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Eli Silva at Prototypes, Process & Play 2017 (Podcast)

This podcast features Eli Silva, Senior Product Designer at Pivotal Labs, and his Presentation, “Designing for Diversity in Organization Design” from the design leadership conference Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th, 2017.

Prototypes, Process & Play presentation podcasts are sponsored by Balsamiq – with Balsamiq Mockups, anyone can design great software.

Eli Silva – Presentation

Eli Silva is a Sr. Product designer at Pivotal labs. Eli is best known as a diversity advocate with practical insights drawn from the design discipline. Unlike traditional approaches to org design that focus on charts and work distribution, Eli emphasizes studying the way people interact with an organization as a product. Using this as a tool for reflection leads to better interactions between people and their work cultures. In re-examining Design Thinking as a organizational design tool, with a focus on diversity and inclusion, their work has generated some powerful new ways of looking at old questions in a new light. Eli enjoys playing video games, blogging, and volunteering on the side.

For more, keep up with Eli at or on Twitter as @elisymeon.

Designing for Diversity in Organization Design

The lack of diversity in design organizations is a fact that we can design for. We can drive innovation and increase creativity, but we have to be honest about what’s holding us back. Eli Silva will outline ways to design cultures that support design thinking, organizational growth, and diversity in the workplace.

Great design is the result of hard work and cultures that foster empathy, creativity, listening, and honest conversations. These happen to be the groundwork for diversity, so why is diversity still such a challenge in technology and in design organizations in particular?

In this talk you will learn practical steps toward designing for diversity—including quick tips on how to audit your processes and practices today. Learn how to effectively consider minorities and underrepresented groups in your approach to hiring, everyday work, and leadership development. The result of diverse design organizations is products that increasingly reflect actual people, across the age, gender, and income spectrum. That’s something worth working for.

Presentation Transcript

Please note:

Podcast transcript below.​ Please note: Transcription was recorded live; there may be errors (typographical and contextual), as well as omissions or other content gaffes.

​Additionally,​ there was microphone feedback that happened in the room from time to time, and we did our best to minimize it in the podcasts. We apologize for any disruptions to your listening experience that this may cause.

Eli Silva:

Thank you all so much for sticking around. I know the end of the conference is usually when people start checking out. I mean it sincerely, but I know a lot of you are sticking around to see Jared next, but thanks anyways.


I want to talk a little bit today about what it means to be a minority in design, what it means to have accountability for design, and what it means to design for crisis.

So in 2012, Hurricane Sandy swept across the upper east coast and took out large portions of New Jersey and New York City. There were many casualties and people were challenged by the response. By the size and scale of the disaster. And people didn’t really know what the Red Cross was doing other than giving press releases.

There was a whole series of articles in a long‑form investigation about abuses and organizational decisions that kept the Red Cross from being effective in 2012.

I was on the other side working with Occupy Sandy. And this is what we did. And this particular approach, designing for crisis, has shaped the way I design, has shaped the way I think about users, and has shaped the way I hold myself accountable as a designer ever since.

One of the things that we did was design way points for people who needed to find resources, needed to find food, shelter, know where help was, get information, communicate when the power lines were down and they had somebody stuck in an apartment somewhere. We designed that and we designed that very quickly. We designed it under conditions of crisis.

Not only did we design it, we were more effective in many ways than the Red Cross, a large organization with a $2 billion budget that had been established to deal with situations like this. Because of organization design we were able to move effectively, recruit 60,000 volunteers according to Wikipedia, and provide food, comfort, communication, access to the internet for people everywhere from New York to New Jersey. And we were able to move supplies in the area by communicating across the country in a distributed way.

Occupy Sandy was my first organization design exposure. And it was building an organization to meet real human needs. But not only did we do that, later the next year during tornado season, some tornadoes hit near Oklahoma City. We scaled that model. The lessons that we had earned from Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy and we applied them in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma. And we took six cities that had been hit by tornadoes and we were able to move over $100 million dollars’ worth of aid. I take no credit for that. It was something that we built together. By having a strong community, a strong culture, and resilient organizations where we could talk about failures.

We live in an age where tech bureaus have decided that it’s okay to make tradeoffs that impact people’s life. And that’s not acceptable. I want to talk about advanced persistent neglect.

These are type aheads that used to be in the Google search engine in 2013. They called out Google for sexism. These typeaheads were there and they were catering to the lowest common denominator of bias. It’s the U.N. Google Campaign.

