Lessons Learned at Adaptive Path: Project Team Dynamics

Four years ago, as I left Adaptive Path, I wrote a series of emails about things I learned during my time there. One of those was in response to a request from a colleague, “How about some knowledge about managing challenging team dynamics, both on the client or internally. Basically project leadership tips.” Team dynamics is among the most important determiners of project success, but also among the least understood and discussed. What follows is very much consulting-oriented (and at some point I’ll write it out from an in-house point of view), but I still think has plenty of general relevance. Just replace “Client Team Dynamics” with “Cross-functional dynamics” and it pretty much works. 

Internal Team Dynamics
Let me start with internally. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I haven’t had a challenging internal team dynamic for, well, years. I would attribute this to a few things:
  • I do not tell people *how* to do their work.
  • I expend my effort creating a space (figurative or literal) where great work can happen.
  • I nip negativity in the bud — criticism and expressing concern are good, but when it gets into a truly negative place, where conversation and exploration is getting shut down, I tackle that directly.
  • I acknowledge my faults and shortcomings (i.e., you don’t want me opening any Adobe tool).
  • I don’t take things personally.
  • I’m pretty laid-back in a project environment.
This is not to say I am not super concerned with quality, or I’m willing to let substandard stuff go out, because I’m too groovy to get up in people’s business. But my critique and feedback style, which the Yeti Skyway [a project code name] team saw, is less about, “This sucks, make it better,” than it is, “Hey, I think we all recognize we could push this to a better place. Let’s reframe the problem, and poke at it from a different angle.”
Client Team Dynamics
This gets a little trickier. I’ve been lucky in my last few projects where I’ve had the fortune to work with delightful client partners. That said, I’ve definitely had my share of challenging clients. One key thing, which I mentioned with internal team dynamics is:
  • I don’t take things personally
This is so huge. As Chula pointed out at lunch yesterday, it’s probably the thing that allowed me to work well with all the original founders, even when some of them couldn’t work well with one another.
We cannot let ourselves get caught up in our clients’ shit.
I also find being open and honest with clients has served me well. What have we got to lose? They’ve hired us to challenge them. I sometimes have to remind them that if we’re not making them uncomfortable, we’re not doing our job.
With client team dynamics, I have found that it can be powerful to engage with the emotional aspects of the relationship. Too often we think that because this is a “business” relationship with our clients, we have to shut down those elements that make us human, and be a bit more like automatons, focusing on the work product, and ignoring emotional factors. But emotional factors directly affect our work, and, if handled respectfully, it can be quite helpful to address them.
A key to successful client relations and team dynamics has been to keep the client in the loop. Even if the updates are brief, daily or semi-daily updates, communications through Basecamp, etc., go a long way.
Other Aspects of Project Leadership
Something project leads need to have, and which takes a while to develop, is swagger. Swagger is that confidence in yourself, your team, and your approach. It’s a belief that you are *probably* right (though it’s important to recognize when you are not). It’s a certain charisma that gets the client comfortable with you, and to believe that you’re doing best work for them.
Swagger doesn’t have to be some masculine strut, it just has to be the confidence of your convictions.
The other thing to remember about project leadership is that it is a consulting role first, and a design role second. This is probably the hardest part for folks to understand and embrace as they become project leads. You need to let go of some of the design work, trust the team to do great work, and instead focus on creating the space for great work to happen, and engaging with the client in such a way to make sure they’re supporting the great work.

Personal update: Self-employed, writing a book, and looking for lunch

Not long ago, I wrote about Design at Jawbone. How quickly things change. Due to organizational restructuring, which lead to the elimination of all executive design roles, Friday was my last day.

There’s a big silver lining, though, as I’m co-writing a book on building and operating design organizations, and now I can do that during the day, instead of stealing time on evenings and weekends.

I’m considering management consulting gigs around design and product management. If you’re building an in-house design team and need sage advice and an outside perspectives, don’t hesitate to reach out.

And, I’m passively looking for my next full-time gig. I want to focus my time on the book, but if there are interesting conversations to be had about new opportunities, I’m always willing to talk.

Finally, given my new status, I’m up for all manner of breakfasts, lunches, coffees, and early ‘after-work’ drinks. If you’re not in the SF Bay Area, happy to hop on Skype or Google Hangouts. Let’s catch up!

