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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Jaimee Newberry on Applying Agile Techniques to People

Jaimee Newberry on Applying Agile Techniques to People


1. My name is Ralph Winzinger, I’m here at QCon 2014 in London and I’m with Jaimee Newberry, so Jaimee please tell us who are you?

I’m Jaimee Newberry. I’m a coach, a consultant, a writer and a speaker. My background is in User Experience and Design. My background is that and moving forward I’ve been shifting into more coaching and helping grow creative teams and keep them healthy and happy, and focus on people.


2. So instead of creating interfaces for users, you are creating the interfaces of users now to make them interact better?

Very much so. So my most recent work, I guess the last year I’ve spent shifting my focus from the users and the products that we make for users to the humans that make the products for users. So the focus is very much on creating healthy people and happy people that are making the products that we use, because I think it’s like those California Cow commercials, happy cows make happy good food and good cheese. I think happy people make happy products.


3. Ok, that sounds reasonable, and what’s the way you are trying to do to make developers or teams happy?

I’m doing a lot of explorations still in methods and approaches for this but the approach that I’ve been using as a person with a design background it’s kind of a design your life philosophy and the approach that I’m using is very much the approach that we take when we design or build a product and developers are part of making products every day and the approach that I’m taking is if you put the same energy and dedication that we pour into every product we make to make an engaging experience for a user, if we put that same energy in focus into ourselves and actually treat our own lives as a product, it’s seems like a good little way to package it and then what can we accomplish, what we are capable of if we apply the same energy and dedication on to ourselves.


4. It’s basically the same process like in Software Development and Product Management after all?

Yes, I think it’s an approach that can work. So in the talk that I give here at QCon, it’s called Works in Progress and it basically breaks out product creation into four major chunks and I do that just to try to draw parallels and how we approach a product. So phase one for example would be Discovery and in Discovery we learn all about why are we creating this product and we come up with designs principles or Core values that we can always draw back to and make sure that wherever we go with our Road Map that it's going to be in line with this grand vision of where we need to go. And so we come up with basically a road map for our life and we have something, some values that we can cross check back and make sure we are aligned and then we break it into design and this is kind of coming up with, in the product world we do everything from wire framing to prototyping and things like that to visual design and esthetics, we do all of these sort of things in a design process and in the Life Parallel it would be coming up with a plan: Looking at your Core values and the ideals of what you want to be and where you want to go in your life and then finding all of the resources you have whether it’s people, skills, experience, ideas and you mash that together into a plan and you try to boil it down into something actionable, a plan. And then we move into development, and development is putting the plan into action, it’s actually doing the work.

Developing in the product world is very much about doing the code, making things work and in the Life Parallel it’s putting it to action, making things happen and my approach was initially to start with 30 day sprints and you know that’s a trial an error sort of thing and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. So I have again in my talk few other approaches that I talk about that I think I’m working through still and that I’ve been able to help guide others into this sort of approach and anyway put things into action so that we actually see some results and try different things. You know, it’s not like a canned solution that works for everyone, everybody has their own situation and needs, and so I just try to really understand what that person – you know, I saw talk today from Dan North and he talked about meeting the person where they are and that it’s very much, I mean it’s very much the approach, you really have to ... the individual or the team that you are working with and meet them where their add and that it’s a perfect way. And the last, the fourth chunk is Iteration. Just like with any product you get something out there and then you realize that changes need to happen or circumstances in your life, the Life Parallel here is that circumstances change and we have to back to those ideals, that list that we created in the Discovery process and say what is aligning and what is not aligning and where do we need to course correct and really shift things so that we are achieving the success that we want - Iteration.


5. Ok, when you are talking about the goals that you want to reach or the people want to reach, who defines these goals, how do you find out about what makes people happy?

So this is something that I think is very unique to every individual and so the question that I ask, most people will say you know: “What is next, how do I figure out what is next” and a friend said to me quite imposing one day, but this line stuck with me, he said: “It’s not about what is next, it’s about what is important” and that was sort of bell going off in my head: “that it’s, that is the answer”. It’s about what is important and so I think if we learn as individuals to prioritize our goals in terms of what is important and not necessarily what is next it helps surface the things we should be focusing on. You know, the ‘what is next’ kind of falls into place if we are putting our focus into what is important. So in adjusting individuals it’s very much asking them what is important and exploring the fears that surround that, often fears are the thing that hold us back and it’s very, very real, you have to address the fears, sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s just “What if I fail?”. It’s ok, we have to get those out and figure out what the fears are so that we know how to put everything together and make a realistic action plan.

Ralph: So just like we heard before it’s the stuff that creates business value and the stuff that is critical, that has to be first.

