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Lisa Welchman ‘Managing Chaos’

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October 10, 2019
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The Power of Ten Show
October 10, 2019

Lisa Welchman ‘Managing Chaos’

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Andy: Hello, and welcome to Power of Ten. A podcast about design operating at many levels—zooming out from thoughtful detail, to organisational transformation, and to changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine, I’m a designer, educator, and writer. Currently, group director of client evolution at Fjord.

My guest today is Lisa Welchman. Lisa has been writing and talking about digital governance for two decades. She wrote the leading book on this critical discipline called Managing Chaos. She also has a wonderful singing voice and a love of jazz, which makes her my new favourite guest. Lisa, welcome to Power of Ten.

Lisa: Thank you very much.

Andy: I want to go back to the beginning. I watched a talk of yours online. You said, “Here I am at this event. I’m always a little bit unusual at this event because there’s no digital governance event.” Why is that?

Lisa: Well, partially because probably I don’t want to make one, that would be one reason why, I’m not a very good event organiser. I also think that digital governance spans across so many different disciplines. The digital part is really important, so I’ve cut my teeth in the digital space, but really, digital governance is a management consulting concern. Because it’s so immature, it’s all over the place. I could go to a tech event and talk to coders about it. I could go to a UX event and talk to UX people. I could go to a pure play marketing event or IT driven events. I have spoken at all of those events. Or I could go to a management consultancy type of event and talk about it, as well. All of those players are playing in the digital governance space, but there’s no place they all really meet together.

Andy: Which is the problem, right?

Lisa: Right. That’s a problem. I don’t know if it’s a problem that needs to be corrected by creating an event that draws all of these people around this discipline of digital, or whether or not it’s that all of these disciplines need to be inoculated against some sort of bad behaviours that they’re doing that are not making it. In other words, I don’t want to create another silo.

Andy: Talking of which, am I going to at least ask you to define it, because we were talking before that this is stuff you’ve been talking about for a very, very long time. We were talking about us both being the old professors of digital. In internet years, we’ve been around for a very long time. That many of the things we’ve been talking about feels like they haven’t been heard, or at least being acted upon. Going right back, tell me, what is digital governance?

Lisa: For me, digital governance is all about clarity around decision-making and collaboration. At its bare bones, can an organisation tell you who is accountable for defining and creating a digital strategy and the set of policies and standards that support it? Most organisations, if you ask them that question, they can’t really tell you. They’ll give you some mushy answers. Well, the marketing department does this, IT does that. This department over here is kind of rogue and does their own thing. But do you actually know who’s supposed to define what the goals and objectives are for digital and then what rules you have to follow when you’re making it? If you can, you’ve got a great digital governance framework.

The collaboration part is, then once you’ve defined those things, how well is your team organised to execute on them? Those are two pieces. The first piece of it is usually not done in an organisation, so the second piece, which is how the team functions is usually use way out of whack. They’re just fighting about stuff and power struggling over things because they actually don’t know whose job it is to say what’s supposed to be done and what’s not supposed to be done. The real challenge behind that is the culture of digital for 20/25 years. Ever since the commercial web has been in play is this do-your-own thing throw it up kind of culture.

Andy: I can imagine, when people hear of frameworks and policy and governance, their response, particularly now is, “Hang on, we’re an agile organisation, we work in agile, we’re sprinting all the time. We have scrum, that’s all the governance we need.” We did all of that in order to get away from all of that kind of rules and procedures and stuff.

Lisa: I have a lot of complex feelings about what you just said. The first is, I think fewer people are saying that now because it’s becoming very clear that pure play agile with no frame around it can create not just chaos, but a lack of safety for consumers. I think that’s coming into play. I think that’s what we see in these big social media giants, when we talk about Facebook, Twitter, that’s what we’re seeing. It’s a lack of policy inside those organisations about what you can and cannot do with people’s data. Development groups just inventing functionality with no sensibility about the impact that has at scale.

I could just go on for days about that, but I think people are beginning to realise that a lack of that is not ideal. Right, I also believe that they’re just flat out wrong. Scale involves standards. I would argue and ask anyone to tell me, and I’m not saying that they couldn’t, but I’m still trying to think of something good, a good answer for this. Anything biologically that we’ve invented, anything that exists that operates at scale well and does something intentional that is not standard spaced. The example I always use is, the world wide web. It’s freaking standard space. That’s the wc3. Like, you need standards to scale. Standards also allow you to move quickly and allow a tremendous amount of diversity of things. The example that I use in a lot of my talks is: DNA in human beings. We all have the same of number of pairs of chromosomes.

If we don’t, we’re probably not viable. Look at the diversity of human beings’ capabilities, capacities that exist. This argument that standards are somehow constraining or whatever is really, I think, just an immature approach and the desire to operate within a business doing whatever the heck you want to do, which is really immaturity. When I talk about digital governance a lot, it’s really about: Can we mature this? Not so that we can lock things down and control people and you can’t create things well, but so you can create with intent and speed if you want to. Or maybe you want to be slow, maybe speed is not a big deal. I don’t really care, one way or another. It’s just more like getting things done intentionally and safely I think is really important.

