Season One

Professor Paul Pangaro on the Cybernetics of Steering Conversations and a Theory of Everything



So...Cybernetics. I was describing the ideas behind this episode to a friend and he was like "cybernetics is about steering?" And yep, it is. Check out the show notes for some essential links on cybernetics, *and* an essential diagram to help follow along with this episode.



The idea is this: You have goals and I have goals. If we're in conversation, the way we find a shared goal is through probing, experimentation, alignment on means, revision of the goals, mistakes...and recursion. The recursive process of seeing a goal, aiming for it, seeing the "error" or gap and then moving to close the gap...that's cybernetics. And the principles of cybernetics really are a way to think about everything. Or, rather...anything that has a purpose, goals, intention. So, orgs that need to shift business models, teams that need to tighten timelines...getting your friends to pick a restaurant for next week...So, everything that really matters!

If need people to agree on things before they can happen, you need cybernetics. And if you're good at getting people to agree, you're a solid cyberneticist. Or, in my language, an ace conversation designer.

In my journey through conversation design during this first year of the podcast, Dr. Paul Pangaro has been a rich guide and mentor, one of the people who sees the diverse ways that conversations shape the world, how systems can have purposes and goals....and in true conversational style, I've certainly been altered by his ideas. When I recorded this interview in 2017, Paul was the chair of the interaction design MFA at Detroit's College of Creative Studies. Currently (in 2019) he’s Professor of the Practice in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Paul got his BS from MIT, where he wound up getting hired by Nicholas Negroponte into a program that evolved into the MIT Media Lab. He then went on to get a PhD in Cybernetics in the UK and came into contact with Gordon Pask, a cybernetics and conversation design visionary, whose work Paul is still evolving and processing.

The application of cybernetics to conversation has been a mind blower for me. It's helped me think about how to structure longer projects, to design teams, to form powerful framing questions. That ability to frame a question in an invitational or motivating way, making it seem solvable without giving the's an amazing superpower to be able to kickstart an amazing conversation.

But asking that question designs the conversation,  sets the stage for what comes next...and so I'm always cautious in my conversation designs to control for writing solo before group conversation flows...because whoever speaks first sets the stage for whatever comes next...they speak in response to what's been spoken already.

We talk about three big conversations design concepts that are worth paying attention to: how to think about group composition and cadence, the conversation with yourself, in the past (time travel!) and the relationship between goals and play.

1. The group conversation. Do we have the right people in the room? Do we have enough diversity to answer the question at hand? Can we design a cadence of interaction that allows us to shift the question and the composition of the team in a responsive way? In Cybernetics, a system that wants to influence another system has to be at least as complex.

Is your team more complicated that the problem you're solving? Good!

But...who gets to frame the group and the cadence? How do we invite people into the group conversation? Who has the power to give permission?

2. The conversation between myself now and myself in the past through writing. I'm a fan of pen and ink...because as we write, we watch the ink flow and see our thoughts as they were moments ago as we move into the future. The act of sketching or writing allows us to witness our thoughts as they were and converse with them. Crazy right?

3. How established, shared goals allow us to play together, even become one. If we're dancing, a "form" helps us know our roles and goals. Are we dancing the Tango or a Waltz? Knowing this makes it possible to better respond to stimulus from our partners. I think that's why Agile/Design Thinking/Lean are so popular. With Parkinson's Law of ever expanding work, there seem to be no rules anymore. We've broken partner dancing (starting with the twist) and now we never know what to do on the dance floor. Some of us crave for a throwback time, the swing era, the mystery of the tango...where we knew what to do, where there was more clarity. Agile, Scrum, Design Thinking...they are a dance form that makes it clearer what the roles and goals are. They're a game we can play if we know the rules and have a shared vocabulary.

When we share goals, the line between us blurs, or dissolves. We live in "amity"...or you can draw a box around us and call us a system with a shared purpose: to dance!

So...this is the last episode of season one. It's been a year, 22 episodes, hours and hours of conversations in real time and many times that in listening and editing and writing about them. I've learned a ton and had a blast. I'm taking the holidays off and am working on season two! Stay tuned and enjoy the show.



Show notes and links:

Paul on the web

More on Pask

Martin Buber (I and thou)

Requisite Variety: On Paul's Site and Elsewhere

Alex Bavelas

Ambiguity experiments - people start to break down when there's too much of it, blaming each's exceeding our bandwidth (or requisite variety)

The Self Talk NYTimes article: When people repeated their tasks to themselves, they did it better, if it was a clear task. Also check out the Conversation Within Your Head.

Heinz von Foerster: If you desire to see, learn how to act

The Dhatupata: There's a lot less online about this than I thought there would be! The author is here, but deeper info is not. hmmm...

Jesse Israel gives People Permission to Connect


Have you ever had that feeling right before a party you were throwing starts? That creeping dread that no one will show up? Today I talk to Jesse Israel, who doesn't seem to have that fear. Jesse flips that feeling on its head. For Jesse, it's very simple: People *want* to connect. And the invitations we, as organizers and conveners, send out...they're just permission slips. The invitation gives people permission to connect.

Jesse Israel is the founder of Medi Club and the Big Quiet, which hosts huge public meditations in places like Madison Square Garden and the World Trade Center's Oculus for literally thousands of people. I met Jesse Israel at a dinner party way back in early 2015 at a Rabbi's house. We had a great conversation and discovered a few shared interests. Somehow we discovered we both loved biking the city and he invited me to check out his cycle club, the Cyclones. And then he mentioned that he had a meditation club, too. As a life-long meditator (before it was cool!) I was intrigued. When I went to my first Medi Club, I was struck by the energy and the intimacy of it. How easy it was to connect with the crowd, which got larger and larger each time I came. The Medi Club meets monthly and regularly attracts a few hundred people ready to sit in silence with their peers. The Cyclones is similarly huge, and a blast, every time I make it out.

So, to be clear: In Jesse's view, we connect *through* things: the bike, the meditation, is permission to connect. It's the connection we crave. He just opens the door.

There are few key conversation design principles I want to pull out of this conversation, to look for as you listen, all around how to frame profoundly motivating invitations: What permission will you give for people to connect? What's the deep and clear purpose of it? What are the boundaries of the invitation? And something else I saw that Jesse does: he pre-invites. He builds a coalition of the willing early, before he opens up the larger invitation. 

Deeper into the conversation, we talk about how to sustain yourself as a community builder: Jesse talks about how he's learned to develop compassionate boundaries, to maintain his internal integrity. If you don't say no to some requests, you can't continue to give. We also talk about how to trust and develop your team. When that trust is in place, that's where the growth really happens.

For more in-depth consideration of this conversation, head over to the conversation and take a look at the show notes! I'd also suggest you take a listen to the episode with Daniel Mezick, founder of open space agility, who's thoughts on invitation match up with Jesse's profoundly!

What Permission will you grant?

At Medi Club it's okay to open up. When you step into the door, you know you're among friends. How is that permission granted? Jesse shares first. He leads the way and opens the floor. He makes the example clear: He's going to be real and so you can be, too. Over time, the community attracts more and more of this energy. Others take up the charge and spread the norm.

What's the Clarity of your Purpose?

Early on, Jesse wrote a medium post to declare the intentions of the community he was forming.

The article lays out why Medi Club exists in extremely clear language and outlines the purpose of the club in a way that passes the T-shirt test (a rule of thumb that seems to be from Peter Drucker)

Also: Is there a larger purpose? The Cyclones is a fun Saturday around NYC, but became something more when they started an Indigogo campaign to get bikes in the hands of 1,000 children in Tanzania.


Is there an authentic way to enlarge the purpose of your invitation over time?


Boundaries show up in two ways: Boundaries for the invitation and boundaries for the inviter. The Cyclones invites you to give up expectations and planning...for one afternoon. You don't know where you're going, and that's okay. Medi Club stretches that boundary with their circles: Anyone can host a Medi Club circle and create the same energy with a smaller group, anytime they want. Medi Club holds the larger circle and gives each smaller circle an "authorization" to share the same invitation.

At min 26: Jesse talks about another form of boundary: A boundary for the convener.

"If I don't have compassionate boundaries, I can't show up as a friend or a community builder."

When he's at medi club, he's a public person, and everyone there feels some sort of connection with him. But after the club night is over, Jesse has to find a way to restore his strength and be with himself. And if he said yes to every interview, every request to "pick his brain" from the community...there'd be no time for anything else!  This compassionate boundary is a huge challenge, because saying no doesn't feel generous. Finding a way to create a generous no is a critical skill for leading communities.

I'm terribly grateful that Jesse was willing to sit down with me for this conversation. I learned a ton from it and I hope you do, too.


The Big Quiet

Jesse's Former Record Label

Cyclones Bike Club

Medi Club Medium Article

Cyclones Indigogo


Claire Wasserman knows how to design powerful experiences, communities and organizations


Women make 79 cents on the dollar compared to men and that's wrong. (depending on how you cut the data it's either slightly worse or slightly better - but it's still bad). It's a systemic problem and most of us would throw up our hands and say "There's nothing I can do about it!"

Instead of doing nothing, Claire Wasserman has built a powerful community called Ladies Get Paid around a powerful and critical idea: Fixing the wage gap. And while she says that "this conversation needs an overhaul" it's not just talk. Claire's organization brings women together in town halls all over the country where they focus on what woman can do with their own hands, like learn better negotiation skills and apply for jobs they might not feel ready for, but probably are. Men have been trained, somehow, to be more (slash-over) confident, while the imposter syndrome seems to effect women more strongly.

Claire is an experience designer, designing in-person, transformational events in the same way that a UX designer crafts an app or an HR manager crafts a personnel policy: Thinking about the goal, the intended effect it will have on a person, and working backwards. It is, in the end, Human Centered Design. The materials change, but the goal is the same!

That, after all, is the nature of, and best definition for, Design: Making something to shift the way things are to the way you want them to be. Ladies Get Paid is designed *by* Claire to make the change she wants to see in the world, to change the conversation about gender and money. Beyond her amazing story and her journey to creating this company, I dove into how Claire architects her business, her events and her community.

One issue that Claire and I get into is how to include men in the conversation. What are the levers available to us to design an intimate, safe and productive conversation for women (her primary audience) while allowing men to participate, to help, to learn? How do you design a conversation about gender issues without letting gender become an issue?

Claire has been tinkering with a design that allows men to ONLY ask questions...this format would draw a hard line on mansplaining. Like Jeopardy for conversations, it's a rigid restriction, but would keep men honest: Am I talking to be heard, or to be curious and to learn? It's giving men who want to come to the town halls a hard line: Ask or be silent. Don't declare or explain. When I heard that idea, I offered another option: The fishbowl, where men can *only* listen, from the outside. It's a harder line (but easier to follow for the men!)...and there's a lot of intimacy created for the inner circle of the fishbowl, with no cross-talk possible.

Which is "better"? No men? Men listening in, with no input? Or men inside the circle, but only asking? Each conversation design has implications, repercussions, challenges...there's no best! Claire, like any great designer, will tinker, test and try and see which feels right for her and her community.

Two conversations we didn't talk about enough: How Claire manages her own *internal* conversation. Claire is bootstrapping LGP financially and emotionally! Right now, she doesn't have the mentorship and support she is offering so energetically to others. Taking a step back and getting you core needs cared for is 100% essential for founders!

The other conversation we didn't dig into is negotiation tips and perspectives. For that, you might want to listen to my interview with Harvard Negotiation Professor Bob Bordone, and download my negotiation prep sheet on the downloads page!

You might also check out episode 13 with Rei Wang , Director of the Dorm Room Fund, where we talk about community building and episode 4 with Sara Mitchell of Faraday Futures, where we talk about listening to users: but not all of them!


Enjoy the conversation!


Show notes and links:

Claire on the Web

Ladies Get Paid

Claire's Hyperakt talk

Robert Bordone can Transform Negotiations into Conversations


When I look back at the way, way too many Instagram photos I posted during my week at Harvard's Program on Negotiation, I'm left with a sense of awe and gratitude. If you take a listen to episode two, you can hear me getting a solid tip to take the workshop from Leland Maschmeyer, a very smart dude and chief creative officer at Chobani. When someone like that tells you that this class is the best, most worthwhile he's ever taken, you listen. It was *still* hard to take time and money to go. I'm seeing this now with my upcoming Facilitation Masterclass that I'm co-hosting with Think Clearly's Mathias Jakobsen. Someone just canceled their attendance due to a client workshop coming up! I get it. I told my biggest client that I was taking the workshop at Harvard and to not even *tell* me about anything that might pop up that week. I didn't want to get FOMO.

I couldn't know, wouldn't have guessed that my experience as a design thinker and facilitation coach could have prepared me well for my experience at Harvard, or that there would be so much overlap in the Program on Negotiation's approach and the design thinking approach to empathy, active listening, co-creation and ideation. I didn't even think that negotiators cared about that stuff. Robert Bordone, my professor, turned out to be a kindred spirit. And while some of my negotiation counterparts during the training felt that my drawing, colorful post-its and whiteboard use was weird, Bob got it and loved it. We've been talking for months now about how to combine our offerings into something fun and exciting!

Robert Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the Founding Director of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program. He teaches several courses at Harvard Law School including the school’s flagship Negotiation Workshop. Bob also teaches in the Harvard Negotiation Institute and the Harvard Program on Negotiation’s Senior Executive Education seminars.

As a professional facilitator and conflict resolution consultant, Bob works with individual and corporate clients across a spectrum of industries. He specializes in dispute systems design and in assisting individuals and groups seeking to manage conflicts in highly sensitive, emotional, or difficult situations.

Negotiation in our culture is a bad or fraught word: it makes people anxious. We see negotiations as win/lose, contentious. That's a misunderstanding. It doesn't have to be win lose. Bob sees negotiation as a creative act that generates possibilities and that can create new value.

I took away three big Insights from our conversation.

1. Perspective Taking: FROM THE "OTHER SIDE" and The BALCONY

You *must* take the perspective of the "other side". The "untrained" negotiator only asks their counterpart questions about their interests and preferences 7% of the time. Finding more about *why* people want what they want is the key to great negotiations. Before you even get into the room, you need to spend half of your prep time thinking, not about what you want and think you can or should get, but what the other person thinks *they* can and should get and why. That's why I made my 1-pager negotiation prep sheet, which synthesizes and summarizes the key elements I learned. It's divided down the middle to remind me to take that time and think one-to-one on all aspects of a solid negotiation preparation. You can download that in the show notes.

Bob also talks about going "to the balcony" to look at the whole situation from an outside perspective, which can be very powerful.



2. Move from Negotiation to Conversation

When you find the points of difference in criteria, interests and positions, the negotiation doesn't have to devolve into conflict. You differ. Congratulations! You've identified a dilemma, a core issue. You can call that difference out, and ask "How might we close the gap in our positions?". Then, you can negotiate about the negotiation. You can discuss the differing positions, and lay them all out. The fresh air and sunlight will only help make the process more enjoyable and productive. Don't be afraid of the conflict. Name the game, and find a new way to play it.




If you can frame the core conflict with an opening, welcoming question, you and your counterpart can generate multiple potential solutions using many of the tools available in the Design Thinking canon. Negotiating about the process can be a lot easier than deciding the issue. A fair process is easy to choose. A fair outcome is then a lot easier to see, even if we don't get everything we want.

So... Enjoy the episode. Bob is a wonderful thinker! You should check out the show notes and watch some of his other lectures online, especially his talk about increasing conflict capacity!