Lessons Learned from Adaptive Path: The Evolution of UX Consulting Practice

In 2011, I left Adaptive Path after being there for over ten years. Before leaving, I wrote a series of emails on things I’d learned. These recently came back to my attention, and I thought I’d share them here.

When Adaptive Path started, in 2001, most companies had no UX competency, some had 1 person doing UX, and a very small number actually had UX teams.

So, when we were brought in, it was to be the ones to deliver on user experience. Clients recognized that this emergent practice was important to their success, but didn’t have the people in house to do it.

In that period, our work tended to live in this squishy space between strategy/planning and detailed design and development. In pre-UX days, it was common for product development to go right from product definition into detailed design. One of the values of UX practice was to recognize you needed to bring more of a systems thinking approach to product development, to understand the structure of the product, how the piece-parts related to one another, and how someone would move through it.

Now, in 2011, most companies have a decent UX competency. They don’t need us to come in and do the architecture diagrams, workflows, wireframes, and the like, because they have staff members who do that.

Instead, UX consulting work seems to be bifurcating.

On one end, UX is being recognized as an approach that can inform, if not drive, strategy and planning. The work we’ve done for [various big multinational clients] is in this vein. Companies recognize it’s no longer sufficient to have spreadsheets and checklists driving their product strategy. They need to add research and experience strategy in the mix as well.

On the other end, there is an emerging requirement for new modes of UX execution and delivery. [Startup clients] are indicative of this — trying to figure out how UX can best be performed when the product is already defined, in a time-constrained environment, and collaborating with development.

The squishy middle, where Adaptive Path initially staked its claim, seems to not be a viable consulting service any more.

I’ve been talking with some people about this for the past couple of months, and so it was interesting to see the reframing of Adaptive Path service offerings presented at the company meeting last week:

        – Experience Strategy

        – Service Design

        – Detailed Product Design

The first and third map directly to the bifurcation that I am talking about.

And after the meeting, I realized that

        service design:2011::ux design:2001

Service design is now the squishy middle that companies are starting to realize they need, but don’t have the people in-house to deliver. And it is reliant on the kinds of deliverables (journey maps, service blueprints) that have fallen out of favor in the UX world. And seems to have finally achieved a maturity where clients, even if they don’t know to ask for “service design,” are coming to us for service design challenges.

[end of email]

Looking back over the past four years, I feel pretty good about what I foresaw. We’re seeing companies acquire design/UX firms to do that squishy middle stuff that wasn’t as viable to do as a consultant. We’re seeing management consultants actively moving into the experience strategy space. We’re seeing small agile design firms successfully delivering product, augmenting in-house teams. The one thing we haven’t really seen is the Rise of Service Design like we saw the Rise of UX. By 2005, UX was pretty firmly established as a thing companies were investing in (and it was around that time that Adaptive Path grew in earnest). Here in 2015, Service Design still feels niche. I’m thinking that’s because companies still don’t know how to buy service design, because it requires drawing from multiple departmental budgets, whereas UX usually drew from a single group.

Lessons Learned at Adaptive Path: Recruiting and hiring designers

Four years ago, as I was leaving Adaptive Path, I sent a series of emails about what I’d learned in my 10+ years there. These were recently brought back to my attention, and I think there’s some hard-earned wisdom still worth sharing. Here’s the first.

So, we’re in a super-active hiring phase right now. This is an exciting time. Recruiting and hiring are among my favorite activities. I love talking to people, understanding where they’re at, how they approach problems, what they’re looking for, and trying to figure out if they’re right for us. Hiring can be a huge time commitment, and you need to be prepared for that. But, honestly, there’s little else we do that is as important to our business as hiring, and it’s worth all the time and effort to make sure we’re doing it as best we can.

My cardinal rule of hiring would be, Don’t hire the best; hire the most appropriate. It’s not enough to be a great designer — you need to be someone who will be great in the context of Adaptive Path. 

The slippery thing about that is that context always changes. Sometimes it’s a matter of what we need at a particular moment — do we need more strategist/thinkers? More maker/prototypers? More people interesting in speaking, writing, sharing with the world? 

I’m a big fan of complementarity. You don’t want a team that all looks the same. You want different skills, capabilities, backgrounds, and perspectives. You want diversity of experience, whether professional experience or life experience. Breadth is crucial, particularly in the kind of Big Picture work we do that requires synthetic thinking. 

