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Q&A with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong on Make Meaningful Work

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Key Takeaways

  • Make Meaningful Work is a framework which applies human-centered design to people in the workplace.
  • Ego-driven roadmaps and a mechanistic state of “sleepwalking” can arise from a lack of ownership, inclusiveness, understanding and personal value alignment.
  • Make Meaningful Work proposes a journey to greater collaboration across silos, through understanding characters and appreciating perspectives.
  • Deeper Insights from the connections and intersections between perspectives, contexts and other available information can be gained by building intentional strength across 21 humanistic and collaborative practices.
  • Impacts which are aligned with personal values and a holistic understanding, result in building meaningful and needed products.
  • A cross-discipline "Bedrock" team collaborate on continuous learning and building a holistic view of the business domain.

Dan Szuc has been a leader in the User Experience field for close to two decades, having written two books, The Usability Kit and Global UX, as well as internationally speaking and lecturing on human-centered design. In 2008, Dan and his partner, Jo Wong, founded Apogee in Hong Kong, a firm with a mission to spread human-centered design.

All was well until five years ago when both Dan an Jo started to sense dissatisfaction with their own working lives. As usability experts, they began investigating if their own feelings were symptomatic of a more general problem. They rapidly identified that many people felt like they were sleepwalking through their working lives. This began a journey towards understanding humans, teams and projects at the heart of work. The result is a framework and set of practices, which they teach, share, and refine, under the name Make Meaningful Work.

Make Meaningful Work (MMW) is focussed on putting humanism at the heart of how teams create meaningful products. The underlying objective is to responsibly create great products, replacing sleepwalking with what the framework calls ‘sparkle’; a state where individuals feel personal satisfaction with their work. Products are built on top of a base of strong human relationships, common values, collaborative practices and a shared purpose.

MMW introduces a strong visual metaphor of a tree, which grows through character, perspectives, intersections and results in impacts.

  • Character - A group must be aware of the character dimensions of individuals and teams that work together. Character cards reveal concepts such as sense of identity, values, beliefs and intentions.
  • Perspectives - Understanding of individual characters dimensions, yields an appreciation of perspectives within a group.
  • Intersections - An understanding of perspectives within a group, allow it to work effectively together to seek insights and meaning, by connecting multiple dots to promote and harness meaningful outcomes. These dots may include people, disciplines, roles and contexts.
  • Impacts- The group are able to have a genuine and shared understanding of the intersections between available information. They are now better able to make meaningful impacts for individuals, teams, communities and, as Dan does not hesitate to stress, the entire planet.

MMW achieves these states by providing time for intentional improvement across the most relevant from a set of 21, profession-neutral, practices. These practices are humanistic and collaboration-centric, having been intentionally selected based on interviews and research across numerous projects.

These competencies are continuously practised and intentionally improved on within a team responsible for ensuring that its work is meaningful, and true to its shared values and perspectives. As the team builds its ability to manage a broader set of perspectives and intersections, it can more effectively grow a culture of collaboration and shared understanding, toward meaningful and sustained outcomes at higher business tiers.

Dan, Jo and their early adopters have spent the last year training and sharing their learnings across a number of International Conferences including UX New Zealand and CanUX. Their MMW workshops have taken the framework and its practices to new practitioners across Wellington, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Ottawa and Vercelli.

InfoQ caught up with Dan and Jo to discuss the MMW framework and their philosophy around it.

InfoQ: How would you describe Make Meaningful Work?

Dan Szuc: Let's unpack the three words.

‘Make’ is to cause something to exist, or come about or bring about. ‘Meaningful’ is to have a serious important, or useful quality or purpose. I think the key word is 'useful.' 'Work' is an activity involving mental or physical effort to achieve a purpose or result.

The kernels of MMW are character, perspectives, intersections and impacts. These are sustained by a humanistic practice tree. Practices are embodied in toolkits and curriculums.

The framework has, at its most fundamental and base level, something we define as Bedrock. This is a space, where you want to be able to nurture the most caring, trusting and compassionate ways in which people can treat and be with each other, and work together to do the most meaningful work they can.

I'm not talking about a physical space, but imagine moving into an empty place with a core team, made up from different disciplines. Consider what strengths you would need in your environment. Not so much from a discipline perspective, but in terms of personalities; this has nothing to do with hierarchy or job title. It is to do with a mix of personalities and strengths which you think would result in a really fun team to work with.

There are several core elements to how we make meaningful work.

