20—The business model is the new grid, and other mindbombs (ft. Erika Hall)

In which Peter and Jesse talk to strategic design and research consultant Erika Hall of Mule Design, learn about how “the business model is the new grid,” why most design is simply just styling, and the importance of asking questions.


Erika: Most of what operates under the label of “design” right now is styling business models. It’s not actually design because you’re not making meaningful choices. The choices have been made. They’re outside your purview and designers are chasing after it, coloring in the boxes.

Peter: I’m Peter Merholz.

Jesse: And I’m Jesse James Garrett,

Together: And we’re Finding Our Way…

Peter: …navigating the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership.

Jesse: On today’s show, veteran design consultant Erika Hall of Mule Design Studio, author of the books Conversational Design, and Just Enough Research joins us to talk about whether designers are truly ready for that coveted seat at the table, how to build those crucial cross-functional relationships, and the relationship between design and capitalism.

Jesse: So let’s jump in.

Peter: You have recently said something that I want to hear more from you and hear Jesse’s take on what you’re saying. I believe the phrase is, “The business model is the new grid.”  What does that mean?

Jesse: Well, that sounds great because I have no idea what that means.

Erika: Oh, fantastic. So what that means is, the important design now is interactive digital design, however you want to construe that. And we’re still drawing from the graphic design models. We still think of like, What’s the platonic ideal of this? It’s like graphic design, but now it’s in a web page or on a screen or something.

And, I think the whole field of design is working from this horseless carriage way of thinking about it. Yeah. Because the grid is not what constrains your work. It’s the underlying exchange of value. And I think when designers don’t realize this, they do all this talking about being human-centered and empathy, myah-myah-myah-myah-myah, and then they’re shocked, they’re shocked when their work is being used to exploit people or extract value or do some rent-seeking bullshit, like all these delivery companies that are vampires on local restaurants, and designers don’t have any tools to confront this situation because they are borrowing the practices of the kind of work that’s irrelevant.

And so if you think about fundamentally, What does your design snap to? It snaps to the business model.

And there’s no overcoming that. There’s no amount of empathizing with customers that will change that because ultimately your work will be deformed to, perverted to, constrained to that underlying exchange.

Peter: All right. You know, we talk about design operating within constraints. The business model is the singular constraint through which everything gets molded, regardless of…

Erika: Yeah. And the business model can be designed. And I think this is the most important work for designers, ‘cause designing business models is within the skill set of any good, like, designer. To really understand what everybody needs, how to reconcile and balance those needs, and how to create a system that creates a flow of value among all the different parties.

It is not intellectually difficult, like getting an MBA is not an exercise in stretching your intellect. So, I think the mechanics of business a designer can understand, but when they think about business, they think, “Oh, I’ve got to prove the ROI of my work. I have to think about KPIs.” And they think about like, “How do I fit my sketches into something where the people in the C-suite will care about me?”

As opposed to, “Wait a second. The people in the C-suite are fucking everything up. Chasing this weird exploiting growth engine, but I, as a designer could redesign the system and come up with something where you create a product, a service, an entity, whatever that actually adds value to the system and doesn’t extract it.”

And people are happy to pay for things. Like, people pay for stuff all the time. People pay for things that are valuable, but price is a signal has been completely obliterated by the availability of capital to subsidize services and products and make them free. Like nobody knows what, say, an Uber ride costs, what a taxi ride should cost, because the pricing signal has been completely camouflaged by subsidies from investors. So that’s what I mean by the business model being the grid.

Jesse: I’m hearing a couple of things in that statement. One is that designers need to understand business factors, the business variables, the business constraints that influence the success of their design work. And then secondarily, there’s an opportunity to do that design work or to do some system level work that resembles design at the level of the business model separate from what anybody might have considered to be their job as a designer in the past.

Erika: Yes. And I think most of what operates under the label of “design” right now is styling business models. It’s not actually design because you’re not making meaningful choices. The choices have been made. They’re outside your purview and designers are chasing after it coloring in the boxes.