Yes, it really does, and you know you have to constantly be asking like: ”Why? What is the problem I’m trying to solve?”. You ask the same question with the product: “What problem are we trying to solve?” and with the Life Parallel – I refer to that phrase a lot - Life Parallel, is asking what problem I’m trying to solve and maybe it’s not a problem, it’s just a goal, but what am I trying to accomplish by the subsequent actions that I’m going to arrive at. You know, figuring out why we are doing something is the best way to find a solution. A lot of people start with a solution. “I’m going to eat better for 30 days”, but what exactly are we trying to solve, are we trying to lose weight, are we just trying to be healthier or we are trying to teach values for children, we have to always take a step back and figure out what we are trying to solve, before we start dropping solutions into place.


6. Do you work with teams or with individuals or it’s both?

It’s both, so how this kind of started is as a experienced designer, I was a director of User Experience in my former post and I would go into large companies and usually I was tasked with, we need to build an app and so as a dutiful, responsible User Experience practitioner, my first question is “Why?” - the stuff we just talk about - is "Why?", what are we trying to solve with an app, and interestingly what I would end up doing in most of those engagements was, yes, there is the app and the road map and building that but there was the people part of it, I would end up well in very awesome conversations about: “We want to do this and we think this is right but we can't because ...”, and it really boiled down to communication. And so, helping teams become better communicators within their organization, helping the business understand what the creative team is capable of. Creative teams are always tasked with: ”We need to innovate, we need to innovate” and yet they are never presented the right question to allow innovation. They are always presented with solutions: "Here, design this". I use a bridge analogy in my talk about this straight thing: “Build a bridge”.

Before we build a bridge we should be asking what are we trying to solve, so we know that the bridge is actually the right solution. We might need a liane that swings from point A to point B, or might be a zip line, who knows. Maybe a bridge really isn’t the best solution, somebody decided the bridge was, but a designer or a developer really should understand what are we trying to solve with this solution before you get to the solution, and so I apply the same principles to working with individuals and whether it’s fostering communication within a team to build a stronger team that makes a happier team because people are understanding each other better. If it’s individuals sometimes it’s professional development that I’m helping a person with and that is helping them reach different career goals or shift careers entirely and the focus is still, it’s very much on what are we trying to solve and where do you want to go, where do you see yourself going and then figuring out what the solution is, it’s very much an individual thing even with teams.


7. If you approach people with this kind of process or technique, what is the reaction?

So you know I think so far the reaction has been really strong and positive, you know I think, I always have a little bit of like I do try to do some due diligence and go back and do follow up to see, you know, for example I had an engagement with a small team last year, startup team, and they had a very unhappy designer. And I coached the two business owners and the designer individually and then I’ve been following up with them about every three months just to see if things are sustaining or if things fell back into the previous state. And so far things have sustained and in my process it’s basically just the focus there was 100% communication and one person needed to let go a little bit of rigid process and be a little more flexible. So you know, the process for them was different than the approach that I would take for, that I took for another team, that was an advertising agency’s creative team. Very different approaches, these guys just needed some skill building, the other team just needed communication channels to be opened up, so yes, the approach varies a little bit but relating to a product helps people wrap their minds around something familiar in our industry at least.

Ralph: It’s kind of the stuff that they do every day in their work now applied to themselves.

Exactly. And I think often we overlook ourselves a little bit, I mean we get so focused on what we are doing or what we are making and who we are making for, which are very important things but I think if we really are going to create our best work and you know we talk the theme of our track, mobile track it’s about tomorrow and the next generation of devices and interfaces and interaction. And if we are creating those things and we are inspiring generations to come, we really need to look at ourselves and take care of ourselves, and making sure that we are putting everything out there that we can. I think investing in ourselves in that way is hugely important.


8. Is there a difference between say bigger organizations and smaller ones towards acceptance?

Yes. So, you know, I found in the larger organizations, there are all very, so far everybody it’s been very receptive, but how long things last or they are all very positive, like yes, we can do this and we support these changes but when it really comes into putting them into action, that is where it see the difference. The smaller teams are often able to be more flexible and they are often - startups for instance changes are sort of the name of the game, like things move quickly and things are willing to make changes if that is what the feedback requires, if that users want. There are little more flexible and they are able to be a little more flexible. Often the bigger organizations, a lot of the Fortune 500 folks, they run into a little bit more people resist change often and so if this is a change that is coming from the upper management and trickling down often there is resistance, so there is more ... that you have to be really mindful of and so I think that it’s why it’s very important if you are in large organization to really talk to the individuals and understand each individuals perspective and target it that way, not just like a big canvassed “Surprise! Things are changing”. It’s hard to change things in a big organization, but it can be done, and it doesn’t have to be heavy handed.

