Welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, from thoughtful detail through organisational transformation, to the changes in society and the world.
This episode’s guest is Gretchen Anderson.Gretchen consults with clients to inform their product strategy and improve team collaboration skills. She co-authored the book: Pair Design, with Chris Noessel and in this episode we talk about her latest book: Mastering Collaboration, the need for collaboration and cover many pitfalls and tips.
Andy: Hello, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, from thoughtful detail through organisational transformation, to the changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine, a designer educator, and writer, and currently group director of client evolution at Fjord.
My guest today is Gretchen Anderson. Gretchen consults with clients to inform their product strategy and improve team collaboration skills. She co-authored the book: Pair Design, with Chris Noessel.
Her latest book: Mastering Collaboration was recently published by O’Reilly. She spent the first part of her career in design consulting for firms like Frog Design, Cooper, and Lunar. Recently, she was head of design at PG&E. California’s largest energy company. She’s led the design of the hardware and software of a next-generation surgical system and served as VP of product at gradeschools.org. She now works as an independent consultant. Gretchen, welcome to Power of Ten.
Gretchen: Thanks for having me.
Andy: That was your quick bio. How did you get to where you are now from where you’ve been?
Gretchen: It’s interesting. My career has always been a series of adventures and accidents and good luck. I start out in consulting. I worked at Organic and even firms before that. That’s just as the web was coming to be and understanding that there needed to be someone – we got into design, not as a trained designer, but as someone who saw, there needs to be some translation layer between give me a website and actually making that website. From there, I went onto places like Frog and Cooper, like you mentioned, where they had very specific ideas about how things were going to be done and what the right outcomes were. I really loved the dedications of both of those firms, took quite quality output. Then when I went on to work with “inhouse”, I was more responsible for building teams, or a at Grade Schools, having to bring engineering, product management, and design all into a big happy family.
It taught me a lot about getting different kinds of people to work together well, or passively. That’s what I’ve been focused on. Now that I’ve left PG&E, where I was really trying to bring that to the company culture as a whole, I’ve decided to work on my own, because I think that I can deliver results at a better scale as an independent operator than within one big mammoth company.
Andy: Just so we get a time span of that, when you were saying in the early days, you were working just as the web was coming into being, when was that for you?
Gretchen: Yes, I started in the field in 95’/94’.
Andy: That’s pretty early when the web was coming to being.
Gretchen: Yes, some of the stories I remember is that they, at Organic, they sold ad banners to AT&T and somebody asked, “Well, what happens when you click on the ad banner?” Then they were like, I guess we need a website. It started at that level, of just make a thing. The idea of it having to be especially well-designed was maybe talked about but I think it’s taken a long time.
Andy: That’s really interesting, so the mental model of a web ad banner was a billboard, right? You just drive past it. You don’t click on them.
Andy: Well, I mentioned before, you wrote Pair Design with Chris, Pair programming is, I know of it, it’s reasonably well-known. How did Pair Design come about? I should, just because we’re on a podcast, pair, I mean pair as in P-A-I-R, and not pear as in the thing you eat.
Gretchen: Yes. Cooper is where I really first got a taste of pair design. Their methodology is really built around having someone who is a generator and someone who is more of a synthesiser. We had different names for them when I worked there, but just this idea that there’s someone who’s keeping their eye on the long arc and do things fit and critiquing while someone is thinking expansively of, well, what if I did it this way? What if I did it that way? It helps you really quickly work through a lot of ideas. It helps you really avoid what happens as a solo designer, even if you have a “team” that you’re showing things to, where you get a, yes, it looks good.
You avoid some of the flops that you make, right, like dumb mistakes. I could have thought about that, so I really loved that approach at Cooper. At Frog, they also did pair design, it was less formal, but you were always paired, and it was often a visual designer and an interaction designer where two very different perspectives. It wasn’t about junior/senior, it was, I see this problem this way, you see it that way. We’re going to have to battle this out, we’re really empowered as a duo to come to the right conclusion.