Below are nearly all of the images I scribed during the week. There's a lot!

Kate Quarfordt On the Seasons of Creative Conversations


Today I talk with Kate Quarfordt,  the Founding Director of Arts Integration & Culture at City School of the Arts. My conversation with Kate was a rich and wonderful surprise! I found her 4-seasons framework someplace in the corners of the internet and was immediately enchanted with it. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter as metaphors for the flow of work... The Framework is so powerful in the types of conversations it allows into the larger conversation about work, especially winter, a time to reflect and consider, to heal and incubate. It's rare to make space for that type of work! (see a link to the model and our first meeting on twitter here)…her original image is really lovely, a watercolor work of art! I’ve made a “cleaned up” black and white version here.

the four seasons-01.jpg

The opening and closing circles Kate hosts in her school to bookend the touched my heart! It's such a beautiful way to work. And so similar to how Daniel Mezick gets organizations to shift how they work through Open Space Agility! Check that episode out here!

This conversation has started to open up the idea of threads and threading in conversation design for me. I first got the sense of threading from my conversation with Nandini Stocker, Google's Head of Conversation Design Advocacy. As I see it now,  the arc of a conversation  is made of stories. And the way Kate describes our stories coming together to make a new one, using the word "Braiding", makes so much sense.  Conversations are the exchange of stories, and placing ourselves and others into the hero role, shifting perspective as empathy and generosity demands is the flow of real dialogue.

Finally, we talked about how creative work requires an audience! An Audience provides a "pull" and "push" for work. At least, that's the way I experience it. Even when I don't feel like it, I push myself to finish work on an episode because I know people are waiting (pulling) for it. And there's a loop of feedback on the work: People write me to tell me what was great and where I missed the mark. That's one of the reasons that I feel the conversation between an organization and its customers is one of the most critical, missing pieces in companies that struggle with a sluggish work cadence. There's not enough urgency.  If you want to dig into that conversation more, check out the episodes from Rei Wang, Director of the Dorm Room Fund and Sarah Mitchell, Lead designer at Faraday Futures. Both helped me see principles at work in sustaining great conversations with customers and community.

 Thank you so much for listening and I hope you enjoy the episode as much as I did making it !


Notes and Links


Meeting Kate on Twitter

New York City Charter School for the Arts (CSA)

Specials On C


Threading in Conversation Design: In Podcast Show notes

What we need is a Montage (montage!)

The X that we were solving for: Feeling out of synch, loss of clear cadence

The Seasons Wheel applied to a Week or a Cultural Transformation:

Open and Closing Circles: Open Space Agility with Daniel Mezick


Mary Oliver: making yourself visible to yourself in a way you never imagined!

From Blue Pastures:

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one piles, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe – that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.



The Inner Winter Process: Leaving yourself voicemails! (creates a third point for reflection, just as a drawing or journal does)

Dave Gray on Drawing creating a clearer interface for conversations

Morning Pages

The Inner Conversation

Spring Cleaning Script from Mama Gena:


Holding Space is incredible power: Who initiates the request? Who Has permission? The Paradox of Flow vs Framework: Absence of Structure vs. Structure vs. balancing who introduces the structure.


What's the Deal with Agile?


How is a school like a conversation? Moving from the School-As-Script model to the School-As-Dialogue model.

Waterfall vs Agile


Kate's Post-call reflections on Winter and Work as a Relay Race:

"As I was transitioning into the rest of my day I realized that there was one last thing that I wanted to share apropos of the winter phase and the importance of rest and rejuvenation--not just in the creative learning space, but also in the context of activism and resistance. As I mentioned, we are doing a lot of work with young folks around using the arts as a vehicle for activism, especially given how passionate they are about making their voices heard in this current political moment. On Monday night I had the chance to perform with the Resistance Revival Chorus, a women/femme-led singing group created by the leaders of the Women's March to keep the momentum of the march moving forward and also--crucially--to frame joy and rejuvenation as acts of resistance in and necessary elements of a sustainable movement. Paola Mendoza, co-artistic director of the March, and one of the producers of Monday night's event, said something that evening that resonated super powerfully with me.


She said, "The resistance is not a sprint, but it's not a marathon either. It's a relay race." I love that image because it evokes the sustainability that becomes possible when hard work and leadership are shouldered by a full community instead of by a single individual. There's a sense of permission implicit in this approach, the understanding that it's ok for each member of the community to pause and refill the tanks every so often, because there's always someone else right there who's ready to take up the baton and run the next leg. In the context of the season wheel, this is the idea that different community members can be in different phases at different times...  it's OK for you to be in winter, because you know I'm in summer and I've got you covered, and then we can switch so I get a chance to rest and reflect while you keep the work moving forward. I'm excited to bring that relay race image back to the kiddos when we gather to kick off year two.

Coaching Conversation with Mark N On inviting people into your conversation mode


My coaching conversation with Mark covers some really deep topics, and I am really grateful to Mark for his presence and willingness to be open, to go deep, and to let me share this recording of our coaching session.

We hit on three key ideas that are worth looking at in your own work!

1. Your Meetings=Your Conversations=Your Organization

The meetings you have, the conversations you can and can't have IS the organization you are in. If you can change the way you meet, the way you converse, you can change how you organize.

As Martin Buber, the 20th Century Jewish Philosopher said: 'All real living is meeting'

If your meetings don't feel like they're alive, it's up to you to bring the energy they need to come back to life. Mark's organization is so focused on delivering on their core promises in a big way that they micromanage and try to eliminate failure. Without any tolerance for failure or conjecture, without an idea of constant experimentation and learning, new ideas can be deeply frightening. Every meeting is about delivery. They are an organization of closers. That brings us to idea number two:

2. Openers, Explorers and Closers need each other

3 Modes of Conversations.png

Mark identified how frustrating it is when teammates have mismatched models of creativity and different abilities and tolerances in and with the other modes. Mark identified the three modes of creative conversations as Opening, Exploring and Closing (which I try to teach to every group I come in to consult's so core to productive collaborative conversations!)

Opening is the creative divergence that loves to bring new ideas to the table. Exploring is the creative emergence,  which allows ideas to breathe and grow. And Closing is the creative convergence, the comfort with eliminating choices, aligning and delivering on ideas.

Mark is an Explorer. He likes to talk things out, to let things emerge from the soup of his creative process. Closers, particularly , find that mode frustrating, wasteful and confusing. Closers like to land the plane, to figure things out, to end dialogue.

Openers, Explorers and Closers need each other. And they each need to learn how to tolerate the other modes and ask for their own needs in creative conversations. Which brings us to our third key idea:

3. Invite people to a Finite Game

We all need to design invitations with the creative tendencies of other people in mind. Mark wants others to understand his creative energies and help him support and shape them. But he needs to frame the process as an invitation into a  finite game. In my work, I find that people are willing to try something if they know that they can end the game anytime they want! Mark also wants others to support *his* mode of thinking, but isn't thinking about how the other people on his team might be thinking the *exact* same thing! So, the rules of his game, the game he wants to invite people into, we could call the "give me your energy, attention,  benefit of the doubt and tolerance for my creative modes" game. That's a big ask, and totally unilateral.  His job is to find a way to include other people in the process, and to make the rules of his game apply to everyone.  That's an invitation that people can get behind. That's the art of conversation design!

As Mark says, he needs to learn how to be with others in a way that isn't" just launching into my mode without preparing people for the rules of the game" and he needs to do it in a way that feels natural, not in a way that requires him to invert his approach, to turn himself upside down and inside out in order to work with others, which is what he's doing now. And it's killing him. Treating every conversation like an experience, he has to *design* the invitation into the experience in a way that resonates with his partners.



The question we start with, can a public purpose organization be more agile, becomes "can a purpose driven person bring the energies needed for creative transformation?" And that question, I believe, requires individuals in the organization to be agile, to be comfortable picking up the creative energies required for the moment, for themselves and for those they work and play with. Organizational agility totally and completely counts on people who can be agile in their movement between the creative modes and who can frame shifts in those modes as invitations.

So...that's a lot to chew on. Thanks again to Mark for letting me record and share this and for giving me the opportunity to listen and speak with him! Enjoy...

Stephen Sokoler on Designing Meditation and Coming to your Center


In episode I talk with Stephen Sokoler, the founder and CEO of Journey Meditation, a company dedicated to a world where more people meditate! I wanted to talk to Stephen because the inner conversation we need to foster is often forgotten completely. Instead, we focus on our teams, our organizations, our communities...all of the other critical conversations we've discussed in past episodes. But without going inward, the whole thing falls apart.

Meditation is like when an actor goes backstage to freshen their makeup, change costumes, look over the script... In life, we go from role to role without pause...and meditation is a way to step back and let it all chill.

I screwed this episode up! I'll be honest. I've done it before. When you're doing your own field recordings, it's easy to press the record button once, watch it blink, check your levels and then get into the interview. Oops! You actually need to press the button twice! The blinking stops and the seconds counter goes up. I messed up and lost about 30 minutes of sweet, sweet conversation with Stephen. Noticing it during our interview sent a cold chill through my whole body. I  just wasted this man's time, terribly. I had two options. Say nothing and try to "fix it in post" or cop to it and try again. I went for honesty...and since we're friends, Stephen humored me and we started over.

I mention this, not because I love honesty or vulnerability (although I do!) but because you might hear how the conversation with Stephen starts off a little stiff, a little mechanical. We are both *pushing* energy into the system to try to get the energy of the conversation back to where it was!  It's not tremendously noticeable...but you'll hear, once we get to the halfway point, things relax, we find a new thread for the conversation instead of trying to pull back towards the old one, and the conversation finds a more natural tone.

Meditation is like this, too. Being present has a gravity, but we can lose it, drift off to wherever. And we have to "bring ourselves back" in a way that isn't forced or artificial.  In the episode, Stephen and I discover another really interesting point, a connection between meditation and conversation that I hadn't noticed before.  Meditation is about coming back to your center. Recently, I was talking to a facilitator friend of mine who described his role as "holding the center" ...facilitating a great team conversation is about holding that space for real dialogue, open, at the center, and keeping people who drift off from getting too far. We just bring things back, as gently as we can, to the thread and keep things going.

Enjoy the episode! Stephen is a gentle and passionate soul, building an amazing company based on something he truly loves...I learned a lot from this episode, and I hope you do too!

Journey Meditation

Buddhism for Busy People

The Four Core Conversations: Medium Article coming soon!

The Costs of Burnout

Light Watkins

Sharon Salzberg

Why have a Coach

The benefits of Group Meditation

Open, Explore and Close: The Three Creative Conversations Medium Article coming soon

No Good or bad ideas: Episode two with Abby Covert

Stephen's Five MCs (in order mentioned, not ranked)

Biggie Smalls





Honorable mention:

Chance the Rapper

Elliot Felix of Brightspot Strategy on changing conversations through changing spaces

On this episode of the conversation factory, I talk with Elliot Felix, founder of Brightspot Strategy, a boutique consultancy. Elliot founded Brightspot almost seven years ago, and as a former founder of an even smaller design consultancy, I'm totally impressed by what he's built and grown. Elliot has a background in Architecture, which I tease him about (only an architect uses "sightline" in a sentence)...different types of designers talk about and see the world differently: we manage different materials. I studied Industrial Design, and so I often look at an idea and think "can this be made at scale?"...even if it's a service, I break it down and ask if it can be manufactured, reproduced. This tendency can annoy people! It's been recently suggested to me that when people tell me about their ideas I should just say "that sounds fun!" and leave it at that...



Elliot was kind enough to do our episode on site at Brightspot's offices in the Financial District here in NYC and as we walked around chatting about various artifacts in the office, Elliot's love of space as a primary material of design was clear. As he says in the opening quote: the right space can facilitate work, help express ideas, support and reinforce or make culture manifest.

I've seen this in my own facilitation work: I can't tell you how many times I've seen a group get stuck in rut, literally because they'd run out of wall space to work with. Just giving them a new wall to work on gave them a new space to have a conversation, got them unstuck. Walls help make work visible, and when work is visible we can have more productive conversations. Without it, we slow down. Designing the space work takes place in *is* conversation design. Change the space, change the conversation.

At Brightspot they frame challenges as a three conversation checklist: Examining the Spaces people are in, the services offered in those spaces, and how people are organized in that space. This checklist is, itself, a design for a productive client-consultant conversation. Trying to shift a system by approaching one of those conversations and not all of them is going to be harder. On the other hand, changing all three at once might be tough. But having the conversation about space, content and people is clearly crucial, that's why Brightspot designs their client conversations to include each of these three aspects of work.

When I teach facilitation I always tell people that they have to make the space they are facilitating in their own...and my favorite story of this is one of my first days working with Applegate Farms,  an organic food company, back in 2013. The room we were working in was large, cavernous, and had three big tables arranged in a "U" shape, with a screen projecting at the mouth of the U...the room had been designed for presentation, for the "sage on the stage"...but I wanted the group I was coaching on design thinking to collaborate, not focus on me! The U made everyone sit on the outside, facing me, not each other.

So during the break, I took the foot of the U and rotated it, so all three tables were parallel. The team walked in and was a little disoriented...the room was the same, but the energy was different. They sat in the chairs, facing each other, and we could get down to work in the style I was trying to cultivate.

Thinking about your own work: Is your space working for you or against you? Do you have the right variety of spaces, large, small, intimate, public, to do your work? In conversation design, we talk about the Q: the requisite variety of talent on your team, the right balance of familiar faces and fresh seems like, in talking to Elliot, that there's a similar quality of balance to be found in the spaces a truly functional company inhabits. If your space isn't working for you, shake it up!

Links and Notes

BrightSpot Strategy

Making a War Room for projects (but can we find a better name?!)

Expertise Audit: What do our people know? What knowledge aren't we tapping?

Vertical years and Horizontal years: Alternate Keeping the work the same and adding people with new skills and Evolving the offering.

Sightline - the most architectural word Elliott uses

Osmotic Communication

Leaders send signals whether they think are sending them or not: Semiotics

Idiosyncrasies of Leaders can be scaled unintentionally: Elliott over-analyzes, so his org tends to as well! Be intentional about communicating what's optional and what example you're setting, what aspects (quirks) of your personality you're transferring to the culture.

Focus and Time: Choosing our battles and having the time to fight them: Is there a better word: Where to learn and how to grow?

2X2: Size and Structure of conversations

Q of teams: New Yorker Article and Source, ie Requisite Variety in a System

Is your space working for you?

Larry Greiner:  The Greiner Curve


Alistair Cockburn on the Heart of Agile, Jazz Dialog and Guest Leadership


My conversation with Alistair Cockburn was Agile to the core! We revised our timeline and deliverable with a quick standup and got right into it: After all, Agile principle #2 is to welcome changing requirements, even late in development. To wit, I thought we had an hour, early on the call he asked for 20, tops! (Somehow I kept him on the line for 45, since I'm deft at conversational manipulation. And he was keen to keep it going, too.)

Alistair quite the nomad, teaching Advanced Agile workshops all over the world. When he's not teaching, he might be dancing Tango in Argentina or brushing up on his French in Nice. But sometimes the location is too distracting, so he was holed up in Florida where he found a town that was *just* boring enough to allow him some time to get some work done. He was moving house unexpectedly the day we were slated to chat. I saw on Facebook that his AirBnB had a shag carpet and the humidity and mustiness mixed with a thick carpet was making him sick! I tried to give him an out, but he was adamant we do our conversation, even for only 20 minutes. His motto: Now is better than the future.

