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Closing Panel: Design of Organizations (Video) — Prototypes, Process & Play 2015

Hillary Hartley, Clay Parker Jones, and Peter Merholz were the Day 1 Closing panel at the 2015 Prototypes, Process & Play conference. The panel shared invaluable lessons about how different organizations are structured and organized and how each of them have found success. See what you can learn from their various approaches!

We hope you enjoy the panel and don’t forget to get your tickets for Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th!

Hillary Hartley

Wearer of Many Hats, 18F, USA!

Hillary Hartley is co-founder and deputy executive director at 18F, a digital services consultancy inside the General Services Administration. She came to the GSA as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2013, where she worked on the development of My.USA.gov. Hillary has been working to make government more accessible and available online for nearly two decades, starting as a web designer for Arkansas.gov in 1997. As Director of Integrated Marketing for eGovernment provider NIC, Hillary helped NIC’s 30 state government partners embrace new technology and concepts for a 21st century government. She speaks at events across the country, educating and evangelizing “government 2.0” and customer service/community engagement best practices for government.

For more, keep up with Hillary on Twitter as @hillary.

Clay Parker Jones

Managing Director, Undercurrent

Clay is the Managing Director of Undercurrent, an organizational design unit of Quirky, where he and his team work to restructure organizations for an uncertain world. Undercurrent lives at the edge of organizational theory, applying experimental patterns and behaviors to their internal practices while applying the most successful designs to their customers’ cultures. Through this practice, Clay is developing an Organizational Pattern Language to allow groups of any scale or purpose to move toward more adaptive, more engaging ways of working.

For more, keep up with Clay at clayparkerjones.com or on Twitter as @clayparkerjones.

Peter Merholz

Senior Director, Product Experience, Jawbone

Peter Merholz is a design and product management executive. He is a Sr. Director in Product Experience at Jawbone, the company behind UP fitness trackers. He helped OpenTable launch their redesigned website, and before that was VP of Design at Groupon. He was one of the founders of Adaptive Path, and helped grow it from 7 to 50 people. He’s been writing about design and technology (among other things) at peterme.com for 17 years.

For more, keep up with Peter at peterme.com or on Twitter as @peterme.

Closing Panel: Design of Organizations

Day 1 of Prototypes, Process & Play closes out with a panel featuring 3 very different leaders from 3 very different types of organizations. Clay Parker Jones, Hillary Hartley, and Peter Merholz will describe how their organizations are structured, how and why they’re successful, and then take questions from the moderator and the audience. Get ready to learn from these leaders who have found successes in various organizations–from rapid-growing startups to holacracy to the federal government!

Presentation Transcript

[Applause]

Hillary Hartley:

Hey there. Thank you, Russ. And thanks for having me. I have about five minutes to basically try to put in a nutshell what 18F is and why it’s important and where we’re going. We are in the heart of the U.S. government. In the beginning, there was a thing called the presidential innovation fellowship. This thing still exists. But it started not too long ago. Back in 2012. The CTO and the CIO of the United States at the time along with many other people who made it come to life, but they had this sort of hypothesis that they could get technologists, designers, developers, product people to come into the government for short tours of duty and work on projects with enormous impact. They were right. The first year of fellows, they got over 1,000 applications and picked about 18 people. They decided to do it again the second year. And the second year there were about 40 people in our class and it grew up a little bit. Between the first and the second year they founded a home. They put it inside the GSA, which is the General Services Administration. For those of you who had no idea what the GSA is, I didn’t really, it’s essentially an organization of about 20,000 federal employees all over the country. They are essentially kind of like the chief operating officer for the federal government. They handle procurement, government-wide policy, real estate, and they’re sort of the operations arm for the government.

But they brought the PIF program, as it became known, somewhat perhaps unaffectionately into the GSA for a home. While the White House has a nice megaphone, they don’t have much of a budget. They can’t really operationalize programs like this.

