Leading Teams that Execute

Theme 2: Leading Teams that Execute

Theme Leader: Phillip Hunter (Head of UX, Amazon Alexa Skills)

Abstract from the EUX website:
Design leaders need to do more than hire, train, and mentor great craftspeople. They must get people to work together as an interdisciplinary team, bound by a shared vision of what a successful enterprise experience can be. We’ll explore how successful enterprise UX teams work to create, own, and execute their visions.

Phillip explained that this group of talks is about execution.  A key part of executing well is being able to handle it when things go wrong.  Each of us has worked in large enterprises for a number of years, and each of us enjoy thinking about the fine details of the craft.  But how we do that with teams, organizations that don’t know UX, or may be actively resisting it.  We don’t always think about the mechanics of getting things done.  Something has to go out the door, and it’s not going to be perfect.  We’re doing it wondering what we will face – but we know we have to deliver.  No matter the size of your team, execution matters.  Ultimately, we want to ensure that we’re helping massive organizations meet the needs of individuals.

Scaling the Human Center

Gretchen Anderson (Head of Design, Pacific Gas & Electric)

The scope of what PG&E does is huge – 140K miles of wire, xx gas lines … it’s big.  Her team works on the systems that the 29K employees use to maintain that infrastructure. When the grid goes down, it can be catastrophic – it is a tremendous responsibility.

How can I take my learnings forward to this new company (where she has been just 9 months)?   The employees had an app that they used to geo-locate assets they were supposed to work on.  Unexpectedly, the satellite view of the assets became a killer feature.  Her executive team agreed that the feature would have never made it into anyone’s backlog without design.

The reality is that UCD can be in conflict with business outcomes.  UX makes the unimagined becomes possible!  But enterprise likes to move sequentially from A to B to C, and it can be hard to break into that.  PG&E has a process improvement improvement diagram!  Yes, design systems and pattern libraries are essential at scale.  But they are just guardrails.

We have a tendency to lean on processes, and designers can be ‘paranoid and precious’.  How do we make designers feel empowered but still make an impact?

Key challenges

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Solutions (4)

Pair Design.  Our work has a unique style; “when we make things we get our fingerprints all over them.”  But in order to collaborate effectively, others’ fingerprints need to be on it, too.  Pair Design is the title of an O’Reilly book she co-authored last year.  The reality is that we are better together, and we’re better because we’re different.  Pivotal pioneered pair design.  She had a chance to observe them in action.  They tried a lot of ideas, and evaluated them quickly.  There was quick ideation in real-time to get to a good solution.  Through the process they are learning about design, new perspectives, different tools.  They learn to be navigators and not drivers; in the end the diverse skills make happier teams.  It also democratizes critique and results in higher quality.

Leading Through Making.  No-one is going to invite you to the table.  Her bosses are supportive, but she has to invite herself.  She offers designs instead of bullet points, which helps to change and shape the conversation.  She has one situation where a single storyboard transformed a conversation, and established a junior designer as a credible resource for her product team.  Bring actual deliverables.  Stories are medicine for the enterprise.  Engage in prototyping as risk mitigation, not just for usability.  Enlist business people to define the ‘so that I can’ part of user stories (what they are trying to enable from a business perspective), to ensure shared understanding and alignment.  Our superpower as designers is holding multi-state things in our heads.  She found herself invited to a executive meeting to work through a multi-dimensional problem that they couldn’t solve serially.

Design Operators.  As you try to get ahead, don’t lose sight of the people behind the systems, the pattern libraries.  The people that run those and help make them real. The design system gets her compliance and pre-baked approvals.  When she was preparing for a major redesign, she wasn’t sure if the design system would work.  But a designer came and sat with her, as an ambassador of that system, and it was invaluable.  Learn to surf those guardrails!  As we mature, our system needs to be taught and reinforced through interactions with people. Thus, patterns and systems need ambassadors.  Use Dev Sprints for the details, but don’t forget to have design sprints on the big picture.

Build Strong relationships.  Build genuine connections, facilitated.  Give designers the ability to form strong, authentic relationships.  Members of her group go running together.  They get a chance to interact with others.  Designers are weird, and that’s ok!  But it helps them get to know us, in their suits.  It helps everyone get away from ‘us’ and ‘them’.  The risk is that designers fall back to defending the user perspective.  But rather than doing that blindly, they need to make sure that the UX debt is appropriate for where they are in the product lifecycle.  They need to consider and represent the right approach for the product team as a whole.  You do that effectively by engaging across the business.

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Gretchen shared some funny stories of times that she asked her team to go just a little crazy with ideation.  Why?

We need to design the experience that others have with design to be human, fun, and just a little bit magical.  Show a different way to engage with problems.  Come up with one crazy idea to get people excited and thinking in new ways.  That will ultimately make you successful at scale.

Customer-Centered Design Organizations

Peter Merholz (VP of Design, Snagajob)

Early in his career, he thought that if he created great designs he would deliver great experiences.  Later he thought it was strategy to inform design.  But he eventually realized you could have all of those things, and the UX team could still be delivering crap.

