Gregorio Convertino, Nancy Frishberg
Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.
Building on Archimedes' famous quote, we can metaphorically view strategic alliances as levers that can be used to move an organization toward its desired state. An alliance consists of two or more leaders pursuing a shared strategic goal within an organization. In this article we tell two stories of alliances involving UX leaders and their partners, focusing on the impact they had on real organizations.
A Strategic Alliance Between Technology and UX Leaders
Here is a story of how a UX leader formed a long-lasting alliance with a chief technology officer (CTO) at a data-management software company. Before diving into this alliance narrative, let us outline the roles of the two leaders involved.
The UX leader managed a small team of UX professionals. The CTO was part of executive management. Interestingly, the CTO role has both inward- and outward-facing aspects. Looking outward, the CTO communicates to the customers and trade press: "Here is what our technology can do for your business and the ways in which it can positively impact your strategy." They then listen carefully to the feedback on current and planned product initiatives. Looking inward, they strategize with engineering leaders, the CEO, and other executives. They communicate to these fellow leaders: "Here is where our customers' businesses are going, so this is how our technology strategy needs to evolve and change to create value for both them and us."
In this instance, the alliance between the two roles (CTO James Markarian and UX leader Liam Friedland) changed the culture and the product portfolio of their company, Informatica. At the outset, there had been competitive concerns around smaller, more agile companies placing a lot of emphasis on innovation in the user experience of their products. In response, Informatica needed to reinforce its competitive thought leadership in the marketplace. It had pioneered the original graphical user interface for ETL (extract, transform, load) products and thus had defined the reference UX in this market area.
Drawing on this clear message, Markarian and Friedland built an alliance on the shared mission of delivering better, more integrated user experiences across the Informatica product portfolio. They operated at two levels: organizational culture and product innovation. To change the culture, they periodically influenced the internal-facing communication so that the business leaders gradually became co-owners of the vision initiated by the CTO and UX leader, to promote better product design as a competitive advantage.
To improve the products, they cooperated on product innovation, ranging from incremental to radical innovation initiatives. Here is an illustrative anecdote from Liam:
We were conducting generative user research with professionals responsible for data quality and data profiling with the aim of improving our existing data-profiling products. We had met with a couple of lead users—in the sense of Eric A. von Hippel (MIT Sloan School of Management) —who understood both the business and technology, and were deeply reflective about their work practices. We realized there was an opportunity for a newproduct combining data quality, data profiling, and data manipulation in a radically simplified way. After about four to five pitches over a period of a few years, we found a visionary executive who took on the challenge of building a newproduct solution from the ground up. Today this is one of the most well-liked products in the company portfolio.
It's a story of persistence and impactful collaboration between the two leaders. Working on both culture and innovation concurrently helped in the long run. In other words, just because your idea is not accepted the first time doesn't mean it's not good enough. Often this initial rejection may just indicate that you're competing for attention with other ideas, budgets, incentives, and value networks.
Relationship Maps to Track Contributors in a Distributed Project
In 2017, Michael Polivka was the director and chief of staff to the VP of experience design ("XD") at Autodesk. The XD organization blossomed to a decentralized 18-employee team responsible for improving the state of design throughout the 8,000-employee company. Initiatives were treated as targeted programs to effect change at scale. Although the XD team was small and expectations for impact were high, Polivka used relationship maps to build a cross-disciplinary team in order to support one of his primary goals for the year: the setup, rollout, and adoption of a specific tool available to all employees to share and communicate about design.
While the XD team was small, it had help. It leveraged alliances with the many clusters of designers distributed across the company. Designers and "friends of design" expressed interest in being part of the team's programs. Polivka had already curated a "volunteer army" mostly from the 400 designers (white circles in Figure 1) embedded within product teams across the company—each with unique and important value. The radial graphic in Figure 1 illustrates the challenge for the small XD practice (18 employees) as part of the product organization (4,000 employees) of Autodesk (8,000 employees). Success would be defined as leading and influencing many, rather than by dictating to or managing specific employees. This success metric called for more than an org chart—it required a relationship map.
|Figure 1. Snapshot of the org chart at the start of the project. Source: Autodesk Research, 2017.|
Relationship maps are both a mindset and a technique. They're a mashup of a stakeholder map and a strategic plan. Rather than an org chart (where all relationships are hierarchical), a relationship map is built on networking, collegial interactions, and impromptu team collaboration across a wide variety of persons and focus areas. Here, a DesignOps effort to establish a single tool as a company-wide design tool used a relationship map to create a cross-divisional temporary team to make it all happen.
InVision was selected as the tool of choice based on the need, identified through internal research, for modern and centralized design tools that could be used by designers, engineers, product leaders, and executives alike. This selection also supported Polivka's position that designers needed to take responsibility for their own success in the organization. In addition, a tool available to everyone in the company would strengthen transparency and provide the necessary visibility to showcase the importance of design in an engineering-centric organization.