About a year ago, no. About a year and a half ago, December of 2013, there were eight to ten of us who were fellows that had decided we weren’t quite done with our tour of duty. We didn’t feel quite sated with our government service. There was lots of chatter of how do we expand this. How do we take this hypothesis. The PIF program was the MVP. We know we can get people into government and challenge them and give them meaty things to work on. How do we get them to stick around? 18F was really borne out of that. 18F is an a digital consultancy for the U.S. government inside the U.S. government. I’m a federal employee. There are a few other federal employees in the room today. But we work alongside innovators and people trying to get really good projects done in other federal agencies.

And just as a very quick aside, 18F is our little homage to 30 Rock. They’re at the corner of 18 and F streets.

This is our mission. We’ve embarked on a mission to transform the way the U.S. government buys digital services. We’re working with a dozen agencies so help them deliver on their matrix in a design centric and data driven way. We plan to accomplish this by first and foremost putting the needs of the public front and center, first and foremost, being design centric, data driven, and by always continuously shipping.

Mike Bracken of the U.K. government’s decision, they said the strategy is discovery. We are Americans and we stole it and flipped it. But the point is to start. Start the thing. Try the thing. MVP the thing. Iterate and do it again and do it again. A few shots of our team sort of growing up over the last 18 months. This was our first all-hands in March when we were launched to the world from the GSA. The reason I’m showing a couple of these in particular is to illustrate a couple things. One, we’ve grown really fast. There are obvious issues that come along with that growth. Culture, operational, et cetera. And second, to show you from the very, very beginning, the first slide was March, just three months after we had launched. We are committed to a remote and distributed workforce and really work hard at making that work and trying to always be iterating on things that make our lives better as a remote and distributed team.

A couple more shots. Just to sort of show you how we’re growing. We’ve got folks in New York, D.C., Chicago, Austin, Dayton, San Diego, Seattle, North Carolina. How many folks are in the Chicago office now?

Russ Unger:

Seven. It can grow to 30 in the next year if anybody is interested.

Hillary Hartley:

You don’t have to move to D.C. to serve your country. That’s probably the end, the theme of this show. But there are currently about 120 of us. Maybe more actually by the time everybody got started this week, this pay period. But designers, product people, strategists, really working hand in hand with federal agencies. Our stakeholders and our partners there to deliver smart, cost effective, user-centered digital services.

So back to our first order mission, our North Star, really there are a few kind of core values that we try to live and breathe. To not only make our team a high functioning team, but to also model that. Teams that we work with and work alongside in the other federal agencies. So the first one is really, you know, that we intend to lead by example. We lead by instruction with hands-on assistance. Walking hand in hand, taking our stakeholders into a design studio for the very first time. The intent that working with us helps reset expectations from how this stuff can get done from past experiences. And hopefully they go into their future endeavors, whether it’s with us or with another vendor, having a little bit more experience and having raised that bar just a little bit.

We believe that user-centered design can fundamentally change the experience you have with your government. We’re trying to build only what people need, nothing more. User needs are the driver for all decisions. And you know, that may not sound revolutionary to the folks in this room, but within government, the kicker there is user needs. And driving that home with everything that we do. User needs, not stakeholder needs or government needs. You know, there is generally with a lot of the things that we do a business process that is otherwise known as the law, which we cannot circumvent. However, there are all kinds of way to get the user to accomplish the thing they need to accomplish while staying within the framework of bureaucracy or the law or whatever it is. And I think it’s our job to always be hammering that home so that the people that we’re working with begin to understand that putting that first and foremost in your mind can change everything.

We use metrics and analytics to augment the user research that we do. We measure everything, including ourselves. We really do more than make websites. We enable the discovery of information. We enable customers to complete that transaction and we’re trying whenever possible think API first and lead with data. So we’re not just kind of putting shiny bows on things, but we’re laying the foundation and laying the pipes so that someone else can come along and decide what the market needs and build a shiny thing on top of it. Even if we are tandem building something for that agency.

