Sixer Spotlight with Arabella Crawford
Curious about how a purpose-driven culture of trust can empower individuals to achieve outcomes that create real change? Join us for today's Sixer Spotlight with Arabella Crawford, where she shares her journey at Agile Six and how a people-first culture enabled her to bring her true self to work and excel in her role supporting CMS's modernization efforts. She speaks candidly about the importance of being seen, heard, and valued in the workplace and her unique problem-solving approach using human-centered design. Let’s learn how she achieved outcomes that created real impact through a culture based on shared principles.
Journey to Agile Six
Q. Tell us about your journey to Agile Six.
A. I joined Agile Six almost four years ago. What brought me was literally the work. Agile Six had bid on and won a contract that was my idea of a dream role, which was working with this team to do research in the area of understanding a really massive, complex ecosystem. So the contract work was to be the human-centered design service designer on a cross-functional team, all people who are subject matter experts in their area – an enterprise-level engineer, a product expert who's had run national level programs for CMS – to work with them to understand every aspect of the CMS ecosystem in support of modernization.
We weren't there to design things; we were there to learn and understand this ecosystem from different perspectives to support the modernization efforts that CMS was doing.
What I realized when I got here was how unusual it was for an organization to have wanted this work. No one else really seemed to understand what it was or why it was there. And the thing that really hit me was there were some people at Agile Six who understood who shared the feeling that this particular contract, the particular type of work, was really, really important.
The Importance of the Medicare Modernization Project
Q. Why was working on the Medicare Modernization Project important to you?
A. I spent a large amount of my career finding my way further and further upstream from what people think of as traditional user experience problems. I'm someone who always wants to understand why something is happening, like really why it's happening. And so in the years I spent doing other kinds of work, but specifically working in and around the Social Security systems, which are not dissimilar to CMS..actually, the CMS program is a part of the Social Security Act and expansion of those same benefits. Seeing those systems, understanding them, what I kept doing was saying, well, this doesn't work, why doesn't it work? Why can't we create the experience we want to [create] for people? If everyone knows that this is the right thing to do to solve this problem for people who need to access this particular type of benefit, or to make this particular type of change online rather than having to go into an office or whatever it is, what is standing in the way of that? And with this contract, we want to understand this ecosystem at all levels, from all perspectives, so we can understand how to work in modernization and make possible the sorts of experiences that will deliver benefits well.
Accomplishments and Impact
Q. What have you accomplished in the last four years on this project?
A. Being able to improve requires understanding everything. I think I would be wary of saying we accomplished it, but we made a lot of headway towards that. I say "we" because what we were was a kind of central place for gathering knowledge, but this is other people's knowledge. We didn't create the knowledge. We were able to research down particular paths and across information silos. We were given the opportunity to look at this ecosystem in ways other people hadn't had the opportunity – that was our dedicated role.
Our entire ask was to ensure that our stakeholders had information about the decisions they were making so that they knew if they went down this particular path or if they made this particular decision, it would have the outcome they were actually looking for five years down the road. What did we accomplish? We learned a lot of things and were able to support CMS in the decisions they're making, the directions people were looking at, and how teams were going about certain things. Not all of it, but some of it definitely changed the trajectory over time. That, for me, is the sign of success.
Embracing Neurodiversity: Arabella's Unique Problem-Solving Approach
Q. Let’s talk about the unique qualities that you bring to problem-solving and how they contribute to your success.
A. My brain literally seems to work differently. The term now is neurodivergent or neurodiverse. I didn't realize for a really long time that being different in this way was actually a good thing, that it was important, and that it lent itself specifically to incredibly complex problems. Dan once said, "Arabella treats thinking the way other people treat sports." I do love thinking and problem-solving. That is something I genuinely love.
