Working on teams is great because we get to share our skill sets and learn from one another as we build.
However, there are moments that prove to be challenging, like…when you think you’re in agreement with your team, get to work, then days later the decision gets shot down. All that wasted time, energy, and effort!
Or…when you’re excited to try something new, but you can’t because you have to get approval from multiple people, some who don’t even know who you are!
Dealing with all the drama can be demotivating and stifle innovation.
So how do you get groups people out of their own way in order to make decisions, deliver on innovations, and expose weaknesses in strategy? Is it even possible?
Yes, it is. And my goal in today’s episode is to show you how!
I’ve invited Janice Fraser, Director of the People Team at Pivotal Labs. Janice has a rich 16-year career with notable accomplishments such as being the CEO and Founder of Luxr, CEO of Adaptive Path, and more.
We’ll focus the conversation on showing how to govern teams that are self-governing through a concept known as balanced teams, and much of what we’re going to showcase is based on the principles and practices of Extreme Programming by Kent Beck.
While much of what we’ll cover applies to building software products, Janice has also applied it to creating policies and processes for enterprises and the Obama administration.
This is a really meaty episode, where we’ll be getting into the weeds. Here’s what we’ll cover:
If you’ve been wondering how to make a shift in your organization, and have struggled to get people onboard, then you’ll want to watch this episode!
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Janice from the episode:
“Agreement happens when people agree to stop talking. People stop talking when they feel understood. Understanding happens between individual pairs of brains.”
You can listen to this episode of FemgineerTV on iTunes. Please take a moment to leave us a review. Your positive review will help us get featured in News & Noteworthy and bring more exposure to the work we’re doing, as well as the talented guests we feature!
Poornima Vijayashanker: Hey, Janice. Thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Janice Fraser: Yeah. A pleasure, absolutely.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. How’s it going?
Janice Fraser: Good. Really good. My cat did not wake me up last night which is always…that’s always a bonus. She’s still a little bit of a kitten so…
Poornima Vijayashanker: How old is she?
Janice Fraser: She’s about a year old.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.
Janice Fraser: She really, really, really likes to play at 3 am and often jumps on my face.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I’ve got cats, too, and they definitely sleep with us and I thought that… One of my cats actually is…I think he’s got like a deviated septum or something because he sounds like Darth Vader. He’ll sit on my pillow and be like…I’m like, “I’m trying to get some sleep.” It’s always like the one hour before I need to wake up, so I’m just like, “I just want one more hour of sleep.”
Welcome to the 20th episode of Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. In this show, I host innovators in tech and together, we debunk myths and misconceptions related to building products and companies in tech. Working on teams is great because we get to share our skills and learn from one another. However, there are moments that can be really challenging, such as trying to get buy-in from our teammates or trying to get through a lot of processes that can be bureaucratic and it can be demotivating when it comes to innovation. How do you get groups of people to work together, deliver on innovations, and expose any weaknesses that are in their strategy?
These are just a few questions that we’re going to answer in today’s episode. To help us out, I’ve invited Janice Fraser, who is the director on the People Team at Pivotal. Janice has a rich career spanning 20 years where she’s had notable accomplishments, like being the CEO and founder of Luxr as well as Adaptive Path and more. Thanks so much for joining us, Janice.
Janice Fraser: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I’m excited to talk about all the work that you do but before we dive into that, I want to go back to the beginning and walk me through your early career and some of the key learnings that you had in those early years.
Janice Fraser: Sure. Happy to do that. My career started a very long time ago and before kind of the internet thing happened, I was a magazine editor but really kind of the work…I learned a lot then but the work that we’re going to talk about today really started in 1996, about six months after Netscape’s IPO. I joined that team and it was a wild team. We were trying to figure out that there was this new thing, the public web. Netscape, for those who were not born yet, Netscape was the company that created that. They were the first publicly distributed web browser and was really a very heady time. I was there for 18 months. When I started, we had two buildings in Mountain View, California, and when I left 18 months later, we had 36 buildings.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow.
Janice Fraser: The amount of growth like even puts Facebook’s ascent into context. We were trying at that time to figure out like what do you do with this thing. We have this internet thing and Netscape had literally 100% of all internet traffic. Public internet traffic went through the Netscape website. That was kind of the kickoff of my really deep tech kind of like what do we do with tech career. After that, really, I didn’t have another regular job until I started at Pivotal a few years ago because I did what is now very popular but at the time was very rare. I went independent. I’m like, I’m going to do this stuff but I’m going to do it just as a lone wolf. It felt like jumping off a cliff and not have a company supporting you but it was a blast.
