Questioning assumptions in a world with no pants

I just finished Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants, combination memoir and situational analysis of his year-plus working at Automattic, the company behind WordPress. It triggered a series of thoughts that I plan to write. This is the first.

Groupon, where I recently worked, has been labelled the fastest-growing company in history. In less than four years, it had 12,000 employees in 48 countries world wide. To manage that hyperinflation, the company adopted an hierarchical bureaucratic organizational model. For many, if not most, companies, such a model is seen as the default, as just how companies work.

However, corporate bureaucratic hierarchies were developed with specific purposes in mind, mostly around the development of railroads and mass manufacture. As such, they are products of 19th century Industrial Age contexts.

From my vantage point, the most important thing Matt Mullenweg and his team have done is question assumptions about not only how we work, but how we organize to do that work. And that begins with the recognition that the 21st century Connected Age is a much different context.

Automattic was born out of an open source project (WordPress) that had contributors worldwide. This lead to the company being a wholly remote/distributed organization. Most people work from home, and people work from all over the world.

However, remote work isn’t interesting in and of itself. You could be sitting in your pajamas, working from home, but still operate in a bureaucratic hierarchy with explicit guidelines about how to do your work.

At Automattic, remote work is the outcome of something even more revolutionary, which is the remarkable degree of autonomy granted team members. They choose not only where, but when and how they work. They figure out what they should work on. They set their own timelines.

Now, it’s not wholly emergent — Matt is still In Charge, and has authority to make certain things happen. But he seems to operate more as a benevolent dictator than a hard-charging CEO. And as the company grew, so did the realization they needed some organizational structure, so employees were grouped into a series of teams, each with a team leader.

It’s important to recognize, though, that even this structure emerged. It was not a top-down mandate, but a group realization. Most organizations don’t think hard their structure — they default to what has become a conventional assumption. What’s so liberating about Automattic is that, at every step of it’s evolution, it has been thoughtfully intentional about how the organization operates, recognizing that the company warrants the same type of design that their products do.

What’s also liberating is that such autonomy demonstrates a remarkable degree of trust in employees to do the right thing. Because, as I’ve recently learned, companies wield bureaucracy expressly because they do not trust their employees. Bureaucracy is seen as a safeguard to ensure nothing bad happens. But too often it simply leads to nothing happening at all.

(As I was drafting this, Scott made freely available Chapter 4, “Culture Always Wins”, which I believe to be the single most important chapter in the book. So go read it!)

The Challenge of Hiring Senior Design Leadership

Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of companies about design roles at director and executive levels. And maybe because such leadership is relatively new, I find most of them have been quite naive about such roles. Here’s how I put it in an email to a company I was engaging with (this was to lead a design team of about 25-30 folks):

Bringing on this kind of senior design role is hard, because there are a host of things to balance. You want someone who is:

  • a brilliant design visionary
  • a solid design practitioner (can role up sleeves and execute)
  • a strategic thinker (can help set direction for product/brand)
  • an inspiring leader (can keep the team engaged and hopeful)
  • a detail-oriented critic (can suggest ways to improve the team’s work)
  • a considerate manager (mindful of the professional needs of the team members)
  • a teacher of design methods and practices, and when to use them
  • a diplomat (can collaborate and communicate with product, engineering, brand marketing)
  • dogged recruiter with a nose for talent
  • an operator (working the organization and unblocking paths to success)

That’s a lot to ask for!

Of course, companies don’t want to have to choose — they want it all! But the reality is, even if someone can do all of these things, they aren’t going to, at least not with any regularity. There’s simply not enough time.

So, what most companies incline to hire in a senior design role is a Creative Director — someone who can deliver on vision, practice, and critique. Basically, a senior-er version of a great designer.

However, if what you want is someone to lead a design team, then such an approach would be a classic Peter Principle move. Because while it’s crucial that this person come from a design practice background (in order to understand the ins and outs of design work), the qualities that matter most — leader, manager, recruiter, and operator — are those that have nothing to do with design execution. Those other qualities, while definitely nice to have, are gravy, and will not be the core of this person’s role.

Something that seems to work well is to split ultimate design leadership across two roles, one more creative, the other more operational. Engineering orgs will have a CTO (super senior systems architect type) and VP of Engineering (responsible for engineering teams and their operation). Newspapers have an Editor-in-Chief and a Managing Editor. Design orgs could, and when they reach a certain size (greater than 30 or so), definitely should, have a VP of Design (the team leader I’ve described) and a Creative Director (or Chief Design Officer).

I’d love to hear of other leadership models for design that you’ve seen work well.

I’m about to be self-unemployed

I have given notice, and my last day at Groupon is April 18.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been leading the Design Union (what we call the global design team). When people ask me what I’m most proud of, it’s not the obvious things (like a sitewide redesign that immediately performed better than its predecessor, and was actually aesthetically pleasing), or our continued success with a leading commerce mobile app.