At Adaptive Path, I’ve never been interested in hiring people who are passionate about design. I actually think that leads to a navel-gazing-ness that focuses too much on form. I have always looked for people who are passionate about the impact that design can have in the world. Design is a tool — it’s not an end to itself. I think crucial to Adaptive Path’s success, and our distinctive take on challenges, is born of this appreciation. What’s great about it is that you sometimes end up solving problems with non-design tools. My personal favorite deliverable in my past two years here was the SKT Trend Map [a 6-foot tall poster that was mostly words, articulating how the media landscape would evolve over time]. It was the right way to solve the problem, and not in anyway anything you’d think of as “design.” 

The other thing that you get when you engage with people passionate about impact is that they also tend to want to engage more broadly. They want to speak, write, and interact with a community, because their bigger-picture passion spurs them to do so. 

Don’t let people’s quirks turn you off. Given that we’re a consulting company, we tend to get nervous about how someone will present in front of a client. And so we get wary of people who come across a bit differently. I love quirkiness. It has served me, and Adaptive Path well. Embrace some freakiness

In terms of recruiting, I would suggest that you not be shy. In this latest wave, I’ve trawled through my email folders looking for people we’ve talked to in the past, seen where some of them are now, and reached out and said, “Hey, I don’t know what you’re up to, but we have these amazing opportunities… And if it’s not right for you, maybe you know someone?” And it has lead to us starting some conversations with great candidates. 

And: LinkedIn. It works, even if you don’t have a paid account.

In the four years since I’ve left Adaptive Path, this still is how I operate. The only thing I can think to add is, “If a candidate doesn’t feel right, go with that instinct and don’t hire them.” While my gut has mislead me on the positive side a few times, where I’m excited about a candidate who then ends up not working out, my gut has never mislead me on the negative side — anyone I’ve hired against my get (because there was some other logical rationale), has never worked out.

If you have questions about recruiting and hiring, I’d love to read them in the comments.

Hot Take Part 2: McKinsey jealous of Frog?

Another quick thought about McKinsey’s acquisition of Lunar. I am guessing that McKinsey sees all the press about Disney’s My Magic +, and how they spent a billion dollars on it (so far), and how Frog was deeply involved from beginning to end, and thinks, “Wow, we’re leaving a lot of money on the table by not being able to see these things through” and saw Lunar as a piece that allows them to win business that they would otherwise not even be considered for.

Hot take: The Bifurcation of Design Services (McKinsey acquires Lunar)

[This is a ‘hot take’ hastily scribed while trying to get my household moving in the morning. Forgive typos and other lapses]

Management consulting firm McKinsey has just acquired Lunar Design, an industrial design firm that had been attempting to broaden its capabilities with product strategy and interaction design.

After my post on “San Francisco Design Agencies Feeling The Squeeze,” I was lumped in with the “design consulting firms are dead” bunch, because people are poor at reading comprehension. Design consulting isn’t dead, but it’s definitely morphing, and doing so in an interesting bifurcated way.

At one end you have the big management consulting firms either establishing or acquiring design practices (McKinsey had been growing one organically in-house before the Lunar acquisition, Accenture acquired Fjord, Deloitte has Deloitte Digital). These firms had seen companies like IDEO and Frog get big billings for projects of the sort that used to only go to them. They realized they needed a design competency to stay relevant in the 21st century. And now these firms are deploying design practices at the highest levels of global corporations as a tool for creating strategy. This is actually a really big deal for design as an industry and a practice, and one that hasn’t yet been at all sufficiently appreciated.

At the other end you have design firms who are positioning themselves as partners in the development and launch efforts. This is design for execution, often embedding with product teams, and focused on the detailed work of interaction, interface, and visual design and front-end development. This is typically a ‘gap-filling’ role — augmenting a client’s lack designers in-house.

And the middle? Historically, that was Adaptive Path’s sweet spot. There were multiple times we came in after someone like McKinsey had supplied a client with a Big Idea of where to go, and we would use our design practices to put shape to that existing strategy and suggest offerings and experiences they could deliver. Then we’d leave as the client would take our suggestions and implement them.

As companies have been staffing in-house design teams, that is where this middle work has moved. It hasn’t been worth hiring in-house designers to be the strategic dynamos a la McKinsey, and you can never hire enough designers for all the execution to be done. So, there seems to be plenty of work for design consultants in those regards. The middle bits? Not so much.

The dehumanizing heart of capitalism – people as points in a video game

For 5 months last year, I contracted with a company launch a new web site.

