Kevin M. Hoffman, the author of Meeting Design, discusses the power of culture in our organizations. What shapes culture? What transcends cultures and works across contexts? What levers can we pull to influence our cultures, regardless of title?

Show Notes

Kevin M. Hoffman 
Meeting Design 
Erika Hall’s tweet about engineering culture:
Sarah Nelson’s Tweet on Influence
Culture mapping 
Blowhard Syndrome 
Edgar Schien and Humble Inquiry 


Roman: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to UX Like Us, the podcast for user experience designers, researchers, strategists…

Larry: [00:00:08] And Mavericks! 

Roman: [00:00:11] I’m your user experience Maverick, Roman Bercot. Joining me as always is Larry King! Larry, how are you? 

Larry: [00:00:20] I’m doing super! Thanks for asking.

Roman: [00:00:23] A very exciting first for UX Like Us –  joining us today is Kevin M. Hoffman, author of the book Meeting Design.Kevin, welcome to the show.

Kevin: [00:00:33] Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. 

Larry: [00:00:36] The topic for today is really around organizational culture and what that means in the work that we do in UX all the time. So I think a lot of times when we talk about, you know, what we do as UX designers, you know, a lot of people think design is just like  you make these designs and then people, you know Implement them and you know, it’s really a super easy process, but what it comes down to those like there’s lots of people involved in and lots of more complexities and people would normally imagine that it would take to actually get good product design into people’s hands. And one of those big barriers that we talked about,  is how organizational culture can often be sort of the strongest force in any design project, any sprint, anything when you’re trying to get anything done really in organizational culture. And it tends to dominate and govern what succeeds and fails in UX design.

 So I’m really excited to hear your thoughts Kevin on organizational culture, and how you think it affects product delivery and UX design.

Kevin: [00:00:03] My background is on both being in-house and being in an agency. So working in a Consulting capacity. I worked at a boutique agency a small agency and then I also started an agency and. Be combined. It was probably about nine or ten years then I’ve been in the rest of my career has been in-house. Probably more than 10 years in-house. The interesting thing about working at agencies in the interesting thing about being in house is being able to look across cultures and being able to say oh this thing that I learned how to do as a UX director at an agency, you know, how I learned how to sell work or framework or be persuasive of a particular research methodology.

Usually, there are elements of what made it work that I assume I can port to other contexts. Like I was able to sell or pitch and I think we’re always selling whether we’re in-house or not. You know, you don’t have to use the word sell you could say I was able to convince or I was able to to to prove the value of I was able to prove the valve value of usability testing in this context and the context was it was a six-figure website redesign and they had particular business goals, and we wanted to be able to build usability testing into the process because we thought we would hit the goals better actually observing users which now feels very commonplace, but probably 10 years ago it was still kind of an upsell. And for some agencies, I think it’s a tough sell to sell research as part of UX work. But the idea that I could take whatever I used to convince or persuade people of the value in one context pop it into a new context like a Lego and then expect the same success I think that’s the thing that in my career I’ve learned that it never works that way. That often I have to kind of put on my user research lens on the organization itself to say, oh how does stuff get made here in order to be successful or to look at why it something didn’t didn’t work.

So that’s I mean, I think I think a lot of people earlier in your career you have this I think people get – I know I got – really excited about models. I got excited about the idea of doing a site map or the idea of doing wireframes or you know, developing my own opinions and process and maybe even my signature process when I do an agile Sprint, I do it this way and I run my retrospective like this and whatever.

But I feel like takes time, or it takes working in multiple contexts to start to realize: oh so much of my own method is a function of the culture. I was in at the time. I think that’s really interesting.

Roman: [00:00:00] That’s funny. When we were getting set up earlier today, I saw Sarah B. Nelson, who I think is now at IBM, she was basically asking this very question. To these companies who hire these consultants to come in and try to teach you how to do things, what is it that you’re looking to get out of that? Because the context is so massively different. 

Kevin: [00:00:32] She’s an interesting person at like she I would love to hear her perspectives on that. I’ve talked to Sarah a couple of times over the years. We actually work together on a project a long time ago.

But the work that Sarah does at IBM at least most recently I saw Sara last year and she’s been working on trying to take design thinking as a methodology so, you know research, hypothesize, iterate, and evaluate. However, you want to quantify design thinking that’s you know, the four-step design thinking process and trying to go throughout IBM’s many sales organizations.

So we’re talking hundreds if not thousands of different salespeople. And teach them how to use design thinking to evaluate the success of their sales efforts and develop and design really new approaches to sales for one of the largest companies in the world. And like if ever there was a case study about cultural adaptation certainly in the Enterprise.

I mean at the enterprise level culture is a culture of cultures. So, you know thinking about Sarah’s work at least the work that she did on the design thinking and sales piece. It’s just fascinating to imagine like, you know, oh, we’re able to help this team do it. But now we go help the Watson team figure out, you know how to use design thinking and in selling Watson’s API. Now we’re going over to the – I can’t make up an IBM team somebody make it.

Larry: [00:02:09] PC team. The IBM PC team! 

Kevin: [00:02:12] Yeah, the PC. Yeah, because IBM PCS are all the rage these days. So, you know the PC team how do we incorporate design thinking and the context, the constraints, the way success is imagined, the way that people have what I would call like currency in the culture, which is like, “when this person says something it actually people pay attention.” Or there’s fear or there’s excitement or energy or whatever. I don’t know. It’s all it’s all interesting to me and I feel like it’s been. Like everyone’s career, hopefully, is a career of lifelong learning but in this particular space, I feel like you can never stop learning. Like the minute you feel like you understand a culture. that’s when you are doomed I think. 

Larry: [00:03:09]I want to dig into the little bit when you just talked about having cultural currency and being able to use that to your you know, the people with the most cultural  currency have sort of the most sort of pull into how things get done or you know how things work and I think that’s really it’s a very interesting one because you know, I’ve noticed too in some in some situations.

