In which Peter shares some of his Design Leadership Truisms (inspired by the work of Jenny Holzer), and Jesse reacts.
The image that spurred the episode:
“People are not their job titles.”
“If your team’s work isn’t good, you didn’t set clear expectations.”
“Bad design is a result of context, not individual aptitude.”
“If you focus on the organization, quality will take care of itself.”
“You cannot calculate an ROI for design.”
“If you haven’t pissed someone off, you are not doing your job right.”
“For someone who talks a lot about empathy. You show little for your colleagues.”
“Introversion inhibits design’s ultimate impact.”
Peter: Welcome to Finding Our Way, the podcast where Peter and Jesse welcome you to their journey as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. I’m Peter Merholz and with me is Jesse James Garrett.
Jesse: Hello, Peter.
Peter: Hi Jesse.
Jesse: So we were riffing on in email other things that we could talk about today and sort of almost in passing, you shared this image with me, which, is this a slide from one of your talks?
Peter: Yeah. So, last October I spoke at the Design Leadership Summit and I gave my design leadership talk called “Coach, Diplomat, Champion, Architect: The Four Archetypes of the Design Leader.” And when I first gave this talk, at the very end, I tacked on what I called “hard truths about design leadership,” and it was a series of statements.
And I realized before this event, because this event was a little more homegrown, a little less polished, I felt I could play with it a bit more. I actually ended up pulling up those statements at the very beginning. And what I did was essentially a cold open, so I walk out on stage, you can see in this… there’s a YouTube video, I walk out on stage wearing all black. A black shirt, black pants. And the title slide says “Design Leadership Truisms, from mer-Holzer” because I’m trying, I’m playing on Jenny Holzer, and her work with truisms. And then I just state each of these truisms.
And then the slide I gave you was all those truisms on one slide, just like, here’s everything that I just shared. And I ended up doing that as this preamble to my normal talk.
Jesse: I love this. So, first of all, I definitely, when I was reading the slide, detected the Holzer-ian nature of it. Her work is something that I’ve admired for many, many years. And I think anybody who has read any amount of what I’ve done can detect a trend toward the aphoristic.
Peter: Declarative aphoristic.
Jesse: Yeah. Yeah. The desire to reduce ideas down to their most potent and concise expression. And that is something that I’ve always admired about Jenny Holzer’s work as an artist as well. And so you sent me this thing, and that sounds awesome by the way, dressing all in black. I think it’s always a smart look.
And I just started reading a couple of them and I was like, I have opinions about these. And then I put it away. And I was like, I want to talk about these opinions later. So there were a couple of these that I’ve glanced at for a while…
Peter: So is now later?
Jesse: Later has arrived, Yes. And I thought it would be fun for us to just read through them and talk about them and see how many we get through in the time that we have. And, maybe see if there are any of them where we have any particularly interesting reflections or points of contention.
Peter: Why don’t I read them? Since I wrote them.
Jesse: Okay. In fact, what I’m going to do is I’m going to put the slide away, so I’m not looking at it. So I’m just listening to you read.
People are not their job titles.
Jesse: Implicit in this, I sense, is the idea that you should not treat people like they are their job titles.
Peter: Yes, basically, too often we are encouraged, particularly as managers, to reduce people to their job title and then swap people with the same job title and treat them the same, treat them interchangeably.
And we need to engage with everybody as individuals. A job title should not define anyone.
Jesse: Well, I think, especially when you’re talking about design roles, where the particular background, the particular creative strengths of the individual are going to very, very strongly influence the results that you get, I think that is definitely true.
I think there is a spectrum. That there are some roles that are more operational, that are processes that can be taught. But in the case where you are looking at people who are going to make a creative contribution to where the entire endeavor is going, in those cases, you do want to look more closely at the individuals and what they bring to the table. So yeah. Yes. And yes.
Peter: I’m not going to read them all. I’m realizing I’m going to skip a couple.
Jesse: You should definitely choose because there are too many.
If your team’s work isn’t good, you didn’t set clear expectations.
Jesse: I’m going to say no to this one. I think that there are lots of ways in which a team’s work can go wrong. I also think expectation setting from leaders can go awry when the leaders themselves are not clear on what they want. So there’s knowing what you want and then there’s communicating it. And those are separate skills.
Peter: Right. So that would be not setting clear expectations.
