The Change Agent Scenario

You are about to enter the Red Zone.

The idea marketplace is filled with advice on how to think about design or how to innovate. Oddly, the concept of business culture as it relates to UX design is missing, glossed over, or ignored. Yet business culture–the roles, rules, norms, incentives, and punishments that govern behavior–is all important. Business culture determines how a company treats its employees.  Business culture predicts how a company responds to change. Business culture maps out a company’s life cycle, and it strongly influences whether or not a company will survive in the long term.

We gotta bring in some change agents!

Business cultures congregate on two poles: low-employee trust and high-employee trust. The roles, rules, norms, and incentives in companies with a low-trust culture are tuned for efficiency, predictability, and incremental change. Low-trust companies focus on the short term–quarterly returns, shareholder value, and stock price. Because they are so near sighted, low-trust companies often ignore competitive threats until the company enters the “red zone,” a period when the company must respond, or go out of business. A common strategy is to hire “change agents,” creative types, doers with a track record who can shake things up and innovate the company back to health.

The Red Zone.
The low trust life cycle. Company founder gets original idea and brings together a founding team of heroes. The idea matures into a viable product. The company adopts “low trust” management practices. The culture changes from Plato to banana republic. Staffing levels increase. Department in-groups form. Creative outsiders leverage new technology to launch destructive innovation. Company brings in change agents to respond, but it does not change its low trust culture. Relatively quickly the company flatlines. The competitor repeats the cycle.


Your best defense is a good offense

As a UX designer, taking a job as a change agent in low trust company can be a very stressful and frustrating experience, one that could, ultimately, be harmful to your career. Your best defense is a good offense. Context helps. For most of us, business culture is a part of the landscape, a given. Our focus is on the end user or the customer; we don’t think much about business culture, what drives it, and how it affects a company’s life cycle.

We don’t learn how to identify toxic, low-trust cultures or why low-trust cultures are so difficult to change. Design schools ask us to become field researchers and cultural anthropologists, but they don’t warn us that we should evaluate the artifacts of the companies we are about to join–before we join them. Job descriptions, for example, contain valuable clues about a company’s culture and whether or not it is approaching a “red zone.”

It’s a tough world out there. We don’t always have a choice about which job to take. When faced with a change agent scenario, however, it is best to take the job with your eyes open and your expectations set, and with a clear game plan.

This article offers information and practical advice on doing just that.

Numbers people vs. People people.

When you are living in the middle of it, a given business culture is essentially invisible. The artifacts, the roles, the rules, and the incentives are a given, part of the landscape. We’d no more question the existence of departments, bosses, job descriptions, deliverables, and reviews than we’d question why the mountains rise from the sea or why the sun sets in the west.

The basic pattern

But that’s far from the truth. Business culture–like any culture–is an adaptation, a strategy adopted by a group to ensure its survival in a particular environment. Business cultures evolve; they follow a basic pattern. In the largest sense, the labor supply during an economic period sets the stage.

Plentiful labor. Scientific Management. Low-Trust Culture

When labor is plentiful, as it was from 1890 to 1940, the prevailing management practice, or dogma, is “scientific management.” The numbers people take over, and efficiency is paramount. Businesses are viewed as a machine, a system or a process that can be decomposed–much like an assembly line-into its component parts. Each “part” can be measured, evaluated, and improved. Frederick Winslow Taylor and other early proponents of this “scientific management” where mechanical engineers. The “scientist” managers decided how the machine would run. People were part of the machine, their roles could be precisely defined and their productivity measured. If the part did not perform, it could easily be replaced. The roles, rules, norms, artifacts, incentives, and punishments of the low-trust business culture are cultural affordances, a set of tools driven by the dictates of scientific management, strategic thinking, business process re-engineering, key performance indicators, Money-ball-style statistical analytics, and the emerging “big data” analytics revolution.

Scarce labor. Humanistic Management. High-Trust Culture.

When labor is scarce, as it was from 1940 to 1980 and again (for UX skills, at least) during the dot com boom years, the prevailing management practice is humanistic. The people people take over. Efficiency is still paramount, but the approach is different. Businesses are viewed as social systems. Strictly defined work steps and deliverables are replaced with clearly defined goals and individual autonomy in deciding how the work gets done. If given more control, employees are motivated by intrinsic rewards. Employees are seen as knowledge workers, valuable assets that must be nurtured and leveraged. No matter what the state of the labor pool is in the larger economy, business start ups face by definition a scarce labor pool. Flat management structures, clear goals, interdisciplinary teams, autonomy when solving problems and so on relect the cultural roles, rules, and norms start ups naturally evolve as they adapt to scarce labor.

The November 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review has an excellent article on the topic. The timeline below accompanies the article. It does a great job of illustrating who came up with the core management ideas that influence business culture and when in the past 100 years those ideas first took flight.

Click to read the timeline.

The life cycle “red zone.” What to do… What to do.

Most established software companies–at least in my experience–have traditional, low-trust business cultures. They are set up to keep the clocks ticking and the trains running on time. They don’t respond well to disruptive innovation–better, faster, and cheaper competition made possible by creative thinkers and rapid technological change.

Disruptive innovations threaten profit. And if there is one thing low-trust companies pay close attention to it is profitability. When profits lag, the management hierarchy becomes very worried. Profits drive the stock price which, in turn, drives bonuses, raises, and tenure.

Whether they are heading up a low-trust or a high-trust organization, if there is one thing all CEOs know, it is this:

For a company to survive, it has to sell something people want to buy!


The “red zone” highlights two fundamental problems

The  creativity crisis faced by companies in the red zone highlights two fundamental problems with low-trust business cultures.

Time is short

Disruptive innovations don’t magically appear. It can take 20 years for a new technology to mature to the point where it threatens the marker leader. Most products, however, live through a period of stasis, a period where competition seems remote and where the cash generated by the product funds the hierarchy and hardens the culture. Stasis blinds companies to the realities of competition. It encourages short term thinking in the greedy and hubris in the proud. The pattern is always the same: By the time profits lag, the barbarians are already at the gate.

Change is hard.

Innovation cannot simply be decreed, nor can it be bought. Fostering innovation means changing the company’s culture, changing the roles, rules, norms, incentive and punishments that hold everything together. Culture change is hard, and it takes time. When time is short, change must be radical, and it has to come from the top, the company’s CEO. Unfortunately, the CEO’s of most low-trust companies have no idea how to change culture.