Andy: That’s interesting Aral Balkan at UX Australia did the keynote and he made the point that growth that goes unchecked, we have a name for that, which is cancer. You also in your presentation give this really nice example, you use music to talk about frameworks. I talked about jazz before. Jazz gets used a lot for all sorts of reasons for people working together and collaboration and so forth. There’s a very nice aspect of music I think which is that the rules set you free. There is music that is very free form and it sounds like what it sounds like, which is cacophonous and if you like it, that’s fine.

Jazz isn’t really about that; everyone knows their scales and they know their chord progressions and so on and so forth. That actually is what allows them to improvise and be free. They also have to do that thing where everyone plays their best, but they also have to listen to each other. Music, I always find, is such a great metaphor for understanding how to work as an organisation. The other thing is, you talk about people, there’s a tune, and there is a chord progression. There are some rules and a framework.

Lisa: Right, and everyone likes a jazz analogy and I do too, but the point that I’m really making in my book when I talk about music is, yes, jazz, great, I love. I play jazz piano, I’m a jazz singer, I love it. The equivalent to practicing your scales and knowing your scales and knowing your chord changes is the equivalent in the digital space of being good at your job. You just have to be good at your job, so that when you show up in the collaboration, you can keep up and you have to do that. My point in the book is, that type of dynamic is really good for a small ensemble. The number of artefacts required to hold a small ensemble together is fewer than the number of artefacts and rules required to keep a symphony orchestra together. A symphony orchestra needs a conductor in front of it because you’ve got 100 plus musicians.

It needs a complicated score. People have to go off and do sectional rehearsal. There are all types of things that have to happen, so that you can still have this experience that feels very robust and can be evocative, emotional, wonderful. It just takes more stuff to hold that group together. I feel like those are the two sides of digital in most organisations. They’re trying to function at scale as if they’re some kind of jazz ensemble. You’ve got a digital team of a thousand people in forty different countries. With 500 websites, 650 social channels, who knows how many mobiles apps.

Why does who know? Because nobody can tell you, because nobody is counting them. It’s just naïve to believe that you can operate like that. I understand that that is the culture of digital. A lot of people who started in the digital space very young bought into that vision and believed in that vision that this was this brave new world. I just feel like that was really naïve in a young way to be thinking about things. This belief that rules are somehow bad. I saw a dance once by some artist, it must have been some video that I saw on some social media, Facebook/Twitter, something like that.

It was like a dancer doing a dance in a box. Their space was just in a box. I have to tell you, it was stunning. They had this alternate of constraint of a dancer barely being able to move and it was an amazing thing to see. Constraints can also bring about all of these amazing possibilities. I was at a jazz workshop with some young people and it was Branford Marcellus, a master class with him, here at P Body in Baltimore. Just watching the master class. There was this one student who had this riff that they were always playing on the saxophone.

They were trying to show off that they learned from some Coltrane record or something like that. Branford wasn’t having any of it. He said to them, “Look, you can play the solo for the next three choruses, but you can only play these three notes. That’s all you got.” It was fabulous. I think we just need to give up on this sense that constraints are going to be limiting or somehow not allow us to do things. I think the sooner we get over that, the better and the safer we will be about creating and what we’re putting online.

Andy: Yes. I think the thing about constraints is, well, one of the things about digital is just the plethora of choice, right. That’s part of the problem. When you can choose to do anything, you end up doing anything. Sometimes then you break things. As you said before, at scale at something like Facebook, there’s only a one percent margin there and you’ve got millions of people who are affected by it. I think one of the other things is that constraints force consideration.

If you’ve only got three notes to play, you really have to think about it in a way that you don’t if you’re pulling off a riff. You’ve talked about ownership tussles quite a lot in the book, one of the fundamental tenants of what you’re talking about is, you need these three things. You need to know what you have, and I was surprised, and I’m constantly surprised how often businesses actually don’t know what they have. In particularly, government, who’s touching it, and what’s the intent? Can you unpack that a little bit?

Lisa: Yes. What you have is just really a basic, if you don’t understand the portfolio of services, products, functionality, whatever you want to call those things that we put online. That gets more and more complex every single day when you think about embedded technologies and all of those other things. If you don’t understand what those things are, there’s no way that you’re going to govern them, or be able to strategize about how they hold together, what’s the same or different about different aspects of the portfolio. The other point is, if they are, who’s touching them? Those are the people.

I find that in particular for the people component of it, it is really shocking to me how little, particularly large enterprises, understand who touches what artefacts. So, some people call it ownership, I don’t like that word, I like stewardship better because the organisation owns its online presence and the people working in it are stewards, but people like to have these tug-of-wars. If you don’t know who’s working on these things, then you can’t communicate to them what you want them to do and what you don’t want them to do, and more importantly, they can’t talk to each other. That’s how you end up with a lot of redundancy, a lot of confusion, and a lot of lack of alignment in the digital portfolio. the intent has to do with digital strategy.

