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UX Fiefdoms: Their Dangerous Effects

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
August 8, 2016

Recently, I sat down with the CEO of my company to discuss some topics relating to User Experience. We meet pretty regularly because he is, in general, very interested in getting our customer experience right. Though this was not the focus of our conversation, we talked briefly about the fact that fiefdoms exist in every company, large or small. Some people and groups in every corporation continually seek to create little feudal empires that truly stifle creativity and impede an organization’s ability to move forward.

While our conversation just touched on this topic lightly, it got me thinking about the current state of enterprise UX—where we are in danger of creating fiefdoms. I have previously written about how UX teams are literally in a golden age, finding themselves in unprecedented positions of power and influence within organizations that are finally realizing how critical User Experience is to the success of modern-day products and services. However, the internal actions of our UX teams could easily diminish the positive effects of this golden age.

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Types of Fiefdoms

From the mid 1990s to 2001, Robert Herbold was the COO of Microsoft. Under his tenure, the organization experienced impressive growth in both profits and culture. He wrote a book titled The Fiefdom Syndrome, in which he details the damage that fiefdoms inflict on organizational cultures. In this book, he describes six types of corporate fiefdoms, as follows:

  1. Personal—Fiefdoms that a single, broadly influential individual creates.
  2. Peer—Individuals or groups of individuals that operate their own fiefdoms at the same level.
  3. Divisional—Large product lines or divisions that operate as distinct entities.
  4. Top-Tier—Fiefdoms in which the heads of an organization cut themselves off from the broader organization.
  5. Group—Relatively small groups of people that form around some common task, responsibility, or objective.
  6. Protected—When a top executive or board sanctions, harbors, or even creates a fiefdom and provides long-term protection to it by sheltering it from financial or strategic scrutiny.

Each of these six types of fiefdoms is very dangerous to the organization in which they exist. When I look specifically at the UX organizations within companies, I see two very common types of fiefdoms. Often, these two types combine, which makes them especially difficult to control. The most common type of UX fiefdom is the Group fiefdom, which sometimes results when a UX team is brought into an organization specifically to fix something or has carte-blanche responsibility for design. More and more frequently, this type of fiefdom occurs in combination with a Protected fiefdom, where an executive sponsor was responsible for bringing in the UX team and, by his or her actions or sheer influence, allows such a fiefdom to fester, grow, and, ultimately, infect all parts of the organization before shutting it down.

How Do UX Fiefdoms Operate?

Fiefdoms operate around a very common set of human behaviors. The irony is that, when designing applications and services, UX groups run into other fiefdoms all the time. Over the years, I have consulted with a number of business groups in customers’ organizations where I have seen firsthand the difficulties that exist in designing something that spans multiple fiefdoms.

First and foremost, fiefdoms try to control the data. Fiefdoms thrive when the people within them place more energy and emphasis on demonstrating that they are doing well than on changing their behavior to improve their actual performance. As UX professionals, we see this all the time in business groups. Have you ever tried to design an application that would streamline access to data and task processes across multiple business groups? Suddenly, you hear about the ways in which each business group is unique and learn that each has its own system that the other business groups could not possibly replicate. These are corporate fiefdoms at work, and they destroy an organization’s ability to innovate, grow, and earn respect.

Similarly, whenever UX groups refuse to share information, create their own language and data models, or try to restrict other groups’ access to their methods and operational processes, they are creating their own fiefdoms. This happens whenever a UX group tries to create a moat around design and acts in a way that shows they—and they alone—are responsible for design. In essence, they create a fiefdom that isolates User Experience from the rest of the company.

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Why Are UX Fiefdoms Bad?

In a previous column, I cautioned UX professionals to shy away from the “magical moniker” because it can “falsely build up people’s expectations of what we can do.” However, there is another element to why we should avoid this. Too many UX teams actually like being held in this type of false esteem, not realizing that it isolates them and prevents their successfully integrating User Experience into the fabric of an organization. As UX professionals, we can honestly say that what we do is key to the success of a product or service. But when we claim to be the only ones who can do this work, this perpetuates the UX fiefdom.

Given the fact that so many enterprise UX teams are relatively new and usually comprise talent that has been brought in from the outside to address an organization’s design problems, these groups often exhibit the Protected type of fiefdom. I have worked with customers who have proudly told to me, at every step along the way: “We report directly to the <insert C-level executive here>.” They proudly herald this fact as a way of showing that User Experience has power and influence. However, in corporate cultures, C-level executives come and go. So does protected status. It is not enough for a UX group to have this type of reflected status. It gets them a seat at the table while that protected status persists, but it is what the UX group actually accomplishes that ensures their strategic success and lasting respect.

The important thing to remember about fiefdoms is that they all fall apart eventually. One only has to look at the origination of fiefdoms to see how this could easily happen to User Experience. In the year 1066, King William the Conqueror found that England was too vast for one centralized power to manage effectively, so he divided the land into fiefdoms led by lords in exchange for their loyalty to the king. Each fiefdom became an independent community that had its own set of laws, which made life hell for the serfs. But, eventually, this system collapsed because the serfs began to share information and learn new skills, and a merchant class evolved that shared information through trade.

How Can We Stop Creating UX Fiefdoms?

That last point about merchants sharing information provides an incredible lesson for UX groups. The most successful UX groups with which I’ve come into contact at customers share as much information across all business lines as possible and seek out collaboration opportunities as often as possible—and this is the way I try to lead my own UX team.

According to the original concept of fiefdoms, the ways in which cultures broke them down were tied to overall discipline. For UX groups, this type of discipline can manifest itself in two main ways:

  1. Having the discipline to continually examine what you are doing and trying to improve—You can accomplish this by constantly carrying on a dialogue with your team and other teams throughout your organization. Let others know not only what you do as part of the UX process, but how you do it. Be open to criticism and change. Make sure that you align what your team does to the company’s short-term and long-term strategic objectives. Ensure that your team learns about and deeply understands the business domain in which you are working. Don’t focus just on the design aspects of what you do.
  2. Having the discipline to avoid becoming overconfident about how good you are—In general, people are very easily able to convince themselves that their work and their products or services are better than they actually are. Instead, focus on actively seeking out what problems there might be. A lot of advice for UX groups tells them to herald their successes. But don’t focus just on your successes. Look at your failures, too, and focus on finding out what problems exist that you don’t yet know about.

If you do all of this, you’ll be much better prepared when organizational change inevitably occurs. 

Reference

Herbold, Robert J. The Fiefdom Syndrome: The Turf Battles That Undermine Careers and Companies—and How to Overcome Them. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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