Three scenarios

When a low-trust company is faced with a disruptive innovation, three scenarios usually play out .

Posters. Slogans. The CEO along with top management use their communication skills to promote creativity and innovation. Slogans are coined. Posters appear. Prizes are awarded. But the CEO does not change the “hierarchy of ‘no’,” as Stanford University Professor David Owens calls it. And management invariably rejects new ideas as being too risky, too disruptive, too expensive, too difficult, or too weird.

Design firms. Looking to make up for lost time, the company brings in an outside design firm to come up with fresh ideas. The design firm burns up time and money climbing the learning curve. It produces all the right deliverables: persona documents, wireframes, comps, and so on. The final design has a certain “wow” factor. Yet somehow the concept is off. Outside design firms lack the insight that comes from an employee’s deep understanding of the problem, the customer, and the technology.

Change agent. The company decides to change the culture by seeding the organization with “change agents,” creative people with a proven track record, doers who know how to “make things happen.” Optimistic at first, the change agent quickly realizes that the path from rainmaker to troublemaker in a low-trust organization is very short. New ideas threaten the status quo. Without an accompanying change to roles, rules, and incentives, the in-group quickly relegates the change agent to the out-group, a place where bad things can happen… and usually do.

An industry-wide inflection point

Take a look at the job boards in your area and you will likely find a healthy number of UX positions. This is good. UX jobs tend to reappear early in a recovery cycle, a sign that companies are confident enough to think about the future.

But that isn’t the whole story. Something else is going on.

A number of technologies–touch screens, low-power processors, flash memory, wireless, etc…–that have been incubating for years have suddenly became much better, faster, and cheaper. And creative people–designers, engineers–are combining them in ways that have fundamentally changed they way we interact with computers.

Our relationship with computers has become more intimate, more immediate, and more natural. We hold computers in our hands, and we use our fingers to manipulate objects on the screen. Simple, intuitive “apps” have replaced complicated, feature-clogged applications. Wireless and cellular connectivity have made instant gratification possible. We download the book we want within seconds of wanting it. We exchange movies,

The changes add up to a major inflection point, one that affects the whole software industry, not just a single company or product.

pictures, and messages instantly. Production values have gone through the roof. Software now has a visual “wow” factor that rivals graphic design found in the best print magazines and in theatrical movies. And, under the covers, interaction designers are finally connecting to 25 years of research into the way people think, and they are leveraging this knowledge to create software people use without seeming to think at all.

The changes add up to a major inflection point, one that affects the whole software industry not just the a single company or a single product. Years of paying for and putting up with frustrating, difficult to use software has built up an enormous watershed of resentment. Users are no longer willing to put up with applications whose UI is a first cousin to an engineering test harnesses. Selling to a niche market or supporting the back office is no longer an excuse in a time when customers are thinking:

Listen. I just bought a $1.99 iPad app. I learned how to use it in two minutes. And it makes it easy for me to do exactly what I want to do. Your $10,000 application is difficult to learn–people avoid it whenever they can. I have to spend time and money on training, yet I’m not convinced anyone ever gets beyond the basics. I am tired of this. You guys claim to be software “experts.” Why can’t your application be as simple as the ones I run on my iPad? Before I renew my license, I am going to do some serious shopping around.

Software companies with hierarchical, low trust cultures are having trouble responding to their customers. Time is short. Change is hard. The pep rally fizzled. The design guru failed. The wolf is at the door. And the change agent scenario, as they say, is afoot.


Low-trust employee experience

By definition most software start up companies face a labor shortage: Working for a start up is risky, and it usually means long hours–sacrifices not everyone is able or willing to make. It’s no surprise, then, that most start ups have a high-trust culture. Once they mature, though, the pendulum swings, and an unfortunate, low-trust metamorphosis usually takes place.

Let me tell you a story… I had the misfortune, early in my career, to watch as the late stage start up where I worked went public, transforming itself from a kind of Plato’s republic–a society of equals to a banana republic–an authoritarian regime. When I first started (I was employee number 60.) I couldn’t wait to get to the office every day. Morale was high. I felt like I was part of a well-coached football team or a really great movie production company.

The business goal was very clear and everyone understood it. Creativity was celebrated. There was a lot of cross-pollination and communication. People respected each other and understood that good ideas could come from collaboration and cooperation. We were focused, and we worked very hard. We celebrated often, even over seemingly small progress. It was a relaxed, high-trust environment.

I got my start as a UX designer at that company. I was a technical writer at the time. But my engineer friends felt we’d have a better product if I applied my audience analysis skills directly to designing screens rather than to explaining how to use the clunky ones they were designing themselves.

The company was very successful. It had a 93% market share. Maybe people were having too much fun. I don’t know. But somehow after the company went public, you could almost hear the board of directors say…

We are adults now. We are a publically traded company. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our investors. Right now, the company is being run by a bunch of hippies. They aren’t bad people, but they are not realistic. It’s time to put the grown ups in charge. It’s time for us to bring in professional managers!

Thats’ when the transformation to a “serious” company began.

In its power and univer-sality, the tendency to form in-groups and then favor in-group members has all the earmarks on an instinct…. Once a group has been split off and dehumanized, any brutality can be justified.

E.O. Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth

At least once a week, we’d all gather in the atrium in the front of the building to welcome some new manager. Without fail, the introductions went like this:

“Please welcome Mr. “A.” He is from large, flat-lining company “B” where he was in charge of famous, failed project “C.” Mr. “A” is here to help the XX team gets its act together.”

I learned a lot about human nature from the experience. I saw first hand how people’s personalities and behavior could change along with the norms and incentives of their culture.

The transformation from high-trust to low-trust took a matter of months. Silos appeared. The new managers did not understand the product, nor did they feel the need to. They resented employees from other departments, and they devalued their contributions. Spontaneous collaboration whithered.

Our focus shifted from the competition, our products and the problems we could solve for our customers to silo-specific deliverables, things that could be measured by our managers, things that mapped well to our job descriptions, things that our managers could offer up in turn to their managers as evidence of their competence. Creativity got lip service, but the answer was always “no.” Suddenly every new idea was too risky, cost too much, was not practical, or was too weird.

