Thursday, September 15, 2011

Risk Model Inversion

Over the last few years I have had several discussions with colleagues, co-workers and friends around turning their mental models of risk management upside down (at least as far as it applies to taking risks within a particular job or consulting engagement).

Way back in 2003 I had just accepted a new job at a fortune 500 company and did "the unexpected". I took a big risk in my first project. Coming from the outside, I was surprised to learn that my employer at that time had not been using conventional UX practices or deliverables in their projects. I went to both my teammates and to my leadership and told them that the best way for my project to be successful was to create wireframes and perform a paper-prototype test on the interface (neither of which had they ever seen before). I did this knowing one basic truth:

Starting at day 1 in any job or engagement, your ability to try new things or to get change-oriented requests approved decreases over time. Stated another way: People don't like to crush the spirit of the new guy/gal.

The enthusiasm and energy of the new recruit is a cherished asset that will erode over time. Most clients, managers and co-workers, in my experience, unconsciously seek to extend that honeymoon period of rose-colored glasses by allowing the new teammate to demonstrate their capabilities (i.e., "give them enough rope to hang themselves").

Many people I personally know have tended to go the opposite direction and follow their instincts in choosing to "play it safe and establish themselves" in their new role before "shaking things up". In my experience, this rarely works and in fact works less the further/higher you go in your career. Case in point: a colleague who opined that one of his friends, who was the president of his firm, was unable to make the changes he thought were necessary to increase the overall chances of success within his shop. This was very curious to me as I sometimes have a hard time understanding why autonomy is not pushed down along with responsibility within organizations. In response to my question he summed it up thusly:

"He has been in his job 2 years and has not been able to meet the one part of the established success criteria. Given his perceived shortcomings, why would the owner/board take the risk now?"

Most leaders put someone in a position to fill some gap. Whether it's solving a problem or taking advantage of an opportunity, the wishful-thinking perception of the leader (especially the higher you go) is that the new resource will be "fire and forget" (i.e., give basic direction and then hear the good news at the end of the project or the engagement).

The dynamics in the large organizations I have worked with, tend toward rewarding those who perform without flaw rather than those who exhibit a presence of strength. This bias leads to any flaw becoming magnified and being used as the catch-all reason to not moving into unfamiliar territory (because most humans and animals alike correlate unfamiliar with uncomfortable). This discomfort with the unfamiliar tends to be smaller in magnitude than the discomfort of crushing the spirit of the new guy, but depressingly is larger in magnitude than the discomfort of saying no to the established person even if the established person has a good track record (see chart below).
The point where the two discomforts become close enough to flip the bias of the decision maker tends to happen somewhere between 90 and 180 days. I believe this is specifically because most of these types of decisions are made based upon qualitative relationship dynamics. The better you get to know a person, the more comfortable you become in pushing back. In other words familiarity breeds contempt where contempt equals comfort in being the source of disillusionment or disappointment.

I'm not sure I know how to solve this, in fact I am sure that I don't know. I only claim to have a method to identify a time to take risks when the tolerance for change is greatest.

Rating Time:

Playing it safe at the beginning: Garbage

Taking timely risks intelligently: Like it

"Remember that postcard Grandpa sent us from Florida of that Alligator biting that woman's bottom? That's right, we all thought it was hilarious. But, it turns out we were wrong. That alligator was sexually harrassing that woman." - Homer Simpson

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

True value

Those who work with me know that I am often wont to say: "The best value good user experience consulting can bring to executives of medium to large enterprises is sleep at night." In my experience, executives in medium to large companies are plagued by a downward spiral dynamic that leaves executives awake at night trying to find answers to questions.

The CIOs ask themselves: "Why do they hate me?"

The CMOs, and many other business leaders, ask themselves: "Why don't they get it?"

The dysfunctional spiral I am referring to is so pervasive in corporate America that many a professional has given up on trying to improve things. People don't see any way out. It's been this way forever. It's been this way before most employees started working for the enterprise and it'll be this way after most people change jobs or retire. There are many contributing scenarios that result in this dynamic and I'll attempt to illustrate a few them here:

Scenario 1: Quantitative success can still mean qualitative failure.

