The Argument for Power
As much as I talk about—and believe in—the power of collaboration, I agree with Josh. The fact is that collaboration, in itself, has never made me or my UX teams more relevant to an organization. As a UX leader, once I’ve gotten the support my team needs from senior leaders, I can demonstrate our ability to collaborate—for example, by leading collaborative ideation sessions that align a team around a powerful design-led vision. But, if our partners in Product Management and Engineering do not recognize that they need to collaborate with the UX team, our best arguments cannot sway them. It might take their experiencing a crisis—like eroding profit margins resulting from poor product design—to provide the platform a UX leader needs to demonstrate a UX team’s capabilities. But the bottom line is: someone at the top must first recognize the need for game-changing design—and articulate that others must recognize this as well.
After this conference, I reread Jeffrey Pfeffer’s article “Power Play, in the June 2010 edition of Harvard Business Review.” In this article, Pfeffer tells a story of a woman who is a great collaborator, but has had a difficult time accomplishing her goals. He points this out: “We could soft-pedal what is needed in such situations by talking about leadership skills and emotional intelligence—but why not tell it like it is? What [this person] needed was power.” 
Power First—You Can’t Collaborate Your Way to Relevance
Acknowledging UX professionals’ need for power doesn’t negate the fact that we also need to be great collaborators. But for UX leaders, it does highlight one of our most important functions: To win the support of our organizations’ senior leaders, thereby ensuring the strategic relevance of our UX teams. Of course, to justify the support of senior leaders, we need to continually produce game-changing designs that differentiate our products in the marketplace. For our peers in Engineering and Product Management to accept our ideas in the first place though, they often need to know that User Experience has the support of senior leaders.
If you, as a UX leader, lack an equal voice with your partner disciplines in your organization, what should you do? That’s the challenge. Should you try to make your UX team more strategically relevant? Or should you find a job in another company whose senior leadership already recognizes the value of UX design as a necessary component in strategic decision making?
For many years, I’ve worked hard to prove that User Experience should have an equal voice with Product Management and Engineering. But I now question whether working for a company in which product teams do not fundamentally understand that great design can be a game-changer is worthwhile. With so many products in the marketplace selling better and attracting more users than their competition because of their superior design, I’d rather work for a company where the executives already understand the value of User Experience and empower UX teams by giving them a voice equal to that of the other disciplines.
Let me restate a crucial issue: We need to continually prove our value by exceeding the expectations of our executive staff. The question is whether the executives who drive strategy on product teams tangibly demonstrate their support for design teams. For example, do they invite User Experience to participate in initial roadmap planning sessions? Or do they instead present their strategy to the UX team once it exists? If the latter, I would question whether a UX leader can be effective working in such a company.
In the end, executives either look for reasons to defend UX teams or they exclude them on an emotional basis. Having power means executives support User Experience at crucial moments. They exhibit overt and subtle behaviors that ensure the other disciplines either accept User Experience decisions or do not support them.
For example, a Senior Vice President asked me and a peer in Product Management to present the status of a crucial project. When we were ready to begin our presentation, the executive asked, “How is the three-in-a-box model going?” To translate, he was asking, “Has User Experience had an equal voice with Product Management and Engineering?” When the Director of Product Management began by quickly saying, “I think it’s going pretty well,” the SVP raised his hand, as if to say “wait a minute,” then asked me, “Jim, how’s the three-in-a-box model working on this product?” This PM and I worked together for the next two years, and he never failed to include User Experience in strategic issues. In fact, he often asked me what he could do to ensure we worked better together. This SVP did not have to do much, but he subtly conveyed his belief in the value of User Experience. Thus, I had the power to tell my peers how things needed to change. More important, when User Experience had an equal voice, we built the best products in the history of our organization. If you don’t have any power in a company, working in that company is just not worth the effort. There are many other companies today that do recognize the value of game-changing design.
The Need for Balance of Power
Thus far, I’ve made it clear that User Experience must have an equal voice with Product Management and Engineering. When one of these disciplines has a stronger voice than the others, the design of a company’s products tends to suffer. Pabini Gabriel-Petit explores this topic in depth in her UXmatters article “Sharing Ownership of UX.”
Of course, the reality is that a great design that either fails to solve a market need or lacks a sound technological basis has little chance of success. But it is equally true that a sound product concept—even one with a strong technological foundation—would likely fall behind leading competitors if the product’s user experience were not learnable, usable, and delightful—just look at MySpace as an example.
We know that with a higher-level title—for example, VP or Senior VP of User Experience or Chief Experience Officer—comes more power and the ability to drive greater change and make sure our research-based designs make it to market. Our goals are altruistic: We know that by producing designs that differentiate our companies’ products, we enable our companies to be more successful. My experience proves this.
The challenge we confront is that our colleagues in other disciplines have similar beliefs regarding their own disciplines: If only they could get more power to influence and drive the product vision, the company would be more successful. So situations arise where each discipline wants to have the most power—to drive their visions and ensure success. What can we do, then, to overcome this seeming impasse?
As UX leaders, we need to recognize when we have either too much or too little power. Let’s be honest: Too much power might mean your products are highly discoverable, learnable, and delightful, but run the risk of having poor system performance or using technologies that are not scalable. It can also mean your products cost too much to build or don’t include some of the most critical capabilities.