The politics of innovation

The Thursday afternoon session was entitled The Politics of Innovation, facilitated by Richard Dalton.

These presentations were also a pleasure, but I appreciated them for a very different reason than I did the morning session.  These presentations before the closing keynote represented the penultimate stage that Greg Petroff described in his opening keynote, which to me was a great testament to the thoughtful curation that went into this event.  I really enjoyed hearing from UX professionals who are leading or guiding transformational change.  They are serving as innovators and catalysts for change in large organizations.  Their perspectives were all quite different, but inspiring!

Richard started out by saying hates the term innovation.  It’s a little vague, and it’s not very actionable, and it’s best used in the past tense.  It doesn’t work so well to say “you, go and innovate!”.  But he realized that our stakeholders fall in love with this words, so the terminology can serve as a Trojan horse to introduce design techniques and habits to drive change.  So, this set of presentations is really about the politics of cultural change, as much as innovation.

Steve is going to talk about how do people deal with change at a human level.  How do we help people overcome fear of change?  Maria will share some of the work she is doing at Autodesk to shift from entering to design mindset.  And Harry will share the challenges and some ways to address prioritization and decision-making.  

Breaking out of Ruts: Tips for Overcoming the Fear of Change

Steve Baty is the Principal at Meld Studios in Australia, and he is going to talk about Barriers to Innovation.  

[Note: Steve had slides but intentionally didn’t use them!  So if there are good ones, I’ll add them here at relevant points, once they are released.]

Innovation used to mean insurrection, so people are a little fearful, hesitant to really embrace it.  That notion is a radical departure from the established ways of working.  How do people and individuals get into channels or ruts that are hard to break out of?  How can we help with the methods and practices of design, to actively contribute them to think differently and get ideas out into the world?

Humas want to be good at things, have a sense of purpose.  We want to be able to control our future (with autonomy).  When we think about a radical change in what and how things get done, we are effectively calling into question those things.  Innovation programs are often a directive, pushed down.  So they foreshadow that people’s world is going to change, and they may be asked to do something completely new.  That can be challenging, because the uncertainty will create hesitancy and fear.  And in moments of change, we know we are not going to be any good at it, at first.  We get into habits in routine that enable us to be more effective and efficient.  We need those routines and techniques, and it’s uncomfortable and risky when they are disrupted.

Steve shared a project about a project to simplify government services.  The idea was to bring transportation, court matters, and other organizations into a single organization.  There were lots of differences in the two groups.  In court, everyone is in service to the judge, so people skills aren’t necessarily valued in that context; the justice department favors process efficiency and not people skills.  And the opposite was true for the transportation department.

These groups were part of a pilot, and at the end it would be determined who ended up with control of all the services, which meant that half of the group would have to re-apply for their jobs.  The three month pilot has now been running for over two years, without clear resolution.  During that time all the employees have been living with a significant amount of ambiguity.  They are not trying to be a barrier to change, or to be difficult, but that uncertainty puts their financial future in jeopardy.

In the process of coming up with new ideas, we have our own way of looking at the world – for better or worse.  That view also creates blind spots which informs how we frame the problem and the solution.  To overcome that, we need to bring together interdisciplinary teams.  You want disagreement, so you are not all seeing the problem the same way.   To get to a new way of doing things, you need all kinds of evidence, and fresh perspectives.

There is a moment of vulnerability when we generate ideas.  In his work, he has people generate multiple ideas.  If participants only have one idea, they feel like they have to defend it, even if it’s not a great one.  But that makes it uncomfortable when we need to critically assess, or evaluate how the idea could be pushed further.  We also may not like another person, and we shoot their ideas down because of that.  We conflate personality and idea, and the idea itself gets lost.  We have to break the connection between ego and idea.  That allows us to think more freely about the idea itself, so it is an important step.

