Covenant Eyes on Inc. 5000 for the 6th time since 2010

I’m happy to share the news that Covenant Eyes, Inc. made position 3674 on the 2016 Inc. 5000 list, showing an 85% growth in revenue over the past 3 years.

What’s even better is that this is our 6th time on the Inc. 5000 since 2010. A one-time listing might be a fluke, but 6 times in 7 years shows a strong pattern of business performance.

(By the way, our HQ is in Michigan, we have many remote employees, and we’re always hiring.)

Great job Covenant Eyes!

Organizational Physics OmniGraffle Stencil

Here’s an OmniGraffle stencil based on Lex Sisney’s Organizational Physics.

I’ve lately been working on redesigning the organizational structure of Covenant Eyes, and amidst all of the research, analysis, and modeling, I was referred to Lex Sisney’s work in Organizational Physics.

There are plenty of interesting concepts that he raises, and I’m inclined to get his book and read it.

In the meantime, I’m reasoning by modeling, and thought to mimic an approach he’s shown in articles like this one: Organizational Design: The Difference Between Organizational Structure and an Org Chart.

I threw together a stencil to use in OmniGraffle.

Screen shot of OmniGraffle stencil for Organizational Design
Here’s what the OmniGraffle stencil looks like. Major functional area and related KPIs, and sub-functional areas.

Anyone is welcome to it: Organizational Design.gstencil

Does design precede strategy?

More than any other type of worker, earnest designers and design researchers wrangle with real strategy formulation, often blazing a trail for a company and its management.

Is UX more strategic than other business disciplines? I was surprised by this fair critique, and wanted to share it.

My reaction is exacerbated by your [Davin’s] view of strategy and UX as largely coupled. Any quality business work should be strategic. Many financial services firms don’t have anything resembling a UX/design arm, but they’re not necessarily less strategic for it. Is UX a really important resource for strategy here at CE? Sure. But so is tech, finance, etc. Have our UX practitioners developed more strategy-oriented disciplines than employees in other departments? Probably in many cases. I think that simply means we need to deepen our corporate thinking about strategy; not necessarily make UX the guardians of strategy.
Anonymous colleague

There is so much packed in there! For the sake of clarity, I’ll list what I read as the rationale.

  1. Any quality business work should be strategic, not solely UX.
  2. Our UX practitioners have probably developed more strategy-oriented disciplines than employees in other departments.
  3. Instead of relying on UX for strategy, we should train employees in all departments that do quality business work on strategy-oriented disciplines.

I heartily agree with point 2, even with the word “probably.” After all, not all of our UX practitioners have had the same development or have the same sets of talents. It’s a complex group. But I do know that many of them have deepened their expertise in areas that are notably related to strategy.

How does design fit with Playing to Win’s strategy questions?

Which areas of UX are related to strategy? Well, it depends on how you define strategy. For one definition, let’s try the set of 5 questions from Martin and Lafley’s Playing to Win. I’ve listed each question with a sub-point of my opinion about who should be directly involved.

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
    1. The board and executive team need to establish this.
  2. Where will we play?
    1. UX informs executives who decide. UX has insight for this from qual+quant research distilled into personas and related demo/psychographic models.
  3. How will we win?
    1. UX informs executives who decide. UX has insight for this from a product/service innovation perspective, validated by insights from design research and knowledge of other related or competing products and services.
  4. What capabilities must we have in place to win?
    1. Executives need to establish this, including deciding what is outsourced and what is done in-house.
  5. What management systems are required to support our choices?
    1. Executives and managers need to establish this.

Don’t forget that the work of each question informs the reasoning for the adjacent questions.

By definition, strategy is most like design than other disciplines

Now for another definition, this one focused on, well, definitions.

UX is a discipline of design. What is the definition of design? Here is a generic definition: purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.

And a definition of strategy: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

The similarity between these is obvious upon inspection. If they aren’t the same, they are least remarkably similar, with a possible interpretation that design precedes strategy (…policy designed to achieve…).

Now, how does the definition of finance line up: the management of large amounts of money, especially by governments or large companies.

That doesn’t really fit. How about the definition of technology: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.

Nope. Also not like strategy.

I’m not playing semantic games here. I’m just looking for the most obvious definitions. So in an effort to find a definition that really has a better chance at being like strategy, here is a definition of business management: Management is commonly defined as the alignment and coordination of multiple activities in an organization. Business owners use management skills to accomplish the goals and objectives of their company.

That too isn’t like the general definition of strategy. However, it is more like the 5th question of Playing to Win. So, business management is a component of strategy, especially for the execution of strategy.

Why would designers end up doing strategy?

