Embrace the change“ – interview with Will Evans

23.07.2018 0 13:41 min

As Chief Design Officer of semantic foundry, LeanUX NYC Founder and Organizational Design Consultant, Will Evans explores the convergence of practice and theory using Lean, Design Thinking, Theory of Constraints, and Service Design with global enterprises from NYC to Berlin to Singapore.

„Stop Bullshitting and Start Creating Some Fucking Value.”

Mr. Evans, what was the topic of your talk at Lean DUS last year?

Last year I was invited back to deliver a new talk titled “Leading Organizational Design and Transformation”. This was the thirty-second Lean DUS talk curated by sipgate in Düsseldorf. I was lucky enough to also deliver the very first Lean DUS talk back in 2014, which I think was titled, “Lean UX DUS: Stop Bullshitting and Start Creating Some Fucking Value.”

What is your connection to sipgate?

Back in 2013 a few folks from sipgate came over to New York to attend my Lean UX NYC conference, which at the time was the only conference in the world that combined User Experience Design, Lean, Lean Startup, and Agile concepts and methods under one roof. At the time I met Tobi Ritterbach (Wolf) and he invited my friend Bill Beard and I to present workshops on Lean UX and Lean Branding to sipgate, which we did in the summer of 2014. It was a phenomenal trip where I think I learned more from the people at sipgate than I actually shared with them, but it was a fantastic time and I think we introduced some solid concepts and new methods, which they adopted. A few years later sipgate continued the tradition of coming to New York to attend my Lean UX conference and this past fall Jens Goldmann reached out to me to inquire about some of my more recent talks and workshops around Strategy Design and Portfolio Strategy, which was a great excuse to return to Düsseldorf and enjoy the amazing food and culture there.

What is your definition of “Organizational Design”?

I think of Organizational Design as how people and work are organized (arranged, created, integrated) to carry out an organization’s strategy and achieve its aspiration and vision of the future. Intrinsic to the strategy (which is created to provide a framework for making decisions to align the investment decisions of the organization with its vision) and aims of any well-run organization will be ensuring the best possible experience for customers (those who define the value) and employees (those who create the value). This involves aligning the organization’s initiatives and efforts with the strategy and creating coherent designs, while building trust among the principal stakeholders. This process of alignment includes both formal (structures, processes, decision-rights, policies, rules) and informal (gossip, norms, culture) aspects of the organization. I think often times people start by redesigning the boxes and arrows of titles and reporting lines of an organization, business unit, or functional group without doing a thorough assessment of the context, terrain, and reason for change before reimagining the strategy, structure, processes, measurements, and roles so that the organization can overcome obstacles and make uncertainty a competitive advantage.

Based on which discoveries are you stating that „becoming a Design-Driven Organization is probably a pipedream“?

I thought that would be an interesting provocation for the Leading Organizational Design talk, which is why I included that statement – it was intentionally abrasive. The underlying reason is that to the degree “design-driven” is actually defined, which often times it is not, it’s really the cart before the horse, defining a potential solution to an undefined problem. Design-driven is a “how,” without first unpacking the “why change,” and “what to change,” steps of organizational design and transformation which I think are critical for any large scale enterprise transformation.

The other thing I find problematic is that often times arguments in favor of an organization becoming, “design-driven,” or sometimes, “design-infused,” or even “design-centred” are a thinly veiled desire on the part of user experience or service designers to assume greater power and decision-making rights across the larger enterprise, often through elevating a designer to a senior executive position. The challenge to such an approach, besides its lack of contextual awareness, is that you can’t change the decision-making processes or underlying power structures simply by hiring a chief design officer or a VP of customer experience. You actually have to think through the vision of your organization, the aspiration, the obstacles, the competitive landscape, terrain including micro and macro-economic forces, internal processes, supplier relationships, staff skills, literally everything within the organization if your goal or strategy is to become ‘design-driven’ and even then it’s still solutioning without a shared understanding of the Why and What.

