Audio: Interview with Dean Broadley, Designing Humans: Why Self-Awareness Builds Better Tech

Interview with Dean Broadley, Designing Humans: Why Self-Awareness Builds Better Tech

By Jomiro Eming

South African tech companies invest a lot of money into their products, but Designing Humans Founder, Dean Broadley, thinks they don’t invest enough into the people who build them. With a focus on building environments and mindsets that encourage ‘humanness’ in tech, Dean shares why he thinks self-awareness is more important than coding ability, how he teaches people to be ‘full-time humans’, and what impact that’s had on his clients.

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If you’re interested in learning more about developing self-awareness, and bringing ‘human-ness’ back into tech, check out Dean’s book recommendations at the end of the article!

Dean Broadley, Founder of Designing Humans and The School of Do, helps people get better at thinking about human-centered design. While this often means systems, operating modelsg, Dean’s approach is to focus on being more self-aware as a human building software. Instead of solely looking at the way you build products, Dean looks at who and why we build those products.

This is important in software development, he says, because tech is often seen as the sole differentiator. As a result, products are often put before people:

“This ties itself back to the industrial revolution, where it’s about efficiency and machine, to make you faster, and make you produce more. People struggle with that because the market has valued that for the longest time, and if everybody values a certain thing - and that thing isn’t being human - then you have no incentive to cross into that space. If you differentiate only on technology, though, it’ll only take so long before somebody else makes the same thing for cheaper. ”

And Dean believes, what actually differentiates a company and their products is their humanity. In his experience, building environments and mindsets that encourage more self-awareness are just as important as building better products and better tech processes.

That’s why he doesn’t just focus on the design process, but works with individual people on their specific career phases, as well as with teams on their structures and dynamics and has seen stronger teams and stronger software as a result.

Here are three things Dean suggests to cultivate self-awareness, that any team can encourage and look out for:

  • Make mistakes (but don’t plan to): Understanding our humanity means realising that humans make mistakes - and becoming comfortable with those mistakes is an important step towards developing self-awareness. If we can do that, we can be OK in the gray-area between simply always ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and open ourselves up to feedback.
  • See beyond the binary: It’s important to ask ‘why’ and dig deeper than always seeing things simply as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Even though tech is often binary, humans are not, and teams need understand that in order to work together better to sustainably improve the products they build.
  • Seek feedback: If humanity is a better differentiator than tech, and better tech comes from better human beings, then working on your team’s humanity should be key. To work through our blindspots, and develop self-awareness, we need to use input from other people through seeking feedback.

Make mistakes (but don’t plan to)

Developing greater self-awareness first requires being comfortable to make mistakes - the “fail fast, fail forward” mantra. Dean sees mistakes as great opportunities to learn about yourself, be OK with things not always being clearly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and seek feedback from those around you on how to improve.

That said, he knows that you can’t plan for the ‘right’ kind of mistake either:

“I was talking about mistakes to a team, and a guy put his hand up and was like, ‘I understand if we make mistakes, it’s good; we learn. But how do you know which mistakes to make?’ So, he was trying to find a recipe, a plan, for making mistakes. Most people spend a lot of time and energy pre-mitigating a mistake that hasn’t happened yet.”

This tendency for humans over-correct often results in focusing too much on hitting goals and results over building systems and relationships: “Spend less time being certain, and more time being effective.”

Dean understands mistakes as places to leverage each other to learn. By doing this, teams move away from the binary, ‘right-or-wrong’ mindset, and use the team’s feedback to look deeper into: ‘Why did this happen? How can we improve this system/product?’

See beyond the binary

“When people and teams are not self aware”, Dean explains, “we get stuck in the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It’s binary. That mindset means for me to be right, I have to find a way for you to be wrong. That’s not sustainable, especially when you’re building software”.

In his experience, a binary mindset leads to not putting enough focus into why something is a certain way. Team’s need to be able to understand each other, and work together; Dean has seen binary mindsets result in team conflict, and losing sight of what was initially set out to do.

