What does it mean to be strategically relevant? It means executives consider you a trusted advisor. It also means other disciplines—such as Engineering, Product Management, Business Development, and so on—consider you a partner and want you to participate in strategic decision making, even if they are not required to do so.
At some point, haven’t we all found out, after the fact, that we weren’t included in an important meeting? That’s often, but not always, an indication that the views of UX leaders are not considered relevant when it comes to setting strategy. It’s not enjoyable when that happens—and we’ve both been there. Hopefully, learning the following lessons will help you avoid some of the challenges we’ve faced in making our UX organizations relevant on both tactical and strategic levels. We’ve organized these lessons under the following topics:
- executive sponsorship
- organizational structure
- surrounding yourself with world-class talent
- delivering spectacular results
- focusing on strategic projects
- professional practices
- setting aside time to innovate and evangelize
We’ll talk about executive sponsorship first, because without it, trying to convince product teams that UX can deliver value won’t have the desired impact. You can do a truly stellar job of arguing the value of UX and find that nobody listens. Being right doesn’t matter. In a corporate setting, almost everyone is trying to prove that his or her views are the most important. We’re not trying to suggest that people in companies don’t collaborate. Rather, their goal is to stand out. They’re looking to boost their careers by proving they deliver the most value. So, in many companies, if senior leaders don’t give engineers and product managers incentives to listen to you, they won’t. Executive sponsorship means someone at the executive level supports and defends you and your organization.
When UX is strategically relevant, executives consider you a trusted advisor. Therefore, when you propose an idea, senior leaders listen. The key word here is trust. In fact, in our experience, trust is the most important factor in any aspect of business—or personal—relationships. We cannot stress enough the importance of building trust.
Each of the factors we talk about throughout this column promotes trust, but let’s explore this important idea a bit more now: Trust assumes an emotional bond. Senior leaders give big projects to people they trust, people who they know will jump through a ring of fire for them, and who will deliver value no matter what. More importantly, if executives trust you personally—and it is about your personal accountability—they will listen. If not, they won’t. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) said something very apropos to the concept of trust.
“You cannot displace through logical argumentation a position that was arrived at emotionally.”—Samuel Clemens
The point is: If you haven’t earned trust, no amount of logical argumentation or proof of financial return will help.
Sponsorship is so important that, without it, a smart and very capable UX leader may find it difficult to succeed, where with the right sponsorship, an average leader may in fact thrive. How then, do you get executives to trust you? Many of the tactics we’ll discuss in this column help promote trust and increase the relevance of UX. Our goal is for UX organizations to have the same influence as Product Management and Engineering.
Have you ever encountered someone you thought of as the Golden Child—that is, someone whom everyone seemed to speak of fondly and rally around and who could say or do nothing wrong—or even if he or she said something odd, everyone would forgive with a smile? These are the folks who have the emotional backing of executives and senior leaders who support them—even when they are wrong. This is what you want. You want the positive buzz.
But perhaps you’ve also seen the opposite—people who are incredibly smart, correct in their arguments, and have driven significant revenues, but have never been able to garner the support they seem to deserve? These are the people who lack executive sponsorship. Most of us have found ourselves in the latter group at one time or another. Sometimes, it’s because of the corporate culture, and sometimes it’s because of mistakes we’ve made.
If you find yourself in this latter group even though you’ve exercised the principles this column outlines, do what Klaus Kaasgard of Yahoo! once told me to do—vote with your feet and move to another company. But realize that, at the next company you go to, you’ll need to build a buzz of support for yourself and your organization. You want to be untouchable by any naysayers, which means you need to continually deliver value to your stakeholders.
Most people we speak with seem to believe there is one right organizational structure for UX groups. In our experience, too few people in UX management think deeply enough about this topic and, as a consequence, can find themselves blindsided as a result.
For instance, we’ve both seen UX leaders who defended a centralized UX structure much longer than was healthy. It’s not uncommon, as companies grow from small to medium to large companies, for centralized UX groups to get split up into multiple groups, each reporting into a separate business unit. It’s happened at Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, Yahoo!, TrendMicro, Yellowpages.com, and dozens more. Many UX leaders have found themselves in such a situation. It happens.
Our recommendation is simply: Be aware of the direction in which political winds are blowing and respond proactively—not reactively—to any need for change in your organizational strategy.
Often, UX leaders do not believe they can have an impact on organizational structure, but if you pay attention, you’ll often notice at least subtle opportunities to influence your company’s organizational direction. And if not, at least approach your senior leaders with your thoughts.
Executives look for leaders with strategic flexibility. Strategically flexible leaders—whether in UX or another discipline—do not hold stubbornly to one perspective or strategy because it benefits them personally. Rather, they demonstrate their leadership capacity by showing they can smoothly navigate through the ever-buffeting winds of change. They realistically assess their context and make the right decisions about future directions. Strategically flexible leaders recommend shifts that are best for the business, regardless of whether they benefit personally. This is a difficult point to internalize, but it’s critical for leadership growth. Executives will recognize leaders who show they have the interests of the company at heart as possessing the maturity and insights that warrant their getting promoted up through the organization.
What are some organizational structures that work? Here is a sampling:
- centralized funding model—In this model, one centralized organization receives a large budget, and one UX leader can manage the entire UX organization. Be careful, though, because executives may see a large central organization as a big cost center, and the senior VPs of business units (BUs) may feel a centralized group is not sufficiently accountable to their specific BUs.
- client-funded model—Individual business units fund a central organization that provides UX resources to their product teams. This central organization manages all UX resources. Be careful, because leaders of the BUs may feel that UX practitioners who are not part of their organizations are not central to their business.
