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Andy: In this podcast, I talk to guests from a broad range of disciplines about the intersection of design with technology, psychology, organisations, culture, and society. My first guest is Jeff Gothelf. Most people will know him from the books, Lean UX and Sense and Respond that he co-wrote with Josh Sidon. Jeff and I had a fantastic conversation about the challenges that design and production teams face in that continuous cycle of development.
Also, the challenges for leadership in those organisations. Indeed, the organisational structure itself, from procurement and HR right through to a shift in industry. My favourite story is the one of the human cannon ball. Welcome to the show, Jeff.
Jeff: Andy, thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Andy: I just gave you a very short intro. Maybe you could tell people who may not have heard of you, or that seems hard to believe, what you do?
Jeff: I used to be a designer, where I was designing software. I did product management work. I led design teams. I lead software development teams. What I realised initially was that design and product and software development had an issue, they had a challenge. This was about ten or twelve years ago, which was how to bridge this whole agile gap together. In doing so, successfully, Josh Sidon and I successfully wrote a book called Lean UX. Lean UX reframed the nature of trying to force design into agile and really reframed it into a cross functional collaboration with the customer at the centre of that equation.
Now, the fascinating thing that’s happened since then is, we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of feedback. The book has been out for over six years. In fact, nearly six years at this point. The feedback over the years has basically boiled down to, this is great stuff, we’d love to work this way, but my boss won’t let me work this way, or my company doesn’t work this way. This is just not the way that we do things. To us, to Josh Sidon and myself, this was a real opportunity that we saw in the market to be a little bit tongue and cheek and certainly, pun-intended.
We sensed that feedback and then we responded to that feedback with a book, another book called: Sense and Respond. Really, that was a business book targeted at the leaders of teams, the leaders of organisations, aspiring leaders, to say, “Look, the world has changed, the nature of product development, whether you make physical products or services, or digital products, has fundamentally shifter. There’s a new way of working that requires a customer-centric design and product-led way of building products and services and so forth.” What I do today is, I work with teams at both levels.
I work with organisations that have teams that are struggling to build cross-functionally collaborative customer-centric product-led processes and teams. I do that very tactical and training work. Then at the executive level, I work with the bosses to help them understand how they need to change what they do to support this new way of working.
How do you create the culture and the incentive structures and the performance management systems that allow this type of good design product development software engineering work to actually take place? That’s what I do these days.
Andy: You’re working at two levels of zoon at least?
Andy: Do you ever actually combine those? Is there ever those sessions where you’ve got both groups of people together? Or do you deliberately have each one separate?
Jeff: I don’t do it deliberately. Sadly, that’s what happens. It’s really interesting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been with a client and I’m brought in by a leader, somebody in a leadership position. They will introduce me, and we’ll kick off a two-day class or whatever, or a coaching engagement. They’ll say, “This is Jeff, he’s really smart. Everything he’s going to tell you is really important. Now, I have to go.” Sadly, I rarely have the team-level folks and the leadership folks in the same place at the same time.
Andy: It happens the other way around too, right? I guess that’s what you’re talking about with Lean UX, which is the team leads get you in for something quite tactical, but then they’re going, “Yes, but the people are really not here.” It’s always the way, right? The people who aren’t there are really the people who should be there.
Jeff: 100 percent of the time when I finish some kind of engagement with a product team, someone will say, “I wish my boss was here.” Every time. Without fail, 100 percent of the time. If only this VP or that person could have been in this class, we’d be so much further along.
Andy: Now, I want to delve back into that a little bit and actually talk about some of the structural stuff. Tell me the human cannon ball story.
Jeff: I love this story. I love this story only because it’s only of those things where looking back on it now, it’s been 24 years now since this actually took place. It’s one of those things where in hindsight, I’m thrilled that I took the opportunity. At the time, it seemed an absolutely ridiculous thing to do, a stupid thing to do. It’s the final semester of university for us, undergraduate university. I’m graduating in a month or so. I don’t really have a plan, honestly. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t have a job waiting for me. I get a call from the school, the university. They say, “Listen…” To give you a sense, I was majoring in a degree called mass communications, the year is 1995.
Jeff: Electronic media production was my area of concentration. I was going into audio production.
Andy: That’s what we’re doing right now. You’re back at home.