Jesse: Okay. Fair.
Peter: Behind this, is talking to design leaders who are frustrated by the quality of the work their team is producing, but then when you ask them what they have done to help people understand what is acceptable in terms of quality, you realize the answer is, “Nothing.”
I’ve literally had conversations with design leaders who basically imply that they feel other people should read their minds as to what is an acceptable level of quality and deliver on that.
Jesse: I hear that. And I definitely have seen that. And. I know that I have gotten impatient in the past with designers when I felt that I had to explain something to them that I felt they should already know about what constitutes quality in design, and that impatience for me came from an expectation that I wouldn’t have to be teaching as much as I found myself teaching in that role, in that context, in that moment, especially in the context of consulting work, where there was potentially not really enough time to teach skills along the way as we were trying to meet client deadlines.
So I think there’s an element in this of how much mentorship is the leader willing to take on, in bringing people along with understanding their expectations. And what do you do when that gap really does exist, when there is somebody who simply doesn’t understand the baseline thing that you thought you wouldn’t have to explain.
Peter: There is no universal standard for quality when it comes to design.
So when I talk to these design leaders and I ask them, so how does someone deep within your team know what good looks like? And when they think about it, they respond, “Well, I guess that’s their manager helping them, like through direction or critique or review.”
So design quality, two things there. One, it becomes very localized, and so different managers with a different understanding of quality might be managing towards different quality within the same organization. And two, it’s largely folklore, it’s spoken. It is not codified, and that raises its own challenges. Because something that’s not codified can become quite arbitrary. It can change, and that’s not great.
One assumes that, if you are hiring someone, they know what they’re doing, right? You’ve gone through some process to vet their ability. And if they’re not doing good work too often, I find the design leader thinks that they don’t know good design. When in fact they don’t know what good design looks like in this environment or what is expected of them.
Jesse: So definitely I hear in that, the trap of assuming that your standard is a universally held standard, that is therefore universally understood by your fellow professionals. Right?
Peter: Right. I have a few elements here on this that are related to quality. Let me read the next one.
Bad design is a result of context, not individual aptitude.
Jesse: So what you’re saying is a good designer can produce bad design if they are in the wrong context. And it seems to be letting the designer off the hook a little bit in terms of what they bring to the table. This seems to imply that individual performance issues are more often a sign of organizational dysfunction. Either that dysfunction exists at the level of recruiting and hiring, or it exists at the level of performance management and mentorship and skills development.
If you focus on the organization, quality will take care of itself.
Jesse: Hmm. I don’t think I believe that. In fact, I think that articulates a gap that I am trying to fill in my work, in that I think the quality arises out of high-trust, collaborative relationships and not out of organizational structures.
Peter: I don’t disagree. I think I would place that as an organizational matter, the point of this being, design quality is often not addressed until you’re looking at output. When, in fact, what drives that output was heavily determined by a series of factors long preceding that output, that I am maybe broadly labeling is organizational, but I would also argue organizational as opposed to say procedural, or a matter of process.
Jesse: Okay. So what is the distinction between organization and process in your view? Because I guess that those things are very much intertwined to me.
What we often don’t talk about are the organizational factors behind the scenes that lay a foundation for the activities: how you recruit and hire, how you manage, how you mentor, how you grow, how you value, how you coordinate in relationship with one another within design, and how you coordinate In relationship between design and other functions. All of those things are the organizational matters.
Your internal agency organization can be practicing user centered design.
It’s just going to find itself highly constrained because all that user research is almost for naught because it’s not actually able to drive the upfront thinking because, organizationally, the designers aren’t in the right relationship with their peers, with the power to make that change.
Jesse: I guess there were a few different ways to think about it. So, there is a football analogy that comes to mind, which is that you have the players on the field and the players are playing certain positions. And you have different ways you can line those players up according to those positions. And there are different positions you can deploy on the field, according to your needs. And so that feels like the organizational stuff. Who are the players on the field? What are the skills that I’m putting out there to accomplish my goal?
And then you’ve got process, which is the playbook. Once you get the players on the field, how do they interact with each other? How do they move in an organized way toward a goal?
And then you’ve got the people stuff at the individual level of the stuff that you’ve been talking about, recruiting and hiring and making sure that the guy that you have brought in as wide receiver is actually somebody who is suitable to be a wide receiver.