Peter: I wholeheartedly agree. The challenge that I perceive, working with designers and design leaders, is how they get into that earlier framing conversation. Often design is not seen as a contributor to strategy or business direction.  Even when you have very smart, strategic people in design, they’re often painting within boxes that someone else has established.

They might be doing so very intelligently and very systemically, but there’s still some barrier between wherever design lives and wherever those conversations are happening. What have you seen in terms of how design can, I don’t know, storm those gates get beyond the castle wall and influence that? What is the move to start having the conversations that you’re encouraging them to have?

Erika: Well, it’s not easy to do that. I’m not saying like all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, I just realized. Hey CEO. I just realized that if we don’t fix the business model, everything else is jacked and my work is pointless.” That’s not going to happen. So I think it is going to be very similar to, you might recall, the early days of UX, and how there were some prominent UX consultancies that shifted the conversation.

I think the same thing has to happen because it doesn’t make sense to have a strategic design agency in the same way anymore in terms of making artifacts, because that work has all been pulled in house. And that’s the other part of the conversation people haven’t been having, which is, pulling design in house fundamentally changes design.

It changes the practice. You can assess your influence as a designer by thinking about what the limits of your freedom to ask questions are. Like, if you can walk in and say, “Why are we doing this as a business?” you have a lot of influence.

If you’re not allowed to raise questions, then your design work is relatively more shallow. Jesse named two things. So the third thing that’s going on is that design being pulled in house has changed design because they’re no longer questioning from the outside.

So to answer your question, Peter, what has to happen is the new design consultancies are actually more like management consultancies, but without the baggage of a McKinsey and without the willingness to solve any problem. So I think it’s probably similar to the work you’re doing now, where some designers who are very, say, seasoned, do lead by modeling a new kind of consulting and defining a new practice area because people inside cannot set the terms of the conversation, but people outside can push on that and articulate this and do some consciousness-raising. So I think just like UX started as something from the outside that pushed business, this again is going to be a new kind of consulting agency, and a new kind of thinking and talking and discourse that’s going to push on organizations and push on people within those organizations, because you can’t change it from the inside.

And it’s particularly challenging because a lot of people are very successful doing that thing. So where’s the incentive for them to change?

Peter: So are you stating, categorically, that a VP of design within some enterprise cannot make the kind of business model change that you’re articulating. and that instead that VP might be able to help bring in some type of external consultant, recognizing a problem is occurring and say, “Hey, why don’t we approach it from this way? Here’s a group that can help us,” but that VP themselves, you’re in the system, you just can’t unmake it.

Erika: Yeah, that’s the case. There might be exceptions. The only exception I could see is if the organization were in crisis. We’ve seen this in our own work when we’ve been brought in from the outside and then something failing about the business provides an opportunity for them to change.

But if the business is functioning, according to the metrics it set for itself, you can’t change that, because what a lot of organizations are doing is shareholder-centered design. And if the shareholders are happy, that’s the only metric that matters in a business, ultimately. And I think these are maybe be like hard truths, and I’m not saying you can’t do anything good or valuable.

But I’m saying that you’re work as a designer is bounded and constrained by this. And you cannot transcend that. If you’re working for a good company with a good business model and you’re contributing into that, that’s great. But if you’re not, then I don’t care how much you go out there, and learn about people and empathize with people. That work is ultimately going to be used in support of that business model. And there’s nothing you can do about that from the inside.

Jesse: I think that whether or not people see themselves as being capable of taking on that role has a lot to do with their roots as designers and the values that they internalized about value, about the value of their work, about the value of design. I have my own biases here because I don’t have a formal design education, but I’ve worked with many people who do, and I feel I’ve seen certain patterns in how they think about their work.

I feel like I meet a lot of people who came out of formal design education with the idea that their job was to be the conduit for universal principles of design truth through their work. And their job was to go to school, absorb all these principles so fully that they could apply them in any context that they found themselves in.

And their job was to show up and be the expert on grids and typography and all of those kinds of things. And so they never really thought of themselves as designers of systems or systems thinkers. But then if you do think of yourself in that way, then the question becomes, well, What are the boundaries of your practice? If my job is to be a systems thinker, trying to humanize the systems of the world, what’s off limits for me then? And what is within the bounds of designer outside the bounds of design?

