Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"The glue" & Sara Little Turnbull

Last month, I had lunch with Sara Little Turnbull, Director of the Process of Change, Innovation, & Design Laboratory of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Eighty-seven years of age, Sara has been a trusted advisor to corporate CEOs, national governments, and universities for decades, and she understood the importance to business of design to improve user experiences long before any of us.

I've had the great privilege of interviewing Sara on stage at two events: a BayCHI meeting at PARC during January of 2002, then again during the closing plenary of the first Designing for User Experiences conference during June of 2003 ( Later during 2003, I brought Sara into Yahoo! to speak to User Experience & Design personnel while I was working at Yahoo! as a consulting user experience research manager and a product development process advisor.

According to Sara, effective design emerges at the intersection of culture and commerce; hence, a deep understanding of how cultures solve problems can give businesses a competitive advantage. Hence, she has used her training in design and cultural anthropology, and her wonderful enthusiasm, to help her do what I have worked to do at Yahoo! and elsewhere: bring the worlds of design, business, and engineering much closer together.

Over lunch, my conversation with Sara was initially wide-ranging, including discussing Paul Saffo's claim that good management kills innovation (see my earlier posting on this) as well as what Bill Gates' mother would say many years ago whenever Sara asked her what the then young and unknown Bill was up to when the two good friends got together for coffee. But soon, the conversation became focused on glue.

I spoke with Sara about some of my efforts at integrating design and research and product management and marketing and ... -- at strategically increasing collaboration among multiple types of expertise and organizations -- and about the challenges of finding good opportunities to do that kind of work in a substantive way. Sara spoke of the challenges she has had in bringing multiple disciplines together both in businesses and at Stanford, and the cultural forces that tend to resist such collaboration, though the benefit is huge.

As put by Sara, I am a good example of "the glue" that most companies need, and I have the advantage of being very good at making it possible for people to express themselves effectively, as Sara has experienced in my conversations with her both on and off stage. But as also put by Sara, few companies recognize their need for that glue, and few companies understand that needed leadership involves making it possible for employees to express themselves in an effective way.

Does your company include people who effectively play the role of "glue"? What do you think of Sara's claim of the importance of such a role? Do you feel that your perspective and expertise gets heard and is involved in the best ways at the best times in your workplace?

For more on Sara, see:

  1. Lawrence, P. Stanford's Sara Little Turnbull on design. @issue, 7(1), 2001.
  2. Malone, E. DUX -- Five lessons learned. Boxes and Arrows, June 30, 2003.
  3. Vienne, V. The why of it all. Metropolis Magazine, November 2001.