In the official working world, I have had many names for this: information architect, usability person, user experience designer, interaction designer, information architect, service designer, and all of these different things. But none of them ever really worked for me because what I did felt like something different. I'm actually not a really good designer at all. I called myself a conceptual cartographer because what I draw is not what's there; it's the concept. I've never drawn a system map. I draw what I think the system does…what I am almost always doing is making information easier for people to understand and work with as they are making decisions about systems.
If you are in that role, you need to understand all the pieces. You don't have time to dive into those. You need someone to give you the best possible, most explanatory version. I have no interest in influencing the decision. To me, the role is always to ensure that the best possible understanding is presented to whoever needs to make the decision so that they understand what is going to happen if they go down a particular path. That, to me, seems like mapping. This is like creating the best, clearest possible map. But again, it has to be conceptual because you can have a system diagram, but what good is it if only the engineers can read it?
Embracing Equality and Empowering Voices in the Workplace
Q. In what way did Agile Six's culture and environment enable you to bring your authentic self to work?
A. As somebody who has an incredible weakness for administrative functions, I have for a long time sought out and worked for people who were able to understand that my value was not tied to my ability to hand in a timesheet on time. I have sought out people who gave me the freedom to work however I was going to work because they knew that the output was going to be worth it. I didn't know that Agile Six was going to be that place in the same way. The first conversations that gave me a lot of hope and a lot of faith that this was going to work out were not just about me working the way I wanted to, but more, "Here's this contract, this is what we're asking for, go forth and do this," which is exactly what I wanted.
Agile Six allowed the entire contract to be managed in the way the team thought it best to manage it. All of the success that our team had was because we were given the freedom to do the best possible work in the best possible way we knew how. Individually and personally, this idea of self-management is more about the ability to understand your own level of capacity to do the work at any given time.
The thing that changed my feeling about Agile Six as an organization was when it was going through changes and trying to figure out what a flat structure looked like and how we were going to implement Teal and all of these different things. We hired a very brilliant person, and that person was doing their job. When we sat down to look at the salary bands, not the individual salaries, just the salary bands, I looked at the title of the salary band that this other person was in, and I looked at where I fit. We were having a lot of conversations around what really is design? How do we break it out? Do we break out design, research, all of these sorts of things. And I remember looking at that and thinking, this person and I do the same thing within the organization. We provide the same kind of expertise. We just have different backgrounds. I didn't bring it up then, I waited until later and had a conversation with a couple of the leaders in the organization – which was not "this is a problem," but "I see this thing here. I see you have this person in this box and me in this box. Design research doesn't always get the respect that it does or that it should because we don't come out of the engineering and the management background and all the rest of it." Within three months, that had been acknowledged. The organization took on this tagline of equal pay for equal work, my salary was amended, and I was put in a different category. This isn't about titles, and this isn't about being paid differently. It was the fact that I pointed something out that was very real, but that isn't talked about a lot, and there's not space in a lot of organizations to have that conversation. Not only was I able to have the conversation, I was listened to, it was considered, it was discussed, action was taken, and that is how we moved forward.
I am genuinely indebted for that because I don't think many people who are female and who work in this field get the opportunity to say, "I'm strategically valuable to you," and have people say, "Yes, you are." I will go with the people any day who will hear you and, when it really matters, do something.
Agile Six's Core Values
Q. Which of Agile Six's core values - purpose, trust, wholeness, self-management, inclusion - resonates the most with you and why?
A. All of those things matter to me, but in all of them, for me, the one that I always come back to is purpose. Purpose, for me, is everything. I found myself in this field because I really cared about information being accessible to people who need to do things like apply for disability benefits. I come from a family of people who are dyslexic. I know what it looks like when people can't read the instructions. I have learning disabilities. I know what it feels like not to be able to use something or not to be able to make something work. I believe that government should work for the people who pay for it. I really deeply believe those things, down to the core of my being. So without the purpose, none of the rest of it matters to me.
Q. Can you share some examples where Agile Six's values directly influenced outcomes in your work?
A. Our entire contract is an example of those values. The way in which we were allowed to work. All of the success we have had has been because we were trusted, because the purpose was more important than making money. It was done because people believed that it was important in terms of the larger picture and making change. We were trusted to do things. We were supported when things got difficult.