Because a lot of the strategic decisions that you’re talking about making, often, especially in a smaller company, you’ve got to go all the way up to the CEO before you have somebody who has that level of power, and designers have to be invited into those conversations, to Peter’s point, by product people, by business people. And some designers may need to reframe their understanding of themselves and their work in order to make this transition.

Erika: Absolutely. yeah, and I think a lot of design schools need to change. None of us here were educated as quote unquote designers, right?

Peter: Journalism, anthropology, and you’re philosophy…

Erika: Philosophy

Peter: …what, philosophy? So, you just like to ask questions.

Erika: Yes, I do. And teach people how to ask questions because nobody is incentivized to ask annoying questions.

Jesse: I want to ask about asking annoying questions, because Peter touched on the idea that people outside an organization have more latitude to ask questions than those inside because of the constraints of the power structure and power dynamics. To what extent do you feel it is the role of design across all contexts to be questioning the fundamentals of whatever the business context is that they’ve found themselves in?

Erika: I think that is central to the work. I think if you’re a designer, you’re a person who asks questions. I think you can be a craftsperson and not ask questions. You can be a stylist and not ask questions. You can be a maker and not ask questions, but I think if you’re a designer, that word implies a certain amount of power and influence.

And the systems we’re talking about designing now are so complex that it’s very, very rare that the designer is an auteur in the way we used to think about it. Like our idea of a designer. Oh, a Paul Rand or…

Peter: Dieter Rams or something.

Erika: I just think the things we’re designing, ‘cause they are systems, they’re beyond any one person. So I think that being the person who frames the problem, being the person who asks questions, that is core to calling yourself a designer.

Jesse: Problem framing, problem reframing, mean that any internal design leader necessarily takes up this, yeah, permanent antagonist role among the senior leaders of an organization, because they are the one who is there to question what everybody else is putting on the table.

Erika: Yeah, but is a questioner necessarily an antagonist?

Jesse: It’s very difficult not to be received as an antagonist as a questioner, I can say that from experience.

Erika: The practice of design is creation and criticism in dialogue with one another. And I think we’ve emphasized creation and completely lost the sense of criticism, even though that’s fundamental, that’s one half of that dialectic. And I think it’s necessary to do the best work, to create positive change and people have to get comfortable with it and not think of it, like an antagonist.

Peter: We’ve delegated criticism to AB testing or other forms of after-the-fact validation as opposed to the work itself. Because companies are willing to change based on metrics. But, the only criticism that happens internally is crits within a design org, but not say within that broader product development practice.

So you talked about the role of design as being creation and criticism. And I also see the role of design as humanism, we’re bringing a humanistic lens into an environment, primarily dominated by business, whatever that means, metrics-driven thinking, data-driven thinking, or technologically minded thinking. And so, I don’t even know if it’s necessarily questioning so much as it is a new or a different mode of inquiry, different mode of framing. Business is a mode of inquiry, business, MBA-ish-ness is a mode of inquiry. There’s a mindset or perspective there, that have become dominant within these organizations, and I think what you’re arguing for, Erika, is design as an additional mode of framing and inquiry.

I mean, we were making fun before we were recording of the social science stuff that you have on your bookshelf there, but it’s bringing with it potentially this whole social science and humanistic mode of understanding that has been, if not lost within organizations, it’s been relegated to a secondary or tertiary status within organizations with market research or other kinds of after-the-fact reactions to what is being done, but not before-the-fact, informers, of what is to be done.

Erika: My primary issue with the field of design right now is that the discussion is so shallow.  I don’t get the sense that the field is particularly coherent because there is research and inquiry being done and it’s completely disconnected from practice.

And the practice has been completely subsumed into, like, business and engineering. And then people talk about the wish for design to have a so-called place at the table, but they don’t mean that, so often. They don’t mean, “I want design to be engaging at this deep level.” What they mean is, “I want business and engineering to listen to my ideas and tell me I’m smart.”

