For the latest in the Liminal Thought Leaders series I connected with Martha Valenta in St Louis.
Martha has been a Human Centered Design consultant for the past 14 years, with a focus on the financial industry.
She has collaborated on strategy, experience, and interaction design with business stakeholders, development teams, and users to create or improve processes and experiences.
Martha is presently a Human-Centered Design Lead with 1904labs. She is the President of the St. Louis Experience Design organization (STLX) and she teaches UX at LaunchCode CoderGirl. An artist advocate and prolific painter in her free time, she recently founded I Need That Art, where she connects artists with buyers.
I was lucky enough to grab some time from Martha’s busy schedule to get her views on organizational change.
Mike: Thanks, Martha, for making the time to do this. I’m guessing the subjects of culture and future organizations is something that is of interest to you in many respects?
Martha: Yes, it is. I’ve been in many major corporations (now I’m in a smaller company), and I’ve seen things be very difficult. I’ve seen big organizations have so much trouble getting anything done well, and then on a smaller level, things tend to get done well. I think, because we’re truly agile. We’re able to make changes as needed.
Mike: Right. From that point of view, do you think that major change is inevitable and necessary for most organizations at the moment, even the large ones, because of changes in the environment?
Martha: Well, innovation by definition is change. Correct? So, change is how we innovate and so yes, I do think there is a need for ongoing change, right?
Mike: Right. So it’s absolutely not enough for an organization to say, “Oh, okay, we’re going to unfreeze, we’re going to do some change and then we’re going to re-freeze and there we are. We’ve done it.”
Martha: Yeah, I think that’s the trap that a lot of organizations get into and I see it with software development all the time. This is why waterfall was the way that we developed software for so long was because it’s going to be finished in two years and then it’s done. But it’s not done. It’s never done. We are constantly innovating and we should be. So, that mindset needs to be fully adopted by all organizations. I see it very much from my software development viewpoint, but many larger companies still want to approach things in their ingrained legacy way and not fully embrace this idea of self organizing teams, continuous development, and continuous improvement. In some cases there are good reasons to be cautious. For example in financial institutions, where there’s a lot of regulation and there’s a lot of need to be regulated because these systems are dealing with people’s life savings or their regular income. Likewise in health care there needs to be a lot of caution around change and development, but they still need to innovate. Because playing it too safe leaves companies in these industries at risk for disruption. Mike: What part do you think leaders play in changing their own mindset in order to improve the kind of situation you’ve just described? Do you think that’s an important factor?
Martha: I think leadership is a huge factor in all companies and especially in larger companies. They’re setting the tone, right? If they set the tone of “anything is possible and I expect you to work together” and then they show that things are possible and that they are working together with others then it’s not just words, but also actions.
When they do that they show that it’s safe to do these innovative things, to continuously change, to speak up when something is wrong, and to fail. Failure is still not fully accepted in the majority of large corporations. But when leaders show an example of that then people are inspired. I think you could do things like give an award to someone who fails. Make it a positive thing. You know? “Hey, you failed at this, and because of that we saved, 10 million dollars because we didn’t keep going down that path.” So you get this gold star and $100 bonus or whatever it is.
Mike: So if you adequately explored it and it didn’t work out, then thanks for doing that because it saved us.
Martha: Exactly. And too often, the leaders get caught in their own ego. They built this thing and they don’t want anybody to say the baby’s ugly. Or, they don’t want to go over the time allotted for developing something. Or they don’t want to hear what the users have to say. And that seems all crazy to me because if these leaders would start really listening to all the users and how the thing fits together through the entire process, then we might be able to see that upfront we can do something to alleviate a problem that’s happening downstream and save a lot of time.
Mike: This is the importance of being open to recognizing that change is actually the life blood of your organization in a way?
Martha: Exactly. And being open to that at a leadership level really opens it up for the employees. And while I’ve seen, and been, an employee who tries to help make those changes at a lower level, you can only go so far with that. Eventually you get stuck or stopped.
Mike: It requires things to happen both ways. From the bottom up and top down.