In the academic and professional literature on design, service and development, and innovation, the word “design” refers to many things: a communications art, a phase of product development, a set of functional characteristics, an aesthetic quality, a profession, a mindset are just a few. I think in many companies embracing design thinking, however, the word has come to denote the totality of activities and competencies that leverage cross-functional and cross-domain expertise to gather all relevant information and transform it into a new product or service which delivers value to the customer (user). Design is understood as a core activity (like supply chain operations or finance) conferring competitive advantage by bringing to light the emotional meaning products and services have, or could have, for consumers and by extracting the high value of such emotional connections.

This evolution creates an entirely new frame for the enterprise; an organization that uses human-centered service design and development to move quickly and effectively from intimate customer knowledge to successful product and service offerings. This kind of evolution is a massive, systemic cultural shift requiring the organization to challenge underlying assumptions, performance measurements, lateral interactions across functional roles, explicit decision rights, business processes and performance rewards across the entire company. This is not as simple as hiring 100 or 1000 skilled designers reporting to a Chief Design Officer in the C-suite.

The last thing I’ll say before moving on is that it’s unclear any organization should be ‘driven by design,’ and I’m a designer. If an organization is facing substantial competitive challenges, the constraints it faces may be coming from the commodification of it’s market, disintermediation, disruptive innovators, changing customer habits, regional or global trade and monetary policies, to name a few. Everyone’s context and situations differ and becoming design-driven may or may not be a valid strategic response.

„It seems to me that within sipgate culture principles and values are practiced and preaching is left for other companies.”

Why does culture matter for strategy?

Perhaps there is no greater influencer of an organization’s ability to design, communicate, and execute its strategy than the culture and yet most leaders within companies are woefully unskilled in understanding what culture is, how it emerges, and how it either accelerates or constrains an organization’s ability to change, adjust, innovate, and manage through the turbulence of constant and accelerating market and societal change. If a successful strategy requires a complete and shared understanding of your current context, that context both shapes and is shaped by the culture, which Edgar Schein defines as the “pattern of shared basic assumptions and norms,” that an organization learns as a social group as it solves problems, adapts to a changing environment, and integrates those learnings into ‘the way things are done around here’. Often times because leaders don’t understand how culture emerges within an organization they may assume that changing surface artifacts, policies, or rewards will automatically change the culture and it’s a little more complex than that. While there are many factors which influence how a culture is shaped, some of the most important include: what leadership chooses to focus on (and not focus on), how leadership makes investment decisions, how decisions are made, how employees are hired, recognized, rewarded, and promoted, how people are admonished, punished, and excommunicated from the organization, the rituals that are explicitly practiced, and the stories that are told which influence the behavior and decision-making. All of these heavily influence the Why, What, and How of an organization, which is why it’s often said that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

What does the office layout of sipgate tell you about the company and its products?

The intentionally open, transparent office layout is something truly unique to sipgate and actually tells me quite a lot. When Rabbi Haas and I were there in October we noticed a lot of things, but what was also important was the things we didn’t see when we walked the halls of your office. Rabbi Haas wrote an article on the intentional design of sipgate, cataloguing her impressions and interpretations of the space, so I’ll focus just on a few things I didn’t see at sipgate, especially compared to many other organizations I visit.

The first thing I didn’t see was social status encoded in the layout. Most organizations, even agile companies, use space as part of the reward system in their culture. There are no cubicles for line staff, interior offices for managers, and exterior window offices for senior directors and executives. This was not the case at sipgate. While all social organizations have a power structure, at sipgate it is not reified by the office layout.

The second thing I didn’t see upon entering the office was a receptionist, security guard, or badge check-in system which is very common in many companies. Indoor blends into outdoor, and if any boundary exists, it’s only in your head between the company and the outside world. People can (and do) walk in. Family members can (and do) walk and in and have lunch in the kitchen.