But I think there’s this other level, too, of team cohesion. And this is something that I’ve heard you talk about, about how the coordination, the orchestration of the individuals who are performing these roles in the context of this process and ensuring that they stay in sync with one another along the way. And that’s the rocky shoal that I’ve seen too many corporate ships run aground on. They got all the organizational stuff right. They got all the process stuff right. But no one was looking after the people. No one was looking after the relationships and it all fell apart along the way.
Peter: Hmm, I guess I would say if you’re not looking after people and relationships, you’re not looking after the organizational stuff. You might be architecting an organization.
Jesse: I guess that’s the thing that I hear in this that I would push back against, is the architectural impulse to think that you can solve all of these problems, a priori, before any people show up in the door.
Peter: Yes, that I believe. Part of my point is to shift the focus, though, away from process and even, again, individual aptitude, towards matters of organization. And I would include relationship within that, because as I see it, when you have an organization, you don’t only have the structure, but you have the connection between those elements and, yes, you could even look at that architecturally, but there’s a relationship there that I think matters and is part of what I intend when I talk about organization.
Jesse: Okay. Well, thank you. That’s clarifying to me.I don’t know if I have a particularly narrow view of it, or if I have inherited a particularly narrow view of it from the things that I’ve read, but I tend to think of the organizational stuff, in terms of let’s figure out management reporting, performance management, incentive structures, that will ensure a certain quality of outcome.
And I don’t think that stuff goes far enough. And I agree with you. I don’t think the process stuff goes far enough either.
Peter: Well, and my sense is folks focus on that which they can get their hands around, and the structural organizational stuff is easier. But insufficient. It’s the same reason that one of the challenges that we have in delivering good designed experiences is we end up getting nudged towards delivering only on that which can be measured. Through monthly active users. And, how far down a funnel someone gets, et cetera, et cetera.
And we lose sight of this stuff, which can’t be measured, but which is as important in terms of the nature and the quality of the experience. And that comes from a bunch of ineffable details that someone is having engaging with an experience. And the same thing happens with organizations where they over-focus on that which can be measured and modeled, and lose sight of the messy stuff that, as you’re pointing out, is kind of the beating heart of those organizations.
Jesse: I think a corollary of this is the tendency of leaders, when they find themselves challenged by their circumstances, to fall back on those areas where they feel the most empowered, and often the areas where they feel the most empowered are the areas where they feel they have the most control, where they feel like they can dictate circumstances rather than be subjected to them. And so this is where you have leaders run into challenging times and declare it’s time for a reorg, and the team is like, great, this is another challenge on top of the challenges that we were already facing, because reorgs create just immense waves of chaos and confusion through organizations.
But from the leadership perspective, it can feel like they’re taking control of the situation, when in fact all they’re doing is retreating to the things that they do feel some level of control over, because they don’t know what to do about the things that they don’t.
You cannot calculate an ROI for design.
Jesse: Ooh, I suspect that’s almost certainly true, but I’d love to hear your articulation of an argument for it.
Peter: So in 2002, Adaptive Path attempted to unpack the notion of an ROI for design, an ROI for user experience.
What we found was that you couldn’t calculate an ROI for design because design is too integrated with too many other activities, that you can’t isolate design in any meaningful way. That said, what we saw was when you consider design as a lever for business value, when it was involved in the right conversations, when those activities of design were informing strategy, then those businesses both seemed to fare better, and the design teams were much happier, were much more engaged and did what was believed to be better work.
Jesse: I think a lot of this has to do with how UX design has always grown up in the shadow of engineering and engineering management practices and the strong cultural trend within engineering management to attempt to quantize and reduce the work to something that is measurable factory-like piecework.
I mean, one of the most legendary pieces of writing in software engineering management is a book called The Mythical Man Month, which is about, in fact, how you can’t effectively quantize a lot of these things, because you can’t reduce software engineering to that kind of piecework. Software engineering management methods have adapted a lot in the time since that book was written, but there is still this desire that I see in waterfall and agile and everything that’s come since to try to squeeze the work down.
And design is even weirder. A very small amount of design can deliver a vastly disproportionate amount of value across an entire product in a way that the same chunk of development time can’t accomplish the same thing.
And I think that is the disjunct between engineering management practices and design management practices that leads to these breakdowns that we see in these organizations.
