Somewhere Between Vulnerability and Design Thinking

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My story of discovering, first-hand, how important psychological safety is to teams pinning their innovation hopes on frameworks like design thinking.

I sat up from the exercise mat I was lying on and pushed myself off the gym floor. I hustled over to the window sill where my jacket, water bottle, and phone sat. I anxiously fumbled to unlock my phone and to tap the rewind button on the audio book, Dare to Lead, I was listening to so I could hear the last part once more.

The author, Brené Brown, was reciting a thought she always imparts to the leadership teams she coaches at the very start of their engagements.

“What, if anything, about the way that people are leading today needs to change in order for leaders to be successful in a complex, rapidly changing environment where we’re faced with, what seems like, intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation?

“While the question is complex, there was one answer that repeated…

“We need braver leaders and more courageous cultures.”

A chill traced down my neck.

For the past few years I had been working with corporate innovation teams who were in over their heads trying to answer “What’s next?” Stuck, team after team invited me to arm them with new tools like Google’s design sprint. They hoped and prayed it would be the spark they needed to save their company from succumbing to the competition closing in on them.

But the same pattern appeared, team after team, workshop after workshop—a room full of momentarily reinvigorated individuals who, at the end of the session, realized they had only used new methods to derive the same old stale concepts. They were right back where they started, now with a smidge less hope for the future.

I went back to the quote from the book again… “Braver leaders and more courageous cultures.” A moment of complete clarity produced two equally exciting and terrifying thoughts:

  1. Excitement: The overwhelming realization that the intersection of Brené’s vulnerability work and my design thinking work is the path to leading fulfilling work for people and creating true innovation for companies.
  2. Terror: The story I was telling myself in that moment—I’m not qualified to do this work, and even if I am, people in the business world only care about business results.

Maybe some folks, but just as my inner critic was about to run rampant, like clockwork, Brown narrated the perfect Marcus Aurelius quote to silence that critic:

“What stands in the way, is the way.”

Another chill. No matter what, I knew I needed to bring these ideas forward.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I stopped my workout short and scurried out of the gym. I sat in my car in the parking lot, furiously scribbling to try and keep my hand at pace with the ideas, words, and diagrams bubbling up.

I had been learning from Brown for three years, incorporating bits and pieces of her research into my work. But only today did I experience the validation of how interconnected our two worlds are.

Without Brown’s work, teams that are trying to innovate might never develop a culture of leaders that trust and hold one another accountable.

Without my work, teams that are pursuing trust and daring leadership might never procure the methods that enable them to innovate and co-create together.

Encountering fear in the workplace

Over the years I’ve met so many brave souls, people working inside large corporations who are pushing for new and better ways of designing products and services but are facing cultural setback after setback.

I recently learned about Ron Westrum’s three cultures model, which organizes companies in one of three domains:

  • Pathological. Dread and uncertainty drive people to keep their heads down and shirk responsibilities for fear of being labeled a failure by those with power.
  • Bureaucratic. There’s autonomy, trust, and modest novelty, but only within the team or department. At the company level, things are done based on pre-defined rules, developed by the few with power.
  • Generative. Because trust is certain, people aren’t only creative and novel, but follow ideas that naturally bring out their best performance and that of those around them. That performance then inspires the next generation of people and big ideas to flourish, and so on.

The bad news is that the overwhelming majority of us in the corporate world work within pathological or bureaucratic companies. Worse, the companies that need to change the most are the same ones where change is treated as a threat.

The result is teams that are unwilling to trust one another or the vision of the company.
Teams where power usurps performance.
Teams where creativity is strangled by a fear of failing.

To overcome all of this requires tremendous courage—more than you and I signed up for when accepting our job offers.

And so instead of facing the storm, we duck and cover. We choose safety over courage. We act human.

Mistrust in design sprints

I train groups how to have more success with their innovation initiatives through tools like design sprints, but it took me a couple years before conceding that not all cultures are ready to innovate, regardless how perfect the opportunity, market conditions, and methods.

What I’ve learned over these past couple years is that it’s the people in the organization who make or break a design sprint’s success. What I also learned is that most organizations have one, two, or a handful of people immediately ready to try something new; the innovators and early adopters are, in my experience, only about 16% of the typical team. The rest of the organization isn’t so quick to realize change is necessary, or that a particular tool or method is the right approach. The early majority—about a third of the people—gradually becomes curious and accepting of new tools and methods such as design sprints. The remaining half of the team is the late majority and laggards.

Prior to making the connection between the team’s readiness for change and the creative outcomes they need to produce, my design sprints could be self-described as remarkably average.

