03 January 2021


Via Christian Alden Jacobs on Twitter, I learn of the crisp and helpful reflection What Do Executives Do, Anyway?

To paraphrase the book, the job of an executive is: to define and enforce culture and values for their whole organization, and to ratify good decisions.

That's all.

Not to decide. Not to break ties. Not to set strategy. Not to be the expert on every, or any topic. Just to sit in the room while the right people make good decisions in alignment with their values. And if they do, to endorse it. And if they don't, to send them back to try again.

As I focus on my profession of user experience design and its place in an ecosystem of roles for people doing product & service development, I tend to talk about how executives often think that coming up with new products and services — or at least making decisions about them — is their job, when in fact from the standpoint of the development team their job is to identify what constitutes “success” for a new product or service in the eyes of the organization, a question which is less obvious than it appears; there are a range of possible objectives, and if executives do not make the target clear, the development organization will suffer destructive internal friction over what it should be.

But this constitutes just a narrow consequence of the more profound principle that executives bake culture and values into the organization. Where this works properly, everyone in the organization can ladder their day-to-day work to broader and broader context, up to fundamental values, culture, and purpose: “today I am doing A (in the B way) because it accomplishes C for my current project D, which serves the greater project E with F, supporting the organization’s G initiative which serves our mission X, and I am doing this in the B way because it reflects our Y culture and Z values.”

Only executives can make this real in the organization. Everything else constitutes a distraction from this main job.

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