We’re not necessarily a Capital A agile shop across the board, some teams are, but agile and lean methodologies are in all of our work. Early and often, and building something small. Learn by working with real people. Rinse and repeat, et cetera, et cetera. These loops hopefully mean big failures never happen. We’re open by default both what we make and how we work. Everything we build is open source. All of our code is open source. But we also, the acts of doing those things is very much in the open for us. Coding in the open, designing in the open. Using Git Hub and all sorts of tools to help not only our team share, but enable those outward. Engage the public to give us comment and give us feedback. Again, we’re doing these things to make our organization kind of better and able to work better with each other. But at the end of the day it’s really about the transparency piece of it, and you know evangelizing those methods so that the other agencies that we’re working with and the other agencies that sort of drop by our blog and whatever start to see there’s a different way to get this stuff done.

So what is 18F? It’s a hub. I mentioned that we started at the PIF program. The hypothesis was very much centered around is this a people problem? I still think at the end of the day we’re solving a people problem. It’s a hub of people and processes, processes and practices. But solving the people problem, you get the processes and the practices that come along with them. So we’re just a bunch of impact junkies on a mission to help the federal government operate just a little bit better. 18F is change. Thank you.

[Applause]

Russ Unger:

Thank you Hillary. Have a seat at our lovely panel. Next up Mr. Clay Parker Jones. Is it a hyphen?

Clay Parker Jones:

Parker is my middle name. You’re getting it right, I use all three. Just as Clay Jones as an SCO tactic is not very good.

Russ Unger:

I’m learning something new. I first met Clay Parker Jones on the internet because he was a local Chicago lad and I’ll be dammed if he wasn’t making homemade ping-pong paddles.

Clay Parker Jones:

One of them is in the museum in Switzerland.

Russ Unger:

Get out! But he got tired of Chicago and went to New York and landed in this awesome shop called Under Current. Ironically enough Under Current went under last Friday and Clay is going to talk to us a little bit about that. They were one of the few organizations that I think really did holocracy well and talked about it and not in those ways like with Zappos being crazy and scared and Los Vegas upside down. Please talk about organizational structures that you’ve been through and moving toward, et cetera.

Clay Parker Jones:

Will do. And I have the newest, fanciest Macbook. I don’t have slides. I don’t have the adaptor for it. But that’s fine because you can focus on me and not on pictures. I’ll put them on the internet later in all their glory.

Undercurrent. We were an eight-year-old focused on being a digital strategy agency for large, complex organizations, helping them make sense of changes that were happening. Primarily created by information and communications technology and what they really needed to do about that. Over time we realized that essentially the problem wasn’t that they needed for what to do with technology, they just couldn’t actually get anything done, which is why I’m sure we’re both on this panel today. So we over the last couple years have pivoted or have pivoted toward becoming a design consultancy. Helping large organizations and the teams inside of those organizations move more quickly and work in a more dignified way and just achieve more given every minute at work. And we had some really fantastic success. We were purchased about five months ago by Quirky. It’s a hardware startup that you might have heard about in New York City. They are in the process of going out of business, which is why we went out of business, as well. Because they sort of crumbled.

This is not because we operated in a weird way or the changes that we bought weren’t working, it was just a bad acquisition as sometimes acquisitions go. At the end there we were around 32 people. 32 folks all in New York City. Only about three of us were in operational or non-billable management roles. And our purpose was to create ever-better organizations. To build organizations that got better even after we left. So instead of being a typical consultancy where we provide some change, reorganization something, and then come back in three years later when it doesn’t end up working or it doesn’t end up sticking, we wanted to create sustainable, lasting change with organizations. Again, such that we could unbind big, interesting powerful organizations from the consultancies that we had been working with.

Which basically meant we had spent a lot of time traveling to clients, visiting with them, actually coaching teams and helping them adopt new ways of working, new ways of organizing, new ways of doing strategy and bringing things to life. Not all capital A agile and Holocracy. But looking at the conditions of those organizations and looking at a way to change them toward an ever better or ever improving state.