You need to spend time thinking about the team and their relationships with other teams.  That is necessary to get experiences out in the world.

Golden State Warriors were eliminated in the first round, and won the next year with nominal line-up changes.  So, what changed?  You need to bring the best out of the people you have.

Here are three different models for design teams:

Centralized Internal Services.  Many people start there.  UX team members are sent on projects throughout the business, and they are typically organized by function.  Some things work well at the outset.  It ensures you have a strong sense of team, clear lines of authority, and teams get exposed to a wide range of topics.  Interface consistency is supported, and that leads to efficiencies of work product.  This approach also allows you to optimize headcount.  Enterprise companies often remain this way.  The trade-offs are that design is not strategic, it has little influence on important upstream decisions, designers are easily dismissed, and it may result in an Us vs Them mentality.  These types of organizations typically operate more slowly, and as a result staffing consistency is a challenge.  This is designer as a short order cook.  No real room for creativity, innovation.  It becomes very rote.

Decentralized and Embedded.  In this model, everyone gets a designer!  It is more of a program-based model.  That makes the business very happy.  The teams (design, product management, engineering) are able to autonomously make decisions.  There are a lots of benefits to this model.  BUs have more control of their own destiny, the designer is part of that team, design is included throughout the entire lifecycle.  The sense of ownership results in better outcomes.  Quick iterations post-launch are possible because the designers haven’t been staffed on something new.  The risks are that it results in designers working on one narrow problem for a long time.  It’s lonely.  And it’s a less efficient use time and people.  There is also the risk that the focus is on interaction and visual design, and other skills are missing with no good way to address them – there is little room for research or content strategy, for example.  Even more concerning is that this ultimately results in a fractured user experience.  For example, the Facebook apps all have different menus, interactions.  That may be ok for Facebook, but not for an ecommerce check-out process.

Centralized Partnership.  How do we think in terms of design teams?  Rather than having a series of unicorns working independently, you want something like Voltron – he can do more!  Instead of having designers in teams, have them work across a continuous set of features teams:


But not embedded within them.  Designers and Senior Designers maintain direct relationships with Product Management – someone close to them, to work with.  Senior designers may work across a couple of squads [NOTE: Personally, I don’t agree with this.  In my experience if you are truly working in an agile model, a designer can’t be deeply embedded in the process across multiple teams.]  This model enables you to have a content strategist, at at the same time you can have some that focus on interaction design, visual design.  This model also allows your team to play to their strengths – expecting everyone to be equally skilled doesn’t work.  This also enables load balancing work across the team.  This is the centralized partnership.  This is part of a larger time centralized through single leader.  It is a hybrid, federated model.

merholz 2.pngIn his current team, Peter inherited unicorns, communication designers, and researchers.   He mapped his team, and most were operating at the 1 – 100 ft view; everything was comps and mocks.  And there was also a significant gap – he was missing strategic designers.  That also meant a gap in leadership.  So he spent his first nine months looking to hire design leaders – manager and director level people that he could build teams around.

Key to the ability to execute was a strong team lead who was able to manage down – creating the right space to engage the team, manage across with product managers and engineers, and manage up.

Peter described his approach for an e-commerce platform, but the ideas apply to any type of product team.  In this case, the team has focus on both buyer and seller experience.  We have to shift our approach and our staffing so that we are thinking about the end to end experience, and making sure it hangs together well.

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Even as your team grows, organize it around the stages of the process, e.g. the discovery part of the Buyer experience:

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Peter also described the importance of getting Product Management and engineering teams working in the same way.  We ultimately need to organize all our teams around our customers – that is what is important.

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He also briefly discussed the importance of design quality.  There are good definitions and measures of engineering quality – for example uptime, speed of performance, numbers of bugs.  But we don’t typically articulate what design quality means.  That uncertainty can paralyze a team, if not addressed.  It can also put executive design reviews at risk, if we can’t answer those questions strategically and consistently.

Peter says quality standards should include – brand characteristics, experience principles, design guidelines and systems, measures of success, and examples of quality work.  Don’t just establish them, enforce them.  That also means saying no to some work, so that your team can deliver quality.

In closing, Peter shared a Steve Jobs video with a word of caution.  The risk is that teams do something right, and then they institutionalize a process based on doing it well.  They get stuck, because they become accustomed to the process but they lose sight of the content of the work.

Executing Against All Odds

Kim Lenox, (Director of Product Design, LinkedIn)

Kim is going to speak about executing against all odds, and she is going to organize her presentation around five lessons she wish she knew before she became a leader.  She is hoping her experiences will help us accelerate our own careers.

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This is an Eastern proverb.  Her defining moment was a text from the VP of Design.  There was a bad review, but it wasn’t her designer’s fault.  At LinkedIn, the desugb review includes the Designer, Product Manager, Engineer, and the executive team.  And nobody else.  She wasn’t invited, because the whole chain of command isn’t present – designers go to these on their own.