One of the pleasures and inspirations of talking with Alistair is that he's a man who really lives his principles: Agile principle #10 is that "Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential". You'll hear how Alistair tries to design his life to make this principle a reality!

As I mentioned two episodes back with Daniel Mezick, around Open Space Agile Transformations, Agile is kicked around a lot in the consulting world, but my sense is that all of those people haven't actually read the Agile Manifesto! Alistair was one of the originators and signatories back in 2001, and it was a response to a broken way of working. But just like any ideology, it's come to be interpreted in alot of ways by a lot of people. It was fun to go back to the source!

Alistair’s Heart of Agile Framework

Alistair’s Heart of Agile Framework

I really enjoyed Alistair disagreeing with my characterization of Agile as a Design for Conversations. But I see it that way: Agile designs for some conversations and  not for others. And in fact, Alistair has a lot in common with Dave Gray, who I interviewed a few months back: Dave wondered about who has the right to design a conversation and if it can be overdesigned! Alistair is a proponent of Guest Leadership...that making space for momentary, voluntary leadership can powerfully transform work and teams.

An early version of Alistair’s “Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game”

An early version of Alistair’s “Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game”

Alistair and I had what he would call a Jazz Dialogue: a conversation with a meta-conversation layered on top! I have listened to this episode a few times and it's a tough one to summarize or encapsulate. One thing that I'm left with is the idea that even the desire for agility or the hunger for no ideology is an ideology. Which leaves me reflecting on the ways that my own internal tendencies leads to my own ways of seeing things as "right". After all, designing a conversation is power and power should be exercised carefully...because I could be wrong!

Show Bullets and Links

Alistair Cockburn on the Web

Agile Manifesto

Crystal Clear

Improvisation in Dance: What's Fixed and What's Flexible?

"I expect people to decline my advice"

The Oath of Non-Allegiance

Precision vs. Looseness

Crystal Clear: The Sloppiest methodology that could possibly work (Martin Fowler)

"Arranging my life for the maximum amount of freedom"

Anchoring Sloppiness in Essential details. (the opposite of an Overdetermined System)

Cultural Invasion: Design as Cultural Imperialism

Assuming that people bring their whole adult self to work:

Agile Practitioners mentioned:

Daniel Mezick

Ken Schwaber

Nic Sementa

Kay Johansen

Guest Leadership

RE: When do people step forward and help: The Good Samaritan Experiment (hint: when they're not in a hurry)

Be the Change you want to See can backfire

Host Leadership

The Art of Hosting

Open Space Technology

Going Meta: Talking about how we talk

Jazz Dialogue

The Heart of Agile

Self Storytelling

Kokoro: The heart

Alistair's Poets: ee cummings and Emily Dickinson and a poem Alistair wrote in honor of ee:

Rei Wang of First Round Capital's Dorm Room Fund on Community *as* Product


One of the great pleasures of hosting this show is that I have an excuse to reach out to old friends and spend some quality time with them. And I get to double the quality time! I really love gettingto listen to the whole episode again. It's a time to dig in and figure out what the episode was really about, and write these essays. Originally I was going to have the episodes transcribed and then read them, but in episode 2, I heard a different perspective. Information Architect  Abby Covert  talked about how processing her own research transcriptswas essential to her work....I tried it, and she was right.

It can be hard to give oneself the time for reflection and learning, even though our internal conversation is  the most critical of all the conversations I've been researching (See David Whyte's The Three marriages for more on that!) In a few weeks I'll be sharing an episode I did on Meditation, one of the key tools to maintain (and silence, occasionally) a healthyinner conversation. Redesigning your inner conversation! Who wouldn't sign up for that from time to time?

In this episode I talk with Rei Wang, Director of the Dorm Room Fund. Rei and I connected way back in my Design Gym days: I think we were running an innovation day for GOOD magazine  where she was manager of GOOD Local. The workshop might have been  around connecting with your neighbors? We stayed connected as she moved to General Assembly (where I taught UX part time) as she rose up the ranks and managed their rapidly growing community efforts.

She now directs the Dorm Room fund for First Round Capital, and it's an amazing and unique organization. First Round does early investing in companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox and Warby Parker. And while the Dorm Room Fund is funded by First Round, it's run completely by college student volunteers, not professional VCs! This tight community of volunteers IS the Dorm Room Fund.

I think there is a lot talk about community: about building it and trying to monetize it...but few people treat their community as an living conversation to be designed.  In the opening quote I pulled, I was struck by Rei's perspective that companies develop better products in deep dialog with their communities. To some, this is obvious, but only those who cultivate their community consistently and with intentionality get to harvest insights and profit!

Community can be just for celebrating and marketing a product, it can be to have customers contribute to the product...but Rei sees her community *as* the product, which means she's very careful to orchestrate it's development and evolution. The volunteer students in the Dorm Room fund must have a high level of autonomy and drive, which means she has to pull the work out of them, not push it on them!

And her community is rapidly refreshing, by design: Each year they lose people as they graduate and gain students who come in: Capability leaks out of her community constantly! Rei's solution doesn't seem to have a name, so I'll call it Cohort Mixing. In her annual event, she makes sure incoming, current and outgoing groups all connect in significant ways, in large and small groups and over time. This helps keep traditions and institutional knowledge alive and constant, even as the community renews.

Thinking about your own company or can community transform how you develop and test ideas? And how can you empower people in the community of your company to share and pull their own work forward, without you pushing every day?

Enjoy the episode! Rei's insights are solid gold. No bonus tracks this time...Rei and I somehow got it all in under the bell!

Show notes:

Community as Product workshop at CMX East 2015

First Round Capital

Dorm Room Fund

Defining Community

GA Hub: Community Engagement through curation

CMX Community Professionals Organization

Good Magazine

Foursquare's Superuser Group

The Famous Designer who said internships should be paid!

Rei's totally venture backable card company based on her mother's tiger mom texts

Radical Candor

Level Mixing In Communities

CMX's excellent article on community Engagement

Mutualism in Pair Relationships

Tony Robbins - I am Not your Guru

Slow Goodbyes : The Post-Wedding brunch

Automation in Group Decision Making: Not what they use at DRF, but an interesting example of using automation to simplify group conversations at the close

Balancing Privacy and Openness in Community: An office perspective

Mashup Teams: The optimal density of connections in teams

Motivation in Volunteer Communities: Open Source Sustainability and community building

Rewarding your community Volunteers: The Creative Mornings Summit



Daniel Mezick on Agile as an Invitation to a Game


On today's episode I talk to Daniel Mezick, author of the Culture Game and the founder of Open Space Agility. He’s is also the co-author of Inviting Leadership.

Daniel has a really unique perspective on culture, self management and how to make agile really work. At the core, agile believes that a team doing work is the authority on what needs to be done for that work, since they're closest to the work. This is self management at the team level.

In trying to make a switch to agile ways of working, organizations often dictate new frameworks, patterns and procedures. To dictate a new way for how work is to be done is basically the opposite of self management...and a clear limit on how an externally generated conversation design can really work: Change from the outside is going to get push back.

That Agile is implemented in a non-agile way is an irony not lost on him!

In Daniel's view, culture is a game, how work is done is a game, meetings are games, with rules, ways progress is measured...some of the rules are implicit, some are explicit, but it's kind of annoying to play a game with no rules, or with rules unevenly applied, or with rules that change without notice. If you're a reader of "Calvin and Hobbes" you've heard of CalvinBall, and you know how frustrating it is!

Whoever *must* play, can't really play... (that's from james carse's excellent book on Finite and Infinite games)

Daniel suggests that agile be *invite only*, pull, not push, and that that "pull" invitation be in the form of an Open Space meeting. People that opt in, step into the circle, decide what to talk about, and leave with proceedings, outputs. That starts a new game, with new rules, written by those who want to play.

His Open Space Agility process is an answer to the question of how to change the rules of a work culture in a clear and fair way, without hemorrhaging people in the process. Open Space dictates that whoever responds to the invitation are the right people, what conclusions they come to are the right conclusions, worthy of an experimental test, at the very least.

Open space meeting philosophy has infected my own conversation design practice. I feel particularly uneasy when a facilitator I'm working with tries to massage or shift the decisions a group is coming's one of the reasons I say a facilitator should ask better questions instead of giving answers. A great question is an invitation. An invitation is the start of a new conversation. This episode has me rethinking all the invitations I send out, for all my meetings, and all my conversations, moment by moment. Are my invitations inviting? Are people hearing an invitation to the game I want them to play?

Check out the a bonus track where Daniel and I talk about Holocracy and his work with Zappos....enjoy the episode!

The Agile Manifesto: 12 values and 4 principles

Jeff Sutherland

Scrum: rules, roles, artifacts

Planning Poker

User Stories

The Alpha Geek and the pecking order

meetings as games

Open Space Agility

Open Space four principles and the law of two feet

Butterfly and the Bumblebee

Waterfall vs Agile Culture

Pull vs Push Culture

Triggering Self management

four variables in software development: cost, delivery date, features, quality

client's changing their mind is a feature, not a bug

Pareto's Principle is the opposite of what you think

90% syndrome

Code gets brittle

The Big Picture Diagram of Open Space Agility

Signal Events in Culture

Buying into a process vs. Authoring a process

Proceedings of an Open Space Meeting

Organizational Cadence

The Agile Imposition

Beware the man of one book

SaFE Framework



The Mandate of Holocracy at Zappos

Holocracy or Quit

Nandini Stocker on Google's Map for how to make conversations work


In this episode of the conversation factory I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Nandini Stocker, the head of conversation design advocacy and partnerships at Google. She's the rare individual who is more of a conversation design geek than me, to the point that she interrupted me just to make a point about how awkward interruptions are!

We cover a sprawling number of topics in conversation design, and you might enjoy downloading Google's PDF on "How Conversations Work" and read along! I think just knowing that threading, repair and turn taking are *things* means you can look for them in your own work and find ways to transform conversation experiences that you design.

David Bohm, the storied physicist, wrote a book called "on dialogue" and said "Conversation is a principled, mutual process of collaboration and negotiation." So I shouldn't be surprised when Google's map of how conversations work matches exactly to the process of opening, exploring and closing I teach groups to follow when designing a creative, collaborative process for design thinking and innovation. Opening a channel for conversation is like the invitation into a cooperative game, a world to explore and engage with, and every leader needs to think empathically to design these invitations to be...inviting! Finding places along a conversation journey where there is breakage leads us to think about how to repair the thread of conversation and keep things moving along towards closure: a desired action or agreement!

We've be conversing for thousands of years, and we've gotten pretty good at it. But being good at something doesn't mean you know how to teach someone else how. Nandini's work is specifically on how to help us talk to digital agents with more natural ease.  We spoke a few weeks ahead of Google's I/O conference, and she's since sent me a wealth of talks that happened there that you might enjoy digging into. One of my favorites is from James Giangola, who *literally* wrote the book on Voice Interfaces. He talks about Conversational Hacks and digs into the cooperative principle, a way of helping us think about how relevant, clear and helpful information is exchanged at a steady pace in a good conversation.

Compare two exchanges:

"How much did your shirt cost?"

"Don't you love it? I got it at Vinnie's Vintage Warehouse!"



"Don't you love it? Shirt has five letters and five is my favorite number!"

To a computer, both responses contain about the same "amount" of information, but only a human conversationalist can tell that the information is irrelevant and least for now!

If you want to hear Nandini tell one of the worst/best Harry Potter puns ever (She calls puns the earworms of the English language, check out this short outtake.


Show Notes and Links:

Grice's Maxims in brief and extended

Threading and building threads

Seven of Nine

Turn Taking and Yielding

Conversation Repair

conversation overlap

Personality in digital agents:

discourse markers

Google: How Conversations Work

Google's quick reference design principles for conversation design

Amplifying Women's Voices in Obama's oval office

Barge In capability

The Uncanny Valley

On Inner Dialogue

Clifford Nass on Multitasking and his Obit


Bonus: Core talks from the Google Team from IO17:

This one is my favorite: Applying Built-in Hacks of Conversation to Your Voice UI 

Building Apps for the Google Assistant 

Finding the Right Voice Interactions for Your App 

Defining Multimodal Interactions: One Size Does Not Fit All

In Conversation, There Are No Errors

Getting Your Assistant App Discovered

How Words Can Make Your Product Stand Out

PullString: Storytelling in the Age of Conversational Interfaces 

Google's VUI design codelab:

Crafting a Character: Design an engaging Assistant app

Some solid talks from IXD17 on chatbots and conversational UIs:

and the pun game

Sally McCutchion on Holacracy and Self Management at all levels of organization


Holacracy asks a big question: How can organizations be designed  in a way that really works, for everyone in the organization? Right now, orgs are often structured according to power from the top to the bottom, rather than self management distributed throughout the organization. This slows orgs down and demotivates some people.

In this episode, I talk to Sally McCutchion, a certified Holacracy coach based in the UK. Sally teaches public workshops on Holocracy and coaches orgs  in making the shift to working with Holacracy.  Sally and I had a seriously wide ranging conversation about Holacracy. We hit on some big topics towards the end that I've placed in the extras, which you can find here. Check those out, as they're really juicy, just scroll all the way down!

One conversation design principle of Holacracy is to allow information and knowledge to flow through the org. Too often, people at the "edges" of an org, the people closest to the users, know a lot about what's wrong and how to make it right...but those same people don't feel empowered or safe to speak up, or even to just do something to shift issues. One CEO who's organization I coached years back desperately wanted people to feel a sense of ownership: How, if you own your house, and the toilet is running, you fix it, if you know how, or talk to someone who can. You don't just let it run. Holacracy attempts to open regular channels of communication between areas of the organization and to allow sections of the organization to feel that they can solve problems that they see without asking permission, waiting for permission, identifying if permission is even possible.

Holacracy designs several meetings within orgs very rigidly, in order to break down power structures and allow all voices to be heard: People are expected to bring updates framed as needs, not just complaints. Other structures  are a lot more open and can be adapted to the unique company requirements. It is without a doubt a very interesting design for organizational conversations. I get into the weeds with Sally a bit, and if you follow the links in the show notes you might find some of the terminology and structures dizzying...but the forest and the trees of Holacracy are worth absorbing: That self managementand purpose are essential all scales: at the scale of the person, the team, and all throughout an organization.

Show Notes:



Apollonian Gasket

Glass Frog


Holacracy Tactical (triage) meeting

Rep Link

Lead Link


"If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together."


Another Interview with Sally: Punks in Suits





Donna Lichaw on Storymapping and Seeing With New Eyes


Today I talk with Donna Lichaw, a UX strategist, coach, teacher and author of The User's Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love.

What's awesome about Donn'a approach to storytelling is that it's practical. There are a lot of frameworks for storytelling: The Hero's journey, Aristotle's 2 or 3-ish act structure, the rising and falling action of "Freytag's pyramid". It really doesn't matter which framework you the end, when you see things as story, story becomes a doorway into a new way of working. Story becomes a material you can shape by design. For me, I've started to see conversation in the same way: a material that can be shaped to create better experiences for people.

Donna and I talk about story*telling* vs story*making* and story*doing*. Storymaking is not the act of enrapturing a group of people around a campfire or at a podium, in a's knowing how you want people to feel about an experience after it's over, what you want them to remember, to walk away with, to talk about. Storymaking isn't about manipulation, it's about intent, in this mindset. When you see experiences as a rising and falling arc, you want to make that arc smooth and incredible. You want to shape it well, with no jerks, gaps or least not unintentionally!

