It’s easy for most people to passively swim through their days at work, like fish in a reef. But UX leaders are not passive participants in an ecosystem: They must focus on change.
As a new leader, in particular, you can catalyze that change with a keen understanding of every participant in an unfamiliar environment. You can immediately apply user-centered design principles to better understand the people whom you work with and for. After all, companies are social and cultural structures. Everything physical about an organization is just a reflection of the people inside. To succeed as a leader, you must be genuinely interested in other people.
Empathy works both ways—for users and for your colleagues.
As a first step, identify the five most influential people in the organization. They may or may not be executive leaders. Reach out to them and ask for one hour of their time for an interview. When you’re done, try to repeat this process with at least 10 other people (depending on the size of your organization) over the course of the first one to three months. Include your peers, your direct manager(s), and their peers. You can certainly scale this down or up according to your ability to stay on track with your first few months.
Here are the five sets of questions to ask each person.
How did you get here? Why do you choose to be here?
By adding the line about "Why did you choose to be here?" you'll reveal much about the story of the organization, its myths, and its culture. For example, during my time as a senior manager of product design at Rackspace, the phrase repeated again and again from especially senior people was, "There is just a huge opportunity here." Everyone wants to go where there is opportunity, right?
But the "there is a huge" part of that phrase made my ears prick up. Why is the opportunity described as "huge"? Upon further inquiry, it turned out that senior people (even newly hired ones) were expressing their hope along with a feeling of being overwhelmed with what they discovered at the company. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it definitely reset my expectations about the scope of work needed to resource UX projects.
What is the most valuable thing our organization produces? How do we know we deliver that value for customers? What are the biggest obstacles stopping us from consistently delivering value?
These questions help reveal any lack of consensus on how your company adds value to customers. For example, at Rackspace, the different product teams were certainly delivering value—but they all perceived and described their contributions to customers in different ways in my interviews.
You’ll find that lack of consensus is a common issue across large organizations. Usually, the bigger the company, the more your role needs to bridge that gap.
If you were new, what five things would you wish you knew about the company? Why?
By asking this question early on with several people, I immediately noticed several patterns that defined the scope and decision-making processes behind projects at the company:
1. Pattern: Any project requiring more than a quarter probably won’t survive. Lesson learned: Think in small chunks, or your team will eventually burn out from dead-end projects.
2. Pattern: Rackspace is a relationship-based organization. Lesson learned: Dig deeper into why. At first, I thought I knew what the phrase meant, but I didn’t really understand Rackspace’s emphasis on employee development until six months later. You can’t learn everything the first time around.
3. Pattern: At Rackspace, consensus is how decisions are made. Lesson learned: Use your influencing muscle carefully. Observe meetings, processes, and communication to uncover the real influencers for a given team—and focus your attention on those people. When I discovered an influencer for my work, the next step was figuring out how to connect. Sometimes that meant scheduling one-on-one meetings. Other times it just meant taking them out for coffee. It’s just a form of politicking.
What are the next opportunities for you and the organization?
This question helps you understand if the person you’re speaking with is future-oriented or not. When interviewing direct reports, it helps to set apart those who are growth-oriented from those who like having a "job."
Who else should I speak with to understand how the organization operates?
You learn two things from these lists: who is special, and who is an outlier. The "special" people are the names repeated often across interviews. For instance, the VP of product, the CMO, and the director of engineering might all mention the VP of project management.
The outliers, on the other hand, are the people who only certain individuals mention. For instance, the VP of product might also mention a specific designer or support person, but that name never pops up elsewhere. Don’t dismiss this outlier, however. They may exert power through a process they manage or approve.
When conducting these interviews, I recommend the number one tool in a designer’s toolbox: Post-its.
I break down core concepts and constantly add to an ever-growing affinity diagram. As I do this, I sketch out visualizations and immediately discuss them with the interviewee. By presenting visualized ideas to others, their reactions will not just be "yes/no." They will also be "yes, and . . ." and "no, but . . ." Both are important to revealing hidden insights about the organization.
In my case, I did a lot of mind-mapping because most of the responses were related to connections between people, processes, and systems. When visualized with a mind-map, the connecting lines started to take shape—illustrating the systems behind the company. It very much confirmed that the company was truly not a hierarchical system at all.
When you’re done with your research in your first 30 days, you'll have a clear picture of who and what your organization is all about—and how to drive the right outcomes in that world.