Definitions aside, why would UX practitioners, of all types of employee, do strategy work in the first place? Because design activities often lead towards strategy.

Or, as I’ve witnessed, designers in the midst of a specific project often back themselves into strategy by asking questions that their discipline leads them to ask, questions like “Why would we do it that way? How else could we approach this?” and “What does the business need, and what do the users need?” and “What are we really trying to make happen, and for whom?”

One might say that these questions aren’t from the design discipline, but I would point out that these are questions bent on pulling out a deeper understanding of the situation. This deeper understanding is demanded when modernist designer Massimo Vignelli preaches his semantics: “The very first thing that I do whenever I start a new assignment in any form of design, graphic, product, exhibition or interior is to search for the meaning of it.” This sentiment was also expressed by architect and designer Elial Saarinen in his principle of designing a thing in its next larger context.

Indeed, this need to understand the larger context, the purpose, and the meaning is embedded in the discipline of design, and this is why designers end up negotiating strategy, which often is that larger context.

It may surprise you how frequently it is the designers—not managers, executives, or owners—who have first asked the deep questions of strategy. And these designers may not feel safe asking these questions, but they must ask if they will do their jobs well.

I expect designers to wrangle with real strategy in their daily work, because it is in the nature of design, birthed by the practical, empathy-building gut-checks of real design research with real people and the creative, prototyping and modeling activities and thought patterns of design work. I don’t expect this kind of raw strategy development from other workers, and I have only rarely experienced it from them, with the exception of some executives.

And I’ll be so bold as to claim this: this tendency to inevitably end up asking strategy questions seems absent in other kinds of work. If you disagree, then make the case and let me know. (The critique that started all of this said that other disciplines should do this, not that they do.)

Should everyone do design? Do strategy?

Rolling all the way back to the initial claims, I disagree with the 1st point that quality business work must be strategic. I’d rather see these other disciplines do excellent, dare I say quality, business work in their discipline.

I do not believe that doing quality accounting work means developing clear strategies. And I don’t believe that of technology or of customer service either. That doesn’t make them any less valuable or less necessary. They really are, and they have unique value to offer. They are essential in the machinery of the business.

But so far as design work is like sound planning for a major aim, then design work is strategy work. And the training of designers lends itself to it already.

My conclusion is more that I think executives and key managers probably do need training in design thinking—and possibly even some design tactics—so that they will benefit like designers have in their ability to do better development of overall business strategy. But executives and managers should already be studying the discipline of strategy anyway.

Five-Time Inc. 5000 Honoree: Covenant Eyes

While I don’t often write about work on my blog, I’m happy to share the news that Covenant Eyes made the Inc. 5000 list again this year, now having made it 5 times since 2010.

Congratulations Covenant Eyes on pursuing your worthy mission with successful business practices!

And while not an official award, Glassdoor.com shows good reviews of Covenant Eyes as an employer.

On Leading Organization-wide Change

In October 2014, I was asked to share how I have led organizational changes at Covenant Eyes. The following text is from an e-mail message I wrote in response to that question, covering design thinking, decision making, asking better questions, and influencing behavior in order to reach shared understanding.

Lao Tzu described the essence of an effective leader, which as I interpret it is one who is excellent at drawing the best out of other people and facilitating groups to work together toward a common objective, quickly empowering others to lead change and grow as leaders, managers, or producers in their own right.

Tao Te Ching, 17 (Lao Tzu)

The greatest type of ruler is one of whose existence
the people are hardly aware.

Next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst is the one who is despised.

When a leader doesn’t trust the people,
they will become untrustworthy.

The best leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self interest
and leaves no trace.

When the work is accomplished,
the people say: “Amazing:
we did it all by ourselves.”

Of course there are numerous scriptural descriptions of leadership, such as Matthew 20:25–28 when the disciples were getting riled up about who would be a leader or favored and Jesus instructed, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is held in contrast to the Gentiles who lord authority over others instead of serving. And there is also the example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as an example for them to humble themselves in serving one another.

This is good, right?

My experience says that the only real way to change an organization in any sustainable way is captured in this concept, but there is more to it than these proverbs.

So, here’s an overview of how I’ve tried to make these changes at Covenant Eyes.

  • Design Thinking
  • Awareness of Healthy Decision Making
  • Consulting: Developing Others by Asking Better Questions
  • Actions Speak Louder Than Words; Behaviors Change Perspectives

I’ll provide a fly-over of what these mean to me one at a time.