I’ve been in where it’s like you have to build those you have to build a lot of relationships to be able to get to that cultural currency and then even in within a similar company, you could build up that currency and then. Have a merger happen and completely lose all that currency because you have all these new people coming in that have their own currency with certain people in certain circles and it’s just it’s almost a constant battle just to like, you know, keep that currency so that you can affect how things happen and how decisions are made and and and have your influence on getting good product out the door and it’s even you know, you talked about this situation IBM, where you going from Team to team and you have to treat each one of those things differently because the cultures are different in they’re going to you know, those ideas and approaches are going to soak in differently. You have to use different techniques to get that but even within the same organization, you can just have a massive change in leadership or a merger or anything like that can also throw off that balance and then you kind of have to go back to the drawing board and start all over again.

Kevin: [00:01:19] Yeah, one of my experiences in what I was working in an Enterprise organization is. Though one of the managerial strategies of the organization was above a certain level of executive they would regularly rotate senior leadership. So the thinking there is oh, you know, we’ll be able to find our best senior leaders by putting them in multiple contexts and seeing who can be successful in multiple contexts the effect of that on product design my experience anyway, the what I saw is that just like you said you basically go into a rebuilding mode where it’s like, oh, I build trust I built you know, I built this belief in a partner in a business partner product partner that I am able to deliver on my promises, you know, and then they rotate the leadership at either the level you’re out of the or a higher level.

It’s like oh now we get to rebuild. Again, and to me it’s it’s an interesting challenge of large organizations. It’s one that that particular organization would I think it was unique to their managerial strategy, but I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know enough about enterprise orgs. Do they always rotate like executive VP s and VPS like that.

Do you guys know? I don’t know. I don’t I have limited experience. 

Roman: [00:02:51] I think that’s like the GE model that they popularized, and that was based off military management. So the military makes a point of rotating people periodically, so people will be in a. Sign up for 3 to 4 years and then they got to do something else and if you’re not rotating then that’s a bad mark on your career.

Kevin: [00:03:13] This is a fun exercise. It is for me. You guys tell me if this is fun. What are all the military terms we use when we talk about culture like “command and control. Is a military term but like that’s a like a lot of people will say. Oh is this a democratic culture or command and control culture FUBAR is a term that I hear when like you’re coming into a context and they’re like, well, what’s you know, what do we have to what are we dealing with here?

It’s FUBAR. It’s you know, that’s a military term. What are the other military greatest hits? 

Larry: [00:03:51] Roman you’re the one of the military background, so you probably have a better finger on that is FUD. Is that a military term? 

Roman: [00:04:01] don’t know if it originated but I’ve certainly heard it in a military context.

Kevin: [00:04:05] What does it stand for? 

Roman: [00:04:07] fear uncertainty and doubt. 

Kevin: [00:04:08] Okay. 

Larry: [00:04:09] that’s what like when you’re talking to the salespeople into Enterprise sales and stuff. They’ll be they use that as you know, as a sales tool to you know, make the other, you know, make the competitors look bad. It’s like oh, well, you know, they’ll set up things that Inspire fear uncertainty and doubt about the competition in 

Kevin: [00:04:25] That’s a sales strategy!?!

Oh my God, that’s evil. I want to I want to be in that conversation where we’re planning the sales cycle, and it’s. What will we say to create fear in our potential customers that we want to make them afraid of our competitors? So what will we say God, that’s dark. 

Roman: [00:04:47] How many design briefs have you come across that say that but maybe just don’t come out and say that?

Larry: [00:04:54] Well, I mean, you know, we work in the security industry and there are you know, there are people in the security industry that you know have had bad security incidents.

Like, you know people like was that last pass or One login One login RSA back in the day had a really big breach and they had to change the entire way that they do the keys for their you know, their RSA tokens and things like that. And so yeah absolutely competitors are going to take that say Hey, look these guys got popped, you know, you don’t to go with them.

You should go with us. We don’t, you know, we don’t have a history of you know, having security incidents.

Kevin: [00:05:27] I’m if I’m yeah if I put it on my military hat and I’m looking to you Roman tell me if this is good, military strategy. Don’t I want to make the assumption that it’s going to happen like it that that in if I’m in the security business, let’s assume it’s eventually going to happen and we want to plan for that.

You know, maybe that’s not your sales pitch. But you know, I would assume like on some level if you’re designing security experiences you’re designing for disaster. 

Roman: [00:05:56] You know, once the once the mega breach has started happening there is a lot of different players – a former employer of mine included – that was trying to play kind of like an insurance angle. So when you have a breach we’re going to help you recover. I don’t think that sells all that well.

Larry: [00:06:16] Yeah, there’s been it’s been that’s been a common thing for a few enterprise software cybersecurity software companies where they’ll like have an insurance policy.

It’s like if you buy this level of our product and you get breached and we don’t detect it, you know, they’ll be they’ll have some sort of insurance policy that pays out for damages that happened. But yeah, I mean, that’s really I mean if you look at any mature security company or any mature security practice in general, you can’t just look at preventing because you’re never going to prevent every single thing that’s happening that that’s going to come at you. Right? So you have to be able to prevent detect prevent and also respond when you ultimately get breached because as a former person that I used to work for that, you know, his Mantra was breeches are inevitable and so you have to be prepared for what you’re going to do and how you’re going to respond when It ultimately happens to you because there’s no way to actually prevent every single breach from happening. 

Kevin: [00:07:16] I wish that was the motto for whale watching: Breaches Are Inevitable. I feel like it’s always we hope but we never get them

Larry: [00:07:26] only been on one whale watching tour and we saw several breaches

Kevin: [00:07:32] Oh really? Was it Hawaii? 

Larry: [00:07:33] got lucky. No I was up in up in Cape Cod 

Kevin: [00:07:37] Oh, that’s you got really lucky I can count on one hand.

I can count on two hands. The number wear watches. I’ve been on and I can count on one finger the number of breaches. I’ve seen so you got really oh wait. No, there was one time where I was on in Alaska where I saw a whale just going over and over and over for a while. That was cool anyway.