But these type‑aheads show that if you build the technology without considering the moral implications, you can hurt people. You can hurt women, you can hurt minorities. You can hurt well‑meaning people. And Google is in the news a lot these days. But every single day the products that we ship as designers show the world what we care about. And we heard from Jared yesterday that that’s Conway’s Law, so thanks Jeremy.

If we pay attention to these type‑aheads, we might have known that the Google investigation for wage discrimination against women was coming. We might have known that Google supports a culture where that kind of thing is possible if we had watched the products that they were putting out. Because the products tend to reflect the organization.

Approximately 86% of all working designers are – Top universities graduate black and Hispanic students at twice the rate that they’re hired. The pipeline is not the problem.

What does this mean? There are assumptions playing out on other sides. In product design, these are the lessons that we’ve learned over the past 30, 50 years. Scrap everything. Start over. Test, test again. Challenge assumptions. Question, question, question. The first day you get to a job most places you’re told “Okay, here is your desk. Here is your chair. This is who you report to. This is how you do e‑mail. Here is your computer. Go make things.” And you’re encouraged to keep your hands and feet and ideas inside the dominant role‑based structure that you have at all times.

We live in a world where that is no longer scalable or expedient. Not just for business, for life.

To develop a new culture, a better culture, a culture that is built for the network age, built for network products, built for distributed decision making, we have to do new things and we have to think in new ways. We have to challenge old assumptions about what it means to be an organization, come up with new models, and test them frequently, get some feedback, and explore.

So we just saw Google. And we know that sometimes we think about risk in terms of just moonshot risk, right? Well it’s just the bottom line. And the bottom line is certainly important, but you can have risk in other ways. You can have people‑based risk. My friends in information security encourage us to think about how the weakest link in the chain is typically people. The technology typically secures themselves, but the weakest link in the chain is typically people.

When it comes to diversity, the weakest link in the people is typically people. So lacking diversity is a socially dysfunctional.

What do you mean?

A lack of diversity cost Uber $10 billion. Why? They have a culture that is not resilient enough to stand up to strong critique from the people. It is not strong enough as an organization to stand up to moral inquiry. That’s why they’re under investigation. And those things are all very, very important. If you don’t consider diversity, not just a differentiator for profit, but a moral imperative that protects your business, you’re thinking the wrong way.

This is my favorite – quote. As the CEO of the company, it’s really, really funny that you would put responsibility on other people, get kicked out of your company, and try to come back and say no, no, no this is not my fault. The cultures we built are reflected in the products we make. Uber built Grayball to avoid regulators because they have a culture of avoiding regulation and avoiding accountability is socially acceptable. And that’s a problem.

Diversity that is not just like a little thing, right? It’s possible to have so much funding from all the venture investors in the world and still fail at the most basic level of organizational and institutionalization of moral checks and balance.

Diversity that is a concept in org design that says if we make short‑term tradeoffs and hire a bunch of tech pros, with will suffer in the long‑term because that is not a sustainable business model in a pluralistic society.

A recent study from 2013 found that women who identified themselves on Github were more likely to have their code rejected when they made a pull request even though they are technically better coders. Women, when no one knows the gender of the code contributors are better than men. That’s what this study found. But their code is under more scrutiny when people know the gender of the code contributor.

You’re missing out on the best developers in any organization if you’re not checking your own biases and assumptions as you go. But maybe you’re thinking, okay, I get it. Diversity is cool, it’s important, whatever, I’m already sold. Help me defend it. So here’s a couple stats. In the U.K., senior executive diversity increased taxes by 3.4%.

Companies at the top for racial and ethnic diversity were 34% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

And for every ten percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior executive team, you move your bottom line up about almost ten percent.

This is the power of one woman. Having a single woman on a board at the executive level means that you’re more likely to get higher returns on equity and higher net income growth. That’s the power of one woman in a single company.

But then we have stories like this. Where companies are missing out on opportunities to protect their people. Companies are missing out on opportunities to ensure that the products they build and the cultures they have are moral. It’s all fine and good to talk about profit and to talk about business cases when it comes to diversity. And I think that’s an important factor, but it’s not the only factor. The thing is on the other side of this there are real human beings that are not speculations about what diversity does. There are real women who really work as engineers and designers at Google who are really affected by the events of the last week. There are real women who work in engineering at Github, Salesforce, Uber, who are trying to survive this industry. Who are trying to survive every single day sometimes. And it’s our responsibility to do better for them. And to do better by them. By making sure that stories like this never happen again.

