Oftentimes, we invest a lot of time and resources into what we build. The tech, the product, the process…
We tend to forget that those things are a symptom of the people in our teams and the reason we’re all there in the first place.
Equally, we spend little time acknowledging the ‘human-ness’ of who we are building for and then miss our opportunity to differentiate our products and services in a sustainable way. It therefore makes the most business sense to spend a large portion of your time, effort and awareness on the mindsets, relationships and purpose of the people involved in building our products and services in our businesses.
In this talk, Dean Broadley focuses on how individuals and teams can adapt their mindsets and environments so that they are enabled to build high-quality and accountable products.
[00:09] Hi everybody. Great. That’s just what I like. Okay. So today I’m going to talk about building humans, because products and experiences are a symptom of humans. So a very quick thing about me, that’s me. My name is Dean, I’m a Full-time Human. We’ll get into a little bit why I call myself that, and I have an organisation called Designing Humans, in which we have a couple other businesses in which we focus on training, helping teams get organised. I work and do talks all over the world with a whole bunch of companies like Primer, Dropbox, Instagram. I was a Techstars mentor as well, so I have helped startups get funding, build proposition, and I also co-run a conference, so I empathise with all the people running around, called Pixel Up!, which takes place in May next year, and it’s an international design conference where we talk about design and building teams and quite similar to this in community, et cetera. So today, like I just mentioned, we’re going to talk a little bit about building in the practice of being human.
[01:13] And the first question that probably occurs to people is, “Why should I care?” If you’re sitting and writing code or you’re a product manager or whatever, what does that mean in the context of your day jobs and your organisations? And so I’m just going to talk a bit from experience. Primarily in the early start of my career, I started by doing character designs or as an illustrator, and I moved into digital product design, UX and prototyping, and I kind of got really good at acquiring technical skills. So I got really good at learning a piece of software and really good at learning this program and really good at learning. I did some CG. I did some post production. I got really entrenched in that thing and I was caught up in the fact that I thought that was my value. So if I can offer you all these different tools, then I’m good for the business and I’m good for the team.
[02:01] When I started then looking at my own teams and building those out and trying to make them sustainable and create a place that people want to work, I started to recognise the fact that it’s unsustainable to pay somebody to be a conduit to a piece of software. So if I’m paying a designer and I’m just paying them to be a conduit to sketch or Figma, whichever tool they use, or if I’m paying a developer and I’m just using them as a conduit to a language I may not understand, that’s not really sustainable, because then I don’t get the full value out of that person. And so through that process I started kind of working on learning development in my teams and looking at why people do the jobs they do, why I do what I do, and I’ve kind of broken down to three kind of key areas for you today that hopefully you’ll get some value and hopefully you can take it back to your teams, and if not, at least there was good ice-cream.
[02:53] Cool. So the first thing we want to talk about is know thyself. You start at the very center, so you as an individual, and work our way out into the team and into the market you play and the products you build, and the quote I’m going to open with is from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and it says, “If somebody thinks they’re a hedgehog, presumably you just give them a mirror and a few pictures of some hedgehogs and tell them to figure it out for themselves.” What they’re trying to say is that you can sit and you can look at a photo and then look at yourself and go, “That’s not me,” and we do this in our day jobs. Somebody mentioned earlier, I think it was Marlin who said, “Don’t go somewhere as a developer and we look at these things and we go, well, am I that thing?”
[03:32] The issue with being a person, and a human being, is we can be delusional to the fact that we can look at a picture of a hedgehog and think, “Yeah, that’s me. I totally look that way,” and that trips us up. That trips us up in our career development. It trips us up in our teams because then we start having conversations about the wrong things, so we’re positioning ourselves as something we’re not. So, one of the things that drives in your brain is there’s a whole bunch and long lists of hundreds of cognitive biases, but what’s happening there is you’re looking for pieces of information that confirm an already held belief about yourself. So whether you’ve learned to do something a certain way or a certain process, whether you think a certain thing is good or bad, you’re going to look for things that confirm this.
