Speak Ruth to Power

No one else can be the Notorious RBG, but I think all of us can learn from her. As an innovation coach and UX designer, here are some lessons I’d like UXers and internal innovators to take away from the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Broadly speaking, the 3 phases of an internal innovation project are

  1. Systems thinking, to understand the unmet needs and the root causes of the problem;
  2. Designing, to mindfully create a solution that balances desirability, feasibility, and viability; and
  3. Negotiating, to engage stakeholders and create a place in the organization for the new capability

Ginsburg was a systems thinker, a designer, and a negotiator. All the best lawyers are systems thinkers; the law is about incentives and disincentives, about feedback loops, about moving the hills rather than trying to move the ball, to quote Nicky Case.

As the founder of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972, Ginsburg not only designed what that project would take on and how; she became the “chief architect of the battle for women’s rights,” in the words of her obituary on NPR. I don’t know that she would accept being called an innovator, but as a lawyer and as a Supreme Court Justice, she created something of value that had not existed before: the ability for women to take for granted that they cannot be denied admission, jobs, or other benefits simply because of their sex.

To do that, she had to negotiate, it’s perhaps this that she is best known for. Always a good writer, she had to craft her arguments with care in order to persuade male, establishment-oriented judges that discriminating against women harms men. (NPR)

Consider the Extreme User

A good UX designer will oversample extreme users in her research and ensure that the solution works for them. When a service, product, or process is designed without considering extreme users, the solution tends to work for people similar to the designer, and not work for anyone else. The US legal system didn’t work for women…but it also didn’t work for men who were widowed and had children to care for.

Ginsburg focused on cases where there was a mismatch between what a person needed and “the system.” These unmet needs arose either from lacunae, gaps that case law didn’t address; or friction between laws. The law is constantly evolving as good lawyers take the cases of extreme users; just like a UX design, if a law as written works for an opposing pair of extreme users, it’s very likely going to work for the users in between.

Perhaps RBG was so able to see the extreme users, the people who are mismatched with their environment, because she was one of them.

“Reliance on overbroad generalizations…estimates about the way most men and women are, will not suffice to deny opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Empathy is a weapon for change

A UXer is the advocate for the user in the design and development process. All too often, the people actually building the thing will either forget how different from themselves the users are, or they will attempt to distance themselves from the users’ unmet needs by mockery. The UXer must not only be able to take the perspective of the user, but also get the engineers, managers, and other members of the team to empathize with a user they’ve never met.

There are many tools that can help with this. I personally think story is one of the most powerful. Every now and then, though, when, say, developers are being just awful about low-technology users, a shame attack is the only answer. Use this technique sparingly, otherwise it will lose its impact.

Ginsburg was eternally cognizant that she was the sole representative of women whom the law did not serve. Rather than being a strident firebrand, she chose an incremental approach, slowly and methodically demonstrating with evidence and compelling argument how including women would help everyone. This made it all the more impactful when she took her colleagues to task.

In 2009, RBG was the only woman in the room when the Supreme Court heard the case of a 13-year-old girl who had been strip-searched at school for having ibuprofen. The other justices and lawyers were making jokes; Justice Antonin Scalia was joking about whether they searched from the outside in or the inside out. Everyone was doubled over laughing when Ginsburg did something they’d never seen her do: she lost her temper. She took them to task for mocking the humiliation of a young girl. Not only did she get them to empathize with the victim for a moment, I believe she enabled the wiser of them to understand how their mockery was a defensive mechanism they were using to distance themselves from empathizing.

Then she did something else she never did: she gave an interview while the case was going on, about the need for women to be more fully represented on the Supreme Court.

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Recognize your standing

When Justice Stevens retired and Ginsburg became the Senior Associate Justice, she began writing more main dissents. The court was dominated by conservatives, and she believed the liberals should speak with one voice. In this, she heeded her mother’s advice to “always be a lady,” and did not use her dissents to aim rhetorical barbs at the majority. Instead, her dissents coolly, painstakingly, and effectively dissected the ruling’s errors, and often placed her emphasis on areas of agreement and avenues the majority decision left open.

She wrote for the future. NPR says she viewed her dissents as a chance to persuade a future court. David Cole describes her as “a special kind of feminist: decorous and dogged.”

As a UXer or internal innovator, you will always be a minority. You will always be fighting – on behalf of the user, to meet an unmet need, to make a place in the bureaucracy for a new, better, capability. When you are just getting started, you won’t have the wasta to take on the whole structure and you will need to pick and choose your battles.