We were ourselves an organization that had gone through a lot of change. Pivoting from a digital strategy consultancy toward an organizational design consultancy essentially meant that every single person that we had hired to become a digital strategist no longer wanted to do what we wanted to do. So we had to completely rebuild the team over the last couple of years. We managed through all of that to actually build one of the most profitable eras of our business ever by adopted the critical components inside of holocracy that we found to be really, really important. And those that were really grounded in this notion of self-organization and consent and sort of a purpose-driven approach to business.

Our organization at the end really had almost no centralized management, no centralized bosses telling people what to do. Not really much formal hierarchy to speak of. Mostly just a notion of a social hierarchy or a tenure-based hierarchy. Many hierarchies within our business at the end, rather than just one based on title differentiation or age or sort of proximity to the top in terms of some of the social friendships that bind our organization together today.

And I believe we were able to move into a better era of work and of operating. Mostly because we adopted some critical principles. First among those was this notion of being purpose driven. So this notion that with this purpose of ever-better organizations, as sort of implicit and vague as that might seem, we were able to actually ask teams that were dedicated to the work to make decisions based on the purpose of the organization, based on the purpose perhaps of their team even. And with that in hand, we actually didn’t have to tell people to do, to operate in a particular way. We didn’t have to tell them to follow any rules. We could just say try to build toward ever-better organizations and you’ll figure out the rest along the way. And it seemed to work. It started to work. When we started to be more clear about what our purpose was and articulate it more frequently — what’s that? Okay, got it. I didn’t know that you were a staffer. I thought you were just telling me “end.”

[Laughter]

That was terrifying. To be fair.

[Laughter]

But that was a very creepy smiley face. Just really quickly the critical principles that we had. Dedicated teams. Never ever sharing of resources among teams. Never anybody who was 50% split across different efforts, which seems to be normal in most consultancies, but it was really a transformative thing for us. This notion that teams couldn’t grow beyond nine people. We had a self-imposed limit on the size, which kept the teams tight. It kept them strong and created a social hierarchy inside of those groups that lives on today. They continue to work with customers even though our business has been dissolved and they continue to operate just as they did in a slack channel and have all of the fun that they used to have.

We exclusively incented teams and not individuals. We never wanted to give bonuses to any individual. And incenting teams exclusively, we were able to build more cohesively. That’s not something that is necessarily built into holocracy, but is critical for us.

Instead of having a team leader, which is normal and expected, we also had a representative from the team that was elected from inside that team to represent their needs at the next level up in our government, if you will, or in our structure. We fixed our prices. We fixed our schedules, and we fixed our team size so instead of a billable rate card or going in and negotiating prices with customers, instead we just said it’s $75K a month for a four-week period. It starts on a particular date, it ends on a particular date. If you want to buy more, you can buy more and you know what those start dates are and it’s always going to be three people on a team. That’s how it works. Essentially we had a blended rate at all times.

We paused every four months for a week off. A week where we shut down to retool and rethink how we operated. So we essentially had four un-billable weeks every single year that we just gave back to the team. We always had one team unbooked. So we always had a bit of slack in our system that allowed us to scale up against a need that was maybe under-scoped. And just in general gave people a chance to take a vacation every once in a while. In general, with a no-vacation policy group, people tend not to take vacations. So you got to push them out the door. And the final thing we did was to ensure that every single decision we ever made was based on the consent of the group. We never made any decisions, except for the ultimate acquisition by Quirky, which we can talk about over drinks, every single decision that we made was based on a consent-oriented decision process that brought everybody’s voice into the process and gave us a sense of speed and grace in the way that we decided how we operated and what our rules would be.

So those are the principles that we used at Under Current to build a business of character and consequence that actually made some change with some big organizations like GE, PepsiC.O., and American Express until its untimely demise.

[Applause]

Russ Unger:

Thank you. You may know Peter from such roles as VP of design at Groupon. At Jaw Bone today.

At one point in time I thought Peter hated me. We were at dinner. I said I thought you used to hate me. I said I’m a sensitive person. He said I’m totally not. I guess this makes sense then. That’s the only thing I have.

