Friday, June 20, 2014

It’s the Culture, Stupid

From Felix Salmon’s massive interview with Jonah Peretti:

Salmon: How much of HuffPost’s success do you ascribe to tech, you being able to do stuff on the tech side which no one else could do?

Peretti: People always overestimate their importance to the success of the company. When you talk to the people who are on the sales side, they say, “Well, you know, we drove revenue. That allowed us to invest in all these things. None of the rest of the company would have even been possible if we hadn’t driven that revenue.”

You ask the tech people, the product people, they say, “That’s the competitive advantage of the company. All the other companies had great editors but we had the better tech.” Then you ask people who are on the editorial team and they say, “Well, if you get a scoop, people have to link to it no matter where it is. Great editorial content is really what drives the traffic. The CMS, it can be broken and then stop you from being successful, but if it’s good enough, then editing really is the key and so we really drove a lot of the success.”

When there’s a startup that sells, for example, or there’s a startup that’s super successful and is growing, people’s view of who drove the success is very highly correlated to who they know at the company. Chris Dixon will say, “Oh, HuffPost is really a tech company and Jonah was a big important part of it.” Because he knows me. But then someone who’s friends with Arianna will say, “Arianna’s a force of nature. She is constantly on TV. She was the name and the voice of the site. Her blog posts were constantly in the news cycle. That’s where the site mattered.” If you talk to someone who knows Kenny, they’re like, “Oh, Kenny was behind the scenes, building this whole thing and planning this out. He’s done it before, he’ll do it again.”

That’s true, not just for HuffPost. It’s true with most companies. The thing you’re closest to, you think has the biggest impact. That, I think, is the cognitive bias that makes it hard for me to answer the question. The system as a whole matters so much. Any one of us who thinks that they’re solely responsible for the success of the company is, by definition, wrong, and the relationship between all the different pieces of the company has to be strong.

In some cases, there’s things that aren’t even measurable. Like maybe just having tech, edit, and business teams communicating effectively, is more important. The lines might be more important than the dots.

Addendum (6/26/2014): Here’s another example:

“I think the biggest misconception is this belief that the reason Apple products turn out to be designed better, and have a better user experience, or are sexier, or whatever . . . is that they have the best design team in the world, or the best process in the world,” Kawano says. But in his role as user experience evangelist, meeting with design teams from Fortune 500 companies on a daily basis, he absorbed a deeper truth.

“It’s actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design. Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team.”

It has often been said that good design needs to start at the top—that the CEO needs to care about design as much as the designers themselves. People often observe that Steve Jobs brought this structure to Apple. But the reason that structure works isn’t because of a top-down mandate. It’s an all around mandate. Everyone cares.

“It’s not this thing where you get some special wings or superpowers when you enter Cupertino. It’s that you now have an organization where you can spend your time designing products, instead of having to fight for your seat at the table, or get frustrated when the better design is passed over by an engineering manager who just wants to optimize for bug fixing. All of those things are what other designers at other companies have to spend a majority of their time doing. At Apple, it’s kind of expected that experience is really important.”

Kawano underscores that everyone at Apple—from the engineers to the marketers—is, to some extent, thinking like a designer. In turn, HR hires employees accordingly. Much like Google hires employees that think like Googlers, Apple hires employees that truly take design into consideration in all of their decisions.

“You see companies that have poached Apple designers, and they come up with sexy interfaces or something interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily move the needle for their business or their product. That’s because all the designer did was work on an interface piece, but to have a really well-designed product in the way Steve would say, this ‘holistic’ thing, is everything. It’s not just the interface piece. It’s designing the right business model into it. Designing the right marketing and the copy, and the way to distribute it. All of those pieces are critical.”

Addendum (7/4/2014): Two more:

1. To the extent that the New York Times does anything remarkable, it emerges from collaboration and shared enterprise. It’s worth remembering that its legacy begets an excellence that surpasses the particulars of who produces it.

2. What makes America great isn’t something marvelous in our nature. It’s our rules and our mechanisms of accountability. If I were to shoot and kill you, someone would do something about it.