Jeff: That’s exactly right. Looking at it in wave forms on my screen, which is basically what I was doing back then. I get a call from the school and they say, “Listen, we’ve got a gig for you. Do you want a gig?” I said, sure, I don’t have anything planned. They said, “Look, the Glide Baity Cole Brother’s Circus is coming through town.” I was going to school in Virginia in the United States. “They’re coming through town and they need a sound engineer. Do you want to be the sound engineer?” I said, absolutely. I think I do, but the circus?
I called my folks. My folks said, “Yes, do it.” Okay, I didn’t have any plans. I joined the circus. That’s where the human cannon ball concept comes from. I spent six months on the road touring with the Glide Baity Cole Brother’s Circus on the east coast of the United States. Now, look, I have hundreds of stories from those six months, as you might imagine, which is great.
It gives me a nice backlog to fall back on whenever I need a good icebreaker with somebody. The human cannon ball story is my favourite. I have to give you a little bit of context. The human cannon ball was this blonde-haired blue-eyes American football… the stereotypical…
Andy: Flash Gordon.
Jeff: Flash Gordon. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly who he was. He worked four minutes a day. We had two shows every day. His act was two minutes long. They would role in this red truck that had the cannon mounted on it. They would aim the cannon. He would climb up into it, he would wave goodbye. The ringmaster would fire him, he fly across, and he’d land in a net on the other side of the circus tent. He’s got a lot of downtown. He’s only working four minutes a day.
He and I strike up a conversation one day and I said, “How does one become the human cannon ball? What do you put on your CV?” I don’t know if there’s a LinkedIn for circus acts. He says, let me tell you a story. The story, believe it or not, starts with the previous human cannon ball. As most of these stories start. The previous human cannon ball, he was, again, this Flash Gordon type.
The way that the previous human cannon ball would determine where to put the net every night, because remember, we’re doing two shows, maybe for two days in every location. Then we’d go to somewhere else. The way that they would determine where to put the net to catch the human cannon ball every night was fairly basic. They would build a tent the night before. They would drive the cannon truck in, they’d aim the cannon, they’d shoot a dummy, a mannequin that weighed the same as the previous human cannon ball. Wherever it landed on the other side of the tent is where they’d put the net.
Andy: What could possibly go wrong?
Jeff: What could possibly go wrong? Now, look, that worked for years. The team made the assumption that had worked for years. Except one night, there was one variable that changed. The truck had arrived at the tent on time, but they were running late setting up the tent because it was raining. They left the truck out overnight. They were just going to do the exercise in the morning. They left the dummy outside overnight in the rain. The next day, they did exactly what they had done every single time before.
They loaded the dummy into the cannon, they aimed it, they fired it, they put the net wherever the dummy landed. That evening, the previous human cannon ball, who now weighs significantly less than the dummy that they fired earlier that day, waved goodbye to all of the 4,000 children in the tent. The ringmaster fired him. He sails way past the net. Now, he’s critically injured. The good news is, he doesn’t die, but he goes home to recuperate to Florida. Florida is the home of all circuses in case you were surprised by that fact.
It’s the truth, it’s where they hangout. While he’s recuperating, he sees his pool boy, the guy who cleans his pool. He is this other blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Flash Gordon type. He says, “Hey, do you want a raise? Do you want a promotion from pool boy to human cannon ball?” That’s how this guy becomes the human cannon ball. Look, the moral of the story here, the whole reason I tell this story, at least in the professional capacity, it’s that the previous human cannon ball and his team assumed that everything was the same and that nothing was changing.
They built the way that they worked on the same assumptions day in and day out, without testing, without validating those assumptions. Sadly, on the day that those assumptions were no longer true, they met with tragic consequences. The lesson here is, what got us here isn’t going to get us there. The fundamental assumptions that have helped us succeed this far, are inevitably going to change.
The question is, are we going to wait for some tragic occurrence to learn that they’ve changed, or are we going to be proactive about ensuring that we’re always basing our decisions on the soundest foundations. That’s the moral of the story.
Andy: Arguably tragic consequences have happened, especially in the last couple of years?