My typical story of working with teams in the early days looked like the this:

  • A design or product leader who’s been following my work and is ready to reboot how their teams work inquires to get my help with a design sprint.
  • I evaluate their readiness based on business case, identified problem, research, and team expertise.
  • I run a design sprint training session to introduce the process and tools. (Humbly speaking) the team has loads of fun, they bond, and they’re hands-down sold on the framework.
  • With the success of the training, I return to facilitate a problem framing workshop and design sprint on an actual business opportunity.
  • During the sprint, the excitement dies off when the solutions generated are the same old ideas they’d been talking about for years. The fun and light-heartedness displayed during training (i.e. generative culture traits) are replaced with fear, ego, and power (i.e. pathological); for example a marketing VP silences a junior engineer’s wild idea, blindly claiming “our users have never asked for that so let’s not waste time there.”
  • The core team falls in love with the overall process but feels something is missing and retreats to the safety of their existing tools.
  • Leadership is underwhelmed by the results.
  • Due to outcome bias, many future design sprints are rejected or canceled because the first sprint was a failure by not producing the anticipated ROI—viable, tested prototypes the company can begin to build and ship.

What happened?

What stands in the way, is the way.

Standing in the way of great design and innovation is the hard work of building trust, repairing conversations, and leveling the field of power so that everyone in the room feels as equally safe failing as they do winning. Only then can teams begin to explore new tools and methods like design sprints.

In other words, there cannot be digital transformation without cultural transformation first.

Or as executive coach Michelle Poole said to me once, in an echo of Marcus Aurelius, “We can’t get to the doing without first working on being.”

Bringing psychological safety into design sprints

Although we can’t leapfrog from pathological cultures to generative cultures overnight, the changes required are small so long as you’re willing to be persistent and patient.

Yes, everyone in the room who’s licking their chops to do a design sprint will wonder why you’re talking about safety, courage, shame, and accountability. Stick with it.

I’ve been working at it for three years now and just beginning to figure things out for myself. For example, only recently did I learn about psychological safety through the work Google did with Project Aristotle—their quest to answer the question, ‘What makes for an effective team?’

But now, after lots of research and experimentation, I’m beginning to see the teams I work with become willing to slow down in order to first build trust.

Executive vulnerability

Design sprints are not only new for most, but the expectations are also high. The people joining the sprint will feel vulnerable to potential criticism of their ideas, which means their ideas will remain theirs—locked away safely from the cynics.

I recently worked with one pathological organization that wanted my help to envision their next generation of healthcare products.

As I prepared for an upcoming teamwide call, Daria, the global head of customer experience, alerted me, “I just want to warn you, most of the folks joining from my team probably won’t contribute much.”

Suspecting she was at least partially responsible, I asked, “Why do you think that is?”
Daria replied, “I don’t know, I guess that’s just the way the culture is.”

I knew that as long as the team remained untrusting, of Daria or of one another, their product ideas would fail to have the impact their business demanded and customers wanted.

As an outsider, I knew it would be safe for me to bring this threat front and center, so that the team could acknowledge and overcome it.

During the meeting, after a brief introduction to some of Brown’s work on establishing psychological safety, I incorporated one of her methods by asking each person to silently and individually complete the following two sentences:

I grew up believing that vulnerability (or shame) is ________.
In order to feel safe, I need ________.

Most of the team spent the next few seconds shifting between glancing at me and staring at their post-its. Once they accepted the task as imminent, they started to scribble, crumple, shove aside, scribble again, look around, scribble some more.

At the moment of truth, it was Daria who stood up first.

Given her seemingly pathological style  leadership, I was wary that her contributions would be demotivating, pompous, dismissive, or all of the above. To the contrary, the group and I were in for a surprise.

She thumbed her two post-its on the whiteboard, cleared her throat, and shared with the others now intently focused on her.

“I grew up believing that vulnerability is the gateway for people to take advantage of me. In order to feel safe, I need to give trust in order to get trust.”

I let the silence fill the room until someone else had the courage to break it.

Marius, eyes darting from one person to the next, stood up to indicate he wanted to go next. As he walked toward the board he remarked, “Wow… Daria… I… was not expecting that. Thanks for sharing that.”

One by one, the rest shared. When the last person finished, they broke into applause for themselves. Smiles filled the room. Two people who had been sitting at the far end of the table moved to be near the others.

You could feel the energy in the room shift.

“Now” I said, “we’re ready to talk about design sprints.”

Wrapping up

What’s inspired me most about this work is the simple realization that the cure to disconnection and mistrust is building empathy with one another—the very same empathy we’re trying to cultivate with our users so that we can create products and services that meet their needs.

Like you, I came into design sprints looking to build better products and services, faster. That’s still certainly a goal of this work.

But with each sprint I run, team I train, and leader I coach, I see the same fear, mistrust, and disconnection that holds good teams back from being great.

When they push through the scary, awkward, and squishy human stuff, the business results come pouring down. Or as my coach, Helge Hellberg, imparted to me once:

“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

Jay Melone

Jay Melone is a partner at New Haircut. He helps organizations unlock team trust, performance, and accountability by tapping the combined human and business value of design thinking. They accomplish this through their Product Sprint Program and design sprint facilitation. More about Jay can be found on: LinkedIn and Twitter.
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