Andy: It’s funny. I’m writing a piece about synthetic realities, about GANs, generative adversarial networks, and what you’re describing is like a little human version of that, where you literally have a generator and someone who’s there editing or filtering that afterwards. For me, it also reminds me a lot, I actually studied film and in film, it’s very collaborative, but one of the things that now, especially in TV you get is writers’ room, so other screen writers for film tend to work solo. The writer’s room really is that space where everyone is piling in. There’s a real need for trust in that space, but also you need to go away and do some stuff on your own, as well. In Pair Design, are you always together or do you have some together time and then separate time?
Gretchen: God, that would be cruel and unusual punishment to be together all the time because frankly, even when you have a healthy pair, we would basically spend the morning together, maybe go to lunch together and then break off into – I would maybe write-up what we talked about while someone is drawing up what we put on the white board. That cadence, it’s almost like breathing too, it needs to be in there to support the trust and the ability to be vulnerable. Then even there’d be times where you’d be going at it head-to-head and there was a rule, you couldn’t fight for more than five minutes without going and getting any third person. Whoever it was, go grab one person. Lay out your case, get past the fight because it’s not what we’re here to do.
Andy: It’s quite common in the copywriter art director mix, as well, pairing, isn’t it, in the ad world?
Gretchen: For sure. Yes, I think it comes for the same reason, which is you need different perspectives. We’re not looking for diversity in product teams because we’re do-gooders. It really does make things better when you have different perspectives and whether those perspectives are based in functional skills or subject matter expertise or life expertise, whatever it is. All of that is important.
Andy: It’s a good segue because you wrote – when did Mastering Collaboration come out, it’s quite recently, isn’t it?
Gretchen: Yes, March of this year.
Andy: Right, and the subtitle is making working together less painful and more productive, which is probably a good description of the dark side of collaboration. Surely, it’s working together I would say. You did Pair Design, why this book, and why now? What was the itch? What it your own itch that you were scratching? Or were you seeing a lot of painfulness and lack of productivity going on? How did this come about?
Gretchen: Well, as being part of the “digital transformation team” at PG&E, which I think you are familiar with this kind of work, it’s about getting a whole organisation to think differently and work differently. I was by no means working on my own at that, but what I saw was, people really were attracted by the pitch of that. People really adopted the language around collaboration and iteration and experimentation and hypothesis. One executive in particular was doing a reorg and just watched them go through this really well-intentioned. I really want your input, here’s all of our values.
An excellently well setup thing, and then do the thing in the last five minutes of the meeting by bobbing up on the org chart and saying, what do you think? I was like, I couldn’t say it to in either direction. We could have either skipped the whole front part or made good on it. The fact that you split the difference, which happens a lot, I call us collaboration theatre sometimes, like, we want all of the trappings of collaboration, but it is very difficult to do the hard work to actually make the collaboration productive, which is why I focused on making it less painful.
I think if you’ve had a good experience like I’ve had and I’ve seen and banged my head with my partners against these problems and come out on the other side stronger for it, it’s great. If you haven’t had that experience, you’re like, god, not another brainstorming meeting, or not another, nobody can make a decision situation.
Andy: In there, we tend to consider that collaboration is de facto better. I think designers at least tend to. We talk a lot about how collaborative we are, and that we’re going to do this process. Particularly, I work a lot in service design and co-creation and co-design, and all of these things are very important, particularly in the Scandinavian model of that, which is the co-creation part. Built into that is the assumption, it may be valid, that collaboration is better than not. Clearly, some people, perhaps like the guy running that meeting that you just described might just think, do you know what? It might just be loads better if I did this myself, or if you just did what I said. Why is collaboration better?
Gretchen: Yes, it’s not necessarily always better. I think there are certain situations. Certain kinds of problems. Very complex problems, or problems with a lot of ambiguity, you’re going to need a lot of perspectives on it. You’re not going to know the right thing to do, there’s actually a story in the book about Tom Chi, who is one of the first employees at Google X working on the Google Glass prototype and they were sitting around. He was so excited to be there with all of these big shots. They were trying to decide what colour the headset display should be. They fought for a while and Serge finally said, it’s red because it’s the lowest energy photon and it’s always red in sci-fi.
