I haven’t been put in the place of having ultimate responsibility for driving a complete user experience for over a decade, though I’ve been involved in advising on a lot on many such. But I continue my decades long fascination with design, to the extent that it’s a whole category for my posts! An article on how Apple’s iPhone was designed caused me to reflect.
On one such project, I asked early on: “who owns the vision?” The answer soon became clear that no one had complete ownership. Their model was having a large-scope goal, and then various product managers take pieces of that, and negotiated for budget, with vendors for resources, and with other team members for the capability to implement their features. And this has been a successful approach for many internet businesses, project managers owning their parts.
I compare that to the time I led a team, a decade ago developing a learning system, and I laid out and justified a vision, gave them each parts, and while they took responsibility for their part of the interlocking responsibilities, I was responsible for the overall experience.
Which is not to say by any means was I as visionary as Steve Jobs. In the article, he apparently told his iPhone team to start from a premise “to create the first phone that people would fall in love with”. I like to think that I was working towards that, but I clearly hadn’t taken ownership of such a comprehensive vision, though we were working towards one in our team.
And we were a team. Everyone could offer opinions, and the project was better because of it. I did my best to make it safe for everyone’s voice to be heard. We met together weekly, I had everyone backing up someone else’s area of responsibility, and they worked together as much as they worked with me. In many ways, my role was to protect them from bureaucracy just as my boss’ role was to protect me from interference. And it worked: we got a working prototype up and running before the bubble burst.
(I remember one time, the AI architect and the software engineer came in asking me to resolve an issue. At the end of it I didn’t fully understand the issue, yet they profoundly thanked me even though we all three knew I hadn’t contributed anything but the space for them to articulate their two viewpoints. They left having found a resolution that I didn’t have to understand.)
And I don’t really don’t know what the answer is, but my inclination is that giving folks a vibrant goal and asking them to work together to make it so, rather than giving individuals tasks that can compete to succeed. I can see the virtues of Darwinian selection, but I have to believe, based upon things like Dan Pink’s Drive and my work with my colleagues in the Internet Time Alliance, that giving a team a noble goal, resourcing them, and giving them the freedom to pursue it, is going to lead to a greater outcome. So, what do you think?