So what went wrong?  Her VP told her that it was one of the worst reviews in LinkedIn history.  It wasn’t about the design, but she have to get involved – she had to step up and do something different.  She already had significant responsibility – 15 products, 8 teams, 20+ different PMss to wrangle.

She became a team player and not a victim.  That was the the first step in figuring out how to make it better.  It’s in a book called Conscious Business by Fred Koffman.  She had to invest in understanding the business strategy.  What she learned was that the solution in question was for advertising, but it didn’t scale to their growing demand – so it wasn’t about the designer at all.  You have to pay attention to the world out there in order to help your team be effective.

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That kid that has a tantrum out in public.  It is so uncomfortable to see parents dealing with that!  She has seven year old twins, so she has seen her fair share of tantrums.  She would get on their level, focus on them how they got there, and how she might have contributed.  What pushed them over the edge?  When you understand, you can help them get back on track.

With her kids, she meets them where they are.  This also works at the office.  Put yourself in their shoes, make friends.  Know what motivates them.  Who is your ally?  Who needs to be educated?  And people who have brilliant ideas about how to make your work more relevant.  When you build empathy, you can find shared understanding.  And it opens up the possibility to a shared vision.

You have to manage up, across, and down.  She has been focused on managing her team, and not as much on engaging with her cross-functional partners.  Now she included that extended team in user research, and then they collectively decided to sunset a multi-million product, and move the best features into the new product.  The integrated solution considered not just the market, but the people that were building it – they focused on integrating not just the product, but the team itself.  It built trust, respect, compassion.  Relationships matter.

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The team had historically been in service to, not in partnership with – so making the shift from service to scrum was important.

This updated product was a critical path monetization project of $600M, andthey had to not disrupt that business, while at the same time improving the product to stay competitive.  They were also shifting the business model from high touch white glove to a self-service model.

The only way to do this is to really own the plan.  Don’t just do what you are told to – own the plan.  She met with a dozen PMs.  She got what they wanted to do each quarter, and in two years.  She organized and force-ranked them, and justified her hiring plan. She went from three to six designers and a researcher.  She pushed back so that she didn’t have to cut corners or risk lower quality.

We need to let go of perfectionism.  It opens up the possibilities for what we can do for the business and for our customers – and for our own team.  They couldn’t do a complete redesign at first.  But the teams (about 200) were merged.  And now they are focused on a redesign, working in a scrum model.  For them, that means they are no longer in service to PM.

In the past, designers were having to do a lot of context switching.  The product pod will now become subject matter experts.  That helps elevate the quality, the expertise – and it gives a sense of ownership.  The other amazing thing – the revenue continued to grow 20-25% each quarter.  So, used your design plan on the customer, on business needs, and on those building the product.

But pace yourself, because the change process is hard, and it needs to be done over time.

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She has been doing this work (design in R&D) for 22 years.  She had never worked for a product company that impact so many people’s lives.  It is intimidating to design for 500M people!

Through her executive coaching, she learned that has been living in fight of flight mode (since her 30s) but she didn’t know what the alternative was. She learned that she was approaching things from a negative point of view.  She has to let go of her battle armor – defensiveness, negativity, etc. because it was no longer serving her – in fact it was holding her back.

About a year ago, she got a very official email from the SVP of HR (Pat Waters).  She immediately got tense and defensive.  She thought “shit” – what are they going to take away from my team, that I am going to have to spin positively?  But it turns out the email was all upside.  They were offering a second week of office shutdown – they already had it in December and now they were offering July.  And vacation stayed intact.

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So she started shedding battle armor – starting assuming best instead of the worst.  What battle armor are you holding on to?

You should invest in your own transformation.  Both for yourself and for the world.  And what is amazing is that her employer says it’s ok!  Each of us as the chance to truly transform the world.  But you can’t do it out of fear, or with your battle armor on.  Once you help yourself, you can help others – and it will create a ripple effective of positivity for those around you.

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How do you make the shift from surviving to thriving?  The most important thing is to approach change with a positive attitude.  It’s a little touchy-feely, and subjective.  But she focused on what really matters.  At LinkedIn the approach is “trust but verify”.

Have a positive approach.  If you are living in fear, how to do you shift?  Finding your champion is an important starting point.

She has amazing managers and leaders at LinkedIn – their trust and respect were empowering, and give her strength, and made her willing to take risks.  Who trusts you to do your job?  Who will go to bat for you?  And who are you advocating for?

Be ruthlessly optimistic.

Her validation was a peer review where she was called ruthlessly optimistic.  For people that knew her in the past, they know that she used to just be ruthless (!), now she is also optimistic. She is a positive force for good. How she leads her team, how she approaches building products. She invites us to join her.

In summary:

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Bring this better to your practice – living a fearless life.  Which of these is your favorite?  What do you like?  What will you bring back to your teams?

[Author’s note] I know for me, “shedding battle armor” was so important.  I am so used to being in environments where people are unfamiliar with or resistant to UX, and initial discussions are often tough until we lay the right foundation together.  I describe it as ‘having boxing gloves on’.  So I need to go into discussions without those gloves on, and broker those conversations in a different way.

What about you?

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