[04:17] Another good example is if the phone rings and you were thinking about somebody and you go, “Oh, I was just thinking about you so that’s why the phone rang,” what’s your brain’s actually doing is it’s deleting all the other times you thought of them and they didn’t phone conveniently. And so it kind of makes you feel like, “Cool. There’s a thing here, there’s a pattern,” because the pattern engine is your brain. So what this manifests as is self-awareness, basically, and the more you know yourself, the better you can be in a team, because you can only know your effect on others once you know who you are and how you kind of work with one another and vice versa. I’ll cover in a little quick model, which is called the Johari Window. It sounds fancy, but it’s really just John and Harry put together and it’s got four quadrants and it’s very, very simple.
[05:02] Basically, you have the public area, and that’s the stuff that I know about me and you know about me. So things you know about yourself, your interests, things you choose to share with those around you and things that other people know at the same time. To the right-hand side, you’ve got a blind area, which is things you don’t know about yourself. So things you do in your team that only your team can know, or people in your environment, your family, your friends. Below is the hidden stuff. That’s the stuff only you know about yourself. So those are things you don’t share. The things that you hold back, the things that you might be afraid to kind of talk about, whatever, but all those things make up who you are and the more you can bring those things into the public area, the better for you and in the unknown areas basically s*** nobody knows about you, not even you.
[05:48] So what tends to happen though is the block actually looks more like that for most of us. So there’s very little in the public area, and then what happens is as you grow up, you sort of build, your ego kind of steps in and reinforces those lines at the side so that we can stay here and we’ll keep everything as hidden as possible and we know as little as possible about our impact and we care less about our impact to the people around us. And that becomes problematic as you start to work in bigger teams or in more complex problems or with diverse opinions, because if you’re not even aware what you’re actually showing and what you’re hiding, you can’t actually build a wider perspective, and so what you really want to be doing is through a couple of processes of feedback and self introspection that I’ll talk about now is you want to pull that thing all the way down.
[06:34] So the more you can get into that area, the better for you and the better for your team, and the way you want to move kind of that vertical arrow is usually from some form of external feedback. So a peer, somebody you trust, maybe it’s a sibling, maybe it’s your parents, maybe it’s your best friend, but you can’t pull that line over without getting external feedback, and somebody mentioned earlier around being sensitive. I think it was a conversation we were having in the speaker’s room, and you’ve got to be open to that. Also the thing about feedback is it has to come at the right time. So if you’re giving feedback, something that’s very important to remember is feedback given at the wrong time is called an insult.
[07:14] So you’ve got to make sure that the feedback you’re giving is solicited, asked for, and is in an environment that makes sense because otherwise you just give the feedback the least probable amount of actually landing with the individual. The horizontal line you can only move through self-disclosure. What that means is really about thinking about and kind of introspecting around your behaviours and the things that annoy you. So something that I do and I have done before is I try to spend my time going, “I had an argument with that person on Tuesday about I don’t know padding on a button, let’s say, and I’ve got to really figure out why I care so much about that little thing.” Because if I can figure that part out, I can figure out how in the future I can change the way I have that conversation, especially if I want the outcome, because if you’re fighting with somebody, the only option they have is to fight back or run away, neither of which results in the outcome you’re after.
[08:05] So the introspection really forces you to kind of go, “Okay. I really enjoyed that. Why did I enjoy that? What drives me and what motivates me around those things?” And you can start to then bring those things out of the hidden space, especially if you’re afraid of certain things in your career or you’re afraid of asking a question in a retro or you don’t want to learn a new program or new kind of framework. Sometimes those things are linked to only things you can know about yourself, and as you go through those things, you start to open yourself up to have far more meaningful human conversations and you focus a lot less on right and wrong, both for yourself and both for the people around you, and so something to remember is people are not binary. And we spend a lot of time trying to figure out and root our ways into a right or wrong, and the problem with that is if you have a low self-awareness as an individual, you’ll tend to need the other person to be wrong for you to be right, and that’s just a fallacy. You can both be right, and quite frankly, you can both be wrong.
[09:07] A lot of the time I watch teams that are basically arguing about the same thing, but they’re making it about right or wrong, and so then you focus on things like semantics and wording and whatever, rather than the intent and the actual shape of the problem you’re trying to solve. And so really what you want to try and do with information, you want to try and make a Q-bit; where it’s right and wrong at the same time, and you focus on what’s fit for a purpose. So if you are trying to implement a new process or you’re trying to change something in your product, you’ve got to focus more on getting that thing fit for the problem you’re trying to solve and for the people it’s for, rather than, “John needs to be wrong. So I’m going to focus on that,” and that’s where your agenda starts.