That’s the hardest part. When I say digital strategy to people, I’m working on this online training course and I just finished editing the digital strategy thing, so it’s sort of front of mind for me. It’s really challenging, because I almost didn’t make strategy part of governance, but the governing isn’t the substance of the strategy, it’s knowing who’s supposed to make it. The intent is, what are you trying to achieve with these things that you’re making? If there is no organisational digital strategy, which basically… bluntly put is, how is this organisation going to exploit the internet and the world wide web to meet its aims? How are we going to exploit this technology to meet our goals? Whether those goals are to make money, saves lives, I don’t care what it is. How are we going to do that? If that’s not really clear, then what happens is, the intent starts to settle down into business units or into geographies, or into a variety of other things. It’s fine. Maybe you actually need some sort of localized strategy, but it should all roll back up into this overall organisational component.

What I find is that that organisationally focused digital strategy often just doesn’t exist. They think that a digital strategy is: Here are the sets of products and services that we’re going to make and it’s UX. The UX strategy is the strategy. It’s like, no, I’m talking about, I need a business-focused digital strategy, how do you know when you win? You can have a great user experience and go out of business.

We can talk about that. Recently, Uber just downsized. I would imagine that Uber has sort of a great user experience from if you want to evaluate that from a pure UX standpoint ethically, I’ve got some issues with the company and the business model, but just the experience of interacting with Uber is fairly easier, whatever. The business model is not sensible. These things have to all tie together and so, I think being really clear about that intent is super important for everyone to understand.

Andy: There’s a blog post that Chris Sacca wrote that was: An email I’ll never open. In it, he says this thing that’s something like, because the tools have allowed everyone to build stuff rapidly. He said, “Too many of you are skipping over the step where lots of smart people beat the shit out of your idea.” I think it comes to the heart of what you’re saying, too, which is, some of it is fashion, as well, I think. Which is, we should be doing this, which is a classic thing, I guess.

Lisa: Yes, it happens.

Andy: Someone comes to an agency and says, “We want a new website, or we want an app.” You say, “Well, not only why do you want that app, but what do you hope…?” If you ask the question, well, let’s imagine we fast-forward and we’ve built it, what do you hope to achieve? It’s the same with the design thinking thing, as well.  What would you like to be able to do differently having gone through all of that process? There’s quite often not an answer.

Lisa: No, there’s not. I mean, one of the things that I wanted to mentioned, just in terms of maturity, because I keep talking about maturity and I saw a post and I don’t have my machine in front of me, I’m afraid to move my machine right now to go and look for it, to go and look for the gentleman’s name. I was in violent agreement with him because I’ve been saying it for many years, which is, it’s still new. A lot of people measure the maturity of the digital space based on their lifespan and where they are in their career. Before this, you and I were talking about we’re the old folks in digital right now. Yes, I’ve been at this since the year my son was born and maybe a couple of years before that in the digital space, maybe not web, but working with Lotus Notes. Things like that, collaboration software. I’ve been at this for over 25 years. When you go back, and I gave a talk most recently called moving towards a safer and more compassionate web.

The focus of that and the analogy that I’m making now is a lot with to help people understand where the maturity is, is automobiles and any technology. If you look at any technology, it takes 50/80/100 years to go from, wow, look at this new thing I just made. Then you deploy it onto the consumer, you figure it out real-time, so it took a real long time, maybe 80 years, for automobiles to become safe. There are three components to that safety that come into play every time. I would really argue, you could look at any technology innovation and it would follow the same pattern, which is, there are things that the consumer has to do to keep themselves safe, there are things that industry has to do to keep things safe.

There are governmental regulatory things that have to happen, every time. Every time, there is stuff that industry will do to keep things safe, but it’s really not their main focus. Their main focus is to make money. They’ll self-regulate to the extent that the world will allow them to. They’ll get away with what they can get away with. For automobiles, much of the functionality for auto safety, like airbags, seatbelts, shatterproof glass, crumple zones, were invented very early. The only one that was implemented was shatterproof glass, that was implemented early, was shatterproof glass.

That was because people were being decapitated. The consumer just wouldn’t stand for it. We’re, like, so early still, but it’s going to happen. There are going to be things that consumers have to be – you have to be sensible about your permissions. You can’t just expect them to do that. Then, yes, companies have to be ethical about what they’re creating and thinking about what they’re creating and yes, there will be sensible regulation or maybe not sensible. I think when the digital community rejects regulation on the whole, it’s too bad, because what’s going to happen is, we’re going to get bad regulation inflicted upon us instead of well-considered regulation.

Andy: That’s interesting in the automobile example. That the United States is legendary for consumers accepting seatbelts in cars because it was seen as an afront to their freedom of choice, which is obviously something that’s held very dear in the States.

Lisa: Yes, it’s totally like that.

Andy: A bit like smoking and things like that. In Germany, where I live, every time they’ve tried to fully ban smoking, it’s always been a civil rights kind of issue, you’re curbing my freedom.

