Episode #214 Scott Berkun - Innovating on a Deadline
Everyone wants to be innovative, to be the next iPhone, or Google. Innovation in itself is a tricky proposition. There’s really no way to aim for it as a goal and it’s not something you can declare you’re going to achieve. Many companies and products have been innovative though, so there must be some way to do it.
Author and speaker Scott Berkun has written multiple books about innovation. He acknowledges that it’s not the type of word that should be thrown around loosely or included in mission statements. Used alone or in internal communications, the word really means nothing. The power of being innovative comes from your users considering you to be.
User experience professionals know that simplicity is often the best route. Google, for instance, was considered innovative because it pared everything down to just one search field. There’s no secret formula to being innovative. It’s about making the right, and sometimes bold decisions and knowing how to introduce your ideas into the current strategy. As Steve Jobs noted, “Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”
Jared Spool: Welcome, everyone, to another episode. I am so happy that you have joined us today, because you're in for a fabulous treat. We have the amazing Scott Berkun, one my favorite-est people in the whole wide world.
What you may not know, he's giving a workshop at the User Interface 18 Conference. It's called, "Innovating on a Deadline." Scott is the author of many, many books. His most recent one is "The Year Without Pants," about his work at WordPress.com.
He also wrote "Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management" and "The Myths of Innovation." I'm very excited to be talking with him today about innovation, maybe even innovation without pants. Scott, how are you doing?
Scott Berkun: I'm doing fantastic. Thanks for having me back. It's a pleasure to chat with you about this stuff.
Jared: Cool! This idea of innovating without pants -- this actually sounds innovative.
Scott: What rating are we going for here or do you know?
Jared: [laughs] An explicit tag every so often just helps with the ratings I think. [laughs]
Scott: OK. Just wanted to check before we get started.
Jared: Let's talk for a second about the year without pants, because you went back to work so that you could write a book.
Scott: Correct. I've spent the last 10 years as an author and a speaker, and teaching workshops in lots of places, and I love doing it. It's a great way to share what I've learned in my experience as a designer and managing designer, but I've often had the feeling that ...
I remember when I worked managing a team and actually making software and websites and things, that I'd always run into these gurus and experts who were offering advice to me and other people who were doing this professionally.
They were experts who hadn't actually made anything themselves or actually manage a team themselves in a long time. So over the last decade, I've written four books and I started to get the feeling that I was becoming one of those people.
I wanted to go back and see how much of all this advice that I give other people, how much of it do I actually follow? If I actually had to have a real normal job where I was managing a team again.
So that was one of the inspirations and motivations for the book was to try to capture what happens when an expert actually has to go and not just give advice, but be in the middle of things.
Jared: So you went to Automatic, the folks who make WordPress. How big was your team there?
Scott: When I started my team was four people and by the time I left it was close to 10. So our team it doubled in size. I was there for 18 months. I was there for just over a year.
Jared: You were like an empire builder.
Scott: I don't know. [laughs] When I was hired, I was employee number 58. The company now I think is 170.
Jared: OK. Yeah, that's a different scale.
Scott: Yeah. They're not that young a company anymore. They started in 2005, but their growth is steady. They're doing really well. The growth of my team had a lot to do with just the growth of the company.
Jared: Got it. Would you classify Automatic as a company that is into innovating, or are they innovation-adverse, or somewhere in the middle?
Scott: I love that question because it pokes at the word itself. Although I am called an innovation expert, and I've used that word in books and lectures that I've given, I don't like the word very much. I think the word is mostly a distraction.
That it's so loaded with meaning, it's been abused and it's used for marketing purposes. That it's not a word that I recommend people use much, in terms of figuring out how to make good products, or even figuring out how to run a good business.
Specific to Automatic and WordPress, they are a company of makers. Its designers and programmers. There's a few people who have other roles, but it's mostly people who just make stuff. There's not a lot of meetings where they have to come up with some middle management strategy, or planning meetings.
It's people who actually make stuff, which means that the very salt of the earth in how they talk about work. It's a lot about, what problems do our customers have? What prototypes can we try out to make it better? How much better are we making it?
What data can we get to show that we're making things better and not worse? There's not a lot of talk about all the buzzwords and jargon that are so popularized as being important.