Design Thinking

Many others have already characterized what this means, among them Tim Brown of IDEO, and in my view, Massimo Vignelli especially in the first part of The Vignelli Canon, although I don’t think he ever called it design thinking. You’ll also see examples of this in the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

I think it all hinges on one concept, said by Fr John Culkin in his thoughtful partnerships with philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “First we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Most people are naively shaped by their own tools, including designers themselves. Tools are simply part of our environment, and most often they are provided for us already intact. As consumers, we don’t typically make our own tools, whether it is a house, fork, computer, software program, et cetera. Yet, this massive collection of objects that we use in our lives fundamentally influences, even directs, our behaviors and our thoughts.

As a designer I see this daily, and I believe that it is the worthy purpose of a designer to take care in the shaping of tools, knowing that the shape of those tools will in turn shape people. This is a crucial sense of responsibility that comes with real cause and effect, and it is further heightened when one has a sense of how many people use said tool and how long it may be in existence.

Should we not take care of our work upon realizing that it can effect the world for good or ill? Of course!

Design is sometimes misconstrued as the attention on the creation of an object, but that is too narrow. It is on the humans, their relationship with an object, the object, and how that reflects back into the lives of the humans. In being used, a thing influences the user’s actions and attention. So we do not only design a thing, we design a potential for actions, thoughts, and feelings between people and things. And often between people and things and people. And to what end, and for whom? (This is a better understanding of the field of interaction design.)

Vignelli refers to design process as first about the semantics or meaning of the design task, then the syntactics used in the construction of a solution, and then in the pragmatics that describe the real communication and/or delivery of value.

The AIGA (America Institute of Graphic Arts) published a booklet called Why Design that contains a grid of 12 boxes laid out in 3 rows that describes an overall design process. I can give you a printed copy of this grid. The first row arranges the work needed in Defining the Problem, the second row describes Innovating, and the third row describes Delivering Value. I propose that Vignelli’s semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics resemble the rows of the Why Design grid. These and other frameworks of design thinking all describe a general process used by designers in coming up with effective solutions to all sorts of problems.

Design is a problem solving discipline, and has many cross-overs with healthy decision making, including the concept of divergence and convergence.

Awareness of Healthy Decision Making

I think of decisions and decision making in three zones, personal, small group, and corporate. We are not rational beings! Yet decision making often benefits from a disciplined approach that challenges many of our natural cognitive biases. Some decisions are inconsequential and so don’t really require all this extra effort, but some are of consequence and deserve respect.

Michael Roberto has a series of 24 lectures called The Art of Critical Decision Making, and it is an excellent study. I require my staff to go through it together, and they are often surprised at how many principles of decision making directly correlate to patterns of work they find in design thinking.

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions is a book that describes a series of cognitive traps that we are all in danger of falling in to. These are listed as the following and the book expounds on each. I think you’d find it an interesting read.

  1. Exposure Anxiety: The Fear of Being Seen as Weak
  2. Causefusion: Confusing the Causes of Complex Events
  3. Flatview: Seeing the World in One Dimension
  4. Cure-allism: Believing That One Size Really Fits All
  5. Infomania: The Obsessive Relationship to Information (Info-hoarding and Info-voiding)
  6. Mirror Imaging: Thinking the Other Side Thinks Like Us
  7. Static Cling: Refusal to Accept a Changing World

If one does not understand the threats to good decision making and does not have a toolbox of good decision making methods useful at personal, group, and corporate levels, then one is ill-equipped to lead and coach others through times that require healthy decisions.

Consulting: Developing Others by Asking Better Questions

When I was a freshman in college, I had the good fortune of going through a 400-level special topics course focused on the work of consulting. It has been very influential for me ever since.

One of the key elements of consultancy that I learned was the deliberate control of agency, that is the sense of self-differentiation and authority. A lack of agency leads to a sense of being helpless or dependent on another, but as a consultant I was learning that my job was to develop a sense of agency in my clients so that they would retain a sense of ownership and power over their own work, and while I was at it I would demonstrate for them better ways of thinking, creating information, and sharing it with others (think classical rhetoric) so that they too would learn it.

I did this largely through using non-verbal reinforcement of my client’s agency and open-ended questions intended to get them thinking in more ways and deeper ways that led them to produce better work.

Key here was that I was unable to tell them what to work on communicating. Rather I was only able to walk with them through a method or framework of idea development and ways of thinking about authorship, audiences, and rhetorical patterns.

This approach melds nicely with design thinking, because one of the first admissions is that we may not really understand the problem yet, but that we do have frameworks to uncover it and discover its nuances.

So, sources for thinking about asking better questions?

  • QBQ! The Question Behind the Question by John Miller
  • Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal
  • Mental Models by Indi Young
  • Sections of Observing the User Experience by Kuniavsky, et al.

We should have a number of these books in the CE library in the Commons.

There is a basic concept here that says that a question is more powerful than an answer, because an answer tends to shut down thoughtfulness and understanding whereas a question stimulates it.