It’s that I took a group of 30 team members, who were a bit bedraggled and often underappreciated, and was able to grow it (to 60) and evolve it so that design is seen as an essential partner and collaborator throughout the company. And probably the most important thing I did was bring on a cadre of amazing design leaders, folks who have proven themselves through thick and thin in terms of delivering high quality design, coaching their teams to deliver beyond expectations, and do so with charm, grace, and good humor. Yes, I’m happy with the great stuff we’ve shipped; but I’m even happier to have shaped an organization that will continue to deliver great things, regardless of my presence. (And I’m bummed I won’t be working with these folks any more.)

As the title of this post suggests, I don’t know what’s next. And that’s a little scary — I haven’t not known what my next job is since before I joined Epinions in 1999. I’m sure it will be fine, and I’m looking forward to some opportunity for reflection and writing, for connection with people I haven’t seen or talked to in too long, and ultimately, for figuring out what’s next and best for me. (Oh, and maybe spiffing up this blog a bit.) If you have any ideas, don’t hesitate to reach out!

 

Information architecture reborn

The IA Summit has just finished. What I’m about to write might be ironic given my previous post. But what I’m walking away feeling is that information architecture is reborn.

7 years ago, I wrote how IA was not dead, but sleeping. There was a period in the field’s history that felt stagnant and disappointing. And I think it’s related to that last post, because IA allowed itself to fall under the “user experience” umbrella, and the Summit started to feel like any UX conference warmed over.

But starting last year, and coming on strong this year, there has been a new energy, born of an exchange of ideas that really only can be called “information architecture”. In particular, Track B this year was what I’ve been looking for from this event – deep, penetrating, talks that didn’t talk down to the audience, that interrogated the role, the practice, the meaning, and the relevance of information architecture. What the community is recognizing is there’s no need to make excuses, and in fact, the practice of information architecture is increasingly crucial and essential in addressing challenges we face as people, community, and society.

I look forward to seeing you in Minneapolis next year.

User experience has stunted information architecture

I came up through UX practice as an information architect and interaction designer. I was an avid reader of Peter and Lou’s “Web Architect” column, spoke at the first IA Summit, and was an early proponent of facets and tags in the broader UX community.

The UX community was essential for casting light on the importance of information architecture. It made clear how the organization, structure, relationships, and semantics around and in our information are key to delivering a successful user experience. There was a period, around 1999-2005 or so, where information architecture was a vibrant, dynamic, evolving field.

But there are only so many talks to give on facets, tags, and the like. And, over time, it feels like IA has been swallowed by UX (and seen in strange competition with interaction design).

IA had become less and less of my practice as Adaptive Path shifted towards strategic design consulting. And so I didn’t think about it too much.

Then I went in house. In particular, I joined Groupon. A month or so into the job, I became part of discussions to change evolve our site navigation. This excited me — I would get to flex some of those old analytical muscles that had atrophied over time.

As I dug into it, though, I felt a little like I was peeling an onion. Every layer presented new layers beneath. And I quickly left the realm of site navigation, and found myself engaging in conversations that went deep to the core of Groupon’s operations. Because, it turned out, our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.

And I realized this was bigger than I could tackle at the time, because I had (and still have) a design department to run.

And it also made me realize that IA had been stunted by its relationship with user experience. Because information architecture, when approached with the depth and rigor that is warranted, is a deeply seated operational and organizational function. The UX component of information architecture, how information is represented to end users, is important, but truly a tip of the iceberg. (And not just Peter Morville’s iceberg.) But in order to IA to have the impact it could (and should), IA needs to free itself from being seen under the umbrella of UX, and instead pursued as a distinct, and difficult, practice that’s not just about taxonomies and semantics, but the organizational, operational, and technological change to realize that.

Programming Conferences

This morning on Twitter, a conversation flared up around IA Summit 2014, because they received over 400 submissions for 50 spots, which means many many people, even those whose sessions were reviewed highly, were rejected. (I was rejected as well, but I half-assed my proposal.)

FOR STARTERS, let me say nothing but praise and thanks to Aaron Irizarry, Johanna Kollmann, and Abby Covert, the IA Summit chairs. They are friends and colleagues, and I know they are working tirelessly to do the best for the IA and UX communities.

OK, back to the conversation at hand. Jared Spool raised his concerns that with so many submissions for so few spots, there’s a lot of “wasted effort.” I share that concern (though I recognize my lackadaisical effort was not wasted), because a lot of people, and thus good people, likely feel burned by the work they put into a submission, and would be less inclined to submit in later years. So while this year’s summit benefits from being able to draw from such contribution, how will later summits fare?

Professional associations have it kind of tough. When I was at Adaptive Path, I programmed MX and UX Week events, all based on what I wanted to see (and suggestions from colleagues). Professional associations have a responsibility to their membership, and tend towards the “call for papers/proposals” process. The benefit of this is that you can get interesting new voices and ideas, and you give the membership a voice it might not otherwise have. The drawback is that your beholden to submissions, and it can make it hard to craft a compelling event.

Which events are better, invited/curated or submitted? They both can work, though, given that I’ve curated, I lean towards that style. I like it when there’s an editorial point of view that connects the presentations.

However, I’ve had transformative experiences at the IA Summit, and as a conference organizer, always sought out rising stars there. There’s a randomness/unexpectedness that often delivers crap, but can yield amazing stuff.

The IA Summit faces a challenge in terms of not discouraging great submissions because potential contributors feel the effort isn’t worth the likely rejection. One solution is to raise the bar on what it takes to submit, to weed out those (like me, this time around) who are half-assing it, and cluttering things up. Another might be to more aggressively ‘track’ submissions into categories, to make sure there’s a good spread of topics (and make clear to folks that we don’t need yet another submission on agile/lean UX).

Separately, I heard complaints about panels. There are always complaints about panels. Done wrong, panels are a lazy way to fill a conference slot. And many panels suck, because it’s simply 4-5 short presentations. However, I still have vivid memories of one of the IA Summit’s best sessions, a panel in 2003 on “Wayfinding and Navigation in digital spaces” which was legitimately mind-expanding. So, don’t count panels out. Just structure them so they’re stimulating.

Best Book I Read Last Year: COOL GRAY CITY OF LOVE

I don’t read nearly as many books as I used to. I chalk that up to parenthood, laziness (Google Reader Feedly is just so easy to browse through), and an Instapaper account overflowing with longreads.

Still, I try, and I was truly impressed with one book: Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love , an idiosyncratic history of San Francisco.

coolcitycrop.jpg

The author has done his research, and this could have been presented as a straightforward telling of facts and stories. Instead, he always finds a personal connection which provides a distinct lens through which to understand the city. Gary clearly loves San Francisco, warts and all, and his passion for the city is infectious.

As an easily distracted internet-addicted type, I also appreciate the book’s 49 chapters (either for the ’49ers’, or the 49 square miles of our 7×7 grid), some of which are as short as a couple pages, which allows for easy dipping into.

I don’t buy many books (I prefer the library), but this is one I gladly own.

Movies worth watching on Netflix streaming

There have been some articles recently whinging about how Netflix doesn’t have the movies you want to watch. While this is true, it’s clear that, because of rights issues and costs, we’re a LONG way from Spotify from movies, so it also means that the point is moot. Also, there are plenty  of movies worth watching on Netflix streaming, many of which I’m guessing you haven’t seen. Some suggestions to add to your queue (All pointers to InstantWatcher, a great service for browsing Netflix):

Spool’s “Design is the Rendering of Intent” and the Double Diamond

Jared Spool’s most recent post, “Design is the Rendering of Intent” reframes the activity and outcome of design in a way that makes it more organizational, and less “the thing that designers do.”

Towards the end, Jared writes:

With this definition of design, the process shifts its focus to two distinct activities: Having the team arrive at the same intentions and ensuring we render our intention the way we desire.

These “two distinct activities” are pretty much exactly the two diamonds in the Double Diamond diagram I wrote about a while back (and which I’m re-embedding here:)

What Jared and I both are stressing is the importance of intentionality in that first activity. Too often that activity is simply assumed by a team, who then move to the rendering (execution) phase. However, if we have come upon a shared product definition (or, in Jared’s words, arrived at the same intentions), we’re setting up our rendering for failure.

San Francisco Scapegoated for Silicon Valley’s Civic Blind Spot

Here in the Bay Area, not a day goes by without news of the discontent between San Francisco’s ascendant tech population, and those who are feeling pushed out, marginalized, and left behind. It’s genuinely troubling — forget the working class, with astronomical property costs astronomically, San Francisco is in danger of losing its middle class. The backbone of the city, the folks who work there, whether in civic roles, education, service, etc. increasingly have to live elsewhere.

And while San Francisco undoubtedly could do more from a development standpoint, it does have a very real constraint — geography. It’s 49 square miles, and already pretty dense. Growth can only go so far.

I think the real issue, oddly not at all addressed in anything I’ve read, is that cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties (where Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. are all based), have done absolutely nothing to address the need for housing, particularly around creating environments that are appealing to the recent college grads upon whose labor these companies rely. The Google Bus wouldn’t be such an icon of gentrification and displacement if the folks who rode it could happily live in Mountain View or Sunnyvale.

Over the last 40 years (since the dawn of Apple and Intel), more wealth has poured into Silicon Valley than probably any other region in human history. And yet from a civic and municipal standpoint, there’s very little to show for it. And so the Peninsula remains an unappealing place to live, leading folks to reside in San Francisco, where there’s restaurants, bars, stores, entertainment, and the ease of walkability.

And it’s pretty clear that the cities on Silicon Valley are not going to do anything to address this. I think they think that small is beautiful, and to hell with how our bad planning causes trouble elsewhere. And so I suspect the only way this gets addressed is if the companies that fund those buses begin to spend their money local to their campuses in an effort to improve the nearby quality of life. These companies ought to embrace their civic and municipal responsibilities.