Flat Organizations: Not Reinventing Everything

Why a Flat Organizational Structure will Fail as You Grow is an insightful and thought-provoking study from Lighthouse, a software tool for managers. Keeping in mind when considering any decision that someone else — somewhere before — solved the same issue. From my personal workflow, to team processes and habits, all the up to key decisions on company structure.

There are a few advantages and many disadvantages to a flat organizational structure as you grow. We share how growth breaks a flat organizational structure

…if you think it’s a good use of your time to try to innovate in employee on-boarding, performance feedback, quarterly reviews, promotions or weekly all hands meetings, you are mistaken at best and destroying your company at worst.

Call ten friends who work at great companies and crowd source the best practices. These best practices are widely understood and broadly implemented, and the differences are minimal or arguably irrelevant.

 

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Screenshot from the Lighthouse management blog.

What makes a company or product unique? What makes it exceptional? Even though we should continually seek to improve, a strong legacy most likely won’t come from rethinking the 1-1 check-in chat, how we process payroll, or even our technical toolkit.

By modeling organizational excellence on what is already known to work everywhere else we can focus our creativity and innovation on improving the product experiences that help our customers succeed.


Note: My colleague Cate points out that the origins of most technology company practices are outlined in Andy Grove’s classic book High Output Management (1983), describing how to build and run a company.

Inclusive Design, Day 14/15: Diverse Teams Make Better Decisions

This is day 14 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed any of the earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


Inclusive and diverse teams make better, stronger teams — and these teams make better decisions. Because our work and thought patterns are influenced by our background and biases, working with a diverse group means not only fresh, new ideas, but we also counterbalance the tendency to design for people just like ourselves. A higher standard.

And that is why representation matters, not just to those who are represented, but to all of us. Because it expands our sense of what’s possible, and what we have reason to expect. —Cate Huston

Bring diversity into teams
Screenshot of the Automattic Inclusive Design Checklist, under Teams.

For maximum learning and a broader perspective, not limiting yourself to your immediate team or company; seeking out a wide variety of inputs from mentors, coaches, and other advisors.

If your team is limited and you don’t have the ability to expand, actively seek out people with other perspectives to consult or act as project advisors, and give special consideration to their feedback.


I learned from Sara VanSlyke and Trace Byrd at Atlassian that it also matters how a diverse team is represented, in their article “Illustrating Balanced and Inclusive Teams.”

As a company that wants to unleash the potential in every team, depicting people is especially important. How we represent the people who make up teams should be just as important. We’ve always known that the best teams are balanced; made of a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, but our illustrations haven’t always reflected that.

An Atlassian team article
Screenshot from the Atlassian team’s article about illustrating their diversity.

The authors found that even though their team aspired to be more inclusive, how they represented themselves visually wasn’t keeping pace with the true diversity of the team.

Promoting diversity and inclusion within our brand is a persistent and multi-faceted effort. And it’s a challenge to depict diversity without it feeling merely perfunctory or symbolic until the reality of our industry truly represents the customers we serve and the world at large. More needs to be done outside of the brand to promote an inclusive workplace, but we’ve found that the results of constant vigilance and open conversation are worth the time and energy.

To truly represent our customers is something Automattic is improving — we still have a long way to go. If you missed the story about updating the WordPress.com brand illustrations to be more diverse, see Inclusive Design, Day 5/15: To See Yourself in Imagery — with illustrator Alice Lee and my designer colleague Joan Rho.

See also this YouTube series introducing Automattic employees from all walks of life. A diverse group! I’m proud to work with them every day.


For a thorough treatment of this topic, I highly recommend reading and bookmarking “On Improving Diversity in Hiring” from my Automattic colleague Cate Huston. In this in-depth article, she shares her hiring expertise to build diverse teams, everything from onboarding and recruiting to specific tips and tricks during interviews.

Screenshot from Cate Huston's post about improving diversity in hiring.
Screenshot from Cate Huston’s article about improving diversity in hiring.

This rule of thumb about stopping the behavior before someone is hired hit home with me as this is something I need to improve on personally. An off-color joke here, a comment there; I’m learning to speak up more when I notice these things.

A good rule for inclusion pre-work to diversity is to stop doing things you would have to change if the demographics of your team better reflected the demographics of the world. —Cate Huston

One practical tip shared by Cate that I’ve put to good use is Textio, a service to help make job descriptions more inclusive. I used it in 2016 to update the Excellence Wrangler job posting, replacing phrases like triage ruthlessly with triage efficiently.

Textio website screenshot
Screenshot of the Textio homepage.

Cate’s influence in the last year or so has helped me improve my hiring to be more inclusive, both in mindset and in practice. She’s inspired me to read more broadly, and think more openly.


In closing, a word from Scott Page via his Aeon article titled “Why hiring the ‘best’ people produces the least creative results:”

When building a forest, you do not select the best trees as they tend to make similar classifications. You want diversity.

(Scott has a new book out on this topic: The Diversity Bonus, How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. I haven’t read it yet.)

For day 15 of 15 of inclusive design, the last day, I’ll share a recap of all the inclusive design learnings I’ve shared in this series so far.


About this Inclusive Design series Tomorrow I’ll give a talk on inclusive design at WordCamp Phoenix 2018. Leading up to the conference I’ve been publishing notes on voices, stories, products, and other resources: everything I’m learning about this emerging practice. This is day 14 of 15. Read more about the series.

Inclusive Design, Day 4/15: When Defaults Don’t Fit

This is day 4 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed the start, see day 1 here.


When do defaults fit?

This is a key question to consider when bringing inclusion to design. Can we assume that using “default” content and “default” appearance will represent our audience?

Inclusive means design or products that consider and acknowledge that their users experience the world differently, based on many factors that are out of our individual control. Design should not assume a default user with default characteristics or background. — John Maeda

What does it mean to design with the understanding that there is no normal case? Throwing out the notion of an 80/20 rule — a mental model we often take for granted as product experience designers. In practice, we see that every human is unique with their own set of abilities, experiences, and expectations. To ignore “normal” is to start with exclusion — asking questions and investigating and learning — and see what to build from there.

To design inclusively is to look at the full range of human ability with a genuine interest and curiosity.

Microsoft’s inclusive design strategy

Kat Holmes underlines the importance of human beings in all interactions. “Inclusive design is about creating a diversity of ways for people to participate.” Because there is no single “normal” type of person.

In this video (March 2017) Kat explains the now-famous example of the United States Air Force designing a new flight deck in the 1940s, for World War II, based on an average of many measurements. Meant to fit everyone — the cockpit ended up an ergonomic disaster because fit no one. Down the road, this led to advancements in adjustability and customized equipment, so pilots could dial in the settings to get a better fit. (This story is detailed in the book The End of Average by Todd Rose.)

Coming at problems with this broad range of diversity informs and guides the design from the start, explains Kat Holmes in a the #13 interview with High Resolution (May 2017). I’m paraphrasing a bit here:

  • “We seek to understand how people adapt and find out what motivations people have in common.”
  • “It starts with those most excluded. [At Microsoft] we bring in expertise from people using technology in a different way, then we consider “normal” as being their perspective. We find a diversity of designers from these backgrounds so we can apply their skills to new challenges. For example, someone with limited mobility who’s an expert at working with assistive devices might be an idea designer to consult with for building a code editor UI for small screens [intended for anyone to use].”
  • “It’s not about creating a bland or trimmed down product experience. We use the constraint from the beginning as a starting point.”

An example of solving for exclusion first is Microsoft’s OneNote dyslexia learning tools that display a variety of ways, giving the student control over the interface. Based on educational research, this UI lets people adjust to make it work best for them. However, even if dyslexia is the starting point — it applies to lots of other contexts including first-time language learning.

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Screenshot of a Microsoft news story explaining how OneNote can help dyslexic children read and spell.

Clear, strong voices for inclusion at Automattic

At Automattic, we might not have as wide an array of representative human abilities as Microsoft and other tech giants, yet I’m proud to say we represent many clear and diverse voices.

Cate Huston, head of mobile and a talented engineer, explains how diverse teams make better decisions.

…That is why representation matters, not just to those who are represented, but to all of us. Because it expands our sense of what’s possible, and what we have reason to expect.

cate-on-hiring.png
Screenshot of Cate Huston’s article on improving diversity in hiring.
  • Cate’s leadership has taught me to better understand new points of view, such as underrepresented people in technology. Including introducing me to amazing women in computing history like Grace Hopper, Anita Borg, and many others.
  • She’s also pushed me and other hiring managers to pay more attention to details like gender, cultural diversity when finding the best candidates — for a better, more inclusive team culture.
  • Bonus — in hiring we use a tool called Textio to create more inclusive job descriptions for our open positions. It’s helped me reveal my biases and improve the language I use when describing the expectations of the ideal candidate.

Marina Pape, a marketing designer for the WooCommerce team recently shared key inclusion insights learned from marketing.

All we can do is stay open to learning where we have a bias, be relentless in our effort to reduce our own, and gentle and honoring in pointing out that of others.

Is it possible to create brands that are still full of flavor, personable, alive and bold whilst keeping them inclusive, non-cultural and in a sense ‘neutral’? Yes.

What it takes to produce something inclusive is a diverse group of makers so we should build diverse teams. And/or surround ourselves with diverse discourse and break out of our echo chambers.

We need people alongside us who will be radically honest with us. A variety of people.

Marina uncovered an unconscious bias and is now more aware of situations for exclusion in our messaging, characters in brand stories, or virtually any branding decision we make. Even more crucial in companies like ours than span the globe — as shown in her example of “Spring” marketing copy as viewed in the autumn for anyone living in the southern hemisphere.

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Screenshot of Marina Pape’s article on inclusion lessons from WooCommerce marketing messages.

Davide Casali, mobile designer/developer and UX leader, found a stellar example of inclusive design in action on a Google signup form — shared via maeda.pm. Adding the “Other” option for gender choice to the form allows anyone to enter their own identification and not choose from a defined preset.

…When designers are able to address the “mismatched human interactions” that can be presented with solutions that are more likely to match then that’s a much better design. — John Maeda

Every situation is different when it involves people, John reminds us. No default will every do the trick perfectly.

For day 5 of 15 of inclusive design, we’ll look at a recent applied design example of inclusive illustrations for WordPress.com — “to see yourself” — with Alice Lee and Joan Rho.


About this Inclusive Design series In a week and a half I’ll give a talk on inclusive design at WordCamp Phoenix 2018. Leading up to the conference I’m publishing notes on voices, stories, products, and other resources: everything I’m learning about this emerging practice. This is day 4 of 15. Read more about the series.