Peter Merholz:

I’ll dive right in. I’m currently senior director at Jaw Bone. Most of what I’ll talk about is where I was Groupon, and I was VP of design. A team of 30 people. This was our product organization. All these little balls represents a product team. Product teams had a product manager and some sense of engineering dedicated to it. In fact, Milissa’s talk stole much of my thunder in a great way. I always independently hit upon the idea of what I call the centralized partnership. So what we did was you had all these product teams. We created a set of — I hope it’s not my connection — we created a set of design teams that were dedicated to a sphere of product teams. The product team worked with those teams. And the mobile team worked with those teams, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We were able to maintain that dedicatedness that Milissa talked about through this model. We had some centralized functions like brand and prototyping. Wow, this is just awesome.

Typically a Silicon Valley product team looks something like this. This is how we operated. A designer embedded in each. In Silicon Valley it literally means one designer. Working with a product manager and some set of engineers. This requires hiring unicorns. Braden talked about unicorns earlier today. In my experience you want to think in terms of teams, not individuals. A Voltron would squash five unicorns. Five people working independently won’t be able to produce what five people working together will. Our model, which is beautiful, trust me — (Laughing) — those five or six folks up top are actually a design team. And what they do, there are lines of connection between these various product teams and key individuals on those design teams. Either the head of design for that team or other senior designers. So that is how the product teams know how to talk to in the design team. They always have someone that they can go to. This is the issue that Milissa pointed out with centralized teams that you don’t always know who to go to. You always know who to go to in this model. Again, I called it the centralized partnership. The key is the design teams are maintaining commitment across a meaningful set of products and features, but centralization, the reason we opted for centralization of Groupon was to maintain a holism across the experience. When you get decentralized the experience can break up. When you’re centralized, you can create a more seamless experience from an organizational standpoint.

Another benefit is when product and engineering re-orged, we didn’t. Because our organization, which was based more on our customer journey, the customer journey doesn’t tend to change regardless of what is going on in your organization. The structure of each team, 4-7 people. The most important thing I did was hiring a bunch of team leads. When I joined there were a bunch of designers working on their own. Those team leaders, those design leaders were essential for the success of this model. Finding those senior-level people who can run teams. We can talk more about that during the panel if that’s interesting. But that was the key issue there. We were organized for the customer journey. Again, how does the customer operate? Let’s structure the design teams to map that. Try to be not simply feature focused.

The other thing I wanted to point out, marketing was part of this team, as well. I would love to hear Milissa. If I could have asked her a question, it was around that. If marketing was part of these teams that she is overseeing. If you’re designing for a customer journey. This is an experience map from awareness through purchase and the experience. It’s all one journey.

Thank you.

[Applause]

Russ Unger:

Thank you excellent panelists. I have to apologize. I started texting my wife again. And I have to tell you, too, that she wanted to make sure that I told you all that it’s because I’m texting, not because she texted me. Because this is being recorded and she will see this and I will be in trouble. All right.

So I’m going to start us off with a question here and then please audience ask some questions of these folks. So these are all really interesting differences in organizations.

Each of you put design thinking about design as a leader in the organization in different ways. And not in that “Oh, that’s pretty sense.” More in the “We need to do a little bit of planning and build something and see how it turns out.” I’m sure not all of it is perfect, and if you look inward, what would you improve how you are structured today or how you were structured yesterday, Clay? We’ll start with you Clay? What would you change?

Clay Parker Jones:

I think I would decentralize the, more of the expenditure and salary decisions down into the teams. Even more than we had at the very end. Essentially I would say try to run the organization more as a network of teams. Where very little profit was taken out at the central level and almost all of it was delivered back down to the teams. Because then they would be able to make better decisions about staffing according to what their customers needed versus trying to make centralized decisions. Centralized planning historically has not gone well. Any soviet scholars out there will laugh at that. So basically pushing people, pushing teams to make more local decisions about staffing to determine what their salary load needed to be relative to revenue.