A relationship map is built on networking, collegial interactions, and impromptu team collaboration.
Polivka assembled a pool of stellar employees to become the (temporary) Tools and Resources task force. He then ensured the definition of success was agreed upon upfront, a key tenet of collaboration, by crafting a vision statement with the team. The premise was to introduce radical design collaboration using common tools and resources for prototyping, designing, and production.
In order to keep the effort moving, and to meet with the intended launch schedule, several key operating principles were fostered:
- Agree upfront on the definition of success (as above). Make it clear, and make sure everyone on the team signs on.
- Don't just take people's time, which was especially important in this case because the individuals didn't report to him. Instead, make sure you're giving something in return that's equally valuable. This can be recognition, or a career purpose above their day-to-day-jobs.
- Make human interactions align with common values. These vary by person, but particularly strong and common values include growth, learning, betterment, and impact.
- Leave a positive impression. This was XD's first opportunity for a major rollout within a large organization—but it wouldn't be the last. Ensure fellowship for upcoming efforts as well by planning for the long term.
- Express gratitude (but don't expect it in return) through emails, awards, meals out together, and appreciative messages to participants' managers.
Achieving the end goal required one person (Polivka) to harness the energy of a few—those on the temporary task force, plus two executives (one person in finance, one in legal), someone in procurement, five in IT (for enterprise rollout with single sign-on), and seven from InVision's support team—to cause change at scale across an 8,000-employee, 35-year-old software company. Using his relationship map, Polivka was able to identify the seven key relationships on this project for him to manage. This allowed him to lead the effort to completion while not getting overwhelmed by all the moving parts. As this was only one of several key projects for the year, Polivka's attention was needed for managing other projects too.
The impact was amazing. The corporate deployment of InVision was successfully launched in April 2017. Employees simply visited an internal URL and their account was created on the fly. By November, only seven months later, over 1,900 employees located in 36 different countries had subscribed. Notice that 1,900 employees is much greater than the 400 designers in the company; the implication is that marketing, engineering, and executives were all now in a common company-wide design tool for the first time. The low barrier to entry enabled the creation of over 1,800 projects containing 40,000 screens, with an average of 25 new projects being created each week.
In the end, the relationship map was a powerful tool that facilitated cultural change, including "radical design collaboration" with participation by more than the designated designers. It also supported new practices as a result of this collaboration, including universal access to a specific tool via single sign-on.
Lessons You Can Transfer to Your Organization
The first story teaches us that the initial step of listening to customers from two perspectives can seed an alliance based on a common problem and thus a shared business goal. In addition, the message about that common problem and business solution must be repeated and shared across the organization. This process of repetition along with persistence and patience pays off! These actions prepared the organization to endorse the change, all the way up through attracting an executive champion. The story also highlights the need to understand the intrinsic business factors that influence people's behavior within organizations. A good idea for a new product, process, or initiative may not be accepted immediately if it conflicts with plans already in motion for that business. This story also reflects broader lessons about building the right organizational culture, reported in Friedland's own "Culture Eats UX Strategy for Breakfast" Interactions article .
The second story offers a method and model for working outside of the official hierarchical organizational structure to achieve a cross-functional goal. Key to Autodesk's success at launching company-wide access to a specific tool was the ability of the UX leader to harness the energy and time of a range of people. Their participation was motivated by goal alignment and maintained with regular communication and milestones (as with any project), and was bolstered by a variety of soft rewards (including recognition, gratitude, and communication with managers).
Resuming the metaphor of alliances as levers, we aim to create a guidebook for building organizational alliances that can inform UX leaders and their colleagues. The guidebook will illustrate how to create circumstances and shared values to promote great partnerships. We are collecting additional stories of cross-functional collaborations involving UX leaders. We invite you to contact us and share your alliance success (or failure) narrative. UX leaders around the world will benefit from both.
We recognize that the exact process documented in every alliance story will not be instantly transferable into every context. Corporate culture, UX organization maturity, energy levels, budgets, and business conditions vary greatly across companies. We hope these stories will inspire you and provide some insight into defining and implementing your own version of collaborative UX leadership.
1. von Hippel, E. Democratizing Innovation. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, April 2005; https://ssrn.com/abstract=712763
2. Friedland, L. Culture easts UX strategy for breakfast. Interactions 26, 5 (Sept.–Oct. 2019).
Gregorio Convertino is a user experience (UX) research manager at Google and does research on Google's material design system. Previously, he has managed UX teams at Cloudera and Informatica, led research on software products (e.g., data analytics tools), and worked as a human-computer interaction (HCI) research scientist at Xerox PARC. [email protected]
Nancy Frishberg works as a UX researcher and strategist in private practice. Recently she's undertaken the concept testing of health and wellness systems for a large tech company, and improving the California Voter Guide in collaboration with responsible county officials. She has been a member of the local SIGCHI Chapter, BayCHI.org, for more than 25 years. [email protected]
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