Instead of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ value judgements, Deans unpacks the ‘why’ behind the issue. Taking a hard look at things from that point of view enables teams to make better decisions based on context and real events: “Choose the thing that’s been frustrating, and think about why that was pressuring. Think about your involvement, the other person’s involvement, and really work through it,” he says.

This helps teams be less reactive to situations and change, work through difficult conversations without placing blame, and inevitably work better together. Dean says that teams with self-aware individuals that ask ‘why’ are more likely to be able to adapt, and be more resilient to change:

“You can be more human centered as an organisation when the people in the team are in that state of mind, because you’re made to listen more and you’re not trying to kind of just make your point to the whole time.”

Here are some ‘why’ questions Dean has used in the past:

  • Why did we build this thing in the first place?
  • Why does the customer care about this thing?
  • Why did I focus on this, as opposed to something else?
  • Why are we prioritising these things as a team?
  • Why did we choose this customer to build the thing for, as opposed to another?
  • Why are we the best people to solve this particular problem?

Seek feedback

Binary mindsets, in Dean’s experience, prevent people from seeking feedback. In terms of building better software and greater self-awareness, feedback is important for individuals to improve themselves. As a result, teams are better able to improve the relationships and collaboration between its members.

“Really, to be able to work with people in a more effective way, you can only do that by knowing more about yourself.”

A team that sees all of its ‘human’ interactions through the lens of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ often struggles to consider feedback as useful: “We think it means we’re doing something ‘wrong’, and so we often tend to feel resentment first. And the one place that always pitches up,” he explains, “is in leadership. The leader who is not self-aware usually struggles with taking feedback, and struggles even with how to give feedback.”

Dean illustrates this problem with a model called the Johari window:

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Developed by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, the ‘window’ is set up in four quadrants, relating to what you know about yourself and what others know about you, namely:

  • Open, which is known to you and to others, like what time you come into the office,
  • Hidden, the things that are known to you but not to others, perhaps how you really feel about someone in your team,
  • Blind, which are things unknown by you but that others know, or can see, such as how you come across when you mention your wins in standups,
  • Unknown, which are things known neither by you or by other, like how you’ll perform on building a feature you’ve never had to before.

This is especially important for building software: Failing to recognise one’s own blindspots can affect the quality of the software one builds. “Sometimes teams have blindspots around their products,” Dean explains, “so when external feedback hits the team, they knee-jerk into explaining why it is the way it is, or ignore the feedback completely to maintain the status quo. This increases the chances of the product drifting into failure.”

Clear feedback illuminates those blindspots, and helps you build stronger software in the long-run. A team that doesn’t recognise that there are things they can’t know about themselves - that sit in the ‘Blind’ or in ‘Unknown’ quadrants - won’t think they can improve. People not only won’t seek feedback, but also won’t be able to take feedback very well.

Although Dean says that asking why you keep certain things to yourself - in ‘Hidden’ - is a great place to start working on self-awareness, feedback becomes most relevant in ‘Blind’ and ‘Unknown’. These areas are things we can’t know about ourselves, where we need others to point them out. For example, if you’re super energetic in the mornings, it’s hard to know whether your team finds that distracting or energising unless you ask them.

In Dean’s experience, seeking that feedback and working to improve the things you can’t see, develops a more self-aware team, and builds stronger relationships between team members. “That’s why feedback helps,” he explains. “You get to know more about yourself, and about those around you.”

Especially with difficult conversations amongst teams, for example, a lot often goes unsaid; the more the space allows for feedback, the more honest conversations can take place and the better one’s understanding of each others intent can be. “This lets you both identify issues,” Dean says, “and solve them, a lot faster”.

For teams to become more self-aware, Dean says it’s crucial to remember that, at their core, they are a collection of human beings. Rather than simply focusing on the products and processes needing to be built, he says that teams hire people, and each individual person has wisdom and humanity to contribute:

“The background they bring, their way of thinking, their culture, their religion, their language… all those things are what you actually hire,” he says. “Often, we focus too much on getting rid of that, and we focus entirely on deliverables instead of what more they could bring in.”

If you’d like to practise self-awareness in greater depth, Dean recommends the following books:

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