My task was to shepherd the design (which was completed before I joined) through development and into the world. As such, in my duties I was a product manager, coordinating efforts with engineering, design, and marketing, making sure that the new design performed as well as the old one.

In order to understand performance, I spent much of my time analyzing charts and graphs, assessing conversion rates and looking for clues across browsers, operating systems, and flows to understand why one design was performing better than another.

And it was in this activity that I started to scare myself. Because I became obsessed with conversion numbers. How do we make sure that at least the same number of people move through the new design as the old one?

And it started to feel like a game. These conversion metrics are points. If you fiddled with some aspect of the design, could you get a higher score? And as anyone raised in video games knows, you are always trying to get a high score.

It’s very easy to forget that there are humans in those numbers. You approach it more like an amorphous mass, a fluid that you’re trying to get through a funnel.

A key theme of my writings about the Connected Age was the need for business to embrace humanity. And yet even though I am highly sensitized to this issue, it was seductively easy to slip into this dehumanizing mindset.

This is at the heart of capitalism.

Friends don’t loan friends money — they give it

An unfortunate circumstance of life is when your friends get into money trouble. As a friend, you feel an obligation to support. But money is a crazy sensitive subject, and getting involved risks that friendship.

I don’t remember the context in which it came up, but I do remember that, as a child, I talked to my parents about loaning money to someone (maybe they had a friend who I knew needed money? maybe I had a friend who asked me for a loan?). And something they said stuck with me my whole life: friends don’t loan money to friends — they give it. If you get it back, great, and if not, that’s okay, too.

I hadn’t thought much about it until recently. And I wouldn’t be writing about it except I’ve seen a huge rift, a chasm cleave through a community of friends (where sides have been chosen and all kinds of other drama), and that chasm was caused by a friend loaning another friend money (it’s more complicated than that, but this will suffice). I don’t want others to be hurt the way that I have (and that’s as a by-stander to this situation).

True friendship cannot be conditional. If conditions are set up in order to maintain the relationship, it’s no longer a friendship. It’s an arrangement.

One friend might think they’re doing another a favor by loaning them money. “Isn’t it big of me to help my friend when they are struggling by spotting them some money?”


Because, if that struggling friend takes you up on that offer, you’ve now created a condition, specifically a shift in the power dynamic between the two friends. And that, by it’s very nature, is no longer a friendship.

If you cannot simply give someone the money they need, you shouldn’t give it at all — you’re under no obligation to financially support your friends. (And if you’re that struggling friend, no matter how hard it is, do not accept a loan from a friend. It will not be worth it.) If you can give someone the money, great, but only do so if you can do it and then immediately forget about it.


Design at Jawbone

I’ve been remiss at updating my blog. On the day after my last post, I joined Jawbone to help lead the product design team. And today is a special day, because Dan Saffer, my former colleague from Adaptive Path, and most recently Director of Interaction Design at Smart Design, joins our growing team (in his inimitable style).

I was drawn to Jawbone because I could work on problems that I hadn’t yet tackled, except in conceptual hand-wavey ways at Adaptive Path:

  • hardware/software
  • Internet of Things
  • health/fitness

One thing Jawbone groks is that “the future of wearable technology is not about wearables, it’s about analyzing the data” (Guardian article), and we’ve done some remarkable work on the UP platform in this regard, specifically around what we call Smart Coach. Whereas other tracker systems seem focused on charts, graphs, and dashboards, Smart Coach presents your life in more human ways, with natural language, and prompts and encouragement to live better.

Actually, wearables is not even about the data — it’s about you. Our CEO Hosain Rahman refers to our approach to the Internet of You, where we take in all kinds of signals (from our wrist trackers and from partner’s apps and hardware), draw correlations, and provide insights and feedback across all manner of things. It’s hard work, and we’re only at the very beginning, but the promise is huge and inspiring.

From a strict design perspective, this is easily the most fun I’ve had since Adaptive Path. We’re involved in interactions with hardware, software, mobile, web, watches, and more. We have to balance between hard data and engaging copy. We have to make very hard tradeoffs (battery life versus displays; battery life versus size; battery life versus sensors… you get the picture). On my third day I played with a demo that was a legitimate “Wow, this could be the future!” moment. Just last week I wrote up specs for hardware UI.

In future posts, I’ll write more about my experience in designing at Jawbone. In the meantime, welcome, Dan – we’re going to have some fun!