I think that's something that shows up in the book, about how -- when it comes down to it -- the practical matter of making something that's later called great or later called an innovative product. The practical matter doesn't involve these grand things.
It's people able to focus on the customer and focus on design practice, and keep everything else that could be a distraction or a roadblock -- keeping all that stuff out of the way. I do think that they do good work, but I don't think in my entire time working there the word innovation was used more than a handful of times.
Jared: That's interesting. I wonder if that's a pattern, because I think of WordPress as a company that does really good work and has changed the vector of the marketplace. Right?
Blogging and CMS's were going each in separate directions, and WordPress became this platform where you could build entire sites based on it, and do all sorts of very clever things. It was easy to understand.
It was easy to use, and then they came out with the hosted solution, which no one had really done quite that way. They now host, what, millions of sites?
Scott: Millions, yeah.
Jared: Yeah. You could look back at that and you could say these guys are innovative. They've changed the market. They've changed the conversation about what it means to produce this type of software. Everybody wants to be them, but inside the company...They don't have a big plaque on the wall. It's, "Our mission is to deliver innovative solutions for global change."
Scott: Exactly. I think anywhere you go where you see that as the plaque, or that's the decree that comes from executives or middle managers, that's a red flag that there's something very broken.
That there's this abstract concept that no one usually bothers to define what they mean by that word, but now they're making a mandate about this abstract idea that's very subjective. But that's going to be what we're going to do.
"We are innovating about our innovation pipeline methodology." It's empty. That sort of language and framing the pretense that that's a strategy is very empty, and it's very scary. That's the environment that many people work in. They want to do good work.
They want to improve customer satisfaction. They want to make products that are great, but having an executive or a leader decreeing something about innovation doesn't help that at all.
One of the things in the workshop that we talk about is that word and the way it's abused, and what to do when you're in an environment that doesn't understand how to translate that word into practices that will lead to the creation of products that someone may come along later and say, "Wow."
Just now, Jared, you were talking about that WordPress. Now we look at, "Wow, they've done good work. They're innovators." That's the only place you want that word to come up, is that your customers and the market looks at the work you've made and they use that label to describe what you've done. That's where you want the word to come up.
Jared: Yeah, so it's an outsider word.
Scott: Yes. I think the best use of that word is the perception of the market and your customers, that they think you've done a good enough job that they give you that positive label. I don't think that WordPress worries that much about being the first blog to use a particular feature.
They don't think about it in those terms. They think about their customers. They think about the ideas that they have, and then if they do a good job and their customers are happy, then they win. If their customers call them innovators, great.
If their customers want to call them something else, Foobie-Doobie, but they're happy, great. It's really about making a product that's good enough that solves problems for people. That's what the ambition of every designer and every usability engineer and every middle manager really is.
They want to make stuff that's good. Using the word innovation in the process and obsessing about innovation during the process doesn't help make that happen. It probably hurts it.
Jared: When it's used internally, it's one of those words. I think the red flag idea is a good one, because it's like culture.
When I go into an organization and I hear the executives talking about our culture all the time, I start to get this feeling that they're trying to make the culture be something by just talking about it all the time. Or morale -- It's like, "We're going to continue the beatings until everyone's morale is raised."
Jared: You know? I think the innovation thing is the same way. It's like, "We're going to keep asking for you to be innovative until you are." [laughs]
Scott: Right. In the book "The Myths of Innovation," I write a lot about creative thinking, and debunking the mythologies around that, too. There's this phrase that everyone knows or people say to think outside the box.
People will say that in a meeting, "We need to think outside the box." They'll say that as if somehow identifying the need to be creative has some value. When people say that during a brainstorming meeting or something, they're not actually offering a useful idea.
They're not improving the conversation. They're just making a claim that somehow they know what in the box is and what out of the box is and they're telling everyone else that they need to do better. They're not actually doing anything.
What you're saying about an executive who says, "Morale's important, da-da-da-da-da," and then he turns around and behaves in a way that's destructive to morale, using the words and speeches doesn't do anything. It has the pretense of it, especially if you're an authority figure, but it's the behavior that matters.