Andy: When we’ve seen the blow-up and all of that, maybe we’ll get back to the whole data thing. You’re also saying in that story that we’ve moved from individual launches to just continuously firing that cannon. In the sense, particularly with software. I talk about this with services too, we’re going to have this conversation around, they’re never done, they’re not done in the same way as when a care rolls off the assembly line. It’s not going to change unless it’s going to modify it afterwards.
Jeff: That’s right. We’re building systems at this point. It’s a double-edged sword in that there is tremendous benefit to building continuous systems. They allow us to learn continuously. They allow us to optimise continuously. They allow us to always think about how we can make things better. To always question whether we’re doing the best possible work, or whether we’re delivering the best possible value to our customers. At the same time, they greatly complicate how we manage the process of building and optimising those systems.
We’re moving away from a binary world. You gave the example of a car. The production of car is a binary event. At the end of the process, you either built the car, or you did not build the car. That’s all there is to it. That’s easy to measure, and because it’s easy to measure, it’s easy to manage, if it’s easy to manage, it’s easy to reward and incentivise and build processes and performance management criteria around all of that stuff.
When you talk about systems, systems that never end, right, we have to make the decision when to stop working on something. What’s good enough? When are we done? Like you said yourself, we’re never done, so when do we stop working on something and move onto something else? What we’ve done here is, we’ve moved away from binary decision-making criteria to a spectrum, a scale that says, okay, this is finally good enough. The measure of success becomes, not creating the output.
Not, did we make the car, but did we get people to buy cars from us multiple times? Did we get people to participate in the systems that we’ve built to support the cars? Did we get people to tell their friends to buy cars from us? It’s these customers behaviours, it’s these outcomes that become our measures of success. Unfortunately, they’re more difficult to measure. They’re more difficult to manage. There are a lot of shades of grey between not good enough and good enough. It’s fuzzier.
Andy: Which doesn’t really suit management culture, as its existed in the last 50 or 100 years.
Jeff: Exactly, right.
Andy: Going back to, we used the car metaphor a lot at the beginning about our service design, because predominately management philosophy and thinking and methodology have been based on an industrial mindset, right? Not only is it a binary thing if the cars got built or not, but the design of the car doesn’t change from the beginning of the assembly line to the end. The design is decided upon and then it’s constructed. In that scenario, the person putting on the wheels doesn’t have to speak to or know anything about the person putting on the headlights down the other end.
That’s that and that’s splitting it apart into those pieces, which is obviously what an assembly lines does, works so well. It’s worked so well for physical products and it’s one of the reasons why I’m always kind of allergic to the idea in the digital world of people talking about, “Well, I’m a product designer…”, when they’re talking about digitals things. There are so few digital products that are actually products and not some kind of system or service.
You’ve got those two systems going on at the same time. You’ve got this management structure and way of thinking about the world that’s very industrial, existing in a world that’s radically changed around it. Hence, there’s the human cannon ball metaphor. I’ve got a question for you. I gave a talk a little while ago. I’ve given it a couple of times about mindfulness in design and I meant it both in terms of the whole engagement equals addiction kind of aspect.
A lot of design has been about, and particularly coming out of Silicon Valley, has been about reducing friction. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to engage, which is fine for somethings, it’s terrible and it leads to addictive behaviour and all of that stuff. At the same time, I’ve also seen teams sprinting away. You’ve just given this pitch of continuous delivery and teams constantly working and they get to a point where it’s never done, then they move onto doing something else.
That actually I’ve seen sprint teams that have worked on 20 weeks of sprints or 20 sprints of 2 weeks. Then immediately go into another round of them. It’s like they get to the end of the marathon and they have to do it all over again. In fact, both in daily life, whether that’s ten minutes with a headspace app, or that sprint teams also need a little bit of downtime. They need a moment of reflection, perhaps more than a retrospective, perhaps a moment of quiet in their rhythm or whether that’s a weekly, daily, or a monthly thing. I wonder what your view is on that? It also seems to be it’s quite a stressful environment to be in if you’re not careful, right?
Jeff: Yes. The risk for burnout is real. There’s a quote that I’ve started using again in my presentations just because this topic keeps coming back up. This is a quote from a designer who worked on my team 11 years ago, back in New York. He said, when we work this way, when we are sprinting towards these unknown end states, I feel like I’m running for the bronze, is what he said. I Love that because it really expressed how he felt about it. I don’t love that he was feeling that. My job was to make him not feel that. I think this is where this is heading, where your question is heading.