Roman: [00:08:00] There’s a design we’ll have to do a show on some time – whale watching tours. 

Larry: [00:08:06] How might we condition whales to get them to breach more when there are tours around? 

Kevin: [00:08:11] Put food at the surface, dude! All this stupid law about not being able to be a certain number of yards within a whale – if we didn’t have that we could make them perform for us.

We have culture and design that’s something else that’s interesting to me that occurred to me before like what I was thinking about this. It’s interesting to think about the evolution of the role of design in a culture. So, you know, when I started my career as a full-time designer, my title was webmaster and I worked at a.

And. I was designing the website, you know as my job, but culturally I was caught in this tug of war between technology and marketing so organizationally they didn’t think of design as certainly it wasn’t something that was at the executive level and it was some hybrid of a marketing is how we look or are if you’re more sophisticated.

It’s our voice. It’s what we say in the market. It’s and how we differentiate ourselves and technology is how we pay our bills essentially. So that’s how people get. Their tuition payments to us and how we track what courses they’ve taken in a million other things that now are in databases. I feel like if you look at the economy and the economy’s move towards Service as a product, so it’s not about getting your iPod or iPhone as the case may be it’s about the iTunes platform the service of it.

It’s not about having a laptop. It’s about the Mac OS ecosystem or the windows ecosystem or whatever ecosystem. It’s the service as a product the more we’ve moved towards Service as a product the more you can see design occupying a significant part of the Strategic conversation at the highest level and certainly with you know, major platforms like Facebook and Twitter and you know the ones that.

Have created. Silicon Valley and then you know the biggest one of all like Google they kind of made design part of business at the highest level at the Strategic level. I remember there was a either that was a rumor or there was a post why Doug Bowman left Google Doug Bowman was the head of design for search not too long ago, probably more than five or six years ago, but.

Vicky posted it on his blog he was talking about how he was having to debate with engineer’s which color blue was better and the engineers were saying. Well, we have this data on this many thousands of users with this color blue and this data on this many thousand users and these are both statistically significant so we know this blue is better because it’s, you know less time on task or better click-through rate or whatever and that that culture.

Design was never going to get past Engineering in the conversation, you know regardless of which color blue is right, I think and I’m trying to remember where I saw this, but I read this recently this idea that now that Technology and Engineering structures and this idea of having these engineering squads and the following agile methodology.

Oh, I see. It was a conversation. I think that Peter Morville was having with somebody. I don’t remember who it was. But anyway, they were talking on Twitter about how if engineering teams drive work at enterprise organizations design is often seen as a bottleneck, you know, design is seen as slowing the culture.

I’m curious why you’re laughing. Does that sound familiar? 

Roman: [00:12:25] If I had a dollar for every time I heard that design was a bottleneck …

Kevin: [00:12:30] So the hypothesis is the reason people believe design is a bottleneck is because it’s an engineering-driven culture that we’re trying to spend the we’re trying to cost to be most efficient with our costs and Engineering.

We don’t want to have anybody not working at any time and we have this many Engineers. So we need this much for them to make. 

Roman: [00:12:52] By that reasoning NASCAR mechanics would be a lot faster if there were no body panels on those cars …

Kevin: [00:12:58] Mmm Yeah. 

Larry: [00:12:59] Yeah, I think it’s interesting because there’s I mean I’ve witnessed many different types of cultures, right like so, you know, you talk about the engineering-driven culture and some of the things that happen with that like design being seen as a bottleneck.

There’s also you know, I’ve also seen, you know, very sales-oriented, you know, LED cultures where you know, you have a and you know, I mostly talk from the enterprise software point of view because that’s what I’ve been looking for the last seven years. But a sales-led organization where it’s like, you know sales drives all product decisions, you know and not not from a deep.

Hey, we did some real, you know deep design research where we have deep understanding of the customer problems that we’re dealing with. It’s more of a, “Oh, yeah, Mike customer the person the buyer Persona or whoever is saying we need X Y Z. So we got to get this up because this is a million-dollar deal and you need to do it now, right?”

Kevin: [00:13:54] So they’ve already sold the design. Yeah, and they’re doing as much design for a sales pitch as you are doing it for actual customers. I mean that that that reminds me of like when I was in agencies and when I think about agencies, I think about there’s so many different kinds of agencies. There’s agencies that are more user experience agencies their agencies that are more digitally focused.

There are classic agencies that are like advertising agencies with giant teams that. Will basically do a lot of free design to pitch work. I was at a when I was at a small agency. We would occasionally compete against those larger agencies and we would go pitch a client like CBS and we would pitch CBS and they’ll be like, oh, where are your comps of our new website like didn’t you already do that?

And we’d like no, that’s not how we work. We want to know what we want to know. You believe is the problem and then we want to see proof of that problem existing in the world. And we don’t do that for free. You know, we don’t just design based on what we believe that stuff is that’s what you pay us to do, but it was really hard, too. We didn’t win that pitch.

You couldn’t win those pitches because they would say, you know, oh draft FCB or I can’t think of any other agency. Is at the moment but the big you know, the big ones RGA, you know, they’ll come in and they have teams of designers that are just cranking out these comps in the hope of Landing the $5 million, $10 million CBS account. And the reason I think that happens is there’s this role in agencies of the account manager in the in agency culture. There’s this account manager role and it’s kind of similar to like the currency we talked about like an account manager in a really large agency has a lot of currency from the clients perspective.

The account manager is seeing Kate depending on the account manager can be seen as like the person that could actually get the designs the way we want them to be and I’ve seen actually I’ve seen agencies go under like either go out of business or just you know, get absorbed into you know, like get aqui-hired because the there was so much tension between account managers making promises to.

And designers wanting to actually learn about and do a good user experience like that that that kind of butting of heads. I know one agency that they went out of business because they couldn’t resolve that cultural. 

Larry: [00:16:56] Yeah, I had that same experience when I worked in agencies as well. You’d have account managers that would sell something to a customer because that’s what they thought they could sell to them.

