How to get a seat at “The Table”
Thank you Jill Levenson for proposing the idea for this article.
UX is a tough business. It is great and I love what I do but it can be really tough to manage expectations and balance all of the various tasks that we are asked to do. For many of us we enjoy being generalists. We enjoy the whole process. Starting with the research and understanding the problems, through the solutioning phases ending and iterating through the dev cycle and testing. It’s great.
The not so fun side is the side of being a generalist that finds us in the weeds and out of the decision making process. It’s a common phrase to hear from many a burned-out and unappreciated UXer:
“I just want a seat at the table!”
They feel like the work and the world is spinning madly around a teetering axis of deadlines and user stories all without a guiding direction. That they are order takers and pixel pushers rather than strategic partners. They don’t get to see anything through because they are putting out all of the fires and picking up the broken pieces around them.
So what’s the solution?
How do we come up for air and get a seat at that coveted table?
First, let’s define what we mean by a seat at the table then we’ll look at four steps to get there.
What is “The Table”?
So what is this table that we keep referring to? In every organization there is someone or a group of someones who make the decisions that guide the direction of the company and the work the company does. In small companies like early startups this might be as small as an engineer, a design lead and the business lead. Is a single strategic table and everyone has a seat because all of the decisions can be made at this very small table.
In larger companies however there tend to be many many many strata of tables that are derived from the decisions and needs coming down from progressively higher and higher up tables. The company wants to increase revenue so each member of the highest level table (The Executives) passes directives and instructions to their direct reports who in turn head up tables of their own. This continues down until at some point you are involved. It might be at a feature level, product level, domain level or some other strata but there is a table near you.
Like every other table, this table was pulled together by someone because they have something they need to be done. At this table there are only three types of people:
- The decision-maker: The person who is responsible for the final decisions and outcomes from the table
- The trusted advisor: Someone the decision-maker trusts can help actualize and ensure the quality of the final decision or outcome whether by action or influence.
- The assigned: Someone who was told they have to be here or who was forced to be included by someone else.
Many people think that by leveraging their title or opinions or their smarts they can work their way in. That if they can just get that one more promotion they will finally have a seat. This might be true at some tables but it puts you squarely into the third category of one who was assigned to a task. We don’t want to be begrudgingly assigned to the task. We want an invite.
So how do you go about getting a seat at that table especially when you have a million and one things to do? Let's take a look at four steps
The Four Steps
Step 1 — Pause
The world feels like it’s on fire. It feels like everywhere you look someone is asking for you to review this and test that. It’s only Monday and you’re already exhausted. You barely remember standup this morning and it’s not even lunch. The bags under your eyes are growing and even your Trello board is giving you that concerned look that makes you question the fabric of your mind. Take a minute and pause.
It’s very difficult to make any decisions or gain perspective if you are hurried. You need to take a step back from the issues. In our busy world of get ahead or die tired it can feel like you are betraying your teams or like you are slacking but this is an important step. Turn off the notifications. Put away your phone. Block off your calendar for an hour or two. Let the tension in your neck go. Unclench your jaw. Breathe. If you need some more practicals take a look at the article by Alice Boyes Ph.D. on the subject. Regardless of which strategy you use to you have to get your feet planted and steady. From a place of pause we can begin to gain perspective on what to do next.
Step 2 — Understand
Once we have made some space we can begin to understand what is going on around us. Regardless of which level of strategic or tactical strata you are engaging, get your understanding down on paper. Everything that is going on, get it out of your head so you can get the high level perspective. Think about the following.
The Present — What is the current strategic context?
If you are working on a product or initiative there is a strategic reason for it. As said in their paper Mastering Resilient Growth, the global consultancy Corporate Citizenship says:
No business is an island. Invisible bonds shape the firm through a complex interaction of economic, social, political, technological and environmental trends. Companies that want to be positioned for long-term success need to gain a holistic understanding of the relationships that shape their context
By understanding the larger business strategy you can begin to understand where you are at the higher level and get out of the weeds. Think through the following.
- Does this product make money directly or does it save money elsewhere?
- What is the success measure for this effort?
- What events or milestones were set in the past and how has the product tracked towards those?
When a work environment seems chaotic it is usually because something is influencing your scope from just outside your field of view. Understanding these influences can help elevate your perspective and add a sense of order and predictability where there may have not been any before.
The Past — What has been done?
With a grounded sense of the present you can begin to understand the history that has lead you and/or your team to this point.
- Has this team been successful or have they failed in the past?
- Was this project new or is it based on older assumptions and systems?
- How long has the funding been allocated to this effort?
Take into account what’s happened in the past and you will begin to see more clearly what has lead to your present. You aren’t the center of the story you are just observing something that has been in motion for possibly years ahead of time and building both positive and negative momentum. Step outside of that space and view it impartially and it will open up additional perspectives on your current state.
Step 3- Plan
Once you have an understanding of what has happened and what is currently happening you can begin to create a plan for how to move forward. This is the point at which you stop being tactical and start thinking about strategic leadership. There are two questions you need to ask:
- What’s needed to move the ball forward?
- Why hasn’t it happened yet?
The first question is the one that most people are thinking about. It’s frankly the easier question because there isn’t an inherent critique built in. It’s truly proactive but it ignores the underlying factors that can hang up a team, stall progress and cause chaos. The second question addresses these aspects. By understanding these blockers you can help get your team “unstuck”.
Keep in mind that these blockers are likely not obvious. If they were, your team would have already addressed them. They can also take many forms. From entrenched beliefs, assumptions or habits to larger business processes that contradict and block each other. Regardless of the nature or source these blockers should be your focus moving forward. You can begin to formulate ways to solve these issues and create a vision and path forward for your team. But how do you get that buy in?
Step 3 — Relate
It’s time to engage your soft-skills and building some trust. Go back to your understanding of the strategic context. Who is in charge? What do they want? The world is full of people who want to be the greatest, especially in the design world. Everyone wants to be the next Steve Jobs. Not too many people want to be the next Joanna Hoffman. Begin to build relationships with them. Foster an attitude that seeks the success of those around you. In short, learn to be genuinely helpful.
Nobody wants a prophet. Someone who stands out in the town-square yelling about the impending doom or their product management sins. They want a partner someone who is in it with them and there to help. Learn to relate to people and focus not on being a great designer but on being a helpful designer they tend to be synonymous.
Step 4 — Advise
As you become more helpful people will want you around more and trust you more. Focus on being helpful and building trust. Being seen as smart or innovative aren’t the point. Hit your deadlines. Do what you say you are going to do. Build more trust. There is a critical mass to trust that is difficult to quantify in any sort of measurable outcome. You will know when you have built the trust when they ask the greatest of all questions.
“What do you think?”
Congratulations you are sitting at the table.
Note: If you enjoyed this article then I can’t encourage you enough to read The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister. It has been a game-changer for me in my approach to design and how I make my way through the corporate world.