By the end of a year, the transformation was complete.

Punishment can be administered by a smiling face...Roles became ranks. Mensches became martinets. Departments became fiefdoms. Guidelines became commandments. Decisions came from the top. Command replaced consensus. In-groups formed. Norms changed: authority and obedience were prized. Conformity ruled. And punishment cemented the whole thing together.

Advocate for change. Question the status quo. Or point out a flaw, and you risked banishment to the out-group, a place where in-group people could–and did–do bad things to you without feeling the slightest guilt.

“So and so? Oh, he wasn’t like us. He didn’t measure up to our standards. We had to let him go.”

When fear replaces trust

Sofware companies are filled with employees–UX designers, system architects, product managers, developers, and so on–who love technology. They track new developments, keep tabs on start ups, and monitor industry trends. They are perfectly capable of sounding the alarm when they see a threat on the horizon.

When fear replaces trust, however, many creative and capable employees respond by keeping their mouths shut and their heads down. They do what they are told, delivering exactly what they get paid for and reviewed on, no more/no less. They become fatalists, ironists–ghosts of their real selves. Other employees don’t get the memo. They rock the boat until they are driven out or leave on their own.

Either way, the company loses. For these are exactly the kind of employees–innovators, problem solvers–a company needs when it is under threat.

Low-trust companies fail to recognize that their culture is contributing to their demise. The “next big thing” arrives. The cash cow dries up. And the company is relegated to an ever shrinking niche, or it flatlines altogether.

He was talking about the Chinese culture in general, but Thomas Friedman in a recent New York Times column, pretty much nailed it.

When there is trust in society, sustainable innovation happens because people feel safe and enabled to take risks and make the long-term commitments needed to innovate. When there is trust, people are willing to share their ideas and collaborate on each other’s inventions without fear…. The biggest thing preventing modern China from becoming an innovation society, which is imperative if it hopes to keep raising incomes, is that it remains a very low-trust society.

Change starts at the top… but it doesn’t happen often

Low-trust business cultures are notoriously difficult to change. But change is possible. A lot depends on the CEO.

Control rods in a nuclear reactor

Think of business culture as working like a nuclear reactor. Cultural parameters–roles, rules, norms, incentives, and so on–are the fuel rods. You control what goes on inside the reactor by sliding fuel rods in and out; you control the environment for people populating a culture by adjusting “cultural” parameters.

In the typical company, the CEO controls the fuel rods. That is, the CEO is responsible for seeing the big picture. It is the CEO who has the vision, who sets the goals. Changes to roles, rules, incentives, and norms go through the CEO. It is the CEO who evangelizes and enforces the adjustments.

CEOs in companies with a low-trust culture have their work cut out for them. They have to be wise enough to understand which fuel rods to push in and which to pull out. And they have to be self confident enough to believe they won’t blow everything up.

As a UX designer, I fall squarely into the rock-the-boat camp. I am unhappy in low-trust, hierarchical companies. By nature, I am interested in solving big picture design problems, problems whose solution ensures both my own survival and the survival of the company I am working for. Routine bores me. Style guides make me nervous. In the past, when playing the change agent role in a low-trust culture, I have quickly found myself in the out-group.

Out of self preservation, I’ve learned not to trust the CEOs of low-trust, hierarchical companies. Without fail, they refuse to adjust the corporate fuel rods, or even to acknowledge that the reactor is overheating.

It’s not that CEOs are incompetent. Most are very smart people. I’ve given a lot of thought as to why they fail to act, and I have come up with two reasons. Frankly, I am of two minds as to which is correct. When I am in a no-drama-Obama mood, I favor Reason #1: pride and punctuated equilibrium. When I am in a cynical, curmudgeonly mood, I favor Reason #2: greed driven by perverse incentives.

Both explanations, it seems to me, are plausible. I will talk more about each one below. But allow me first to introduce you to Sergio Marchionne, my hero.

Sergio Marchionne. My hero.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is a fantastic example of a chief executive who understands how fear, hierarchies, and top-down command and control decision making can bring a company to the brink of extinction. He’s an expert at adjusting corporate fuel rods in ways that harnesses the creativity of his workforce.

Marchionne saved Chrysler from bankruptcy, paying back a $6B government loan early and turning a profit of $183M last year. You can hear Sergio Marchionne talk about his experiences by clicking on the YouTube video on the left. The video lasts about 10 minutes. It’s well worth your time.

If only all CEOs could be like Sergio Marchionne. Mostly, they are not.

Pride. Punctuated Equilibrium.

Products, the latest thinking goes, evolve according to the rules of punctuated equilibrium, a theory put forth in 1972 by paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stepen Jay Gould . Like animal species, products evolve in fits and starts. Long periods of stasis, or sustaining innovation, are followed by inflection points where a mutation, or disruptive technical innovation, confers such an advantage of the population that possesses it that the original population is driven to extinction. Think Neanderthal versus Homo sapiens. Think Yahoo versus Google. Think Microsoft versus Apple. Think Blackberry versus iPhone.

Products that threaten market leaders by virtue of their simplicity, speed, and elegance (a.k.a., destructive innovations), don’t just appear magically, however. There is always time to react. In software companies, the period of product stasis can be quite long. Hierarchical management seems to work fine; incremental improvements keep the cash flowing, and prosperity lulls the company into a false sense of security.

There are typically years of progress before a commercial breakthrough in the technological realm…

Even in Silicon Valley, it takes most technologies 20 years to become overnight successes.

Paul Saffo, Stanford’s school of engineering.

Andy Grove, former Intel CEO, is famous for saying: “Only the paranoid survive.” And he’s right. It’s the CEO’s job to see the big picture. It’s the CEO’s job to worry about what’s coming. It’s the CEO’s job to prevent the company from becoming myopic. It’s the CEO’s job to change the company’s goals. It’s the CEO’s job to adjust the “fuel rods” in time for the company to respond.

Unfortunately, in companies with a low-trust, hierarchical culture, all the kowtowing from people on the bottom can inflate the egos of those on the top.

CEOs, like everyone else, are human. They–perhaps more than most–tend to have large egos. And, inevitably, some develop extreme cases of head-in-the-sand hubris. “Why change things,” you can hear them think. “Things are going great. I’m doing a fantastic job.”