The third thing I didn’t see was a separate executive suite of offices for the leadership team of sipgate – which I learned later was because there were no offices for leadership. It may be my own interpretation, but this decision I believe makes a powerful statement about what the concept of ‘servant leadership’ means in an agile organization.

The fourth thing I didn’t see were lean or agile aphorisms, phrases, sayings, or posters on the walls. While people within sipgate certainly know and practice lean and agile sayings, these haven’t become espoused values printed and mounted around the office. Instead, there is art. Good art. Well-designed and well-chosen art. This is a contrast to a company I once worked at more than 10 years ago that was also a lean/agile software company, which was decorated with Japanese phrases like “Kaizen” and “Shu-Ha-Ri” on the walls like Stations of the Cross in a catholic cathedral. It seems to me that within Sipgate culture principles and values are practiced and preaching is left for other companies.

Is there something unique or exceptional at sipgate?

There really are a lot of things very unique to sipgate, not just as a company, but as a family. Besides the idea I mentioned above that principles and culture is continuously practiced, not preached, is that there is a deep humility and open-mindedness combined with pragmatism that I don’t see much, especially in other agile firms, and perhaps that reflects the personalities of the founders. Some organizations I’ve worked with or for have almost a cult-like feeling to the way they practice methods. There is nothing cult-like or cargo-cultish about the culture at sipgate. There is a curious open-mindedness to trying new things, experimenting, and learning what works and what doesn’t work.

„I think there is also a continuum between humility and skepticism on the one hand, and confidence and optimism on the other”

If you could change something at sipgate, what would it be?

When I came in October, there were a couple of issues that we were struggling with together. One challenge was balancing the tension between loosely-coupled autonomous teams and alignment to a strategy. The other was increasing the capability around saying “no” to some projects or work streams. The third was finding the right, authentic voice for marketing and promoting sipgate both in the marketplace but also in the very tight labor market in Düsseldorf. I think there is also a continuum between humility and skepticism on the one hand, and confidence and optimism on the other. I think there is a comfort in the culture of sipgate to be humble in practice and skeptical of your own capabilities to be leaders. If I were to try something in 2018, it would be to try more experiments that required you to exhibit a little more confidence, pride, and optimism in promoting yourselves, your offerings, and your culture itself in the marketplace.

The other thing I learned was that a great deal of sipgate’s success has emerged through the culture of experimentation (and many of the product successes started as guesses and experiments). I think managing the transition of ideas from experiments to products and eventually to commodities and then sunsetting them (technology lifecycle management) in a way that is aligned to a shared vision and strategy is still a capability you’re working on developing. I think a vision that articulates the purpose, aspiration, guiding principles (doctrine), and a vivid image of sipgate’s future would help you make better trade-off decisions at the portfolio level. I think doing this while maintaining the most important aspects of your unique culture is possible, but it will be a lot of work. Work well worth doing.

Why should every agile company embrace change ?

I don’t think every agile company should embrace change or change management as a capability. I do believe that every agile company that wants to survive the next five years absolutely must embrace change, understand the principles of good change management, and begin to acquire the capability to manage through change to survive. The alternative is death or acquisition by a larger, less agile organization. While I agree that most people within organizations don’t want change done to them, I think most people love change if they are part of an organization that has a clearly defined mission, is transparent about the challenges and opportunities in the marketplace, and is willing to challenge the underlying assumptions and norms so that they can iterate and learn on the journey towards greater resilience.

Thanks a lot for your time, Mr. Evans.

Dieses Interview mit Will Evans wurde anläßlich unserer Vortragsreihe Lean DUS geführt.

Thematisch ging es vor allem um strategische Organisation von Arbeit und Mitarbeitern, aber auch um die Frage, ob und warum ein Unternehmen immer für Wandel offen sein sollte. Das Interview wurde in Englisch geführt.

Mehr zu Will Evans gibt es unter: semanticfoundry

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