“Her career illustrates that one can be radical and incrementalist at the same time. Indeed, she argued, it may be the only way to achieve enduring change.”

David Cole, New York Review of Books

There is a risk that the constant fighting will make you bitter, but try not to allow that to happen. As RBG told her friend Jeffrey Rosen, “If I don’t overcome unproductive emotions, I’ll lose time for useful work.”

If you survive, at some point you will realize that you are a battle-scarred veteran and have become that wise old man or woman. When that happens, you have a responsibility to use your position and standing to not only increase the impact of your work, but extend a helping hand to those UXers and innovators coming up. Set aside your ego so you can focus on the true work of helping others.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg clearly had a high pain tolerance. She also had her own hashtag, coloring books, socks…few of us will be blessed (or cursed) with those, but we can all work on setting aside our egos, recognizing and using our standing, and helping others, and we can do it by emulating RBG: maintain a sense of humor about yourself, and draw a hard line between your personal and your professional lives.

Systems Thinking and Roe vs. Wade

Your job (and probably your passion), if you are a UXer or internal innovator, is to deeply understand the systems that exist in your domain, and how changes will impact them and the people they affect. In my workplace we call this “the Cassandra Syndrome;” you have uncomfortable knowledge. You may be introducing ambiguity (people hate ambiguity). You are very likely to be challenging belief systems. Your actual job is to challenge the status quo.

This can create rifts between you and other people in your world, even between you and the people you are working to help, even between you and the people who should be your natural allies.

It’s hard to believe now, but when President Clinton put Ginsburg forward for the Supreme Court, many American feminists and feminist organizations did not want her, because she had been critical of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the US. Her opposition stemmed from her deep understanding of the law, of the federal system, of people, and of feedback loops. We’re seeing the outcomes she predicted coming to pass today. Biographer Jeffrey Rosen says “If we’d have listened to her 25 years ago, the rights of abortion would be on much stronger constitutional grounds.”

That’s classic Cassandra Syndrome: your natural allies may not want you if you are uncomfortably right.

Thus you must become a great negotiator.

Learn to write well. While you are a junior UXer or innovator (or lawyer), quote authorities. Ensure that your arguments are backed by evidence, accurately cited. As you get more experience, develop memorable metaphors and effective analogies.

In both written and spoken communication, target your argument for your audience. Don’t tell them what you want to tell them; tell them what they need to hear. It’s not about you. When she began arguing cases for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg knew that she would have to convince male, establishment-oriented judges, so she selected cases with male plaintiffs which she could use to illustrate the fact the discrimination against women harms men.

Don’t give up before you start. Find common ground and build from there. Do your homework: understand your audience’s motivations, behaviors, and expectations (MBEs). Practice by role-playing the encounter ahead of time. If you are speaking to a group or writing for a group, you must prototype and practice as well – treat your communication as you would any other innovation project.


“Get out of the building” is a Lean Startup mantra that every UXer and internal innovator should know. The answers aren’t in your building. IDEO developed the practice of analogous inspiration, where designers experience how other types of organizations solve the same problems.

While at Columbia, Ginsburg worked with Anders Bruzelius on documenting civil procedure rules in European countries. They were assigned Sweden, so Ginsburg spent a year learning Swedish and then went to live there along with her daughter. The Swedish approach to equality was vastly different than what Ginsburg had experienced in the US. She said later that her “eyes were opened up” in Sweden.

Learning and using a foreign language is excellent practice for a UXer, and a great empathy exercise. Living in a foreign country is as well, and further, it teaches you that change is not fatal. But even picking up tourist words and traveling will increase your professional capability.

Ginsburg ended up graduating first in her class from Columbia Law School (tied for first), so hey, maybe it helps with career rank also!


Ginsburg achieved real change in her lifetime, and, I believe, will achieve real change after it as well. Those of us who are UXers and internal innovators can manage real change in our small domains by emulating the Notorious RBG.

“Some of my favorite opinions are dissenting opinions,” Ginsburg told NPR. “I will not live to see what becomes of them, but I remain hopeful.”

1 Comment

  1. I love this post; and, I love RBG.

    This is also great:
    Systems thinking, to understand the unmet needs and the root causes of the problem;
    Designing, to mindfully create a solution that balances desirability, feasibility, and viability; and
    Negotiating, to engage stakeholders and create a place in the organization for the new capability

    Something I do all day long. Thanks for the great post. Be well. 🙂

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