At a certain point, just a few years later, one of my clients said, “I’m going to start a company.” I was consulting for Silicon Graphics. My client said, “I’m going to start a company. Would you be my co-founder?” My official career as an entrepreneur started then. That company, it was the heyday of the dotcom boom. That company literally was acquired, acqui-hired four months after it was founded by a division, a subsidiary of Whole Foods. We were called Whole People and so we did that. Then, the dot bust happened. It was like I’ve had this series of just incredible experiences.
I’ve started more than six companies. One of them, you mentioned, was Adaptive Path. I would say that that company had a tremendous impact. It was never a large company. We took funding but we did develop a product and sell it to Google for cash in 10 months with a 12x…we got 12x back from our investment. It was incredible. I was the founder and CEO of that company. It was really amazing. I was there for six years. I left there to start the next thing which was when I was an entrepreneur-in-residence for Kapor Capital, so really lovely times. Adaptive Path was notable because we were trying to figure out, OK, so if Netscape was what we do with the internet, Adaptive Path was how do we do it and make it not stuck, right?
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I met a lot of notable designers and engineers working.
Janice Fraser: Absolutely.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I know we had Indi Young on our show earlier.
Janice Fraser: Oh, my God. Indi. She’s a genius, absolute genius. We were very privileged with both of those companies to be intellectually in community with a bunch of people who were trying to figure out what do we do with this thing that is unfigured out, right? It was a community. The company itself was a community and then, we were participating in a community of thought. We really were arguably the first user experience from ever and we were part of this emerging user experience field.
The next time I had that kind of experience was Luxr, which was a venture funded startup. I found out later from some research at Babson College that only 186 female CEOs were funded during that period of time, that was a three-year period of time. Out of 6,500 venture fundings, I was one of those 186. I take that as a kind of badge of honor. We were again trying to figure out, kind of we were at that edge of something new. We were trying to figure out how people could practice entrepreneurship more consciously and more successfully.
We were sort of supported and inspired by a couple of our investors who wanted their product portfolio to suck less, right, so how can we get teams of entrepreneurs… This is where I started thinking about this team thing in a much more explicit way, always getting people to do things together was an issue or a question that I was interested in but that’s where I really tried to hone in on what is it that gets people to collaborate effectively because when you’re a startup, when you’re starting from zero and you have to show results very quickly, that core team must be extraordinarily functional.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes.
Janice Fraser: At Luxr, we really tried to perfect that practice. We ran what’s…it would not be considered an accelerator program. This was right at the advent of the real explosion in entrepreneurship. We had about 50 companies go through a 12-week program where they would come to our studio one day a week for 12 weeks, 10 weeks and would work on their products all day. Sometimes, when we were screening companies to come into the program, they said, “Well, I can’t take a day off of work.” I said, “OK, so you think that it’s a day off to spend a day with your core team working on your product? Let’s talk about that concept.” They went, “Oh.” Right?
Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.
Janice Fraser: How they responded to that challenge was part of what made us want to work with a company or not. It’s like, are they willing to stop pitching their VCs, etc., etc., and just make decisions about product for a day? At Luxr, we explored a couple of really core ideas which I think I’d like to talk about a little bit today.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.
Janice Fraser: One is balanced team because that really talks about how teams function and it’s sort of about how do we govern teams that are self-governing. The other is lean startup, which is not just for startups anymore, I would say. Both of those things became real cornerstones in what we practiced at Luxr and now, what we’ve brought into Pivotal. Our whole Luxr team joined Pivotal. It was not an acquisition. I just want to be clear about that. It was sort of an acquisition but we brought the whole team in because this gives us a platform to do this work on a much larger scale. That’s kind of the arc of the career that’s brought us into this conversation today.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Mind you, you didn’t have an entrepreneurial background like you didn’t have parents or growing up, you weren’t thinking like, “I’m going to wake up in the morning and be an entrepreneur?”
Janice Fraser: I never thought of it as a career option for a lot of reasons. I mean I came up in the early ‘80s. My high school was in the…nobody talked about this stuff. I’m from Ohio. I didn’t know a single person in technology, let alone entrepreneurship, but before there was entrepreneurship in today’s form, there were people who started businesses. My father was an independent business person for most of his career. He was an engineer. He designed radioactive waste disposal systems. OK.
Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s pretty compelling. Yeah, it’s important work.
Janice Fraser: It turns out. Important work. He did that as an independent business person. My stepmother started a support center in rural Ohio for families and people who are affected by addiction, so again, entrepreneurial but not entrepreneurship in its current form. That kind of thinking has always been around. Same is true with my husband’s family. His father had his own business. His mother was an international business person in a manufacturing capacity. While I had absolutely no idea that entrepreneurship was an option, that it would be right for me, it certainly was in my DNA and so, that seeking that happens when you’re working at the edge of newness which I think is really the theme of my career, that comes from that desire to create something out of nothing, to make things better by making things differently. I think it fits intellectually even though there was no formal training.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Actually, that’s what I was going to ask next. It seems like you didn’t have formal training but you very quickly adapted into these roles like being the CEO and founder. How did that transition happen?