Russ Unger:

Thank you. Hillary, how about you? What would you improve on your structure in how you’re working today?

Hillary Hartley:

The biggest thing that I’m seeing is the different natures of the teams that are empowered to grow themselves. Russ is growing our design team. We have an engineering team. And a design and PM team. And if I do say so myself, I believe that the structure that we cooked up for the design team is working very well. Of course it could be better. But it incorporates sort of a little bit of what both of you were talking about. You know? In terms of thinking about teams really not wanting to grow bigger than seven or eight. I think right now the biggest kind of small functional team is about four or five. And forking those off. And elevating the team leads. Elevating a new team lead whenever there is a new team of four or five ready to go. And really for a couple of reasons. One I think I know Milissa was down on the matrix organization. And I don’t know that it’s necessarily matrixed in a matrix organization, but that notion of giving people an opportunity to lead. And giving them a bit of a career path while they’re with us for what might be a short time. 2-4 years. That became very important to us. I think I would work harder to get those types of scenarios into the other teams. Mostly so that resourcing and who do you go to for what becomes a little bit clearer across the board. Not just having to figure this team out and having to figure this team out.

Russ Unger:

Excellent.

Peter Merholz:

When I left Groupon, the teams were working really well. It allowed me to leave and run. But there was a challenge at the leadership level where having grown the team from 30-60, my job became way more operational than creative, but I was expected to do both. And understanding the impact of scale on the operations was something that we didn’t get in front of, yeah, earlier enough. So at Jaw Bone, one of the first things I did we brought on a programs managers, essentially a director of operations. In order for it to work, part of the effort is you need to have a lot of conversations with all these teams that you’re partnering with, more than you think you need to make sure you understand what’s going on with them.

And I wasn’t as aware of that as we were building it at Groupon and now I would have that from the outset. It makes things run much more smoothly.

Russ Unger:

Keeping with you Peter and then we’ll go to the audience. What would you suggest for someone who works at an organization where design is treated as a service rather than a decide-led organization. And they want to move from the former to the latter?

Peter Merholz:

Team leadership. Being people who help the design experiences. It was bringing in that middle management layer. They tend to get dumped on. But when they are working well, it’s the grease that makes the engine run. The thing I spent more time doing than anything else was finding five or six manager and director-level people to run these teams. And once that started happening, once I did that, those folks could then have those appropriate conversations with the other parts of the business that my, that earlier when I had just a bunch of very junior people. You know, two years’ work experience, they weren’t able to have that same level of conversation as these people with more experience. And we could start pushing back into the conversation.

Russ Unger:

Mr. Parker Jones?

Clay Parker Jones:

Customer proximity first and foremost. Knowing how frequently teams and designers and anybody just doing work for customers gets in front of customers, even if it’s not again Big D make it look pretty design, but design in the broadest sense. Being certain that your teams are going out or customers are coming in to interact with the work product. Whatever that might be. If it’s a PowerPoint slide, if it’s an Excel spread sheet, it doesn’t matter what it is, just having customers interact with it. And then treating the organization itself as a product. Not just for customers, as we typically think of it. But also for the internal team. So giving them license and at least the opportunity within an area of focus to write their own rules. To come up with the way that they are going to operate and allow them the chance to stick to those rules that they create. That is a really difficult mindset shift for most senior leaders to accept. Yes, if we give the people the chance to rule themselves, they will do a good job of it. But we found in almost every scenario, that if you’re hiring people that care about the purpose, the rules that they set will be followed and generally things will improve over time. Customer proximity and the ability to design your own organization, even if you don’t necessarily have the explicit permission to do so.

Russ Unger:

All right. Miss Hartley?