The CEO’s failure to lead, in this case, results directly from human folly. If we asked Sergio Marchionne to characterize the former inhabitants of Chrysler’s executive penthouse, he might use a different word–arrogance!

Perverse Incentives. Unintended Consequences.

A perverse incentive is an incentive that backfires, resulting in an unintended consequence that negatively affects the incentive maker.

Here are two examples I found in Wikipedia.

  • In Hanoi, under French rule, a program paying people a bounty for each rat pelt handed in was intended to exterminate rats. Instead it lead to the farming of rats.
  • Providing company executives with bonuses for reporting higher earnings encouraged executives at the Federal National Mortgage Association and other large corporations to artificially inflate earnings statements and make decisions targeting short term gains at the expense of long term profitability.

The second example should be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a “let’s put the adults in charge” corporation. It sheds light on why some CEOs refuse to change corporate culture even when they clearly see a destructive innovation looming on the horizon.

Be warned. Perverse incentives breed especially duplicitous CEOs. Employees, by and large, are interested in security, the long term viability of the company they work for, and they place their trust in their executive leaders to keep things on track.

CEOs (and other C-suite executives) for their part cannot generate short term profits if the people working for them don’t trust them. So they use their considerable communication skills to convince workers of the company’s stability. The Ken Lay video on the left is a classic example of this. The company is near collapse–something Ken Lay knows. He is talking to a group of Enron employees who will soon lose their pensions and health benefits and who are days aways from being unceremoniously laid off.

I have twice personally experienced similar speeches from CEOs of companies where I worked, proclamations that the future is bright given hours before the CEO himself jumped to a job heading up another corporation.

Not every CEO who fails to anticipate change is greedy or arrogant. Many CEOs are hard working and basically honest. I am exagerating here to make a point. Here’s the issue: CEOs of low-trust companies are using a set of cultural tools that are not well adapted to the problem–responding to rapid technological change. Greed and arrogance, where they exist, are by products of the culture, behaviors made possible by cultural norms, rules, and incentives.

Rainmaker or Troublemaker

Taking a job as a change agent need not be all bad. There are quid pro quos. For example, there is usually a grace

…. too many corporations do not have the courage of their convictions. In ways large and small, they signal that too much “originality” is taboo: too expensive, too risky, too divisive. Conven-tiontality is rewarded; deviants are marginalized or fired.

Howard Gardner. Five Minds for the Future.

period when you first start, a period before the in-group people realizes you are a threat to the status quo, a period when the the in-group–because of management’s “endorsement”–believes it is in their best interest to cooperate.

Your happiness and success as a UX
designer depends on your ability to spot toxic employment situations.

The grace period usually lasts about three months. You can design some interesting stuff in three months–game-changing systems that leverage new technologies. And you can add those designs to your portfolio, positioning yourself nicely with some future employer.

At some point, though, you will need the time, budget, resources, and people to iterate, test, and build your vision. If the CEO of your company reminds you of Ken Lay, then you are on your own, forced to “evangelize” for support. You may make a few allies, or bump into a few kindred spirits. But in low-trust companies the distance from rainmaker to troublemaker is very short. If the in-group that has no incentive (or even risks punishment) to cooperate with you, then you chances of success are slim.

Key features of a low-trust culture

It is possible to break a culture down into a logical set of parameters and attributes. But for most people (including myself), culture is something we feel emotionally as much as we observe logically. Culture happens in real time and moment-to-moment. We experience it as a series of vignettes, episodes, and narratives.

Your brain processes culture by looking for patterns in the vignettes, episodes and narratives. And it labels each pattern, for quick reference. When you encounter a new situation, your brain looks to its “reference library” to help you decide whether you are facing a threat or something benign. For example, when I encounter a CEO who is an unapproachable hero, I immediately suspect I am dealing with a low-trust business culture.

Think of the table below as a resonator. It compares Low-Trust to High-Trust business cultures, mapping standard parameters, like Roles, Rules, and Norms to a set of descriptive labels. In many cases, you can click on a label to read the annecdote I drew upon to create it. My hope is that the pop-up stories will resonate with your personal experience, creating and expanding your own business culture quick reference.  

Business Culture “Resonator”

Low Trust


High Trust


CEO is unapproachable hero

Well-defined job descriptions

Strict, hierarchical org chart

Territorial managers.

Anger when lines crossed


CEO is accessible. Walks around

Primary roles defined, but fluid

Flat, team-based

Easy cross dept. career paths

Semi-permeable boundaries


Do or die schedules

Factorylike, stepwise processes

Usually linear workflows

W-Agile is a possibility

Strict rule enforcement

Top down orders

Lend/lease team structures


Broad goals, defined

Autonomy to find solution

Focused and disciplined, yet relaxed

Interdisciplinary perspectives valued

Systhesis promotes creativity

Iterative and high communication


Highly serious. Self importance.

Formal. Stoic. Testerone.

Just the facts, ma’am dialogues

Obedience. Follow the rules

Respect for pecking order


Informal. Relaxed. Focused.

Humor is allowed.

Good ideas rule

Strict credit for idea originator

Respect based on accomplishment

High touch coaches, not managers


Rule by fear.

Micromanagement. Intimidation

Structured, complex reviews

Taking risks

Hear no evil. Speak no evil…

Defying chain of command


Disrespect for others.

Failing to give credit

Intimidation. Territoriality.

Secrecy. Isolation.

Greed. Duplicity.


Meeting the deadline

High quality deliverables

Good soldier

Above call of duty effort

Predictive, accurate planning


Doing something cool

Breaking new ground

Adding value to team



Job descriptions are your Rosetta Stone

The period from about 2000 to the present–with its off shoring and recessions–is one where labor has again become plentiful. And the business culture pendulum has swung firmly back to the low-trust side.

You can protect yourself from toxic employment situations, however, by applying the same cultural anthropology methods to prospective companies that you do to potential end users. Think of every job description as a Rosetta Stone, a cultural artifact you can parse to translate company speak into language that is meaningful to your career.

Job descriptions can be an accurate way to identify a low-trust business culture. They can reveal how a company thinks about UX design–as a mechanical, make-it-pretty process step or as an integral part of creativity, innovation, and product design. Job descriptions may contain “dog whistle” phrases that clearly signal change agent scenarios, scenarios that would clearly put you in the middle of a company’s “red zone.”