Janice Fraser: Sure. My first CEO role was at Adaptive Path. When we started Adaptive Path, there were seven founders. A, lesson learned, don’t start a company with seven people mostly because the teamwork involved, the amount of communication that we had is really extraordinary but also, there’s a principle. It’s a lot easier to illustrate when I have a bunch of people in the room because I can like line them up and make them shake hands. Let’s say three people are meeting each other for the first time. Three people, you say shake hands. Let’s count the handshakes. You get three handshakes.
You add a fourth person to that dynamic and you say, “Let’s meet each other for the first time,” and what you’re going to get is six handshakes. You add one person, you double the number of handshakes. There’s actually a mathematical formula behind this, n times n minus one over two. The reason that matters is this: agreement happens when among other things, people agree to stop talking. People stop talking when they feel understood. All of this actually comes out of sales research, right? Tons of research has been done on behavioral psychology for sales, right? People stop talking when they feel understood and understanding happens between individual pairs of brains.
When you have that dynamic of adding one more person, has this n times n minus one over two formula, you get an extraordinary number of those soft agreements that have to have in between individuals before they want to stop talking, before they feel understood and before you can make a decision. For instance, I love Adaptive Path, extraordinarily special place but it took us six months of talking for 10 minutes every Tuesday at our team meeting, six months to decide whether or not to buy a $300 printer. That was excruciating to me. I just never want to have that happen ever again. I never want others to have to experience that.
I would say that as a founding team, when I was working with a very large number of teams, and observing 50 teams allows you to kind of see patterns, and what I found is that the teams that had three or two founders were much more efficient than the teams that had five, four, larger numbers. The teams that brought groups that could be divided into subgroups of three were able to make progress, make interesting things happen with very rapid progress. Teams of two tended to fall a little bit flat and teams of four, five, six just had extraordinarily more debate. When they made decisions, those decisions were much softer. It was a lot easier to derail the decisions.
You used the word “buy-in” earlier. I hate that phrase. I hate meetings. I hate the word “buy-in” and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I just think is not efficient. The thing about buy-in is that it’s often used as a very nonspecific descriptor for something that we don’t know how to define. Part of what I look for is something more refined and more specific. I call it the UBAD model, the UBAD because UBAD, right? You can remember that: understanding, belief, advocacy, decision. If you have, for instance, decision making without understanding, that’s a very soft position. It means that maybe sometime later, that person’s going to get surprised.
Poornima Vijayashanker: You shoot from the hip.
Janice Fraser: Right. Sometimes, you’ll think they understand but their understanding is only a surface understanding, not a deep understanding. We see that sometimes here at Pivotal. Clients would be like, “You guys do like extreme programming, you do pairing. This is fantastic. I want to come in. What do you mean you have to sit next to my developer all day?” When there are surprises like that, now you can say I can watch for depth of understanding and I can watch for belief. Then, I can see whether that decision then has durability.
What we’re looking for on all of this is really durable decision making, durable advocacy that’s actually going to help us to move forward in an aligned way. What you can do as a funder or as a team member is diagnose your buy-in by saying, “Do we have a belief and that is supported by understanding, in our advocacy, in our decisions?” That’s really what we’re talking about. Buy-in is a broad term that is sometimes really not very specifically understood. Sometimes, we feel powerless over it because like, “I think that you’ll agree with me but I don’t really know.” Now, with this kind of model, with this sort of more granular model, we can begin to diagnose like, how is everybody in the room feeling about what’s going on right now?
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Having that seven-person team did not help with this model but scaling back to smaller team certainly helped?
Janice Fraser: Yeah. I learned so much from that seven-person team. I mean they’re all just absolutely brilliant people and it was such a magnificently effective company in so many ways but those team dynamics were sometimes very rocky and difficult to manage. Decision making was somewhat slow in those early years. Part of what we’re talking about before I took us off track was how I became CEO. I think that it’s a really interesting story for some people who are earlier in their careers and want to get those opportunities.
As I said, for the first two years, we were an egalitarian partnership. We voted on everything which was great for where we were because we were small business. We just wanted the seven of us to do the work. We didn’t hire a team. We had one employee at first, number one. He was number one. He became the COO of the company. What that meant is that we could not grow. We were doing so well financially. We had more work than we could handle. We closed most of the business that we pursued and so we were leaving money on the table and we knew that we could have a significant impact if we allowed the company to grow.