The language you use and the speeches you give, and which buzzwords you put in the mission statement or whatever doesn't mean anything. A lot of companies that have all of these charters around innovation -- they often have basically flawed practices about how design decisions get made, or how projects are managed, or how management is done.
There are some fundamentally broken things that don't require a PhD in management science to sort out. There are just basic things that many companies don't do well. Innovation and talking about things like that allows them to have the pretense that they are advanced and there's some advanced problem that needs to be solved.
It's this innovation problem that, if only they could do that, if they have everything else working great, everyone else is doing fantastic work and it just solves ever problem they have. It's just this innovation thing. It's...
Jared: Yeah, if we could just get the innovation thing down we'd be a good company.
Scott: Right. So...
Jared: The out of the box thing reminds me of one of my favorite "New Yorker" cartoons, which is this woman scolding her cat saying, "Never ever think outside the box again."
Scott: At least the box refers to something specific in that case.
Jared: That's right. It's got pretty clear delineation. OK, so innovation, if you're talking about it, you're probably not doing it. What is the "doing it" that you're doing when you're not talking about it? [laughs]
Scott: There are three or four pieces and the workshop is divided into these pieces. I do spend some time talking about creativity and what that really means and getting past -- there's a lot of hype.
For the last two or three years -- I've been following this stuff for a long time -- and every two or three years the focus shifts in terms of popular media's focus on what the magic answer is.
Of course there's no magic answer, but it's worth spending time on what the latest magic answers are and exploring why the faith in that particular notion is flawed. A lot of the stuff that's been going on the last couple years is about workplaces, and about open spaces being the better environment.
There's also stuff recently about brainstorming and that doing idea generation on your own is better than working in groups.
The first part of the workshop just explores, those pieces, the popular write-ups that have come along, and the studies that have come along, and takes them apart and gives everyone a clear understanding that there's no one answer.
Jared: Yoga balls.
Scott: Yoga balls.
Jared: People are more creative if you take away the chairs and you put yoga balls in the classroom, those big, giant, inflatable balls.
Scott: They have to be the innovative yoga balls. The regular yoga balls will not do a good enough job.
Jared: That's true. You need high-end innovation balls.
Scott: Innovation balls, yeah.
Jared: Innovation balls. [laughs] He's got innovation balls.
Jared: Yeah, we are earning that explicit tag. [laughs]
Scott: We are. But a lot of it goes into taking those things apart and talking about the basics of idea generation and how that works and how the culture you're in greatly affects how any of these methods are applied.
If you're brainstorming in a room with a lot of political tension it doesn't matter what method you use, there's something else that has to be diffused before you can be successful collaborating with other people creatively.
We go through the most common misnomers and debunk them. We do some exercises that explore the tactics that I do teach and let some people get some experience with them. But idea generation in general's not the hard part.
Most people have a surplus of ideas that they have for their projects, or their businesses, or their companies. I have yet to come across anyone who has the sort of environment where there's some division in the company, an army of developers are that are sitting around idle waiting for you to pick your idea.
Then you're just going to hand them the idea and they're going to have a hundred people work on it for a year because they've been waiting, your idea is so precious. It's usually the opposite, that most environments have a surplus of ideas. That means that there's politics about which ideas get chosen.
This is where designers and user experience people have a disadvantage by training. Nowhere in any HCI program have I seen has pitching ideas and learning how to fit your idea into the current strategy, or how to get allies and support for your idea.
It's very rare that stuff gets taught. But if you're in an environment that has a surplus of ideas, there's going to be some, not necessarily high pressure, but there's going to be a lot of tension over how the ideas get selected.
We spend time talking about what those processes look like, how to participate and influence them, and how to...I guess it's not idea generation. But it's ideas that you have generated, whatever methods you've used that you think are good. How to give them some legs so they can be prototyped and get enough support that whatever potential they have can be shown.
Because most ideas in the abstract, they don't have a lot of power. They don't have a lot of weight. You have to put some investment behind them before you can convince anyone to change their current plan. We talk about that step as well.
Jared: Neat. There's this Steve Jobs quote that I've been thinking about lately, which is that he states that he's just as proud about the things he didn't do, in the products that Apple put out, as the things that they did do.
He said, "Innovation is saying no a thousand times." To go to your thought about ideas, it feels to me like you have to have a thousand ideas in order to say no a thousand times.
