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


campbellodeon said...


First of all, it's an excellent post.

Secondly and now that you have described my company and my department my question is, when is your follow up post about how to fix this?


- jason

Stephen Fishman said...

I'll try to make it my next one Jason. But don't get over-excited - as I don't believe there is a "quick-fix". True organizational behavior and working dynamic changes for medium and large size enterprises are not achieved through a singular action, but instead through methodological perseverance.

Think of any of the medium/large shops you and I have experience working in. Great operationalized cultures were built over years with much repetition of effort to maintain them. CYA cultures are also built over years, but are more indiscriminate than deliberate.

I think of it like "Built To Last" and "Good to Great", the tactics depend upon who you are and what context you are in (i.e., Creating a culture is different from changing a culture; the second one is much harder)