Designing with Story in mind and designing with Conversation in mind seem to me to be two sides of the same coin. You want the person experiencing your story to respond in some way. And the next story you guide them through continues that dialogue until...? I don't know. The next chapter?

Every Story has a hero, and we want to root for that hero, to see her win the day. In a great conversation you try to make the other person the hero, not's the empathy with the other person and their needs and goals that makes story a powerful tool in great conversation design.



Donna's Site

Donna's Book: The User's Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love

3 act structure: What did Aristotle Say about that?

rising and falling action

4 act structure

5 act structure

the hero with a thousand faces: Book

The Hero's Journey

Dave grey mapping workshops with the Hero's journey

Star wars and the Hero'sjourney TED Radio hour NPR episode

dan harmon's story circle

the writer's journey book

The Writer's Journey on the web

Nancy Duarte's Book Resonate

Nancy's Ted Talk

Presentation Zen

Dan Roam Back of napkin

The storytelling of Steve Jobs and the iphone release

User Scenarios

Burying the Lede

How I built this podcast: Lyft and story

Marshal McLuhan: Hot and cool media

General Background on McLuhan: Video


Coaching Conversation with Phil N on Shifting the Entry Point of Challenging Converstions


For this episode, I did a 30 minute coaching call with a friend of a friend that turned into a wonderful and transformational hour! Phil is a talented photographer and entrepreneur, and we spent a good section of our time looking at what conversations in this life are functional and which are missing something. He's part of solid men's group, so we could use design principles from that experience to reframe how his less functional patterns are working.

As he says in the opening, part of the change was using the tools of conversation design to map friction points in his conversations with women over relationships and work to shift that conversational pattern in three ways:

One, to have the conversation he's avoiding sooner. (time)

Two, to generate multiple ways to open up that conversation.  We talk about how to "Open up" a dialogue in the most conscious, empathetic and energizing way (not to force it) and to generate multiple openings for challenging conversations to find a space that feels authentic, empathetic and effective. (ideation)

Three, to find a way to continue to converse with as much comfort and regularity with women as he does with men. (pattern)

In essence, we're talking about Rhythm. Or the technical term is Prosody:

"the systematic study of metrical structure, the rhythmic and intonational aspect of language"

The one physical aspect of your central nervous system you can control is breath...the depth and frequency of your breathing. When you're in stress, regulating your breathing can transform that state. Just like the pace of breathing, pace and depth is an important part of a conversation that you can control: both the frequency of responses IN communication and speed OF communication.

One clear outcome of our conversation was that just like he'll go to his men's group every Monday, whether he feels like it or not, he has to make a *date* with himself to consider if he's being honest with himself and open with others. Can you make a date with yourself to consider whatever topics are critical to your own personal conversation?

At about the halfway point we shift to his ambitions in photography and his resistance to owning his ambition. We talk about incremental conversations versus a paradigm shifting conversation: Playing chess vs Sweeping the pieces of the board and creating your own type of greatness. Making the conversation on your own terms, rather than playing by the rules. (see episode 006 with Sara Holoubek where we talk about accepting/rejecting trends and I talk about non-complimentarity)

Enjoy the session! And it you'd like to have a conversation with me, just reach out on the coaching page. Show links are below.

Dave Bohm on Dialogue: Shared Pool of Meaning

" Participants [in a dialogue] find that they are involved in an ever changing and developing pool of common meaning."

Morning pages and journaling


Cave Day/Deep Work

Episode 006: Sara Holoubek on Human Companies and Solving Problems that Matter

Invisibilia: Flip the Script (non-complimentarity)


Natural Cycles Model of Creativity

Dave Gray on Drawing Conversations and Liminal Thinking


Today I talk with Dave Gray Author of Gamestorming and his new book,     Liminal Thinking. We kick things off with a Zen story and dig into why Dave wrote this new book. We hit on a wide range of topics from the nitty gritty of facilitating group conversations to organizational change being fueled more by emotion than reason. Dave's books have always opened new pathways in my brain, so I hope you enjoy unpacking some of the lessons inside with me.

One of the reasons I pulled the opening quote about drawing is that it's without a doubt the most powerful way to transform ANY conversation. Most conversations have one interface: the air. Once it's past your eardrums, I have *no* idea what's really going on inside someone's head! Drawing makes sure there's a tangible record...hell, a paper trail, of our conversation, what we've agreed to, what is in or out of the conversation. A few months ago now I helped my mom and dad work out some scenarios around selling their house and moving someplace else. Me and my brother, together with my folks, generated as many options as we could: They move, and rent out their big house, they sell it all and rent something else, they sell and buy and so on...we made a big poster for each option and then stuck up comments on each, using a format called "Rose, Thorn Bud"...which not to be too meta, is also a conversation design: We could have just done plusses and minuses, we could have done a SWOT analysis on each...but Rose Thorn Bud (which is from the boy scouts of america) is a kind of "friendly" design for conversational analysis.

We used different colors for Rose Thorn Bud, a trick I learned from teaching design thinking with the LUMA Institute...and after our meeting we had a visual heatmap of how the whole family felt about all the options on the table. It really helped my folks step back from the confusion of choice and get some clarity about the steps ahead. And it helped my mom realize that she and my dad haven't tried living in enough other places to make a choice about living somewhere else...and that they ought to figure that out before they sell.

That, in essence, is Dave's point about drawing making a series of triangulations for a conversation. Rather than one person trying to hold all those points in mind, we used color and space to do it for us...a board for each future for my parents, and a map of each future.

Another point Dave makes towards the end that I want to highlight about conversation design...when I'm designing a group workshop, the question of size and time comes up. He talks about watching people at parties, and how 3-5 people can "hold" together pretty naturally...but at 6-8 it splits, unless there's someone holding it together, someone famous, magnetic or especially entertaining. There's some math there, just like how paper increases the points of triangulation to give clarity. If 4 people generate 3-5 post-its that's about 20 stickies, and lot's of possible combinations as they try to discuss and organize them all...if you add just one more person, that's 25% increase in raw information...and increases the combination possibilities exponentially. To expect that group to process the increased information in the same period of time is just unfair! That's where a facilitator can help, by making a first action clearer (and taking some options off the table) or by giving more time, a clearer organizational framework, making the stickies all contain the same types or categories of content, or by making sure the group sizes are all consistent. On the face, conversation design for group work can seem so fuzzy, but I feel like there's a lot of quantitative thinking and actual MATH that goes on beneath it.

Show Links:



Liminal Thinking

LUMA Institute

zen flesh zen bones


Power in organizations


Finite and infinite games


Morning pages and journaling


Monkeys watching monkeys


Candid Camera Video of elevator conformity

Sara Holoubek on Human Companies and Solving Problems that Matter


Today I talk with Luminary Labs CEO and founder Sara Holoubek. Luminary Labs is a really unique company that both consults with companies on strategy and also helps run massive open innovation programs for organizations. We talk about working on problems that matter, on how humans have always been more nuanced than marketers and how companies need to be creating Intelligence Engines.

One of the things that Sara helped me think about is an idea i've been noodling with about Complimentarity vs. Non-Complimentarity. How in situations, you have really only these two choices: to go with or against the current tide. Sara helped me see that the conversation between a company and the culture it's in is very similar to the conversation two people might have! Companies face that choice, too. Only, too many companies choose to go along with trends or not...not intentionally, but mostly unintentionally.  And that's the thing about design: everything is designed,  either well, or poorly, intentionally or unintentionally. Sara clearly helps companies and the people in them be more intentional about their work.

 In trying to re-design a conversation you're in,  you can shift patterns by consciously pushing with or against them. David Bohm tells a great story  about this in "On Dialogue"...a psychologist was treating a young girl who wouldn't talk to anybody. After an hour of fruitless attempts, he was exasperated and said "why won't you talk to me?"

"because I hate you" she countered: She was pushing *back* on his energy, you see?

So he asked "how long will you hate me?"

she said "I'll hate you forever"

Then he kept with it, taking the logic further "how long will you hate me forever?"

Somehow, this broke the spell and the little girl laughed. He kept questioning her refusal... somehow, taking it seriously helped shift it.

What is that behavior? He somehow accepted what was happening with the little girl, but questioning it in the right way, shifted the conversation.

I learned about non-complimentarity from Invisibilia, an *awesome* podcast from NPR. I'll link the episode in the notes: in the show opening they talk about a group of people drinking wine in their back yard who get help up at gunpoint. They tell the robber they have nothing, so they offer him a glass of wine instead...which flips the whole script of getting robbed. Spoiler alert: it ends in a group hug. Enjoy that episode from Invisibilia and enjoy this episode, too! I hope you learn something about redesigning conversations for your own context...



Luminary labs


David Bohm on Dialoue:


Invisibilia: Flip the Script


Toothpaste Medium Article


Gartner Hype Cycle


The Human Company Playbook


Makers and Takers


Danny Meyer


EdSim Challenge


Avoiding the 20 Million Dollar Mistake:



Sara :                   You know, if something's happening to your company and it is truly seismic and there is a larger force if you don't have a lot of control of really the force itself that you have complete control over what you do. So you know if you're a pharmaceutical and machine learning is you know on the horizon you can ignore it or you can incorporate it. And then for the question becomes how do you organize around machine learning to improve dosage or identify a therapy, um, process or protocol or whatever you're using machine learning for, uh, it's what you do in response to the force that matters.

Daniel:                Welcome to the conversation factory. I'm your host Daniel Stillman. Each episode I'll talk to an amazing conversation designer to try and distill insights we can all bring into our work and lives. Human conversation is a material that can be shaped by design and shifting conversations in everyday meetings and organizations and yourself can create real change and I hope to help you do it better and more authentically. I'd love to have you stay part of the conversation. Head over to the conversation to sign up for my newsletter and never miss an episode. That's the conversation I'd also love for you to be part of the show if there's a challenging transformation you're working through, head over to the Conversation Click coaching and sign up for 30 minutes of free coaching that I might use on the show. Head over to the Conversation hit coaching and let me know what conversations you need. Help redesign it and enjoy the episode.

Daniel:                Today I talk with luminary labs, CEO and founder Sarah Holbeck. Luminary labs is a really unique company that both consults with companies on strategy and also helps run massive open innovation programs for organizations. Today we talk about working on problems that matter on how humans have always been more nuanced than marketers and how companies need to be creating intelligence engines. One of the things that Sarah helped me think about is an idea I've been noodling with about complementarity versus non complimentarity. How in situations you really only have these two choices to go with or against the current tide. Sarah helped me see that the conversation between a company and the culture it's in is very similar to the conversation to people might have companies face that choice to only too many companies choose to go along with trends or not, not intentionally, but mostly unintentionally. And that's the thing about design.

Daniel:                Everything is designed either well or poorly, intentionally or unintentionally. Sarah helps companies and the people in them be more intentional about their work and trying to redesign a conversation you're in. You can shift patterns by consciously pushing with or against them. David Bohm tells a great story about this. In his book on dialogue, a psychologist was treating a young girl who wouldn't talk to anybody, and after an hour of fruitless attempts, he was exasperated and said, why won't you talk to me because I hate you. She countered. She was pushing back on this energy, you see? So he asked, how long will you hate me? She said, I'll hate you forever. But then he kept with it, taking the logic further, how long will you hate me forever? Somehow this broke the spell and a little girl laughed and he kept questioning her refusal. Somehow taking it seriously helped shifted.

Daniel:                What does that behavior, he somehow accepted what was happening with the little girl, but questioning it in the right weight shifted the conversation. I learned about non complimentarity from invisibility that an awesome podcast on NPR. I'll leave the episode in the notes in the show opening. They talk about a group of people drinking wine in their backyard who get held, held up at gunpoint. They tell the robber they have nothing. So they offer him a glass of wine instead, which flips the whole script of getting robbed. Spoiler alert, it ends in a group hug. Enjoy that episode from Invisibilia and enjoy this episode too. I hope you learn something about redesigning conversations in your own context.

Sara :                   Sara, Thank you very much for joining me today. I really appreciate your time. Um, you are the CEO and founder of luminary labs and you guys help organizations transform themselves from the inside out and also from the outside in. The first question I wanted to ask you about was, um, an article you wrote about toothpaste in regards to making sure that we're solving problems that matter and I just think that's a really important idea these days. Can you tell me a little bit about that shift for you, between a that getting pulled closer and closer to problems that you were more passionate about?

Sara :                   Sure. I spent the first part of my career and what I would call the early Internet and so I was in business school in France in the late nineties and I was very interested in understanding consumers' people, real people, what they thought and felt and very intrigued by this idea that there was a science behind what we liked and this conversation between brands and people. So at the time I really wanted to work the field of branding and a friend of mine who had gone to the same business school said, you don't want to do that, Sarah, you want to work in the Internet? And I was like, what? What does that mean your work in the Internet? Again, this is like 1998, 1999 and so, um, upon graduation, you know, I returned from France to the United States and headed to New York where at that time if you had a pulse, they were like, come work for our Internet company and they were everywhere and you probably remember, you know, Cosmo and uh, you know, uh, the globe and many of those early digital companies.

Sara :                   And so I went to work for a company called organic. It was one of the first digital agencies today. That's a very known thing. What, you know, we know what a digital agency looks like. But in 1988 and 99, it was an exercise in inventing everything. So I was in the strategy group, I was an analyst and we were trying to understand how companies should or should not go online. So when we think about online banking, nearly everybody has some form of online banking today. But back then it was known he really didn't this online and we were trying to understand, you know, what type of person would do this online ? And keep in mind, not like very few people had broad band. You had broadband at work, at home, you're still using a up. And so over the years, uh, you know, the excitement of always doing the new thing, just it was constantly fresh.

Sara :                   You know, at first it was how do we connect with people through the Internet. You know, later it was how do we advertise to people through the Internet and it became more social. How do we engage with people through the Internet? How does search, um, help us understand what real people want and need? And that fueled me for so many years. I felt like I was at the forefront of something. But then I hit a point where I realized that like when search, you know, it was over and it flipped over to video or social and not what the job is done in any pieces. Um, because I was really sort of peddling the same thing over and over again. Um, it was less about the technology. And I'm not a technologist by trade. I'm not a coder. I'm not a designer. I'm a strategist.

Sara :                   And I realized that I was being asked to take everything I learned about radically transforming industries. And I think the pinnacle, um, was having worked with a major real estate company when it was the largest in the United States at the time too, to rapidly revamp how people like searched and bought homes. At the time, nobody was doing this online and realtors were very much against the Internet because it meant you couldn't keep people in your car as you drove them around to see homes and to reshape that industry and help a very large organization, hobbits fields here is understand that people would actually spend more money and spend less time buying a home. And that would be a good thing for everybody was it was incredible how we did this. We completely change how people do this online. And then the next account that came along with a toothpaste accountant while brushing your teeth is very important. And I don't mean to make light of it, I mean if we really serious early childhood cavities are actually a major problem that needs to be addressed. The problem I was being asked to look at was, um, a new, I think the two phase had like a new stripe and the stripe had a sparkle in it. And I was like, oh my goodness, really, like I have to work on this. And

Daniel:                they were sparkly.