Everyone was like, good enough for me. He’s like, woah, hold the phone, like, what if we just ran a test. They ran a test and it turns out, red is the absolute worst colour you could have gone for because Serge was right, it’s the lowest energy photon, it becomes completely overwhelmed by the entire background it’s trying to sit in front of. It just goes to show that without collaboration, you end up with these really well-intentioned guessathons, is what he calls them. I’ve seen this over and over again. I think we’re starting to see people with egg on their face, where they do something dumb, where they just, you just didn’t have the right people in the room.
I think there’s that. I also think if you can pull it off without collaborating, go for it. Like I said, half-jokingly in the book, everybody helps as a principle, because they’re already “helping you”. If they’re not aligned or enlisted, they’re just going to drag on you, and I’ve seen this in these corporate environments. It’s toxic and terrible but it’s a reality. If you can declare a FIAT and that works for you, great. That just cost you two years of political capital, I don’t know.
Andy: Yes, okay. I’m sure everyone will always point to the exception of Steve Jobs and Johnny Ive and say, they’re the design, they just decided. It’s not, from what I’ve ready and understood their culture in Apple, that’s not actually the case. There is an awful lot of, well, there was, an awful lot of collaboration and grates of demo culture. I don’t know if you’ve read Ken Koccienda’s book about creative evolution. It talks about how there was an internal healthy competition, which I think is a bit like the – it’s not quite the Pair Design that you’re talking about, but there’s definitely that sense of trying to outdo each other positively.
There was certainly an arbiter at the end of that in Steve, but there was quite a collaborative process that went into it. What you just described, though, particularly like the Google example, actually it also takes a particular setup. Someone’s got to feel safe enough to say, hang on a minute, Serge, maybe you’re not right. Hang on a minute, very important person in the room, let’s think about this differently. You structured the book in several parts. The first bit is about creating the right environment. That seems to be describing quite a lot of what you were just talking about. Tell me a little bit about what the right environment is.
Gretchen: Yes. I think a lot is being done in this front, if you look at the type of, again, people doing digital transformation stuff, or agile evangelism, or servant leadership. I think a lot of people are out there trying to change the way business is being done to be “more collaborative”. It’s really trying to overcome the typical or the normal inertia, which is tort individualism. We’re all graded individually and awarded individually, and we compete for jobs and fewer and fewer are above us. The environment is antithetical to being vulnerable and keeping yourself open.
Working through how to develop trust and really work with a lot of different people in the right ways, in the right roles, that’s critical. That to me is more important than trying to fix the whole system. I have done both. I realized that the Sisyphean task of culture happens by doing. In some ways modelling this behaviour and a lot of it is about being able to be trusting and using roles, we were discussing pair design, what makes that work? It’s not just two people in a room shouting. It’s two people given very distinct roles.
Some days we would swap them every day. Some people would stick in a role for an entire project, or for their entire career, do it however you want to do it, but you’ve got to have some sort of agreement about who’s deciding. What Steve Jobs was doing was deciding for people. He was saying, I’m taking on the risk of knowing when the phone is done.
Andy: Yes, you talk about giving everyone a role. To read that, you think, of course, everyone’s got a role, but you’re not talking about you’re the developer, I’m the designer and so forth, are you? You’re talking about different styles of role and almost styles of personality, or social functions, I would perhaps say in the group rather than their actual technical or craft functions.
Gretchen: Yes, I love that, social roles, that’s a great way to describe it, because that is what’s important. The functional stuff is what happens when you go back to your desk. That’s where your role is very clear. It’s when we’re all together, who is keeping track of what we need to get done? Who’s prioritizing? I think, again, the agile people and others have developed some tools in this way, so there’s stuff to latch onto there. People thought I was kind of crazy when I said, I want to link up design thinking and safety culture at PG&E because it’s all the same stuff, it’s all about the same messages that people are getting about being open to hearing different feedback from different people. Knowing who’s the decider and knowing who needs to be informed and all of that stuff.
Andy: Why did people think you were crazy? I think I’ve had this conversation too, but I’m interested, because it does seem, from the inside of it, to be a really obvious connection. What seemed crazy about it to the other stakeholders who didn’t see what you were seeing?