And you know, they have this list of past that UX people would do and they would, you know try to assemble something that they could sell and then it would get to me. And I would take a look at this list and I would go, you know have the kickoff meeting with the customer and then I would like oh, wait a minute.

You don’t need this, this, and this. You need to actually we actually need to dig into these three things. We’re going to need to do some research with these type of people and all this and it would be we would have to renegotiate the task list and try to stay within the budget so that we could actually provide real value to the customer as opposed to we’re going to do all these fake tasks because that’s what we sold you, but there’s they’re really not benefiting you.

Kevin: [00:17:40] But that’s a that brings up another interesting cultural. Like if I was going to go back and listen to this conversation and look for like what could I start paying attention to or think about around culture? We talked about having cultural currency. Another thing is how we estimate cost the cost of work.

Is it like however that’s estimated and if it’s estimated by an account manager talking to a client or if it’s estimated by a project manager or if it’s estimated by a Scrum Master, however, we estimate the cost of getting work done often is very closely tied to the culture of how design is expressed at that company.

You know, I don’t know I think that’s interesting. I always liked making models. 

Roman: [00:18:27] I was just sitting here thinking how funny it is that agencies. Love to give away free design work, but nobody’s ever offering to do free research. 

Kevin: [00:18:35] Do you know in my mind? I remember at least one or two pitches? Where we would try to do fake research in advance, like that’s what like those Forrester reports are for are like, you know, you buy a Nielsen Norman report on what users do and you go in armed with that kind of research so it’s not fake research.

But it’s like it’s like what do they say they talk about like the scent of truth. It’s truthiness. So it’s like can you talk about the people we think our users with enough intelligence based on? Oh, well, we believe, you know, four out of ten people don’t look beneath the fold the based on you know, this Neil So Norman reported, whatever.

If you go in with that, it’s a type of currency. I think that’s another type of cultural cultural cultural currency, which is the appearance of knowledge. You know, there’s a really interesting blog post about the opposite of Imposter Syndrome. Did you guys catch that? 

Roman: [00:19:49] No, that sounds awesome.

Kevin: [00:19:52] There’s a lot of discussion and writing and UX around imposter syndrome. There was a woman I’m not sure I don’t remember her name. But if you Google the term, she wrote this post about Blowhard Syndrome. Blowhard Syndrome is the kind of opposite of Imposter Syndrome where you actually think you know what you’re talking about, but you haven’t done your research.

And I think you know in my experience both running an agency and working in an agency. People respond to blowhard syndrome sometimes in positive ways. Sometimes it gets work sold or it gets ideas through, you know, like the just the appearance of confidence in the even if it’s in the absence of proof.

Roman: [00:20:38] That’s why I’m a User Experience Maverick.

Kevin: [00:20:41] Yeah, Maverick. That’s kind of a that has a blowhard-y connotation to it.

Larry: [00:20:49] I know all the all the instances of blowhard syndrome that I’ve ever seen. We’re not good things and they were typically in people in positions of power and they knew everything and they typically had the top-down command and control type of management style and you just look at this and just like wow.

How did this person get how did this person even get to this position and then and be so incompetent, but yet be so confident in that incompetence?

Kevin: [00:21:20] Yeah that and that question in and of itself I think is a function of culture. Which is why are the people in the positions that they’re in if you know the answer to that like in my experience organizations where people really have a handle on what the currency is are able to kind of survive those organizations.

That’s one of the questions I asked when I find myself in a new context if I know I’m going to be there for a while. I always ask like hey you seem to know what you’re doing. What’s what’s what’s your secret? What makes this clock tick as you see it? Like, how does this how does this organization really get work done?

And you know when I was at a large company that was it was always interesting how many different answers you get and then if you could find a narrative that would help you get your work done inside of all those different answers. 

Larry: [00:22:17] Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s a good technique for trying to figure out how to gain that currency of culture by you know, looking at the people that are actually successful in getting things done in an organization and figure out you know, why are you sick?

For I’m interested in other sort of levers that you can use to begin to you know, you know affect culture change in an organization like, you know, one of the things is, you know, building relationships looking for those people that are successful and try to figure out you know, what makes them successful and having that currency.

There was an interesting presentation. I saw it the design opt Summit a couple years back and it was by Erin Hoffman-John. She’s the CEO of this company called Sense of Wonder to video game company and she was talking about sort of ecosystems and videogame ecosystems and how they set those up and they and they set up rules for the ecosystem in order for it to sort of function.

It gives it its character. Culture, right and she talked about different things that they different levers that they can pull within an ecosystem in order to create that change that they’re looking for to either improve the gameplay or do something that that’s needed to change the environment of that ecosystem and it was interesting because she had like this.

Continuum of levers going from very small levers that make really small changes to Big levers that make really big changes and figuring out, you know, where the levers that you need to pull because pulling the big change the big levers requires you to have a lot of control already, you know, you need to be sea level or somebody that can be top-down mandate things, you know be that you know that opposite of imposter Syndrome guy the blowhard syndrome thing right in order to get that done or.

You can figure out how to pull a bunch of little levers and in order to you know, start to create that change. So I thought was very interesting to like think about culture as sort of an ecosystem and being able to find ways to affect it by, you know, finding the levers that you have the ability to pull and start to move things in a direction that you think is better.

Kevin: [00:24:33] Yeah, I love that. I think there are two questions that come out of that for me one is is. Or something you can change. I think there’s a lot of desire for change. I think it’s a change the promise of a different thing in a way that’s better than what I have now is always a motivator for everybody but culture is a thing that I feel like I almost feel like culture is is like something you can fertilize and you can water but I don’t feel like you can drive it.

So like, you know, I can water a plant and I can maybe, you know, control certain aspects of the soil the acidity of the soil, but I can’t actually make the plant grow the way I expect it to grow it’s going to grow. It might pull towards the sun. It might, you know, throw a random Leaf in a weird Direction.

