It’s easy for most people to swim through their daily experiences like fish swimming around the reef.
The reality is that, unlike fish, design leaders are not passive participants in an ecosystem. Design leaders focus on change. To catalyze that change requires an understanding of the building blocks that will be mixed together anew.
You can immediately apply user-centered design principles to better understand the contexts and people whom you work with and for.
Companies are social and cultural structures. Everything physical about an organization is just a reflection of the people inside. To succeed as a leader, you must be genuinely interested in other people.
Empathy works both ways: for users, and for your colleagues.
The following excerpt is from the free Guide to UX Leadership.
Asking Questions With the Right People
As a first step, identify the 5 most influential people in the organization.
They may or may not be executive leaders. Reach out to them and ask for 1 hour of their time for an interview.
When you’re done, try to repeat this process with at least 10 other people (depending on the size of your organization) over the course of 1-3 months. Include your peers, your direct manager(s), and their peers in those 10 people. You can certainly scale this down or up according to your ability to stay on track with your first 30, 60, 90 days tasks.
Here are the 5 sets of questions to ask each person.
1. How did you get here? Why do you choose to be here?
By adding the line about “Why did you choose to be here?” you reveal so much about the story of the organization, it’s myths, and the surrounding culture.
During my time as a Sr. Manager of Product Design at Rackspace, the phrase repeated again and again from especially senior people was “There is just a huge opportunity here”. Now everyone wants to go where there is opportunity, right?
But the “there is a huge” part of that phrase pricked up my ears. Why is the opportunity described as “huge”?
Upon further inquiry, it turns out that senior people (even newly hired ones) were expressing their hope with a feeling of being overwhelmed with what they discovered. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it definitely reset my expectations about the scope of work needed to resource UX projects.
2. What is the most valuable thing our organization produces? How do we know we deliver that value for customers? What are the biggest obstacles stopping us from consistently delivering value?
These questions help reveal any lack of consensus on how your company adds value to customers.
For example, at Rackspace, the different product teams were certainly delivering value, but they all perceived and described their contributions to customers in different ways in my interviews.
You’ll find that lack of consensus is a common issue across large organizations. Usually, the bigger the company, the more your role needs to bridge that gap.
3. If you were new, what 5 things would you wish you knew about the company? Why?
By asking this question early on with several people, I immediately noticed several patterns for scope and decisionmaking:
- Pattern: Any project requiring more than a quarter probably won’t survive. Lesson learned: Think in small chunks, or your team will eventually burn out from dead-end projects.
- Pattern: Rackspace is a relationship based organization. Lesson learned: Dig deeper into why. At first, I thought I knew what the phrase meant, but I didn’t really know Rackspace’s emphasis on employee development until 6 months later. Can’t learn everything the first time around.
- Pattern: At Rackspace, consensus is how decisions are made. Lesson learned: Use your influencing muscle carefully. Observe meetings, processes, communications, etc. to uncover the real influencers for a given team and focus your attention on those people. When I discovered an influencer for my work, the next step was figuring out how to connect. Sometimes that meant scheduling 1-on-1 meetings. Other times it just meant taking them out for coffee. It’s just a form of politicking.
4. What are the next opportunities for you and the organization?
This question helps you understand if the person you’re speaking with is future-oriented or not.
When interviewing direct reports, it helps to set apart those who are growth-oriented from those who like having a “job”.
5. Who else should I speak with to understand how the organization operates?
You learn two things from these lists: who is special, and who is an outlier.
The “special” people are the names repeated often across interviews. For instance, the VP of Product, the CMO, and the Director of Engineering might all mention the VP of Project Management.
The outliers, on the other hand, are the people who only certain individuals mention. For instance, the VP of Product might also mention a specific designer or support person, but that name never pops up elsewhere.
Don’t dismiss this person, however. This outlier may exert power through a process they manage or approve.
Documenting the Results
When conducting these interviews, I recommend the #1 tool in a designer’s toolbox: post-its.
I break down core concepts and constantly add to an ever-growing affinity diagram. As I do this, I sketch out visualizations and immediately discuss them with the interviewee.
By presenting visualized ideas to others, their reactions will not just be “yes/no”. They will also be “yes, and …” and “no, but …” Both are important to revealing hidden insights about the organization.
In my case, I did a lot of mind-mapping because most of the responses were related to connections between people, processes, and systems. When visualized with a mind-map, the connecting lines started to take shape, illustrating the system at Rackspace.
It very much confirmed that the company was truly not a hierarchical system at all.
When you’re done with your research in your first 30 days, you will have a clear picture of who and what your organization is all about and how to drive the right outcomes in that world.
For more advice based on 20+ years of UX experience, download the free Guide to UX Leadership by Dave Malouf.
Originally posted on Fast Co. Design