Lisa: It’s huge. The web is global. A lot of times, the debates are very European and North American centred with no understanding of the other cultural norms or how other organisations use the web. There’s really room for a lot of conversation. The work that Tim Berners Lee is doing with his colleagues at the web foundation is fantastic because they’re trying to do this global front. I don’t think a lot of people in industry are paying attention to those conversation because a lot of them are policy-driven and they don’t really hit the day-to-day work that people are doing at their desk. It’s a broad conversation.

It’s going to take a long time to pull it together, but I just wanted to make that point that we are at the place that we probably just would be. I’m screaming about digital governance and saying, “I want it” and have been for 20 years because I’m very process oriented. I studied a lot of symbolic logic, which means when I see a problem, it goes down conditional statements and comes to conclusions very quickly. I was like, wow, that’s not going to work. That’s not going to scale. Everyone is like, “Party pooper, party pooper, party pooper.” Now, I’m like, okay, it’s not going to work. Maybe she’s right

Andy: Like, I told you so.

Lisa: Not I told you so, but like, am I right? It’s not working like this. What’s really scary about it and what’s really challenging and upsetting to me is the people in the digital community, and I’m going to scarf on the UX people now, and this is now UXers need to learn to code, but in fact, I was talking to somebody the other day. A prospective client and they were talking about how they wanted to do digital governance engagement with me, but they wanted to just stay with the marketing centred stuff. This particular industry they were in was like all internet of things enabled and getting ready to be. It’s going to be – it’s not the automobile industry, but it’s connected cars.

In fact, that’s a really good example. I’ve worked with a few automobile companies. They were basically saying, “Just let them do their stuff over there. That’s not us. We’re going to do our thing.” I’m like, wait a minute, this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to be over here with your websites, mobile apps, and social media. Then they’re going to go over there and create a bad experience. They’re going to create a bad experience that doesn’t comply with stuff that you know is good for user experience. That’s what’s going to happen. Then you are then going to turn on then later on and say, “Wow, you guys really messed it up.”

You have an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and go over to that data-driven side of the business or the hard-good side of the business and use your skills. I get very frustrated because a lot of the UX community, content strategy community, those traditional fields that we see when we think about digital, will not cross over the line, to actually engage during the development process or can’t, or won’t, or in some cases, are not invited to, so it’s not their own fault. They won’t cross over the line but are really ready to attack when bad product comes out of that site. I would really like to see that divide close.

Andy: One of the things while listening to that, I was thinking, is the monacor of digital, there’s almost nothing that isn’t… well, there’s quite a lot of stuff, but there’s not that many products and services, and by products, I mean actual physical ones and services that aren’t or don’t have some kind of digital components now. Do you think it’s fair to say that this isn’t really just about digital governance, it’s just governance?

Lisa: Yes. One of the things that I always say to people is, if I’ve done my job, digital governance dissolves into the business.

Andy: Right, so you think that’s one of the reasons why it’s quite hard or maybe there’s some resistance to it or, maybe it’s not even resistance, there’s a feeling of what you were just saying, well, that’s not really my job. Effectively, what you’re describing is the entire business structure. It’s not just the digital bit. Do you think that means that people go, that all sounds very nice, Lisa, but it’s beyond my paygrade?

Lisa: That’s exactly right. Sometimes it is beyond their paygrade, the only problem is, for the people whose paygrade it is, a lot of times this is less and less because 25 years have gone by, so we have more executives that are digitally enabled than we did before. It used to be that all of the executive suite was like obtuse. Unless you were a .com business, there were a lot of obtuse things. I don’t think I’m being ageist when I’m saying that. It just wasn’t in their experience set. That’s changing. There are CEOs that have been interacting with digital as they’ve built their careers.

I think that is absolutely fabulous that that’s the case. Somewhere in the news, I read last week that they’d actually created, made the chief digital officer the CEO of a company. I was like, I’ve been advocating for that kind of movement whatsoever. The problem is, it’s nobody’s job. UX is saying it’s not their job. Marketing is saying it’s not their job. IT is going, “We’re IT and we’ve been doing things the same way we have done them forever, stay away and follow our policies.” IT is going to hate me for saying that, but that’s generally what they are. We’ve got our buckets, we’ve got all the money, we’re going to do this kind of thing. The business units, it’s not their job.

The CEO is like, “I’m running the business.” The COO is over here. Legal, unless it’s GDPR data, privacy concern, it’s like, “I don’t care about policy.” That has been actually one of the career frustrations for me is, it’s nobody’s job. I’m always telling people; somebody has to step out of line and grab this. What it is, is a tremendous opportunity. It’s needed. It’s not as if its’ going to go away. It’s just going to get more and more and more and more. I think it’s an opportunity. A business that can pull these things together and really be comprehensive about how they’re doing it, I think is going to succeed.

Andy: Just listening to you, I’ve lived in – I’ve come from the UK – and I’ve lived in Germany for a long time, but I also lived in Australia for a long time. One of the things that strikes me when you go to a country or a city that’s mostly grown post-automobile is, it’s very different than, say, going to somewhere in Italy or in Germany, where you’ve got this lovely public squares, it’s all pedestrianized. What struck me about, I was just thinking about, this is that when you’re talking about silos, when you’re talking about people not speaking together, there’s this thing that happens with some designed cities, or even just a city square or a shopping precinct that’s been designed in these days, it feels like when you walk into the space, it feels like you’re walking around a 3D rendering of a space. It’s artificially immediately one big thing, rather than organically grown.