I mean, there’s an unpredictability to culture that I think like starting to think. Okay. We want to change the culture gets into change management staff and there’s a reason that stuff doesn’t always. A lot of the time. The other thing that you said that I think is really interesting about the video game ecosystem metaphor is thinking about the scale of impact you want to affect in a situation and designing for that because I think you know very often.

Well, I don’t know if it’s often but I’ve certainly experienced coming into a large culture and people describing large generalizations around the culture. Like this is a data-driven culture. This is as you know, we are. The culture of business analysts and we make decisions based on data. So if you have data then you know, that’ll that’ll win here.

And I think you can make those kind of generalizations, but what that usually leads to is, I don’t know if it usually leads to it, but I would imagine it I’ve experienced it leading to kind of rigidity about process where it’s like I’m in pursuit of data and I’m not actually paying attention to what’s happening.

Because it’s like I’m just trying to get to that next KPI. I’m just trying to get to that next, you know key result and if and in pursuit of that, I’m not actually open to the doors that are opening based on whatever we’re advancing in the iterative process, you know, I don’t know does that resonate with either of you?

Larry: [00:27:04] Yeah, I mean I’ve seen I think that I’ve seen people and cultures where you know, the numbers are everything, you know that drives everything that data right and it’s usually like quantitative data quantitative. Drives everything and they just like, you know, since you know, the whole mantra of “you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.”

Roman: [00:27:25] Drucker said that!

Larry: [00:27:26] Exactly! But here’s the thing people like take that and think it’s like oh if I can’t measure it with a number and compare it to a number that is different, you know from the past or the future or across different people or anything like that, but I think that doesn’t tell the whole story because there’s also qualitative data and qualitative data tells you in my mind much richer more, you know, you get much more richer information from that than you can from, you know, a bunch of numbers and I see a lot of people.

Or who instead of managing, they just like measure and then make decisions based on numbers as opposed to you know, you know managing by like Gathering all the information and actually having to make a decision as opposed to well. The number said this so we’re going to go with that, right? 

Kevin: [00:28:08] Yeah, it’s like the responsibility of taking a position on a thing and taking a position really underneath it. You have to actually have values aligned to the work that you’re doing where it’s not just like. Oh, we want more people to buy our widgets. So we sell more widgets. That’s the behavior that will do but it’s like we want people to buy more widgets because of particular personal value.

Yeah, the other thing that popped into my head when you were talking about that. It’s like how people manage and how organizations what element of culture is management and one of the things I think is really important. That is something that I’m always learning. And hopefully getting better at and growing in my work is in terms of thinking about management and Leadership and the role that that plays in a culture recognizing that you know, despite whatever.

You want to believe despite this the desire for leadership and management to be an idealized version of the people they manage the reality is a lot of that decision making is very emotionally driven. It’s informed by numbers in a good case. It’s also informed by qualitative data, but ultimately, you know people who make management decisions about the direction of investment in a products and what features, we build and what features we don’t and ultimately what market we’re getting into.

They’re human beings that have their own emotional triggers that have the same, you know, deeply rooted emotional behaviors that everyone has and I think you know one thing that I’ve seen that’s really interesting in a company is when you can start to understand the emotional life of management if you can start to really.

Deserve this is why the leaders at this company are passionate about this thing. This is how they’re emotionally their emotional compass for the way. They make decisions the conversations become very rich and very, You know, it’s not just about proof. It’s not just about models and diagrams but it starts to become more about the mission and if the mission is truly customer helping customers in whatever.

Vertical you’re in if the mission really is helping customers then like if you can understand the emotional relationship that leadership has to those customers and what they really hope and want for those people you’re able to have very rich. I’ve been able to have very rich powerful conversations with managers at companies that way.

Roman: [00:31:03] That’s a really cool perspective on that. It reminds me of Manager Tools. They talked about using the disc profile to understand everybody’s different currency. So talking to a given person and I’m not that familiar with the disc profile myself, but you. No, oh what that guy cares about is shipping stuff.

So if you want to get through to him, if you want to orient yourself to his world, it’s hey, you know, here’s how we get to shipping and everybody has their different kind of perspective. That’s a really cool approach though to take the emotional life into account rather than just saying, oh this guy’s you know, a numbers-driven guy, or for that matter, you know, he’s a hothead and likes to shoot from the hip. approach

Kevin: [00:31:57] Yep, at the last company. I was at they use this thing called personalis. I would imagine it’s a competitor to the disc profile thing, but it would be like, you know, are you more driven by Simplicity or complexity? Are you more driven by providing support or you know getting results, you know?

Like what’s your relationship to process? Do you want it to be consistent? Do you want it to be consistently like changing consistently changing? That’s funny. Do you know what’s your relationship to purpose like you want Clarity of purpose or do you want flexibility a purpose, you know our Precision like the those are the those are the four that are on like and you would get it on your ID and it would be something you carry around.

So I’m looking at my like old. Id there’s like a chartered on my ID. I’m mostly yellow and orange and not that ready blue. Whatever that means. 

Roman: [00:32:54] So Larry you get bonus points for having used a Peter Drucker quote another great Peter Drucker quote is:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Peter Drucker

Unfortunately, Peter Drucker doesn’t appear to have actually ever said that, but he’s the one who always gets attributed to and so I wanted Kevin you to talk to us a little bit about that.

I’m always shocked by how frequently organizations don’t actively design their culture or for that matter. You’ll see when they’ll when they try to just say. Oh, this is the culture we want. Without actually doing things to engender that culture. So I wanted you to talk a little bit about like do you have thoughts or recommendations around how do you actually get more of the follow-through instead of just the.

Kevin: [00:33:48] Yeah, there are two things that I am experimenting with right now in my practice culture mapping is a tool that’s been around for I think four or five years that was. By a colleague of mine Named Dave Gray. So if you Google culture mapping, it’s a kind of a visual process for mapping out what the culture looks like and it’s a way to start having the conversation of oh, we believe we have this culture but we actually, you know have these behaviors, you know, we believe we have a supportive culture, but we’re actually very competitive, you know, for example.

