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Spreading design thinking throughout an organization: lessons from Atlassian

atlassian-headerFor this post, I interviewed Karen Cross, a Design Manager at Atlassian, about the internal design thinking program the company has been building up over the past year. Atlassian makes tools for software development, collaboration, and project management, and several museums and nonprofits use their products such as Confluence, Jira, and HipChat.

Readers may be wondering why I’m featuring an interview with someone from a software company, and the answer is simple: I’ve always looked outside the museum sector for models of new ways of working, thinking, and collaborating.

I was first introduced to Agile software development by web developers when I was working on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art website, and to design thinking through an executive education program at the Stanford d.school, and brought both of these approaches back to my work at SFMOMA. I believe museums can look to the private sector for new models of working, and adapt these processes to make museums smarter, more efficient, and more awesome.

What struck me in my conversation with Karen was how purposeful Atlassian has been about spreading design thinking throughout the organization. The three key components of Atlassian’s internal design thinking program are:

  1. Trainings and workshops for staff
  2. Digital resources available to all staff
  3. Intentionally designed spaces to foster new ways of working

The trainings and materials that Atlassian has developed blend methods from Agile software development, Lean methodologies, and design thinking, all with the goal of putting users front and center.

karen_cross

Karen Cross, design manager at Atlassian, running a design thinking workshop for staff.


Q: Karen, can you tell me about your role at Atlassian?

A: I came on board as part of the user experience team. One of my roles is to spread more design thinking throughout the company.

For example, I run an introductory design thinking workshop for all new hires every quarter. (It’s based on the virtual crash course created by the Stanford d.school). Anyone can take the training. This is about establishing a design thinking practice, regardless of people’s individual roles. We think that anyone can find value in applying user-centered design, and we encourage all staff to participate.

Q: What other resources have you developed for staff in addition to trainings?

A: We’ve developed what we call the Atlassian Playbook. With the Playbook, we’re using a football analogy.

In football, it’s not like you do the same thing every time. You pull from the playbook the appropriate tool, technique, or practice, depending on the problem you want to solve. The playbook is available to all staff via the intranet, and in it we cover such things as:

The Playbook describes what these are, the supplies you’ll need, and why you might want to use these tools. We also cover things like how much time to anticipate, how many collaborators you’ll need, and how difficult or easy it will be.

Q: Can you give me an example of another tool or method you share with staff via the online Playbook?

A: One of the tools we cover is a design wall. (Design walls are large, vertical surfaces on which ideas, data, and work in progress can be displayed, rearranged, and extended. Read more about design walls here.)

We believe very strongly in the notion of design walls. This is about making work visible. Design walls are our new desks. We want staff to collaborate with their peers as much as possible.

Q: Can you talk about how you are using dedicated spaces in your office to promote design thinking?

A: We have both a dedicated area in the San Francisco office, along with more casual drop-in spaces.

We’ve thought a lot about closed spaces (dedicated conference rooms) vs. open spaces (drop-in spaces for stand-up meetings or design walls) and we’ve learned that closed spaces enable heads-down work time, while open spaces are best for impromptu discussions and foster a sense of community and sharing with non-designers.

An open, drop-in design space in the Atlassian office.

Ideally, spaces should be a mix of closed spaces, open spaces, and design walls. It’s a small thing, but having loads of markers, post-its, blue tape (for putting stuff up on the walls) and other materials available in the room is a time-saver, and encourages people to create rather than just talk.

We also use furniture to evoke a “this is where work gets done” vibe. This includes separate moveable tables of different heights (rather than one big conference table), stools, and free wall space to draw on and stick stuff on.

Q: Why train staff in design thinking?

A: Well, we see projects as having three phases:

  1. Envision It
  2. Make It
  3. Improve It

And we know we’re really good in the Make It phase. But we’re not so good in the Envision phase. We want to encourage staff to spend more time up-front so that we’re not just jumping into building stuff. We also want to encourage staff to spend more time in the Improve It phase so that we can answer the questions, “How did we do?” and “Should we pivot?”

In the end, this is about the ability to scale great experiences. Everyone should be empowered to ask, “Is this the right thing for our users? Are we solving the right problem here? Are we sure this makes sense?”

Follow Karen on Twitter at @karenmcross and Atlassian at @Atlassian.

All images courtesy of Atlassian.

1 Comment »

  1. I usually created hand-crafted design playbooks for each gig I do, they tend to come back to the playbooks as a source of safety when there is disagreement. I also think Improv theater training can really help.

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