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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Chris Young and Kate Gray on Winning Hearts and Minds of People

Chris Young and Kate Gray on Winning Hearts and Minds of People


1. Software is Changing the World. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams. Your talk was about winning hearts and minds of people. What makes this so important?

Chris: For me, what's so important about it is as an engineer, I'm normally concerned about the machines. I'm concerned about the 1's and 0's and what it is we're actually building about software delivery and that really doesn't make any sense unless you're considering the people who we're going to interact with, the people who's involvement with the systems is actually going to achieve success.

So for me, it's about thinking systemically, it's about thinking beyond the software, and thinking about it as a whole.

Kate: And for me, it's really about helping a business operate better. And at the end of the day, it's people who sit around in all the various offices and cubicles and open spaces. If they really don't understand that they have a reason to work together for a kind of unified goal, then nothing's going to happen.


2. So you're talking about this, Chris, you want to understand what the people are doing with the system, is that the kind of thing that will be interesting for you?

Chris: I don't think it goes beyond that because I think in software, we have a tendency to think to the really difficult problems are in the code, it's like I got this amazing scaling problem to deal with, all this encryption problem. Oh, yes that at some point the users are going to use it and it's almost as if we lose sight of the actual intent of it and we get very fixated on the implementation details.

I mean anything that helps us to step back and think okay, what's our goal? What are we trying to achieve? And then what are options for achieving that is hugely helpful. So anything that helps us reframe the problem and think beyond -- particularly as an engineer, I'm like a moth to a flame. It's like oh, this looks really interesting. I really want to do this.

You can very quickly get into local optima. You can get in to try to solve the problem that appeals to you or the thing that's interesting to you. And it can almost become like a sort of problem solving exercise, a sort of puzzle, if you will. Sometimes, you have to recognize it. Actually, the best solution to a problem might require no technology at all. It might purely be a messaging problem. It might purely be getting the right people together and having the right conversations. Initially, you kind of think, oh, right I don't get to write this code. I don't get to do what I kind of went through school to do and kind of build on my set skill in and I'm really interested in but hey, it doesn't matter actually.

In fact, it's better because now, we don't have to pay for this costly tech. Now we can just -- these people are together, they're doing this thing. It's great. It maybe that you then put in a small amount of IT.

Maybe you put in just a little bit of just enough tech to facilitate or to make something happen, or you maybe find somebody else has already solved that problem for you and you can go, great, now I can work with these people who have done this and it's them and I can use that. So it's anything that helps you think systematically, think about people and fundamentally think about what's the problem I'm trying to solve or what's the opportunity I'm trying to address and then what if any role does tech have in that?

Kate: I'm good.


3. Can you elaborate about the parallel between running political companies to win elections and using this tool for electoral campaigns in the workplace to achieve your goals?

Kate: Well, I think again what we discovered in conversations with Chris that led to this presentation and what I've discovered in the work that I do with lots of other companies is that it's not about being a politician. It's about creating some kind of movement that gets people to change their mind or come together and act decisively about something.

So that's the relevance. If you're sitting as part of a tech team and you're in some degree of isolation in your organization but you know that you need to have conversations with other people within the larger company, you know that you need to explain to them that perhaps the process they're using for developing tech is wrong or perhaps the product they're having you develop is not right given what users have indicated or their preferences.

This is the type of thing where you would use these tools to start to engage in a dialogue with them and help them understand that there is quite likely a better way of doing things.


4. For the main idea, it's engagement. Getting them to discuss things, getting them involved, is that what you're aiming at?

Kate: Well, I mean that's the human condition. We need to talk. We need to have conversations. So I think the tools that we presented from an electoral campaign are all designed to help people come together because you're giving them the sort of relevant and meaningful information that they can decide for themselves, “I want to be part of this.”

It's not about manipulation. It's certainly not about lying, it's not about making something up so that you can convince people to follow you. Hype is a very bad thing. This is really about understanding why they aren't following you and then figuring out how you can establish this common ground and work together toward the common goal.

Chris: I think I'll echo what Kate is saying. Really it's more about the tools the politics uses to help gather people around a goal and the first thing that I did with Kate's help was look at the people around me and identified that my actual reach out to these people was very limited. I was only having conversations with a very small part of a potentially much larger franchise. It was by engaging with more people and thinking beyond my kind of specialism, really.

If anything, the one thing that's the most important for me now in the work I do is not to limit myself to having conversations with people who I think are the only people who'd be interested. So I think you got to do this in a way that is respectful, you got to do this in a way that is considerate of other people's expectations, of the people’s domain but you've got to do it in a way that's fearless.