Asking better questions is an element in the power of a generative dialectic, and the practice also feeds better design thinking and decision making. Reciprocally, those frameworks inform the sorts of questions we should ask.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The trick in this statement is in reestablishing who the actor is. My actions are one thing, but when I can get a whole group of people to engage in a shared action, we can begin to shape their perspectives.

First we shape our tools, thereafter our tools shape us.

A leader can shape the activities of people, and in many cases the real desired effect is not the immediate result of the activity, but in the shaping of the people who do it. Without changes in activity and thinking, no incidence of effort is able to be transformed into a sustainable pattern of effort.

This is how new actions lead to new thinking, which together change the culture. Timothy Loo, a corporate UX consultant, shared the soundbite at the UX Strat 2013 conference, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” and he’s right. So the work of a designer is to change culture by changing people’s behaviors and then thinking.

As Loo said, “Culture tells us how to behave when we can’t turn to formal directives, agreements or sets of rules for guidance.” So, culture fills in the grey area that we usually operate within.

We must facilitate group activities repeatedly and employ frameworks of understanding and developing value so that the people who are doing the work have a sense of ownership, agency, and growth. Then they will sustain the change because that way of thinking has become part of their new identities. “Amazing: We did it all by ourselves!”

This is why we do usability studies as groups, why we do design reviews as groups, why we do Agile ceremonies as groups, and so on.

If we want to change the culture of an organization, we should identify what activities we do together and facilitate new activities that can be added to or can replace existing activities so that we will further shape our perspectives, values, and culture in specific, desirable ways.

The 5 most important texts for a business leader

These are the books, or in one case an essay, that I think every leader in a business should study. This is not an academic list paying homage to some MBA syllabus. Rather, if you want a business that has a healthy culture, that is profitable, that is sustainable, and that delivers real value, the concepts in these books are worth wresting with until you make them your own.

The perspectives within these texts overlap in powerful ways.

I purposely did not put them in priority order because I do really think a leader should read and use them all. They cover different areas and complement one another.

In The E-Myth Revisited, Gerber explains the difference between working in your business and on your business, how to grow your business in a way that promotes the details you deem important, why franchises work, and what to apply from that model to your own business. While it is written to a small business owner, the concepts readily apply to a business unit manager in a larger company.

The Advantage is Lencioni’s latest book, and is a detailed playbook for both a healthy leadership team and for carrying out clear strategy leadership across a company. Plus it ends with a sensible framework for making your sets of meetings much more effective.

What is Strategy by Porter is a classic essay on strategy, filled with case studies and definitions that clarify the field of strategy, a field thick with ambiguous buzz words. This essay is a lynchpin for understanding Lencioni more deeply and if you understand what Porter says, the next book on business models will become more clear as well.

Business Model Generation explains a vocabulary and template for reasoning about, building, and refining your business model. It makes sense, it seems complete, and when you apply it to your own business you will likely find strong alignments in certain actions of your business as well as gaps or areas in which you are wasting resources. If you’re going to master your business, you need to model it. This book makes it about as easy as it can get, and once I read this book I was quickly able to see how the ideas from Gerber, Lencioni, and Porter fit in.

Finally, it is practically cliché, but our people are our biggest assets aren’t they? In First, Break All the Rules, Buckingham & Coffman provide a clear framework and set of tools for being an exceptional people manager. Most organizations haven’t yet figured out the basic concepts laid out in this book, but they are important and fundamental. If you read one book on managing people, this ought to be the one.

Now, of course there are plenty of other worthy texts out there, and many should be studied in certain situations, but these are core texts.

If you’ve read these books, I’d love it if you would comment with your thoughts, and if you disagree, by all means post that too with your own recommendations!

On delegating work better

When delegating work, it isn’t enough to pick a good person and give them

Fellow leaders and managers, I want to share with you thoughts on a skill that we all know we should do better, but that often gets little attention: delegating work.

Summary: Delegation as coaching

Of course delegating work effectively requires the manager to provide instructions, set expectations, choose a suitable delegate, and check-in.

But what if as managers we then shifted our attention away from the delegated work itself and onto the delegate’s level of mastery of the work, levels of mastery like first mimicking, then understanding, and then innovating? We could then know better how to coach the delegate while he or she gains greater mastery over the delegated work.

When I think of delegating like this, it becomes more of a process with a delegate than a work assignment. This will require more time from us in the short term, but in the long run, having masterful delegates will be much more valuable and time saving.

What follows in this post

  1. Delegation 101
  2. The flaw: Abdicating instead of delegating responsibility
  3. Coaching delegates to master the work

Delegation 101

Much has already been written about the basics of delegation. Here is some background reading.