Challenges and Achievements
Q. What were some of the challenges and how did you overcome them?
A. To be fair, there were a lot of challenges because the work was different. [There were] people within the MPSM vehicle who gave us space, who believed in us, who gathered enough information, who said, "okay, keep going, try a little further," and who supported what we were doing – but it was incredibly hard at the beginning to gain trust in the way we were working and that it would produce consistently valuable results. That was the challenge.
Q. What are you most proud of during your time at Agile Six?
A. The output that we created and the learning that we had was important enough that over time, the audience to which we presented what we were learning and the thinking that our team was pulling together changed. The information really became strategically valuable. We were presenting to more and more varied stakeholders at CMS. People who made all kinds of different decisions, and we earned our way into those conversations and into those rooms. The other thing to be proud of is this ripple effect. We did the work. It's not the actual work. It's not the deck that we made in one particular place. It's not the particular thing that we researched, but it was watching over time how not only the conversations between us and our stakeholders, but with those stakeholders and with other people within the agency began to shift and change. We are not responsible for that, but we were definitely part of it, and I am really proud of that. That's the kind of thing where you only know that you had a role in that if you've had a role in that. This is not publicly visible to anybody else, and I don't care. That's not important. When you ask me what I'm proud of, I'm not proud of the things that are externally visible. I'm proud of the things we know we did – the things that we know we impacted.
For me, on this project, one of the things Agile Six did beautifully was not create lines that didn't matter between organizations. So our team was allowed to work as a team, to form relationships as a team, and to solve problems as a team. It gave us the freedom to act as a unit. We had better outcomes that way. But I was also put in the position where, for the first time ever, the creation of this particular team involved design, research, engineering, and product working as a unit. Yes, that happened within the organization, but it also happened within our team, and the value of being seen and heard came from the organization on one hand in an administrative way. The ability to find a way for all of us to bring our different expertise to bear, solve the problem together, and be equal problem solvers in this kind of strategic complex thing we were trying to solve is something I don't have words for how critically important that was to me and will be forever. But also, having it be successful and what it now opens up, I now feel like that shouldn't be a one-off. We did this thing, and it was an experiment, but it was an experiment that was successful.
What Sets Agile Six Apart
Q. What sets Agile Six apart from other government contractors?
A. A lot of work goes into ensuring that we hire the right people. That means making sure that we have work that those people want to do. Being very strategic in the work we pick, but being strategic in the people we pick to do the work.
Q. Agile Six is _____
A. Agile Six is safe. I've had some really not good and really not safe work experiences. I know what it feels like to be in that world where your work makes you feel literally unsafe. The other day my son said, "You used to get migraines." I was like, "Yeah, I don't anymore." One of the reasons is because I'm at home and I can eat lunch. The other reason is I'm not under the kind of stress that I have been in other jobs in my life because Agile Six does a good job of removing the things that are largely unnecessary in work.
Q. Tell us what's next for Arabella Crawford.
A. I’m taking a glorified leave of absence. I am not leaving; I’m going to something. I'm going to join the U.S. Digital Service for a couple of years. I've always believed that my success in doing my work was from being on the outside and from being on the edges. At the same time, I've never had the experience of being a government employee. It's the opportunity to do something different from a different perspective in a different corner and see what happens.
Reflections on the Agile Six Experience
Q. Final thoughts. Anything else you'd like to share or add regarding your experience here at Agile Six?
A. One of the things that was true about the Strat Design contract that I think made that work valuable was that we had no ulterior motive or agenda for the information that we were researching. It was a shared agenda of figuring out the problem, and that was the only thing. So the purpose was aligned. When everybody in an organization prioritizes the purpose that they're here for, it changes the game.
Sixer Spotlight is an ongoing series to share the stories of our team. If Arabella’s story piqued your interest in a career with Agile Six, explore our open roles.