You got to be able to be happy to go -- as an engineer, I'm happy to go and have a conversation about marketing with somebody or I'm happy to go and have a conversation about business development with somebody. And equally, I will welcome somebody for marketing or business development, come out a conversation with me about technology. I'm not going to put off something saying no, you wouldn't get it, this is a caching problem, you wouldn't understand.

So no, let's have that conversation. Let's treat these overlapping spaces and let's embrace that overlap and let's actually be -- let's see if this is an opportunity for collaboration rather than kind of for defense if like no, this is my bit and your bit's over there. Leave me to my tech and I'll leave you to your business development.

It's about creating an ongoing conversation that builds understanding, builds trust, and it shows that everyone is working towards the same goal rather than to their local concerns. For example, from the talk, one of the things I wanted to achieve, I really wanted to move away from manual deployment to automation. Now, I could see the value in this, members of my team could see the value in this but why the business? Why are you doing this? You're spending time building automation, provisioning automation. Why isn't that time spent on delivering these features?

So you then have to get into a much more fundamental conversation about how the automation reduces the potential for errors to occur or is building something that will then allow you to move quicker in the future and in this case, we were able to prove both when we discovered an error in the production system, we were able to fix it very quickly thanks to the automation and then also thanks to the automation, we won two pieces of repeat business on the outcome of the first piece of business.

We were then able to -- because the automation was in place, it goes like right, that now gives us the traction to be able to deliver quickly but you can't expect people to just sort of take you on trust that yes, this time we're spending, building all these stuff that you can't see is worth doing. You could've had a conversation about it and say the payoff might come further on the track but let's build understanding. Let's build trust so that we can spend time doing this.


5. And once this happens, people see the value of this?

Chris: Exactly. I think we are in our desire to provide functionality and value very quickly. We are in danger of missing stuff that might be less feasible, might be less tangible but is still important so we need to have a good mix of, okay, here's the quick wins. Here's the stuff that looks gray, but hey, here's the stuff that you pay attention to in order to build the internal quality of what you're doing in order to reduce failure, demand and in order to build up -- you fundamentally build a better system.


6. Agile proposes transparency and openness as a way to establish skills so that people can trust each other but also you're talking about influencing people. How does that fit together?

Kate: Well, again I think this is what happens because we said this very frequently this morning. We're not condoning the way politicians behave today. We're not condoning that people engage in lies, in fear mongering and kind of scare tactics. What we're condoning are some of the fundamental principles of an electoral company. That whole idea of bringing millions of people together who have no reason to come together but somehow, they find a reason to come together at a moment in time. That's what we're talking about.

So we actually -- I said rather bluntly to the team, to the audience, I said if you want to lie or if you want to just make stuff up, well don't do that because that's really offensive and we also made it very clear to people that proper politicians but more importantly proper leaders should respect, they tell the truth, they make sure that they're dealing with the facts and not making stuff up just to win their own side of the argument.

I think that's the important thing to distinguish. Although the tools that we use are grounded and used most often in electoral politics, this talk was really about understanding how those tools facilitate the sharing of relevant and meaningful information so that people can make decisions for themselves based on their own priorities and that's how you win people to your side.

Chris: Yes. I think that the point that Kate made in closing there is the fundamental point. It's not coercion. It is telling stories that are in themselves so compelling that people decide on their own volition. “I want to be a part of this.” It's taking personal responsibility, be part of something bigger than you are and be part of something that you want to believe in and you do it because the story that's presented is so compelling so this is what I really like so you bring up Agile methods, fantastic. That's something that had been a mainstay of my work for the past 15 years.

One of the great points of the Agile manifesto which we use in the tool kit that we value working software over comprehensive documentation. The working software, even if it's in a sort of skeletal or embryonic form is a great way of telling a story. It's a great way of saying here's where we are, this is what we've built so far.

This is where we're going and then that becomes influential because you present something and it's not hey, this is not just me talking about something that may or may not exist. Here it is. Try it. I'm kind of ‘Doubting Thomas,’ I'll put your hand into the wound and see that it's really there. Let's make this stuff a sort of corporal or as apparent as possible.

And then it kind of goes -- there's the same momentum. So we would have this weekly project, government meetings. We do the demo and then as soon as the demo was finished, and somebody would be on their phone saying, “Hey, I've just seen this. I think there might be an issue with this. Could we check with this?” so and so or, “Hey this is really good, why don't we try this?”