That meant that we needed to organize because you can’t have this complete consensus model if you want to have staff, if you want to have more growth opportunity. We decided to grow the company. We decided to do that without taking any financing and we, at the time, were organized around being a user experience firm because user experience was still very new. We did events and workshops and consulting and wrote papers and a number of other things.
What I stepped up to do, I was already sort of a leader of that part of the company, so what I stepped up to do was organize something called Project Adaptive Future, like what do we want to be? We did a five- or six-month exploration of what do we want to be, how would we be organized, what are our core values, what do we stand for now that we’re a few years into this journey and that Project Adaptive Future really laid out the roadmap and the strategy for what we did in the next several years.
After I led that project, they said, “Look. This is the work of a CEO.” I want that job and so, one of the things that we hear about women is that we don’t ask for what we want or deserve. This is one of those moments that I’m so proud that I asked for it and I got it. In the years that I was the CEO, we did very well. I’m super proud that I had that insight to do it and looking back, I don’t know how I had the guts to ask for the job.
Poornima Vijayashanker: If you’re already doing the work, why not?
Janice Fraser: Yes.
Poornima Vijayashanker: It makes sense to me.
Janice Fraser: In retrospect, that sounds right but at that time, it was like…for me, it was a pretty ballsy move.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Then after that, what happened after your Adaptive Path? Adaptive Path eventually got sold to Capital One.
Janice Fraser: Right. I was long gone by that time. It had moved on. I left in…my last day was I think December 31, 2006. Which decade was that? 2006.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, one decade ago.
Janice Fraser: I went to Kapor Capital and was an entrepreneur-in-residence there, explored a few ideas and then, moved on to…within Kapor Capital, I started another startup. That one was super interesting. It’s how I met Pivotal. I was their client first but it was 2007, ’08, ’09. It was very high-minded. We were mapping the social network at a pass. It was an answer to genealogy. It was like super high-minded, not a clear revenue model. By, I would say January 2009, those companies had no future because we all remember…
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, sometimes.
Janice Fraser: No venture financings in January 2009 and the things that were going to have a future as a startup had to really be very clear, that they have a very clear path to profitability. That’s what happened to that one but that led to Luxr. Luxr was really incredible, again, one of those super small companies that was very influential.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Talk to us about what Luxr did and then how that transitioned into the work that you’re doing now.
Janice Fraser: Sure. Luxr, as I said before, Luxr was about helping entrepreneurs to be more predictably successful. Because we were entirely focused on understanding the patterns that led to effective, efficient decision making, that led to growth, that led to positive, what we now would call net promoter scores, like really positive metrics-based decision making. We’re very focused on fact-based decision making. Some of the things that we take for granted now, things like the Google Design Sprint, that one-week innovation sprint that they do, that’s the kind of stuff that we were doing at the time. What we were able to do was develop a methodology rooted in good user experience, rooted in business model canvas thinking, rooted in lean startup. It was through that work that we really saw the value of a balanced team. Maybe this is now a good time to talk about what balanced team actually is.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. What is it?
Janice Fraser: There’s this idea that when we’re working on a product team, but I’ve also now learned that it works for a lot of other kinds of teams, when you’re creating a thing, whether that’s a policy as what I’ve done with government, when you’re creating a policy or a product or a process, when we’re inventing that new thing, in many cases, the old way would be to have somebody who had some sort of business analyst kind of title, a business analyst sort of responsibility or maybe it was the CEO of a startup who thought they knew everything, would write down what it’s supposed to be and then, hand that off to somebody who is supposed to make the thing. We had one person who’s imbued with the power to think it up and then, everybody else had to execute on that.
The problem with that is that the things that we’re doing are so complex that that person or team that’s supposed to think it up, they actually don’t have complete information A group of people started to really think about patterns that they had seen that were effective and that got kind of labeled a balanced team. That set of patterns includes things like shared ownership. Rather than separating thinking it up and executing on it, what we want is to have…I’m going to describe this as a software thing, but it really extends way beyond software, but we’re Femgineer TV, so I think I’m safe.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure. Yes.
Janice Fraser: In a software team, I would say that user experience is one of the core functions. For most software, the user experience person is what I would call the empathizer-in-chief. Everybody has an equal responsibility to understand customers, understand users, to understand that complexity, but somebody should make it their life’s work to know how to do that right and how to translate that into experiences. That person, that user experience person is…it’s a vertical function. It’s a craft and somebody should own that as an expert. You should always know that we can turn to that user experience person to have an authoritative voice about what the most important customer problems are to solve and whether or not this product is solving them. That’s one role.
