My friends Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz recently wrapped up the first season (my phrase) of their podcast Finding Our Way. The show is about “navigating the opportunities and challenges of design leadership,” and it takes form as an ongoing conversation between the co-hosts. (And occasional guests, including yours truly.)
Peter and Jesse are rendering a tremendous service to the design community by having these conversations in public. They're experienced practitioners reflecting on what they’ve learned both in their own journeys to design leadership and through advising other design leaders. If you haven't heard Finding Our Way, I encourage you to listen.
Episode 25 (“The Reckoning”) is especially worth your attention. In it, Peter and Jesse reflect on emerging themes in their conversation. An exchange early in that episode resonated strongly with me. Peter observed that “the crafts of (design) leadership are communication and information architecture.” He elaborated:
One of the words that I’m thinking about, it was spurred by some work I did with a client recently, is the word “enduring,” that which lasts, that which stands the test of time. And I think information architecture supports leadership that endures, and I use information architecture because I think — and maybe it’s been exacerbated by operating distributed and remotely through a pandemic — if leadership is about communication, leadership is then about information, and you need to be able to manage and structure and capture and make accessible that information that is your leadership. And you need to think about it intentionally.
To this, Jesse replied:
I think also leaders are, of necessity, orchestrators of systems, and systems instantiate knowledge as information architecture within them. So, the IA that gets embedded and coded, baked into your systems, becomes the way that the organization understands the world. And so, it is on the leader to imbue, infuse, enrich that IA with as complex and nuanced and understanding as they possibly can.
These are key ideas, and they’re easily missed. Information architecture isn’t only useful for structuring the products and services we’re designing; it can also be applied to the systems that bring them about. I don’t just mean the communications channels we use as a team, but also the patterns, distinctions, and contexts that frame the design process — i.e., the team’s information environment.
Taxonomies bound domains. How you structure your team’s understanding of its domain will have a tremendous impact on the team's effectiveness.
There are several dimensions to consider. The team’s understanding of the product’s customers and users is essential, of course. By default, we also clarify the subject matter, competitive landscape, value proposition, and other business context issues. These factors could be called ‘external-facing’ in that they impact the product as it’s perceived outside the organization.
There are also ‘internal-facing’ factors, such as the team’s relations with other groups in the organization. In some organizations — especially smaller ones — the role, scope, and agency of the design team are clearly defined. But I’ve also seen cases where the design team’s position isn’t clear at all: perhaps design is new to the organization, has new leadership, or the organization is restructuring. Whatever the case, the team finds itself unable to accurately read its bearings in an environment that may not be receptive to designerly ways of working.
In these cases, the team faces two challenges: making sense of the design mess and making sense of the organizational mess — or, more accurately, making sense of the mess of tackling a design mess within an organizational mess. This second challenge is harder to deal with and more important than the ‘plain old’ design mess. As Peter suggests in the excerpt above, the effects of effectively solving this second mess also tend to be long-lived. Structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel; good structures – i.e., those that offer good fit to evolving contexts – endure.
The same methods and artifacts that help us make sense of complex messes to improve our products’ UX can also help us make sense of the complex organizational messes that gestate those products. Given the pressures of delivering timely value to the organization, design teams must practice this meta-information architecture while simultaneously practicing ‘plain old’ information architecture. It’s a tall order, but one we must take seriously if we are to deliver on the potential of design in organizations.