From those readings, which I encourage you to review, I’ve boiled down a basic delegation flow to this:

  1. Choose what responsibilities you’ll delegate to another person
  2. Choose a person who can do the work and who you  trust with the responsibilities and authority
  3. Assign the work using clear instructions and expectations, allowing the delegate the latitude to meet those expectations in his or her own way
  4. Inspect the work as needed
  5. Be thankful and give credit

It is worth remembering that the delegation process assumes that you already know how to do the work and understand the responsibility. If you just know that there is a problem to solve, but you haven’t really figured it out, delegation is premature. That’s an entirely different kind of work.

But that’s just basics, and while they are crucial, we can deepen our understanding even more.

The flaw: abdicating instead of delegating responsibility

In his book about entrepreneurship and creating a successful business, The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber talks about the difference between abdication and delegation.

Gerber illustrates the point in a young manager’s life when he has too much to do and finally hires someone to help. He gives the accounting books to that assistant and suddenly feels free! The manager happily lets the assistant keep the books and shifts focus to other work. Only later does the manager realize the assistant has been doing the bookkeeping in ways that he never would have, and sees that the business is really beginning to suffer for it. That’s management by abdication.

Books like First, Break All the Rules, have emphasized the importance of setting clear expectations for outcomes, not micro-managing. Great advice, right? However, in my experience, there are some types of work for which the process of the work is itself valuable (those in the user experience field will agree, I think). If I only manage the outcome and not the process, I may really be missing out. Again, Gerber’s abdication.

So if we’re going to delegate effectively, not micro-manage, but instead manage by remote control, and still end up with the work done as well as we hope, we do need to know something about teaching the performance and assessing how well the delegate can do the work and what we should expect.

Coaching delegates to master the work

Let’s talk about a model for considering mastery, Shu Ha Ri. Some Agile development thinkers have adapted this concept to software development skills.

English-speaking martial artists have used the translated terms of following, detaching, and fluent, but since we really are moving away from the hand-to-hand nature of martial arts towards more general mastery of work, I prefer mimic, understand, and innovate.

  1. Shu = following = mimic
  2. Ha = detaching = understand
  3. Ri = fluent = innovate

I’ll be the first to call it out: this is a weak model for thinking about such a complex topic as mastery. But it has its uses.

When we delegate work as managers, we can use this model to assess how advanced the delegate’s mastery level is for the work.

For example, let’s use the task of creating a visual sitemap for a website.

To mimic the work is to copy the form of another sitemap and apply it to the website at hand. The layout is similar and the annotations on the map indicate the same analysis as the copied sitemap, even if that analysis isn’t really relevant in this new case. Mostly, it just looks about right and is probably helpful.

To understand the work of creating a sitemap is to include relevant annotations about the organization of content, to tune the layout so related content are near each other in the map and levels of hierarchy are implied by position on the page, and to know how to use it in discussions with members of the team.

To innovate in the work of sitemaps is to create a more appropriate visual vocabulary for the diagram and to show connections drawn from other representations of content, such as content inventories of the same information space to expose relevant facets or perhaps the amount of content in a section, or website analytics to show, for instance, popularity of pages on the sitemap. This kind of innovation work, well executed, should be even more valuable.

For any work that you manage, can you outline what those three levels might look like? With that information in hand, it becomes easier to ask how much mastery you want from a delegate, and of course to see how advanced the delegate is in their mastery.

This model can be a valuable coaching tool for any manager, and adds useful insight for anyone who needs to delegate well.

 

Five Whys, Socratic Method, and Dependent Arising

Root cause analysis—jargon for managers in lean startups and Agile dev shops. In plain language, isn’t it “Well, I hear what you’re saying, but what’s really going on?”

I feel a rambling, messy first draft coming on.

Why in the world do we need jargon for such a common line of reasoning? This is every day stuff, isn’t it?

  • Parents ask each other in whispers at night: “But why is she acting out like this all of a sudden? Is it those kids at school again?”
  • A doctor sees the symptoms and begins to diagnose the cause.
  • Marriage counselors around the country today coached couples to understand their partners a little better.

Yes, and an Agile team somewhere held a 5 whys session to figure out how that persnickety bug made it through testing, so that they could address the root cause.

Oh, pardon my cynicism, I have trouble writing that line with a straight face; if the team didn’t actually discern the root cause (there’s always just one, right?), they will have at least changed something to avoid one of the causes. How else to get better, really?

I’m being too jaded. Of course root cause analysis, the 5 whys method is one tactic for such analysis, is important. I just cringe at the assumption of a single cause for problems. And those technical problems that are found with lean and agile work often end up (or is that start off as) being human problems, and those are rarely so singular.

