Growing talent & teams

The focus of the afternoon sessions was Growing UX Talent and Teams, facilitated by  Susan Worthman

Susan is a business design strategist from California College of the Arts (CCA).  She teaches in the DMBA (in Design Strategy and Strategic Foresight) program, and also works with the Leading by Design fellows program. She has been working at the intersection of human, technology, and leadership for many years.

Susan asked us to think about the number three. We have three amazing speakers, who will tell you great stories about how to grow UX talent and teams. They share common elements including (1) scale (2) permission and (3) mission. All of these elements influence how you attract, develop, and retain talent. Her hope is that these panels will help us think about how to continue to invest and people and processes in a measurable way that in turn creates justification for further investment.

People + Place + Practices = Outcomes

Adam Cutler is a design practice director at IBM. He just received the Distinguished Designer award at IBM, where he is now one of three there.  He can be called on as a close advisor to Ginny – design has reached that level of importance in IBM.  Prior to IBM, he worked closely with Michael Jordan while at an agency, and he beat Jim Bezos to get cosmonauts to do first transactions from space. Adam’s super power is that he is a super-synthesizer; in real-time, he is able to take in an amazing amount of information to make critical business design decisions.

Adam described that everything they’re doing stems from the culture, which (it sounds like) they are actively working to shape.  The term culture gets thrown around a lot, without understanding what it really entails.  So Adam spent some time describing things that they are doing which contribute to the way IBM Design feels over time.

——–  =  Culture

Part of how they achieve a sense of design community and culture is through shared values, experimenting with rituals (a radio station for tunes and design calls), celebrating heroes (past and present), developing symbols, and engaging in practices (more on that later, the practical application of the rest).

The challenge that Adam and other leaders face at IBM Design is that the company is 380K people.  How to drive change in such a large organization?  How to make sure that the culture is established in a way that it lives on beyond a few key leaders?  Adam suggests that there are three elements to create a sustainable culture of design:

IBM is investing in people.  They are creating a cohort that they hope will be ‘unmatched in history’.  Less than 1% of candidates make it through their recruiting process, but they are nonetheless trying to establish a team of ‘egoless designers’.  They want people who will respect the role, which is to rejuvenate design at IBM.

New hires go through three months of onboarding with a cohort of 6-80 other designers.  That time allows them to get to know each other, IBM, and practices before they are distributed into the business units they will support.

There is a career ladder.  Everyone hired as a designer, bur there are disciplines (Research, UXD, Visual Design, FEDs).  For each discipline, they can describe the abilities required for the role.  I had some questions about how research fits into this model.  Adam explained that everyone has a designer title, though they may have different specialities.  In the case of research, everyone has a role.  You’re either a guide, or you’re an explorer – bringing your subject matter expertise to the research effort.

IBM has also made a commitment to creating the right places for designers to work through the IBM Studio network.   The space is designed to connect people to IBM’s design legacy and to the future, while providing designers with the freedom and flexibility to work in the way they need.  For example, everything in the Studio is on wheels, and movable by 2 people weighing 90 pounds.  However, they are committed to making the space something that works for the whole team, just just the ‘design team’.  In fact, these fluid workspaces are being requested all over the company, not just by the designers.

Finally, Adam talked about the practices that IBM is putting into place, something that is a core part of his responsibilities.  He is answering the question How we want people to think about and practice design?   As part of their work they have established a set of Principles to guide how they work together.  With over three thousand products, a shared Design Language was also needed, with the goal of driving unity but not uniformity.  Each team makes it’s own design guide (he showed examples from analytics, security) and it’s clear that they they start to look cohesive.  Accessibility is baked in.

In all that, the scale of what they are doing is of course phenomenal.  But I thought that one of the most interesting pieces of work was the definition of six universal experiences:


The goal is to ensure the team gets past ‘everyday use’ as the main scenario.

In order to have a business impact, they are thinking from the beginning about outcomes.  The team has to design with an outcome in mind – something that ships, or that a user can get their hands on.  All of what we’re doing is to achieve an outcome, not for the sake of design.  They’ve been at it for three years now, and they’ve learned a lot about the benefits and challenges of scaling.

Developing Experience Teams and Talent in the Enterprise

Karen Pascoe is group head of Experience Design for Labs at MasterCard.  Her super power is that she is a super-connector; she goes out and rambles everywhere regardless of hierarchy and builds a base of relationships.  This gives her the broadest vantage point to have influence over big experience (not just design).  As the youngest of four she was not territorial, which made her comfortable on other people’s turf.  She also worked her way through school as a waitron, and it turns out that managing hungry people is great training for managing people in large matrixes organizations.  

Karen has been at MasterCard for the past 1-2 years.  During that time, her journey has been about starting to articulate digital transformation.  Design is a business imperative for them, but she has been conscious to grow slowly, so she can justify the talent.  She’ll have 17 people by year end.   So the reality is that she has spent a lot of time focusing on the tactical work of hiring and performance management.  She truly believes that retention affects the quality of the user experience you can deliver, because in the enterprise software space we are all dealing with legacy systems and significant complexity.

Their goal for the digital commerce landscape is that a consumer should be able to ubiquitously make a purchase.  Consumers (assuming they have the funds) are running on the assumption that the card will get them what they want.  The goal at MasterCard is to untethering consumers from the piece of plastic.