  • The journey from sleepwalking to sparkle. The journey is about awakening to see more than one dot; where a dot is a representation of yourself, your discipline, function, a piece of data and/or a capability. This takes you to seeing the intersections between dots.
  • When you see more than one dot, you are able to draw more connections between available information. We visually represent these as hearts.
  • The third part of the journey is when you are better able to learn, confront and overcome together. This means that you don't get a false alignment. At work there is a lot of false alignment, when you have this it gets you away from meaningful work. It involves a lot of politics. A lack of definition of value. A lot of hierarchical agreement with management, not heartful agreement.

Bedrock is the major intersection of the framework. We haven't talked yet about business process. We haven't talked about deliverables or about measurements. All of that resides above this foundational human practice tree.

It’s about change for the individuals. It is about getting people out of having a blinkered view. Character, perspectives, intersections and impact are at the kernel and core of MMW.

The Bedrock team can do exercises and workshops as it pertains to character. We capture those things on character cards. Do exercises and workshops as it pertains to perspectives. Capture these artefacts about perspectives which pertain to identify, values, beliefs, intention and impact.

You are then able to articulate what Bedrock is together. That is, who you are and what your shared identity, values and capabilities are. You are able to also articulate the things that matter to you as individuals, to then determine what is meaningful and what you want to work on.

InfoQ: Would it be correct to see Bedrock as a group of practice champions, with common goals, trust and a common objective?

Szuc: That's absolutely right.

Once formed, we’d have regular moments throughout a week, throughout a month, to continue to practice and learn together, to ensure we're strengthening and iterating. Another way to look at it is to consider Bedrock itself as another product within the organisation.

The Bedrock team defines and ensure continuous learning and improvement of practices they have decided are important to themselves and their (business) context. They learn about and from one another, gaining new perspectives and understanding.

InfoQ: How does MMW lend itself to organisational learning?

Szuc: Within Bedrock, there is a notion of organisational learning. You might be able to explain the core of your business really well, and how you satisfy it. However, there could be other things which you could be offering or monetising. There could be things you aren’t thinking about right now, because like many businesses you get carried away with what your core is.

As you’re carried away with speed, with the deliverable and meaning of that core, you then lose the opportunities to create other hearts that could describe other meaningful opportunities which you could be working on. This comes from people being able to see beyond their own dots and see more holistically.

InfoQ: How does this contrast with approaches like lean-startup, which also offers opportunities to learn and pivot your products through experiments?

Szuc: MMW can complement Lean Startup. The way I understand experimentation within Lean, is that it is experimentation within the context of building a product or service.

What if we extract experimentation as a practice to improve at? It could then also be used in other ways. Let's say for the sake of discussion someone says I'm very good with experimentation, we'd question what it would mean to have this practice strength.

As we're a learning organisation, we are going to start by practising and improving at experimentation. So we’d consult our character and practice cards, and then start by asking our experimentation experts, 'what sort of exercises could we do to get better at experimentation?'

InfoQ: How would the Bedrock team select its key practice areas?

Szuc: If you were to take a day in the life of a developer, project manager or another role, there are tactical and strategic things you're doing, there are also deliverables within that. You can look at the commonalities across these roles and the things they are doing in their work week and ask, across all of that, independent of your role, what are the humanistic practices going on?

If we bring this to Bedrock, we know these are the practices we care about, but each role has different examples of these practices, which you can then use to teach. Not necessarily to teach someone to write or code, although that might also provide an interesting exercise. The examples are used as probes to strengthen the practices across the organisation.

InfoQ: How does a team maintain the cadence of practice improvement and sustaining MMW?

Szuc: Part of Bedrock is about continuous learning, it is a space of learning. As a team, you come up with a continuous learning plan. Read my recent article reflecting on MMW, there is a whole section on the importance of sustaining.

InfoQ: What does an MMW practice session look like, as people break from sleepwalking to sparkle and alignment?

Szuc: You start by finding a time within the week, when people can stop what they are doing, get out of production mode and get into a place and a space that's a practice mode.

At the workshops. People come into the room. They are busy. You can see it. There are varying levels of discomfort. You have to make them feel welcome and feel like they belong in this space. The second thing is that you're setting up a space to have fun.

You then start the journey, discover the dots, connect the dots. The rest comes down to how much imagination and creativity you have. It's just a matter of what exercises you want to do together. From that, you start to make things together and create things together.

You want enough structure to feel like we know what the journey is and what we'll go through, but you also want enough facilitated fluidity for people to feel like they can bring a lot of themselves to this. They just need the right opportunities. As soon as people contribute to this, they own it.