Martha: Yes. And you know, part of leadership is making decisions to hire people that will do what’s best and not necessarily what’s easiest, or at least try to nudge things along in that direction. And I say this with a grain of salt, there’s always understanding how far you’re going to get in this quarter or in this year or what have you. I’ve been that person that’s so passionate. But we need to learn where the sweet spot is of just moving forward enough, because sometimes we want to move it all the way forward and a good leader will say, “Hey, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but we’re only going to get this far right now, and let’s document these other ideas you have.” But it all takes leadership for this type of positive motion to happen. And it affects the entire organization.
Mike: Right. So, can I ask you what the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? Because I hear them being spoken about in the context of organizations, the things they want to change towards better values and higher purpose. Do you think that those are core to being a successful organization?
Martha: I’m so jaded right now. I’ve seen companies where they truly have these incredible core values and really altruistic desires. You know, they want not only what’s best for them as a leader, but for the company and for all the people in the company and also for the effect that the company has on the world. I’ve seen it where it’s true, it’s just honest and you know that there’s no way that they would be doing business the way they’re doing business if they didn’t fully believe in that. If they weren’t fully bathed in it.
I just saw a speaker. Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate, discussing his whole business model and how it’s just such a beautiful thing and he has such a positive effect on himself because he feels good about everything he’s doing and on the people he’s employing and the kids that he’s bringing along with him on this journey. And then the farmers in all these countries that are raising chocolate and the effects on the communities there. It’s just amazing.
Mike: Sounds great.
Martha: I strongly encourage you to look into what he’s doing because I think that you’d be very interested in it. But then I see leaders of major corporations and sometimes I think they really believe that they’re trying to do good things. But there are so many pieces at play, there’s so many bits, and I wonder if they’ve thought it out and how they’re really going to dig in to each little part of the company and make sure that the beliefs are being carried out in the way that they imagined.
Mike: Maybe we should avoid mentioning Nike right here.
Martha: I mean, it’s such a neat idea, right? To have a Kaepernick and talk about these things. But then, yeah, you turn around and where are the shoes being made and how are the employees being treated? And it’s just, it leaves me very jaded.
Mike: It’s a very big organization, isn’t it? One of the things I really liked about Argyris’ work was his definition of the difference between espoused values and values in practice. And what he said was, you have the espoused values of an organization, but actually you then need to look at what people actually do to see the values in practice. And then you can look at the gap between the two and you can say, “Okay, well, do we want to try to bring these two closer together?”
Martha: Yeah, it would be neat in the case of Nike, and this is a great example because they’ve never been a client of mine!
What would be wonderful would be to see them come out with, “Hey, it’s come to our attention that while we do want to be thought of that as leaders of social change, we are in fact guilty of this, and we are going to do our best to overcome this. And so we are actively seeking manufacturers who treat their employees well and if you have a shoe shop and you would like to work with Nike, please come forward. We’re actively looking for you.” I don’t know, but there’s something that could be done and it takes leadership to say we failed. We failed and now we want to fail forward. You know?
Mike: It would be a stunning response, wouldn’t it?
Martha: It would be incredible. And who could deny that?
Mike: I wonder what that would do to sales?
Martha: Right? It’d be incredible. And what if they moved all, or half, or 75 percent of manufacturing to the United States? Or what if they moved a percentage and then said, “Hey, we’re building more factories in the United States and we’re going to pay this and our shoe prices are going to go up because of this, because this is what this is. Are you in?”
Mike: Yeah. It would be interesting, wouldn’t it?
Martha: Who knows what would happen? But that’s leadership, right? To me, that’s leadership.
Mike: I think the story about the chocolate guy is very interesting. I’ll definitely look into that. It underpins one of my main thoughts on the subject that there is a big difference, quite often between having something up on the wall and actually living the value. And in a sense, I actually have some sympathy for people who end up in a position where they’ve defined very high flown values, but in practice they ended up not being able to execute them. In my mind it’s actually better for a company to look at its value statement and look at it in terms of what it knows it can actually live up to.
Martha: Yeah. I wonder if these companies would have leadership meetings annually and say, “Are we living up to these values that we’ve defined?”
Mike: Oh yeah. That would be interesting.
Martha: It’d be incredible. I will do a shout out for the company that I currently work for, 1904 Labs. I’m thrilled to work there because the managing director, Sean Walsh, is a man of real integrity. He read the Covey book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and he lives it, and he wants all of us to live it. It is the company handbook and he doesn’t want a client that isn’t a win/win. He wants to do the best for our clients and he only wants to take on clients that we can do the best for. It’s beautiful to me this clear definition of what he’s expecting and of what we’re trying to do for our clients.