Hillary Hartley:

Plus one to pretty much everything you just said and I’ll add somewhat of a snarky response. Which is send in our case it was the executive director. Send the person at the top of your organization to a workshop. You know. An idea workshop. Or something where they are being spoon fed this stuff. And it’s not coming from you. I’ve been in so many different situations where I’m banging a drum, banging a drum, and it can only be heard so many times. But inevitably. You hire an expert to tell you what to do even if the people in your organization have been saying it. And he came back saying oh, we’ve got to bring like design to the heart of this organization. The user centeredness is going to be what changes fucking government. And I texted him back and said “hey man.” Wasn’t going to fight with him or say I told you so. Sort of snarky. But I think it comes back to the champion. Anything that we have done that has been successful has been because we had a champion. And I was the one beating the drum and kind of kicking dead horses but then we finally had somebody saying this is what this organization needs to be about. And there was a tangible shift.

Russ Unger:

Excellent. Thank you very much. Questions from the audience?

Audience:

Hey, could you give me a quick example of something that you’ve worked on at 18F?

Hillary Hartley:

A project in general? Yeah. One of our prettiest projects was something we did for the Peace Corps. If you go to beta.peacecorps.gov, we built a couple of sites for them, but essentially they asked us to build a donation platform. If you didn’t know, you can donate to the Peace Corp. You can donate to the Peace Corps. writ large, or to a specific country or to your specific friend who is in Kenya and needs to buy pencils.

We built this Kickstarter-y thing. People can tweet a URL to their project and you can donate to them.

The kicker there for us with the only payment engine that we’re allowed to use in the federal government is called pay.gov. I challenge you to go there. So we had to build an interface to that and not take the user out of what we thought was a fairly well crafted and beautiful journey, hit them with this thing that wasn’t so much and them get them quickly back into our system. So working that out was fun.

Russ Unger:

Another question?

Hold on. I’m going to ask you to belay that, because I want to keep this on organizational structures.

Hillary Hartley:

Happy to chat after.

Audience:

I’m going to ask where does research sit in these organizations? Peter said it fits outside of it.

Peter Merholz:

At Groupon I inherited a research team. I have come to believe that it should not be in a design team. I think it diminishes the opportunity that they have to drive product definition.

It’s part of product. It strikes me as making more sense because it should be closer to where that strategy is being set.

Not simply seen as a thing to help make your designs more usable, because when you put research into design, it gets diminished that way.

Clay Parker Jones:

For me, working primarily with massive, 100,000 person plus organizations, research tends to be, or insights as it’s sometimes sadly called, tends to be so, so far away from product and from actual users that they’re just sort of regurgitating beautified, syndicated research reports, or trying to make sense of a focus group say and use that for some direction. We try to train the teams that we work with to just actually build the research processes into their day-to-day life. And to dismantle that department because for me that’s a sort of vestigial thing that came from an industrial era where it was hard to make stuff. Granted it’s still hard to make things. Anybody at Jaw Bone will say hardware is hard and that’s good. But when it’s easier than before, it makes sense to put those knowledge tasks into individuals rather than to isolate them as a group.

Hillary Hartley:

The user researchers at 18F are really a team underneath our design organization. And so far that’s working primarily because we are kind of unique. We are not your typical consultancy. Our ratio of dev to design sort of writ large is almost one to one. We have almost 30 engineers and we have almost 30 designers on the team. The design team includes research, content design, visual, front end, sort of the gamut there. But the point being is that we really work hard to make sure that the concept of design, you know all the stuff that I said is front and center. Not just for the design team, but for everybody working on a product. It’s working okay. I can see your point of kind of elevating it outside and not making it specific to design, but I think because our ratio is so good it’s still working okay.

Russ Unger:

Another question? Excellent.

Audience:

Hey there. So my question is it seems that if you’re a really good creative or a really good engineer that when you get promoted you tend to then manage people and then you’re stuck counting sprint points and velocity and such. My question is A, how do you further your career without being promoted to that manager position? And why do you think that happens to good creatives or engineers?

I don’t know where you work. That is a way of having people grow through a business. Luckily where I work, generally where I work in Silicon Valley, we recognize this as a problem. I don’t know of any company who doesn’t have two tracks for growth as a manager or growth as an individual contributor. You have to have companies that are willing to do that. Yeah. So at Jawbone we have two tracks. At Groupon we had two tracks. That’s being kind of standard. Older companies conflate growth with management.