Marketing/Business Executive: "I have an a great idea. Let's build a new system to automate process X. We'll save a million dollars annually!"

IT Executive: "That is a great idea. Let's start the process"

Marketing/Business Executive: "ugh!"

<insert corporate business case budgeting processes here>

Marketing/Business Executive: "OK! My team has made an business case. I am allocating X dollars in budget. Get to it!"

IT Executive: "Great! Let's start the requirements gathering process"

Marketing/Business Executive: "ugh!"

<insert requirements gathering processes here>

IT Executive: "My team has gathered requirements. Sign off here and we can start building it!"

Marketing/Business Executive: "Do I have any other choice?"

IT Executive: "Don't worry. Your team helped make the requirements. The system will do all of the things it says in the SRS."

Marketing/Business Executive: "OK. I guess."

<insert development processes here>

Marketing/Business Executive: "My team tells me that the system isn't what they were led to believe.

IT Executive: "My team tells me that the system meets all the requirements."

Marketing/Business Executive: "My team tells me nobody is going to use this thing."

IT Executive: "That's not my problem."Marketing/Business Executive: "ugh"

Scenario 1 | Epilogue
IT Teams more often than not judge success or failure in quantitative terms and use a checklist like approach to define success. This sort of language is aligned with most business executives, so projects float along until someone figures out it is a failure.

The developers and contractors are labeled as incompetent. Major blame is put on the nature of the organization itself as it is not in the position to make any effort to raise the level of talent in the work force.

The bodies are then hidden and crime scene cleaned up so nobody important gets a bad performance review (but that's a story for another day).

The known contributing factors to this dynamic are as follows:

  1. The deployment centered methodology that is central to corporate culture in America - this orientation creates a development philosophy that believes that a wrong product served on time is sufficient.
  2. The complete lack of understanding or appreciation that corporate leaders have developed with the regard to the skills and activities necessary to create quality experiences (agile methodology has shown some promise to fix this, but as it does not attempt to hit the dysfunction at it's root, only time will tell)
  3. The IT bias towards functionalism and left-brained thinking. The idea that function is not only superior to form, but that form is irrelevant compared to function creates the space for the above scenario to start.
  4. The root as I see it (and yes this is a recurring theme for me) - contempt for others. Contempt bleeds out as as a lack of respect for the perspectives, thoughts, methods, time, effort, etc. of others. Much of American culture, business or not, falls into a narrative cycle wherein everything should be simple and clean. If it is not simple and clean, than someone else is thinking incorrectly.

Scenario 2 | Scene 1: The shuffle.

Marketing/Business Executive: "I have an a great idea. Let's build a new system to automate process X. We'll save a million dollars annually!"

IT Executive: "That is a great idea. My development team can do it."

Marketing/Business Executive: "I've been down that road before. I want to outsource it."

IT Executive: "No! That will cost much more! Let our team do it!"

Marketing/Business Executive: "Well, alright. But it needs to be done next quarter and it can't cost more than X"

IT Executive: "No problem"

Scenario 2 | Scene 2: The deal.

IT Executive: "I saved this project from being outsourced. Don't screw it up."

Team: "With this deadline and budget restriction, we can't afford any training and we can't bring in any experts"

IT Executive: "I don't care to know how many bubbles are in a bar of soap. You asked me to keep the development work in-house and I did it. Now don't screw it up."

Team: "Ugh."

Scenario 2 | Scene 3: The flop.

Marketing/Business Executive: "This isn't what I wanted"

IT Executive: "Yes it is. It got done within the time limit and met the budget."

Marketing/Business Executive: "Ugh"

Scenario 2 | Epilogue
Business executives share the same misguided bias towards quantitative measures that IT personnel do, it just has a different set of targets: money and time. For some reason, executives can't seem to get on the same page about the realities of the contexts that face them (e.g., time constraints of the marketplace, skill constraints of the teams, the need for collaborative design work throughout a project lifecycle, the inherent risks in the waterfall model of traditional SDLCs, etc). With these realities, it's not a wonder that 3/4 of IT projects fail. The wonder is that the ratio is not higher.