He said, “Look, we’re running forever, but not fast enough to win.” In other words, we’re doing just enough to keep going and to keep the machine moving forward without any clear state of what the goal is. Eventually, we just get tired and we burn out. Yes, there’s an absolute risk of this repetitive cycle burning people out. I’ve seen teams handle this and I’ve seen companies handle this in a variety of different ways. It’s particularly easier to do if you have a cyclical business. If you work in retail or in an industry that has regular cycles, regular release cycles for the products or the service that you create.
Then there are clear areas for downtime, where companies simple give teams the opportunity to just do things like hackathons, or just clear their heads in whatever ways will help them come back rejuvenated. I’ve even seen, to be fair, seen companies use trainings and workshops in new ways of working and new methodologies, as a way to reinvigorate people. I have one client that has a corporate university north of Barcelona.
It’s a beautiful space, it’s a gorgeous space in the countryside overlooking green fields and hills and mountains and all of these things. They bring people, they’re a global corporation, so they bring people in from all over the world to live there for a week. It’s a beautiful facility, the food is good, the accommodation is really nice.
Andy: It sounds really nice.
Jeff: It’s really nice. It gives them an opportunity to learn, to play, to meet colleagues from all over the world, to make connections with other people in different countries. They go out, they do some things together. The hope is that they not only learn something new, but that they come back refreshed and rejuvenated. I feel like that investment is hugely powerful in breaking up the monotony of that sprint cycle, for sure, and refuelling people with new ideas when they come back.
Andy: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because you can see, it’s one of those differences between effectiveness and efficiency. I think that industrial model has always been around efficiency and treating the organisation as a machine. It has to be fine-tuned to get the most out of it for the least amount of investment. Something like that would seem to be just a luxury. Yet, I’m sure it makes people much more effective as a result.
Jeff: It’s funny you bring this up because this brings us back a little bit to the challenge that we originally sought to solve with Lean UX. That original challenge was, how do you integrate design work? Just design, capital D, design work into software development. It was seen, again, as this debate between efficiency and effectiveness. At least the designers saw it. The people who were struggling or actively pushing back against incorporating design work into agile software development were in the camp of efficiency.
This stuff, it’s a bottleneck, it slows down delivery. When you’re done with it, just give it to us and we’ll implement it. Whereas, the other side of the argument, certainly the argument we make in Lean UX and many, many other people have made this argument in various formats is about effectiveness. How effective do you want the product or service creation process to be? How successful do you want it to be?
Without these additional functions, these aren’t luxuries, these are the pieces of the puzzle that make us more successful as an organisation. I think we come back to this repeatedly in our modern agile, short-cycles, continuous learnings world.
Andy: One of the things with that, it’s the age-old problem of designs value, right, which can often be seen as a luxury and it can often be seen as… even if those team, those large agile teams, the ratio of designers to developers is enormous sometimes. It ca be a 1:20 or more. Design can often be seen as a luxury. I know you’ve talked about experience debt. We were talking to our development teams about experience debt. It wasn’t until we put it in that way and this idea, that we need to be able to iterate and we need to be able to do some thinking whilst we’re making.
That build to think things is a really important part. It’s the bit that design thinking has completely missed, which is a third of the thinking might be done upfront, but most of the thinking is done whilst you’re making something, right? Anyone that’s had to give a speech or had a difficult breakup conversation or something they thought about for ages and then they start to do it and then it all goes off the rails, knows that there’s a real difference between planning to do something and then the thinking that happens on the fly as you do it and the discoveries you make.
I think once we put it in that experience debt sense, they really got it. They got the idea that we do need to slow down at this point now in order to be able to sprint fast in the right direction later. It seems very obvious to me and I wonder why it’s not obvious to everyone else?
Jeff: I think part of it is because people believe, there’s still a strong belief in many corporations, particularly at the leadership levels, that we are making finite widgets. In doing so, we can predict not only what those widgets will look like, but how they will work. Even more so, what the consumers of those widgets will do with them and how they’re behave. Again, we’re looking at a 100 plus years of historical inertia based in manufacturing. It’s how people were trained.
