Leading from Within

About this time last year, I was a student in a sort of impromptu seven-week “master class” on user-centered design, taught by Marc Rettig. When I heard about the class I jumped at the opportunity to be involved, not only because Marc was the instructor, but because it was a chance to be immersed in a totally positive and constructive design environment, one removed from corporate politics, strained budgets, and misplaced egotism. It was a chance to talk about, learn about and practice user-centered design techniques in a room with sympathetic colleagues—people who didn’t view me as the “usability police.” It was a chance to learn better how to understand users, without having to convince people that understanding users was a good thing to do in the first place.

The class was fast-paced, and although we covered a lot of ground in a short time, I loved every minute of it. But for every moment of the class where I felt totally in my element—challenged creatively, intellectually, working through problems I had a passionate interest in solving—I felt a twinge of disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to practice the same methods back in the “real world,” in my job as an information architect. I knew that, as much value as these user-centered approaches could add to the work we did for our clients, there just wasn’t room for them in the project budgets, or the processes, or even in the company’s overall culture at the time. I believe many of my classmates shared this frustration at the contrast between the “ideal” process scenarios we talked about in class and the reality of what we’d be able to incorporate into our jobs. At the end of the last class, someone said out loud what many of us had been thinking. “This is all great, we believe in the value of it, and we’re dying to go out there and do it. But, realistically, how can we possibly get our teams to work like this?” Marc responded, very simply: “By virtue of the job you’re doing, and the work you’re doing, you are all leaders in your organizations; you’ll create the opportunity to work this way.”

Since the final class session a year ago, that sentiment has remained with me and has materialized into a truth I’ve come to accept and embrace: Being an IA, at this point in time, also means being a leader—ready or not, like it or not. Information architecture is still a nascent field, and as a result we often encounter uncertainty in our organizations and with our clients (sometimes even within our own profession) about the role we play on a design team. Only as leaders, who are able to skillfully educate, guide, and influence those around us, will we be able to succeed as practitioners at the forefront of this emerging field.

While there are practicing IAs fortunate enough to work in companies that wholeheartedly embrace user-centered design (and an IA’s critical role within that process), there are many more IAs whose biggest challenge on a daily basis isn’t the work itself; it’s finding the opportunity to do the work, at the right time, in a meaningful way.

To create opportunities to practice fully as information architects, and in turn, contribute fully as a member of the larger team, not only do we have to become experts in the stuff of our profession—site architecture, user scenarios, prototyping, conceptual models, etc.—but we have to become skilled in things like change management, process engineering, negotiation, persuasion, team building, and organizational politics. And, in most cases, we have to exercise these skills from a position that is not, by default, one of authority in the company, possibly not even one of authority on our respective teams.

Because many of us don’t have the opportunity to influence change from the top down, we have to be resourceful and find ways to effect change from within. In other words, if we are committed to creating an environment where we are fully utilized, one that enables everyone on the team to do their best work for our clients and their customers, we have to take the initiative and lead from within.

What does it mean to lead from within? J. Donald Walters, author of “The Art of Leadership,” envisions a good leader as “an artist whose medium is the dynamics of human cooperation.” He believes leadership is a role that is people-oriented, not position-oriented, and as such is guided by principles that can be applied to any situation that involves working with and influencing others. He offers “principles for leaders to live by,” many of which are relevant and helpful to an IA (or anyone) interested in making change in their organization. Some of these include:

  • Persuade people with the power of your conviction. Involve others in your vision, and inspire them to also be visionaries.
  • Be a good listener, and be willing to listen to other points of view, even if at first they seem to conflict with your own.
  • Focus on the job to be done, more than your own role in the task, however critical your role may be to that task; always keep the big picture in mind.
  • Be willing to take risks yourself, instead of waiting for other people to take them. With this comes the obligation to take responsibility for failure, as well as success.
  • View your role as a service to others—clients, employers and coworkers; there is strength in humility.
  • Work with people as they are, not as you would like them to be. Realize that it takes time to bring people to new points of view; be patient.
  • Adapt your actions to reality (what can be) rather than theory alone (what you think ought to be); be flexible in your ideas of perfection.

While some people believe leaders are born, it’s more accurate to say that leadership is a set of learned skills and sensitivities, born out of a strong commitment to and passion for an idea. If you’ve accepted the challenge of creating change in your organization, there are a few ways to get started on the path to becoming a strong, successful leader.

  • Become an expert in your field. Immerse yourself in the subject matter—read everything you can, attend professional conferences, participate in discussions with colleagues. While passionate commitment is the cornerstone of good leadership, knowledge is a leader’s greatest resource.
  • Identify people in your life you consider to be good leaders, people who have been successful in motivating others to share their vision. If you can, observe how they work, and how they influence people around them. Take note of how they handle mistakes, and failures, and successes. When you encounter obstacles you can’t overcome in your own efforts, consider asking them to act as your mentor, to share their expertise and help you through the rough spots; chances are they won’t say no—good leaders know everyone benefits when they teach others what they’ve learned.

    If you’re unable to identify people in your personal or professional life you consider to be good leaders, you can turn to history for examples. Biographies of great leaders can be a rich source of guidance and inspiration.

  • Look for opportunities to take on active leadership roles, personal or professional. Start a special interest group, or volunteer to lead an initiative in an existing group. Non-profit organizations are a great learning ground for things like taking risks, accepting accountability, facilitating teamwork, and overcoming obstacles creatively—all skills that are critical to becoming a good leader.

One of the things I remember most about that class last Fall was the weekly update from a pair of intrepid classmates who combined what they were learning in class with an enthusiastic desire to change the way their company approached design. Motivated by a commitment to their customers, and supported by our instructor’s advice and encouragement, these two coworkers took each week’s lesson back to their jobs and applied the approach to a product under development (and then they came back to class and shared all the juicy details with us!). Even though they had setbacks and encountered resistance, it was encouraging to hear that—even in that short seven-week span—they made progress in the incorporation of users in their company’s design approach.

Making change can be an incredibly rewarding experience; it can also be an excruciating process, and along the way you may question whether it’s worth the stress and frustration you experience, or if you even have a chance of succeeding. Be confident that if you believe in yourself and your vision, follow your instincts, arm yourself with knowledge, and gravitate toward people who support you, you will be successful as a leader, and you’ll inspire others to follow along.