And I know Dave was really inspired when he developed culture mapping. Dave was really inspired by the work of Edgar Schein. Edgar Schein has a book called Humble Inquiry, which is about like it’s a short book, but it’s really just about this idea that every organization has two cultures. It has the actual culture and has an aspirational culture and if you think of those as a Venn diagram, that could be.

Highly overlapped that could be really far apart that could be overlapped in spots. You know, there’s there’s no way of knowing without. Actually saying okay. Well, what is the difference between the two and humble inquiry is a methodology for exploring that for looking at like how do I look at a culture as it exists, observe the behaviors, and then map that against what the organization believes it is or wants to be. So those are a couple of things that I’m trying to put into my process as much as I can when I work with different companies.

Roman: [00:35:35] So it sounds like. You have to get an accounting of where you’re starting before. You can just jump into moving in a particular direction. 

Kevin: [00:35:47] Yeah, I think of it this way everybody’s working on themselves. Like I think you know, I’m highly suspicious of anyone and any company that says we’re in exactly the person or organization.

We want to be I individually I feel like there’s always things that I’m going to be working on in my life trying to change about myself trying to improve and I feel like organizations should have a similar attitude in terms of as an organism. It should be aware of it. Bolts and be ready to examine those faults and think about well, how could I actually make change in this organization to get to address the faults that we have?

You know, I’ll give you a concrete example that isn’t a changeable thing and a large organization that I worked in the way that promotions were distributed had to be on a bell curve meaning we had to. To like what let’s say. We had a hundred people on a team around promotions. We would do something called calibration mid-year and end of year where we would try to calibrate everyone against each other in terms of performance so that we ended up with you know, at no more than 20% of our people essentially at the highest levels of performance and a certain number of people below.

You know below performance but having a bell curve as a Target fundamentally is in conflict with reality. You can’t like you can’t know if like you could you could hire all the top sports ballplayers on the team, you know, and they could all be amazing statistically like performers like crazy good performers.

But you know, if you force that into a bell curve, you’re going to have to decide if you know to really high performing people which one is better so that model if culturally that model is not movable like we’re not going to change. That we distribute our promotions this way and we try to distribute calibration so that we actually identify what low performance means then the behaviors that that engenders in conversations about performance and promotion.

One of the things that comes out of that I think is that people prize promotion over. So, you know, it becomes like a cult of promotion where it’s like I if I can get into the top 20% I’ll know that I matter as opposed to I know that I matter because. I actually learned how to do this work at a different scale or in a different way or I’m growing my influence or whatever it is that I want to achieve in my career that I’m actually measuring my value by how often I’m promoted or how close I am to a promotion and that was definitely a conversation that I had multiple times when I was in that company and it was it was interesting to me because I would say to someone don’t go after the promotion just go after doing the work that feels.

Authentic to you and yet when promotions would come around people would be like well, why didn’t I get promoted I did the work that I thought was authentic and it’s like well ultimately maybe you didn’t get promoted because we have this bell curve and I don’t know what to do about that, you know.

I think that you know if we’re talking about. If we’re talking about pulling out models like we have currency and we have this idea of levers. I think another thing to think about in culture is what are the immovables one of the things about our culture that are so intractable or so deeply tied to our organization the way we do business that we’re not going to be able to change that about the culture.

So, how do we design around that? 

Larry: [00:39:55] Yeah, I was thinking. That’s along the same lines but a little different. I’m just thinking about you know, the things that I can do where I am in the organization right now, right? There’s like certain things that I can do to affect culture in a positive way. I think the biggest one for me is I had the ability to hire people right and adding people into a culture.

Well, it has a huge effect on it because that you’re bringing in a certain type of people that think a certain way. They have a certain point of view that really value design and are able to influence other people to also start to Value design and that’s sort of like the the the the biggest lever that I had at the level that I am in changing culture is you know by the people that I hired into the culture.

But then I get to the you know, but that’s a roadblock. I can’t hire the engineering team because I’m I don’t run the engineering team. And so, you know, I feel like at a certain level you can you can have some influence but you know, what are some of the other things that you can do without, you know being at the, you know at the sea level and being able to say hey, we’re not going to do the bell curve thing.

We’re actually going to incentivize people to be. Better for themselves and and by proxy that will better the organization which is something I think I believe it’s like I’d rather have somebody the it my belief is I try to make the people in my team do the best work of their career and try to support them and try to remove barriers that allow them to do that and by proxy the company benefits from that because you know, that’s that’s because now they’re incentivized to add value to the company because they’re doing really great work.

Kevin: [00:41:35] Who how do you know it’s the best work of their career? Is that their judgment or your judgment or a conversation? 

Larry: [00:41:41] I think it’s a conversation. I that’s yeah. I mean, it’s a hard thing to measure number wise, but I think want you know qualitatively if that person feels like they’re doing the best work of their career.

I’m gonna I’m gonna I’m gonna believe that. 

Kevin: [00:41:55] Yeah, and I think you know that that right. There is a really interesting cultural expression which is if you believe it’s good it might be enough for a particular context. Like if you believe as an employee, you’re doing the best work of your career and that’s really fulfilling to you because you’re fulfilled by your craft.

That’s how you get energy. Then that becomes a really powerful cultural influence. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the best work. You know, it just the belief that it’s good. Hmm. What is that book the Secret? Is that the the the Oprah book club book about I felt that the secret is believing that you can do the thing.

I can’t remember I didn’t read the Secret, but it’s not a secret anymore. See how we only had to read the 

Larry: [00:42:45] But that sounds along similar lines of David Gray’s, you know, liminal thinking where is like believe is something that is there and it’s malleable and you can change it and all that.


Kevin: [00:42:55] yeah. Cool, here’s something I’ll say that I think is maybe a spark that I’d love to hear your thoughts on. I think a lot of designers feel disenfranchised by their cultures. I think in my career, I often felt like I was an evangelist for. Different levels of common sense things that made sense to me in terms of good development accessible development.