And then I'd get a call or the guy would come over to me and say, look, there's somebody in the office or wherever and he wants to have a look at this, could we just open the filewall so that he could see? Yes, sure, of course you can and you could tell that was a great metric actually of the influence of the demo, the number of requests we then go from other people to see the software.


7. You want to get interaction, right?

Chris: Exactly. So it's about creating -- it's about making the work and the stories themselves influential rather than kind of actively influencing. So I think influencing -- if you say you want to influence somebody, you can very easily read that as being pejorative and read that a sort of synonym for coercion and that's not what we're talking about.

What we're talking about is a kind of clarity, a vision, and a strength of feeling which is where the emotive stuff comes in. If you believe in something, you can talk about it with much more passion and it's about your choice of language, the way you conduct yourself, the way you tell your stories, and then the influence comes from that.

Kate: I'm just going to add one bit here which is I think the other thing that we really needed to stress this morning and we did it again and again is that when you win in the campaign, you don't have to have 100% of the people backing you, you just have to have a winning majority.

That is how a democracy works. So again, showing respect, you need to be comfortable with accepting the fact that not everyone's going to agree with your position but what we taught today was how you can get more people to agree with your position and most likely, people you hadn't even considered might be interested in your position and so you started using some of these tools and looking a little differently at your landscape.

Ben: It kind of goes back to the engagement.

Kate: Exactly but also, it is engagement but it's also appreciating the fact that you can't get everyone to follow you so that's okay but how can you get that winning majority? How can you find people who you didn't think were interested and suddenly they are, through that relevant and meaningful information.


8. What are the things that people can do if they want to create a relevant and meaningful vision?

Chris: I think you fundamentally just start with why. You need to step back from however you're currently talking about the work or the intent and look at what underpins that. What I found is very often, you're starting two or three sort of steps down the line from that and it may be the actual reason for doing something has been completely lost.

So a technique I've used is where there seems to be a bit of lack of direction or a kind of lack of clarity around what's the intent, what's the reason for doing something is to ask everyone involved to independently and then anonymously right down why they think we're doing the work and then you put it all up on the wall and you do a bit of sort of -- what is it called when you join things together?


9. Clustering?

Chris: Yes, some clustering. Exactly. You kind of call out and say is this from that kind of build and you really have some a clear idea of where's the commonality, what is it we're really here to do. And from that, you then go kind of something that everyone has been involved in creating. It isn't just the stone tablets have come down, you've been told. We're about this. It's not like some kind of -- the post-mission statement that says we exist to do this, that, and the other and yada, yada, and I forgot what the first paragraph was in that.

It's about getting language that comes from people, the people you can build something together and then that could be somebody who you can always refer back to. I remember that session where we agreed that we're here to do this. And then I think that becomes a kind of a mantra really. I like the way Guy Kawasaki in the Art of the Start talks about the value of a mantra – something you could always go back to and help to reinforce it. And you get this also in the Pixar movies, for the creativity they had a couple of mantras.

One of them was trust the process, another was Story is King. Story is King is a fantastic one. It's like that was something that no one in Pixar could disagree with, Story is King, and that's part of what makes Pixar movies great and it means you've always got something you can go back to and say what am I doing that's going to help and contribute to making Story is King? Or in the example from the talk, what am I doing that's going to help and contribute just getting more members than ever? It's something that is ambitious, believable, and it's something you want to be a part of.

Kate: It's a big part of human nature that we tend to get very busy and we forget what the overall goal is why we're doing this and even if the exercise is simply to stop and ask people what do you think I said? How do you interpret what I'm asking you to do? And you're willing to hear what they say back because they're likely to tell you exactly the opposite of what you thought you were conveying and then you realize you know what, that maybe why it's not working because I'm actually using language that doesn't matter to them. This is particularly true if you're in technology and you're talking outside of the technology department.

I could be talking about a goal that to them seems important is Chris' initial goal was which is continuous automation but what does that mean to me if I'm sitting at the gym? And that I think is the value of just every now and then stepping back and saying why am I really doing this and are people actually hearing what I want them to hear?


10. Can you give some examples of using feedback to win the heart and mind of people?

Kate: You want to go first?

Chris: Yes, sure. So I think the example from the talk was the weekly demo is a great one where you can say, here's what we've been on so far. Are we on track? Are we off track? Immediately somebody -- you put something up on the screen, it's like, “What is that?” And kind of like, “Oh, right. That's really good” or, “That's going to be a real problem.”