In design work, I really don’t know that I’ve asked the question, “So, what is the root cause of this problem?” Though I have most often sought to understand and clarify the problem space, the context, the people involved, their desires and motivations, the corporate interests, et cetera—you know, the basic stuff a designer needs to know in order to actually do good work [PDF].

I simply cannot right out of the gate assume I know what I don’t yet know so well that I would presume it, if it is indeed an it, is a singular problem. The result of that kind of simplistic framing would tend towards imprecise assumptions and lack of multiple perspectives. A lack of understanding. And don’t those sound like further problems that could result in errors? Garbage-in, garbage-out.

So, if I can kick the feet out from under Agile’s dumbed down root cause analysis and just stick with something more like defining the problem, or semantics (as Vignelli has used it), I’ll relax on this point.

Can I assume that this better understanding is what we’re all actually after?

I was in a meeting once, asking deeper questions, and a person I was talking with was frustrated and said something like, “I know all about five whys, I know what you’re doing!” The person was asking me to back off, because he wasn’t prepared to answer questions. While that does make the point to me that I was pushing too hard, I wasn’t expecting the five whys remark.

I was actually patterning the discussion more off of Socrates and his dialogues. I’ve heard the term Socratic Method being described as continuing to question, to ask why. Well, yeah, that sounds like a 5 whys, but I’ve read Plato enough that I understand that those dialogues are far more nuanced than a series of whys.

Wasn’t the philosophical discourse of Socrates and his learned colleagues some sort of root cause analysis too? Is a discourse into the nature of the soul and idealized Forms an analysis? Of course, and there is an aspect of Phaedo that suggests that these Forms are in fact causal forces. I’d call that root cause analysis.

So, this type of “what’s really going on here?” question isn’t just for work any more, it’s for philosophy and an understanding of the world itself (yeah, even though we all believe Socrates had it wrong).

And this question of the underlying problem is common too in religion, isn’t it? What’s wrong with the world? With us humans?! I call a five whys for the fallen world!

I joke, but Buddhists might associate this notion of root cause analysis with another bit of jargon: dependent arising.

As I’ve learned, when Gautama sat in profound ascetic meditation under the Bodhi-tree, nourished by an offering of rice milk, and under the gazes of the gods of many world-systems, he finally received enlightenment. In his awakening under that auspicious tree, he knew what are called the four noble truths (knowledge of suffering, cause of suffering, cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to that cessation).

And yes one of those truths, central to a major world religion, is the root cause of suffering! (Oh, if only an Agile 5 whys was so profound!) The cause of suffering is actually described as a nested layering of causes, which finally reach that singular kernel that causes suffering (duhkha). This is the notion of dependent arising, that suffering arises dependent upon all these other links in the chain. When I read the series of links, I still don’t think it comes down to a simple answer, but the answer itself isn’t the single cause, but the whole chain of dependent arising is part of it. You don’t disassemble it so much as sidestep the whole chain. And yes, that’s quite an oversimplification. Here’s a bit of that root cause analysis as dependent arising (there are 12 links/nidana).

Conditioned by (1) ignorance are (2) formations, conditioned by formations is (3) consciousness, conditioned by consciousness is (4) mind-and-body, conditioned by mind-and-body are (5) the six senses, conditioned by the six-senses is (6) sense-contact, conditioned by sense-contact is (7) feeling, conditioned by feeling is (8) craving, conditioned by craving is (9) grasping, conditioned by grasping is (10) becoming, conditioned by becoming is (11) birth, conditioned by birth is (12) old-age and death—grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair come into being. Thus is the arising of this whole mass of suffering.
(Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, 141-142)

This doesn’t strike me as mono-causal, even though it sounds like it at the end of the chain: death results in a whole mass of suffering. Well, how do you get rid of death, then? Will you get rid of birth?

Right, and so the whole tangled up ball of yarn gets pulled along. There are many causes, and there are many results. This strikes me not just as dependent arising, but interdependent arising. Duhkha, I shake my fist at you!

So, again, this root cause analysis thing is all over the place: work, family life, health, philosophy, religion. But doesn’t it tend to not be simply understood as singular causes? (Christianity seems easier to me, until I try to put a finger on where exactly original sin came in: fruit, gullible Adam, Eve, serpent, why was the tree there to begin with? It gets messy too.)

Let me end this rant, I mean blog post, by saying simply, using terms that suggest we think of single causes to complex problems is foolishness and it bugs me.

(Oh, and the 5 whys method looks a lot more like dependent arising to me than the Socratic method.)

