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The "Competing Cultures" Lesson is part of the full, Enterprise Design Systems Management course featured in this preview video. Here's what you'd learn in this lesson:

Ben discusses the competing organizational cultures and their compatible counterparts. A discussion regarding if the design system subculture can change the organization's culture is also covered in this segment.


Transcript from the "Competing Cultures" Lesson

>> So another thing that's really interesting here is that some of these cultures are completely incompatible. And this is where the work around that these authors have done a decade or two ago. Really shine some light on our approaches here. So the way this works is that cultures which are diagonal from each other are like oil and water.

They don't work well together. So if your organization has a creative, entrepreneurial, kind of do-things-first culture, this disruptive, create-adhocracy culture, it's gonna be really hard for you to succeed down in this bottom left as a design system with a control culture, okay? The reason is because, the creative culture is about disruption, right?

While the controlling culture is saying, we know the right way and we have got it for you. So these two ideas are just incompatible. It's like trying to swim upstream. If you're trying to operate in the control model and your organization is creative. So I actually have a fun story I was doing an interview with a woman who led the design system for a really large web based product in the job market space.

And she told me this kind of fun story she said that when she began there the company was in startup mode. So they were up in that top right. The company was like trying to figure out what their product would be. They recognized though, that the the interfaces in their product were really inconsistent.

So they felt that the design system was what was needed to get them through those inconsistencies, to get them under control. So the system they built was intentionally limiting. They built something in that bottom left. So they did this without any of this knowledge. They just intuitively thought, this is what we need.

Their hope was that they were gonna force the product teams to use the same components and felt that those teams would be able to do everything they needed with little or no extension. What it turns out though that the startup mindset, that creative culture of the organization meant they were constantly pivoting their direction in search of a product market fit.

So the pivots in the product were the reason for the inconsistency in the interfaces. [LAUGH]. And that was actually valid changes they were making to try and find a fit. So when they offered this design system to the product teams that was wildly limiting, very inflexible, basically they just couldn't get anybody to use the thing, right?

It was like, not gonna happen. They just built what they needed outside of the system. Here's what she told me at the end of that interview. I showed her all of this and she was like, my gosh, you just explained what happened to me. And she said, here's what she said.

[COUGH] I wish we would have recognized the need for flexibility in the system as a way of supporting the necessary pivots the company was taking to find our place in the market. That would've built trust with our subscribers as an enabling tool instead of a restrictive one, right?

So what she was describing without actually knowing it was that she should have been more intentional in creating this collaborative design system subculture, right. She should have been operating in the top left of this graph and these two colultures are actually compatible. The opposite diagonal is incompatible as well.

So if your company is competitive right you're in this do things fast market culture it's it's gonna be really hard for your design system program to succeed if you're trying to do so as a collaborative do things together kind of culture. In fact, if you remember the story that I told you at the beginning of this culture section, right, about the organization that we walked away from after working with them for a year because of cultural incompatibility.

This is kind of what I was seeking in my research, was to try and understand what had happened with us. And our client in that situation was definitely in that bottom right. And we, as a service company, as kind of led by me with my own sort of collaborative values influencing us, we definitely try to take that top left approach in a lot of our work.

We come alongside teams, right? We sit in the trenches with them and we do the work together. And what we were trying to do was build a collaborative culture, subculture, inside of a competitive organizational culture. And it felt like oil and water, I mean it was so hard, it just was not gonna work.

I'm not saying that completely explains everything in my situation, but my takeaway is that we have to, me personally, I have to recognize... When we're working with more competitive cultures and make adjustments to how we work to better align with what they need from us. These two cultures are compatible.

And I wonder sometimes now if we had taken a more control approach in our system work, if we would have been able to find a way to kind of work through those incompatibilities. This, I think, would have felt more like we were swimming with the current instead of against it.

So my big takeaway from this stuff is that we kind of have to look up from the work right? We've got to look around and understand that all of these forces really are actually at play. You can try to fight against this, but it's really hard. It's really exhausting.

And oftentimes, it just won't work. So understand that the cultures and subcultures in your organization, your own subculture in a way that gives it a chance at success, right? I always get this question. I think because people [LAUGH] a lot of times when I share about this cultural stuff, I get a couple responses.

One is, my gosh, you just showed me why everything failed, which is great but like I also want it to be something people can use to succeed going forward. And the other thing I get is that individuals see this and they immediately know where they wanna be. And so a lot of times they see I personally I'm operating here and my organization is here does that mean I should quit my job [LAUGH] it's like these existential conversations that this kind of brings up.

And a lot of times I think when we see that we're operating the way we want to but it doesn't work with the org culture, then we wanna know, can we make a change? Can we impact from the bottom up? Can we impact the culture of the organization?

I mean, I'm an idealist and I really want this to be the case. I want to say, yeah, you can totally do that. I will say I've I've heard a few folks who were sort of high level stage fours where once they had that opportunity to kind of be seen by the organization as an influential leader they get a seat at the table around culture.

But it's really hard for this to happen if you're not at a more mature state. So you kind of have to earn the right, is what I'm saying. And that kind of comes back actually to this diagram. I said, you'll remember I said that we experience culture from the top down.

But culture is not created that way. It's created from the bottom up. And you probably have seen organizations trying to fix their culture by adding artifacts right? Man nobody here is getting along, let's buy a ping pong table, [LAUGH] right? Let's all go to lunch on Friday, okay, that's surface level stuff right that doesn't actually help.

But you do this you build culture by identifying the commonality in the underlying assumptions of the people you have. And you hone in on those things as common values as your shared underlying assumptions. And when you can find unity there the other two layers are just a natural outpouring of those beliefs.

With that kind of cultural alignment, the things that we say and the things that we see are simply a reflection of the things that we believe. I'll close this section with one simple idea when that is that your design system won't make your products more consistent. Think about it, right?

You and I could take any design system, no matter how restrictive it is, and we could build the most wildly inconsistent things with it. The hard truth is that people will make what they want to make, whether you have a system or not. And the critical word in this statement is the word want.

So if consistency or cohesion is your goal the only sustainable way to get that is to change what your subscribers want to do. You do that with culture, not with pixels, not with code or documentation, not with figma, not with react. And your design system can be a catalyst for this kind of change, but it's not going to do it on its own.

This actually is the unspoken and deeply challenging mandate of a design system team. This actually is your job. I hope that some of these ideas will help you do that job a little bit better when you get back to the office.

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