The next role is the engineering role. You think about engineers, I say raise high the roof beam’s carpenters. They’re the people who can invent the best possible solutions given available technical capabilities. There’s no way anybody else in the team is going to be as expert at that as the engineer. Then, you have a product manager. We used to have requirements in project managers. That whole infrastructure should be thrown out the window. If you’re still doing that, I’m sorry. It’s wrong. Throw it out the window. I’m so sorry. It’s just not efficient and it doesn’t turn out software that is reliably effective. It’s that effectiveness piece that makes it not fun, not good.
The product manager, not project manager, product manager is a horizontal function. If engineering and design, UX design are both craft, this is really about understanding the breadth of conflicting priorities and navigating that difficult space of the business needs this, the user needs that, like all of these different competing interests and somewhere in there, we have to navigate that. I would say that that person’s real special skill is about understanding the new ones balanced and making decisions in the face of inadequate information. A product manager’s genius is to be able to make calls in the face of inadequate information.
That set of people, you can see there’s no one person on that team that should run the show. Balanced team says that we have trust in each other to be experts in our disciplines, that we respect each other’s ability to make the decision. Rather than saying there’s one person who is the authority and they’re going to make the call, you say, “OK, you know what…” Product manager says, “You know what, I think that this is really a user experience issue so I’m going to trust you to make the call and by the way, if you make a call and we discover that it’s not right, I’ve got your back.”
That respect comes with the safety that we know we’re going to make bad calls, we know we’re going to make mistakes and it’s OK because we have enough respect that we’re all in it together that we are going to support one another in that. What that means is that we stop hoarding. What’s interesting about this is that this all came out of really a bunch of people who were out of a user experience background who wanted to partner with developers but it mirrors almost completely extreme programming, which is the kind of program that we do here at Pivotal.
Extreme programming in the book—there’s a book, it outlines courage, trust, respect, feedback, and simplicity as core values. That’s really what balanced team is about, that trust and respect and feedback is about being able to move quickly because we have all the right people in the room to do the work that needs to get done every single day, and we respect one another to allow there to be…it’s not delegated decision making. There’s no delegator. It allows there to be appropriate placement of decision making and respect of those decisions.
Everything is a decision—how we write our code. Every line of code is a decision. Every wireframe we make on a design site, that’s a decision. That’s a hundred decisions, right? Decision making and ideation, I believe, are the two skills of every team. We have a business problem. Let’s think some stuff up. Let’s evaluate those ideas and then let’s make a call to move forward. Afterwards, we’re going to watch what happens. We’re going to measure the results. We’re going to observe the outcomes and then, we’ll learn from that. That’s really the core of lean startup. It’s like lean startup, design thinking, balanced team. Like XP, it all really is a package that equates to what I think of as modern software making but I will say it also applies to so many other situations.
Poornima Vijayashanker: One question I get a lot from engineering leads as well as startup founders is as they’re growing their team, they might have a lot of senior folks. I’ve even experienced teams where they have seven senior developers and they’re all kind of vying for who’s going to become the director, VP, etc. It’s often a good time to bring somebody on that may be less experienced but how do those folks who are learning or less experienced fit into this model of a balanced team?
Janice Fraser: Sure. A balanced team does not mean there are only three people on the team but it does mean that there are three leaders on any team. I believe in the two pizza rule. You have these people who are leading their teams but from this balanced point of view. The question of when and how to bring in younger talent, I think is, I would say relatively early in a company’s development but you have to make an explicit decision that you’re going to nourish those people, that you’re going to help develop them.
We practice pair programming and I think one of the special things about pair programming is that sort of automatic practice shift. It’s pretty straightforward that you can pair your junior people with more senior people and then you can rotate. One of the things about pairing is that you rotate pairs fairly frequently—sometimes in some practices, daily—and that pair rotation allows those younger people to figure out who they are as developers to explore their own creative ways of solving problems. I think that it’s that pairing of experience and novice that that set of combinations is good for everybody in the system because…I mean there’s just so many reasons that it’s good for everything. One is that you learn the most by teaching, right?
Poornima Vijayashanker: Definitely, yes.
Janice Fraser: Having to explain something to somebody forces you to think things through. Now, another thing that we do that XP does, that Pivotal does is test-driven development.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I’m a big proponent of that.
Janice Fraser: TDD, you do test-driven development. You’re writing the test first. You’re thinking through the problem. I think it was Einstein who said, “If I had 10 minutes to solve a problem, I’d spend nine minutes understanding the problem and one minute solving it.” That’s kind of how I think of TDD. Again, what better way to teach a younger developer to develop, to evolve that younger developer into somebody more senior?
Poornima Vijayashanker: Why is it hard to onboard less experienced people onto the design or product management teams?