Sara :                   Are there a lot of people who love to do this? And it makes the music sing inside of them and they should do that. But it wasn't right for me. And, and so that led me down this path of wondering, you know, is there something else I should do? And so for a period of time, I, every time I was job hunting, I would always look at something in digital. And then I'd always look at a nonprofit job and that would apply from both. And I kept doing the digital thing, um, until until probably like 10 years ago when a little bit over 10 years ago when I was an independent consultant and a healthcare company called me and I was like, wow, I'm so sees everything I know to help a pharmaceutical. This could go really, really well if you'd go really, really poorly. And I was characterizing Pharma because I didn't actually know a lot about Pharma. And long story short, it was the best thing I ever did.

Sara :                   Hmm.

Daniel:                It's so interesting because you're almost talking about like the Gartner hype cycle where when you get past the complex region, it's less interesting to you.

Sara :                   Yeah.

Daniel:                You really want to be in that part where there's more, uh, more chaos but also more opportunity to make a real impact.

Sara :                   Yes. I think this is particularly true because in those early days you get to experiment and stretch things. And I would argue then that marketers are usually the first table I'm onto new technology. And while that's a really great, it's also a source of frustration for me when the vendor using technologies can be used to improve life for the billions on this. So either when we think about everything from search and social to smartphones, blockchain, you know, our minds immediately go to how can we create commercial value, which is not, I've had thing and we should absolutely do that. But we completely forget. And when I say we, I mean the people who actually worked with the technology, um, corporations and investors, we completely forget where very big opportunities are to ensure a more equitable future.

Daniel:                I want to tease something out cause I'm just going to guess because I, I feel this way, maybe you feel this way too that the, the, the real estate versus the toothpaste problem, again, not denigrating toothpaste whatsoever is this idea of creating lasting change.

Sara :                   Yeah.

Daniel:                And um, the change of a certain scale. And I'm wondering if your interest in helping companies operationalize innovation comes from that same place in you were helping a company innovate in an incremental way or innovate once is not as satisfying as helping them create a lasting change inside of their organization that allows them to continue to do that.

Sara :                   Yeah, I think there's, it's very intentional that we say that part of our mission is to transform not just organization industries at large. So he'll a really great program might yield a good result for right now, but a true innovation system create a longer term advantage or has a longer term effect. So again, the, you know, I'm less interested in the ad of the year award and more interested in, you know, how can we really think what we do? And it can be incremental. I'm not opposed to incremental innovation. I think there are places in time where that's actually important and maybe the best way to do things. Um

Sara :                   Hm.

Sara :                   But it really comes down to, is it last game right? And again, it could be at scale, it could not be a scale, it just depends upon the problem. But is it a lasting thing is something that you know, we will in 20 years or 50 years and wow. Do you remember when, so, you know, the one of the examples I give right now is you're, there was a time when you would buy your plane ticket and it would be mailed to you on that piece of paper. And it didn't even have to be you. You know, you could buy tickets from a friend and it didn't, the name didn't have to match them. And so for a lot of different reasons, that has changed everything from, um, homeland security to, you know, eat ticketing. So, uh, you know, how we organize what happened to the travel and, and that would be a really good example of an entire industry that has completely changed how they book.

Sara :                   Uh, how would they book a flight and, and how they, how they create their revenue streams. I think they're undergoing another round right now where, um, you know, we also say, remember when you used to get a meal and the meal actually had real silverware and now we're looking at either how many people can we pack into the, you know, into this airplane and you know, could it be even closer and could there be, you know, the low cost option in the back and you pay more for every additional thing you get to do. So, um, it, it is absolutely, you know, not only something of permanent, but you know, to your point about conversations and organizations have conversations like they do Evan flailing evolve with time.

Daniel:                They sure do. And it seems like there's also like certain assumptions that shift that change how people expect that they're supposed to be acting. I think at some point you're, everyone was like, oh yeah, no free bags. And everyone was like, now we just accept that. Which is shocking in some ways.

Sara :                   Yeah. I think it's really helpful to look at the forces that affect any industry. And you leave very specifically talk about technological, economic, political and social norms of the 21st century. That's the time in which we operate right now, um, as a company. And while many of our clients will call us because there's a technological problem here, they're having trouble adapt to some new tech, no harm, whether it's usage by consumers or it's something that they're doing internally or if the potential of the technology to transform their industry. Ultimately we find that economic forces, political forces are social forces are also shifting how they do business. And so, um, it would be, it'd be silly to say that like tech lives outside of the society in which it operates, right? As we introduce new technologies, expectations of people, expectations of employees, expectations of investors also change.

Daniel:                No. Some of those horses are within your scope of influence in, some of them aren't. So how do you, how do when a company starting to look at all of these forces, how do you get them to grapple with separating or teasing out these different forces? And making sure

Sara :                   why would argue, yeah, I would argue that if something's happening to your company and it is truly seismic and there is a larger force, you don't have a lot of control. I've really, the force itself that you have complete control over what you do. So you know, you hear pharmaceutical and machine learning is on the horizon, you can ignore it or you can incorporate it. And for the question becomes, how do you organize around machine learning to improve no sage or identify a fair fee, um, process or protocol or whatever you're using machine learning for. Um, it's what you do in response to the force that matters, right? So social norms are classic. I mean, we, you know, when, when the Internet came of age and we realized like every page is doing this at Tommy or there's a time when executives who say, but to real people do this.

Sara :                   And you say, well, do you go home and use youtube? And they're like, well, actually I do. And then it comes back to, I'll never forget this conversation. Was that an executive in, in, um, uh, franchise within a pharmaceutical? He was in the cancer for our franchise and it was heavily lost on him. That real people might actually go to youtube to learn more about cancer. It wasn't, it didn't feel super serious to him. And um, you, Yahoo answers, you know, it's a little bit, your people are actually asking questions that probably should go to their doctor and so rather than poo poo it or say that it is not serious, you should ask yourself why, why are real people trusting the Internet when they're not asking the same questions of medical professionals or are they asking questions of both and looking at the responses. And I think today we've, we've kind of crossed that line where it's like, okay, yes, real people do use the Internet for almost everything. And in fact it's probably the first place they go.

Daniel:                Exactly. Like I feel like you have the strategists true love of human behavior. Like though the asking the why like not judging it, just saying isn't it amazing that people are acting this way?

Sara :                   Yeah. I mean everything is human injured. And I recently decided I was no longer agreeing to describe companies as data driven or tax driven. And because ultimately there has to be a human somewhere that, you know, even if you're just flipping the switch and you know, we can say, well you could build a machine and flip the switch, but then somebody has to build the machine. And yes. Yeah. I don't think a little on our extract humans completely. And, and I think it's, you know, all that is, well, there is the real fear of how technology will change our jobs and our livelihoods. That has always existed. We've always been afraid. Now if the new technology, and I think it is a complete error to assume that humans don't have a role, our role will change, but it will hopefully bring out what humans are best at. And um, there was something delightful and wonderful about humans that,

Daniel:                um, can never be as you please. That's good. Yeah. If we never lose.

Sara :                   Yeah. Yeah. It's, it is. It's one of the biggest fallacies right now is that everything is all about the tech and, you know, forget people. And, and that's very fundamental to how we guide our clients in their work. Um, but also and how we think about how businesses organize and operate overall. You forget humanity. I don't know what you're doing on planet earth. Yeah.

Daniel:                I definitely want to talk to you about the human company playbook and some stuff on your, your book club lists. But I also, but first I want to just go back a couple of beats. There was a couple of things you said that I just really want to um, capture. You talked about the ebb and flow of conversation and I'm wondering about the ebb and flow of the conversation between brands and people and how that relates to a company's innovation. Like are they, how are they pulling those, uh, those messages in or rejecting them?

Sara :                   Why are you might've exceeded my pay grade here while I answer it. Right. A lot of talking about consumer behavior. You, I've been a little bit outside of the advertising and of indication space for, for awhile that kind of posit some pain and tricks. And for Ahmed is you have to provide a service, like a good service or product. Like if people have to like have the thing. But I think what has been interesting in more recent years is that the thing is actually not a nun. Um, it's almost, it is everything is a commodity and it's these other layers on half of the things. And you liked the jacket, but does the jacket support the causes you care about? There's a jacket represent your values and does the medium through which the jacket to it cool enough? Um, or is it trying too hard and I think that is the had an la something many people have produced many, many studies about this that, you know, millennials have a very different uh, approach to deciding how they engage with brands.

Sara :                   You know, what did they buy, what do they not buy? And you know, I think where it gets most interesting is this high low combination where, um, people are comfortable mixing high end and low end products. Or you might buy a luxury jacket and then the genes or you know, from target date or something like that. Or whatever. Um, and, and it was confusing for the traditional marketer, right? Because we used to focus only on demographics and then I think when they integrate internet came around, I remember as an analyst it was all about demographics, technographics and psychographics, right? And we would look at audiences through those three lenses. And today, like the psychographic part is just off the charts, right? So people are no longer uniform. We, we think about people as look alike. So when you think about Amazon's recommendation engine or Netflix's recommendation engine that the collaborative filtering, has he ever done?

Sara :                   Like people might look alike in some areas but not in other areas. So our historic approach to grouping people no longer stands. We can no longer blank. Like with the Internet in particular because everybody can consume everything now you doesn't matter where you live and it doesn't matter how much money you make and you know, it doesn't matter, you know, all the basic household income or um, family size, things that used to dictate what your family would or what they would be interested in, you know, through the Internet. When I vote to say like, wow, you know, you like period pieces with a strong female lead, but you also like thrillers. So you know, it's, it is, it's more nuanced. I think humans and humans, it's probably always been new. Any more nuanced, I think marketers have been less nuanced in, in, in the past. So I think that's, that's probably what has changed in my mind. Okay.

Daniel:                So we're just now sort of waking up to the complexity of humans and it's up to a company to reckon with that somehow.

Sara :                   Yeah. I mean, another really great example was when I first started working with the healthcare and Pharma, it was completely inappropriate to interject humor into any conversation grants, patients, because disease is not funny. But if you actually talk to people living with any disease, you weren't always comes up. And they said there's this big disconnect between what is perceived to be appropriate and what is actually helpful. And it's a fine line. It's not, I'm not saying it's easy ...but humans are nuanced. You know, you can live with diabetes and liver cancer and have a sense of humor about it. Many people will tell you that I fill only way they can get biased to have a sense of humor about it. Um, but learning how to authentically, um, have the humor there is, is hard. Right? So like it would probably be inappropriate for the pharmaceutical company to make the joke. Um, but to appreciate that real people are making a joke and acknowledging that it does it exist is it would be a really great way to better understand humans and the humans who are, um, living with a disease or benefiting from your therapy.

Daniel:                Yeah. Yeah. And it seems like there's, there's that line and it's up to a company to sort of say, is this, is this the moment to transform that conversation to bring the humor in our people ready for it versus, um, maybe going a little too far. And that's a, it's a subtle sort of line.

Sara :                   I think it's, there's a way to honor the nuances in humans without trying to replicate it. Right. And so, um, you know, we always know when a brand is trying too hard. Like I kind of see what you're trying to go for. Not really working for me. Um, I think we see that with products that are marketed to women or moms and you're like, okay, I totally get it. You really want women to buy this. It didn't really need to be pink or you know, um, the ads that make dad look like a helpless, bumbling fool, like not really authentic. And while there might be jokes here and there, um, and sometimes it might be true in individual's situations because it's actually a disservice. And, and that's why those don't work so well.

Daniel:                So how can a act more human? Cause we know that human and sort of pushing it a little too much. Right? And we need to pull it back.

Sara :                   Yeah. I think it's injured it, instead of listening to humans and, and you know, creating mechanisms. There are stuff like creating intelligence engines or anytime you're doing anything that catches a consumer for today's technology, you can learn a lot, right? So all the data that we have access to, um, all of the insights that we can gather, you know, what do you use them for just to like create the better ad or do you actually use it to inform everything you do? And so you oftentimes we'll find that this gets only into marketing and in fact some of that intelligence is best shared with product development or shared with, uh, maybe operations or finance. Right? So like how might they respond? What would they do differently if they knew how real humans behave? Um, and so that would be one way of being human if you'd like to get into on the bigger picture of human company design, um, customers are absolutely part of being human. So acknowledging that you, part of your reason to exist is to produce something for a customer.

Sara :                   I think what has happened in more recent years, probably the last 30 to 40 years, starting, I guess in the 70s, we decided that corporations exist to create shareholder value. And this is a very documented shifts. And economists and authors have written about this extensively. Um, but prior to the 70s, there was a big debate about whether the purpose of a corporation is to create shareholder value or not. And um, we chose shareholder value. Um, unfortunately we chose exclusively shareholder value and so when push comes to shove the decisions, especially public companies, um, really foster shareholder value over the customer over their employees, over society at large. And I think this is a massive problem throughout all of corporate America and even beyond the United States has as some of our recent research has suggested. Um, and we've completely forgotten that value can be created by investing in people are not just extracting from people.

Sara :                   So we, we define human company design as a management approach that creates value by investing in people. And so then the free and ticketed says erase is the antithesis of extracting from people. So when you think about wage labor, it's an extraction. You do this for me and I will give you money, right? So I'm not actually investing in you, I'm just exchanging money for the thing you gave me. And what would be seen in the last two or three years has been a sea change of organizations that are suggesting that they might actually create longer value. And especially over the long run, it's like greater value over the long run by investing in people. And this means investing in their employees, but also beyond that I means investing in communities. That means investing in customers. That means investing in, in anybody who is a human...ultimately shareholders as well, but not putting shareholders first, which is what most companies do.

Daniel:                Yeah. This is fascinating because I'm, one of the questions I wanted to ask you was, there was a Peter Drucker quote in one of your presentations about a company's primary responsibility is to serve its customers. The profit is not the primary goal, but it's a condition for the company's continued existence in sustainability. And what's interesting is the flip side of that is like I'm always a fan of Danny Meyer's employee first because his theory is if you take care of the employees, everything else will be taken care of. And what you're, what I'm hearing you say is that it's a false dichotomy.

Sara :                   Yeah. I'd be really curious to know what Drucker would say if he were alive today. You know, again, going back to conversations that ebb and flow, I think his argument was it heard of this conversation with Milton Friedman, right? Who, who really did push, you know, profit is the only responsibility. I think he at one point said this is the only social responsibility and take anything else would be unadulterated socialism. So, right. And so Drucker's like, oh, that's not really why we create profit and there are really opposing views. I'm like, why you? Why do you start a business? Why you take a business public? Um, why do you, you know, what do you do with your profit? And I think what, you know, the recent research has really embraced the investing in people and defining people more broadly is that, and we through our work, see really big problems affecting the world. When I talk about chronic disease, and for example take diabetes with maybe 27, 28, 29 million people living with diabetes in America, and also there just around 80 million maybe who have pre-diabetes. Oftentimes we'll talk about especially type two diabetes as a lifestyle disease, right? So he put the blame on the person is erroneous. The number one thing that dictates your lifestyle is your job.

Sara :                   How long does it take you to get to work? What are you doing when you're in the work? What are you allowed to eat or when can you eat? How much does it cost at work? It is incredible how companies disctate the society in which we operate. And I do believe that things like chronic disease could be addressed through how companies are designed, right? So like what is, you know, every company invested more in people in their health and that doesn't mean I'm paying for your healthcare. That's what that's like a first step. Like that to me is sort of like basics, but like what if you allowed for exercise? You know, imagine somebody who, um, have to be to work at eight. Let's say your day is eight to five, which is really quite rare today. Um, and you have an hour commute, which means they are leaving their house at seven.