Diversity is not a zero sum game. It’s something that affects all of us.

And I didn’t have a really good picture of myself. But I wanted to talk a little bit about my own experiences.

My parents are from Brazil. My father moved to the United States in 1988. And he was a hospital janitor. My mother didn’t work for the first few years of my life. My father ended up building a real estate business and contributing to his country and eventually became a citizen. But not without much struggle. And in my own life, I’ve had a lot of struggle, too. There were times when we were homeless. There were times when we moved 3‑5 times a year.

And when they asked me what middle school did I go to, well what I was in the mood to answer that day. When Products asked me, I saw this one once. Where did you buy your first summer home? That was a security question.


I was flabbergasted! I don’t know. Is that while I was eating macaroni and cheese in the back of a Volvo, living on the streets? I don’t know.

Product reflection. The cultures we have generates products. The considerations we make. The tradeoffs that we balance at any given point amount to the perspectives that we have. Your organization is a product and culture is your artifact. The design world, as we’ve learned over time is a human institution designed to validate a product under conditions of extreme bias.

And what I mean by that is you get some business pro who comes up and says “Hey, we’ve got this idea, go build it, right?” That’s kind of where we were 20‑30 years ago. If they even said “Go build it.” Sometimes they would be like let the engineers build it. Or throw Popcorn in this thing and it will look exactly like it used to look.

What we learned as designers, we’ve already been doing org design in advocating for UX. The fact that this conference is even here means we’ve built cultures in design. Design morality. Tried to turn design towards people and therefore turn business towards people.

We learned how to bring organizations closer to their users by telling stories. And yet, the diversity gap in both gender and racial/ethnic diversity suffers.

And what I learned is you can’t have design thinking without org design. The two things go together like peanut butter and jelly. In order to be effective in designing products, you have to be effective in designing cultures that make it not only desirable, but necessary.

The experience of inclusion for your own people in your own teams is the product of your responsibility as a manager, as an organizational component.

So do we have any product managers in the room? One, two? If you were given a quarter billion dollars to solve the diversity problem and you couldn’t do it, what do you think would happen? Do you think you would be fired? Because I think you were fired.

And Google has spent over a quarter billion dollars, with a B, on trying to solve this problem, and has done very, very little. I saw a report that came out by last week and I think they increased Latino representation by 2%. That’s it. Even the most powerful ideas in the world, they can’t function in persistent organizational dysfunction. They just can’t take off.

When organizations get in the way of caring about the right things or when their values are misaligned, they’re going to miss out on huge opportunities. We’ve heard a lot about humility and patience and we’ve heard a lot about reaching out to others. And it’s been amazing because I feel like some of my work has been done for me. I don’t have to read all of my slides. And I was able to remove some. But the idea that we need an accountability mindset for design is crucial. The idea that we design products and we design cultures is crucial.

Effective product teams align the organization. And we learn how to do this. Some of you have heard Jared speak before. But we do this through user research. We do this by telling effective stories. So what I want to talk about for the next few minutes is how do you do participatory org design. How do we do participatory design in an organizational design setting?

We have to understand first and foremost that what we make is a direct reflection of who we are. And as managers, the organizations that we happen to support, they’re our design. Right? So as a designer working on an application doing interaction design, that U.I. is your product and it’s a direct reflection of the tradeoffs that you’re making.

Whereas when you’re a manager and when you’re leading an organization, that organization and its culture are the product of the org design.

So I asked the question “How might we use the design process to make more people‑centered organizations?” And we know how to do this. Raise your hand if this is new for you. Has everyone seen this? Okay, cool. This is the D school’s design thinking model. What we want to do is get to inclusion. So we’re going to emphasize IDA confinement problem tests and use that feedback.

Inclusion is creating the necessary conditions for organizational reflection. That’s it. It’s creating a culture that can course correct over time by knowing it has blind spots. It’s essentially like putting mirrors on your bike. Inclusion helps you balance your organization. It helps you balance your perspectives. And it helps create a culture of accountability.

When we have managers who say “Oh, I have an open door policy.” Yeah, I know. And I’m so glad that came up. You need to as a leader, no matter at any level, you need to be constantly collecting data to check yourself, check your assumptions, and check your goal.

Participatory design is a process that basically brings everyone together. And it says okay we’re going to listen to a bunch of people, see what’s going on and try to understand this very complex system at scale.