Janice Fraser: Sure. There are a couple reasons. There are two specific ways. One is that it’s more subjective work. With software development, especially with test-driven development, your code either passes or fails the test and you can work at it, work at it, work at it until it passes. With user experience design, for instance, whether it’s the structure and function or the aesthetics or any number of sub-disciplines within that. The decision making about what good is, is not binary. It’s not that it passes or it fails and so, what you really need to do is develop subjective judgment. It’s just harder, right?
Poornima Vijayashanker: That takes time. Yeah. It takes time.
Janice Fraser: Now, if you’re in an environment where you can pair design—that’s something that’s being tried, we do it here at Pivotal, there are a number of folks out in the world who are interested in doing that and who practice it, for many organizations, for many designers, it’s considered a luxury. The efficiency that we find in pair programming hasn’t been substantiated yet in the pair design program. I happen to think that pair designing is extraordinarily powerful as a tool and that a designer should never be flying solo on a project. I just don’t think that that’s appropriate or right. It means that you don’t have an intellectual peer group to explore with, so that’s design. On the product management side, again, it’s considered a luxury to have a second product manager on a particular project or subproject.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Usually, it’s like one to eight or something like that.
Janice Fraser: Yeah. At Pivotal, we have a different kind of ratio. Just from a hiring number standpoint, we’ve gone from one designer per 50 labs, software developers, that was when I started a few years ago, like three years ago, it was probably one to 50. Now, it’s like one to five.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Yeah, it seems more reasonable.
Janice Fraser: Yeah. I would say that that’s very progressive to have that many designers. I would say the same ratio is probably true of the product management team. With product managers, it can be super beneficial to pair. Our product managers at Pivotal Labs pair with the client’s product managers and that combination allows for really solid decision making because you can talk through the decisions as you go.
Anyway, because pairing is not much a thing, it can be very difficult to bring your younger PMs up because they’re, again, I said it. Product management involves a lot of decision making in the face of inadequate evidence and it’s about explicitly balancing conflicting points of view or conflicting needs and requirement. That again is about judgment. Judgment can only really be informed by experience and by depth of knowledge about these situations. I think that it’s much more of a mentorship, apprenticeship model for those two disciplines than for engineering and so, we just have to invest a lot more deliberately and explicitly in growing those people rather than sort of like it just comes with doing TBD and pairing.
Poornima Vijayashanker: We’ve concentrated our conversation up to this point on software and tech companies but you’ve actually worked with a lot of different types of organizations. You’ve worked with government and enterprise companies as well. Let’s dive into that a little bit. Talk to me about who you worked with and what you’ve discovered in the process in terms of how they’ve managed their teams.
Janice Fraser: Sure. It really has been an honor and a privilege to do the wide variety of applications of these ideas. I have worked with some of the largest foundations, the Packard Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett funding, like huge foundations. I’ve introduced these ideas to people who work in National Security and everything in between. We had, in one of our programs, we explicitly were working with people who are not in tech and who were deliberately small business. We had somebody who manufactured broom storage solutions.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.
Janice Fraser: We had another person who was working on an alternative to the nebulizer, which people with asthma will know a lot about. We’ve applied these ideas in just a vast array of contexts. I would say that probably the most extreme environment that we worked with is a program that we supported through Luxr and that the work has continued through at Pivotal with the White House. The Obama administration has a professional development program for senior leaders and that program has been going…we’ve just wrapped it but it went for about three years and through that, we’ve some director and deputy director-level people from pretty much every agency in the government.
Because it’s this longitudinal program, it’s a six-month-long program, they come in, we do a workshop with them—and our workshop is month two when they’re about to start their projects—and then they do a project, so what we’re introducing there is what we package as lean startup but really, it’s a lot about these team dynamics. What are the behaviors? When do people get together? We divide them into the groups of three, like all of that sort of thing.
Now, with lean startup, part of what we’re doing is we’re asking people to analyze their assumptions, identify which ones represent a leap of faith where we may or may not have enough evidence, identify of those which ones represent kind of fatal risk to the project. We will not have the impact we need to have if we are wrong about this. The purpose of that is to expose the weaknesses in our strategy before they have a negative impact on our mission.
When you put that into the context of leaders, whether it’s the Department of Homeland Security or the IRS, we work with all of these organizations, they all… because these are just human, these are just human realities, we all make assumptions. We all come up with plans and ideas. Those plans and ideas are laden with assumptions that we have no proof for and some of those assumptions represent potential flaws in our strategy. What we need to do is get explicit about that and then design very small-scale, very rapid ways to learn whether or not those are true. That’s it. It’s super rational. It’s just how do we debug human thinking and decision making. That’s all it is.
I’d like to tell you a story but unfortunately, I can’t tell you the real story because it is highly confidential. It affects the safety of people in United States from what we might consider to be a security or…yeah, a security point of view. Let’s say that there is an organization within the administration that has to screen a very large number of things. Let’s call them minivans. We’re going to talk about the minivan project.