It’s that all of the things that feel like they should be about, there’s a bench there, there’s a tree there, it should be pulling people together, they don’t work. Yet, if you go to a Piazza in an Italian city and it’s grown up over time, going to your point, it’s still very young digital is, you really notice that difference. That there’s a sense of, this is how a square works. This is how you operate in a square. This is how you interact with people. This is how neighbours interact with each other. This is how strangers; these are things that you do and don’t do. There’s a lot of tacit knowledge and that’s what we call culture, right, that you have in those things.

It strikes me that it’s those kinds of rules that you’re really talking about. That a lot of times in other parts of ours lives, outside of digital, we’re just… because they’re tacit knowledge about how you interact, it’s that that really makes for a good life or not, or a great city or not. Let’s say, though, what we’re facing in some respect is, you’ve got a lot of people saying, “We want to be like that. I completely get what you’re saying, Lisa. I completely understand. We just don’t know how to do it. How do we do it in our organisation?” What’s been your success stories of that?

Lisa: The variable that is always in place when it works, when that type of transformation works is an understanding at the executive level. I hate to say it. These are the types of changes that have to happen from the C-suite or at least be sponsored by that level. You’re basically telling everyone; you have to work together. You have to work together in this way, and these people over here get to make the rules that everyone else must follow. That’s just the governing part of it. Collaboratively, you could work in very open and fluid ways. Operationally, I don’t care. Right, you can work like soldiers or you can work like Woodstock, it doesn’t really matter.

Do you actually have a governing frame of policies and standards, so that you know when you’ve actually left the Woodstock field and you’ve gone onto something else? How do you make sure that you identify what those things happen? If you aren’t that person inside of the organisation. That person is often my client. That executive level or its senior director level person is often my client and has the ear of somebody on the executive team. If you aren’t that person and you see the problem and you feel strongly about it, you need to cultivate that relationship. That’s the top.

The bottom, grassroots things, which is what everyone wants to talk about all the time is that you can be more intentional about how you collaborate. You can intentionally cross over lines and get out of your own silo and make sure, particularly if you’re in the group of people that are the DeFacto rule-makers, you think you have that accountability. It’s never really been placed on you directly, but usually, people do the things that you’re supposed to say except for those rogue people. Over there, that business unit, that particular geography that does their own thing.

Generally speaking, you’re thought of as the people who have that. You can just start being more intentional about how you communicate with people about what they should and should not do. That’s bidirectional. It means listening to people out in the field and bringing those silos together. I’m not anti-silo, people can’t work in a big mosh pit. It doesn’t work that way. You’re going to work in small groups of people. It’s just are all of those people playing by a similar set of rules that are maybe a little bit localized to what they’re doing? Or are they just all inventing their own stuff?

Even if you don’t have executive support, you can start working on that. A lot of times, the problem is, the person who’s most annoyed by things. I think there’s been such a focus on execution and building things and putting them up quickly, that the idea that you actually have to enable people to follow the rules you wanted them to follow has been forgotten. That takes time. It’s not just training, it’s about cultivating an internal community of practice, so that people are talking about these things together outside of a project. Are you just talking about digital and what it means and your value system around it?

Sharing new ideas. This geography down here did something really cool. Well, instead of getting upset about it, can you talk to them and bring it into the community? There are all kinds of behaviours that you can cultivate to bring this sense of togetherness around digital and bring things together. Even if you don’t have executives that are enabling you to create a more formal digital governance framework.

Andy: I’ve noticed that we’ve been talking with a lot of metaphors and analogies. That’s often a sign that we just don’t have the vocabulary to talk about the actual thing we’re talking about. I can imagine someone listening to this going, “I kind of get it, but it’s all sounding a little bit abstract.” What does that stuff concretely look like when you’re talking about people working together or people being intentional? How does that manifest tangibly?

Lisa: I can be very concrete, and I try not to be because people get scared when I am.

Andy: Go on. I won’t be scared.

Lisa: I talked about it at the top when you were asking me about definitions. So, I’ll talk about two things, I’ll talk about the three things that need to be in place, which are clear decision-making about strategy policies and standards, and a process for implementing those things. That’s very easy. We know how to do that. The thing that makes me crazy about all of this is, this is not crazy stuff. Every enterprise has strategy policies and standards. They might call them different things, but they have them. They have processes for implementing them. People just don’t think that digital goes along with that.

Digital is free for them. Right, and so creating a set of rules for digital is really easy. There are design standards, there are editorial standards, there are publishing and development standards, there’s network and server infrastructure standards for digital. That’s the range of standards for the digital space. Can we write then down and effectively communicate them to the full team? The same thing for policy, there’s a range of policies, it’s not just GDPR and data privacy. There are a lot of other things. There’s social media policy. There’s privacy around children. Depending on what your business is, there’s regulatory policy that comes in. Creating a strategy that has a qualitative cultural component, which is that kind of mouth feel soft stuff, as well as a quantitative component that has performance measures, so we know when we’ve actually been successful. These are things that people can do. Right, the problem is, they don’t do them because nobody knows who’s supposed to do them, or when somebody tries to do them, without the authority of executives, they get pushback.