Sara :                   Listen, you're a family with two kids. Okay? What do you eat? What do your kids eat? How does your kid get to school? How do you get to work? What do you eat? Do you have time to eat? You know, does your company book through lunch idea? They'd be glad to do it. Okay, you get back in your car, you get home, okay, now it's six o'clock. How much time do you have to make dinner, make dinner, and what time does your kid go to bed? What time do you go to bed? Do you jump back online? Like this is the rat race as a total rat race that, you know, we sort of sell ourselves this koolaid and dreams that Koolaid that like we're trying to change the world. And this happens particularly in startup setting. I'm working, I just described, so they work like an eight hour day.

Sara :                   What does it look like when you work at 10? Right? And you know, I think about things like chronic disease and I think about things like literacy and I think that brow, um, social emotional learning and, and all of these things that, you know, whether you're a child or an adult, um, how much work and how we've designed the private sector in particular to operate that affects this. And so the first question is like, well, you actually change your business and still be profitable. I think the answer is absolutely yes. In fact, you can create more value. And so what we're doing through the human company playbook is conducting a series of interviews of CEOS who embrace this approach and the theater. Some of them are public companies and early stage companies. Some are private air. It just spans the gamut spans industry and we're trying to undercover the common shared values. What are these core tenants and how does it play out so that we can give advice to new entrepreneurs as well as other executives as to how they might want to build a more human company and what return looks like when you can expect that return and the end of the day for pointing out that there is a choice. There's nothing about the business that is written in stone. We as a society shows, organize or work the way we have today is accurate. Maybe the scariest part,

Daniel:                oh, interesting about that is when I talk to people about design thinking, one of the things I try to tell them is that everything around them has been designed, which means that it can, that's either been designed well or it's been designed poorly or unintentionally and that everything around them can be designed with intention and that goes to the companies that we work in. There are certain choices that have been made based on certain assumptions that can be remade. And what sounds like what you're trying to do is explain to people the impact of these various choices and that these things that seem extravagant, like not booking through lunch and maybe even buying people lunch have,

Sara :                   Huh?

Daniel:                Over time a more positive effect than the sort of short term gain of let's book more time and let's not spend money on stuff we don't have to spend money on.

Sara :                   Wait really explicitly shadow Friedman's in overdraft, overdraft. Right. And I need to get an age. And you know, the very quick read shows and what's interesting, not sure corporations, but federal government and how we look at the finance industry, how we look at corporate law. We've chose to allow for that to happen and to even foster it. So, you know, every CEO will say like, my job is to create as a shareholder value as possible under the current loss of stem. Right? We can stir. You're like, if you know, if that's what your company is designed to do. Um, but when we look at it and we look at how people in seats of power make decisions, when we think about employee compensation and executive compensation, are we looking at like a pay cap? Um, we looked at how the care access all these decisions directly contribute to income, any quality, right?

Sara :                   So it's like, and I'm not necessarily, I'm not anti Catholic or like I'm a CEO and private sector company. I invested in early stage companies, but I do think that one could be more mindful about the distribution, right? So if you're running a profitable company and I don't care what size it is and anybody in your company cannot afford to make ends meet, right? So like for like the average sized family, then you're probably doing something wrong and you are contributing to this larger problem of income inequality. Both have really interesting is that the income gap and the wealth gap that we see amongst individuals is also being replicated on, um, the company end of things. So as companies are making more and more money and corporate profits are actually at an all time high, the distribution is uneven. So top performing companies, I'll paste the rest and that creates a competitive advantage.

Sara :                   And so, um, that's a big barrier to competition. And so it really is a winner take all model and that's actually not good for American business. So when you think about s and p companies, the average lifespan of an s and p company today is just 12 years. And that should scare people right now. And so we chose like, we actually chose to make, um, America as a country rich. So all time high profits, you know, CEO pay through the roof, but we also share is not to make Americans like the people ranch. And so the middle class is no longer than majority. And this is all about company design. And when I say company design is in tandem with policy. Yeah. So a really good book to read if you're interested in this as makers and takers, um, came out last year and it talks about the financialization of American business and really breaks it down, um, in a way that you know, even the lay person can, can understand.

Daniel:                That's fascinating. We're almost talking about the difference between an extractive relationship and a sustained relationship and that can go between a company and employees and also between the company and its users and just making sure that there's a balanced, balanced and sustainable perspective and all those relationships just really, yeah.

Sara :                   Okay. Yeah, and it's, but here's the problem. Even though we know that investing more today will yield even more in 10 years are short term, mindset is so stuck that we won't do it right. So most CEOs don't feel that they have the liberty to invest in the thing that will help them in the long run because there is so much pressure from their board to get done what they need to get done this quarter, this year, next two years, and this is very dangerous. I think it's is. While I love America's ability to think quickly and be agile and shift can respond to what's happening today or inability to think about the long term and outcome is, is going to hurt. It's going to hurt.

Daniel:                Yes, I needed this. Quarterly capitalism is definitely a challenge. It sounds like you're helping companies kind of look around the corner and a lot of ways you use the term intelligence engines. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you build an intelligence engine in a company and if it kind of helps some of these challenges that we're talking about.

Sara :                   That's a good questions. I will say that all of our clients and do you struggle a quarterly capitalism and the long run, it is a perennial. Okay. A challenge that you have to help them through, through, you know, whether it's communicating to your senior leadership team or to your CEO or to the board, you know, why you might want to make this investment today and something that is a moonshot. Um, it's part of our job and we do do that every day, especially on our strategy side of the business where it's all behind the scenes. Like you're not going to read about this in the newspaper because it is very contentious and very, um, very important. Right? Like you've got a big nut of money and where do you put it? Um, on the other hand, um, you know, there are sort of smaller steps that you can take and so intelligence engines can really be, I mean, anything that you produced that touches people, collects intelligence, and it can ultimately be used to inform other parts of the business.

Sara :                   So when are you are, you know, Jane and Interactive advertising or are we had her team touches that, you know, or you're Joe, you know, in clinical trials if you're collecting information that might have a greater purpose, we have to figure out how to get the data to flow right and how to, even more than the data share the insights. Right? Um, and so, um, that is, that is also a really big challenge for organizations. I didn't find that the technology, like once you get past the tech hurdle, like, okay, we're going to do this. The bigger problem is always organizational. All right? So anybody can build a dashboard. Anybody can build an intelligence engine, anybody can build a machine learning team. But what usually helps or hinders the effort is does the organization circle around it and support it

Daniel:                or not? Right? So one problem is the organization isn't pulling in the intelligence. The second problem is they're not turning that into insight. And then the third would be they're not actually turning it into something that they act on.

Sara :                   Yeah.

Sara :                   Well or even sharing it across silos. Right. Team. So you know, if you, you know, the example I gave before the person in interactive marketing and the person in clinical trials might not ever talk. Yes, they are in completely different ends of an organization that might have 100,000 employees.

Daniel:                Totally. And

Sara :                   yeah, and, and when we say silos is actively see like, Oh yes, the silo. So why is that those existing mostly exist because of how we budget. So every year, um, if you're lucky somebody giving you goals for the next year, like overarching, like the three things our company wants to do and the next one, whenever years and from that you come up with programs and then the budget to run those programs or those things. In many companies it's just like, you know, what do you want to do? We'll look at it and then we'll tell you which pieces you get. It always becomes this really awkward fight for budget and control. And you know, I mean I, my dream project is someday I a love to help a major organization where you think its budgeting process. I knew that is large and lofty. Um, but if there is one thing that companies need to think about, I think it's um, well actually they're pretty things or like how do you budget, how do you hire and how do you procure? The three processes are very antiquated and they um, there is also a lot of like legal reasons why they happen the way they happened today that I think they hold America back from, from really breaking through to, to the big innovations that will, you know, not just transform their own organization but their industry at large.

Daniel:                Yeah. So one thing I did want to talk to you about open innovation because you guys at luminary labs help companies build platforms to pull in a lot of intelligence, it seems pretty quickly. And I was looking at like the Ed Sim Challenge. This is something you guys do, it seems like a fair bit.

Sara :                   Yeah. So six years ago, um, had a client that wanted to pilot for some early stage companies and in the health space and so we decided to run a price competition. They never done this before. There were models for this, um, mostly hackathons and like a lot like smaller scale challenges, but they were also things like x prize that we observed. And, and so we went out and we designed to challenge the luminary way we took the best practices of the things that we like to be sort of rejected. Some of the other things that we didn't really like. And what we ended up creating was what is known as a multistage competition. And what that means is that, um, after everyone said Ned, that you're able to narrow it down to five participants who can't seed money and then access to a virtual accelerator, uh, where there's mentorship, educational modules.

Sara :                   There's also an in person bootcamp where they can refine their solutions by having access again to maybe the sponsoring organization or um, people who might and help them feel some of the gaps that they have. And then they, yeah, so he's trying to give away money and the five teams present at Demo Day, usually a live demo day. And um, following that Missouri, we'll select a winner. In some cases the jury reflect you finalists who get to actually test their prototype in a setting, like a clinical setting or tested in the field. And then a winter would be selected. So in any cases is really different from the previous model of enter your id and we give you money for the best idea. Again, we go back to you, we'd like to make it real. So, um, so this first prize competition was for a pharmaceutical.

Sara :                   It was the first time that a pharmaceutical ad Dennis at such as like large scale, um, the price price is $250,000. And at the time we were accused of prize inflation because the prizes that has more, more like $25,000. And we thought we would do this once. And that was like, it was a project. It was great and accomplish the goal. Um, but we did it in such a different way that we started to get phone calls. And so today we have a thriving open innovation practice. Um, in addition to working with the private sector, um, we also now I have ever met contracts. So we, we power Ed prizes or the US Department of Education. And that's where you saw the Edson challenge. We is asking gamers and Vr and ar developers to create simulations at transfer skillsets. And so imagine you're a student, you're trying to pick a career path, especially if you're in the, in his career and tech Ed.

Sara :                   How do you know which direction to go in? What if in a future world, you know, today you can read about these things and in books. And I'm like, what if you could put on the headset and actually try on that job? You know, this is actually being used at places like caterpillar and like hospitals, like a bullet training is one of the great examples we talk about where simulations that are really important to getting the job done safely. Um, but what if it were on a larger scale, but if it were interactive with all right, so you could go from job to job. So that's what the had some challenges. Um, we also, um, power challenges for the private sector as I mentioned before and foundations. And I think more recently we're seeing, um, specialization in bringing together a sponsor and a technology company or a particular technologies. When you think about Edson, it's like education policy, Vr, ar in gaming. The mood challenge for research kit

Sara :                   is, um, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Um, but it's solely focused on research can't, which is Apple's, I've been framework, right? So we're taking it again, two different things and bringing them together to do the technology. And the latest would be analysis are really excited about, um, it will be launched actually in April. It was announced last month is the Alexa diabetes calendar said, we're going to be calling upon innovators to the right skills for an Amazon Alexa. And it's supporting voice technology platform to help people living with diabetes, right. Live their life. And so in this case, you have Merck as a sponsor and Amazon as a partner. And we're squarely focused on voice technology through Alexa. So, um, this is a, is a great part of our work. It's, it's not everything we do, but it's a, it's probably the most public thing we do because as I mentioned earlier, anytime you're giving away money and we've given over I guess, over $5 million away, um, and the past like five years, um, you know, it gets a lot of attention. Really. Cool.

Daniel:                So the question is, one of the questions I have as a followup to that is in my own experience, companies don't have a lack of ideas. They a challenge of knowing how to get things out the door. Like there's too many rules internally inside of the organization that keep teams from launching things that they're excited about. And I'm not saying in any way shape or like obviously open innovation is important because sometimes the block is, we don't know what's around the corner, but what do you do with your other clients who have that other problem where they don't know how to do this? Failure to launch?

Sara :                   Right. So, uh, I remember Frieda Lewis Hall who is the chief medical officer and an EVP at Pfizer at I think it was the tech lead conference years ago, quoted her husband and he said less ideas, more I doers. They just really stuck, right? Ideas are great, everybody has ideas, but real innovation isn't in the idea is in the ability to stand it up. And so if he's, one of the areas where we've been particularly as supportive of companies that struggle with the getting it done is breaking it down. So every client of ours has made what I call the $20 million mistake. And whenever I say this, they all think I'm talking about them, but they, they, they've all done it at some point. And some executives career $20 million is wasted on a program that was a complete flop. And it was because it was done in a waterfall fashion where it's like, here's the idea.

Sara :                   Okay, let's make the idea bigger. Okay, let's build the idea is to add on to the idea. And, and nobody has ever stopped to have sort of stage gates that connect with the people that would be making use of the thing or interacting with this thing. And so early on we realized that an agile men like methodology can actually be applied to business as well. So teaching executives, what does it mean to produce a large scale program in an agile fashion? Like before we even get to the technology, if there is technology involved, you know, how do you go, you know, how do you start with, um, you know, design research, um, and people say, wow, that's great for consumer products. I say, yeah, but if you're building something internally, have you talked to the people inside the company? That would be, uh, you know, often times our own internal technologies are the word, right? Because we don't talk to her own condo in customer who's the internal person. Um, so start by talking with humans. Um, play devil's advocate. Um, you know, make sure you're managing the possible and not the probable is really good. Mckinsey article on that called the lighting in the possible. So most companies end up watering down programs because they're, they want to mitigate risk. And, and so that's how you very quickly spend $20 million and then you find out that nobody used it and you shut it or sunset it as they like to say the next year.

Daniel:                It's peaceful.

Sara :                   It is, right? Yes. Riding off in the sunset. And either the way you avoid the $20 or $20 million mistake is to start small and doesn't mean that it has fit. Take longer. Um, it might actually be cheaper. It might be more expensive. You don't know, but you will do it smarter. And so that earlier comment I made about budgeting, you can feel budget $20 million, but how do you release the funds? What are the expectations? How do you get to where you're going? And that sort of leads us to like the culture of failure and being judicious about that. And if it doesn't meet in a very large corporation, no, it's not fail everyday all the time. Yes. It's feel, learn, do something smarter. Yes. So being comfortable that you might, you know, we, we had a project where we built something that was intended to be taken down. It was a prototype. It was a public, you'll most people didn't know that it was a publicly facing prototype and we completely rebuilt it, um, after a year. And again, it was, it was built into the budget. It was built into the design and um, and, and there was a purpose who were collecting information. It was the intelligence engine. And so this idea of standing things out in an agile way, it's very consultative. But the second way we do that is we, um,

Sara :                   you know, accurately how many were working on a strategy or innovation program. Sometimes we stay in the program up for the client. Sometimes we identify partners who can stand up the program. Sometimes we teach staff how to standard out. And I think that's a really important distinction because every organization is different. Some like to outsource some hate outsource, some trust their current vendor lists. Some don't. If I'm feeding, really don't trust that you know, but don't really want to work with our vendor was that hash table. Um, do you do some corporate pressure? And so navigating the conditions for success to actually get something stood up in a company is as important as your plan for scanning down. So if you find out that, you know, um, a particular partner doesn't have the skillset that you're being required t make use of that partner, you have to pick really cleverly about how to do that. And, and so those are, that's sort of the, you know, I, I'm not a fan of secret sauce, but that really is the hard stuff I guess. Yeah. In, in getting the job done.