- distributed model—In this case, there is no central UX group. Instead, UX practitioners belong to smaller groups, reporting directly into the divisions that develop the products on which they work. Be careful to avoid competition between UX groups. Maintain good communication and share resources, processes, and innovations across UX groups.
- consultancy model—Product teams pay for UX resources on a per-project basis. Internal UX consultancies can deliver significant value, but typically on fewer projects at a time. Ensure that product teams are willing to give you positive testimonials, so you can prove you have helped deliver value.
- hybrid model—Individual business units, divisions, or properties have their own UX teams, and a centralized UX group provides infrastructure, communications, knowledge, and process.
If you’re interested in learning more about these organizational structures, let us know, and we’ll answer your questions—or I’ll write more about them in a future column.
Surrounding Yourself with World-Class Talent
So many have written about the rationale and process for hiring only top performers, it seems almost superfluous to talk about it here. Nonetheless, some UX managers have tried to justify to us the value of hiring average talent. Don’t do it! Especially when you’re first building a group, hire the best.
Imagine you’re in a life-or-death battle for relevance—aren’t you?—and you need to wow an executive. You need to deliver a stunning design. You can’t show them average results and hope they’ll be able to imagine the possibilities. You have to show them results that are so stellar and relevant they exceed the expectations of executives, who could not have imagined such a positive result. You want them to see how UX design can transform market dynamics and increase your company’s competitive advantage. You can’t do that unless you have researchers and designers who can deliver more than what you ask them to produce, who can innovate new solutions, and who know when to leverage existing design patterns. Remember—your reputation and continued survival depend on your ability to regularly deliver breakthrough solutions that change market dynamics.
Being a great researcher or designer is not sufficient to produce this kind of success. Great UX professionals are also:
- accountable—always deliver what they say they will deliver
- results driven
- highly collaborative
- strong advocates—are able to align with and defend a common vision
- open and effective communicators
- attuned to business and financial drivers
As suggested in previous columns, every organization needs to define what great means within their own context, because this can differ somewhat. However, whether you read Harvard Business Review or books from the leading management consultants of our time, they all say basically the same thing: First, hire the best resources, then use these great people to help define your organization’s direction, and finally, use them to produce results that continually knock the socks off your stakeholders.
Phillippe Piernot, a colleague of Jim’s at Yahoo! Inc., suggests hiring designers with multiple skill sets, offering a broader design point of view. For example, hiring visual designers with interaction design skills or interaction designers with technical skills. This also facilitates communication across disciplines. For several reasons, we agree with Phil.
How can you attract the best resources in the world? How do you make sure your interview and selection process supports your hiring only the best? Honestly, that’s a column in itself. How about covering that in the next column?
Delivering Spectacular Results
If you are the Golden Child, coming into an organization with an aura of greatness, you’ll probably have a honeymoon period during which you can set expectations that it will take a year or more before you can produce great solutions. But if you’re like the other 90% of UX leaders in the world, you’ll have a very short period of time in which to demonstrate your value. Nobody will tell you that you have just 90 days to show stellar results, but according to the book The First 90 Days,  that’s about all you have. Whether it’s 80 days or 110 doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have just a short time to show results that knock people’s socks off.
Jim once joined a business council with several Senior VPs who didn’t know him, and in 90 days, his team did what they initially had thought was impossible: They conducted competitive research and prototyped a solution with live code that visibly solved a revenue challenge. This gave his team the recognition they needed to be included at the strategy table and led to their ownership of several highly visible initiatives over the next few years. But achieving this was not easy. The team had to prioritize this project above all others and make some hard decisions about what would not get done. So, his team had to turn down some projects and push out dates for others.
You might say: We can’t turn down projects! The job of a UX leader is to make hard decisions. We recommend you focus on only the highest priority projects and deliver solid examples of your work. If you work on too many discrete projects at one time, you’ll dilute your team’s impact on any given project. Your group will be judged on every deliverable it produces, so if you produce average work, you’ll be considered average. Reasons don’t matter.
What should you do if a product team asks you to provide you some quick-and-dirty designs, saying: Don’t worry, just give us the best you can? Right—don’t do it! A week or a year later, someone will see the quick-and-dirty design and judge you by it. At that point, explaining why the quality is low sounds like justifying poor execution, and nobody wants to listen to someone defending himself.
As Steven Covey says in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,  your reputation is the most valuable thing you possess. As the leader of a UX organization, you are responsible not only for yourself, but for those who work for you, and their reputations also depend on the decisions you make. Always protect your reputation and those of the people who report to you.
Really, delivering spectacular results derives from having the best UX talent in the world. But regardless of who is on your team, your organization needs to build its own internal portfolio of success case studies. You might print 11 x 17-inch glossy UI specs, highlighting market-changing designs, that executives can keep on their desks. You might highlight design patterns on a UX team Web site or deliver brown-bag UX presentations. But whatever you do, you need to show early-and-regular successes. We’ll talk about this more later, under “Setting Aside Time to Innovate and Evangelize.”
Part of delivering spectacular results requires delivering design assets that are highly stimulating visually—or aurally or along whatever dimension is important in your environment. You need to excite sponsors and give them something to show others. You need people to be able to touch your vision and feel it on a visceral level. Visualizations—and even prototypes if you can build them—are some of the most important things you can deliver.
Eric Bollman, Director of Visual Design, at Yahoo! Inc., points out that the aim of visual design is to wow and delight customers. You need to build confidence in executives that you can do that. Without powerful visual design, a product lacks personality, body, and substance. Great results require all of these. A future column will talk more about how important visualization is.