Scott: The "saying no" thing is interesting. I think that a lot of people listen to this podcast or work in user experience and work in design. We all know about simplicity.
We understand that there are lots of good ideas, even for a dialogue box, or a simple part of a web navigation structure -- the top of a website's navigation -- that we know there's lots of potential ideas.
But only a small number of them can be used if we want the whole Gestalt of the thing to be good and to be simple and to be coherent to people.
We all intuitively know that, but the problem is that there's so much pressure in most organizations to kowtow to marketing, and the notion that more is better.
The same thing is true with ideas. I think that to end up with something that feels simple and something that looks good, you're going to have to reject lots of ideas that are viable. There's nothing wrong with the idea.
It's just that in the product, or in the release, or in this particular design approach, that there have to be things that don't fit so that the other things can shine. That's just a side-effect of wanting to make something that's really good. If it's really good you're going to make big bets on a few ideas.
A lot of very good ideas that could be big bets for other projects are going to have to be rejected. I think Apple has exemplified for us the cathedral view of a great product. The people who work at Apple often work on a very small part of a very large, important thing.
They're willing to work on that small part because they know there's a coherence to the whole thing. They're willing to make sacrifice to their ego about how large their contribution is because they know the entirety of it is going to be great.
At most organizations it's the opposite. People don't think that the entire website for their company is any good. They think the Gestalt is bad. They want to take more ownership of a small part because they want to feel like they worked on something great.
It was a constant tension at Microsoft about this where Microsoft was notorious for having lots of features, and some of those features might be really designed well, not all of them, but some of them.
That was a side-effect of the fact that the people who were in charge of those features didn't think the whole product was good. They wanted to work on something that was really good, so they put all their energy into making a small part of it shine, even if that meant it was inconsistent with the rest of it.
I think Steve Job's quote is true about making anything great. You're going to have to reduce. There's going to be good ideas that you reject. There's going to be good speakers who you might want to have speak at UI18, but to make it good you want to have a small number that get the most attention.
So it's just a natural tradeoff of trying to make good things.
Jared: Yeah, you mention the speaker thing. I'm familiar with that.
Jared: And it's interesting, because there's a lot of pressure on us. We only have eight speakers at UI18, and at every other conference has 20, 30. I just was at a conference that had 65 speakers. It was a three-day event, same length as UI18, but they had 65 speakers.
And there is all this pressure to have all these voices, to have all this stuff. And I have said, "No, let's just get the best and only have the best there."
And the other conferences they do these open calls for participation, and people submit stuff, and some of the presentations are great, and some of them are not so great, and some of them repeat what other people are saying.
But when I have just eight speakers I can actually walk through the program with everybody, and if I hear, "Hey, these two people are basically saying the same thing," I can say, "You know what? Can you cover this angle, and I'm going to let this other person cover that angle and you should know that they're covering this, and they'll know that you're covering that, and you guys can make it seem like it was planned."
And that works really well, but it's really more about reducing like you said, and not about adding.
Scott: No, I think you do the right thing. I think most of my favorite events -- they make a clear proposition to the attendees, who are the customers, that this is our bet. This is the one speaker at 11 a.m. There's one speaker that we think this is one of the best speakers that we could find. We're making one bet for you.
Everyone's going to see the same speaker. That's a very different proposition in terms of the organizers' confidence in their choices as an organizer saying, "Hey, we're doing this innovative format which is 17 tracks so you get to pick which track you want at any time."
Jared: That's right, yeah.
Scott: They're dodging the challenge of quality by putting the burden on the customer to decide for themselves, and it's...
Jared: Oh, and then there are those conferences that have 45 things happening at once. And they can't even put their own program together so they crowd source it and have voting on sessions. But the voting process is such that you've got thousands of things to choose between, and the descriptions are so narrow.
And the ability to choose is that it really is just a popularity contest based on something like, "I recognize that speaker's name," or, "That title is funny so I'm going to vote for it," which doesn't at all talk to whether the session will be any good.
Scott: No. To be fair, though, everyone's entitled to their preference for what kind of events they like.
Some people like the opportunity to have all these choices, and that's great for them, but there's a different proposition that is made by how an organizer, or the product designer, or the VP of a division decides how they're going to make choices for what features or speakers a customer's going to see.