We need to provide the space for innovation to take place. Maria will talk about organizational issues in depth.  But if you have change fatigue, with a shifting landscape and insecurity, you need to find a source of energy to push through that.  We do that by generating empathy for our customer – which is at the core of the design process.  But it has an important secondary purpose – it helps people start to care.  And it helps get things moving.  Our ideas are worthless until they get out in the world – which is where change happens.  When we start to care about them (not just intellectually), then we can take action.

Remaking the Making Company: Moving from Product to Experience

Maria Guidice has been in this space for more than 20 years.  She founded HotStudio in 1997, which was acquired by Facebook a few years ago.   Her most recent book is the The Rise of the DEO. She is currently trying to change the culture of the product and engineering culture at Autodesk.

If I reflect on the many wonderful presentations I heard at EUX16, this one was definitely my favorite.  There are a number of reasons for that.  She did a great job telling story!  It was aspirational, but she also offered a host of really practical suggestions about how to get things done.  I also really appreciated her positive outlook – I appreciated the ways in which she described her challenges as opportunities.  I just loved it.

Maria asked the audience “How many of you are change agents?”  She described herself as someone that runs to risk, to change.  She is not accepting of the system as face value.  She wants to know what she can get away with next!  And she is always up for challenges.

At Autodesk they are delivering amazing product.  They have been in business 33 years, they have 9K employees, about 130K (!) products, and over 100 locations. They are making creative software for creative people.  She celebrated her one year anniversary last week.  Maria’s presentation was about how she has helped the company shift since her arrival.

Are you ready for the messiness, the hard choices, and the chaos that come with change?  Traditional companies are starting to realize that they have to evolve or die, so the conditions are ripe for change.  The industry that Autodesk serves is changing, as are customer needs.  Instead of working at desktop for eight hours a day, they expect to be mobile.  From a busienss model perspective, the customer also needs to build relationships through subscriptions.  What is exciting for her is that the leadership team at Autodesk is ready (if your leadership team is not ready, you have an uphill battle).  This kind of change cannot be done by any individual person – it is a team sport.  They hired her to be that executive catalyst, so design was immediately put in the leadership role.  For her the pathway is open – and she recognizes that it is a gift.  They trusted her to start the process, but she knows that she will ultimately will be judged by the outcomes she is able to deliver.  Given the magnitude of change in play, you have to have quick wins along the way.

One of the things she likes at Autodesk is the nominal politics – there is just no bullshit, and a commitment to what they call “mature directness”.  She asked for three months to decide how to proceed, because she didn’t want to make the same mistakes she had made in the past.  She believes that everything in life is a design problem, so she traveled and listened to hundreds of people – from interns to the CEO.  She hung out with the team.  She asked for stories, prompted by a few questions like – Why are you working here?  What keeps you up at night?  What are your hopes and dreams?  How can I help you?  Once she synthesized all that data into bite-sized chunks, she found that the problems were pretty typical:

  1. There is an imbalance of power in product teams … and typically it’s the designer that is feeling marginalized
  2. Teams had fragmented access to customers
  3. There was an obsession over quantity of features over the quality
  4. Organizational silos presented challenges

One of the designers drew her a picture of the organizational culture at Autodesk:


Needless to say, she had her work cut out for her!  How do we adopt a mindset of inclusivity?  Designers are on different teams all over the world.  The goal was not for her to lord over 320 of them over all.  How do you create and foster communication and connections?  Out of her discovery process emerged three key themes:

Build community.  As a starting point, you have to build a solid culture. What does design mean?  This requires changing the prevalent mindset – design is NOT about making of artifacts.  It is not a noun, it’s an active verb, a multidisciplinary effort shared by the team.  Therefore, everyone is a designer.  Adopting that mindset brings everyone into the fold in an unthreatening way.  How do you teach people to design? The LUMA Institute training is so good for enterprise – it teaches people to fish.  The teach things like affinity clustering, which help to democratize design. They are not our tools, they are the company’s tools.  This approach encourages people to participate in the design process.  You have to teach people how to be designers.  She had money for a conference, and instead of calling it UX, she called it Experience Design, and she wanted it to be a Coming Out party.  What could design be?  The “X Summit” changed the temperature inside the company.


