Doctor’s Note – Issue 12 – Organisational Amnesia

In this issue: Organisational amnesia / Sonos out of tune / The Irishman / Design Politics 2020 / The Linkhole

Welcome to Issue 12 of Doctor’s Note. This issue looks at how organisations need to learn to learn, how Sonos were taught a big lesson, and the importance of self-reflective practice. Plus more goodies.

Organisational amnesia

I’ve noticed a pattern recently. In the last 18 months or so, I have had three client organisations ask me to come and teach and coach their CX, UX or Service Design teams, help them improve their CX offering and the way the various CX-oriented departments work together.

So far, so normal. That’s what I do. The pattern is that all of these companies had already engaged me or companies I used to work for to do this a few years earlier, yet there was barely a trace of institutional memory of this work.

In one case, the client presented us with some earlier customer journey scenarios from a big CX transformation my then colleague and I had worked on four years ago in previous jobs. I even dug up a photo of the wall of Post-It notes with my handwriting on that was the basis of those final scenarios that my colleague had designed. Six years later, here we were again.

Although it was somewhat eye-roll amusing, it also made me quite sad. We had spent a lot of time and effort working on all that only for it to end up in a digital drawer gathering dust. What is going on?

You may be thinking that our work, training and coaching was sub-par, since it didn’t stick. Of course, I’ll argue that this wasn’t the case — we really saw changes in the mindset, ways of working and the assets produced while we were working with those clients. And at other clients the interventions permanently shifted the culture and ways of working for the better.

For some people in the organisations that were coming back to us, the training and mentoring was a career-changing experience. So career-changing that a few of them left to work in more design-led organisations, frustrated they couldn’t work in these new ways in their current one. Or they moved within the company afterwards, either voluntarily or through one of the endless rounds of departmental reshuffles that don’t really tackle underlying structural problems of organisations.

The result is a kind of organisational amnesia. Some of the ways of working and process did remain, but it was living on in the remaining people more than the organisation. When they leave, the organisation will forget.

If you think of people and practices as the neural pathways in the organisational brain, when they’re damaged—through redundancies, attrition or “restructuring trauma”, those pathways are destroyed, blocked or fade. Process is often used as a scaffold to rebuild the pathways. It does help to have an explicit process or methodology that everyone understands and shares the meaning of, but process alone does not preserve understanding and shared meaning.

Actually process can have the opposite effect, because blindly following procedure can be pretty mindless. People aren’t thinking about why they’re doing something, they’re just on autopilot, like when you drive a familiar route and suddenly realise you’re nearly home and can’t remember the last ten minutes of the journey.

Practice—a combination of craft and habit—does reinforce those pathways. Especially reflective practice, which is more than just making. It’s is also intentional consideration of what you are doing before, during and after the act of making.

Practices, rituals and craft skills—what might loosely be termed cultures of doing—deteriorate if there is nobody practicing them or if they’re not valued. Think of languages that die out. Unless a practice becomes a habit and is valued in an organisation, it will fade away. 

When organisations ask us to train and coach their teams, it is essential that they lay the groundwork for those new habits and practices to take root. What happened to those clients I mentioned above is that they often assumed the new practice would just take flight because of the training alone. But the inertia of a large organisation’s existing processes, procedures and value systems can crush those newly forming habits extremely easily. Like seedlings, they need some protection before they can withstand the full organisational elements.

Ill-conceived KPIs, over-bearing management, pressure for growth at the expense of maturity, speed over quality masquerading as pseudo agility, alongside some very banal blockers, such as HR, procurement, finance, and space policies, inadequate tools and crowded calendars, can quickly stifle growth. In fact, they mostly exist for that reason—to preserve the status quo. 

Learning a new practice requires growth, not in the tired economic sense, but in terms of change and maturation. The irony about the business obsession with growth as the metric king of kings is that this lacks maturity. The singular focus is reminiscent of the way adolescents become obsessed with sex. Only as they mature do they become more fully-rounded, considering other aspects of life as equally valuable.