Gretchen: Yes, for those who don’t know it when I say safety culture, like, so PG&E is a gas and electric company. It’s responsible for some wildfires here. There’s been some explosions, electricity is dangerous. There is not a significant push within the company to make people aware of and mitigate risks related to that work. They like to say it’s hazardous, not dangerous. You can manage hazards. There’s a lot of messaging about everything from texting while driving to operating back hoes and what not.
I think what was strange was, why would you take this seemingly esoteric digitally oriented thing and try to latter it into this sort of well-understood or at least there’s precedent for it out in the world discussion that honestly people tune out of if it’s not done well. I also felt like, there are only so many messages people can take. If at the heart, the values are the same, which is speak up culture means listen to somebody when they’re telling you important information. I’ll take it.
Andy: The second part of the book is about space. You talk about physical and virtual spaces. How much? You talk about being together and how much do you think that sense of safety and trust, trusting that you can say something is to do with physical face-to-face time and how much of that can you achieve remotely?
Gretchen: Yes, I found that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who really value in-person synchronous communication, and those who can deal without it. I went in with this real bias toward being in-person and synchronous communication and a lot of people I first talked to shared that. Then over time, I just started to run into, maybe because I was trying to seek out other perspectives, people who work on largely remote or all remote teams, and hearing about how having the distance and doing asynchronous communication. This is the Bezos white paper model, or just marking up documents on your own time, prioritizing either facetime or phone meeting time for the decisions and discussion.
Partially, I’ve come around in that thinking. I don’t know that I could wholly adopt it, because I excel in this synchronous, fast-moving, favours extrovert’s world. I can dominate a conversation actually. I’m maybe shutting down communication inadvertently that would come up if there was space being made for it. I’ve kind of come around to why you might want to support, even separate from can you, or be co-located. I’ve definitely worked with people who are not real-time processors, or people who are not native English speakers, who just can’t survive that battle of fast-talk in the same way. I don’t mean that like, is that fair to them, is that fair to the users or whoever’s on the other side of these decisions?
Andy: I’ve taught a lot online and that’s one of the things, ages ago, late 90s, I started doing some global online collaborative teaching workshops or projects. It was interesting because it was global and it was international and although, English was the default language, there were lots of people, the majority of people actually for whom English wasn’t their first language. Then later on, I taught quite a lot of our un-design and interactive media and so on online courses. One of the things that a lot of people in online education, as they moved into it, in the late 90s, tried to do was just duplicate the lecture and seminar experience online.
There was this intent to just… let’s just make it real-time. Actually, with the reduced bandwidth of back then in particular, it didn’t really work very well because you’d lost so much, that in fact it was terrible. Instead of thinking, what are the good affordances of this medium? What works really well? One of them really is that asynchronous thing. In fact, we went back to a fairly old-school technology of bulletin board style feedback things. You see it really powerfully in things like Reddit and so forth and /dot and all the rest of them, that asynchronous thing. The chance to, a, as you said, look a word up that I don’t know, or Google translate something or take a while to write it.
Or collect my thoughts and think about it and write something. Plus, the record of the conversation that you have is also incredibly useful. I think it’s very powerful. I suppose it’s slightly there, perhaps in Slack culture, but it kind of slightly gets lost I think. You mentioned it in the book about people becoming inattentive in calls. There is the temptation, particularly when video is not on, to check your email while you’re on the call and zone out. Actually, when you’re having to read something, you’ve actually got to spend – I wonder if you spend a bit more depth of time considering what the person is saying?
Gretchen: Yes, I loved Michael Sippy from Medium talking about how now he gets rubbed the wrong way whenever he’s in a meeting where somebody is holding the slide baton, I forget the exact words he used, but, yes, I’ll get to that in another slide. I’m going to control the pace of this conversation. I’ve come to that too, where I council a lot of clients, I help their design teams, a lot of it is trying to get them to structure to sound a lot more like a conversation and a lot less like a monologue, so that you can at least roll around in it and to allow for not the big reveal. We all know if a designer is like, it’s killer, it never works. Yet, do it.