I had this participant in one of our workshops not so long ago and she’s like, “I love this way of thinking, this lean startup stuff, these assumptions and developing experiments. This is great but it has absolutely…I have no idea how I’m going to apply it to my context, like I work in a policy-making organization that deals with minivans and we need to keep Americans safe. It’s just not how we work.”
“OK, sure. That’s fine. Invitation not to buy. You may or may not be able to use this in your work but I’d like you to try it.” At the end of the day, she was like, “This is fantastic. I still don’t know how I’m going to use it.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: Let’s stop right there. You said invitation not to buy. What’s that?
Janice Fraser: OK. Again, I learned the most ever from my sales trainer and she said you can release pressure if you just let people, invite them not to buy your idea. You just say like, “It’s OK. I don’t care if you ever use these again but if you give it just one try, maybe you’ll find something that’s valuable.” I say it’s OK and it truly is. If you don’t see that this is valuable to you, don’t do it. It’s fine.
I had this tough customer and she said, “At the end of the day, I love this. I’m glad I tried it but I don’t see how it’s going to apply.” I get an email from her a few months later. “Well, I had this thing. We were supposed to…the president wants us to screen all these minivans. Let’s say hundreds of thousands of minivans, so we can approve some smaller number of that through some screening process.” OK. That’s the situation. She said, “We figured out that we were going to be 20,000 minivans short by the end of the year and we could not figure out how we were going to get past that and we needed to screen all these so that we could get this number and we’re going to be 20,000 short and that’s really…it’s really sad. It’s really sad because we really need those minivans.”
OK. “After we tried everything and decided that we weren’t going to be able to make our goal, we decided to just give this lean startup thing a try.” She got a few people together, a very small number of people together, and they analyzed their assumptions, which were basically the screening criteria and they identified a small number of screening criteria that were very cumbersome to use, that were slowing down their process tremendously that they thought, “Maybe these are adding not enough value to be worth the effort.”
They ran some small-scale experiments and within a very short period of time, they were able to identify a few out of that batch, just a few that were very cumbersome, that were taking an extraordinary amount of effort and time and resources and were adding literally zero value. They validated this to their level of scrutiny and by eliminating those ineffective criteria, they now are able to meet their goal for 2016. This is what she shared with me.
I will say that that situation affects a tremendous number of lives. I feel tremendously honored to be able to do this kind of work and I think that the methods and techniques and approaches have potentially enormous global impact and not just in Silicon Valley software making. It’s really about how humans can work together effectively and efficiently and frankly with a lot of joy. I want us as humans to be joyfully productive and that I think that that’s where we find flow. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes, very much.
Janice Fraser: It’s one of the most valuable human experiences to find, to experience flow. It’s that combination of effectiveness and efficiency and connectedness with the people you’re collaborating with. Earlier, you said something about all these engineering managers coming up in organizations and vying for their position as VP. I’ve never been that person and I don’t actually appreciate those games, those competitive…I know that I’m one personality type. There are other personality types but I believe that if we, as leaders—and I think we’re all empowered to be leaders—if, as leaders, we make the people around us enormously successful and collaboratively successful, then we will be recognized and we can ask—as I did at Adaptive Path—we can ask for that recognition.
From my point of view, the best way to get ahead is to create functional team outcomes and that comes from not being competitive but instead, having that respect and trust. When you have that balanced team with respect, trust, feedback, all of those values, then things just move so smoothly. I would say that… this is not a commercial for Pivotal, but what I experienced as a customer at Pivotal is that they could build high-quality, defect-free software every day without drama forever. I wanted to know how to do that. That was 2007. In the years between 2007 and when I joined Pivotal, that’s part of what my exploration was, like how do I make that happen on purpose?
Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s great that the White House recognized your work and wanted to work with you. As a big endorsement as well as being a part of Pivotal here, but I’m sure that your work is met with resistance and I’m sure for our viewers out there who might be interested but thinking, “Oh gosh, but my boss, co-founder, teammates are just not going to go with this or not be open to it,” how do you deal with that resistance? I know you mentioned the invitation to not buy but are there other ways in which some of our viewers can kind of slowly, I don’t know, start to incorporate these ideas?
Janice Fraser: Sure. Absolutely. We meet with resistance all the time. There are skeptics and some people are actually haters. I’m OK with that. It’s just that’s fine. We do start with that invitation not to buy. We’ve experienced that this works for people in a wide variety of situations. You have to gain alignment or make decisions, that sort of thing. What you might want to do, because we’ve experienced that this is successful in a lot of context with a lot of different kinds of people, with a lot of different kinds of problem, is just try it. Just give it a try. I’ll show you some things that you can try and if something’s interesting, I’d be happy to coach you for the next steps. That’s the thing. Invitation not to buy, let’s just give it a try. That’s the kind of raw introduction. That’s how we start.
