Saturday, October 22, 2005

Organizing for Experience - More on why "No CXO"

There seems to be a resurgence of discussion of the best organizational fit for User Experience, and I could almost be convinced by both Peter Boersma's and Richard Anderson's discussions on this. There are quite good points arguing in favor of companies instituting a Chief Experience Officer position. I'm intrigued, but not sold on it yet.

Peter B summarizes my argument for institutionalizing UX/usability, and then offers a worthwhile critique.
He (Peter J) argues:
We will create a more sustainable practice, and more quickly, by cultivating an internal demand than by acquiring formal organizational status.
To me that sounds like a "build it and they will come" approach. Or "proof is in the pudding". Or even "laissez faire" (not to be confused with laissez-faire).

Now, those are all viable approaches, but they do leave you vulnerable to unfavourable interpretation and small fluctuations in quality or project success. You're basically as good as your last project.

A CXO will be focusing on long-term issues, strategy, policy, approach, and ROI. He or she can afford a mistake or two on the project level, as long as the long-term strategy is not in danger. This "protects" the user experience professionals in lower level sof the organization from that vulnerability. See also Richard Anderson's description of the role in his article The Chief Experience Officer.
I just published this article in the UPA's UX magazine, so was hoping for some point-counterpoint. In that brief article I did not have the space for other points such as this. But I am not advocating a "let's do a good job and see who likes it," and its not laissez-faire. Instead, its pragmatic, based on empirical observations with many organizations. Note near the end of the article I mention:
"Yes, in some small companies, we may have CXOs or the like. Start-ups live and die by one product which they have to get right, and tying one product to a user experience strategy may be the best workable approach. But following one good design, much of the game is in marketing (see iPod). After all, start-ups also live and die by their sales and investors.
I could extend that to design consultancies, but not to larger firms or larger consultancies. There are several reasons, based on the organizational issues that occur in larger companies, and on my understanding of institutions and embedded values. First, the organizational research I follow (see Boland, Orlikowski, and Ciborra for example) argues against the idea of creating top-level organizational structures for managing the evolution toward new practices, even with consensus toward that change.

First of all, the idea of a CXO sounds great, but let's be real. First of all, Chief (Anything) Officer does not mean much in a small company (only the CEO). In start-ups, consultancies, and e-Business firms, we can make up any title we want, so there's no significant issue whether we have a CXO or not. The real question is whether to have a CXO in a company with other senior executive positions like COO and CTO? Then we're on shaky ground for an argument. The Chief Anything has authority because they have a budget and significant operational responsibility. They oversee huge budgets, and are responsible for making the company run. They are not supposed to be glorified staff positions, which the CXO sounds like, (unless its Disney, which creates experiences that millions of people pay real money for.)

Peter B also suggests a CMO:
However, I do see value in Peter Jones' argument that "management wants an integrated approach to organizational problem solving, and not a 'new fix'" and I wonder if it would be better to have a Chief Methodology Officer (CMO) in place that deals with how any aspect gets integrated in the way of working, be it quality assurance, agile approaches, or user experience.

I know of one organization where that role is in place (well, two if you count me too): Adaptive Path's Peter Merholz's title is "Director of Practice Development". From the discussions I have had with him and a couple of others, that means he has to deal with putting the right methodology together for his company. The fact that it will definitely be a user experience methodology is an added benefit ;-)
But again, the same with Methodology Officer. I guess that's fine if a consultancy can afford the overhead for this. But for large companies (like the clients I advise), do we really need a "cop at the top" to be sure people work well together? I have a doctoral thesis that explains the problems with imposing top-down process in innovation, when at the practice level innovations emerge, conflict, and are discounted due to power inequalities, once you make Process a Big Deal. My thesis starts here.

That's my rant against Top-Down management as well, because for innovation, and research, it just doesn't work. The problem with (these atypical) Chief Anything positions is that they have too much visibility and not enough earned social capital. I really believe we have to earn the advancement through diffusing the success and values of UX throughout the organization. (See, whenever you make something "new" a management discipline, it becomes a fad, like KM or Quality, even if its worthwhile. Your competitors in the large organizations will always outlast you or take you out. Then UX will be remembered as a fad, not as a good idea that didn't work out).

We always hear about the importance of "buy in from upper management," but that's just a hygiene factor. Necessary but not sufficient. It is no guarantee of success to have such support, and depending on the CEO, it could be the kiss of death to UX, to shoot too far and fail (see competitors, above).

And there are books on institutionalizing usability- these processes are still too top-down. In line with Boland, managers who take on UX should treat their job as if they were designers, not "leaders." Their materials are the organization, processes and practices, and projects. But each organization differs, and there are no cookie-cutter methods for institutionalizing UX. That's why, for each organizational project involving processes, I work with a small team on growing practices that work

UX work is also inherently creative, and needs the space to evolve without being in the pressure-cooker of the corporate suite. Companies have their business cycles, and when there's a downturn, CxO's (that's x as in variable) are often booted, especially if they can be considered non-essential to revenue. In the larger firms where UX is deeply embedded into processes, designers, usability people, and their managers are well-accepted in the product and development world, they own their domains to a large extent, and they survive downturns as well as upturns in the business. And innovation flourishes in a bottom-up, collegial, self-organizing organizational environment. This is harder to achieve, not easier, once you position UX on the hierarchy. Formal authority is not always a good thing to have. In our work the implicit power that emerges from peer respect, from an identified and evolving practice, and by designing winning products, is longer-lasting and inherently sustainable.

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