The known contributing factors to this dynamic are as follows:

  1. The American business paradigms that elevate short term results above all (this has been discussed in detail by people all over the world for more than 30 years).
  2. The missing roles for research and design disciplines within large corporations (another story for another day).
  3. The rampant practice of empire building within corporate America (I think this one has roots in American culture more than anything else).
  4. Fear of change (this is part of the human condition) 

What I find very curious, is that people don't actually use the same singular focus on budgets and time outside of work. People, in my experience are not as reluctant to bend personal deadlines and budgets to get what they really want. For some reason, there has been a failure in the business community to admit that the current dynamic is inherently broken and that the rules and very structure of the game need to be changed in order to fix it.

I do believe that the injection of UX perspectives is a step in the right direction. However, I believe this step can only reach its potential impact when UX professionals in combination with IT and business professionals separate needs from positions. Focusing on needs rather than positions is the only way, in my experience, to bring the warring tribes together before they kill their projects or one another.

Separating needs from positions isn't as hard as it seems and while it's not the sole province of UX, UX seems to be very well positioned to drive the dialogue. Ultimately, it requires a curious, empathic mind in search of authentic motivations. This is what, for me, separates UX from interface design. A desire to understand the answer to a question simple to pose but hard to answer;"Why?"

Rating time:

Typical american business/IT culture: Garbage

"I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here." - Homer Simpson

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Contempt Hall of Fame

Comcast and Blockbuster have been one-upped by Allstate. While not as brilliant as Comcast's outsourcing of system integration to it's customers, in terms of displaying blatant contempt for it's customers, Allstate has got it going on like Donkey Kong! The highlight came when an Allstate manager literally claimed that "Allstate is not accountable for the promises made by its employees". Talk about guts! Telling a customer that anything they or any other employee says to you is meaningless! Allstate must have hired a senior official from the US state department. No other organization knows that the only sure way to avoid dialogue is to systematically shut down the conditions necessary for dialogue to occur.

Think about it, what can you say after this? Given that any actual resolution has no future value what-so-ever, the possibility of a fruitful discussion is completely nil after this basic statement.

My specific disagreement with Allstate is in this case not the relevant factor. The real importance to me is the formalism (an emphasis on the ritual and observance of religious dogma, rather than its meaning) rampant in US companies and how it is destroying customer service inside and outside of enterprises. I saw a brilliant presentation from Netflix the other day which highlights the flip side of formalistic process-centric cultures.

Many organizations teach process as a thing to be worshipped separate from the intended state to be arrived at via adherence to the process. This fundamental flaw creates organizational dissonance (a context wherein an organization has internal discomfort based on mis-alignment of it processes and cultural mores). You'll see this when a company representative says that they want to help you because they believe you are right, but that they cannot because a process prevents them (side note - they never actually say's usually articulated as "I'm sorry. I can't do that", which infuriates me more, because they don't actually mean either of these two sentences, but there does not seem to be much I can do about the fact that actual communication is a dying art form).

This is not the root of the problem however, The real root is a lack of commitment to hire "the right" people (i.e., smart people who are aligned with the vision and values of the company). Both the Netflix presentation and the well respected business book "Good to Great" explain the concept very well. Process centric cultures are created to lessen the effect of bad/mediocre hiring decisions. The long and short of it is explained in two steps:
  1. Hire good people who are aligned with your values
  2. Trust them to make decisions aligned with your values

An old boss of mine described me and another process-breaking colleague thusly: "The difference between you two is that he will act first and beg forgiveness later and that you will act first and then deny that forgiveness is needed at all." This is a pretty accurate description of me - In professional contexts I'm usually trying to act in a manner that is in direct alignment with the long term goals of my leadership.

The sorts of organizations that use formalism, have not grasped a great lesson from the military - "Commander's Intent". When my leadership asks me to do something, I ask an annoying list of detailed questions to suss out what they are actually trying to achieve and I use this understanding of intent to make the appropriate calls on the field. Arbitrary rules are for employees who cannot be trusted to make decisions appropriately. The question I ask of these organizations is this: "If you can't trust your people to make reasonably good decisions, then why did you hire them?"

Rating time:

Rigid processes that sap the spirit and passion from an organization - CRAP

"Lisa, if you don't like your job you don't strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That's the American way." - Homer Simpson