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Destroying Your Enemies Through the Magic of Design

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A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Jenny Lam and Hillel Cooperman’s new book Making Things Special, Tech Design Leadership from the Trenches, available now. A List Apart readers can also enter to win a copy of the book.

Hierarchical organizations large and small are rife with politics. In fact, the smaller the stakes, the more vicious they can be. Political organizations are ones where what things look like are just as, or more, important as what you actually do. Dealing with perceptions as well as ego and insecurity is part of dealing with human beings. This is who we are. And as soon as we create situations where there are winners and losers we create politics. And fighting. In some organizations, regardless of how brilliant your design may be, the politics will kill your plans before they have a chance to really blossom. And that’s a shame.

The single most important thing you can understand about navigating the gauntlet of organizational politics is the relative risks of saying no versus yes. Your job, your dream, your passion is to say “yes.” Yes to your product vision. Yes to your design. Yes to delighting customers. But the road is littered with opponents. These are people who will raise concerns about your proposals, reasonable sounding concerns. Concerns that may or may not be genuine. Maybe they’re good thoughts to consider that have been offered in good faith, and maybe they’re just obstacles designed to trip you up and damage you as a competitor in the organization. If you suspect an opponent’s motivations are personal, you’ll never prove it. That only happens in the movies. In effect, their motivations are irrelevant. Genuine or jerky, your only remaining option is to deal with their issues at face value.

But how?

Before we answer, let’s pause for an anecdote.

Years ago we worked on one of two teams in the same company that worked on competing projects. This happens often. The company’s leadership hopes competition fosters innovation, and people bringing forth their best ideas. The other team was huge and had been working on their project for years. There were smart and talented people on that team doing good work. They even had good design talent, but the team wasn’t design driven. They were technology driven. This is not to say that they didn’t think about customers. They did. It’s just that the high order bit was their technology choice, and then they did their best to design around those choices.

Our team was small. We had decent ideas and were design led. Our team fashioned a high-fidelity prototype that illustrated our ideas. It was on rails, a glorified slide show. And it was gorgeous. The other team had code. We had beautiful images that moved.

As things came to a head politically, we finally revealed our design to the other team. After the presentation, they looked like they’d been punched in the stomach. Even though they had code, we just had a better story. We had something inspiring. Their stuff was flat. And boring. Literally and metaphorically. And even though they were creative and smart, the genetics of their team had led them down an uninspiring path. They knew it. And so did the execs who saw both teams’ work.

Within a week those execs tried to merge our teams. And when it was clear that we were culturally incompatible, their project was killed. Was our design work solely responsible for the end of their project? No. Was it one of the things that sent them over the edge? Without a doubt.

Now let’s return to our discussion of how you can deal with the people who oppose your plans in your organization. Your first choice is to use the logic of your arguments, your personal charm, and maybe a little horse trading to get those folks on board. And in many cases that works. It’s always your best option. We’re big fans of working together harmoniously. But the larger the organization (and it doesn’t have to be all that large) the higher the odds that there will be some people where reasoned discussion and collaboration doesn’t work. Ever.

Remember, the political economics of saying “no” in large organizations are so much better than saying “yes.” Saying “no” costs essentially nothing. You don’t need to prove anything. You’ll almost never be proven wrong for saying no. And the optics are great too. The person saying “yes” looks overly enthusiastic, while the person saying “no” in reasonable tones sounds like the grownup. The naysayer just has to raise reasonable doubt to save the company from wasting time and money on some “foolish and poorly thought out initiative.” However, saying “yes” is costly. You’re putting yourself out on a limb. You’re being specific. You’re opening yourself up to attack. You’re trying to do something.

As a user experience design leader you have a secret advantage. It’s the thing that often overcomes every opponent, every craven naysayer. It’s the High Fidelity Visualization.

What is the High Fidelity Visualization? It could be anything from a series of beautiful UI mockups, to a user experience prototype on rails, to a freeform prototype that the audience can try themselves, to a beautifully produced video showing customers using the prototype.

There will always be “no” people. But “no” people rarely have counterproposals. And when they do, they’re usually vague or a set of yawn-inducing PowerPoint bullets. By definition, they don’t want to be out on a limb or they’d be subject to attack. So they keep things light on details. But when you show up with a High Fidelity Visualization, if you’ve done your job, and told a great story, everyone else in the room will fall in love with your plan. Decision makers will get excited. They’ll start defending your ideas against the naysayers. Emotion motivates them to become advocates for your plan, your story. And this is a good thing.

But take note, we liken these visualizations to nuclear weapons. They’re incredibly powerful tools and can cause collateral damage. You’ve got to get the dosage just right. Sometimes you can do such a good job getting your company’s leadership on board with your ideas that now they bother you every week to find out why the product isn’t done yet. After all, that prototype looked essentially ready to ship, and you didn’t spend a lot of time in your pitch meeting talking about the smoke and mirrors you used to put it together.

The point is this: with a beautifully executed High Fidelity Visualization that sets the right tone, you can neutralize the people in your organization who love to say “no.” This is your secret advantage as someone with vision, an ability to visualize your plan and bring it to life in people’s imagination, and the leadership skills to deliver on that vision. Tell the right story with your execution here and anyone who’s getting in your way will fall by the wayside.

And for those of you who feel this is militaristic in tone, you’re right. Hierarchical organizations with more than ten people on the team invariably have a representative population of personality types — including people who will get in your way. If you really want to make something special and deliver it to customers, then you need to get the doubters on board or run them over. Partnering with the doubters is always preferable as long as it’s not at the expense of your ideas. But unfortunately, it’s not always possible. It’s not personal. It’s not about being a jerk. It’s not about beating your chest. It’s about making something great. And if you’re in an organization where people with limited vision and possibly political aims are forever stopping you from delivering something wonderful, you need to arm yourself and fight. Spending your time arguing endlessly with people so you can deliver a watered-down version of the great thing that resides in your head is a waste of your time.

How do you know which feedback is killing your vision and which is making it better? Listen to everyone, open your mind, but trust your instincts. If you stick to your guns and fail, at least you’ll learn something. If you turn your ideas into some sort of compromise mishmash and you fail, you’ll never know exactly what caused the failure and you truly will have wasted your time.

Good luck soldier.

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