Of course, if you do find a low-trust clue, don’t jump to conclusions. You can usually verify your suspicions by asking questions during a phone screen or in person interview. For practice, I’ve included below a sample set of job descriptions. Each sample illustrates one case–low-trust, just make it pretty, change agent–and offers practical advice for confirming (or denying) your concerns. To illustrate the opposite pole,” I’ve included a high-trust job description. This one seems too far fetched to be true. But believe me, it is a real live job description (as are the others) recently posted on

Low-trust culture

Low-trust business cultures are hierarchical, territorial, and rule bound. They are run by numbers people who see the company as a system, a “value chain.” Job descriptions for low-rust companies often read like a spec sheet. They are very precise, very detailed. Line items generate data that are tied to performance reviews, things that can be measured and evaluated.

Click to enlarge

You can never be absolutely certain, though, that a spec-sheet-like job description signals a command and control culture. High trust companies are often informal. Someone at a high trust company may have copied and pasted a canned job description to a job board, just to get things rolling.

Theory X. During an interview or phone screen, companies with low-trust cultures take a “Theory X” attitude toward employees. They assume that people are inherently lazy, that they will shirk their responsibilities unless closely managed. If the interview feels like an interrogation, with the interviewer parsing and questioning line items on your resume, you can assume the company is low trust. If the interviewer asks about interesting projects on your resume and engages in lively conversation about ideas and challenges, then you are likely dealing with a high trust company.

Make it pretty. Just give us the wireframes. Contractor.

Click to enlarge

Managers in low trust, hierarchical organizations are motivated by extrinsic rewards. Getting that big raise or bonus is all important. Moving from the cube farm to a coveted, higher status “real office” is a big win.

The roles, rules and incentives in these companies reinforce the culture. So, when ordered from above to “fix the creativity/design problem,” managers in low-trust companies are wary of doing anything risky. What’s more, as a group, managers of this kind are numbers people: UX design is a subjective, fuzzy, emotional thing, something very difficult to quantify and measure. The strategy, then, is to inject design into existing processes in a way that isolates it from other deliverables.

Think of this as the “have your cake and eat it, too” case, a precursor to the full blown change agent scenario. If the job description is skewed heavily toward deliverables: icons and graphic design “assets,” for example, or wireframes. And if it strongly emphasizes on-time delivery and ability to meet tight deadlines, you should suspect a low-trust culture.

The phone screen or in-person interview associated with the job description will focus on deliverables.

There are lots of good books about UX out there. Unfortunately, the only people who read them seem to be other designers…

Oddly, the interviewer may be from some other part of the process chain: an engineer, for example, who doesn’t seem to know much about UX design or who steadfastly associates UX design with graphic design or visual design. The spotlight will be on example work, your portfolio or wireframe deck. Words like “wow factor” are bandied about.

Behavioral interview questions often come into play. “How do you deal with conflict?.” or “Have you worked with a difficult coworker before?” Behavioral questions especially should raise a red flag. They can indicate that UX is new to the company, that early attempts at UX failed, and that the company expects you to bear the responsibility of convincing others of its value. Are developers or QA staff at the company asked to do the same?

Have your cake and eat it, too jobs are frequently offered on a six months contract to hire basis. You should take this as further evidence that you are dealing with a low-trust company. Numbers people mistakenly assume that creativity and innovation can be rented, like a specialized power tool intended for a particular job. We know, however, that creativity and design thrive when people feel secure enough to take risks and when they are given clear goals, along with the autonomy, time, and money to meet them… all features of high-trust companies.

It is partly our fault. There are dozens of youtube videos and hundreds of books about creativity, innovation and design out there. We do a good job, apparently, of preaching the gospel of UX to ourselves.  But, given the misconceptions about design among executives, product managers, and engineers, we are doing a lousy job of educating the rest of the world.  The only people reading those books, it seems, are us!

Change agent dog whistle

Among the Thugs by American journalist Bill Buford is the best book on the psychology of crowds I’ve ever read. In the book, Buford documents the eight years he spent trying to understand the members and the motivations of the Inter-City Jibbers, a group of

Among the Thugs.

Manchester United soccer fans who–like many British soccer fans–are given to hooliganism and mob violence.

The book is heavy on description and light on conclusions. One thing Buford talked about, though, really stuck with me.

In the hours before a soccer match, groups of drunken fans–mostly males in their twenties–arrive by train and descend on the city hosting the contest. They circulate through the streets, merging by groups of four or five until a large mob forms. The mobs, one for each team, in turn, circulate through the city, hoping to meet each other. When they do–in a city square, say–there is great potential for a riot.

Click to enlarge

Even though the typical fan has already consumed as much as two or three gallons of beer, a delicate risk/reward calculation takes place in the mind of each and every member of the mob. Does the other side have more people than us? Do we have the tougher fighters? Weapons? Do they have a strategic advantage? And so on.

When conditions are right, a collective set of switches gets filpped. And the violence begins. It is not possible, Buford concludes, for a leader to incite a mob to violence unless that collective switch is flipped. Pity the fool who jumps on the roof of someone’s car yelling “Fight! Fight! Fight! At best he’d be jeered or ignored; at worst, someone would chuck a beer bottle at his head.

O.K. So that is a pretty extreme example of crowd behavior. But I cannot help but draw an analogy to the change agent scenario.

When the CEO yells: Innovate! Innovate! Innovate!

The c-suite in low trust, hierarchical companies think of the organization as a machine. They don”t understand the very human relationship between the roles, rules, incentives, and punishments they’ve set up and the behavior of the employees working for them… But their employees do.

Classic article on creativity and corporate environments.

When the CEO pulls everyone into a video conference and yells “Innovate! Innovate! Innovate!” the employees in his or her heads down, risk adverse company are likely to sit quietly and stare. The change agent scenario is a variation on this tactic. It often follows an initial attempt by management to stir up the crowd. When that fails, top management opts to seed the organization with proven leaders, UX designers, technical architects, development managers, and so on, people of who know how to be creative, how to “make things happen.”

Don’t get me wrong.