So that's great initial feedback. Then if you really can't be actually speaking to people and kind of -- if you send an e-mail out, the feedback on the e-mail is it's hours or days or never. If you pick up the phone and speak to somebody and say, as we did with the 70 gyms, “Hey, you may have heard this new -- first of all, you got the feedback on --” “Hey, have you heard of this initiative?” And he was like no. It's like right, okay. Well, that didn't work. “So okay, let's now have a conversation about this.

Could you just see if this URL works for you?” “Yes, it does.” Great feedback. “Okay, could you now try doing this or --” and then so you're starting to get -- having sort of feedback that isn't synchronous but choosing communication channels aren't a synchronous where you can immediately see a response even if it is just a blank kind of. “Oh, my god what is that?” Or no voice on the line and somebody's jaw drops to the floor. But it's getting those sort of feedback and then once the system's up, you can then -- if you built the system in a way that it's properly instrumented, you can actually start to use data to see okay, we're getting responses from here but we're not getting responses from here and then you can use that data to start and forming conversations.

You can go and see -- but we're not seeing any vouchers being redeemed in this part of the UK, why might that be? And that's going to have some conversations with people here and see maybe we use some language that has a completely different meaning here or maybe we got a technical fault, means something's not happening.

So it's something that might I think -- it's getting to using a channel that means you're going to be getting kind of early and often feedback and you're not allowing things to just sort of -- it's not going to fire and forget. It's actually actively engaging with people.

Kate: I work with a lot of marketing departments and insight departments and I think one of the things that's happening right now is that there is -- truthfully, there's just too much information that's available and so part of what we tried to stress this morning is what is the right information for the situation that you're trying to work on at this moment in time?

It's not about getting more information, it's about getting more useful information and it's about getting information from the people who based on what we said this morning, are the sort of people that might be able to help break through that impasse that you find yourself in, that kind of hard and soft support that we talked about but that I think is part of what makes it difficult for people today who have access to the level of sophistication that technology brings is what matters. And so it's spending the time to figure out what exactly you're trying to achieve and then you can begin to assess what's the insight that you need to glean from what particular data.


11. If people are looking for ideas to help organization to change, is there any advice that you would like to give them?

Kate: Be patient. No seriously. That was the thing that we tried to convey this morning is that it takes time. The beauty of an election is they have a finish date from the moment they start. So you have to be pretty disciplined. You can't waste a lot of time. It's different in corporate life. Deadlines slip, executives get replaced, teams get moved to a different location, there's one reorganization after another. So you have to have some degree of patience and I think sometimes, you have to scale back and say I'm not going to solve the whole problem but if I start to solve the right problems, then at least I'm going to begin to make some progress.

Ben: Moving in the right direction.

Kate: Exactly but that takes -- they describe entrepreneurs as being relentless optimists and I think sometimes, whatever job you are in, entrepreneur or not, you need to be a relentless optimist, not a foolish one but one that realizes that progress can be made if you can create the right environment to do so.

Chris: Yes. I'll second that on the optimism point and Tim Brown, it's the IDEO guy isn't it? Tim Brown in Change by Design talks about the need for optimism and the damaging effect of cynicism, cynicism being something that prevents you from being free to conduct the experiments, prevents you from being free to take risks.

Back at Kate's point about reducing your scale. If you try to do everything at once, your energy will be dissipated, you need to find where are the open doors I can push on, where are the allies that I can find, he might help me and by doing small things and working with finding potential allies and working with them. You start to validate whether your intent for change really does have legs. You might discover actually you know what this change is not the right one. I thought it was the right thing but it wasn't but hey, this is.

So every little thing you're doing is giving you more -- is essentially feedback and is better in forming your position and it's growing the franchise and building sort of a grass roots support into what you're trying to achieve but it's also sense tracking what you're trying to achieve and saying, is this still the right thing? Has the world turned? Is this still what we should be doing? As I always say, you start small, push open doors, be optimistic.

Kate: And celebrate victory.

Chris: And absolutely celebrate victory. Absolutely. Yes, celebrate victory is what they say. I agree with that. It's one of my favorite things actually from one of my absolutely favorite tech books is a book called Debugging the Development Process. I think it's Steve Maguire. I might got that wrong. It's a Microsoft tech book from the '90s. It's pre-Agile but he says one of the things he does is send out these one line e-mails that just are about celebrating success. It's like the UI team just shipped a great new feature. Boom! Look at this. And it's rather than having like the weekly or monthly management report is this little boom, here we are. Look at this. Isn't this great and little and often.

Ben: Thank you very much for the interview.

Kate: Thank you.

Chris: Thank you very much.

May 20, 2016