This was one moment in a short video about the event, which also included phenomenal praise from the CEO.  Through the Summit she created community and drove commitment at the highest levels of the firm.  I found that super inspiring!

Focusing on customers.  She wants to make Autodesk the most customer centric company in the world.  We all know that research is important but historically undervalued.  She hates the term user.  Only our industry and drug dealers use these terms!  People are not users – design is about being in service to others.  A user is a faceless, soul-less person without a body.  We get into the habit of using that term, and it kills our ability to humanize our customers.  We need change the mindset.  Part of the way she is doing that is by identifying pockets of excellence that are happening.  There are teams co-creating with customers – find those moments and recognize the greatness that is happening.  Then amplify them and bring them to scale.

Connect experiences.  What are those consistent touchpoints that exist through more than one product.  How do you make them more streamlined, simplified, delightful, cohesive?  Autodesk has been built on acquisitions – so there is no visual consistency. Rather than just assembling a team, she wanted to get people excited around the idea of building a shared design system, because otherwise there was the risk that it could be perceived as threatening.  She wanted to capture great ideas, so she organized a visual design global hackathon.  There were active locations all over the world, and it was great way to crowdsource ideas.  They are also identifying those signature product moments – things that must be consistent like SSO – or things that stand out as their most valuable assets.  They will then staff tiger teams to address those.

Ship quality.  How do you get to the people who are working on and shipping products every day.  How do they feel empowered, how do they know they are doing a good job?  We know the idea of MVP sucks – it just doesn’t work!  But what about moving the conversation to what is a Minimal Lovable Experience?


This resonated with many of us – it generated a ton of enthusiam from the live audience, as well as on Slack and Twitter.  The challenge is bringing this to life – how do you give people the benchmark for what makes quality?


Yes, they are committed to making things Easy to Use and Valuable … but at Autodesk they struggle with Well Crafted.  Designers want to be proud about our work – we want to make magic!  But engineers have similar aspirations – they want to create beautiful code.

Maria closed by describing where they are on their change journey.  The designers in the organization seem to share her vision and her confidence about where they are headed:


She asked the designer who had originally drawn the siloed organization (above) to draw what it felt like now.  This is what he sent:


Pretty amazing, right?!  There is nothing like that visual representation of change to bring it home …

Priority Zero: Some Things are More Equal than Others

Harry Max to be here at Rackspace, and he is currently a VP at AllClearID in Austin.  He speaks regularly around the globe, and he always has an amazing book recommendation if you need one.  He has also spoken at TEDX in San Antonio called The Problem is Not the Problem.  This presentation build on those earlier ideas, but he didn’t have time to get into them with us.

We have to make decisions all the time, and the better we do it, the better we win. In order to get there, you have to have some way of choosing – because priorities drive everything.  They don’t need to be in some kind of list.  Even if they are unspoken, they drive the work that is getting done.

When you think about it, strategy is deciding what you’re going to do in order to win.  Part of his work (as an executive coach and in his work) has been helping people make those choices.  With a way to select what is more or less important, we can have interesting conversations about what we’re actually going to do.  There are different levels we can solve for – personal priorities, team projects and programs, and organizational problem spaces.  He is going to focus on this last one today.

Harry introduced the Eisenhower Matrix, which a way of thinking about time management that I had never heard of:


This framework helps us to consider What is Important begging to be done, needing your attention?  What is Important but not Urgent?  You don’t typically have to do them right now.  What are the long term things that require investment?  Urgent and Important is the burning platform – you don’t do it and you’ll die.  These things always compete with the Important ones.

Harry spoke about the journey he is on at AllClearID.  They are the leader in breech response.  When Home Depot got hacked, they were afraid they were going to lose customers.  Their lawyers tell them to call AllClearID.  So, by the very nature of their work, they are an urgent response business.  They have been very successful, but unfortunately haven’t addressed those things that were defined as Important from the outset.

