Jeff Gothelf is Neo's lean evangelist, spreading the gospel of great team collaboration, product innovation and evidence-based decision making.
Jeff is a speaker and thought leader on the future of user experience design, often teaching workshops or giving talks on building cultures that support teamwork and innovation. Jeff is passionate about advancing the principles that lie at the core of Neo, and often does so on a global scale.
Prior to joining Neo, Jeff lead the UX design teams at TheLadders and Web Trends. Earlier he worked with and lead small teams of software designers at AOL. He is the co-author (with Josh Seiden) of “Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience.”
You can follow Jeff on Twitter @jboogie
There are no mistakes, only missed opportunities.
In his brilliant Ted talk, jazz marimba player Stefon Harris beautifully demonstrates how deeply improvisational musical collaborations benefit from very specific human qualities. As a lifelong piano player, veteran of two touring bands and someone who works daily on improving the way teams work together, this talk was highly inspirational for me. I’ve often likened bands, especially original music bands, to startups but this talk pushed me to look deeper into the shared qualities that make both bands and product teams successful.
Two of the key qualities Stefon exposes as critical to jazz improvisation success – empathy and uncertainty – are directly relevant to product team success. I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into each one.
Each musician in a jazz band understands, not only their own instrument, but their colleagues’ instruments as well. Trumpets can cut through any amount of noise while the upright bass is relatively quiet and can only be played so fast. Talented players understand how to mesh the qualities of their instrument with their colleagues. If the bass player is taking a solo, the drummer switches to brushes. As the guitar lead builds momentum the rest of the ensemble crescendos to build energy. Each player is listening and adjusting their own performance – sometimes to lead and sometimes to support – to ensure that the final product is as expressive and cohesive as it can be.
This same quality can be applied in product teams. We need to recognize our colleagues’ strengths and limitations – both at the discipline level as well as the personal level. As we play our part on the team we shift in and out of leadership roles. Sometimes the team needs us at the front of the room with the whiteboard marker leading the conversation. Other times, we need to hang back and ensure someone else on the team is successful at making his or her point. By actively listening to our colleagues and understanding the cross-functional skills they provide we can allow them each to “solo” when appropriate and be heard.
Improvisation, by its very nature, is unplanned. Often, jazz musicians meet only a few minutes before they start playing together. How is this possible? It is because the end state is unknown. And the players are comfortable with this. In fact, it’s what keeps them coming back to jam night after night. Accepting the uncertainty of improvisational music relieves jazz players of the burden of highly-involved upfront planning. It allows them to take the basic building blocks, combine them with their skills and build something new each time they play together. They’re coming from a position of humility, accepting that none of them know how the song will play out. Doing this night after night together builds comfort with ambiguity. And it’s this specific comfort with uncertainty that fuels great jazz music.
When we first get our product teams together, the overwhelming drive is to immediately reduce the uncertainty in the project. We put in plans and structures that we believe will help us do this, leading to a more predictable outcome. As these structures play out they inevitably shift and adjust to the realities we uncover along the way – realities we never planned for. By accepting that uncertainty is a big factor in all of our projects we lay the foundation for a much more resilient team. A resilient team can adjust more easily because it hasn’t committed itself too far in any one direction. When new information presents itself – information we didn’t predict – the team can improvise more effectively both from an increased willingness to do so as well as a product infrastructure that doesn’t paint the work into one specific corner or another.
If we can embrace these two qualities – empathy and uncertainty – as the foundations of our team dynamic we begin to build organic systems that react in real time to new data points and support each other in pursuit of a greater whole. Each newly revealed unpredicted insight is no longer seen as a catastrophe or mistake. Instead it is embraced as an opportunity to listen, learn and improve.