Jesse: Right.

Erika: Right? Because the sad truth, the bummer about confronting what it means to be a designer in our current context, is that it doesn’t have individual ownership and you can’t show it in a portfolio.

And I think a lot of people get into design because they really love and enjoy graphic design. I love and enjoy graphic design. But the part of the work that’s visible, that’s tangible, that’s a very unimportant part of the work at this point.

I think the actual work of design is invisible and complicated and not appealing to a lot of people who came into the field to work on particular parts of the process.

Music break

Jesse: We had a product management person, Melissa Perri, on the show a couple of weeks ago.

Erika: Oh yeah. I know her. I’ve been at conferences with her.

Jesse: Yeah. Yeah, we had a great conversation. And one of the things that she said, from her perspective as a product manager who lives in that world all the time, is that, and I’m going to paraphrase, and I hope I don’t mischaracterize what she said, basically she said that most of the designers that she’s worked with can’t be trusted with the kinds of decisions that you’re talking about, because they will torpedo your business in the name of serving humanity, and then don’t give a shit about the consequences.

How accurate do you think that perception is? And if it’s not that accurate, what do designers need to do to change it?

Erika: I want to meet the designer, like, powerful enough to torpedo a business. I the name of humanity.

Jesse: Well, this is the reason given for why designers are not invited to the conversations that you’re talking about, is that they care too much about people. They aren’t going to look out for the needs of the business. They’re going to sink your boat.

Erika: Yeah. I agree with that because, going back to the very start of our conversation, I want designers to understand that the business model is their grid. Yeah. I think designers are ignorant about business. Because it’s never been presented to them as part of their concern. That’s my whole point.

And so, yeah. Designers will come in and because they’ve been led to understand that their work is only on the user side, they don’t understand that a healthy, functional, sustainable business is actually in the benefit to the customer because how often have we found a product or service that was amazing, great, and user-centered, and wasn’t financially sustainable. You know what happened? It goes away and something shitty and profitable comes in its place. And so what I would tell the designers is, if you are truly an advocate for humans, you will care about the business. Because only if user needs and business needs are truly deeply intertwined are you going to be serving humans.

But designers feel like, “Oh, business is dirty” and fight it. And then they end up in service of its worst aims. Because they have the special, precious identity. So I absolutely agree…

Peter: I see.

Erika: …with Melissa on this.

Peter: Yeah. most designers, without a lot of training or coaching and education, you wouldn’t want to just put them in those contexts or give them the authority to make those decisions.

Erika: It’s not even a lot, the concepts are not complicated. The fundamental concepts of business, the business models themselves are not complicated. Business models are not hard. Conceptually. And then once you understand….

Jesse: Just look at all those MBAs who make them all the time, right?

Peter: They’re geniuses!

Erika: Yeah. So this is the book I’m working on. My next book explaining business models to designers.

Peter: Are you sure you want to say this, because now you’re, beholden to it. Okay.

Erika: I’m absolutely committed, because nobody is talking to designers. Inside of business, people are not talking to them at all, or “Oh, just give me the artifacts.”

Or they keep hearing about the business value of design. Harvard Business Review has been writing… I don’t know if something changed in the publication, but in recent years, they’ve been writing some intelligent stuff about the relationship of customer experience and design and things to the business.

So it’s not conceptually hard, but it is a huge reframing and revaluing. So, from the head, very simple. From the heart and from the identity, because I think as you said earlier, Peter, being tied to the artifacts, that is hard to let go of.

The centrality of the artifact is still a part of a lot of designers’ core identity, and asking somebody to let go of the artifacts that they’ve invested their identity in, that is significant. That takes time. That’s not going to happen overnight or happen at all for some people, if your fundamental orientation is, “I make a certain set of choices and my expertise in guiding this set of choices is tied to my identity.” That’s hard.