At the risk of making this sickeningly hipster, I’ve learned a lot from yoga teachers about this. My wife is a fine Iyengar yoga teacher, as is our teacher from Australia, Pixie Lillas. Pixie was a practitioner and teacher long before it became trendy and was taught for a long time directly by BKS Iyengar

One of the things Pixie noticed more experienced students do was to keep pushing until they felt the moment of “stretch” they were used to when they first started-out. But, of course, as you become more experienced you don’t need to hit that barrier every time to reach the correct alignment and integrity in the pose. In fact, what happens is you start to over-stretch and hyper-extend because your body is able to do it. That’s practice without intelligence. Instead of reflecting upon the why of what you are doing, you are just doing, pushing, and mindlessly following instruction. 

Really good teachers, like my wife and Pixie, don’t just tell you what to do. Their teaching brings your mind to what you are doing and asks you to examine it. Good students learn to self-reflect. They learn to learn.

The challenge for organisations is that they want the outcomes that self-reflective learners and practitioners can produce, but fail to set up an environment that helps their people learn to learn. Then the organisational amnesia sets in.

The good news is there are quite a few things organisations and managers can do to create fertile grown for growth and learning, but they do take courage and a mix of bottom-up and top-down commitment. My aim isn’t to make organisations dependent on my teaching and mentoring as a crutch. Like any teacher, I seek to make myself superfluous and for the student to become the master.

Sonos out of tune

By now you may have seen Sonos’s misstep about no longer supporting some of their oldest products as of May 2020. Here is part of their original announcement (emphasis mine):

If you choose to participate in the trade up program, your legacy products will be put in Recycle Mode, a state that deletes personally identifiable information and prepares these products for e-recycling. Recycle Mode also protects unsuspecting people from buying legacy products that are approaching the end of their useful life and won’t provide the Sonos experience customers expect today. Recycle Mode will only apply to the legacy products listed above.

We ask that you take your legacy products to a nearby certified e-recycling facility. This is the most environmentally friendly way to recycle. That said, if there isn’t a facility in your area, we are happy to pay for you to ship your products back to Sonos for responsible recycling.

Ideally all our products would last forever, but for now we’re limited by the existing technology. Our responsibility here is threefold: build products that last a long time; continually look for ways to make our products more environmentally friendly through materials, packaging, and our supply chain and take responsibility for helping you through the transition once products near the end of their useful life.

Worse, newer devices connected to legacy devices would also no longer receive updates, leaving your whole network of Sonos devices in legacy mode.

This was quickly picked up by several media and technologysites, setting social media alight with angry customers.

Sonos CEO, Patrick Spence, did a hasty back-pedal on the announcement two days later. It’s a reasonable “we heard you” letter, but short on details. And there are plenty of customers still asking questions and receiving scant response from Sonos. It hasn’t done much good for their stock price, but that’s only a measure of what investors think, not what customers think.

I don’t know the inside story to this, nor do I know anyone at Sonos. I even held off writing about it, because I wanted to see how it developed. There hasn’t been any more news from Sonos since.

I do know that a the bulk of any smart speaker is, of course, air. The rest of it is basically a speaker, amp and motherboard. I also know that in many consumer electronics companies, the software engineering is often siloed from the industrial design and engineering.

Again, I have no idea if this is the case at Sonos. Please let me know if I’m wrong about this. I have no desire to drag Sonos through the mud, but rather to use them as an example of a lack of sustainable and circular economy thinking, most likely driven by the pressure of growth and quick returns to investors.

The dropping of support for legacy products seemed particularly tone deaf in a climate of rising concerns about the need to create products and services with sustainability and circular economics at the heart. We really are at a point of having to re-design pretty much everything. It’s a daunting task, but also a massive opportunity.

Bricking the devices under the guise of protecting “unsuspecting” consumers from not having “the Sonos experience customers expect today” is disingenuous. If people buy older technology, they know it’s not the latest and greatest. Worse, Sonos spent years persuading customers that they should keep adding to their system so they had music in every room in the house.