The change agent scenario can work. But only if management–at least for a tiger team–understands how to create a high-trust environment.  If they don’t, be prepared to duck… Someone is bound to chuck a bottle at your head!

Published in 1998, the article How To Kill Creativity by Harvard Business School researcher Teresa Amabile clearly describes how low-trust, hierarchical companies squelch creativity and innovation. The remedies it proposes outline the main features of a high trust business culture. Well worth reading. 

 You should listen to this dog whistle

Change agent job descriptions are basically the same as the spec-sheet-like descriptions you’d expect from a low-trust company. They do, however, differ in one important way: They contain what I call dog whistle phrases that, to me, very loudly signal  the company is in the red zone and is looking for people willing “to jump on the roof of a car” to get things going. 


A Prototype Change Agent Interview 

Adapt… or become extinct.  Hundreds of  flat-lining, “red zone” software and hardware companies–like RIM, etc…– amply demonstrate that low-trust, hierarchical business cultures cannot adapt quickly enough to disruptive innovation. Taking a job as a UX change agent in a red zone company more or less ensures that you will be crushed by the hierarchy.  

Evolution is nothing, however, if it is not additive. Research by management thought leader John P. Kotter extends Teresa Amabile’s findings on creativity and shows that some hierarchically managed organizations are surviving by adopting a “hybrid culture.”  

Hybrid Business Culture
Click to read John P. Kotter’s excellent article on hybrid (culture) organizations.

Hybrid business culture combine the best of both worlds: Cash cows, which benefit from efficiency, control, and incremental improvement, are managed with the existing hierarchy. A parallel culture, “volunteer army” is formed. The army taps into the the company’s roster of dormant change agents. It employs  a high trust cultural model, similar to that of a start up, a model characterized by strong executive sponsorship, a clear problem statement and vision, well-defined goals, the freedom and autonomy to solve problems, mutual respect, celebration of small wins, and so on. 

As a UX designer, taking a job as a change agent in a company transitioning to a hybrid culture could be a good move, a move that results a Plato’s Republic work experience.  Because it is in transition, however, a company evolving to the hybrid model may not have a ready store of start up style, change agent job descriptions.  It is important, then, when you encounter a change agent job scenario to use the interview to distinguish between low-trust companies looking for a red zone rainmaker and a hybrid company looking for a creative designer whose ideas can help them save the company.   

You can use the dialog below to model an interview conversation when you suspect the company is looking for a UX change agent. Answers in the “Good Answer” category suggest a hybrid or high trust start up culture. Answers in the “Bad Answer” category usually suggest a low-trust, hierarchical culture.

A model dialog


Executive sponsorship

What problem are you trying to solve by bringing in a UX professional?  Does senior management view this as an urgent problem? Have they shared that urgency with the rest of the organization? Is your CEO leading on this?

Good answer. Linda, our CEO, is a very honest and practical person. She sees the change in customer expectations caused by things like the iPad as both the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity we face. She rallied her team and the company as a whole around this simple message.

Bad answer.The people who work here are used to fixed roles and consistent processes. Our CEO realizes that things are changing. We are looking for a great communicator, someone who can convince our company that change is good. Whoever we hire will be closely reviewed on communication skills.


Group Structure

How will you manage this initiative? What does the reporting structure look like?

Good answer.We are managing this outside our normal chain of command, a network model, like a start up. We’ve created an oversight team made up of volunteers from across the company, people who share our sense of urgency.

Bad answer.We are managing this like any other project. You will be reporting to the director of engineering. He will monitor your progress and report back to upper management.


Strategic Vision

You’ve defined the problem. How do you plan to get buy in on the solution? Do you have a strategy for executing the vision?

Good answer. Your first task is to work with the team to create a vision prototype, something we can socialize to the company as a whole. Then you will work with the team to break the vision into doable initiates staffed by more volunteers.

Bad answer.Your first deliverable is a vision prototype. You will present the prototype the executive committee and to department directors at the quarterly meeting. They will critique your work and vote whether or not to proceed.


Staffing Initiatives

This is a big project. How will you build out the UX staff?

Right answer. We hope to build a staff of volunteers consisting of 5% of the company. We’d like you to build a UX practice, if possible, from our in house pool of graphic designers, writers, and engineers. We see you as a kind of coach.

Wrong answer. We see UX as a specialized skill. We plan to hire contractors on a project by project basis. You would help us manage that process. To be efficient, we want to hire only those skills we need, for only as long as we need them.


Business Obstacles

How does the UX project fit in with the rest of the organization? Will it threaten existing departments or personnel?

Good answer. No. Suggestions for initiatives can come from outside the team, so long as they dovetail with the vision. Anyone can volunteer for an initiative. Ideas are developed and deployed by the team and turned back to the company… to become part of the culture.

Bad answer. Senior and line managers know our CEO feels UX is important. They will enforce changes among our employees. Also. A big part of your role is communicating to management and getting their buy in if a new UX feature affects their domain.


Showing Progress

People in the organization will expect results. How will we demonstrate progress?

Good answer.Our first initiatives will be small, doable and directly tied to the big vision. We will communicate early successes emphatically. And we will celebrate the incremental victories on the team level. We want everyone on an initiative to feel their work matters and is appreciated by the company.

Bad answer. The UX intiative will be incorporated into the team’s yearly goals. Bonuses and raises are contingent on meeting the goals. People who don’t comply will be disciplined.


Learn from experience

How do I know when the UX work is done? Is their a fixed end point to this project?

Good answer. We do not expect every initiative to be a success. We will have some failures. We are committed to learning from mistakes. We see the larger UX initiative as an ongoing process. After all, technology is always changing; we want to stay ahead of the curve.

Bad answer. Initially, this is a six month project. We expect you to leave us with a style guide, and set of application patterns, as well as a library of reusable widget and graphic assets. UX staff will report to the director of product management.


Living a creative life

Most people think of Henry Thoreau as the original hippie,  the original advocate for “living off the grid.” But perception is far from reality. Henry Thoreau’s family owned a graphite mine and a pencil factory. Henry worked in the family pencil business for the bulk of his adult life. And by all accounts, he was pretty good at it.

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imaged, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thoreau invented a mill for grinding graphite into very fine powder. And he pioneered in America the technique of combining clay with graphite powder, greatly improving the quality of his products. Thoreau pencils were considered the finest in the country.

