Bias Towards Action: Building Teams that Build Work

Husani Oakley, SVP, Director of Technology, Deutsch

How do you create an agile, customer-centric team of designers, developers, product managers, and user experience specialists whose instinct is to make, not talk? How do you ensure that this team’s output remains focused on business goals, not the technology of the week? And most critically, how do you successfully integrate this team of do-ers into a larger, more traditionally structured organization? In this talk, Husani Oakley shares tips and best practices honed over 20 years of building teams that build best-in-class experiences for clients large and small.

Introduction to the Build theme by Eduardo Ortiz

Have we been critical enough about what Build means? Hw do we ensure we’re acting responsibilities, equitably in what we do? How do we question the decisions that are made? How do we ensure we’re doing harm – knowingly or unknowingly? How do we help businesses behave ethnically? How to build responsibility, ethically in the Enterprise in spite of barriers.

Husani started out as a very hands on developer, and eventually became a manager. He has worked in startups, agencies, and he ran a modern furniture and retailer for a while. He is currently an SVP at Deutsch (the ad agency, not the bank). The talk is from an agency / startup perspective, but he’s not sure how relevant that is. Everyone is a maker, a doer, a builder. We are all coming from the same perspective (he hopes). That perspective is that we make things for people, for human beings. Regardless of where we work, or what we do at work. Human beings in all our various shapes, sizes, and colors.

A list of his personal failures that he learned something from. None of these will be surprising, since many of you have experienced them too. He is gong to talk about three key areas: Culture, Recruiting, and People.



Earlier in his career, he ran the technology / digital team at an ad agency for a sports network. The client’s question was how to bring social media into a real world event – how can people at home feel like they are actively participating, somehow? It was given to a non-technical team at the agency. They came up with the concept called Human Twitter. They wanted to have people in the stands interacting with the the tweets, but they really had no idea how to make that happen.


They had big internal pressure to win, and they needed to address all the technology issues – but the right people were not in those internal or client conversations. In a transitional ad agency, they are not used to have the makers in the room with the thinkers. They use the studio model, where everything is outsourced. The creative types are coming up with ideas, and then those ideas get thrown over the wall to a vendor, or to the ‘nerd basement’ without any context. That is just how it works. How did they get to the point where something was sold without knowing how it would be built? The agency leadership believed there was a problem with the structure of the team, and ultimately the work culture that needed to be addressed.

They went through a value identification process. It is critical – especially now in this environment where the agency business model is so challenging. How does who we are as a team ladder up to who we are as an organization? Why do why exist? You have to figure it out and write it down. What things make your team, your team? The team has to change things that need to be changed to align to those values – so it’s not just talk. And then you have to ruthlessly hold people accountable. You have to monitor those subsequent projects to see if you’ve changed. Maybe the values need to change, or maybe there are people who aren’t a good fit.

The realization of the vision they proposed to the client involved the entire team across functional areas. In fact, the software itself didn’t work if all those groups didn’t work together. Following that project, they reconsidered their values – they acknowledged that there was a much higher perceived value for creatives than for makers in that environment. But they realized that wasn’t the right value system for them. It turned out that makers and builders weren’t valued as much as thinkers and talkers were because no-one knew them; they simply didn’t know who hose makers and builders were – there were no personal relationships across teams. The fix seems so simple, but when you are in the daily mix, you don’t realize how impactful small changes can be. The did a series of offsites – not corporate training seminars, or trust exercises, but just a way of getting to know each other as human beings who share a space.

Process for process’ sake doesn’t help people, and it’s not cultural change. The process only works when it reflects your core values. Why am I here? Why is my team here? How do we fit into the broader organization?


Before Deutsch, he was a CTO at a start-up for an education-first financial advisor. It started a little bit like Mint (collecting all your account information), and then it generated a proposed portfolio and provided ongoing education. It was an investment hook, and there was patent pending for the technology – some really cool things were happening there!

They had the opportunities to define their cultural values from scratch, and they built the recruiting process around that. So they were exciting going in. They looked for people coming out of finance, out of their competitors, and they found many super smart, talented candidates. In the interview process they asked questions related to those core values, including getting stuff done, thinking in new ways, and breaking the rules for the industry they were in. They wanted a team that looked and thought like the country they were working in. But they were focused on people with financial services experience – and every single person said the same thing. They realized there was not enough doing in the recruits, or even people that could be taught their values. How could they find people with a bias towards action? Talent is everywhere. These days, he couldn’t got a job because he doesn’t have a college degree. When you look for talent, you find it. People from your same industry will have the same cognitive biases. Your gut is probably wrong – use the values, not your gut. At Deutsch they use a scoring system in that recruiting process to help guide them to make the hiring decisions that were consistent with the values they have established.



Husani ran the Volvo team at an ad agency, and they were receiving customer care emails through the website. Sometimes there would be one to two emails, but other times there would be four hundred. The engineering team was frustrated, and taking the feedback very personally. They had forgotten that there were people on the other side of the screen. They took those emails and put them up around the office – the good and the bad. They also put together a formal critique of other sites (including competitors); that helped them remember that they are users too. That helped the team remember to consider users throughout the project lifecycle. Their next project was to redesign of the car configurator, and it was much stronger project outcome because they were deeply aware of designing for people.

It’s a dangerous time. He continues to learn about the Holocaust, slavery, the Civil Rights movement. Would he have been out there in the streets? It’s happening right now, in large measure because our hands make the things that can be used for good or bad. It is our duty as makers and as human beings to remember that responsibility.