Daniel:                It was just as the mental shift in what you're talking about with the sort of this prototyping mindset. Um, good friend of mine posted a couple of days ago. The difference between an MVP and an and an Ra. Ti and rat is a riskiest assumption test. And I think sometimes people get caught up in the like, oh, what's this minimum viable product? And they think it has to be much bigger in order to be able to be testable instead of finding a way to just test the riskiest part of it as quickly as possible and get that feedback.

Sara :                   I love that. And you know, I think in there, you know, at the onset of a project in, in the workshop that we usually produce where okay the contract is signed and we get in a room and we'd say, okay, what are we really talking about these I'm many times you don't know during the proposal process or you eat, you know, you maybe you've worked with this client for years and it's not until you're actually in a room together that you realize what's really going on and or people feel safe saying what's really going on. And once you establish that trust, you know, I would call it like going to the crazy, it's completely okay to go to the edges and maybe you walk back closer to the center, but if you haven't explored what crazy looks alike, you know, you're probably not doing enough.

Sara :                   So, um, you know, I was up this really incredible retreat last week, um, where, um, we were asked to imagine how an organization would look and we went the safely first and then we said, okay, forget all of that. What if it looked like this? And we just get on with a crazy idea. And interestingly, they were actually elements of the crazy idea that we're not only viable, but w will be embraced. Um, so, you know, sometimes going into the crazy isn't about the crazy thing itself, but it's about what is the attribute that thing that like makes that funny or interesting that you can pull through that might become part of the and solutions.

Daniel:                Yeah, exactly. We're coming up against time. Before we go, I'm just wondering if there's anything I should've asked you that I haven't.

Sara :                   I mean, this was really lovely conversation. I really appreciate your time and the questions. Very thoughtful. I think you covered it.

Daniel:                We nailed it. It's a delight to talk with you and I appreciate your insights. The intelligence engine concept is really, really valuable and something I'm going to walk away from this for sure. So I really appreciate your time and I'll send you a follow up. I'd love to take a look at that Mckinsey article on delighting in the possible as well.

Sara :                   Absolutely. I'll send you all the details


Gabe Gloge on Reflection, Learning and Language as a Tool for Thought


Today's Episode is a bit...unusual. My friend Gabe Gloge is interviewing me, so I'll be yapping a lot more than normal! His company,, helps organizations become learning organizations by breaking jobs into skills...and we try to do this for some conversation design skills!  We talk about how to break down engagements into discrete steps, tools and triggers, how a reflective practice accumulates benefits over time and how mathematical reasoning figures in all this. Enjoy!


Show Links





Dave Grey


Liminal Thinking


Persona Profiles


Excel Timeline example


The Tick: On Counting Syllables Vs Writing a Haiku in action


Agile Story Estimation

Johari Window


The Learning Organization


David Whyte's 3 Marriages


Active Listening Script


LUMA Workplace


Inductive/Deductive/Abductive reasoning

Sarah Gallivan Mitchell on Not Listening to all your users at Once.


Today I talk with Sarah Gallivan Mitchell, Product Owner of in-car interfaces at Faraday Future, a company focused on the development of intelligent electric vehicles.

Sarah is an Ace product designer and it was a lot of fun to talk with her about her work through the lens of conversation design. We touch on some big questions, like “How can software be sincere?” and “What’s the difference between manipulation and Modulation?” And “Why you shouldn’t listen to all of your users all of the time”

Show Notes

Sarah’s IxD17 Talk:

Talk  slides are here:

And content is here:

Ixd17 link (video to come)

Faraday Futures

Discussing Design

Crossing the Chasm

Death Talk from IxD17

Agile Introduction

Active Listening


The Easy Hard Problems:

Paul Pangaro’s IxD17 Talk

Sarah:                  In every conversation that you have with another human being, I mean, most human beings, they modulate their responses in way to either fit norms, or to put you at ease, or to just not be weird, essentially. So hopefully, as long as you have sincerity behind the things that you do to try to facilitate the best kind of conversation you can have, I don't think you're really in ethical gray territory. You're just being social.

Daniel:                Today, I talk with Sarah Gallivan Mitchel, product owner of In-Car Interfaces at Faraday Future, a company focused on the development of intelligent electric vehicles. Sarah is an ace product designer, and it was a lot of fun to talk with her about her work through the lens of conversation design.

Daniel:                We touch on some big questions, like how can software be sincere? And what's the difference between manipulating and modulating? And why you shouldn't listen to all of your users all the time. Enjoy the episode, and make sure to check out the show notes for detailed links to lots of stuff that we talked about.

Daniel:                Sarah Mitchel, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. You are the product owner of In-Car Interfaces at Faraday Future, and you've been working for giants like Belkin and Yahoo. And I was looking at your LinkedIn profile and I don't know how you feel about your LinkedIn recommendations, but there was an amazing one that kind of relates to one of the topics that we were talking about last time. I'm going to actually read two paragraphs of this recommendation, because it's so great.

Sarah:                  Oh my god!

Daniel:                I know! "There are those easy problems that you can solve with easy obvious solutions, and then there are those really touch challenging problems you face in product design, whose approach you need to be very careful with. You know, those problems where, at first glance, there may be a hundred different solutions, but none appear optimal. We've all encountered these situations before working with product at all touch points with the customer or user."

Daniel:                "Whenever you face tough challenging problems, you definitely want Sarah to be on your team, because she brings a high level of intelligent thought, reasoning, and breakdown that drives the team towards the right approach. Combined with strong leadership, research, and insight, Sarah can get the team aligned and feel confident on the best approach that has been proven in the field."

Daniel:                That is a pretty good recommendation.

Sarah:                  Yeah, right?

Daniel:                That is Eddie Lowe, who apparently thinks the world of you, by the way.

Sarah:                  He's pretty great too.

Daniel:                One of your first slides, and the reason this conversation between you and me got spooled back up, was the talk you gave at IXD 17 about hardware, and unicorns being eaten alive by hardware. And one of your first slides says that, "Trust is built slowly and lost quickly."

Daniel:                I think you were talking about the conversation between a user and a product, and the [crosstalk] behind it, but it seems like, also, that you were also talking about the trust that you know how to build within a team to get that group together to be solving a problem and being on the same page.

Sarah:                  Yeah.

Daniel:                So how do we do that, Sarah? Let's understand.

Sarah:                  Well, first of all, obviously communication is key. You can't build trust if you're not really talking to all the groups. And that's something that I think UX designers are famous for facilitating. But I think in terms of the stuff, the work that we did at Belkin, a lot of it had to do with constantly clearly identifying the goals across all of the groups, and then returning to them over and over.

Sarah:                  So we did this, we started out by working really closely with the product management team, the product leaders, and engineering and talking about their strategic goals and things they would like to accomplish. And then we looped in user research in terms of how the products were fairing as they were right then. And synthesize that into what we call design principles, just five of them. And then we hung them up everywhere and talked to everyone about them. And the thing with it was not just once, but repeatedly. At the beginning of every design presentation I would do about every step of design work we were about to take, I would talk about them.

Sarah:                  When we would review something, we would have to bring it up again and say well ... Because lot's of different people want lots of different things, but if you've agreed on a goal, then it's much easier to make a decision if you can refocus on it.

Daniel:                Wow, that is so true. So I don't know if you went to any of the workshops at IXD 17, but Aaron Irrizary whose name ... I can never pronounce his last name right, but he and another guy named Adam who works at Mad*Pow, they wrote a book called Discussing Design, and it's a great book about critique. And one of the things they say is if you're going to critique a design, you have to have a better objective than I like it or I don't like it.

Sarah:                  Right.

Daniel:                And having those goals being really ... Having group agreement on them, and then not seeing them once, but seeing them over and over again, that seems obvious. But obviously, everyone doesn't do that.

Sarah:                  Right. Yeah, because there are smaller goals that you need to identify. What is our goal for this piece of thing that we're working on, this design, or this screen, or this piece of functionality? And then there are larger product goals, and those aren't always the same exact thing. I mean, they should definitely align, but ... One of the things I talked about in my talk was that it's easy to get led off a side path by your very vocal early adopters. And this was something that we definitely struggled with at Belkin. I mean, it was a group of people who were totally dedicated to the product, who were really, like I mentioned, rabid review writers, and they were active in our forums.

Sarah:                  So they had a very loud voice, and we obviously liked them a lot and wanted to support them, but we had to recognize one of the goals that we had was about making the product really accessible to a wide market. Which is not always the same thing.

Sarah:                  Like advanced features. Extra controls, and fine tuning ability, and complex scheduling, and all this kind of stuff that your very techy early adopters want is not going to take you to the same place that you would go if you're focusing on start simple and work up from there.

Sarah:                  So we have quite a couple principles that were found around that about bringing in new people and making it easy for them to get started, and then also, one about didn't close any doors on those early adopters. So although we might not have designed the whole product with them, we want to make sure that they have a way to still feel empowered and special. But to give that the right amount of effort.

Daniel:                Yeah. So you had goals at Belkin that were clearly defined about making sure that you were balancing those different user needs.

Sarah:                  Yeah. We tried.

Daniel:                So did that make it easy to say yes to things, or did that make it easy to say no to things, or both?

Sarah:                  Hopefully both. I mean, I was really particularly focused on the no. Definitely both are important, but in any fired up organization, you have more ideas than you can do. So it's really important to know which ones to say no to. I mean, I've never worked at a place where resources and time were not an issue. Everything could get made whenever we thought of it.

Daniel:                Ah. Yes. That is a place ... Well, I feel like you're saying you can't have everything, because where would you put it? You'd put it everywhere! And everything is already everywhere.

Sarah:                  Yeah. Yeah, so it's really important because if you say, "Oh, we just spent six months working on this thing." You want to make sure that that thing is going to actually help you out.

Daniel:                Yeah. You know what's interesting about the ... You're putting, the way I would put this in my conversation design language, is you're putting this sort of wave guide on either side of the conversation so that it flows, but it flows within these walls. And it seems like those walls, these goals, are things that you've co-created.

Sarah:                  Yeah. The co-creation is super important.

Daniel:                Right. So the people are willing to stick to the goals because you've made them their goals. They are their goals. It's not an illusion, right?

Sarah:                  Right.

Daniel:                And that's a really important thing. If I'm running a workshop, it's the same thing. I make an agenda and either I say, "Is everyone okay with this? Can we change it?" We talk about the rules of the room and we align on it. But the goals have to be co-created, otherwise it's very hard to get people to-

Sarah:                  Yeah, I was thinking about this topic a little bit in preparation for this conversation, and I was thinking about another example-

Daniel:                You prepared for this? That's wonderful! I love that! I want to make it as easy for you as possible. What did you do to prepare? That's great.

Sarah:                  Just a little bit of thinking.

Daniel:                That's good! Just some light thinking.

Sarah:                  You know, because especially when you're working on hardware, there's so many different groups that speak so many different languages.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  In terms of what they're focused on and what they spend most of their time thinking about. And one of the-

Daniel:                Can I just apologize for interrupting you, but I'm from the product design world, but somebody listening to this might not be. So can you outline what are some of those languages, and who those people might be? What is that, who are the people in your neighborhood that you are ...

Sarah:                  Yeah. So obviously, many of us are familiar with the difference between a designer, and a software engineer, and a product manager, right? Hopefully they all have the same goal, but they're focused on different things. The designer is focused on either aesthetic quality, or usability, or that magic spot in between. And engineers can be just focused on efficiency, and/or simplicity. With engineers, they're either focused on how simple is it to build and maintain, or [crosstalk 00:12:26].

Daniel:                They won't break.

Sarah:                  Make it because it's cool.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  So they're really focused on the underneath side of it, and designers are focused on more of the surface layer of it a little bit. And then the product manager's are often focused on the business aspect of it.

Daniel:                Right. On time, on budget.

Sarah:                  Yeah. And then when you have hardware, you also have other disciplines that are in the mix as well. So you have industrial design, which is very focused on the form of the product itself, and the interactions with the hardware. They, plus mechanical engineers, together have to ensure the manufacture ability plus the structural integrity of it. And then if you have electrical engineers who are trying to figure out board, and then also how it meets all of the electrical certification that it will have to pass for safety. And then also the firmware.

Sarah:                  And when you have this thing that's running your software that is basically kind of its own little server, from the firmware, you also have to worry about all kinds of stuff that you don't have to worry about with a website or with an app. [crosstalk 00:13:37].

Daniel:                Right. And it's on wheels, by the way, and it's moving fast and could kill someone.

Sarah:                  And it's stuck in someone's home ... Well, in the car in that case. Or it's stuck in someone's home. It's in all these different environments. You have to deal with things like dependability. Yeah, that safety and dependability and longevity of a thing that you don't worry about when you're just talking about code that's posted on a cloud server.

Daniel:                Which is so easily replaceable. Whereas a steel mold, not so easily replaceable to make plastic parts. And you talked about this in your talk, upgrading firmware, which sounds like, "Oh yeah, we'll just upgrade the firmware." Is not that awesome to do either.

Sarah:                  Right. And there's no ... Your phone manufacturers try to make it as easy as possible for your apps to get upgraded, and it handles a lot of stuff for you. But when it comes to hardware, a lot of that process itself has to be really explicitly designed by whoever makes the product. When is that firmware upgrade going to happen? Is it going to happen automatically? How do you make sure that's not disruptive? If it's not automatic, how do you get someone's attention? How do you convince them that this is something that they have to do?

Daniel:                All right, all right. I feel the paralysis. It seems like that's an environment that is very hard to make decisions in.

Sarah:                  Yeah. Well, it just adds a lot of conversations that you have to have.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  So the example I was thinking of is when you're talking about quality. One of my other points was that quality is king. If you're thinking, "This doesn't work," even just a couple of times, you're just totally done for. It's either ... There's no tolerance for that. So you have to have really explicit conversations with all of those groups about what quality means.

Sarah:                  Everyone might come with their own assumption. If your device really needs to be rebooted every now and then because there might be ... The Firmware has just the tiniest little gap in it somewhere, whatever. Software needs to be rebooted, we all know.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  Is it okay if it has to be rebooted every month? Or what if your engineers feel like it's okay if it's rebooted every week? Is that a realistic expectation? How does that impact quality? Like, "Yeah, sure. All you have to do is switch the power on and off and then it's fine."

Daniel:                It degrades. That's the trust being lost quickly, that's one of those things that that can start to degrade somebody's faith in the product. It's great, but Jeez-Loueez, this thing.

Sarah:                  Yeah.

Daniel:                And the engineers are like, "What? Just flick it on and off."

Daniel:                But it's such a different perception.

Sarah:                  Exactly. And so you have to really walk them through what that scenario is like in real life in order for everyone to feel the same thing about what are our quality goals, and what exactly is it that we're shooting for.

Daniel:                So you talked a little bit about Belkin and some of the goals, the design principles that you guys agreed on. I've done some research on Faraday Future, and I don't know how much you can talk about your work there now, but could you say a little bit about what is Faraday Future? Where you are in the journey with the company, and anything around some of these goals, and navigating some of these challenges that you're dealing with?

Sarah:                  Yeah. I mean, Faraday Future, we are another order of magnitude, more complex because it's an automobile. So we are ... And I can't talk too specifically about it, but we are a startup, an automotive start up. And we are very much interested in not doing things the way everybody else has done them before. So it's an electric car, and obviously, many of the car components have to be like a car that you're used to, or it would be very weird. But in terms of the internal digital experience of the car, there's going to be a lot of stuff that's very new.

