Originally posted at Cultivate

This is the final blog post in the series Large organisations find Lean UX hard, it’s not them, it’s us!, based on my talks at UXCambridge and UXScotland. This post will look at how we might navigate the politics of large organisations more effectively.

Acknowledge The Pressures

There are many types of pressure on organisations and people (internal and external).

My first tip - remain demonstrably focused on understanding the expectations on scope, platform, delivery, budget etc. Make sure people know you’re taking their needs into account. Capture these needs on whiteboards, or flip charts - something big.

Organisation Health Metrics

I came across the idea of Organisational Health Metrics in Christia Wodtke’s book Radical Focus and I think this is something we can use to reassure the business that we understand the issues they face.

As I understand them in OKR terms ‘health metrics’ are things you want to protect as you try to improve whatever you’re focusing on. These can be as literal as health of your staff, or something less tangible, like brand values. For example, if you make environmentally friendly shoes, it’s not acceptable to improve productivity by using toxic tanning agents.

Recognise your own assumptions and expectations

We should not assume that our expectations are in line with the stakeholders/execs/finance/business…We want to work 'time and materials’ as we’re agile…finance hear 'RISK: Open-ended contract with no agreed deliverables or deadlines.’

It’s often not us who pitch these uncoventional approaches to the organisation either, so we’re asking people to risk something very dear to them on our behalf.

Personal Reputation

Personal reputation is extremely important to most people. It’s often what our self-image is build around, and how in part we measure achievements. I believe this is amplified by our use of social media, especially in the young. “How many likes did I get? How many followers do I have?”

Large organisations are usually extremely hierarchical in structure. Reputation influnces opportunities, duties, promotions and potential salary. That’s what we’re asking people to stake on us.

We need to try and help them feel less reputationally 'at risk’ when we ask that of them.

Ask What would you be comfortable changing?“

Ask what would you be comfortable changing and work back from there, you might be able to move the boundaries a little, but you’ll almost certainly need to prove you can deliver before you’ll be able to move them dramatically.

Earn Trust - Be honest, be humble, over-deliver!

We’re sometimes (often?) asked to do things that are outside of our remit. If you have the time and skills, do them!

One example of this that sticks in my mind, is when I was asked to design Powerpoint slides for a client. I had the capacity at the time and so pitched in.

This meant that the person I was working with had a presentation they were more comfortable giving and that helped get buy in for our project. It took a couple of hours, but the value all around was far greater than that. I’d earned trust and demonstrated how 'cross-functional teams’ operate.

If opportunities don’t present themselves, just help clearing up after a meeting, or workshop or lunch.

Admit you don’t know.

None of us know everything. Let’s start saying so. When we admit we don’t know, it makes it safer for others to say they don’t know either. Over time this allows conversations to be had around what we need to learn, not what we 'know’.

Ask “Why?” (and then listen to the answer)

It sounds so obvious, but we often don’t listen to the answers to questions we ask. Or we think we do as we half-listen, preparing our response in our head.

“We can’t do that” Why?
“Those systems can’t be changed” Why?
“We can’t pay users for their time” Why?

Sometimes the answer will really be a reason you can’t do something and that’s useful to know. Sometimes it will reveal there is scope to work around the situation. (OK, what if we did XYZ?) If you’re really lucky asking why will reveal the reason isn’t really a blocker, and we can ignore it, but you’ll often miss these cues unless you are listening fully. I also find reflective listening useful to confirm what I think I’ve heard is in line with what’s actually been said. (Warning - overuse can be counter productive!)

Visualise Things (Draw)

Draw. Maps, comics, diagrams and visual/sketchnotes.

You’ll be amazed what this opens up communication wise. People notice, then they ask about it, then they want to show someone, soon it’s being used to frame a problem and you’re asked to do more…earning buy-in and trust.

Teach people to draw - well enough.

Drawing isn’t hard, but people think it is. Let’s derisk it for them.

More often than not, people believe that nothing less than a 'Leonardo Da Vinci’ level of ability is good enough. We’re not creating fine art, we’re discussing ideas. Almost anything is better than nothing, a scribbly napkin sketch prompts conversation, and that’s what we need.

There are lots of great resources out there to get people started. I was lucky enough to attend Bonny Colville-Hyde’s How to Make Your First UX Comic or Storyboard. I learned lots of great new (simple) techniques. She has a page with lots of slide decks and resources here

Use the informal networks.

One of the biggest challenges when you start working with a new organisation is to get a feel for the politics and the people. I usually - depending on the engagement, try and spend a couple of days orienting myself by speaking to anyone and everyone involved in the project. This is usually a casual chat. Often, during this 'walking the business’ time, I’ll need to speak with someone, not directly on the team, so I’ll ask people, who should I speak to in department X. Often they don’t know, sometimes haven’t even heard of department X. If you’re lucky they’ll say, I don’t know, but you should speak to Jane she know’s everyone. Find your Jane, befriend them (not in a cynical way!). They will help you navigate the “undernet”

Mitigate The Hippos

How often have you heard "I know what users want”, followed by a personal opinion. It could be right, but it could also very well be wrong, how do we manage that?

Whilst arguing the point early on may be worthwhile sometimes, I’ve found objective proof to be the most powerful way of changing people’s opinions.

Sometimes, building a prototype then user testing is our best solution. I find video of person after person struggling to use something, is far less disputable than one person’s opinion versus another (despite how much experience you may have!)

Find New Ways / Hack The System / **** the Status Quo

We’re in an evolving industry, there are few if any 'right’ answers, just tools and techniques we can try. Sometimes there is no solution that fits your needs – necessity is the mother of invention, figure it out, and share back your learnings with the broader business, and the community where possible.

You Too Must Compromise

I’ll leave you with this (paraphrased) though:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr