I’ve been aware of much work on personal communication styles — how we each can best receive support, advice, criticism, support, validation, etc. And, of course, there are various personality models that help us understand all these things.

But I’m aware of much less work characterizing organizations.  Thus I set about to put together this simple model.  I present it here as something in process, for discussion and validation only. Please add your commentary.  And if you’rereading this through another blog or medium (such as a LinkedIn group discussion), please make sure that you post here any comments that you post there as well .Image

I characterize organizations along two dimensions:

Traditional  . . . Visionary

Weighty . . . Agile

And the, for each quadrant, I’ve assigned a name:

A traditional organization, that has some agility but not vision, is Awkward.

A traditional organization, that is more weighty than agile, ia probably Stuck.

A visionary organization, that remains weighty, is truly Reaching.

And, finally, an organization that is both visionary and truly agile is truly Creative.

Although I suggest that this characterization is for organizations, it may better fit organizational segments, perhaps a department or work group.

How helpful is this model?  Are the quadrant names appropriate and helpful?  And how useful is this picture to you?  Please comment.

What’s the real problem?

October 12, 2012

How often we try to solve a problem in the terms first presented to us.  Occasionally this works.  But very often the statement of the problem is self-limiting, and tends to steer us away from finding a real solution.  Or — and this is just as problematic — we may re–phrase a problem in limiting and perhaps misleading terms.

Not long ago I changed the e-mail address at which I receive notices from what had been a very active mailing list.  Instantly, I noticed that incoming mail from that list had stopped.  What was going on?  Was there a spam filter?  I realized that I’d changed the list settings before creating my new email account.  Had the list sent mail to the momentarily non-existent email address, and then turned me off?  What other scenarios could lead to such an email blockage.  I worked diligently on this problem, sought the assistance of the list owner and of several list participants, but got nowhere.  A whole weekend went by, but no solution appeared.

And then the email I wanted started to flow.  It turned out that this once-active list had experienced a significant decline in traffic, and there had been absolutely no messages during the whole weekend.  Come Monday there was a trickle of emails on the list — and they all came through to me just as they were supposed to.

In fact I had originally seen the problem as, “No emails coming through”.  But then I had quickly rephrased it into a question that I thought would be more helpful — “What is blocking my emails?”  And holding on to that paradigm had blinded me to the very simple solution — “There were no emails for anybody”.

Recently a colleague shared with me her concerns about the board of the small nonprofit that she directs.  We immediately began talking about various training programs or board retreats that might make the board a more functional support for this nonprofit and for its director.  It felt appropriate for us to talk about the possible agenda for such training, whether it should be for all board members or just those on the executive committee, etc.  Our unspoken paradigm was that the board didn’t understand its best role, and so wasn’t behaving in the most productive manner.  Bring about the required understanding or attitude and the problem would be fixed, we believed.

It took quite a while for us to step back and reformulate the problem, into the simple statement, that “The board is not serving the role needed by the organization and its director”.  And with this understanding we could ask whether, in fact, the right people were serving on the board, whether the personal benefits they sought from board service were consistent with the organization’s situation, and whether there were any positive models of board service within the board’s recent history.  Board training (in the conventional sense) remained one possible option, but not the only option.

Another organization that I’ve worked with found that they weren’t taken seriously when seeking large contributions.  They struggled to produce clearer descriptions of their programs, that they were sure would excite potential major donors.  The new materials were better, and did attract more small donations.  But they didn’t solve the problem — major donors were still holding back.  It turned out that the public financial statements were unclear and inadequate. This didn’t bother small contributors, but were a real concern to major donors.  A new treasurer was able to produce much clearer financial reports, and larger contributions began to flow.

In each of these cases the relevant people heard a statement of the visible problem, but made assumptions as they translated it into a limiting reformulation.  Letting go of those assumptions and asking anew what was the real problem turned out to be the key.

The moral here is simple:  Our first question should always be, “What is the problem?”.  And we need to answer that in the most primitive way, trying to state the problem as seen or experienced, rather than as transformed by some suggestive but often inaccurate assumptions or deductions.


October 4, 2012

M. C. Richards in her book, “Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person” draws on the metaphor of the potter centering a piece of clay.  The potter pushes against the clay but leaves space for it to move, until it is well centered on the wheel.  At that point the potter can touch one point of the pot and the whole moving piece of clay will respond.

The potter must be careful — for if the clay gets off center a strong touch might pull it apart.  Instead, the potter will carefully lead the pot back on center, and then continue working it.  Of course there are limits to the strength of the clay, especially when it is wet and heavy. An understanding of this reality must moderate the potter’s touch.

Similarly, we need to re-center ourselves as we begin any meeting, or even any task.  Left unchecked, we may drift or get pulled away from where we need to be.  We may find that we’ve taken a wrong turn, or gotten off the trail and need to find it again.  This is not a sign that we are imperfect or inexperienced, but simply that we are human.  And when we are on center — everything is possible.

Things don’t always go well.  Sometimes “centering down” seems impossible, as laundry lists of tasks and issues keep running through our minds.   Undone tasks, complex relationships, or other matters may loom large, and not let themselves be pushed aside even for an hour.   Withhold judgment, be prepared to let go, and wait.  Let the center find you.