Peter: Speaking of identity though, I think there’s flip side of that in-house, which is, if designers start reading your book, they develop confidence around understanding business and business models. They start making connections between what they’re aware of and the business. They start figuring out, “Oh, here’s ways that the research that we’re doing could actually drive different ways of thinking about exchange of value.” You know, imagine a moderately complex service system. “We can shift value from one part of it to another and satisfy customers while lowering costs,” and designers start saying this, then you’re going to get a bunch of MBAs saying, “Who the fuck are you? That’s my job.” And those MBAs are going to be like, “Yeah, but did you go to Harvard? Have you worked at McKinsey? Are your spreadsheets going out to the eighth decimal point?”

Jesse: They’regoing to Pat you on the head and say, that’s so cute. Please go back to your desk.

Peter: For the listeners at home, Erika just showed a section of her book that read, “Put an MBA out of work.” But there’s going to be a challenge for the designer, as Jesse was just referring to, even if they are right, even if they are grounded, to develop that credibility so that they are not dismissed, so that they are not marginalized because in applying their background, their understanding, their humanistic design and experience-led understanding to, authentically, honestly, rigorously, intelligently shift the conversation around business, business value, business models, inflows and outflows, they are going to be running up against a different way of considering business, that is more mechanistic. That is less humanistic.

Erika: More quantitative, all of that.

Peter: More quantitative. All of that. I mean, not that the designer’s approach won’t have quantitative in it, but there’s, much bigger, values frameworks at play now.

And, in most companies, those values frameworks are dominated by, uh, mechanistic mode.

Research is an interesting contributor to this, user research, customer research, market research. How does this all get woven together in a way that these newer frameworks, newer foundations, newer perspectives in this conversation are understood and accepted as opposed to just push back and reject it.

Erika: I have an answer for that because so much of my consulting work now is, How do we use evidence to influence decision making? And what you described is just a subcategory of that. ‘Cause I think the big blind spot that a lot of designers and researchers have is taking the tools of ethnography and turning them on the organization, ‘cause the organization is the social context of decision making. So it’s just humans in the same way that you understand humans outside the organization in order to sell products and services to them, or create products and services that fit into their lives and culture and match their mental model.

You take the exact same process and turn it internally. So you go to that MBA. If you genuinely care about your customer, your user and you want to make their life easier, you don’t go to them and say, “Hey, stupid customer. I know better than you stop doing the stupid thing.”

Yeah. That’s not how it works. You’re like, this customer already values this set of things, this set of context is meaningful to them. Let’s position our value prop in terms of what’s already meaningful to them. Exact same process, except building empathy among your coworkers is much harder cause people out in the world, you don’t have to deal with them on Zoom or whatever. I used to say, “You don’t run into them in the office kitchen.” So it’s actually much harder to build empathy among people within an organization, but this is incredibly valuable and completely within the skillset and purview of all designers.

So what you do is you go to that MBA and you say, “Hey, I want to understand your mindset.” This is the questioning, and this is why questioning is not antagonistic because you go to them in a genuine, from your heart, Dale Carnegie, making friends and influencing people, kind of way. And you sit down and you’re like, “I, as a designer, want to make you as the MBA business analyst, whatever, I want to make you feel more successful. And I need to understand your job, ‘cause I feel like I don’t understand your work at all. And I want to understand your work. Tell me about your work. Tell me about your day. Tell me about it, how you see success. Tell me about your concerns and your anxieties.”

And just by inquiring, just by setting aside your own agenda, just by openly asking questions like that, yeah, you are building rapport and you are building a bridge, and now you also know how to frame your work in terms that are meaningful to them.

It’s exactly the process of user-centered design, but internally, and people don’t do this. And if you want your ideas to be listened to, to be taken seriously, you start by inquiry. And so now you can build a partnership and work with them to say, “Hey, I know you’re concerned about business success. I know you’re concerned about quarterly reporting, but whatever. And now, because I understand your world better, I can help bring our world closer in alignment,” or, “Hey, I have a view of customer value that’s meaningful to you.” And if you understand that person, and you’ve really asked questions, you know, to not all of a sudden do this brain dump of like, “Oh, but I know better than you.”