“Well, why are you telling me what to do? You’re not the rule-maker.” That’s how you make a governing framework. Now, the collaboration component, which is being intentional around it, has to do with digital team structures. In my book, I talk a lot about teams. The team, I should have written a whole book about teams. In my mind, there are four components to a team. There is the core. Those are the rule-makers and the enablers. Those are the people who are creating the strategies, policies, standards. They are standing up the technologies, processes, pattern libraries that need to be in place so that everybody else can do it. That is the core.

Then you’ve got your distributed team, which is everybody else in the organisation that’s making digital stuff but not rule-makers, that’s a huge component. These are all the people, social media moderating, or putting up content or whatever. This isn’t a process bottleneck. This isn’t like the core has the review everything. They’re just saying, this is the framework of rules and I’m going to setup the technologies to enable you and processes to enable you to follow these rules. It might be setting up a CMS or whatever. The distributed team does that, there you go.

Then there’s the third level of teams, which is working groups and councils, which is really about how do you get collaboration click, click, clicking. There are three levels of that. There’s a strategic level, which involves executives and senior digital thinkers, where they’re collaborating to figure out what that strategy should be and making sure it’s connected to the business. There’s a middle working tier, which is the leadership of the core team, along with key stakeholders. Like, every enterprise has people in their distributed team that are really important. Maybe it’s a big market.

Maybe it’s a whatever, however you might define that. These are the people that you’re going to talk to get input from so that the strategies, policies, and standards that you are creating are actually holistic and make sense for the entire business. You’re not creating standards in a silo. That’s your working level. Then your bottom level is the thing that I already mentioned, which is community of practice. That’s anybody who exists in the digital world, wants to know what’s going on, maybe you want to have brown bags. Here are some cool, new ideas.

Andy is going to come in and talk about whatever over lunch. Anybody can come. Look what this unit did over here. Let’s talk about it. I’d like to report out to you that we’re going to have a redesign in 2021.

In 2020, we’re going to be doing this. Here’s our expectations about what you’re going to need to do, so that you can plan and budget for it. There’s nothing really real happening in terms of stuff. It’s this communication tier or whatever. Then the last component of the team, and the most ignored, is your extended team. Those are people who impact your digital footprint in a serious way that are outside of your business. That could be your digital agency of record, it could be those crazy little vendors that Australia always hires to do out of compliant website development. Or whatever. I’m being bias, but you’ve lived in both of these places. When I work with people, if there is an out of control geography, many times it’s Australia. If there is a…

Andy: Poor Australian listeners.

Lisa: If there was a geography that is ahead of everybody else in organisation, including being ahead of corporate, it’s Germany. Right. Those Germans, they’re so together. They’re making us crazy. They’re better than we are.

Andy: If you put together the relaxness of the Australians and the efficiency of the Germans…

Lisa: You’d have Nirvana.

Andy: No, you get the Danes. The Danes and the Dutch.

Lisa: You’re right. I like the Dutch a lot. This extended group is external vendors, but it’s also any sort of regulatory bodies or other kind of weird bodies that you have to pay attention. If you’re in the financial sector, there are certain things you have to follow. A lot of people, if I say, who’s in your core? Who’s your distributed team? how do you collaborate with working groups and councils? Who’s on your extended team? They’re like… “Eh…” If you can’t tell me who your external vendors are, how are they supposed to know what rules they’re supposed to follow when they build stuff for you? It’s just crazy.

Andy: It’s one of the things, almost everyone I know who’s done a lot of work in digital government, not governance, but Lisa Rikelt and all the GDS people. The say, when they get a department to start having a look at how many domains they have, and different websites, there are just hundreds and hundreds of them. They just don’t know. What you’re saying, it’s not just what are the assets that you have, it’s everything is. It’s the complete ecosystem, which speaks to my service design heart. I’ve got a question for you, and I’m going to ask it by telling you a story.

Lisa: Okay.

Andy: My brother, he used to be the circular economy researchers at British Telecom. One of the things he was doing when they were trying to make the latest router that they have more sustainable, he was looking at all the different savings you could make. He said, “Why is the cables that comes with your router, your cables with modem, why is it two meters long? When I go to people’s houses, it’s all bundled up behind their things.” Because it’s Wi-Fi now. Someone just said, “Well, it’s in the spec.” Okay. Who wrote the spec? He finally tracked it down. Do you remember when the phone company used to come, and they used to put the phone jack at the closest point of the boundary of the house.

It was almost always next to the front door. Then you used to have a little alcove in your hallway with the table, which is what your telephone was on. You used to make phone calls standing at the alcove. Some engineers in the 60s I think had measured the average distance between the door and the alcove and it was a couple of meters. That’s why it’s in the spec. it hadn’t changed. The upshot of that was, he said, if you make it half a meter, not that it’s better for people because they’re not bundling it up behind their phones, but you save enough of copper to make a cable that would go halfway around the earth.