Universal Design things that made sense to me in terms of cognitive load, like don’t make the menu giant things that made sense to me in terms of, you know, creating a clear hierarchy of visuals. And and using Color intelligently, I would have to essentially evangelize that kind of stuff in a lot of cultures if I think about working in universities if I think about working with clients in an agency and I think about working in house in an Enterprise team, there are often times where I feel like culturally my language isn’t spoken Mmm Yeah.

What have you guys done? What have you found helps? You successfully speak the language of design to a culture that maybe doesn’t naturally speak that language and I have a couple of ideas, but I want to hear what you guys think of. 

Larry: [00:44:27] Yeah, so I mean, I think the the way I’ve combated that in the past and is you know, like I said before, you know building a team and injecting more people into the culture that have a certain point of view about design, you know, because I can sit there and evangelize all I’ll as much as I can.

Get Powerpoints and give presentations and talk about, you know, design company design maturity models and stuff like that. But until we still have until we have people living that culture. It’s very hard to like, you know show how that is actually effective and you know building that team injecting people into it is been the most successful thing for me in in in starting to change people’s mind, but then you know again you run into the barrier.

Talk about earlier of like and then you get new management and you go through a merger and then you have to go through the whole, you know, you feel like you’re back at square one trying to do that same process over again because you’re you know, you’re only at so so far up in the organization and you can’t really, you know have you know effects it at the top level anymore until you build again start to build that currency and be able to you know, find other levers that you can pull to make changes.

Roman: [00:45:37] I would just start by reflecting back to you. Yes, I totally identify with what you’re saying there. I always feel like I’m just in a foreign environment when it comes to being a designer basically everywhere. I’ve been now at our current place. We have a great culture within our design team. So, you know, I feel a lot more engage there.

But you know, it’s funny because in creating digital products, there’s not much more of an Odd Couple you could put together than a designer with an engineer and there’s not much more of an Odd Couple you could put together than a designer and a generically labeled “business person.” Right? So like whereas, you know, we’re all about the user, that’s not the language of a lot of our business. And so I kind of wonder if the part of that translation the interest you most informs, you know, the trajectory of your design career. So like for me personally I was so consistently frustrated by not being able to communicate with my business counterparts that I went and studied business so that we could Converse and I would.

They’re their worldview more and I know that there’s a lot of designers who doubled down on the engineering side and they really just want to be able to work, you know hand-in-glove with engineering teams. And so it seems like to be a designer is always going to put you into this position of having to.

Translate into somebody else’s domain. Actually. I think I saw a tweet from Dana Chisnell today that was saying it’s always easier to speak their language than to try to get them to understand the crazy language of your own domain. 

Kevin: [00:47:41] Yeah, I think the idea of language is a component of culture is huge. I think the idea of going into any situation with a certain level of humility and assuming you don’t speak the language and finding out okay coming out of this meeting. What are five things five words or phrases that I would learn? That I didn’t have before or what are the acronyms that everybody uses or you know, like those kinds of things I think end up being real cultural currency.

There was a lot of acronym cultural currency or just like acronyms. I remember and I’m happy to tell the story but it’s embarrassing. It was probably several months before I knew what anybody was talking about when they said BAU. Like I’m going to assume both of you know, the acronym BAU. I did not know that acronym and people kept telling about “be a you” and I was like, “well, what are we trying to effect in the BAU?”

Are we trying to increase the BAU or decrease the behavior and somebody was like BAU is “business as usual.” So, you know not knowing that acronym and not having the humility to say “I don’t know.” What BAU is early on you end up. I ended up being in conversations where I was trying to talk intelligently about the about the BAU and you know not realizing we were just talking about.

Oh, yeah, the way things are you know, the so I think that’s a just kind of I some people and I’m one of these people I will not use acronyms. In writing so when I’m writing reports doing presentations, whatever if I use an acronym it’s only after I’ve spelled it out for the first time even for the most in-house, you know culture because I just feel like.

Anything that removes barriers of understanding or even you know reminds us that these things mean things, you know that we can’t shorten everything into and to Millennial speak or you know LOLs and what dot but anyway. Yeah, you could you know the that reminds me the last time we were at a store.

We were at Bed Bath and Beyond which we call Bed Bath Berkeley and Beyond because we met Charles Barkley at a Bed Bath Beyond once but my wife and my son and I were at Bed Bath Berkeley and Beyond and my son saw that they had plungers where the plunger component was a poop emoji 

Larry: [00:50:40] That. 

Kevin: [00:50:41] and my son and I were like yes, that is something I need in my life. We bought none because my wife was like “no” that’s not something that we do and ultimately I think you know that is a cultural touch point of change which is like, you know, are you open to. Whatever the the the pop culture language is, you know, and do you does that hit you as funny or you know, is that not you know your thing?

Do you not want to think about you know, the amazing what I think is the amazing mental image of poop solving poop, like of a poop emoji plunger like it was just it kind of blew my mind is like an Inception thing. But it’s fast and my son was just like this is funny and my my my son and I were like, what do you think in my life is like now?

I don’t think so. So we don’t have the poop emoji plunger, but somebody does somewhere. 

Larry: [00:51:50] I’m pretty sure I’ll have one soon now cuz I just can’t I can’t pass that up. My wife will hate it too. But you know. 

Kevin: [00:51:55] Yeah, but you got three kids so. 

Larry: [00:51:58] toilets. 

Roman: [00:51:59] So you outnumber her? 

Kevin: [00:52:01] You got the votes you can go to bed bath Berkeley and Beyond and get you can get the votes you need.

Roman: [00:52:06] but I’m enjoying this talk about culture and its power in our organizations, but we would be remiss if we didn’t give you the opportunity to participate in something we call.

Kevin: [00:52:23] So we moved from Philadelphia to the Washington DC area to Northern Virginia recently and it’s been really interesting to me to think about parenting as digital experience. So like you know, how do you know what’s going on in school? How do you know what the school assignments are how do you know what the after-school activities are?

How do you pay the fees? You need to pay all that stuff? And as a designer, I love it when somebody actually takes the time on the PTA committee or one of the teachers who are designing something that parents have to interface with to say what’s the actual job that this thing has to do and I’ll give you an example of when that didn’t happen.