Andy: Certainly, in terms of facilitating collaborations, facilitating workshops, I think I learnt a lot from facilitating in Asia, for example, where the culture around critiquing someone else, because you’re certainly critiquing your seniors, or the person in authority above you. It’s not quite the same in, say, the States. Also, I had that realisation, and you mentioned it before of the introverts versus extroverts and trying to structure a rhythm where there’s some stuff that you do on your own, then you come back and share it with the group. Then sometimes you share it with everyone.
I often think a lot of the classic workshop techniques around are intended to facilitate collaboration must be awful for introverts. They’re very, hey, everyone, come up with ideas and stand in front of everyone and tell everyone about it. It’s awful. It does bias towards extroverts.
Gretchen: It’s funny because I was in a workshop as a participant and the people running the workshop were very experienced. They were from a large retailer, they were pro-bono, facilitating this workshop about improving education and community in Minneapolis. I was just there as a participant, so it was really fascinating to have it done to me. A lot of the participants were actually Somali women, who I could sense it was not going well. Finally, I said, I can tell you’re upset, what’s going on? They explained that it’s so rude in their culture to tell someone to hurry up. Being late is not a problem, but telling someone to hurry, like at the very heart of the facilitation, of what these people were doing. All of their talk about empathy, they were not really reading the room and understanding that this was not landing. It was just like; this is how we do it. I think even just some cultural biases built into that.
Andy: This nicely brings us onto the question of, why collaboration and why are people work together? The diversity of views. In that case, the cultural diversity. You’ve been talking quite a lot recently about design and AI and for and with AI. You mentioned to me just before we were recording that this is an area where it really does require collaboration and changing our ways of working. What’s your take on that?
Gretchen: Well, I think open the Twitters any day and read another dystopian story. No designer is interested in that, or I’m not anyway because that’s not how I’m wired. When I think about what it’s going to take to make these things work for us, I think about things like right now, if you ask a data scientist to tell you how an algorithm came up with something, they’ll kind of say, I can’t tell you that, like it’s too complicated. I get that, I get that the math is complicated, but more and more our users are going to demand – I call it the Sherlock Holms, like, I can tell you’re lamp lighter from Brixton because you’ve got stuff on your collar and you’re getting married on Wednesday. People want that sort of shortcut. Don’t give me the math but give me some sense of the signal.
Andy: The chain of provenance of it.
Gretchen: Yes, that’s like a collaboration that if designers specifically product people just leave it to the math people, that’s a bad people and we’re leaving a lot on the table. I think there are also defence tools we need. Like how I am going to defend myself against whatever facial recognition is for, you name it. That’s going to take some collaboration because it goes against the business model of every capitalist company. We’re going to have to get clever on how we incentivize. That might not be about a product team, that might be about regulation or whatever.
Andy: How does that connect back to collaboration? I get what you’re saying, but in that example you just gave me, there’s definitely the – when you talk about the difference between cooperation and collaboration in the book. In that example, again, it’s while I’m paying, so you just do what I say. Or this is how the business works. How do you feel that collaboration is about a defence or maybe a way of changing that direction?
Gretchen: Well, I think when people are part of really hashing through a decision with other people, they become much more thoughtful about it and much more attuned to its outcomes. When it’s just like, I don’t know if you’ve known busy executives. I know one I was really close to; she’s making like 20 huge decisions every hour. It’s crazy. The breadth of things she’s expected to know and be an expert on is kind of crazy. Whether it’s her or someone who works for her, having to think through big decisions I think is important. What I found is, you can speak trust to power if you make the user experience of it one that is exploration and playful and low stakes. I’m not calling you out, right.
If you can set this up as: I’m just trying to do the right thing for people here, and maybe even let them come to their own conclusions. I think you can get through. Again, you can’t break the – we have a fiduciary responsibility to the bottom line at all times. I’d like to tell a story of I designed Discover’s credit cards’ first website. We proposed that they email people when their bill was going to be due. They were like – they laughed. They said, do you know how much money we make off of late fees? We did not win that war. We tried. Within nine months or a year, they were doing that because the whole market was doing that. I like to think I was one of the many conversations that they had with the “suits” that was bringing them along in this process.