UX STRAT conference, day 2

I just wrapped up the day by having dinner with Simon of Bristol (okay, Simon Norris of Nomensa) and Bob Royce and Dan Klyn of The Understanding Group. A relaxed conversation with three brilliant gentlemen—an excellent end to the day.

So, the conference. First, I was glad to have met Josh Seiden in person so that I could apologize for my choice words about Lean UX in the preceding blog post. Josh is legit.

As for the topics, again, too many for me to itemize, so I’ll first do a top-of-mind review and then think about themes.

Top-of-mind reflections

First, Aarron Walter of MailChimp blew me away with the approach he shared about using Evernote with e-mail as basically an API to take a very real step at solving the data silos problem. Sure, this may not have been pure strategy, but as a tactic, wow. Thank you Aarron.

Doodles about Aarron of MailChimp's talk on using Evernote to connect silos of data
Sharing these notes in case they help someone else remember the talk better. Click on the photo to view it larger.

Heads-up to my team, we’re going to give this a whirl.

Second, Ronnie Battista had the whole room laughing repeatedly. Awesome presentation style, and great ideas on “The Ten Commandments of UX Strategy.” (Where is our Hippocratic Oath?)

Okay, there you go for top-of-mind.

What was missing?

So, back in the late 1990s I thought of information architecture as something akin to strategy, and we didn’t have the label “user experience.” (At least if we did, I was still too ignorant.) Then IA lost its way amidst all the insane growth of the web, related technologies, and professions. (Yep, I’m over-simplifying history.) I stopped thinking of myself as an information architect and eventually replaced my self-identity with user experience.

Then a few years ago a new generation of information architects began to speak, and among them is Dan Klyn. Dan and his cohort have knelt around the dying embers of information architecture and breathed life back into it, adding tinder, twigs, wood.

IA is starting to throw off heat and light again, and thank goodness for that.

And you know what? This new framing of information architecture looks even more like strategy to me. Now, it isn’t strategy any more than design is strategy—but they overlap in meaningful ways.

Let me put it this way, if I had a performance continuum describing information architecture with one end called strategy and the other tactics, I’d probably describe IA by putting a mark halfway to strategy. (Is that “strategy yet tactics?”) If I used the same continuum to describe UX, I would regretfully right now put the mark on the half towards tactics.

Performance continuum, isn't IA more strategic, UX more tactical?
This is just my gut talking, and isn’t based on any deeper study or rationale. When I’m doing more strategy-level work, I find myself frequently reaching for IA methods and frameworks, not more generalized UX facets of the work. Curious about others’ thoughts.

So, whether IA and UX are cooperative siblings or one contains the other (or they overlap, but not fully), UX strategy seems to me like it ought to sit down and listen hard to what today’s information architects are doing.

Or, hey, maybe we as a UX strategy tribe think that “good” is tactical, yet strategic, not the other way around. Seriously.

(End of that editorial.)

Themes from Day 2

We need data. We need to get it and use it. It is part of the language of business.

Stories and data together can be compelling.

We need to continually adapt UX strategy to corporate strategy in order to stay relevant to the business.

We need to be ambassadors, reaching out to our partners within our businesses. Seek to understand them, even serve them, and build those connections.

Learning is part of culture. We need to continually learn. Be bold in being okay with change (think of Dick Fosbury and how he changed how the high jump is done).

The DIKW pyramid, getting to Wisdom is hard!

UX strategy includes shaping our teams capabilities in ways that will best serve the business.

Customer Experience is often populated with marketing professionals. Are they a group to compete with or a group to align with? Should we just admit we’re all doing the same thing, only that we’ve been doing it longer? Or is there really a difference?

UX strategy does include organizational change (overlapping with changes to an organization’s culture). Think the Vistaprint center for excellence, the innovation program at Citrix, and the leadership changes at Sage over a few years.

Done

And, I’m spent. It’s been said, but can be said again: UX STRAT team, fantastic job. Thank you for all your time and effort. It was worth it.

UX STRAT conference, day 1

The first day of the UX STRAT firehose of talks is over. At the Barrelhouse, a nearby bar, there no doubt are still a few gathered after happy hour. I think Paul Bryan, the organizer, can count this first UX STRAT a success already.

I’m not a huge fan of crowds, so instead of happy hour with attendees, I spent the evening after the conference catching up on a little work, and then I walked down to a lovely restaurant called Empire State South to pass the time enjoying good food and reading a book I brought along. I had the Painted Hills Ribeye, a glass of pinot noir, and a cup of decaf for the walk back: All of it brilliantly done.

So, there were too many talks for me to hit each independently. Instead, let me describe some themes that I think are important.

What do we mean when we say “UX Strategy?”