My question for you is, how do you prevent standards and polices becoming fossilized or becoming out of date? How do you ensure there’s a return mechanism usually from that grassroots level, usually from people working at the coalface?

Lisa: Yes, that’s a good question. I have an answer for that. It’s in my book. There’s a standards lifecycle. There are multiple steps to it. Define, disseminate, implement, and measure. That’s really focused on defining what the standard is, implementing it, which is actually really quite interesting, but not what you asked me about, but I’ll just mention it in passing, which is, a lot of people like to write standards. It’s funny because they are often design people and they make really interesting design book type things. Make them in a PDF and throw them on an internet somewhere.

They don’t actually implement the standard, which is making it possible for people to follow it, which is what you want to do. That’s implementing it. Then disseminating and implementing it, then measuring its effectiveness. Then because it goes in a wheel, what you need to bake into that is, how often should this standard be reviewed? Part of the standard should be, how often should we review this standard? You can’t do it all the time. Is it yearly? Is it every ten years? Every five years? Is there a trigger for the standards review? Actually, putting processes and systems in place, so that those things are done. I talk about a lot in my book that there should be policy stewards and standard stewards.

It is their job to work that lifecycle, to make sure that standards are up to date and policies are up to date and relevant. It’s not perfect, but it’s way better than not having any. When you don’t have any, the opposite of that, that is like the Mac dongle fiasco. Right? It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s kind of. You can have that, or you can have… I’d really like to, like, how many different ways do I have to power up a Mac? I’ve been a Mac owner since 1987.

Andy: For a second there, when you were saying the Mac dongle fiasco, I was thinking, is this some kind of happy meal that I’ve never heard of?

Lisa: Yes, happy meal. You know what, that’s what they did with all of those leftover dongles, they put them into a Mc dongle meal, and you get a cheeseburger and a random dongle. “Look, ma, look what I got.”

Andy: I’ve got a drawer of them.

Lisa: A Mac Pro generation two, 1997 dongle.

Andy: Do you know what, though, if you get rid of them, then I’ve done this, my wife has just gone, “Come on, why do you need all of that stuff?” I go, okay, I sell it all on eBay. Then a day later, I could really do with that. I just need to connect this old machine to something. You’re saying in your cycle that you’ve got the measure, part of the measuring should be, is this going to trigger a review of the standard?

Lisa: Right, what usually happens with standards are that people who are actually designers, and that’s either technical designers, any kind of design, people who are designing or architecting the experience end up being the people who write the standard. That’s fine. I have no problem with that. They’re not the best people to maintain the library of standards.

Andy: Why is that?

Lisa: It’s not their job. Their job is to create the experience, not to attend to this library of end-to-end standards of digital. That’s almost a librarians’ job.

Andy: It is their job to feed back into that, right?

Lisa: It’s their job – I differentiate between a standards author and a standards steward. There are lots of standards authors because the standards are really different. Network and server infrastructure standards are really different than design standards, are really different than editorial standards. There’s a whole bunch of people who will be writing those. The standard steward is the person who is running around and saying, “Hey, I just noticed that this thing happened with GDPR. I’m identifying that maybe it might impact these standards.

Lisa:Can you review them and make sure that they actually are compliant? Thank you very much. Now, I will take them and feed them into the system. You go back to doing your real job, which is not process oriented standards implementation and measurement, but actually being a UX person or whatever.” You’re siphoning that expertise off of the person and taking the weight of having to the be one who’s creating all of these standards and maintaining that. That’s usually a function that does not exist. The weight of it is put on all of these practitioners and it means it doesn’t get done well. They don’t have time. That’s not what they were hired to do.

Andy: Yes, I get it. I get the value of separating those two. I can completely see it. I’m not a very standardsy kind of guy, but there are also things that I am glad there are some.

Lisa: Well, why would you say – I’m interviewing you now – why would you say you’re not a standardsy kid of guy? When people say that, my little suspect antenna goes up. I just want to wonder why that is.

Andy: It’s not really a standards thing, actually. In fact, my verbal slip there is probably a really good sign, because it’s not so much standards that bother me, it’s when a policy is dogmatically adhered to when it doesn’t actually make sense in the current context that it’s in, because it was out of date, or because it doesn’t really make sense to the human being in their behaviour in that, or their emotions often in that particular context. That’s when you come up against the cold, hard steel of bureaucracy and it feels like – and I say this as someone living in Germany where there’s quite a lot of that. Where you just feel like, I know those are the rules, but do you not see that doesn’t make any sense?