Andy: It’s a very good example. I think it’s one of the things where – you see the challenger banks and my colleague on This is HCD was talking to the head of product from N26 the other day, which is a mobile only bank in Europe, and heading to be the first global bank. That’s the same as a simple bank, as well, the idea that you shift from trying to gouge people in that way that you just mentioned, which is you take advantage of the fact that most people are pretty rubbish with money, and shift to, how about we try to help you be good with money, as a user experience and the customer experience.
It quite quickly tips into. Then you actually like us as a bank. Banks are one of the least trusted institutions in the world. Therefore, you’re loyal and so on and so forth. Then you earn the right to have a relationship with the customer. It seems a pretty obvious leap, but I can see when it’s phrased in the wrong way, you don’t really get it, but when it’s phrased in a better customer experience, it suddenly turns the corner and then everyone is playing catch-up.
Gretchen: Yes, I think I had a discussion on Twitter earlier about what happens when somebody is just shutting you down and making a bad decision and saying, in that situation, I think it’s really useful to look that person in the eye and be like, hey, you’re the decision-maker here, if you’re deciding this, I underscore the you’re, that’s cool. You’re the Steve Jobs here. You’re signing up for the decision and the accountability. That’s awesome. That gives some people some pause sometimes because, again, they might just be going along with I’m tired, I want to get done with this, we need to make a decision, I’m just going to make a decision. Then fall back on a lot of stuff.
Andy: I’m going to go out on a limb and annoy everyone here, all of the listeners. I think actually this is probably the Achilles heel of designers. You talk about making sound decisions in the book. Designers I think are pretty collaborative and particularly when they’re designers amongst designers. I mean every kind of flavour of them at this point. a multidisciplinary team working together. There can often come a point in projects where everyone appreciates everyone else’s opinion. It’s like an overkill of empathy sometimes. Everyone appreciates everyone’s opinion about – this could be anything – this is the way to do synthesis on this data, or this is the way, the direction forward, or I’ve got this idea. I’ve got this idea. There’s a stand-still because no one’s willing to make the decision. Have you seen that going on? If you have, what’s your solution to that?
Gretchen: It happens all the time, or the flip thing happens, which is we know who needs to make this decision, his name is Bob and he’s down the hall and he’ll never come to this meeting. Somebody is playing runner.
Andy: There’s also that. There’s also that thing of, I don’t want to seem uncollaborative if I make the decision, or if I go and do that.
Gretchen: Interesting. I have seen that, and I think the Google Sprint book gets at this too, being very clear as you’re planning the interaction. I was going to say workshop; it doesn’t have to be a workshop. As you’re planning this situation, I think you start out even when you’re defining your objectives, you should know who gets to make the decision. There should be some church and state in that. I’m just talking with somebody about KPIs. I think a healthy set of KPIs are in conflict with one another. It shouldn’t just be up and to the right all the time.
It should be a source of a conversation with someone who is trying to balance these things and who has enough scope and authority to do that. As designers, we can fight over design decisions, but most designers aren’t qualified to make big business decisions. They could help businesspeople make better business decisions and articulate them better, but it’s not our business.
Andy: I think imagining some designers, particularly you’d say the business designer end or strategic designer end, or strategic designer end of things who might say, no, it is my business. In fact, going back to what you were saying before about, is the responsibility to the bottom line, I think the conversation there is, well, actually, companies and obviously leadership in companies often feel they exist to serve the shareholders or create shareholder wealth. Of course, they don’t really.
The shareholder wealth is a by-product of that company creating something in the world to enable the customers or people to do something. I think sometimes and particularly now, when you’ve got a range of sustainability and ethical social impact issues that are coming into play, there’s an argument for having that argument, I would say. That actually we’ve done a lot of the research, we’ve got a lot of the data. We really understand the impact this is going to have on people, but are you saying that at the end, the businessperson has to make the decision?
Gretchen: Well, they’d better be on board with it because they’re the ones accountable for it. Again, I can point out, here’s what I would advise. I’m your advisor, as your advisor, here’s what I’m advising you to do. I’m not actually on the hook for if it fails. I don’t know, you get into the guts of some industries. I just had a client whose entire business is based on managing margins. That’s how their industry runs. It’s an interesting thing to think about as a user-centred person, where you’re like, I don’t want or care about any part of that, but I want what this thing gives me. I’m not going to go tell them to stop managing their business of margins, what am I going to replace it with? I can help them manage that situation better.