My comment is management is far too important to be locked up in one individual and to promote all of that stuff into somebody that has to like dote on people and count things for them seems frankly crazy to me. Like people can count for themselves.

Can’t they? It doesn’t take that much work. And mostly you’re just doing less work and being compensated for something that you never were trained for, which again feels like totally absurd if we really just step back from it. Instead, we should figure out ways that we can design systems to allow everybody to participate in the management of the work. Because it is important and anybody who says managers or management in general is something that we don’t need is crazy. But I think that it’s really, really weird that we put it in one person typically for a group of people, which again feels very futile and weird. Not feudal, but futile. Anyway.

Russ Unger:

Got that Brook? She did.

Hillary Hartley:

I work for the government. (Laughing) There is a little bit of this that we can’t get around because of things like mandatory performance reviews, but the one thing that I’m really proud of is a little bit of untraditional opportunities for leadership around just owning something. Owning something and making it yours. It isn’t something that you’re building for an agency, but something that you’re building to make your team better. Letting people own those things. We have this concept of guilds.

So we’ve got our vertical teams, if you will. But then we have horizontal teams, that are people across teams, across disciplines that are working together to further knowledge of the team around a topic like agile. They’re all leaving my brain at this moment.

Research.

Hillary Hartley:

Research.

Exactly. Our user research guild is kicking ass and making our entire teams better. Giving people to lead in nonconventional and hierarch cool kinds of ways.

Russ Unger:

Lightning round. Who’s got a question?

Audience:

So I’ll keep the question quick in that case.

Distributed teams. Remote workers. Pros and cons?

Russ Unger:

One sentence answers folks.

Hillary Hartley:

We are a very distributed team. A very remote team. We don’t colocate at all. Unless it just happens. That’s my one sentence. In general, in general I think that there are benefits and that you need tools essentially. I think you have to have the right tools for your teams.

Russ Unger:

Thank you. What about you Clay?

Clay Parker Jones:

Pros include keeping top talent where they live and paying frankly bargain rates for it.

Cons include the sort of disallusion of potentially a culture that could be really valuable and the ability to sit next to those people that you’re working very hard with.

Russ Unger:

Thank you Clay. Peter?

Peter Merholz:

You’ve got to be all in or all out. You can’t half ass it.

Russ Unger:

Thank you Peter. Two more lightning round questions. Who has one? Brian?

Audience:

So in tech companies sometimes engineering drives innovation and then you see things like Hack Day Project or things like that, but then it’s sometimes sad to see that Hack Day Project goes great and then everybody forgets about it. How do you keep it so it comes to life and how do you promote that culture?

If you figure it out, let me know.

[Laughter]

Slack in the system. Having extra people that can be dedicated to work to let more people do more thinking more of the time.

Hillary Hartley:

Yes. And essentially going back to what I said before about letting people take ownership of something. Let them —

Russ Unger:

Last question. Is there somebody from this side?

Hillary Hartley:

Stand up and shout your question.

Russ Unger:

No, Brook has to hear it.

Audience:

Just a thought on gender in the space of design.

[Laughter]

Russ Unger:

Same one sentence challenge. Go!

Hillary Hartley:

We have lots of boys on our team!

[Laughter]

[Applause]

Transparency in all aspects helps eliminate problems that people run into.

Peter Merholz:

I haven’t seen gender be an issue nearly as much as racial diversity.

Russ Unger:

Outstanding. One last question. We’re going to keep this lightning round going. What is bad or negative about a design-led organization?

Peter?

Peter Merholz:

Design is not the end all, be all.

Russ Unger:

Clay?

Clay Parker Jones:

Design has to be encoded into everything you do. And just thinking about it as design leading an organization feels limiting and perhaps exclusive.

Russ Unger:

Run-on sentences count apparently.

Hillary Hartley:

I honestly can’t think of one.

Russ Unger:

Excellent! Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for our panel.

[Applause]

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