It’s how companies have managed forever and this concept of experience debt, I think it exists in traditional physical products but the cycle time to improve that experience debt has always been something akin to the concept of the model year, right? We released the 2018 version of our car and we got some things really right and a couple of things we could improve on, but don’t worry, we’ll get them right into the 2019 to the 2020, the 2021 version of the car.
We just simply don’t have that luxury anymore because organisations that will wait to fix that experience debt, to pay it down, in that kind of timeframe, will get overlapped. They’ll get surpassed. The barriers to entry into literally every industry at this point are so low, that if you can’t continuously pay down that experience debt. That’s a negative way of looking at it.
I would tend to look at it as, if you can’t continually optimise the customer’s experience or the consumer’s experience of whatever it is that you’re building, you will get overlapped. Somebody will be able to do it faster and better than you. They will ultimately win.
Andy: It’s interesting. I was trying to think of industries as you were talking about that, that have slower cycles. One of them is like public transport, for instance, rail networks is a really good one. Most of them should have really digitised ages ago, it’s remarkable that there aren’t loads and loads autonomous trains, because they’re on tracks anyway, right? There are a whole load of problems that go away. Very few of them, and most of them are in airports in the world.
It’s remarkable that they haven’t done that because it would have made for great efficiencies. Obviously, one of the things that happens in that world is the track doesn’t really change that often. It’s that shearing layers thing. The carriages change a bit faster, but in some of the dressing inside the carriages change a little bit faster, but they don’t have that refresh cycle to really make changes all the time and response.
Although, they do in some of their digital stuff. It’s interesting to see what Silicon Valley has done with that, when you look at their approach to mobility, which it to pick the low-hanging or faster fruit, if you like, that doesn’t work as a metaphor, but of bikes and e-bikes and e-scooters, those are very quick to turnaround. You don’t have the life cycles of the development of a car.
Jeff: When I work, I work with all kinds of companies. I work with companies that make digital products only. I work with legacy industries like financial services and insurance. Then I also work with industrial manufacturing companies. People who make giant metal things that sell for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, and take a while to produce. The conversation we have with them is exactly this one, they say, “Look, the things in our industry don’t change that quickly, the demands don’t change.” That’s fine.
All that I’m going to ask you to do is learn and iterate faster than you are today. You’re not going to do it as fast as Amazon. You’re not going to do it as fast as Facebook, that’s fine, because you make locomotives. However, what’s your cycle time on learning on a locomotive today? It’s 18 months, it’s 36 months, it’s whatever.
Great. Let’s cut that in half. If we can go from 36 months to 18 months, or from 18 to 9 months, that’s a huge win. Getting people to think about that in those terms, in terms relative to their world, it starts to make the ideas more palatable.
Andy: That’s a very good trojan horse in many respects because it’s incredibly attractive. Who’s going to say, no, we want to take longer? I’m guessing that also gives rise to a whole load of, well, the need at least, or the understanding for structural change. Given, on this show, we’re trying to talk about that relationship between small things having big influences. We talked just because we were recording about HR and procurement. I know you talk about it somewhat in sense and respond, as well. How often do you end up in those kinds of conversations?
Jeff: There are two different kinds of conversations. They’re both equally as important. Let’s start with HR. I believe that the kinds of changes that need to take place in companies today to support the modern way of doing business, delivering value, capturing value, running the organisation are heavily driven and heavily influenced by the things that HR departments do. I’m talking about both sides of the house. I’m talking about the hiring, the attract and hire side of the house, the onboarding side of the house, as well as the professional development and the retention side of the house.
The culture that needs to take place has to be made up of hiring profiles that are open to learning. That are perpetually curious. That are collaborative, that don’t seek the spotlights only for themselves. In doing so, we have to train people in new ways of working. We have to incentivise them and provide the kind of performance management criteria that leads them to practice the behaviours that we hired them to do. This includes not just individual contributors, but managers, as well.
Redefining the role of the manager. Redefining the success criteria for a manager in a world where the manager cannot predict and instruct the team as to what exactly and very specifically to do, like they have to date. There’s a huge conversation to have here with HR. I’ll tell you that every organisation that I work with when it comes to any kind of digital transformation, innovation, agility, business agility, that type of thing, increasing the role of customer syntricity and design. When HR is involved or is leading that conversation, we make significantly more progress, significantly faster. It feels to me like the changes will stick rather than when HR is not present.
Andy: You’re rewiring the system, or part of it.