Lisa: Yes, I can appreciate that, but I think in the context of digital, I mean, let’s talk about in particular what a policy is and what a standard is. Right. For me, policies are organisationally focused. They exist to create opportunity for the organisation, to protect the organisation from litigation by bad behaviours, by controlling bad behaviours, or negative behaviours, or for protecting their customer. Safety. I would argue that .coms fail in all three of those spaces and have poor policy when it comes to policy. Almost all of their policy is digital policy because their entire business model is digital. Those things are very high level. Most people who design are never running into policy things. They’re usually annoyed about standards, which are rules for execution. I hear you when I say that, but you don’t have to have a lot of standards. People think it’s like all of nothing. One way of doing it is to say, look, we have these three design standards. Here’s a pattern library. Here’s a general content strategy for editorial focus and here’s something else. What’s another constraint? You have to use this CMS, here’s a good one. There are three standards. Other than that, do what you want.

Andy: Those are your three notes.

Lisa: Right. It’s just like, that’s governance. Governance doesn’t mean that you need this laundry list of standards, it just means where you need them, have them. You might decide, a lot of people have very, very few social media standards. They have a social media policy about big, don’t do this, no porn, don’t swear, best interest. Then they hire these cut-throat enigmatic social media moderators and let them free. You’ve seen it online. That’s a governance model. People just think governance means tight. In the book, I talk a lot about different governing models and it’s not always what it seems. The benevolent dictatorship that was Apple.

You didn’t do anything unless one or two guys said it was okay to do it in the heyday. That was their governance model. The perception of Apple was of this lush, not free-for-all, it had a different kind of mouth to it, but it was a benevolent dictatorship. Wikipedia, whether you like it or not, for a lot of different reasons, is very tightly governed. How you can manipulate a page, when you can manipulate a page, the structure of the page, but it’s also considered to be one of the most open forms on the planet because it’s got this open authorship model and people are sometimes playful on it or whatever the case may be.

Another example are military models, which people think of when they think of governance, walking in lockstep and lines. Well, they have an interesting governance model, yes, they all wear the same uniforms, they’re all trained the same way, I use the example of hurricane Catrina as an example, which is maybe getting a little bit old and the coastguard and how because of that standardisation of training, they were able to arrive and then fluidly and inventively save people in very creative ways on location. It’s not about everybody doing the same cookie-cutter type of stuff. If there’s anything I would want people to understand about governing it is that.

That there are things that they really love a lot and think are super open, that are super tightly governed and vice versa. Things that they think are the epitome of lockstep governance, which actually out in the field, soldiers for good and for bad have a lot of free play out in the field. Governing models, that’s why the subtitle to my book is: Digital governance by design. It’s not digital governance by hammer, it’s by design. You go into an organisation and you design the governing framework that’s going to work for that organisation and its needs and its culture.

Andy: Rather than letting it arise out of some kind of chaos or turn into chaos.

Lisa: Well, it already is chaos.

Andy: Lisa, we’ve come up to time. The theme of Power of Ten is actually based on the Ray and Charles Eames film, where they zoom out a power of ten each time over an image and then go out into the universe and then go all the way back into the subatomic level. Part of the idea about it and what I’m talking to different guests about is this idea that design operates at all of these different levels and I think one of the mistakes we make is to get locked into only working at one level. One of the things that always fascinates me, though, is to ask my guest at the end, what one small thing do you think has an outsized effect, that either is well-designer or should eb designer?

Lisa: Communications. Internal communications. Without a doubt, when you started to ask that question and it was going in that direction, the thing that is not designed and is taken for granted because we all have a mouth and we all have email and we all have Slack and we all have whatever is that we are actually communicating well with one another. When I go into organisations, often times, I’ll kick things off by a big meeting and I’ll say, “Put all the people who are fighting about digital in the same room and let’s just do a vocabulary check and get on the same page.” Then over the next week or so, I do one-on-ones, two-on-ones, or whatever and talk to people. 50 percent of the time, when I am in that room giving that sort of orientation, somebody says, “Do you know, this is the first time we’ve ever all been in the same room talking about this?”

Andy: I’ve had that so many times.

Lisa: Right.

Andy: Yes, that’s very true.

Lisa: We get to talking. Honestly, by the time we leave the room, half the problems are solved. Just because they slowed the pace and took the time to talk about how they work together outside of the context of a project. Usually, people try to solve these problems inside of a project, where everyone’s nervous, there’s a deadline to meet or whatever. You have to do a governance design effort as a right in an of itself, not to help support the redesign or the CMS implementation, or this UX things, but because it has value.

Andy: That’s such a great place to finish. Lisa, thank you very much for being my guest on Power of Ten.

Lisa: It was fabulous. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Andy: You can find Lisa on You are @lwelchman on Twitter. Where else can people find you? Or are those your main hangouts?

Lisa: That’s kind of my main hangouts. I’m working on a second book and I am not dispositioned toward social media. It scares me. If you want to find me on one, Twitter is a good place.

Andy: Thank you very much indeed.

Lisa: Thanks.

Andy: Thanks for listening to Power of Ten. If you want to learn more about other shows on the This is HCD Network, visit:, where you’ll find Prod Pod with Adrian Tan, Ethno Pod with Dr. John Curran, and Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion. You’ll also find the transcripts and the links mentioned in the show and where you can also sign up to our newsletter, join our Slack channel to connect with other designers all around the world. My name is Andy Polaine. Thank you for listening and I’ll see you next time.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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