And you can use this, whether you work in finance, energy, aviation. I don’t know. Hotels. Logistics. You can use participatory design to design almost anything. And I’m so glad that we had a talk earlier today this. Because I think that’s exactly a culture. You can design a culture. You can design your team’s culture. You can design the interventions that help you collect feedback and change your processes.

And you may be thinking hey, hold on, I didn’t sign up for this. I’m a designer. I work in pixels. Or I do interaction design and information architecture and educational design. But we work in a complex world, so we’re signing up to design things that we never knew had users coming.

Ten years ago we thought oh, chat is like the next mode of human interaction. And who knows what’s out there. And we’re always needing new systems, new use cases, and new places where there are users we have not accommodated.

And what we have to do is we have to build on that. We have to ask good questions and inform ourselves to reduce risk, reduce uncertainty and clarify expectations.

The startup culture, the startup world will encourage you to build, measure, which is great when you’re not dealing with people. In a startup that’s fine. When you’re building products, this is safe. If you’re building for people, if you build, measure, learn, you will have the – Don’t do it. Instead, listen, include, and empower.

We’re going to talk about what that looks like.

Listen. People are complex. We’ve heard this before. People are complex. Look at all the things that make up a person and where they’re at on any given day. Race, education, sexuality, ability, age, gender, ethnicity, culture, language, neurodiversity. There are a lot of different things that make human beings. Human beings are complex. And as we start to acknowledge these complexities, they may be a little overwhelming. Say how do I design for so many complex people?

Here’s a simple question. Who’s telling your inclusion story? I worked in a lot of different organizations at various cycles. And what I found is that companies who sold inclusion at the top because they had a VP of other, that was just PR. I worked for a company where one time I was told that my hair was unprofessional because it was curly like this. And I was told I would not be able to attend any meetings because of my hair. I was told that my hair was haphazard. Despite it being natural. I appreciate you in the room who are shaking your heads saying that’s terrible. Thank you. That makes me feel a little bit better. But who is telling your inclusion story? Do you have one V.P. or a token person of color? Don’t do that!

If you don’t have a story that is coming from the bottom up. If people at the bottom of your organization aren’t talking about how they feel included or empowered, then you’re probably failing. It’s time to get out there and do some research and really feel like what’s going on in your organization. If you need to source that by commissioning a team, do it. If you can talk to your people and encourage them to be honest and candid, do it.

Whatever you do, I’m not here to do this one thing today, but you should ask this question. You should ask this question and you should try to understand who is on the other side of your organization. What do you look like to the outside world? Are you using a bias reduction tool so people all of all genders feel welcome? So they feel empowered in a culture that might look scary to them?

Are you designing a service experience that encourages people to join your organization? Are you selling your organization as a place that people want to work? Not just selling, but are you designing your organization where people feel comfortable?

Because unfortunately the other side, for those of you who know Erica Hall, okay? She was an engineer at Google and she wrote this touching post called “The other side of diversity.” And it was about her working at Google. She said I didn’t think of myself as a black woman until it became an issue. I just kept doing me but it was different. Do they feel included?

If you control job listings, awesome. If you don’t, talk to H.R. Who does our job listings? Can we run them through a gender decoder? Some of your companies may have a big legal process for doing that. But it’s worth asking questions and finding out who you need to talk to.

Next is what are the numbers. How many underrepresented people are making it into your pipeline in the first place? If you’re a leader, how many of you do interviews? There’s a lot of hands. How many people? If you don’t know this number off the top of your head, you should. Go ask. Go ask questions.

How many people that make it through the first round are extended offers? What’s your attrition rate? Do people quit in the first 90 days? Do they quit at a year? Are you looking at those things as a manager and trying to design for use cases? Right? We already know how to do this. When you look at product drop‑off rates. When you look at product adoption, everyday use. We learn to design for metrics. These metrics are not out there and invisible to us. We consider these things every day but on a smaller scale. All we have to do is scale up the lens of our inquiry and we’re empowered to make real product decisions.

Ask yourself how do we value difference? Do we have a definition of culture? Are people adding to our culture? Are there gaps that we know we have? Are there blind spots we’re trying to design for? If we have 12 white people in an engineering department, can we add some perspective? And if we do, how do we do so responsibly. Are we designing the service experience for people who are onboarded at our company so they feel empowered and comfortable working with people on day one no matter their race or gender.