Jeff: Exactly. Otherwise, it just becomes a product development thing. The folks in finance or in legal don’t have to worry about it, which is wrong.
Andy: They’re both about procuring and managing resources, interestingly enough. Procurement is at the other end of that, in the way that contracts get written or evaluated as well as much as anything. What’s your experience with that?
Andy: Brilliant. I only have a positive result. This, for me, is interesting. I apologise to anyone who’s in procurement who’s listening to this. It also gets the eyeroll from almost anyone I’ve ever experienced, even procurement people themselves in organisations roll their eyes and go, “That’s procurement.” How can it be that that’s so broken?
Jeff: Again, this brings us back to the roots in manufacturing and, look, the transaction that procurement is there to facilitate is simple. We will give you money and you will give us something tangible, something concrete in return for that money. We will write a contract to that effect. In a world of continuous systems, in continual learning and optimisation, where the change in consumer behaviour is so rapid, where the change in technology, the underpinning medium of business is so rapid, it’s incredibly difficult to predict those things.
When it’s time to sit down and go through the procurement process and say, “Well, we’re going to give you money, we’re going to hire you to do this work, as a full-time employee, as a vendor, as a designer, whatever it is. What are we going to get for it?” The answer, I don’t know, is not sufficient. That’s where the problem comes because procurement’s job is to make sure that the company doesn’t get screwed and so they want to be very specific. I will give you this money and you will generate this output.
You will generate these designs, you will generate this code, you will generate this physical device. The reality is, is that if the organisation buys into outcomes over output, creating the thing is not the measure of success. It’s having a positive impact on customer behaviour that is the measure of success. It becomes much more difficult to write an outcome-based contract. Now, look, I was lucky enough to help found a run a services organisation called NEO for four years that tried to sell services this way.
Andy: How did that go?
Jeff: Look, it was brutal at first because people don’t want to buy experiments and people don’t want to buy, I don’t know as an answer. People want to buy apps and systems. Frankly, people want to buy wireframes still, today, which is just bizarre to me.
Andy: Doing that from blueprints and personas.
Andy: We would like six personas and three journey maps.
Jeff: Exactly. They write that into the procurement contracts. At first, it was really difficult. What we found was that, look, you’ve got to find clients that are already thinking this was. First of all, it’s very difficult to move a client off of an old way of thinking if they’re not there. Let’s assume that they’re willing to do it. The way that we’ve done this successfully is, we’ve said, okay, the contract language was roughly something like this. We are engaging in a partnership together to build a system whose end goal are these outcomes.
These outcomes to connect these individuals together, to move data from one place to another, whatever it is that the goal of the system is. As of right now, we believe that these ten features, fifteen features, three features, whatever it is, right, are the best places for us to start to achieve that outcome. However, over the course of the engagement, we may learn things that alter this opinion, alter this guess. We reserve the right together as a partnership to change the list of things that we will build in service of building the system that does these things.
Look, at the very least, there’s something in there that will likely get some percentage of these ten things that are in the contract. Then we move away from the specificity of committing to delivering those ten things by a deadline. The only way that this works is in true partnership and collaboration with the people who are procuring your services.
They’ve got to be a part of the process, they’ve got to participate in the discovery and the design work that’s taking place. They’ve got to learn with you, so that when it’s time to make the tough call to say, we’re not going to build this, we’re actually going to build something else, you don’t have to convince them. They were there, they saw the whole thing. That’s the only way it worked for us in any kind of meaningful way.
Andy: It’s interesting all of this, just listening to you talk about they were there, you don’t have to convince them, and they’re bought into all of those things. I, probably like you, have taken this journey from being interested in designing a thing, when actually telling stories, I actually started in film and media is how I got into this. Then thinking about designing organisations, that’s how it was, that Segway into services for me and that sort of systems view of things.
More and more, I think a lot of what we’ve just been talking about is the design of organisations. As I do this work more and more, it’s all about people. I’ve come back, I’ve levelled down. You talked about culture a lot. Obviously, culture is made up of people and beliefs and behaviours, but also humility. Tell me a little about humility and what your view on that is in a professional context?
Jeff: It’s a great question. I grew up in the United States. Sadly, especially today, humility is in short supply in the United States.
Andy: What could you possibly be talking about?