Then, the next thing is how do I do it when I go back home? OK, so the coach is gone. What do I do now? You say…OK. You need to create an island of freedom. Now, this is an idea that was just published by Eric Ries in a book that was only available to his Kickstarter backers, so I’m not going to plug it, but these islands of freedom concept is really powerful. What it says is that as an entrepreneur in a team, and sometimes that team is in a very large organization, sometimes, it’s just two people in a coffee shop, what you want is to know what are the boundary conditions within which I can have autonomy? You can negotiate that.
I’m going to pretend…let’s just talk about situations where there’s some organizational structure around. There’s some number of people. This can be of a hundred or 100,000. You say, “OK, I’m going to do this. I’m going to give this a try. I experienced it over here. I want to give it a try. What are the boundary conditions within which you will not meddle, right, boss?” You enlist autonomy. You enlist your supervisor person in creating autonomy within certain safety conditions, so a set budget that’s not going to be messed with. Maybe that budget is $1,000. Maybe that budget is $100. Maybe it’s $100,000. I would say don’t start there. Some amount of resource…I have this many hours each week. I have this much money for a month. Then, what are the negotiated ways that we can make that have as little negative impact on ourselves, our customers as possible? You do that negotiation.
Then, you get the boss to agree to not meddle, to enforce those boundary conditions, to hold accountability for the outcomes of the efforts but then…once you have that little island of freedom and you know what those boundary conditions are and you get that one person to say, “Yep, I’m not going to meddle. This is an experiment. We’re going to see how it goes,” then, you can evaluate the outcomes and decide whether or not to move forward. That technique is, it’s pretty sophisticated organization management but it’s actually, when it comes down to it, pretty simple and human.
Again, I want to go back to this respect and trust values. It requires respect and trust, so the person who’s creating that safe space, that person who’s in an empowered place to create that safe space, they need to trust enough that they don’t micromanage, meddle, and the entrepreneurs inside that island of freedom need to trust the boss enough that they’re willing to give it a real try and hide negative, hide bad news. Part of this is that like there’s going to be some amount of transparency and trust and respect. That’s how you give it a try the first time.
That’s what our minivan story was about, is that within this island of freedom, they knew what their boundary conditions were, they were able to give us small tries, a short workshop with a small number of people to evaluate a certain thing and once they had results from that, they were able to have the conversations they needed because they could say…I got to tell you, data is very persuasive like, “So, we did this thing. Here’s our methodology, Here’s what we learned. Let’s talk about what we should do next given that insight.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I like what you said about basically showing the outcomes as the impact and then maybe it’s more money, maybe it’s how we can do this at scale, etc. I think that’s something that a lot of people struggle with because they’re wondering what can they show as impact or oftentimes, they sort of dismiss the showing the impact. It’s just like really being excited especially an engineer, I once was notorious for this, I’m just being so excited about doing the work but then, realizing, “Oh, yeah. It has to translate to users, dollars, keeping us in business, putting a roof over our heads.” I think that’s important.
Janice Fraser: Right. Part of that trust is that you have to agree to show the bad news as well as the good. That’s part of maintaining that trust relationship that gets you the next island of freedom.
Poornima Vijayashanker: This has been a great conversation.
Janice Fraser: Thanks.
Poornima Vijayashanker: For our viewers out there who are curious and want to take some next steps, what would you recommend?
Janice Fraser: This is going to be surprising because I’m recommending an engineering book but I’m not recommending it for the engineering. I’m recommending it for the management. It is a management book and it’s brilliant. The book is Extreme Programming Explained—Second Edition, not first, Second Edition. This edition, Kent Beck wrote with his wife who’s an organizational psychologist. Together, they were able to create this really rich picture of why these methods and techniques work and I say…I made everybody who went through the program at Luxr read it. I asked a lot of people here at Pivotal to read it.
I read it myself at least once a year but specifically, chapters one through seven. That’s the part where it’s about the philosophy and the principles. It explains so frankly the dynamics that are just human, that just are common to every person on the planet and what we need in order to have effective team dynamics, effective teamwork so that we can be efficiently finding that flow and have the joy of creating something awesome together and making a huge impact. That’s, I think step one is read chapters one through seven of Extreme Programming Explained, Second Edition.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Thank you so much for joining us today, Janice.
Janice Fraser: My pleasure.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. It’s been great. I know our viewers out there are going to get a lot out of this episode. Thanks for all of you for tuning in today and special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share it with your friends, your teammates, and your boss, and subscribe to our YouTube channel to get the next episode next month. I’ll catch you next time.
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