[09:46] So like people, facts are not binary either, and so when you’re … another good quote is if you do start to have a difference of opinion and you’re kind of … especially if you have a lot of people from different backgrounds, perspective, you look through different lenses at the same thing, and that’s why you see them differently, and something I always try to help my teams remember is if you’re arguing with a fool, make sure the other person is not doing the same thing, right? Because you could be the fool, and the reason we often can get quite entrenched in our beliefs is that another one of the cognitive biases is the backfire effect, and so in your brain, over the span of your life, you’ve learned certain ways of being. You’ve been exposed to certain things, you’ve met people, they’ve hurt you, you’ve had great experiences, bad experiences, and all these things start to build almost these pillars in your brain, and those are where your worldview is propped up, on those pillars.
[10:33] And so what happens with the backfire effect is if anybody ever gets close to those pillars, your brain goes, “Uh-uh, you can’t do that,” and then what you do, you take evidence, and then you use that evidence to reinforce the pillar so that you can maintain your worldview, and you’ll see this in politics all the time when people are just, “No, it needs to be a certain way,” and it makes zero sense, but what their brain is doing is going, “No, we’ve invested a lot of energy building the neurons to think this way. We’re not going to undo that now. It was expensive. We spent all our budget on that.”
[10:59] So these are the things, and the big thing about the backfire effect and most cognitive bias is that you’re a human and so therefore there’s no way to get around them. They are happening to you. The only trick is to be able to start being more self aware to recognise, to go, “Why do I care about that thing? Why do I need to fight for this? Why is this such a strong pillar in my belief system?” People argue about the most trivial things sometimes, and that may be you. You’ve got to figure out whether that is really trivial in the broader scheme of things or whether you care about it enough to reframe it so that the other person can also see your point of view. Cool? Happy with that? Nods. Fantastic.
[11:38] Section two: Hire people, not roles. One of the biggest things I see in teams around the world, whether they’re product teams or HR teams or any kind of team really, is we focus so much on the content of the job and largely this comes from … we see people almost on like a conveyor belt. So we want two level twos, one level three, two level fours, and a unicorn. The problem with this is kind of twofold. One, there are no names there. There’s no personality attached, and having worked in big corporates before, I’ve been asked the question, “We need to go find a replacement for John.” I don’t know who John is. I don’t actually know anybody called John, but what that is is a disservice to John. It assumes that there’s another carbon copy of John out in the world and that I employed him as such, which is kind of ridiculous in a way, right? So obviously you want the skills, but you hire the person. The skills are an attribute of the person and not the other way around, and so we try to make these kind of repeatable carbon copy things, and the reason we do this, in my opinion, is cause school.
[12:50] School teaches you in a very kind of industrialised fashion that you are part of a conveyor belt, and it happens … you know you’ve got all these levels and you differentiate and you try to figure out, “Well I’m a level one,” or, “I’m a level two,” and when you start school you’re like “Cool. I’m a level one.” What school teaches you, really, is it says, “Cool. Add some time and some information and then you get to level two,” and they teach you that time and information have a directly proportional relationship, and so if I add five years, I had five years of information by default, which is not necessarily true, because we’ve all worked with people that sit at work and do nothing. So in theory you go, “Cool. If I add six years, I get six years of information, and then I get to be a level seven,” and then add some more time and then a unicorn and then done, right? So it’s actually a really, really interesting diagram this, because it assumes a couple things.
[13:45] It assumes linear skills predict progression, so that I’m going to sit in a job or I’m going to sit in class, and the time becomes the metric for me getting better rather than the attributes I’m trying to acquire, and it also assumes an endpoint. So it assumes that sometime I’m done loading, I’m finished buffering, and I never need to learn more, and then the last part of this whole thing is that it teaches you to hoard your information and make your information your value, and it can’t be that way because like I said earlier, that’s the same as being a conduit to a piece of software. You’re basically being a human plug, and you don’t want to do that. It’s very boring. So you want to really move away from information and time being your sole metrics for hiring people, measuring people, acquiring skill, and for yourself, as an individual, you’ve also got to think about that.