Yes, processing speeds have increased, but music isn’t like video. It is not caught in the same arms race of ever-increasing resolution (and, therefore, bitrate) year after year. I would wager that audiophiles who do want high resolution audio from services like Qobuz or Tidal are very unlikely to want to hear it streamed through a Sonos speaker.

Sonos could have so easily extended the “useful life” of their speakers and proved their sustainability credentials. Since the actual speaker and amplifier part of any legacy Sonos probably has many years of life left, a switch out of the motherboard or addition of a module would have been an easy thing to offer. 

Back in 2018 Bang & Olufsen partnered with HiFiBerry to create a module that upcycles retro B&O speakers by making them connected and wireless. And because there’s a lot of air in speakers, you have space to put in a circuit board. It also recognises how much love and loyalty B&O customers have for their beautifully designed components

What a missed opportunity for Sonos.

De-ageing in The Irishman

In the previous issue, I mentioned my fascination with the acting skills required to match the de-ageing in The Irishman. It’s worth watching the short documentary above about the technical process.

Editing The Irishman

When I first got interested in filmmaking, I was extremely lucky to see a talk by Thelma Schoonmacher, Martin Scorsese’s long-time Editor, about her collaboration with Scorsese. It was in my local independent cinema that ran a subset of the British Film Institute’s program. Schoonmacher took the intimate audience of about 30 people through the editing process of Raging Bull. It was such a treat and much of what she said stuck with me as I went to study film. Here she is on editing The Irishman:

Design Politics 2020 update

Tickets have now gone on sale for Design Politics 2020, the conference I’m organising with This is HCD’s Gerry Scullion. In a world of fast change and sprint-fuelled delivery, it’s a time to pause and reflect on what we do as designers (see what I did there?).

We’ve nearly confirmed all our speakers. It’s a great line-up of well-known voices and new voices. Marc, Lou and Vimla are also all running workshops on the first day.

We’ve ticketed those separately to make it more affordable for people who can only do either one or the other day. There’s also a student and public services discount.

Super Early-Bird tickets have already sold out and over half the Early Bird ones have gone already. I’d love to see you there and would greatly appreciate you spreading the word amongst your peers.

The linkhole

  • Troll Toll - do not payGreat piece from Morning Brew about how the DoNotPay app has expanded, including a service that cancels subscriptions/memberships after the free trial. “DoNotPay issues users a virtual credit card that approves free trials but declines charges when they kick in.” These kinds of intermediary agents are likely to expand.

  • Under the Sea of Obviousness – excellent three-part series by my friend and ex-colleague Álvaro Carpio Colón about the state of innovation in corporate land. “Obviousness has taken over the world. Innovation design has been reduced to slick formulae, and while the industry prides itself on creating new paradigms, there’s a disappointing lack of novelty, originality and progress.” Yes indeed.

  • Bad habits and biases, a newbie’s observations on design thinking in Japan – also by a friend and ex-colleague, Bekky Bush. She writes about what her experience of working in Japan has taught her about her own cultural biases and norms as a facilitator of design workshops.

  • Big Swinging Brains and fashy trolls: how the world fell into a clickbait death spiralThe Guardian Long Read has been excellent recently. This one is connected to my thoughts on The Californian Ideology in the last issue.

  • Inside Acronym, The Tech Consultancy Behind The Disastrous Iowa-Caucus App – And this explains even more of the above.

  • Collision course - ProPublica’s investigation into how incredibly poor UI and UX designed on touch-screen steering systems on a US Navy warship led to 10 sailers losing their lives. Expect this to be in every other UX conference talks this year.

That’s it for this issue. If you liked it, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague to sign-up. I’d really like to try and double the readership within the next six months and I promise you that will motivate me to write more regularly.

You might also like my podcast, Power of Ten, which is all about design operating at different levels of "zoom," but mainly consists of me talking to people smarter than me from a broad range of disciplines.