Make it a priority to welcome people who are most different from you because you’ll see the biggest results. That’s how you build a resilient culture. That’s how you build a culture that welcomes conflict and welcomes discussion.

By conflict, I mean meaningful conflict. It’s not just getting up here and yelling at each other. It’s about having tradeoffs and discussing tradeoffs that are reasonable and responsible.

How are your employees doing? Has anyone ever had somebody quit on them? A few people. Sucks doesn’t it? Especially if you liked that person. Maybe you had some bad apples that washed out, but I’m talking about the good ones.

How effective is your onboarding? Are you welcoming them? Are you designing the services? Do you have a concept of hospitality and bringing people into your organization? Do they feel comfortable moving about your company and asking questions? And being able to make mistakes and break things. And do you have accountability to hold yourselves accountable to them? You don’t do regular one on ones, start doing.

All these opinions today are my own. I just want to say that. But we do regular one on ones.

But we do them as a way to balance the organization and create a culture of resilience. We talk to each other all the time no matter the level, right? And we have an organization where people can walk up to you and say hey do you have 30 minutes, I want to chat. You can talk across practices and across groups. And if you start doing that with people. And if you give your employees the ability to hold you accountable and say what’s not working, what can I do for you? And those are questions that the first couple times they may not have the right answer. But you can design for that by showing them and say you can demonstrate to get people to change, to get people to open up and give you real feedback.

Because what you don’t want to do is be in a position where you invite criticism or risk. In social media, you talk about compound losses if you do the wrong thing when suddenly the entire internet can rage at you.

You don’t want to be responsible for one of those days. And if you’re in the business of generating ideas, you’re in the business of saying “Hey, we have this great idea. We’re going to build a campaign that’s going to get women excited about tech.” Cool. That’s awesome. Are you solving a real need with that? Or are you asking women to hack a hairdrier? Are you expecting people where they’re already at? Are you expecting the culture? Respecting their gender? Are you treating them like people? Ask those questions. Design for those questions. And empower. You have to design experiences as a manager so people feel empowered.

And we do this through user research all the time. User research is a way we empower users to course correct the shift when we don’t know what comes next.

In the same way, user research with your own employees is going to help you course correct. But you have to have difficult conversations. You have to give people the power to shut you down.

Hey, we have this diversity campaign. Great. Can we get a couple of people to look at it and see if it’s a really good idea? How many people hate this? What can hurt them about this? Is there anything here that might offend somebody? And not just offend them, but could it alienate them? Could it hurt their feelings?

And the idea is to be agile in your org design, to build feedback loops to be effective. And you can only succeed if you can demonstrate that you listen, that you include, and that you empower.

This is the balance model that I have started with my own team to see how we can be more effective at designing for people. So we have UX business and technology, but one of the ways that we bring people in is we have people operations, advocacy and empathy, which is really your job as a manager, and a practice representative from a different organization a different practice. So you create balance in your hiring pipeline and you get multiple perspectives on somebody as they move through your process.

Now I didn’t want to get into too many details on hiring, but I wanted to focus on some big‑picture challenges to you, the audience, and to myself, as well.

I think if I can leave you with any one thing today is reducing the distance between you, the employees, and the candidates that you are designing your organization for is the most responsible, is the biggest responsibility.




Do we have questions for Eli?


Thanks Eli. I enjoyed that. I want to make a comment. And it’s one that I can’t think of a better word. So I’m like offering you a problem without a solution. And, you know, I started in the workforce in 1978 and I understand the diversity issue. And I understand the line “inclusion” has been added. What was happening is we were getting the numbers of diversity, but not the inclusion. But there is still something that is troublesome about the word “inclusion.” Because I don’t have to be included.

So I’m sharing this with you. We all need to find a better word. You used the word empowerment a lot and I was mulling in my own head “Diversity empowerment” is that any better? I’m not sure. But I wanted to give you that perspective. The first few times I heard that “inclusion” word I was like I’m not liking it. And that’s why.

Eli Silva:

So to say something like that, inclusion the word is useful because people are familiar with it. But I enjoy talking about resilience and empowerment.

I think resilience and empowerment are two things that set us up for empowerment because they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. You get equal conflict and make tradeoffs about what’s important. You make tradeoffs about what matters and you set your values together and course correct often over time. And I think that inclusion is a good starting point, but really we want to get to a point where people are autonomous, they’re empowered, they’re really driving us to change.

Are there anymore questions? Cool. Thanks.


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