Ralph: Ok, but are there some kind of dead fish projects, you know where you come to a place and you see the teams, see the management.

“This is not going to work” So, you know, I haven’t in my course of doing the coaching just the last year and a half, I haven’t run into that. Yet, I know I will though and I know I’ve been in those environments where - you know, like design, just having a background in design, you go to groups where it’s like a development based company and they want to believe in design and they want to preach that design is the priority but they don’t understand how to work design into their everyday process. I know that it’s a little different than the dead fish project but in a way you walk in the door and you can see that design will never really take here, it will never be the priority that it needs to be. So in that regard, I have experienced that in the past and you do what you can and you lay it out there and you communicate directly and that’s really, to me it’s the most important piece if I’ve learned anything in like 17 years of doing what I do. It’s the communication, the direct open honest communication is really the key, if it’s going to work at all, if there it’s any hope of all working at all, it has to start there and if I do that and it still seems like it’s not going to be, then let’s save everybody some time and money and we’ll part ways for sure, no sense in wasting time or money.


9. The goal is to make people happier in the place they are, where they work. How do you measure this? In UI design we have conversion rates, we have AB Testing whatever, but how does this apply to people?

You ask them. In some way, when you are working on a larger scale, again like I was mentioning, kind of going back to check things out, after, due diligence. I think that it’s an important part of it, you ask them, did this work, are the methods sticking, what could we do better, where do we need to course correct, what kind of follow up, the kind of follow up is really important. Getting feedback. I mean this is a big piece of it. Individuals who are trying to grow and change should be getting feedback the same way we get feedback on our products. We ask for feedback, we ask people to tell us what is good, what is bad, be honest. We should be doing the same thing with ourselves We should go to former colleagues and current colleagues and bosses or partners or employees, people with work with in any capacity even family members and ask what it is like to work with me, what it is like to live with me, what kind of person am I. Ask these questions and you determine how you take the feedback. But expect open and honest feedback.

Don’t just ask people that you’ve had positive experiences with, ask people you’ve had negative experiences with too, because you will get honest feedback if you open yourself up to it. And that feedback is so valuable, I can’t even tell you. I mean, I have done this and I’ve asked people “what is it like to work with Jaimee Newberry? Just honest answer, send in an email or whatever” and I got amazing responses. I got a couple videos, I got a cartoon illustration from one of my former animator friends - still friend - former animator colleague. So yes, it’s amazing when you get back and it’s all very honest and at least seems genuine, so it’s quite a life changing experience to have people, it’s almost like going to a funeral, your own funeral where people say things about you, about your life, it’s very fascinating. I encourage people to do that, get feedback from people, get feedback from your community and if you are doing this as a coach, get feedback as a coach. Go back and check-in on the situation, you got to stay in tune, so you can make changes to your methods if you need to.


10. That is right. So be honest, working with people sometimes is really hard, so do you sometimes think: “Oh, could this team just be a website and I can change it the way I want and it works?”

I think the path to being a coach comes from a genuine interest in human beings and it’s not going to be for everyone, not everybody it’s going to be like I love human beings and I love the way they work and I want to make them happier people. I’m genuinely fascinated in human beings and their ability to believe in themselves. Like I get inspired when I see people overcome a little obstacle and like achieve something, even it’s a small thing, usually most of our stuff is mental, most our hang ups are in here, nine times out of ten, and helping people through those I haven’t had the instance yet where I’m not interested in really kind of attacking the people and trying to help in some way. I don’t know if I answered your question correctly, but I think that if I’m understanding what you are asking, I haven’t run into that where we can simplify this, I mean I think there is always a solution to be found trying few things if they are willing to stick it out and stick with it and keep trying, then I’m willing to be there, so I don’t know.

Ralph: And after all making people happy is really a great goal.

It is. I mean sure you have your stubborn folks, especially when you are working with the teams you’ll have like a stubborn guy in the corner “Whatever this is, like, this is stupid, I’m not doing this”. That happens, of course it happens and you know I think it’s really, it’s taking the time and being patient if the client will allow the time to build those relationships and build trust with those individuals, that is when the magic sort of happens. You have to build trust and you have to build a relationship with the individuals of a team at an individual level. Not everybody responses the same to the sorts of things, people get territorial, get more ..., like what is going on, get concerned and panicked, at times when consultants coming in to, usually not to help us be happier, usually there is some workshop premise or trying to shift things in this direction or that direction, but the life as a product thing usually surfaces at one on one level helping individuals not sort of tailored way.

Ralph: Ok, so I hope you have lots of success with your techniques and make lots of people happy, thank you!

Thank you, thanks very much!

May 05, 2014