Mike: Yeah. That’s great, isn’t it?
Martha: Yeah. And it’s leadership. That’s leadership, right there. I’m telling you this is what I want and I’m going to go ahead and do it too. Even sometimes if it might not be what I thought it was going to be or whatever. He sticks with it. He follows through.
Mike: Sounds like a great place to work, do you think?
Martha: It is! He encourages us to do kind of our own thing for four hours per week. So two hours on Monday afternoons, two hours on Thursday afternoons, we have innovation time and he expects us to all be doing our own thing. It might be charity work or it might be our own start-up or it might be our own growth or learning. It’s fantastic because we’ve got developers that want to learn more about a particular framework or particular language or something is exciting them about a start-up that they want to do and it only enriches the work we do the rest of the work week because we’re so excited, we’re able to do those things that we wanted to do.
For me on Thursdays, it’s charity work that I want to do. We do a lot of work with this school called Lift for Life Academy, and we’ve been teaching the kids how to code and teaching them how to build rockets and also just being involved in fundraising efforts for that school. It’s enriching and Sean’s been a leader in that, right? But he also, every Monday and Thursday is actively asking us, what are you doing for your personal growth? What are you doing for 1904 with your free time? What are you doing? What start-ups do you do? Do you have? Or, what small business have you started on your own? And he challenges us every Monday and Thursday to have a win/win. To take this opportunity and make more for ourselves.
Mike: That sounds to me like a pretty lucky place to work and quite rare, I would say.
Martha: Very rare. I do feel very lucky every day. I really do.
Mike: Speaking of start-ups, you’ve got one going, I think now you’re in the art business as well, is that not right?
Martha: Yes. My husband’s an artist. I intended to be as well, now I’m finally doing it. He and I have been painting a lot and along the way, I got married last year. We dated for a couple of years. My relationship with him brought me deep into the art community here in St Louis, Missouri. I started to realize that a lot of the artists end up hanging out with a lot of other artists and they don’t tend to want to network too much outside of the art community. Some may have social anxiety. And I thought, well, I network rather well. I don’t have a problem talking with people. I also know a lot of people. Maybe I can help them network. I started with the work my husband and I have creates. I’ve been working on how we can market ourselves better. Then I started thinking, this might be good not just for my husband, but for other artists as well. Maybe I can connect with the people who would be really interested in purchasing art.
This idea just started to bloom and now I’ve got a couple other artists that I’m looking to bring on board soon. We’re slowly building up something here. Very exciting.
Mike: Yeah. That sounds exciting. That’s great.
Martha: This is something that I’m afforded the opportunity to work on by having some of those business hours during the week.
Mike: Yes. You can actually think about doing it, and start to actually get it going.
Martha: Yes. And if I have any technical issues with the website, I happen to work with a lot of brilliant, technical people.
Mike: Yeah 1904 is a software development company, right?
Martha: Yes. We create software using an HCDAgile methodology that we’ve developed. HCDAgile is the fusion of Human-Centered Design best practices and a structured Agile process. It ensures that we build the right thing, the right way.
Mike: So I’ve got one more main question here.
If you had to give one piece of advice to an organization that wanted to move towards a new, more complete kind of organization, that might be something like, but not limited to or bound by the idea of Teal, for example, what would that piece of advice be? What would be the one thing you would say to them? “Okay, you want to have a really great organization. This is the thing.”
Martha: It would really just come to being authentic. I think, being authentically who you are and letting the company grow from that. Maybe that sounds simple? I don’t know.
Mike: It’s a simple enough sentence, but I think has got an awful lot of complexity under the hood, hasn’t it?
Mike: Authenticity implies that you actually spent a lot of time thinking about what you’re really good at and delivering it well and being honest with people. And that should be looking for win/wins because you think there’s no other way to do business.
Martha: Yeah. And that honesty. Honesty about yourself, with yourself. Knowing where you might need help and being open to it.
Mike: I think that’s a great answer. Thank you so much for a great interview. I’m so happy to hear about the art gallery and hope it goes from strength to strength.
Martha: Yes. I’m thrilled and I’m really excited about it. I think it’ll be a fun venture and hopefully we’ll move some art.
Mike: I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.