Above all, however, Thoreau was self reliant. Other than a few weeks as a public school teacher, he never worked for anyone else. He used the money from the pencil business to buy the freedom to pursue his writing career. Walden; or, Life in the Woods, in a sense had a corporate sponsor.

Most of us aren’t lucky enough to come from families who own graphite mines, pencil factories, or some other sustaining business. We have to work for someone else, trading our skills for money–and the chance to be creative. But it doesn’t follow that we should give up, that we should lead lives of quiet desperation.

The land of pure reason

A place to be creative?

Another story… I remember how I felt as I drove into a suburban office park for my first professional job interview. I remember the manicured lawns, the tasteful landscaping, the orderly streets, and the parking lots filled with late model cars. The building–all glass, steel, and concrete–was light years away from the working class town where I was raised. There were skylights, ficus trees, and a waterfall in the atrium!

I’d worked 60 hour weeks for a year on a factory assembly line to save for college. And I worked 40 hours a week through most of my time there, to pay the rent and to fund extra courses. I was looking for a way to be creative yet earn a steady enough income to support a family.

This is the place, I thought. I’ve arrived. This is where good ideas come from. This is the place that is changing things, the place that’s making things better. 

I was wrong.

There were no time study men walking around with clip boards and stop watches like there was in the factory where I’d worked. It was cleaner and quieter. I could put a picture of my wife and daughter on my desk. But, in the end,  the environment didn’t seem all that different. The assembly line and workstations were replaced with a cube farm and departments. There was a clear pecking order: V.P., director, manager, worker. Rules were strict. And the inexorable tick tock of the project schedule was just as unforgiving as the buzzer that signalled the start of shifts, lunch breaks, and the end of day.

Not so much.

The CEO was enormously confident and gracious. I’d never met anyone as self assured.  The rank and file, however, felt differently. People figuratively rolled their eyes as the he spoke. There was a lot of grousing over beers.

If you took the time to ask them, the employees would share their very creative ideas for “saving the product,” and they would have worked like dogs to deliver on any one of them. But management wasn’t interested. It was interested in quarterly profit numbers. Good ideas, after all, only came from the top.

Soon enough profits took a dive, and even I could see the company was in the “red zone.” I was way too low on the totem pole to become a “change agent.”  I wasn’t proud of it, but my street instincts told me it was time to bail–I had a family to support.

My next job was completely different. I landed a job as a UI designer for a large, established, successful company. For sure, a big part of the company reminded me of my previous company: It was tuned for efficiency and predictability.  But somehow the division where I worked was different. 

It felt like a high-trust start up. Our goals were clear. The company president walked around a lot; he was checked in, our biggest  cheerleader. We were (within reason) given the time, the tools, and the latitude to solve meaningful problems. We worked in no ego, supportive teams. I have fond memories of my time there. And I am proud of the work we did. We were able to propose ideas that turned into products, products that made the company money, were well regarded by co-workers, and solidified the company’s reputation.

Trust, but verify.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t all bad.

Even low-trust companies can offer interesting and gratifying UX design work: When a product is in “early stasis,” for example, major revisions and feature additions can be quite fun.  But, for UX designers–and other creative problem solvers, nothing breeds “quiet desperation” faster than working as a “change agent” for a low-trust company that’s hit the red zone.

Practical advice

Here’s my advice: Trust, but verify.  Be optimistic. Enter every engagement and interview with a positive attitude. But, remember, business culture is all important!  It is easy to be impressed by superficial things: the awesome Chinese garden in the atrium, the solidity and stability evoked by the company’s logo, the aeron chairs and the open floorplan, the confident attitude of the company’s executives, the head hunter’s assurances. 

If you want to live a creative life, however, you need to be self reliant, like Thoreau.  Stick to your vision.  Divide the world of employers into high and low-trust buckets. Watch for clues that the company has entered a change agent “red zone.” Parse job descriptions, suss out cultures, mine your social network. Avoid toxic change agent scenarios whenever you can. If you can’t, go into the job with your eyes open. Do good work. But have a clear exit strategy.

In Search of the Design Mind

Everyone gets to have their dream job at least once in their career.

Several years ago I had mine, working with a team of internal UX design consultants for Fortune 50 company. Our mission: survey the best thinking in the field of user-centered design, spend three months deciding what was useful and what was not, and formulate our own approach to UCD that was simple, efficient, and pragmatic enough to work within the time and resource constraints of a large high-tech enterprise. We then evangelized this approach, which we called Information-Driven Design, throughout the corporation, and consulted with project teams all over the world to help them find big unmet user needs and solve hard design problems. Many innovations were spawned as a result.

The foundation for our home-grown approach was the simple premise that human-computer interaction can be thought of as an information management problem. We demonstrated that designing a successful product was essentially a matter of properly distributing responsibility for “information requirements” between the user and the product in a way that maximizes the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses of each.

The inspiration behind this approach can be traced back to a passage from Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things:

“Between us and our machines, we could accomplish anything. People are good at the creative side and interpreting ambiguous situations. Machines are good at precise and reliable operation. Unfortunately, this is not the approach engineers have followed in reacting to advances in technology. Instead, they’ve adopted a machine-centered view of life: machines have certain needs, humans are adaptable. Give machines priority, technologists’ thinking goes, and tailor human operations to fulfill the requirements of machines.”

Information-Driven Design was a systematic approach to exposing machine-centered thinking and its manifestations in product designs, followed by a reimagining and redesign of the product from a user-centered perspective. (I’ll describe parts of this approach later, but for now let me get back to the point of this post.)

During this part of my career, I had the good fortune to work with a design genius. This guy seemed to instantly grok the essence of a design problem and, within a few days, could prototype an elegant solution that was functional, beautiful, and usable. Some kind of magic was going on this guy’s head; where most saw only an overwhelming mass of requirements and technical constraints, this guy had an uncanny way of seeing the signal through the noise.

This got me thinking: what is so different about this guy’s mind that allows him to solve design problems so effortlessly? And more importantly, is there a way for virtually anyone to develop a “design mind” like his?

For the past fifteen years or so I have pursued an answer to this question. And after all this time, I can finally report that the answer to this question is…

…more questions.