And this is where it comes back around to the uselessness of the word, "innovation." What you're trying to do is make stuff that is great for the customer that you're designing for. That's the end goal for all of this.
And if being innovative, being new, you 're doing something novel, but it doesn't serve the purposes of your customer, what's the point?
One of the things that we do in the workshop as well is explore the definition of the word, "innovation," and how it really translates into doing something specific and good for a particular user group or user category.
And then until that is defined -- who the user is -- this is basic UI design thinking, but used as a countermeasure against innovation inflation is a tactic that every designer should know.
But until the word, "innovation," is defined in the context of a particular user, and a particular problem, a particular ambition for how well to solve it, the word doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean a single thing. It's an abstraction.
And one of the things people will leave the workshop with is whenever there's hype around this kind of language and around doing breakthrough work - there's a ton of words that are out there, groundbreaking, blah, blah, blah - that whenever they hear these words in a meetings they'll be armed as designers or UX professionals for how to take the ambiguity around the language and use it to their advantage.
And use the methods and training that they have as a way to lead defining what those words should mean and how that should affect the decisions on projects and in their groups.
Jared: So a lot of teams are moving into the world of design principles, and so they have these phrases that they come up with that guide where they want to take the design, and they get buying on the abstract notion behind the phrases.
And so, for example, the Windows 7 desktop team chose, "user experience," over, "knobs and options," right?
And they had this paragraph that described what that meant. It's as though instead of making the user change a setting with a knob or click a button with an option or answer a questions, we're going to make decisions for them at every place we can and just provide the best user experience there.
And I'm wondering if that's a way to sort of say, "OK, we use design principles to come up with these abstract notions of what we want to deliver, and then we'll use the actual design, test that against the principles, and if we do that well we should get an innovative result -- what people will call as innovative because we've stuck to our principles."
If you pick, the right principles, and you get everybody working towards those principles, and then you design to those principles, you end up with...I don't know. Maybe I'm just making stuff up here, but it feels like to me there's a connection to that.
Scott: Yeah, there is definitely is. There's a section in the workshop that's about power, and it's a word that I think is pivotal to any ambition that someone who works in user experience needs to recognize, which is that generally designers and user researchers, and ethnographers on technological projects are not at the center of the power structure. They're on the periphery.
And there's people who are not designers who have central roles that give them a lot of authority over design decisions. And lot of the methods that we were trained to use about writing usability studies and prototypes that those are attempts for us to influence the power structure.
We're giving information to a decision maker who's going to make a decision about the product. So a design principle is another kind of method that you're trying to get buy-in from the power structure to say this is the way we will make decisions.
Instead of you making it based on your intuitive judgment as the manager guy, or as the executive, "Here's a toolkit. We're going to show it to you. Do you agree?" Yes, now. That's our way to help influence the decision-making structure.
There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important to recognize that if magically an interaction designer on a project team, if they magically for a day became the VP of the entire division, they wouldn't need to explain their principles to anyone [laughs] . They'd be the person in charge.
They could make any decision they liked without any mandate, or decree, or rules sheet, or veristics, or any of it. And so we spend time in the workshops talking about the power dynamics around design decisions.
That's more important for work that falls under the innovation banner, because work that gets called innovative tends to more ambitious, the ideas tend to be bigger, and there tends to be more risk involved, because these are projects that want to make a significant change.
So that means that in order for that to happen the designer, or UX person who's leading that idea, has to better suited and better equipped to deal with the politics around those kinds of changes.
So we spend time talking about influence and power structure and how to navigate that as someone with big ideas and some skills with prototyping and design methodology, but how to apply that in the larger context.
Jared: This idea of having power is really interesting, because I think people who work, particularly in large structures or large organizations where they've got seven mangers between them and whoever signs all the checks at the top, feel like they are just cogs in a giant machine and there is no power.
They just do what they're told. But that's probably not true. They just don't know what power they have.
Scott: Sure. Yeah. Or they're not paying enough attention to how the ideas that do get chosen are chosen. A lot of it goes on, especially in bigger companies, a lot of it doesn't follow the official method of how ideas get pitched.
