Friday, June 15, 2007

Breaking silos

In an April blog posting entitled, "Breaking silos," David Armano described the value of shared project ownership among multiple Flash/Ajax developers in his place of work.
"Each touches a part of the project... Sometimes it's at the same time. Other times it's not. No one has clear ownership... Territories don't exist... It's a shared goal -- a purpose. ... It's organic. It's collaborative. It works."
And he suggests that others can benefit similarly:
"Tip for all the executives out there. ... If you find yourself working in silos -- ask yourself why this is. If our people in the trenches can work this way -- so can we."
However, is sharing ownership across disciplines or functions or business units like sharing ownership among multiple Flash/Ajax developers?

In the world of user experience, one of the challenges to shared ownership across disciplines is the lack of respect some disciplines have for others. Bill Buxton and Cliff Nass discussed the difficulty some people have trusting the expertise of others during my interview of the two of them on stage at CHI 99. Some of Cliff's words on this matter:
"There's been this idea that somehow design is this richy democratic process where we all listen to each other, we're all expert, we all take each other seriously. I don't think that is fully true. I think a better model is that we figure out who knows the most about an area and listen to them most closely. The artist should listen to the social scientists about social science and to the technologists about informed about the true constraints and the opportunities. But the artists have to be trusted to do art; social scientists and technologists shouldn't be doing art. Nor should artists be doing technology. Since it's really hard to be good at one of these things...let alone two or even three...I think that division of labor makes sense. This idea of participatory design is a good one, but not when it means the abdication of expertise.

I was once teaching a class at Stanford, which often has these democratic impulses, and I said, 'I can't remember who said this particular quotation: A or B.' One of the students raised their hand and said, 'Well, let's take a vote on it!' That idea about voting about facts...about voting about what's true, while it is charming and feels good, doesn't result in the best designs."
Some of Bill's words:
"I want to find out how to have the skill of user interface design understood so that people will respect it in the same way that they respect the skill of hacking an operating system or designing a microprocessor. Since the skill of design is not well understood, everybody is an expert, and they all have an equal vote. There's no other discipline that I'm aware of where everybody has an equal vote regardless of their skill or expertise."
Bill said similar things during a presentation at Stanford University earlier this month, telling a story about how the CFO and Head of HR had all sorts of input to product design at Alias | Wavefront (where Bill was Chief Scientist for many years), yet Bill was permitted no input into how corporate finances were handled.

Also earlier this month, the VP of a large user experience organization told me about having earlier in the day cut off a marketing manager who, during a design review, was about to recommend changes to some wording on a redesigned webpage. He explained to the marketing manager that the content personnel had that part of the design covered, and he told me of how his organization's content managers were just starting to get their feet under them again after having had their work messed up for a very long time by product managers. (See "Borrowing from the field of child development..." for references to more stories of this nature.)

However, in a blog entry I posted in March (a posting recently republished in UX Magazine), I referenced situations in which "checking your disciplines at the door" can be beneficial.

And as Claudia Kotchka, VP of Design Innovation & Strategy at P&G, argued during her recent presentation at Stanford, "turf wars are unproductive and never lead to design succeeding."

The issue of ownership of the user experience was among several issues addressed during a CHI conference session I led last month, and session participants had differing perspectives on this issue. One participant advocating shared ownership was Secil Watson, Senior VP of Internet Channel Strategy at Wells Fargo. In my view, Secil's perspective is particularly insightful, as reflected in her words below which come from communication with me prior to the conference session:
"In our Internet channel strategy team, ... we have different disciplines represented: UI design, IA, content strategy, UI development, customer communications, servicing experience, product management, strategic planning, market research, user research, syndicated research, metrics analysis, statistical modelling, process consulting and business and technical architecture.

Their collective goal is to create positive customer experiences, which we believe lead to long term customer value. We think that we can only arrive at positive customer experiences if we collaborate. None of the disciplines can arrive at the right solution in their silos, since they each have a limited vantage point.

The (nearby) 'clover diagram' shows the key questions we all ask, regardless of our competencies. It also shows how achieving positive customer experiences presents an optimization problem. It's not about 'putting the customer at the center'. It's about finding a solution that meets multiple objectives. Finding the solutions require three things: 1. asking the right questions 2. Knowing who to go to to get the right answers 3. Having a culture that supports cross group collaboration (facilitating giving and receiving of help).

Collaboration and integrated work practices are critical. No one discipline can come up with the right answer - they would all only be able to 'locally optimize' their solutions. But putting everyone in the same organization, under the same roof, in the same room are also impractical solutions.

The change has to occur over time and be culturally encouraged: Individuals from different disciplines should know when to ask for another discipline's help, tools and opinions. To facilitate this information sharing, it's also critical that disciplines are open to sharing their tools and findings with other groups.

Asking for and offering help, tools and advice creates an economy of insight. And good insights drive organizations towards a culture that starts asking the right questions more often. At the same time, individuals become better able to connect to the right groups to get the answers to their questions.

My definition of a 'customer centric' culture is where people are asking the right questions to the right people, who are able and willing to collaborate to provide their insights. In such a culture, over time, individuals ask the right questions more often and get the right answers more often. This is a reinforcing feedback loop. As this culture takes hold, more and more of the solutions coming out of the group would yield positive customer experiences. Eventually, the center of the clover would grow...

So, a KPI for 'how customer centric is your organization' would measure how many of the "solutions" an organization creates do fall into the center of the clover as opposed to on one or two of the petals or even worse, outside of the clover."
For more on Secil's approach at Wells Fargo, see "Developing user-centered tools for business planning."