Jeff: I have no idea, Andy. Look, humility, often times, can be seen, at least in certain cultures, can be perceived as weakness. It can come across as a lack of vision, a lack of clarity, a lack of direction, and I’m here to tell you, today, humility is none of those things. Humility is not an abdication of vision. It’s not an abdication of leadership. All humility is, is the ability to change your mind in the face of evidence. That’s all it is. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have strong opinions. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have amazing expertise.
It doesn’t mean that you’re not smart. All it means is that when you put out an idea as a leader, as an individual contributor, and that idea meets with objective evidence-based feedback that contradicts it, it’s your responsibility to change your mind. It’s your open vat. That’s humility. That’s all there is to it. We need that. Again, coming back to this theme of systems and unpredictable futures and changing consumption patterns and changing technology and all of these things.
When I see organisations talk about their five-year plan, especially when it’s super tactical and detailed out for five years in the future, it’s laughable. I feel bad for the people who had to waste their time building out anything beyond 12 months to be generous, but I believe 6 months really is the threshold. It’s just not realistic. We don’t have that luxury anymore. There’s too much change, there’s too much volatility.
If we’re looking to drive a cultural shift, if we’re looking to increase the agility of our organisation, humility is the foundation upon which all of this is built. It just simply means that we’re going to put something out there, if we find out that it’s wrong, we’re going to change course. That’s it.
Andy: Why do you think there’s such resistance to that?
Jeff: Being wrong. Being wrong is risky. Being wrong is frowned upon. How do you succeed if you’re wrong? No one wants to be known as the person who’s wrong all the time. I think that’s part of it. I think that there’s negative attribution to being wrong. Look, if you worked on something for an extended period of time and burned through a ton of money and time and people’s live and then found out that you were wrong, I could see how that might have career limiting consequences. However, again, this comes back to the great benefits, the great power of these systems that we’re building.
We have the ability to learn much more quickly and much more cheaply today than ever before. Being wrong is how we learn. It’s how we get better. It’s interesting. You look at – I don’t think people talk about this guy enough, and I don’t know why, maybe there’s something I don’t know about it. There’s Dyson. The richest man in the UK, I believe.
Andy: James Dyson, yes.
Jeff: In his commercials, he talks about the 5,000 prototypes that failed before he came up with the breakthrough for all of these inventions. We don’t talk about that enough. He failed 5,000 times and he’s the richest man in the UK.
Andy: Johnny Ives was a famous prototype, right? I remember reading an article, a profile on him when he was at college. He’d brought in for whatever project he was working on, this obviously beautiful thing. Somebody went and visited his house. In his apartment, he had loads and loads of prototypes just lying around on the floor.
Andy: That didn’t get seen.
Jeff: The process doesn’t get loud enough. It’s funny. Years ago, I saw Eric Reese speak, this was right when the lean startup stuff was really on the way up. He used this metaphor, he always talked about movies, particularly movies where there’s a team of people who build something. He said, “Every time that the building process would take place in movies, they would do some sort of a montage scene.” It’s like time-lapse where they work – they cut from thing to thin and then at the end it’s, ta-da, we built this beautiful thing and isn’t it beautiful and doesn’t it work?
He’s like, all the work was glossed over in those montages. All the experimentation, all the learning, all the prototyping, all the hypothesising, all the failing. The only thing that gets celebrated is the eventual success. I think if we can shine a light, expand out those montages more publicly. I think we are. I think some companies are doing that. People will realise that there’s value to this creative process.
Andy: Yes, it’s been interesting to see Monzo, the neo bank in the UK, they had their public, the list of stuff they’re working on basically, basically put it on the board. For about three months, they had a kind of sprint, these are all of the things we’re trying to work on and fix. They just put it out there. What was really nice was, they did most of them, they did about 80 percent of them. They didn’t edit out the ones that they hadn’t managed to achieve.
They said, okay, we’ve come to the end of our three months of this, this is what we’ve done and some of the stuff we haven’t done. I really loved the openness and what that means. That’s also humility and action. Unfortunately, I think humility shares the same word stem of humiliation. I think that’s part of the problem. Language becomes such an important thing, we’ve touched on it in different ways here, but one of the reasons I get pedantic versus the whole product versus services thing is, because language sets up a mental model in your head of what this thing is.
