Influence at scale, part 1: behaviors that help teams work together, trust each other and rack up big wins

In June of 2016 I attended a workshop by Samatha Soma. Samantha is a UX professional within GE, helping them to cement the influence of their design community within the larger organization of product managers, engineers and industrial designers. Her talk was called ‘Building teams that change organizations.’

The workshop broke into 4 parts.

  • Understanding the organization
  • Understanding and structuring the design team
  • ‘Esprit de corps’ – roughly translated into cultivating good habits within the team
  • Influence within the company

Larger outcome: change the organization

Samantha didn’t start with this, but I thought it might be nice to start with a goal.

Our end goal is an organization where design thinking, empathy and directness are not valued, respected, practiced and evangelized. To win with our customers, we need to encourage trust within the UX team. We also need to extend that trust between silos at an organization.

First, understand the organization

Samantha spent the first part of the workshop on this area. Understanding the wider context of your organization is critical to changing that organization. In Samantha’s world, effecting change is about understanding, empathy and inclusion. I love this viewpoint. We could use more of it in the enterprise world.

For those who are skeptics of this viewpoint, I would read some of the many articles about Sear’s decline into bankruptcy. The articles about the silo-rich organization where departments compete against each other for a slice of the (shrinking) budget is a case-study in how exclusion and aggression can drive a business into the ground.

For this task, she recommended the book ‘Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture.’

In the workshop, the first thing we did was to plot our organization onto a 2-D Matrix. Of flexibility and control vs. a internal/external focus. This helped us better understand the ‘ocean in which we were swimming.’ If we’re truly focused on the outcome of external change, then we need to do our best to understand what we’re trying to change.

Second, structure the design team

Change is not an individual sport. To truly effect change, teams need to be constructed and reinforced from within. Great teams deliver quality work in a predictable, consistent manner. Samantha walked us through creating a structure that will set teams up for success.

Structure the career path through your organization

Structure helps teams do a couple of things well. First, it allows team members feel secure in their career path. It helps them understand what they should be working on to reach the ‘next’ level. Security, stability and well-established expectations set a good model for how the team should interact with other teams.

It also positions people to be consistently good at more or less the same set of skills so when they interact with other teams, the experience of working with the User Experience team will be consistent for those outside the department. Consistency of delivery is a marker of winning teams, according to Soma.

Structuring a team breaks down into 4 areas:

  • Capability assessment
  • Development planning
  • Career growth
  • Team charter

Capability assessment

A theme of the workshop emerged as Soma spoke about working within a team. Seeking change starts with understanding. A capability assessment helps you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each person on the team. Understanding skills helps allocate people to the right projects. This is key in retaining people in a chaotic marketplace for talent. In the workshop we completed a matrix evaluation of teams members across the following axis:

  • Technical expertise
  • Business knowledge
  • Leadership abilities
  • Personal attributes

Development planning

Your biggest recruiting tool is showing potential employees that they will develop under your leadership. This also helps retention to show people that they’ll be able to significantly advance their skills and their career by working with your department.

Career growth

In the workshop, Samantha lead us in an exercise to create a ‘career matrix.’ This is a critical structure to help the people on your team understand where they are in the career ladder and how to get to the next step. The truth is that people like to be measured. The advancement of a measurable analytic is exciting, and it helps people feel a sense of progress in their careers. The structure helps them feel like they have a good direction, and that if they work hard they’ll be rewarded in a predictable manner.

Team charter

This helps focus the team on understanding what they’re at the company to do. Statements of purpose help focus people on the work that truly needs to be done – like building trust, getting quick wins, influencing teams to help spread design thinking throughout an organization, etc.

With our end goal in mind – changing the organization – we’ve started off by understanding the organization where we are. Next we work to reinforce the structure of the smaller team within the organization. Consistency of output, internal structure and predictability are key markers of teams with a high likelihood of influencing the organization around them.

Next up: Creating good habits in design organizations

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