What does that really mean?  Today there are 6.1B smartphones globally.  But by 2020, there will be over 18B connected devices.  Consumers will be expecting the ability to make payments through their televisions and other connected devices.  That means a whole other level of complexity in their thinking about the problem space – they have to think about how to support device-based commerce, because they are expecting to see an explosion of devices that have payment capability embedded in.  So a key question for them is how they can continue to provide data protection and security to consumers under those conditions.


One data point that was super compelling to me is that many consumers initiate from phone, but 90% of people use multiple screens to complete a task.  That really seriously changes how we think about design!


Some readers will be familiar with the Design Management Institute (DMI) Design Value Index, which has shown that design-led companies outperform their peers by nearly 220% on the S&P500.  Similarly, Karen said that Forester CX Index companies are crushing those who are not committed to CX.  So, you have to be clear on your mission as an experience leader?  And, how aligned is your leadership to this?  That determines what kind of work do you need to do at different levels:

  • For leadership and sponsorship, it is important to cultivate relationships with cross-functional leaders (across organizational silos).  Karen reports to the Chief Innovation Officer, so she connects with his peers.  In order to develop an actionable agenda, we have to understand how our companies make money.  And when we propose plans, we have to ask for feedback and show results through regular communication and success stories.
  • With project partners & execution, we need to establish customer empathy cross-functionally, especially when you’re doing stuff that’s hard.  She brings lawyers and compliance offices to usability testing to help foster empathy for their customers.  Over time, you have to develop deep and trusted relationships.  You do that by sharing in problem and decisino-making, which is eventually how you get a seat at the table.
  • When you want to connect with teams & talent, don’t send your recruiters!  You have to maintain an authentic conversation with the community.  One way of doing that is to have something more substantive driving the conversation, for example, she had Carnegie Mellon graduate students working on a project for a year.  You need to make sure the skills are there, but alignment on values is really critical, too.  And it is worth the effort – it takes 90 days to find someone, and another 90 days to get them productive.  If the fit isn’t there and they don’t feel engaged they will leave.   We need to think about performance management as the employee experience (I love this framing!).  This means coaching and development conversations – both good and bad.

Designing and Driving UX Careers

Ian Swinson is the global head of design and UX at Anaplan. He has a background as an iconoclast filmmaker and musician (opened for SoundGarten). His superpower is reading people. Super intuitive, he reads people really well, and because of that he is able to build highly collaborative and productive teams. True to his roots, he does the right thing.

How do we use design practices on ourselves?  One of the most compelling points Ian made is that, as designers, our careers are the one project we own completely.  So, we should make it a good one.

Ian was the first UX person at Salesforce, and at the beginning there were only researchers and designers.  It was easy, but over time, there were more roles, and it got more complex and more diverse. When a new executive joined, Ian was one of three leaders who was asked to evaluate 90+ designers, researchers, and prototypers, and document who the top and bottom performers were.  But those three Directors evaluated the team in radically different ways.  They had a horrible meeting, and after two hours Ian called it.  He spent the weekend thinking through an approach to get them to common ground.

Those challenges were compounded by his own challenges as a leader.  At the time, he was managing 35 people, including 15 direct reports.  He was not able to provide consistent support, and he wanted a way to normalize 1:1s so he could provide equal value to all people that worked for him.

IMG_3083Using the framework that he developed, in his meetings with them he had a way to talk about their concerns, anxieties, as well as how they could progress.  One of the things he was surprised to learn is how much people care about titles – oh my gosh!  He met someone once whose business card said Distinguished Star Belly Sneech (from the Dr. Suess book, pictured at right).  He wondered “What is the right path?  Do you need a path?”  Through that discovery, they went from talking about a ladder (which was an HR construct) to talk ing about a career framework – because careers are not linear.

So he developed two things.  One was something he called an abilities framework (at my company we call it a competency model), and the other was a workshop to help people think through where they are and where they are trying to go.

Ian injected some good humor into his framework, including the template for an eight-sided die with the abilities on it:


What I liked about how Ian articulated his approach is that it acknowledges that management roles require different of knowledge and skills, but there is room for individual contributors to still grow and advance professionally.  One important insight for his teams was that leadership is not the same as management.  And another that really resonated for me is the idea that part of building a team culture is being optimistic – framing problems in a constructive, positive way that allows the team to think productively about how to solve them.  That really resonated with me, because I really struggle when I have an Eeyore personality in my team …

The discussion led by Susan covered a variety of topics, while my laptop battery died an untimely death.  So, I have no detailed notes to share!  But my impression was that there were many questions for Ian, and I suspect it was because of the super practical approach, combined with a great sense of humor.  When I first started at ZS nearly five years ago, we created a Competency Model for User Experience research and design roles.  I have found it an invaluable tool for discussions on performance and career progression, though it does need evolve now as we introduce consulting roles (which do require some different skills than are required in our engineering group).  And I know that the Design Management Institute (DMI) recently ran a webinar about competency models, so this might be an interesting opportunity for further collaboration across our community.  Though given what we learned about O’Reilly’s research on titles (183 unique ones emerged from their survey!), it may well be that a competency model / map is too work-culture specific to be able to create one.  Still, I think ongoing knowledge sharing on this topic would be valuable, especially as more and more of us end up in senior roles interacting with business leaders.


1 Comments on “Growing talent & teams”

  1. Pingback: Reflecting on the Enterprise UX conference - Putting people first

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