Peter: Totally. That’s exactly—…
If you haven’t pissed someone off, you are not doing your job right.
Jesse: I think that’s true for as long as design leaders continue to be forced into the role of cultural change agents within organizations, for as long as we are continuing to have to fight for the voice of user research in strategic decisions. As long as we are having to continue to argue for experimentation and collaboration and iteration and adaptation in business strategy and design strategy and technology strategy, we are going to continue to be in this position of resident gadfly within organizations.
My hope is that eventually we get to a place where we have more leaders who understand where we’re coming from, and we don’t have to piss as many people off in order to make our points. It’s an outstanding question for me, whether that is actually possible.
Peter: Right. And there’s a kind of double-edge to this because, you’re talking mostly around a design leader, working with non-designers, and pissing them off as part of change. There’s also, if you haven’t pissed someone off within your team, you’re probably not doing something right.
Jesse: Okay. This, I would like to hear more about.
Peter: Well, right? Because leadership requires making hard decisions and you’re taking a lot of different stuff from different people. But as the leader, you are the one with the authority to make a decision and set a direction.
And that will likely go against somebody’s input that was delivered to you.
I’ve hired people over the objection of folks who were part of the process, because I felt that their contribution, while informative, was essentially misguided, and I had to make a hard call of who to hire between two candidates.
And I made a call that ended up pissing some people off.
I could have either tried to make a more popular call, hiring the person who people were more aligned with, but I didn’t feel that was the right call.
I could have tried to ameliorate, maybe, say, “Let’s not hire anyone.” Let me make a decision by not making a decision. that probably wouldn’t piss anybody off. They might not be happy about it, but they wouldn’t be angry about it. But instead, I made a decision that actively upset someone.
I think too often design leaders, in trying to get along, in trying to make everybody happy within their team, either defers decisions, or doesn’t commit to hard decisions because they’re afraid that they’re going to make somebody on their team unhappy.
Jesse: Yes, I think that’s a risk, but I think this goes against some of the things that you’ve been saying in terms of recruiting and hiring and bringing people into the team that you feel are strongly aligned with you as a leader, people who are strongly aligned with your values.
If you, as a leader, are regularly making decisions that are pissing off your team, you don’t have the right people on your team. There’s some breakdown in alignment there between your intentions, your values, your perception of the problem, your perception of what’s needed for the solution, and the perspective of your team.
And if you aren’t bridging that gap, you probably are working with the wrong people.
Peter: That’s fair. I see what you’re saying. If in a group of eight, four or five folks are upset, then yes, you clearly have a misalignment. And if in that group of eight, one or two folks continue to be upset over many months, that’s, I think, the kind of misalignment that you’re talking about is likely happening.
If in that group of eight, over the course of a year, you try to never make anyone mad, so that what you value is not making anyone mad over making the right decision, that’s where the problem is.
Jesse: Yeah. So I might flip this statement around and say, “If you’re never pissing anyone off, you’re probably doing something wrong.”
Peter: Okay. That’s fair.
For someone who talks a lot about empathy. You show little for your colleagues.
Jesse: Ooh. Yeah, I definitely feel this one. I’ve definitely seen this one a lot.
Peter: Have you done this one?
Jesse: Oh, yes, I, yes, definitely. I, I have definitely fallen into the trap of the us versus them. The sense that we, as the designers, have some unique Batphone to heaven that communicates to us the absolute truth of things, and everybody else is misguided and in need of education and possibly angling against us.
And, yeah, I think that’s definitely a real risk, especially if you’re, if you are a design leader who has to fight against the cultural tides all the time to demonstrate that you belong at the table to prove the worth and the value of the work that your team is doing. If you are contending with that stuff all the time, this is a very easy mindset to fall into.
Peter: Yeah, one of the things I say, both when I give this talk formally, and then it’s been coming up over and over again with this team definition work I’ve been doing with some design teams, is the phrase “assume good intentions.” And I think when we say it, we’re like, Oh yeah, of course. We’re all trying to do the right thing. And we’re engaging from wherever we’re coming from.
It’s easy to say, it’s harder to remember.