Actually not just more questions, but better questions. E. E. Cummings was right:

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question

The design mind distills a design problem down to the essential few questions that, if asked in the right sequence and answered in a thoughtful way, are almost guaranteed to produce an elegant and genuinely user-centered design. The design mind’s thought process is, above all else, simple and effortless. Simple because it is just a series of questions, requiring no complex theories, concepts, or methodologies to understand. Effortless because if you ask a better question, the answers reveal themselves almost automatically.

Understanding the unique circuitry of the design mind is important to anyone who strives to create user-centered solutions – especially now. User-centered design today is anything but simple and effortless. Since human factors engineering started gaining traction in the 1980s, the practice of user-centered design has strained under the addition of dozens of competing design theories, techniques, and methodologies. The field has mutated into something resembling version 12.0 software: patched and bloated with unnecessary features, all crammed together into a framework that it outgrew years ago. Just take a look at the visual map of the design process on if you don’t believe me.

This complexity was the motivating force for creating our streamlined Information-Driven Design approach back when I had my dream job. We just didn’t have the time or resources to do UX “right.” And the few times we did get the funding and time to do it “right” – sometimes with the help of the most preeminent design consultancies in the field – our results, as measured by customer feedback, were still lackluster.

In my experience, many so-called UX best practices, and the lovely, impressive, complicated artifacts they produce, are disregarded as soon as they are completed. They simply don’t work in the real world. Many of these activities are dead ends: the output from one activity does not provide input to the next and thus gets filed away and forgotten. Even essential activities like observational research, if not performed with the correct focus, simply overwhelm the project team with useless data, adding noise and time to the design process, making it all that much harder to see the solution. But all the while the team deludes itself into thinking they’re making progress because, after all, they’re incredibly busy filling walls with post-it notes, making pretty PowerPoint slides to impress their stakeholders, and diligently checking off activities in the project plan and removing user stories from the backlog.

We need to shift our focus away from methodologies, workflows, and artifacts, and instead focus our efforts on finding a simpler way of thinking. We need to conduct a metabolic brain scan of the design mind to find out how it works.

In the posts to follow, I’m going to try to discover – not a business process or a development process – but a thought process for designing experiences, specifically the experiences people have when using technology. Like all thought processes, this one will be expressed in the form of a series of questions. My goal is not to invent new processes or methodologies or buzzwords, or to debunk existing processes or methodologies or buzzwords, but to discover which concepts and activities really are essential to answering each design question.

This series of posts is truly an attempt at discovery, meaning that as of this moment, I don’t know where this thought experiment will lead. I may hit a wall and discover that the design mind really is unknowable, a mysterious gift given only to a few. I may conclude that UX design really is as complex as portrayed by Or I may discover that simplifying design into a sequence of questions is a problem that I lack the ability to solve.

But even if I hit the wall, perhaps it will inspire someone else to take up the challenge and complete it.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand … Simplify, simplify.

Walden, Henry David Thoreau


Next: The Design Mind Litmus Test

Weak human + machine + better process

No one wants to be replaced by a machine…
…yet processor power and computing algorithms have evolved to the point where complex pattern matching tasks–once the exclusive purview of humans–are increasingly being mastered by machines. In the world of chess, for example, conventional wisdom has it that the game is over. Computers have won.

Not true!

The excerpt below is lifted from Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

In an ultimate chess match, the weak human + machine + better process strategy won over other strategies because the “weak humans” working as a team could leverage their intuition and perspectives to ask better questions of their machines. Chess grandmasters, however brilliant, cannot anticipate every question. Nor can machines by themselves come up with questions that match the intangibles perceived by humans.

As UX designers, it is hubris to think otherwise.


After head-to-head matches between humans and computers became uninteresting (because the computers always won), the action moved to “freestyle” competitions, allowing any combination of people and machines.

The overall winner in a recent freestyle tournament had neither the best human players nor the most powerful computers. As Kasparov writes, it instead consisted of a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. … Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

This pattern is true not only in chess but throughout the economy. In medicine, law, finance, retailing, manufacturing, and even scientific discovery, the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines. As we saw in Chapter 2, while computers win at routine processing, repetitive arithmetic, and error-free consistency and are quickly getting better at complex communication and pattern matching, they lack intuition and creativity and are lost when asked to work even a little outside a predefined domain. Fortunately, humans are strongest exactly where computers are weak, creating a potentially beautiful partnership.

Brynjolfsson, Erik; McAfee, Andrew (2011-10-17). Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (p. 55). Digital Frontier Press. Kindle Edition.

How to avoid a career buzz saw


Your job description is changing.

Increasingly, UX designers are being asked to extend their skill set beyond information architecture, interaction design, and graphic design to cultural analysis, applying to design problems techniques like ethnography and field research that are borrowed from anthropology and evolutionary psychology.

Point taken. Understanding the culture of your targeted user does result in better, more innovative design. Culture-focused methodologies—like Design Thinking—have enormous appeal.

Be warned, however. Culture-informed design involves risk taking, uncertainty, trial and error, model building, iteration and feedback. Your success as a designer depends as much on the culture of the corporation sponsoring your project as it does on the methodology the corporation is asking you to use.

Ignore corporate culture at your own risk.
Continue reading

Three beers. Three realizations. One take away.

My Dinner with Bill

From time to time, Bill*, a friend of mine, and I meet for beers. Like most people, we catch up by trading stories. We are amateur philosophers, though. So we spend time looking for patterns, drawing lessons, and abstracting rules, most of which can be expressed as follows:

                               This new situation, X, resembles old situation, Y. Try using rule B.

Beer three

By about beer number three, Continue reading

Integrating Design Thinking with Agile SD

Agile Experience Design
Agile software developement is antithetical to UX design as I’ve practiced it.  I keep bumping into developer-centric Agile companies where  up front, deliberative UX thinking is instantly rejected as old school waterfall and document heavy.
The case against Agile SD
The questions I–and most experienced designers have–are this: How can you design a complex system by focusing solely on its individual parts? Will a useful and coherent vision magically emerge? How does Agile match up with integrative, system desgin approaches, like Tim Brown’s Design Thinking ?
Agile Experience Design
The book Agile Experience Design by Lindsay Ratcliffe and Marc McNeill addresses these questions. It is chock full of good ideas and practical advice. I’ve included some thoughts from the book below.

Continue reading