InfoQ: How do you create the cultural transformation to spread MMW beyond the Bedrock group?

Jo Wong: You try to improve yourself first and then you start to influence someone close to you. People recognise when you behave differently and it spreads.

Szuc: You don't talk about change or culture or transformation. These are after effects of the practice. You don't talk about the change in the practice, you get on with doing and teaching the practice. This is where reflection comes in.

InfoQ: What form does teaching take within the Bedrock team?

Szuc: It's peer to peer. You begin teaching others immediately. In the Bedrock team, we have found that the identification of strengths happens quite quickly. What this also assumes is that there is enough self-reflection, presence and honesty within the team to recognise that 'I am pretty good at this practice.' Not in an egotistical, or show-off, kind of way, but a recognition that I can teach this.

If you come back to the understanding of people, at its heart it is being respectful of what people have to offer. This builds self-respect, which is a beautiful thing. We also have other activities and exercises to offer.

You have to have a space for practice, because some people may not want to try things in production mode. In practice mode, you can just have fun with it. It doesn't matter. If you build enough confidence, you can bring some of that practice into production mode. Suddenly you're doing stretch things and potentially going into areas of the whole promised land of 'innovation' and 'creativity.'

InfoQ: How does MMW address the problem of professional practice silos and teams boundaries?

Szuc: I'm not convinced that we are naturally born to think departmentally or in silos in our hearts and minds. We're taught that.

When I look at silos, business is structured that way. You are put within a department. Then the question is within that context, how open is that department to playing and intersecting with other departments.

There is magic in the intersections. Something beautiful comes out of travelling and meeting other people with other perspectives. This is why character immediately intersects with perspectives. You start with your character card and bring certain dimensions or perspectives to that, based on how you see the world. There is then merit in intersecting that with perspectives from others' character cards. Once you have that practice, you are already breaking down silos without even talking about it.

Wong: Part of the idea of character cards and perspectives is to get people to see things from more dimensions and more angles. One part of our workshop is to wake up and then confront. Confrontation does not come easily to many.

I see silos come about when different teams have different KPIs or they are not aligned on the outcome they are trying to achieve.

When these different departments have different KPIs, they don't feel or care about what the outcome is, they only care about KPIs.

I've seen teams which want to achieve KPIs and tick boxes to sell to people that they are doing things, rather than questioning what the whole project is about, what they are trying to achieve and how their work is contributing to the goal.

Szuc: If Bedrock is able to come up with a shared intention it will result in more appropriate measurements and thoughts about KPIs. It fundamentally comes down to giving people the tools to see beyond themselves.

Whenever we look at one discrete element of meaningfulness it's also important to connect it back to our overall story. That's a very important part of Bedrock. Once you have an understanding of your story, or narrative or goals, of where you are going, everything becomes easier because you are able to see your place in that.

Wong: To get people from sleepwalking to sparkle. I say that if you put sparkle in people's head, in the long run, they could end up in a very different destination.

That's why we tell people to hold onto their character cards for a longer term and revisit it from time to time. I know people look into themselves a lot, but they need a more holistic picture. People have biases and don't realise it. Share your character card with others. Learn about yourself and others.

The more you talk to others the more you learn about yourself. The more you close, the less you learn. If you look at history, when empires have closed down, that's when they have started to go downhill. The more open you are the more prosperous you get.

InfoQ: How did you arrive at the particular set of competencies within the practice tree?

Szuc: We did about 25 to 30 interviews this year, just to begin to identify practices, where we simply said to people tell us a couple of project stories; maybe a project that went well or one that went badly? We didn't mention practices at all. In between the lines, they were there. As I went through the transcript, they just kept floating to the top. We realised this is really fundamental stuff.

InfoQ: How have UX practices and your experience of working with users, helped shape the framework?

Szuc: A heart is the representation for Bedrock. It's about the human heart and is a contextual heart. There are hundreds of tools within user experience, but at its core, it's about understanding other people. This remained fundamental to the creation of the framework. It's not about solely understanding people at the expense of other things, it's also a framework which is holistic.

UX says, you want to go out and listen to things, not just apply your judgements, assumptions and biases to other people. We've remained very consistent with that. Jo is particularly good at this.

Wong: The main framework actually came out of the 25 interviews we did with people around the world. This made things much clearer and stronger after we spoke to people. People are at the heart of this whole thing.

InfoQ: What did this learning process look like?