There are lots of tests to ensure that web sites have readable type, clearly delineated links, reasonable numbers of elements per page, etc. Web sites can be assessed according to various standards of accessibility, such as for people with motor or visual handicaps. All the information gathered from such tests can be useful – but doesn’t by itself answer the important question, “Does the web site work?”

A web site works when users feel comfortable navigating it, find themselves engaged in the experience, are able to find the information or understanding that they want. It works when users are spared those moments of fear during which they are not sure how to proceed, and are afraid that they will lose their place in some way. It works when the users’ experience is enjoyable, and doesn’t end when the most immediate goal is reached.

But – perhaps most important – a web site “works” when the user is engaged in the virtual conversation that the site owner has tried to create. This might be “Let us help you find the software you need to get your printer working”, or “. . . find the car you need, and can afford”, or “. . . sign up for the education program that will help you meet your life goals.” Of course, a specific client’s goal may be quite different than these examples.

What connects all of these conversations is that they have to do with more than just information – although information is important. They are about a user experience, that promotes engagement, that cements a relationship with the vendor or provider, that instills confidence, and, often, that results in continued sales. A colleague of mine once said, “If you want to use social media, you need to be social”, and I find this dictum a very helpful guiding principle for all web development and evaluation.

Imagine a web page for the car manufacturer, that offers three choices:
• Daisy models
• Tulip models
• Amaryllis models
While these names may be perfectly clear to those very familiar with this carmaker’s line, their presence would probably be intimidating to many users. “How do I know where to begin?”, they would ask themselves, and would then feel that they are just making a guess on one of these three.
Now consider an improvement on this:
• Our basic line – the Daisy series
• Adding features and elegance – our Tulip series
• The car you’ve dreamed of owning – the fine Amaryllis series

This removes the ambiguity for users not familiar with the car models. In that sense it’s probably “correct”. But what kind of relationship does it establish with the user? What’s the conversation? It’s simply, “We have these cars. You can learn about them here.” That’s not the conversation that will create eager buyers, or will sell many cars.

So, lets imagine a stronger approach, designed to really engage the user:
• Configure your Daisy model – a basic car, for any budget.
• Configure your Tulip – offering you more comfort, style, and class.
• Configure your Amaryllis – and be so proud of the car you’ll be driving.

Here we have a strong invitation to the website user to really try out one of these cars, start looking at colors, options, etc. The language here may not be exactly right, but I expect most of us would still find this third option the most likely one to win friends and initiate sales. It invites a relationship that must, of course, be continued in the rest of the web site interaction.

In the examples above we can see at least three aspects of web site usability:
• Users can proceed with clarity and confidence (not made to feel foolish).
• Users learn relevant information about product or service.
• User are drawn in to a conversation, engaging with the vendor.

How can we assess these in a systematic way? As a skilled practitioner, I can certainly review a web site, and offer much constructive feedback. Indeed, much of my role is in offering such expert critique or suggestion.

But such one-person theoretical review has strong limitations. The real test is how the web site works when actually used by typical users. (I may resemble the “typical” printer user or car buyer, but I’m certainly not the typical prospect for a vocational college.) My method is simple to understand, but logistically can be quite complex.

  1. Clearly identify the persona to be used in testing. (This should have happened during web site design, but often it does not.)
  2. Define a test script, which the subjects will be asked to perform. (This may be finding some information, assessing several institutions, learning a skill, etc.)
  3. Determine a performance test, that will be used after the test to see what the subject has learned, their inclination to proceed with the content, their inclination to consider a purchase if there is a sales objective.
  4. Find the test subjects, using the criteria identified in (1) above. Typically subject will be paid for their time.
  5.  Conduct the test, simply watching each subject, but with no intervention. Sometimes we will video the test as well.
  6. Conduct the test again, but asking the subjects to annotate their behavior – at each step, say what they are doing, why, and what kind of response they are seeking.

Note that we are never correcting or guiding the subjects – with one exception: If they appear to be lost, we may inquire what they are seeking. We will not answer their question, but will record in detail the dilemma the user reported.

On occasion, we’re called upon to review not just a web site in isolation, but its performance relative to the sites of competing vendors. This might involve simply repeating the test on several sites, or we may devise particular performance tests that measure how subjects rate the various vendors based on the web site experiences.

What I’ve described here may seem quite different from the more analytical evaluation processes often used by other usability consultants. I prefer this holistic approach, in which web sites are evaluated primarily by their performance rather than by an enumeration of characteristics.

Only after going through the testing process might I want to review the statistical data offered by such tools as Google Analytics. These tools are particularly helpful for identifying how users arrive at the site and where on the web site they tend to go. But the tools offer little guidance about the user experience, motivation, relative ease or frustration, etc.

In summary, I recommend, and I practice a holistic evaluation of web sites, in which behavioral goals are clearly identified, and in which silent observers watch users during real interactions with the web site, or in which the observers interact with the users only to identify more completely the user’s experience. Web sites work when they create and engage users in a productive conversation.

Postscript: Usability review is not design review. I’m a very visual person, and appreciate fine typography, uncluttered layout, elegant design. I’d like to believe that these are an important part of web site success. But data suggests that they may not be as important as I would like. In any case, the tests that I’m describing here evaluate how users behave when working with the site, and not how the site appears to its designers or critics.