UX strategy as talked about today could be at any of these levels: corporate strategy, service design strategy, product strategy, and something like the tactical, single-channel work that lean UX tends to do (sorry Lean UXers, just calling it like I see it).

We’re going to have to get clear on the meaning of this phrase.

Honestly, I wonder if there is no such thing as “UX strategy,” but there is instead bringing what UX knows to each of the various kinds of strategy. So, we already do strategy, but now we need to reshape it with user experience-driven insights.

Quantitative vs Qualitative (or is that Left Brain vs Right Brain?)

Amidst all the talk of what design can teach business, what business can teach design, politics, and silos, the basic notion is that we in UX have some awesome methodologies that map directly over to strategy level work.

The idea that Nathan Shedroff shared about doing a SWOT analysis not based on the opinions of the stakeholders, but instead based on research with customers is a spot-on example of this. That is, incidentally, brilliant, and makes me want to get a do-over on the past two weeks of work during which we did some strategic planning for next year.

Leah Buley from Intuit illustrated practically utopian example of a strategy project in which a corporate strategy team did what they are strong at and a UX strategy team did what they are strong at and together ended up making good organizational and strategic change happen at Intuit. So what were the UX people good at? Customer insights, ideation (yes I used that non-word), creating visuals to show what the future could be, and facilitating the bejeezus out of people. Hats off to you Leah, and congratulations on an epic win.

In general, this is obvious stuff, right? Maybe not, but it should be. I’ve heard today that design is strategy, in some ways.

Well, my experience says that design is also decision making. What do you need to make good decisions? Real understanding of context, perspective from customers and others, posing possible solutions, prototyping ideas so we can get our heads around them better and so we can see the pros and cons of them, getting teams on board, getting traction, getting action, delivering value, and it all takes facilitation skills.

Okay, so that stuff is thick in design work, right? That is also what good decision making activities should look like, and making decisions is a big part of what business leaders have to do. (Nobody talked about that today though.)

Lean UX

Lean UX has come up many times. I’m still trying to figure out why this comes up in a strategy conference, as Lean UX is a methodology that describes HOW to do the work, not what to do.

Now, of course Lean UX people will say something like, “No way! Our hypotheses and tests are how we know what to do!” Baloney, unless you are talking about UX strategy at the product design level. In that case, sure. Knock yourself out, Lean UXers.

Also, while you could evaluate a business model in Lean UX terms, that works way better with a non-existent product than one that already exists. The amount of work it would take me to get us to really take on a Lean Startup mentality with an already existing product just isn’t worth it.

Further, Lean needs small batch changes and easy hypotheses. I actually love that idea. However, I’m concerned from a service-level design with touchpoints that exist across many, many channels, and I don’t have the buy-in (or resources?) at the moment to orchestrate service-wide changes, even though real holistic improvements to the services will require that kind of work. So, we have situations where we could have a hypothesis about an improvement to one channel, but because the other channels that are also used in the overall experience wouldn’t change, the hypothesis will prove false, but not necessarily because it was a bad idea; it just didn’t account for adjacent touch points.

Basically, if all you’re working on are the trees, Lean UX is probably awesome. But we have a forest to deal with.

Wow, I didn’t intend to rant. I really didn’t have that much wine…and maybe I’m totally off-base about Lean. That’s possible, because the example of Paypal using Lean UX surely must account for multi-channel design, even though I don’t recall it being mentioned.

The power of story, the power of shared work

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” was a line passed on by Tim Loo today. Yep.

To change culture, do you change thinking? No, you change behaviors, which then lead to new thinking. Think BJ Fogg’s notion of designing behavior. How? Workshops. Teaching design facilitation and thinking skills to product managers. Getting whole teams to observe usability tests not just for insight, but to build empathy and perspective for customers. We know this stuff already, right? This is about doing it.

The seat at the table

Shedroff used the phrase a couple times that UX thinks it deserves a seat at the table (think boardroom/strategy/decision-making table). Well, I get the notion, but I don’t like the idea that we deserve it. First off, we do need to be there because the insights and the methods we bring are strangely lacking there, but we also need to earn that seat.

Good design work cannot help but back its way into strategic thinking. It’s inherent in having to understand the context and pragmatic value of the design itself. If there is a strategy ladder, of course user experience will be in a position to see it and desire to climb it. And it isn’t a self-serving desire, it is in service to the business and to the end-users. There will be moments in design when we look at the whole situation and realize that the problem is with the business model or the corporate strategy, not with the design of the offering.

What, oh dear conscientious UXers, are we to do then? This is, I think, behind so much of the “seat at the table” idea.

Looking forward to day 2!

So we have tomorrow’s proceedings, then I’ll spend a final night in Atlanta and fly back to Michigan on Thursday morning.