The S curve … when do you get to the point of diminishing returns.  Apple is brilliant about starting a new S sure before the earlier one runs out of gas. Like this:

The ideal state is to manage this as a portfolio of investments over time.  You are constantly innovating, creating new forms of value, and connecting that value to people who want it.  But priorities and investments are very different as you move through these stages of Mature Business > Rapidly Growing Business > Emerging Business.

In his current role, he co-created a white board with stickies by engaging with the organization about process, technology debt, defects, features:

He mapped the inputs to stages of evolution – getting their house in order, reinforce the foundation, and finally, create the future.  Through that dialogue he was able to get everyone aligned on organizational priorities, and then they did a force ranking of each area.  That has now made it’s way into a spreadsheet, so he could elicit and document decision criteria.  They got to about five criteria (not included here), and they prioritized based on resources, too.  How do they reduce heroics, delivering on contracts well?  The stresses on people were extraordinary, so the team had to know what we were going to do to address those challenges.

None of that focus on the NOW (the Urgent and Important) allows us to focus on the business / market opportunities they first identified twelve years ago.  So then he focused on the What rather than the How. What things will make the biggest difference when we get there?  There are a set of long poles.  Which things are required for Horizon 1?  Those are the weighted most heavily.  And then Horizon 2.  That enabled him to put together a roadmap to explain what it was going to take.  He could clearly show the current state and where they are trying to go.  And because of that, the Board wrote a big check to enable them to achieve that vision.  So they are now actively removing barriers that would have prevented them from launching their next product.

This value of this approach is that it allows you to get people to agree and move forward, because they have been included in the process.  He recommends being blunt but optimistic at all stages.   Show them the future, and inspire them!


Facilitated by Richard Dalton.

Maria said that you can measure lovability or goodwill through things like reduction in customer complaints, improved satisfaction scores and sharing. Just be sure to benchmark where you are – and what it looks like where you want to be.

She also described the importance of creating a movement not a mandate.  For that, communication and inclusion are so important.  There must be multiple ways for people to provide feedback; that kind of environment allows for a healthy exchange, and minimizes the detractors.  You have to enable people to have influence without authority.

Someone in the audience asked a question similar to one I wanted to pose.  He said that each of them had told wonderful and inspiring stories, but for many of us, that’s not the reality.  He asked  “What do you do when your best plans fall to shit?”  Steve said that he organizes the two camps into a workshop.  They have to prepare a business case for the idea, and the team has to defend the idea.  But the trick is that you make them critique their own idea.  In that way, they are forced to look for the positives in the ideas they were denigrating earlier. When at an impasse, that often helps them find a third way.

This is similar to something that Disney does, called Disney Creative Strategy. (With a shout-out to the conference attendees on Slack who had that URL posted and pinned within moments of the discussion!)  In that model, you have someone present a vision.  And then you break out into two separate rooms.  In one, you critique the vision.  And in the other, you figure out how to make it real.  That technique enables people to surface the issues and actually work through them.

Someone in the audience asked about brainstorming, and how it fits together here?  Harry has done more creative constraint bound work.  Maria feels like her whole life is a brainstorm – divergent and then convergent.  Steve recommends that you enable people to work independently first (to allow people to be quiet with their own thoughts, and to avoid group think) and then align.  Most important is to make sure all those voices are heard, because that’s how you achieve alignment.

2 Comments on “The politics of innovation”

  1. An interesting bit about the slide on Minimal Lovable Experience. The graphic was set in a way that it also kinda reads like “MOE” which is a Japanese slang for something “that elicits affection, adoration, and devotion”. I’m not sure if the presenter meant it to work that way, but kinda makes you think.

    Thanks for echoing the Enterprise UX conference, by the way. As someone who lives far off in the Southeast and who is unable to attend conferences like these on a frequent basis, being exposed to your material it really does open up new horizons. Hooray for the Internet.

    • Thanks Rodge – I’m glad you enjoyed the posts! I haven’t been to a conference in awhile, and it was a good one. Interesting about MOE. Given how knowledgeable and accomplished Maria is, I would be surprised if that double-entendre was an accident. 🙂

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