Szuc: We came up with a research plan and some question. Like all research, you start off with a hypothesis and with some questions that will allow people to share their stories.

What we were looking for was a project story where you've experienced issues, and where you've experienced positives. As people were telling project stories, like all good research, you then look for patterns and start to ascertain where are the strong signals in those patterns? Where are the gaps? Where are the opportunities?

This will continue into 2018. If you are open to learning and have a sense of enquiry and curiosity, research is not a stage in a project plan, research is constant. Research isn't even the best way of talking about it, it would be better named as learning, curiosity or understanding.

InfoQ: What was the initial hypothesis?

Wong: People are always stressed and too busy, I believed this was affecting their health and creating waste. Work was having a negative impact on people.

Szuc: Waste was a huge part of it. We were assessing years and years of projects we had worked on and asking why are so many requirements phantom? Not based on anything real. Companies talk about reducing risk and improving ROI, yet they are willing to blow millions of dollars which aren't grounded on any particular need. It just seems crazy.

In research, we are trying to bring truth into the business, yet the business and strong personalities often don't want to hear the truth. They don't want to hear other data. There is a lot of ego-driven design, not always customer-driven design.

With Bedrock, you're starting to create operating principles, so when people start to produce ego statements which aren't based on anything, you have practices which check this and bring it back to practices we've defined. Bedrock should be part of your continuous learning.

In business, whether it's a business decision or a design decision, there's often a very broken and fragmented intention. Coming back to holistic systems, there's not always a way of connecting the intentions together, and that's problematic. It means you have broken intention and you don't always know where you're heading, and more importantly, 'why?'

InfoQ: Where do the holistic underpinnings of MMW come from?

Szuc: User-centered design isn't about individual based design. You have people as connected to context, where context is not just where you work, but your home, community and environment. People don't see that they do certain things, based on a need, but don't see the ramifications of what you do based on that need. The environmental cost of water bottles is an example of this.

This connects with the Chinese medicine where you are not just dealing with the individual symptom, but look at how you can deal with it holistically, as connected to the wider system.

Wong: You are familiar with the Yin and Yang symbol. Yin is basically the cold turn. Yang is the warm turn. In your body, everything has these two sides, which are constantly trying to balance. So when you see people in organisations, they might have a lot of tension all the time. Sometimes they have too much fire and have to cool down.

There are a lot of these examples which I see and recognise. This is why in our character cards, I'm trying to get people to connect with how they feel. What is your energy level? People don't realise their energy level. People don't even realise the impact of their lack of sleep. This affects a lot of things like their mood, how they think, behave and their choices.

Szuc: You're always bringing the same person into the workplace, whether it's life or work. There's an interesting question: what is it to be of healthy heart, mind and body? If you are dealing with people at work, who are to varying degrees not healthy, that is going to affect meaning. It will affect the practices. There is an interesting question in Bedrock to ask how do we nurture healthy practices.

Make Meaningful Work is in many respects a container to be able to acknowledge these problems, but also find a way to see if we can help people get better at considering their impact.

InfoQ: How does MMW play with Agile, Lean, DevOps and other collaborative approaches which encourage adaptation, learning and continuously improving.

Szuc: MMW puts its arms around these.

Wong: That's why we focus on the individual practices, which are more granular. Methodologies of how you work and collaborate, assume people have the practices and skills to be able to collaborate. That's why we need to be able to improve at individual practices. These approaches come from a good place. The reason they don't always work is when people don't have these underlying practices.

Szuc: Agreed. We also need to connect it to what is happening in those other methodologies, with respect to the way people work together to make meaningful work.

I feel a lot of these methodologies become the focus. We've seen this on a recent project, where you hear, 'we need to plan for our sprints.' The focus becomes the sprint. Hang on! You are just focussing on the sprint, but not connecting it to the narrative, or connecting it to the practices, and asking what goes within the sprint in relation to our values and the way we work together. You may be working a lot faster, but not necessarily making meaningful work.

So for sprints, ask what is the intention of the sprint. Who is involved? What are you creating out of the sprint? How does this connect to other things?

MMW is methodology and process agnostic. It's not unique to digital projects. There's a lot we can learn from those practices. There's a lot we can learn from sport. There's a lot we can learn from Chinese medicine. Understand your methodologies, if they don't work we can work another way. We don't have to work in extremes.

MMW is all grounded in the character. In working with the individuals.

Jo and I will be running UX Hong Kong this March. Come along and chat with us.

About the Interviewees

Dan Szuc originally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.

Josephine Wong is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.

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