Andy: Do you think that leads to design is slightly getting out of having to make difficult ethical decisions, because it’s like, I’m going to advise you on this but in the end, it’s your decision?
Andy: Talking about the whole AI thing.
Gretchen: I think that’s a good provocation and if anything, I would say, if you’re speaking up and giving your opinion about the business, you’re doing your ethnical duty. If people way above you decide to ignore you, I think you leave at that point. If it’s truly something you can’t abide by…
Andy: You know what I mean, there are temptations for, you know, I said something about it, but it wasn’t really my decision, so you know, that’s just the way it goes. Do we shark out some moral duty in that?
Gretchen: You could, but I find that situation happens more when people haven’t been included in the process, when they feel the decision was just made, but I think if you come up and you say, you ask me to go look at this and give you my perspective, here’s my perspective, here’s what I saw. Here are the risks. Here are the assumptions. Here’s where you’re blind. Entering into that partnership by saying, I’m going to help you is something that I think designers can get better at. It’s not like I’m trying to get you to approve my thing, I’m trying to say, here’s everything I have, now what’s your perspective that I don’t know about?
Andy: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because I feel like there’s a double diamond. I think you described it better. In collaboration where there has to become a point, at this point in time, we’re being very collaborative, and everyone’s opinions have value. At some point, we’re not going to have that anymore and someone is going to make that decision. If you don’t, you just have paralysis.
Gretchen: Yes, at Cooper, we used to say omnivorous and non-judgmental at the beginning and the you get judgemental at the end, you have to. I do think, I live and die by that double diamond, however many times you do it, the key point being, I divorce when – I was intentional about when I was being expansive, and I was intentional about when I was being convergent. That intention extended to who was involved. It’s like some of the advice that I have is, take that knit-picky, critique person, bring him in on the bottom half of the diamond where they’re great.
Andy: Have you ever had a situation though where the person has been designated as the decision-maker in that role, if you like? Is there ever a situation where you say, we’re going to overrule you anyway?
Gretchen: Yes. I’ve also seen the situation where you’re like, okay, I guess that person is just going to do that. When I was at grade schools, we used that racy dacy framework, so it’s like the decider, the advisor, the contributor and the informed. We actually paired up the person who was making the decision with an advisor who had, or two, who could have Vito power if they really truly disagreed. It just meant that that person who was making the decision had to stand up for that decision a couple of times with people who had some authority. Again, just checks and balances. Does that work every time? No, but it can be useful.
Andy: Yes. I was really interested that you ended the book with storytelling and there’s quite a bit about how storytelling works. I’m a huge fan of storytelling. It’s the workshop I’m about to do in August at UX Australia. As I mentioned before, I studied film, so storytelling was very much storytelling in a collaborative way is very much part of what has shaped my thinking. Why did you end with storytelling, as kind of the outro of the book?
Gretchen: Yes, it’s interesting, two things really jumped out at me as I was developing the book. One was the importance of objectives and how little time we actually spend setting them and then how little attention we actually spend communicating about what we did, because a lot of the breakdowns that I was hearing about had everything to do with not understanding when you transition from your neat little group where you’re working together and you’re pair designing or whatever in your safe space, our to stakeholders, executives, and experts. It can be challenging. I happened to be teaching a workshop for Christina Wakee, who in her brilliance, just had some random notes thought thrown together. I was like, this is genius, I’m going to harness some of it. When I do storytelling workshops, everyone says, I already know this stuff. I’m like, right, but you’re probably not employing it at work. You know it because you consume media.
Andy: Yes, it’s really true, isn’t it?
Gretchen: You’re not doing it, or you wouldn’t have the problems you’re telling me about.