Jesse: I think that’s a really important overarching point. In general, that generosity of spirit that I think is necessary to maintain the optimism that this work requires of design leaders. If you are going in every day with the attitude that the whole world is against you, it’s going to be hard for you to muster and maintain the positive energy required to motivate a team toward creating something new and valuable in the world. And I think that that is a lesson that really underlies so many of our relationships as leaders, whether they are relationships with the leaders above us in organizations, whether they are the relationships with our peers, whether they are the relationships with our teams to try to assume good intentions as much as possible, I think is essential.
Introversion inhibits design’s ultimate impact.
Jesse: Oh man. We could do a whole episode about introversion because I think that introversion has become a fucked-up trap psychologically for creative people. And I think that people’s commitment to their identities as introverts is undermining their success broadly in the world. So, yes, I totally agree with this one.
Peter: Wow. And here, I thought, as my favorite, highly introverted colleague, that you…
Jesse: Oh, yeah, but I’m a self-hating introvert. I think my own introversion is absolutely maladaptive and I actually have a lot of judgment toward other introverts. I think that introversion as a cultural identity provides a very safe way for introverts to run away from their own insecurities and interacting with other people. And it does them a disservice to allow them that escape.
That’s pretty harsh. I know.
Peter: No, no, because, well, this is the one of the 25 that I actually heard back from more, probably than any other one, like, in the hallway or, you know, maybe on a Slack message.
Because, well, one) design as a profession tends towards introversion.
Because in order to lead, as we’ve said, you need to relate. You need to communicate, you need to put yourself out there. Introverts have a harder time of that. And what ends up happening, the reason for this phrase is, functions that are more extroverted–marketing functions, product manager functions–when you’re in those contexts where cross functions are getting together, it might be to do the work, but it might also be kind of an all hands and an evangelism moment, extroverts tend to dominate those spaces
Peter: Product managers then grab the mic at the all hands and talk about the great work that their team has done. And the designers don’t see their design leader doing something similar. They don’t feel that the product manager represents them, even if their work supported the work that product manager was doing.
But the design managers, if they’re an introvert, is, like, “Well, the product manager is speaking for the whole team,” or, “I just don’t, I don’t like, it feels fake to get up there and go rah rah, I’m a designer. I’m going to play it cool.” All that kind of stuff.
We probably should take an episode to dig into this because I want to be respectful of introverts. I work with them, I live with them. And as part of a desire to be big-tent, to accommodate all neurotypes of backgrounds and experiences, it’s not fair, for lack of a better word. It’s not fair that introverts are put in an uncomfortable position that in order for them to continue to succeed, they have to overcome this aspect of their personality now. But it’s also, at least in the current moment, real. Extroverts thrive in this professional environment in a way that introverts do not.
And I’m mostly just trying to call attention to it. My hope was that in 5 to 10 years, we can figure out contexts in which introverts and extroverts can be their full selves as introverts and extroverts. And neither is advantaged.
What you said suggests that you might not feel that way, and that introverts need to get over themselves and their introversion.
Jesse: My perception, and this may be ungenerous, and it may be that my own status as an introvert qualifies me to make this assessment and maybe it doesn’t, but my perception is that most introversion comes down to a frankly, very childish, “I don’t wanna. I don’t want to have to explain my work to other people.
I don’t want to have to figure out from moment to moment what somebody else is thinking of what I have to say. I don’t want to engage,” and that’s not productive and that’s not how humans get anywhere together as a species and this privileging of your own comfort over the success of your work is never going to serve you as a creative professional. So that’s my point of view.
Peter: Kind of like we did when we wrapped up that one episode, talking about trust and realized that we had a lot more to get to. I have a feeling, I have a feeling that is true with this topic as well.
Well, we didn’t get through all the design leadership truisms. We probably got to about maybe a third, probably a quarter of them. So this can be…
Jesse: We can do another round, maybe next season.
Peter: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But that wraps up another episode of Finding Our Way. As always you can find us out on the internet in various forms. On Twitter, I am @peterme. Jesse is @jjg. You can also find us on our website, https://findingourway.design/, where we have all the episodes posted, including with full transcripts, and there is a contact form that Jesse and I read everything that comes through. And that is how many people have reached out to us so far, which has been great. We’ve had some interesting feedback, from folks through those means. So, yes, please reach out, let us know what you think. Give us ideas for future conversations.
And until then, we hope that you are doing well on your journey as you continue finding your way.
Jesse: Finding your way. Thanks Peter.