And I’ve talked to designers and researchers who still have this idea about like, “Oh, I know better.” Then the stakeholders, the business leaders, like, we have a special kind of understanding the hardest thing for designers and researchers in this position is letting go of the idea that they’re better than the MBA.

And that is a hard mind shift to be more effective in your own work. As a designer, you have to let go of the idea that you’re better or more special, and then you will be effective and you will have more influence because people inside the organization follow the same rules of relationship building and cognition and emotion-based decision making that people outside the organization do.

Jesse: I think there are a couple of factors to making that transition for designers, that transition in mindset. Part of it is, to your earlier point, letting go of what can feel like the moral high ground as the stewards of humanism and humanity in the organization, the ones who were always there to remind people to do the right thing.

Right.  And then the other part of it is letting go of the idea that your value comes from having all the right answers and embracing the idea that your value comes from having all the right questions.

Erika: Yes. Oh, thank you. Yes. That was like a gift. Exactly.

Music break 2

Jesse: So a lot of the folks who’ve listened to this show are in-house design leaders who manage teams of designers. And what we’ve heard from some of these folks is that they are able to establish these cultural values within their own design teams, but then when their folks go out and engage with their partners in other parts of the business, there’s this real culture conflict that comes up.

It reminds me a little bit of the situation that I frequently found myself in at Adaptive Path where one thing that I insisted on is every designer presents their own work. Which meant that I sometimes was putting very junior designers in front of very senior stakeholders.

And then I had to explain to the stakeholders why they needed to listen to my junior designer. And part of that was just getting them to understand that our junior designers are not like your junior designers in-house. They have a very different mindset and a very different skillset. But part of it, I think, is just opening the door to engaging with a different culture on the part of these stakeholders and the role of the design leader in this I feel is somehow to create that opening, create that space for a peer or business stakeholder or a partner to even consider what your designer has to say.

And I’m curious about your experience, especially as a consultant, where you’re engaging, I mean, you’ve been a design consultant for many, many years now, and engaging with these organizations as an outsider. How does an in-house design leader build that credibility? Not just for themselves, but for their entire team, so that all of their partners across the business take all of their designers more seriously?

Erika: It is harder. It’s a longer process coming from inside than outside because you have the mandate coming in from outside, you know, to come in and say, “Why do you do it like this?” And you won’t get fired.

Inside, it’s the same, it’s one conversation at a time, it’s coming in with a very clear agenda, and this should be easier for designers because designers have the concept in their role of understanding other cultures. So you go to them and you say, we want to understand you better so that our work serves and supports you. And you focus on the rapport building, but you can’t come in with answers, you come in with questions, but the questions that feel that they come from a genuine place of interest and support, and that is so powerful.

I do that simple exercise when I run workshops. And I’ve run a lot of, research workshops with in-house teams. And I just have them interview each other about your boring stupid job for 10 minutes. And it is so powerful. I have seen, like, all teams and organizations change after 20 minutes of, “Oh, we’re going to ask each other what you did at work,” which sounds too… everybody wants a named methodology, a technique, a silver bullet.

It’s talking to people and more importantly, it’s listening to people, which sounds so boring and cheap and like it shouldn’t work, but the most powerful way to influence somebody is to not care about looking smart.

This is every in-house, external, whatever. That’s every designer’s issue. I” have to prove how smart I am.” You have to set that aside and say, “No, I am genuinely going to value and listen to this person in front of me.” There is nothing more powerful than that. And that’s what will make you smarter. That’s what will make you more effective.

Now coming to them and saying, “Oh, I’m going to prove something to you.” I turn down every engagement where somebody comes to me and says, “Oh, I want to work with you on this so that we can prove to the CEO how smart our team is, how accomplished, how much knowledge we have.” I’m like, that’s a losing proposition. You have to listen to them like really deeply and intentionally and, and, completely seriously listen to them and that’s powerful. And then you’ll know that at some point you can come back and demonstrate that you heard them, and it’s not like fake, active listening, surface bullshit.