There's a lot that goes on that they may not even be paying attention to -- that once they start to think about it, once they see some examples - - which we go through some interesting ones in the workshop, they'll go back to work and go, "Ah. Now I understand why that thing happened, and now I see how next time I can at least influence it. Maybe even I can initiate something like that with one of my own ideas."
Jared: It's intriguing to me, because, you know, we all know that people at the bottom of the organization hold a lot of power whenever we run into somebody that's not doing something we need them to do and it's holding us up completely, right?
Scott: [laughs] Right.
Jared: So realizing that you have power, and more importantly, that you have power to actually change the direction of the organization is really key.
Scott: Yeah. I think it always starts for technologic, for software and web projects, it always starts with the programmers. Programmers, even line level programmers, the programmers who don't manage anyone -- they're just individuals -- have tremendous power.
They have tremendous power, because they can go and make the actual product. They make the actual thing. And that's usually the first thing that designers and usability engineers who want more influence have to recognize is that is their easiest connections and relationships they can build and grow that are closest to them.
They have to choose to see that relationship is something that is an asset to them instead of an adversarial someone to avoid. "I don't want to deal with the programmers because they don't like my ideas. They won't do what I say."
If you see them as potential allies, if you get a programmer who believes in your idea, they may just forget the official process by which a design change has to be approved. They may just decide to go and do a couple of the things in your usability report because you've earned their trust and they believe what you have to say.
Looking at things from that perspective is a context shift for a lot of designers, and that's how it starts. If you have a programmer or two that you get along with really well and has bought into your view of things, you can make a lot of really great ideas happen.
Jared: Yeah, particularly in organizations, I think, where there are development decisions that influence the design. You know, everything from the translation of the drawings to the CSS and the front-end code to how the database queries are set up such that something is fast or slow and populates quickly or not.
Those are all subtle nuances that if you do them well you feel great design, and if you do them poorly it feels like really bad design.
And if you're not including the programmer as part of the design team, but you treat them as either this servant that's supposed to listen to your instructions and do your bidding, or as this enemy of, "It's me versus them, and I'm going to show them who's boss," you're probably not going to get a great result, I would think.
Scott: No. It has nothing to do with how good your ideas are or not. A lot of frustration in the user experience community in their workplace is around stuff like this. They want to be in the meeting. They're never invited, and they get angry and upset.
It's understandable. They have a lot of pride and lot of passion. They feel it's not being used and that's totally understandable.
The way to get in that meeting is not to grandstand on some grand principle. It's that there's a programmer who's influential who thinks you're smart and useful. They naturally want you in that meeting, because they understand how you're going to make the work better. That's the way in.
It's not mandating and grandstanding. It's earning, building those relationships, and being naturally influential, so that they want you there. They think you're going to make the conversation better. They think you're going to improve the project. You're pushing yourself in. They're asking you to come in.
Thinking about it from that perspective is usually a shift for designers to recognize that that's part of how the guy on the other project, who seems like he has so much influence, and he has the same job that you do -- that's part of why his experience on that other project is so much different, seemingly so much better than the one that you have.
Jared: Scott, I'm very excited for your workshop and I think people are going to love it. You gave it a few years back and it was one of the most popular workshops we've ever had at UI. I'm very excited it's there. Also, can't wait to get my hands on a copy of "The Year Without Pants." I am excited to read the book and learn how to go without pants for an entire year.
Scott: It's not easy.
Jared: Maybe just kilts.
Scott: You got to be committed. You got to be dedicated.
Jared: I think so. It's awesome. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
Scott: You're welcome. Looking forward to the workshop. It should be fun.
Jared: Excellent. I want to thank our audience once again for listening to us. If you liked what you heard, and even if you didn't like what you heard, go to the iTunes. Leave us a review. It's really helpful. I appreciate that. As always, we want to thank you for encouraging our behavior. We love to talk with you.
If you want to catch Scott at the User Interface Conference, you can do so. Go to www.uiconf.com. It's October 21st through 23rd in Boston, Massachusetts. Right now is the lowest price. If you register soon, you'll get in at that wonderful price. This conference sold out last year. I'm going to bet it's going to sell out again this year.
Scott, thanks for joining us. Audience, thanks for being here. We'll talk to you later. Take care.