollstonecraft
Imagine you’re ramping up to work on a new project that will keep you and your team busy for many months. Before you start, you must define a plan for how you will tackle the work. For example, you must figure out what resources you will need and by when. This requires that you make predictions about the future state of the project: “By the fourth week, we should have already produced high-level design directions. At that point, we’ll be ready to engage a UI designer and a prototyper.”
The problem is that you can’t predict the future with certainty; the best you can do is make educated guesses based on previous experience and best-practices. And of course, reality has a way of messing with things: By week three, the team may uncover a vital requirement they initially missed that forces them to re-think their direction.
Because of this, the team’s confidence in their plans should drop the farther they cast into the future. They must be sure of the activities they need to undertake immediately, and doubtful of the things needed in the more distant future. I often visualize this as a circle of uncertainty around the team:
Many years ago, my wife and I heard about a new bagel shop that was opening near our apartment. We decided to check it out one Sunday morning. The place was charming: roomy enough to feel comfortable, but not bustling. There was a large selection of fresh bagels, an assortment of fixings (including many flavors of cream cheese), and a well-stocked self-serve coffee bar. We loved it; lounging there over the newspaper became part of our Sunday morning routine.
It wasn’t long before other people discovered the bagel shop. Soon the place was crowded, and the experience suffered. Ordering became a chore, with lines that stretched out of the store. The once quiet place became packed and noisy. Worst of all, open tables became a rarity. We changed our routine to arrive close to opening time to get one, but then we would feel guilty about lounging around when others were waiting to sit.
Eventually, the owner leased the store next door and the bagel shop grew to three times its previous size. The expansion relieved some of the shop’s most pressing issues; now it was easier to find a place to sit. However, the quality of the food suffered and the relaxed experience of the early days was gone. The new shop was OK — but it wasn’t the same. At three times its former size, it couldn’t be. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good business anymore; it probably made more money in its new digs. But the soul was gone.
Change is a central part of doing business. If things aren’t going well, you must do something about it. But when things are going well, you must also do something about it. Staying still is the only option not on the table. How the business responds to the always-changing context it participates in (and helps create) will be one of the factors that define its level of success.
Architecture is a critical factor in that response. The bagel shop responded to increased demand with an architectural intervention that changed the character of the business. Even though on the surface things looked the same, a threefold increase in the shop’s physical environment made for an entirely different experience.
The laws of physics don’t apply to digital businesses in the same way they do to a bagel shop. A digital business can scale without needing to physically grow. However, the architecture of its information environments plays a critical role in how customers perceive and interact with the business. As with the physical business, the architecture of a digital business must change if it’s to evolve.
A digital business looking to level up has many options open to it. For example, a product could be on track to become a family of products or a platform. Or perhaps the business is expanding from an advertising-supported business model to a paid-membership model. “More of the same” is not on offer in such cases. The business must rethink its information architecture. Yes, this will impact its website and app navigation structures. But more than that, it’ll result in a new conceptual model that will affect all aspects of the experience.
A thoughtfully designed architecture will result in a new UX that will enable the business towards the next stage of its evolution, without compromising the things that made it great. A solid information architecture is a platform for enabling directed emergence: aimed towards a fixed objective, but open-ended enough to respond to real-world conditions as they arise; a platform for sustained growth that doesn’t sacrifice the soul of the business.
“Can I give you some feedback?” You hear the words, and immediately get a sinking feeling in your belly. “Uh oh,” you think. “What did I do wrong?…” For many of us, the word feedback has negative connotations. It’s become a polite euphemism for criticism; something we offer up only when our expectations aren’t being met. But feedback is not inherently negative.
Feedback refers to the means by which a system can alter its behavior. (The outputs of the system “feed back” into it as inputs, which the system then acts on.) Considered it in this light, feedback can be seen as a steering mechanism: a way of keeping things within bounds. Too much of a good thing can be as bad as too little; knowing where you are relative to the bounds you’ve set allows you to correct course. If you step on the gas, yoiu see the needle on the car’s speedometer creeping up. Past a certain point, you know you’re exceeding the speed limit, so you take our foot off the gas. The speedometer is one of the car’s mechanisms for giving you feedback.
Feedback applies to relationships as well as other systems (such as cars). If you’re managing someone who is performing below the expectations that are expected of him or her, part of your job is to act as the speedometer; you must let them know. (Hence, the sinking feeling.) But the speedometer doesn’t only tell you when you’re going too fast; it also lets you know how fast you’re going in general. Sometimes going too slow is not good either. Giving (and receiving) clear, frequent feedback is essential; it allows team members to assess how they’re doing and whether or not they’re on the right track.