It’s really caring and really hearing. And if you do that, you can change people’s minds. You can change organizations. I’ve gone in and done it coming in from the outside. It’s possible from the inside. It’s not easy. It’s annoying. It’s not ego-supporting, but it works.

Google did that big two-year Project Aristotle study or whatever. And they found out what makes teams go is psychological safety. You know this from your work at Adaptive Path, you know how much fear there is, how people are just afraid of letting their guard down in front of each other. And that’s what leads to bad work and bad working experiences, and people can’t critique and criticize each other’s work unless they have that trust. Which means, if you don’t really want good things for everybody you work with, then you can’t criticize them, and then shitty stuff is going to get out into the world, because nobody’s going to stop it. ‘Cause you don’t have that kind of relationship within your organization.

Peter: You just talked about, how it’s easier to empathize with your customer than with your colleagues. What strikes me is, not what you’d expect, right? You’re working with these people, you’re collaborating with them. You’re trying to get stuff done with them.

It should be easier to empathize with them, ‘cause you have a firmer understanding of their context. But I also know what you’re saying must be true because it comes up again and again, it’s become almost a cliche to say about designers, that they have way more empathy for their users than their colleagues. And I’m curious if you have a hypothesis or even data, evidence, as to why it’s easier to empathize with the person at the other end of your product or service than someone you’re collaborating with to make that product or service.

Erika: Oh, yes. Oh yes. I have an answer because, often your interests are much more aligned with somebody out in the world because of the way organizations structurally put people in opposition to each other. And part of that is the framing of answers being more valuable than questions, individuals and teams within organizations are often in competition for whose idea wins. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes you have brainstorming meetings.

I think people should never brainstorm ideas. People should only brainstorm and prioritize questions, because when you brainstorm ideas, you’re putting a team in competition with each other for who’s smartest. because of the way the organization incentivizes people or recognizes people or funds people.

The way relationships are set up, so it’s not bananas that you would have a harder time empathizing with people, because a lot of times you’re next to each other, which means your differences are highlighted more, ‘cause the differences are tangible every day.

Whereas the customer, right, the only part of their life that you intersect with is, like you said, the 15 minutes they use your product. The rest of the time the customer could do whatever, they could listen to music you hate, they could, like, like food you don’t like, but in an organization you’re up against each other all the time.

Peter: Yeah, it’s a little bit like that Upton Sinclair quote. It doesn’t pay me to understand you, so I’m not going to learn about you because if I actually understand you, because of how things are structured, I might somehow lessen in the overall context of the organization, cause I might be enabling your success. And somehow our organization has set that up as a bit of a zero sum game. So, your success means my less success because you’re the one now getting the plaudits, the recognition, you get a promotion, et cetera.

if I help you do that, at best I’ve remained flat, but at worst now I am secondary. I am a sub to you. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that makes a lot that’s sense.

Well, we talked a lot about, cultures within corporations, within organizations. And one of the challenges that design leaders face is that, we’re all the product of decades of experiences that have acculturated us, and design leaders tend to have a different set of experiences than product management leaders and engineering leaders and marketing leaders.

And so all these different cultures are expected, now with psychological safety, to collaborate. They don’t recognize just how different perspectives and starting points are of all these folks. And very little has done to try to ameliorate that or mitigate that.

Erika: Yeah, it should be somebody’s paid job to essentially do interaction design on internal communication, but people act like that should just happen, and it won’t.

Peter:  Thank you, Erika, for joining us.

Jesse: Anything you want to plug while we’re here?

 Erika: Yeah. If you want me to come in and help your team make better decisions or yell at any particular subset of people, that’s what I do. I’m a consultant.

Peter: Excellent.

Jesse: Thank you so much, Erika.

Erika: Thank you. This has been fun.

Jesse: You can find Erika’s company Mule Design Studio at http://muledesign.com. You can also find me and Peter on the internet. You can find us on Twitter. You can find us on LinkedIn. He’s @peterme, I’m @jjg. You can find past episodes and transcripts for this podcast on our website, https://findingourway.design/. We’ll see you soon.

One thought on “20—The business model is the new grid, and other mindbombs (ft. Erika Hall)

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