Evidence for changing power structures

An intersection between technology, racism, and information architecture to continue answering why we need design-bias product decisions.

June 27, 2020


My plan from last time was to move forward from the why of exposing decisions to redistribute power. A bit more than a month later, and I don't feel ready to move on from the why. George Floyd will not be forgotten.

In a recent article, Marquise Stillwell states:

"...I challenge you to be vulnerable: give up your power. To end systemic racism, we need an equity-focused approach that redistributes power to include those who lack it."

Read Stillwell's full article. Go. I'll wait.

Back? Good.

Stillwell is appealing to the leaders of organizations.

My previous article is appealing to influencers of organizational leaders.

I point this out for a very specific reason. Why?

Redistributing power is culture change, and culture change requires strategy.

The redistribution of power, that both Stillwell and myself speak of, is cultural change. Successful culture change, for a more equitable future for all, requires a strategy. Implementing this strategy, through some sort of framework, gets us from the culture we have to the culture that we envision.

In the book Intertwingled, Peter Morville talks of five levers* for successful culture change:

  1. Information: the raw knowledge needed for change*
  2. Behavior: the habits required to seed and sustain change*
  3. Context: the empathy to understand why change is needed*
  4. Leadership: the authority that guides change*
  5. All of the above

* I am paraphrasing in my own words, as my recollection of exact terminology and phrasing Morville uses is likely inaccurate 5 years after reading the book.

According to Morville, successful culture change comes from a community that "pulls" all five levers at once.

Stillwell, appealing to leaders, is pulling lever four. My articles, appealing to influencers, intend to help pull levers one, two, and three. Thus, we now have a strategy to enact all five levers, and succeed with changing culture for the better.

The next question becomes how do we implement this strategy? What framework does an organization use? Now we're circling back to the specific decisions I listed out in the previous article, and a question of how we use such a framework in practice. I will address this in future articles.

A working thesis

At this point, it's time to revisit and evolve what might be closer to my intended thesis of why. There's still more to unpack here: points of clarification, intersections to expose, and unstated details of both theory and practice. With that out of the way...

Organizations need design-bias product decisions so that they may:

  1. Leverage a framework to implement a strategy of successful product creation culture change
  2. Leverage the discipline of design as a facilitator of this change
  3. Redistribute power within and across project/product teams as a result of this change
  4. Open up opportunities to become inclusive to all
  5. Rebuild away from privileged systems and systems of oppression
  6. Begin unravelling non-neutral technology
  7. Start showing, by practice, the evidence that Stillwell desires to see...
"I want to see action, not branded corporate messages that go nowhere. I want to see evidence that organizations are applying the same critical thinking they bring to their work towards changing their existing power structures — because that is what will lead to authentic, lasting change."



A post-article muse

My current livelihood partly depends on me pulling the first three levers of culture change as described above.

The unstated responsibility is this: time and time again, I am to repackage information, behaviors, and collaborative activities so that positive change can come from the bottom-up. When I find something that 'sticks', I have to encourage it's growth; keep experimenting on the vocabulary, the practices, and the activities that brings more progress to teams than has previously been achieved. I have to persuade and encourage culture change. Yet sometimes, things aren't too... sticky.

The reason that failure happens comes down either to my poor execution, or because a lack of the fourth lever. While I most certainly have had moments of poor execution, lack of leadership is a very real thing. One way I want to communicate the description of lack of leadership is with The Black Person’s Guide to Game of Thrones by Michael Harriot. Essentially, since corporate america can be said to be a ruthless system of white privilege, this white-on-white 'violence' creates waves of weak leadership that leave oppression in its wake.

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