When you talk about products, you talk about something that gets completed and it gets sold. Once it’s sold, I don’t really care about it anymore, I’ve sold that thing to you and then I’m onto the next selling of things. That’s language, it’s one of those things that makes a real difference to the different zoom levels of what you’re working on. Talking of which, we’re coming up to time.
As a final question, and it can be from any sphere in life, it doesn’t have to be from your work. If there was one small thing that you think is unrecognised as having a massive effect on life or the world, what would it be?
Jeff: It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My work requires travel. To me, between travel, work when I’m home, devices and everything else. The thing that I have been, and it’s new for me so it’s interesting, it’s a recent experiment to be proactively doing this, to be consciously doing this, is to be present. I’ve got kids. They’re growing up fast. I’ve got a daughter who’s got two and a half more years of high school and then she’s off.
Andy: That’s pretty scary, isn’t it?
Jeff: Yes. I’ve spent the last five/six years basically on airplanes. For me, the little thing that I’m changing, that I’m actively and proactively trying to change in my life right now is just to be present when I’m here. Obviously, to make the effort to be here more often, that’s a different thing, but to be present when I’m here. I desperately try not to be on my device when I’m hanging with my kids, when I’m hanging with my wife, and when we’re doing activities together, I really work towards being in the moment with them because what I notice is that when I tune out, they tune out.
When I’m tune in and I’m focused, eventually, it takes a few more minutes than me usually, they eventually put their devices down and help focus. To me, it creates a better experience here at home as a family. I hope that it teaches them that there are times where it just really pays to be present. That’s what I hope anyway, ask me in a year and I’ll let you know how it goes.
Andy: That’s a very nice little microcosm of sensing and responding.
Andy: Talking of sense and respond. You’ve started a publishing house: Sense and Respond Press. We’ll put the links to that in the show notes and also to everything else. Tell us a little bit about what that exists for?
Jeff: Yes, so Sense and Respond Press was the outcome of a series of experiments, initially in self-publishing, having published a couple of books together with official, “publishers”, publishing houses. Josh Sidon and I realised that there might be an opportunity to self-publish some books. Not just any books, but short practical tactical books for busy executives. That was our hypothesis. We did discovery work, we did design work. We did research. We talked to people.
We tested by self-publishing a book called: Lean Versus Agile Versus Design Thinking. That book did really well and proved out, at least initially, or de-risked our hypothesis a bit further. We’ve launched Sense and Respond Press. It’s been running for about a year and a half. We have six books in publication at the moment. Two to three more coming out over the next quarter or so.
Short, practical, tactical books. Most of them no longer than 12,000 words, so about a 45-minute read. Focused on the things that executives and aspiring leaders need to know today to run their businesses successfully. We’ve got books on managing innovation portfolios. We’ve got books on hiring women. We’ve got books on facilitation. Books on doing sense and respond type of activities in government, in the public sector.
We’re super interested in getting the word out about the press and the books, of course, but we’re also always looking for authors. If you’re listening and you’ve got an idea for a book, you’re not sure you can write 30/40/50/60,000 words, and you think you can be concise about something executives and aspiring leaders would need to know today, drop us a note over at senseandrespondpress.com. We’d love to hear from you.
Andy: Brilliant. Where else can people find you online?
Jeff: I’m writing a ton over on Medium. I’ve got a Medium profile. Then all of my stuff is on my website, which is Gothelf.co. If you go to Gothelf.co, everything is there. Links to Twitter, links to LinkedIn, workshops, events. Links to videos. It’s all there.
Andy: Brilliant. On Twitter, you’re Jboogey?
Jeff: Jboogey, yes. That’s a lesson in – one of those things where it’s like, this new service came out. I’ll just make up a stupid name. It will never stick because the service will never last. Here we are.
Andy: Yes, I’ve learned my lesson on that. Well, it could have been way more embarrassing. Jeff, thank you very much, indeed.
Jeff: My pleasure, Andy. Thanks very much for having me. This was a blast.
Andy: Thanks for listening to the Power of Ten. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit thisishcd.com, where you’ll find the transcripts and links, and where you can also sign up to the newsletter or join our Slack Channel, where you can connect with other designers around the world. My name is Andy Polaine, you can find me online as @apolaine on Twitter, and at polaine.com. See you next time.
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