Andy: Yes, it’s funny that. I see, there was a thing I was reading about storytelling the other day, the person was writing, and they were saying, you’re probably thinking right now that storytelling is a bit frivolous and playful and has no place in business. Then he went on to explain why it’s at the heart of being a human being, really, and at the heart of everything and how important it is. I had the same thing. I had exactly the same experience when I was teaching storytelling to a client and I was going back to obvious stories that they all know, like Pinocchio and Shrek and stuff like that, and talking about that. In the idea that you take a structure that you know well, then you need to understand it and then you apply it back to your work. There was still that response of, why are we talking about Pinocchio? What’s that got to do with my job?
Andy: I think you’re right. I think that we know a good storyteller and we really tune into a good storyteller. When you hear someone speak, whether it’s in a meeting or a presentation or a conference. Very well attuned. It’s like, I get stories, but you get stories as the consumer and not as the creator of them and their intricacies of what makes them tick.
Gretchen: Yes, I wanted in the book to include, I’m not trying to make anybody into some bard, I’m really trying to give you just enough tools to survive when you’re collaboration extends over time and you have multiple touch points and you’re trying to bring somebody along. I just think about the show Lost. Previously on Lost… little clips like that.
Andy: A recap.
Gretchen: You have to remind them. You have to keep track and remember, first of all. Where did you leave them last? Because they haven’t been with you. Pick them up at that point. Do some ret conning, like, do some revisions of history if you need to, to get them ready for what we’re going to do today. I think the biggest mistake that people make in storytelling, and I’ve done this too, is they leave out the oh-shit moment. There’s no conflict. Like, how many user scenarios have you sat through where it’s like, Jenny wakes up and she has a great day and she uses her thing and she totally loves it. You’re like, this is the world’s most boring story. It’s funny because I interviewed Jimmy Chin.
His movie won an Oscar this year. His first movie Ma Roo is literally life and death. People are in avalanches and things are crazy and they’re trying to make this first ascent to this mountain. It’s a wonderful movie, you should see it. Anyway, he showed his now wife a rough cut. He only had about two hours of footage of something, of incredible footage. She was like, this is not a story. This is you climbing. They really started a collaboration. The ultimate collaboration and they still work together today. She’s the storyteller, he’s the cinematographer. Again, using those roles but valuing the importance of both of them.
Andy: Yes, it’s interesting, film is in that respect, particularly documentary filmmaking is the classic generative and then filtering process. You create a lot of material and then you really whittle it down to just the essentials that work.
Andy: We’re coming up to time. Power of Ten is named as a homage to the Ray and Charles Eames film. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, where they zoom out to the universe and back in at powers of ten. Part of this was this understanding or this recognition that design works at many levels, there are very detailed things that affect the macro, and there’s sometimes are macro shifts that you really have to then ripple across all of the details. My last question for all the guests is, is there one small thing that you think has an outsized effect on the world or on something? Or is there one small thing that you would want to have redesigned to have an outsized effect on the world?
Gretchen: Well, I think I’m becoming or have always been, but even more so becoming interested in the interrelationship of design and regulation and government. I think as we just talked about, the incentives, we’re not naturally wired to not screw ourselves up. It’s just too tempting. I think it’s going to take some real sit-ups and push-ups, hard work and training to reign ourselves in and to understand why we’re doing that. I feel like applying design at the point of, how do we, again, control algorithms and understand their output and measure biases and keep us all honest is the next big frontier. That’s a big challenge, that’s not a small thing that has an outsized thing, but it’s me thinking about taking design to another level that would affect even more people at a more fundamental level.
Andy: They say, bureaucracy is the technology of culture and society, so that’s probably a good – I think there is a lot to be done there. I think we’re going to have a future episode about that too.
Gretchen: I’d love that.
Andy: Gretchen is – you can find her on Twitter as @Grettared and at: Gretchenanderson.com. I’ll put all of the links in the show notes, too. Gretchen, thank you very much for being on Power of Ten.
Gretchen: Thank you so much, Andy. That was really fun.
Andy: Thanks, see you next time. Thanks for listening to Power of Ten. If you want to learn more about other shows on the This is HCD Network, visit: Thisishcd.com, where you’ll find Prob Pod with Adrian Tan, Ethno Pod with Dr. John Curran, and Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion. You’ll also find the transcripts and links mentioned in the show and where you can also sing up to our newsletter, join our slack channel to connect with other designers all around the world. My name is Andy Polaine. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.