[14:37] One of the things … I recently had a conversation with somebody who was really, really kind of down because they weren’t being promoted to another level, and he’s kind of rhetoric, his narrative was: “I’ve been here for eight years and so how could I not be at that level yet?” And I said to him, “Well, if you sat at NASA for eight years in the control lab, they’re not sending your a** to space because you haven’t got the attributes of being an astronaut.” So basically what I’m saying is that in a world where information is free, the world we live in, knowledge becomes cheap, and so you’ve got to stop selling your knowledge and kind of having the scarce mentality of not sharing, because that’s not your value. You as a person, that’s your value, the thing that you bring as a human.
[15:19] And so the reason we do this is we’re trying to make things predictable, but you can’t build the future predictably because it doesn’t exist, and so skills, products, everything happens more like that, like s*** happens and then you learn something and then another thing happens and then you kind of… and then you find your way, and that’s really the magic of when you find somebody who fits with your team is when you start to hire and interview for that. So something I do is I tend to ask people what are they most proud of in their life, rather than show me all the things you’ve done, because when they tell you about what they’re proud of, they tell you what they care about and then you get your insight into their value system, rather than they can write this many lines of code in this many languages and they’ve worked at this many places, right? So in short, to put that really quickly, is you’ve got to care less about being certain and more about being effective, and so that when you hire John, you hired the whole of John, not just his ability to type on a keyboard.
[16:14] Section three: Create edge effects. So edge effects are an ecology kind of concept where you have two environments that meet, you tend to have more species and different species at those overlapping environments. So if you think about the ocean and the shoreline, you get different creatures that kind of evolve there, forests and fields, altitude levels, those things start to create interesting things, and they tend to be the most resilient species because they’re adapted in some ways to both environment, whereas the ones that evolved in a sole environment can only live there. So when you think about your teams, you’ve got people who may have some things, and to my earlier point about things being binary, what we tend to think, if you’re building a product and we’re looking at our market, we’re only going to design for those people. We’re only going to build for those people, and so we start to still have that us versus them or this versus that conversation. But if you spend a little bit more time putting them together, you get a third environment where cool s*** happens, and you get a better insight into your customers, better insight into your team, and again, this is to the diversity point, you widen your field of view as an organisation and a team.
[17:23] So instead of just going, if I have all the same people, the same background, the same experience, and et cetera, I can only really look through this lens. If I start to add people, I add to that lens. That obviously introduces a certain level of cognitive drag, but I think for the better, and the best way this has always pitched up for me is that when you’re thinking about products or you’re having your arguments with the team or you’re struggling with finding things, if you want to build something for somebody else, sometimes we have this thing that we were told when we were growing up is that you should do unto others as you would have done unto you, which is really a lie, because you should do unto others as they would have done unto them. Because if I want people to do unto others as I would have done unto me, it assumes that you’re all like me, and that’s an incredibly self-centred way to look at the world, and the only way you can really kind of get insight into what other people need is to really pay attention, be more self-aware, give a s***, and then scale.
[18:18] And then the very last point is to go together. There’s a really, really old African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” and this has been something that’s quite near and dear to my heart because this is why I started my organisation. Having worked in design all my life and feeling like I’m the only guy in the corner, I started looking at our industry and how I can try to contribute, and when I started Designing Humans, it was off a piece of research I did, which I followed up at the start of the year, which looked primarily at the diversity of the design industry of South Africa. And I show this slide all around the world and everybody always does the same thing, but basically that’s what the design industry of South Africa looks like. That’s me over here, and it’s kind of a weird thing for me because I sit there and look at it and I go, “Well one, it doesn’t make economic sense for us to scale an industry on the smallest part of our talent pool,” so we’re kind of fishing for fresh water fish in the ocean.
[19:19] Shout-out to the fish guy, and these are the things that through all my earlier things like introspecting and paying attention to what’s happening in our teams, and often we’ve got targets to hit and we’ve got hire people quickly we’ve got product to build, and the speed kind of overruns our ability to start to create the future, and if we keep fishing out of this kind of part of the ocean, we’re basically eating fruit without planting any trees for our children in the future. And that just feels like a kind of weak business proposition to me, and this is one of the things that drives my purpose and the thing that I’ve oriented myself around and I spend a lot of time using the methods I’ve said before by creating ecosystems and overlapping edge effects, and so I guess my ask of everybody is that you can think about that in your own areas and see where you can create your own edge effects, focus on your own self-awareness and build the future of your industry. So, shot. Thank you!
NOTE: The questions for this presentation were not transcribed. Questions from Dean’s Johannesburg talk start at 20:20, and from his Cape Town talk at 24:37.