So my son is in a musical that’s going to be next week. I needed to buy tickets for the musical. So if your child is in a musical and the musical is three nights there just three performance three performances. Let’s say your child’s in like a major role. It doesn’t matter your child could be in the chorus is just you want to see it, right?

So what’s the most likely job? Like, what’s the most likely thing? You’re going to buy if you’re going to buy tickets? What’s the most likely purchase like you’re probably good. Just going to buy every night. 

Larry: [00:53:46] Every night yeah, absolutely. My daughter was in a musical last weekend and I went to all the performances 

Kevin: [00:53:52] Yeah, like if there are multiple performances you just buy so the thing that was missing in the purchase was that option.

I had to literally pogo stick in and out of each night. Add two tickets. Go back up to the top go to the next night. Add two tickets. I couldn’t just like say two tickets how many nights all nights like just an all night. Action and there are times when as a parent somebody somewhere in some system takes the time to ask that question.

Like what’s the most likely use case here? What’s the actual job one of the ones that I’ve seen it done? Well is paying for school lunch? So there’s a couple of commercial systems that allow you to make deposits in your you know school lunch account for your child so that they have money in an account when they go pay for lunch, you know rather than paying in cash and I don’t even remember I think when I went to school we paid in cash.

Yeah, we I paid for lunch in cash. Yeah. Yeah. 

Roman: [00:54:59] that’s the only payment bullies will accept. 

Kevin: [00:55:01] Yeah, that’s true. So, yeah, you can’t give your parents like lunch money account to your to your bullies. Like I guess it well if they take your number like the number that you punching your student ID number but I feel like I’m contributing to bullying but the systems that I’ve used to make deposits in my son’s account.

Those are usually like. I remember Jared spool used to talk about usability using the metaphor of it was some agricultural commission where it was just a website with two buttons. It’s like do you have hey or do you need hey, you know and you go and you press the half a button of the neat a button like when I go to make a deposit in my son’s account.

It’s like, oh you get an email that says you need to make a deposit your balance is low you click on that link. Because right to the entry form your bank account is already keyed up and you just say, you know this much money and then you hit submit and it says done like that’s I love those kinds of experiences as a parent in this day and age because so much parenting in terms of the relationship between a parent and the school is done via digital now, so when it’s good, I love that when it’s bad I hate.

Larry: [00:56:21] Yeah, it’s and in my experience. It’s mostly bad. Like there’s just like it. It’s fascinating to me that you get these communications from him. You know the school and you’re just like what are they even thinking like that? You’ll get an email that has no content says we have a new announcement and they’ll be a link click here or you know, they’ll put like, you know, you know Word documents into you know into an email which is like like from a security point of view.

It’s like a terrible terrible terrible thing to do but yet that’s just like the standard operating procedures like we have some content for you open this, you know, that’s all that you get. 

Kevin: [00:56:59] That’s it that brings up an interesting thing related to the cultural discussion, which is where we’ve devolved more mature practices and methods and protocols around design are not places that are the most important to us.

Societally emotionally. Like we don’t have the head of product design at the public school system. We don’t have engineering squads at the public school system, but man, what if we did, you know? That’s and that’s why I love you know, the work of places like and 18F and the US Digital Services.

Digital service because they’re actually trying to take the models that work in digital products and do them in a public service way. I just would love to see it actually done at scale smaller scale where it’s like, you know, the community center has a head of digital product and. You know the nonprofits and I know it’s there are some the big ones but man that would be crazy if like you if you could participate in usability testing regularly around the systems you use as a parent, that’d be awesome.

Of course as designers, we would provide horrible feedback 

Larry: [00:58:16] Yeah. We’d never be happy with. You like? Oh you should have been yeah, I think with you know, Jared spool is like, you know Hundred Year mission to get rid of all the bad design in the world. That’s actually the lengths that will have to go.

You’ll have to have ahead of, you know design at the elementary school. 

Kevin: [00:58:37] everybody’s a designer, right? Or are they? To be continued…

Roman: [00:58:46] Let me tell you something. I love is the book meeting design for managers makers and Everyone by Kevin M. Hoffman. The book is really great.

I’ve been enjoying it. I was brushing up on it over the last couple of days getting ready for this show. And one of the things that really jumped out at me about it was that as a lot of really good practical advice that goes well beyond what I expected based on the title of the book. So I noticed that you have a lot in the book talking about essentially how the culture of the organization influences the meetings and the meetings influence the culture.

Kevin: [00:59:21] Yeah, yeah. I first of all thank you. I really I’m really glad that it’s always good to hear that. Somebody gets more out of anything that you do then. Then they expect and I’m really glad that you caught up on that like my goal in writing. The book was not too there are so many really good books out there about like Kira recipes for agendas and ways you could do different meetings.

I tried to do some of that but I really spend most of the book. I was trying to give people the inability to design their own things when it comes to meetings and and ways to think about meetings as. Their relationship to the the organization that they’re in and to both advocate for getting what they need out of that relationship, but also being able to influence that relationship.

So so that makes me feel good to hear you say that. 

Roman: [01:00:12] Well, thanks again to our guests Kevin and Hoffman Kevin is the author of meeting design which is available on Rosenfeld media that tan the two waves in print right? 

Kevin: [01:00:22] It is I think all of the books now are sold via Rosenfeld so you can get it there or Amazon if you want Rosenfeld to get a little bit less money, so I would say by don’t Rosenfeld.

Roman: [01:00:35] to continue this great conversation. You can find Kevin on Twitter. At Kevin M Hoffman that’s with two Fs and one N. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts. If you don’t have a preferred podcast app, we recommend Overcast app available on the iTunes app store, or learn more at

Larry: [01:00:56] And you can also follow. Roman @Stuporman, and I am @LAKing, not LAKings. That’s a hockey team, and it’s not me. And you can also follow our Twitter account @UXLikeUs. And We got all the things down. We’ve got all the media’s of social.

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