Sarah:                  We're still in somewhat early stages with that right now. So we're still at the expectation setting across teams level. I mean, we're doing a bunch. There's so much work to do, there's so many things to design and to make, that we are still trying to ... We're working in detail on some, and at the framework level on others. But we haven't ... The car, we revealed the car at CES this year, so just in January. And we pretty much revealed only the exterior of the vehicle. A lot of work on the interior of the done, we just haven't revealed it yet.

Daniel:                And it's a beautiful car. It's very cool. The texture treatment is awesome.

Sarah:                  Yeah. And the inside is super cool too, and I can't wait to be able to share that and to share details of what the digital experience is going to be like with it. But we're still working somewhat removed. We're thinking a lot about the car context, and we have a lot of ways to test things in the car context, but not fully yet. We don't have enough ... We're not quite at the stage in development yet where we have enough access to the vehicle to be doing real drive testing of our interior systems yet, so we will have a lot of those conversations.

Sarah:                  And we do have a lot of them with ... We have even more groups, because we have three different levels of servers and processors inside the car.

Daniel:                You talked about the detail versus the framework level conversation, and that's a really interesting thing that I think everyone probably has to deal with in their work. And that's setting the expectations for the level of detail that a conversation should go into. And to create that barrier, to say, "Today, we're talking about a framework. And if you go into details, it's not going to be so helpful." And, "Today, we're talking about details, and if you try to change the framework, you're a jerk."

Sarah:                  We've all had that experience though, right? Sometimes, it's inevitable. And I think one of the lessons someone gave me once is that it often goes down to the detail level because that feels like a thing you can control, whereas the big level is a little harder to grasp or to understand.

Daniel:                Well, yeah. And also, it seems, one of the challenges, I think, is when you've got multiple stakeholders. You've talked about all of these different concerns. Industrial design with manufacture ability, engineering with reliability, interaction design with usability and the four dimensional experience of an interface. Everyone's got their own details that they're concerned about, and the framework is something that has to connect all of those dots.

Daniel:                So everyone has to, I don't want to say feel like they're giving something up, but has to really deeply empathize with everyone else's concerns. So how do you know? You apparently are good with this strong leadership. How do you ... What advice can you give to people around navigating that interplay between everyone's concerns? And empathy for other people's concerns at the same time.

Sarah:                  So some of that is just good conversation skills, which is that you can really verbalize that empathy. That you can say, "I hear what you're saying and it sounds like this." And repeat it back in clear terms. And what you want from that is this, so I understand why you're saying that, and then you can say, "And now we're going to talk again about the context. This is where we are, this is what these other groups want. This is what the overall goal was stated to be." If we want to readdress what the overall goal is, or if we want to readdress the context, like do we have an additional two months for development, or something like that.

Sarah:                  Then you can make clear, what are the components you're talking about and not just my way versus your way. But what is the actual outcome of that?

Daniel:                Yes. And this is, it's a very ... The way you're describing it is very rational and I think I ... I'm drawing the picture in my mind that I think I've drawn in these situations, where you're like, "This is where we are, this is where we need to be, and these are your concerns and these are their concerns. And if we do everything, then we add five months and have our whatever millions."

Daniel:                And then we say, "So now we're all faced with a choice."

Daniel:                But to be able to get to that choice, you have to do that very deep listening.

Sarah:                  Yeah.

Daniel:                Right? It sounds like-

Sarah:                  Yeah, it's super important.

Daniel:                Right. And you used the phrase that I use when I teach people interviewing skills, which is just the active listening of like, "So what I'm hearing you say is this."

Daniel:                Is that right? You're saying you're here, and you want to get there. And I think that some people sometimes feel that that is a little facile, but it's a really important skill of just literally making sure you heard somebody right and then making sure that they heard themselves.

Sarah:                  Yeah. I also think, when you do it right, again, not to be controlling, but just when you cal really show someone that you've heard what they're saying, because sometimes they don't know exactly what it is that they want either. They're just having a reaction to something.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  But sometimes, when you can clearly identify and succinctly state what it is that they're driving towards, what it is they actually want out of it. Sometimes I get this where I feel like there's a sense of relief on their face. Oh, yeah. Because everybody wants to be heard.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  It's super frustrating in a situation when you feel like someone's like, "That's nice, but no."

Daniel:                Yes. Well, the classic example of when, and my ex used to say this, "Don't tell me I'm overreacting." You're just reacting. And just listening to somebody's reaction is sometimes the best thing rather than trying to oppose it.

Sarah:                  Right. I think it's also important actually to have a process for cataloging those things. So you may come up with, "Oh, hey. We all have this goal, and we all agree we want to have this release on this date, so we need to put something in this right now in this release."

Sarah:                  But what are you going to do with that feedback then, to make it feel like it's not just lost? We're still, to be honest, we're still working on that process at Faraday, but at Belkin, we used to use Agile for design. We used to use JIRA, and we would use it as a way, we'd be able to say, "Hey, that's a great idea. And if you write a story for that and put it in the backlog," then we know it'll be there and we can talk about prioritizing it when we have more time to do something new so that it's not lost. That you have this process for capturing.

Daniel:                So JIRA, for people who don't know, is a ticketing system, basically, where you capture user stories and put them against what you want to make, and they become backlog.

Sarah:                  Yeah. We just used it. we used it basically as journal items, so that everything would stay in a place where it could come up again for discussion.

Daniel:                So what you're talking about there is also making work visible, which is one of the things that Agile is really good at. I lately have just gone back to having a Kanban board on my wall for just my own stuff, because it's just the best way to make work visible.

Sarah:                  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                You're like, “These are the things I said I would do. These are the things I'm doing, and these are the things that I've done. Don't I feel nice about that?” It's like people forget that done part too. And I think that's what you're also saying with we have to do this release. What can we do that is going to meet our standards, right?

Daniel:                You said something though, which is really interesting, where you said that a person will sometimes react to a certain detail, and I think that is ... My suspicion is that there's a moment where somebody experiences some panic or fear, or a feeling of, "I'm not going to get what I need." And it seems like what you're talking about with the active listening was just giving people a chance to be heard, and then also to step away from that a little bit.

Sarah:                  Yeah. I mean, I think I've experienced it more as frustration, this, "Oh wait, but this isn't what I imagined." If someone had something in their head that they thought as the most important thing about it or some other way to express it. And they don't see it, and then they feel frustrated.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  But that's just not part of what they're seeing. And then they articulate it, and then you say, "So I hear what you want is this, and maybe we did miss it, or maybe you didn't have it communicated before. Maybe that wasn't our priority for right now."

Sarah:                  So as long as you can then say, "We hear that loud and clear and we'll put that somewhere so it won't get lost."

Daniel:                Yeah, it gives them that sense of there's some psychological safety that's being given to them. Where there's, "I understand that I'm being heard. And even though I'm not being listened in some sense, this is not actually going into the release, but now I understand that I will be included. I have the opportunity for inclusion in the future," Which is great.

Daniel:                So I wanted to shift gears. One of your slides from your talk was a picture, which think is from Crossing the Chasm.

Sarah:                  Yes.

Daniel:                Right? Which is a great mental model that I think everyone needs to know about, and I want to talk about this because I don't think many product designers think about a product as a conversation between a team or a company and the people who use it. And you are talking about managing multiple conversations, where you've got the early adopters who are super enthusiastic about your work and are giving you feedback. Very happy to fill out all the surveys you might send to them, who will maybe even sign up to be beta users.

Daniel:                But then there's this point where you have to stop listening to them, or listen to them less, and also explain to them why you're listening to them less, while you try to start a new conversation with the late majority. And that is a moment in every company's growth that is challenging. And I'm wondering what you can tell me about this, because I don't think many people think about that conversation shift that a product has to make.

Sarah:                  Yeah. That's very true. And its so interesting, I see it so much in the kick starter smart hardware. The entrepreneur crowd, I mean, because the other thing that I mention is that all of your product managers and your founders and whoever, they're all very much like your early adopters. That's the thing that makes it extra difficult. They're very similar in terms of mindset. They already see the promise of the product, they are more technically minded. They don't need an introduction to it, because they already are at some level, bought in. Whereas that late majority, they need a really nice introduction first before they can even begin the process of getting bought in.

Daniel:                Yeah.

Sarah:                  And sometimes, that can be hard for your internal team to remember.

Daniel:                Right. Well yeah, Snapchat didn't really explain itself a hell of a lot. And it wasn't designed for a 40 year old.

Sarah:                  Right.

Daniel:                And then at some point, yes, where everyone's using it, and so they actually slowly evolved the interface to make it slightly more usable and less weird.

Sarah:                  They did. And they got some backlash for it from their users. I mean, that's one of the things that you have to deal with too, is that people will post scathing reviews about how you've dumbed it down and it's just no good at all anymore.

Daniel:                So what do you do in that situation? It sounds like you had to face that, certainly at Belkin. How do you navigate that challenging moment?

Daniel:                So what do you do in that situation? It sounds like you had to face that, certainly, at Belkin. How do you navigate that challenging moment?

Sarah:                  Well, it's not just one moment. It's a lot of moments.

Daniel:                It's a constant barrage of moments.

Sarah:                  Yeah. I mean, obviously, data will help you. So in my talk, what I said was build bridges, and what I meant by that was really explicitly figure out how you're going to get in touch with that group that is outside the late adopter group. The group that is less likely, that isn't so vocal. And you have to be really specific about, "I'm going to do surveys in these places. I'm going to run tests on my packaging in these places. I'm going to do ethnographic research specifically like this."

Sarah:                  And then you also have to have access to the data that can keep you on course, because the early adopters are so loud. It's really easy to empathize with them and freak out. If someone writes some totally scathing review, it can be very easy for, especially for management or whoever, to say, "Oh my gosh, we have to fix this right now!"

Daniel:                Yeah. And that may be right. The squeaky wheels do get the grease.

Sarah:                  The only way to avoid that is to have data to backup that that's not the majority. Whatever data that might be.

Daniel:                Yeah, well that's an interesting thing. My friend Carl likes to say that the plural of anecdote is data.

Sarah:                  Yeah. So analytics, if your product is out live, some analytics will help you. And if you have ways to do larger scale tests in unfriendly markets ... That conversation begins with marketing and packaging. So that was something that we focused on a lot, was our packaging is selling to people who already know what we are, but it's not doing a good job of telling people who don't know "What we are what are we and what can we do for you," really quickly.

Daniel:                So how does this change in this world where, you talked about the kick starter-ization of products, and I'm sure you in the internet of things, hardware, software, figital space. Seeing people who are just making another smart watch. Maybe they never want to cross into the late majority. There's a much ... Everything's becoming a niche now. Maybe more and more products don't have to worry about that late majority. Belkin was a very mass market product. Is Faraday Future, are you guys shooting for a niche, or a mass audience?

Sarah:                  The first car will most likely be niche, but the plans are for it to be sort of a brand gateway to more of a mass market. A set of products that might come later. And I hope I'm not giving away too much stuff there.

Daniel:                No, no. I think that's certainly what Tesla has done. And that's sort of a reasonable strategy, but it sounds like at some point, you guys will experience a backlash then. Right?

Sarah:                  So the reason why this is problematic with hardware is because of manufacturing. So if your manufacturing costs are totally great for your margin at small scale, then more power to you. Then you can totally accomplish that. But when it comes to scale and hardware, a lot of things become profitable when you're dealing in a quantity that's large enough to offset your manufacturing costs.

Daniel:                And most people do not realize this. That the difference between getting 100 things made and a 100,000, and a million, huge.

Sarah:                  Right. And so I think many of the people who are making hardware products now, they may be doing okay, but the margins are going to be smaller and you're not going to be making ... Usually, I mean, you're not going on speaking on generalities, but in order to make it so that you're at a comfortable income every month, is a challenge. You become really successful when you sell in large quantity. Just [inaudible] manufacturing.

Sarah:                  And this obviously might change. There are obviously all kinds of small scale manufacturing technologies that are coming up today that are totally changing this, and I think that's great. It's still not super widespread or necessarily quite affordable enough. And you'll see this actually, if you look a lot of kick starters for hardware. Even hardware that's not smart, even just things like bike bills and things like that that getting the manufacturing to the right level of quality and affordability and then stock quantity is a thing that everybody struggles with. It's a magic equation.

Daniel:                Yeah. My first business was 3D printed jewelry using Shapeways, and that company was called GothamSmith, and what allowed us to ... Shapeways absorbed everything. They would print things on demand, and our costs were entirely fixed. It allowed us to make things that would be weird to make otherwise. But there are some things, like we had this key which was beautiful, but was way expensive. It was like $40 worth of metal because it was a bottle opener. To sell it as a necklace was ridiculous when people were going to thrift stores and buying old antique keys for like $5 in a big bucket. Or people were stamping them out of metal in China for $3.

Daniel:                We were selling this ... We had to sell it for $80 because of the cost of materials was $40. So it just made no sense at all. So the four founders of the company, they still have them on their keychains but no one else does.

Sarah:                  Right.

Daniel:                And so that's the limit of manufacturing cost scale.

Sarah:                  I mean, the other thing with smart hardware is of course the cost of sustainability. The more users you have, the more server fees you pay. And then if they're collecting years worth of data, or you're collecting their year's worth of data, how are you paying for that? And then all of the support, the back versions of firmware. There are a lot of hidden costs that really add up with it too that the product strategy really needs to think about those things up front. Those are all part of the "Let's make a product" conversion that needs to happen that are often things that you don't think about until it's late.

Daniel:                Yeah. So there's two things there. Did you go, there was one of the lightning talks that was a bout death. I can't remember which day it was. So you think about zooming out on the timescale of a product, you're talking about the long use of the product and the cost overtime. And she was adding like, "By the way, there are people who have been long dead whose families are still using Facebook pages of the deceased as repositories for ongoing memories of these loved ones."

Daniel:                And that was a huge ... I mean, that was an amazing talk. And amazingly lighthearted for being about death. So here's the thing, and this kind of shifts me into another question that I really had for you, was we talked briefly ... And also, your recommendation hits on this, that there are easy problems that you can solve with easy, obvious solutions, and then there's tough problems where there's no obvious ... There's many solutions and there's no conventional solution.

Daniel:                And one of the things that I think is interesting is that in story telling, these simple scenarios inspire people. You're like, "Home automation is going to be amazing!" And then you can get bogged down in complexity.

Daniel:                So it seems like you're talking about the same thing when you're like, "Oh, there's this cost of having the use over time, and they might die. And there's these all these servers and everything."

Daniel:                So we get bogged down in complexity. Meanwhile, you want to make sure that I stay connected with these goals of user success. How do we ... There's these very two strong gravitational pulls. How do we navigate that?

Sarah:                  I don't know if I have an answer to that.

Daniel:                That's okay.

Sarah:                  I mean, that's the crazy discovery process of this work that we do, right? Yeah.

Daniel:                Well, I guess maybe the question that is possible to answer is what do you do for yourself to maintain both your creativity, but also your sanity in dealing with all of ... In navigating this complexity for yourself? Because obviously you're not at work all the time, but you think about work a lot. How do you step away, and what do you do to continue to be able to be a high functioning person?

Sarah:                  Oh. Lots of things. I mean, I think as designers ... I love people. So one of the things is that my goal is always that these things should help make people's lives better. So we need to, as a company, we need to make money. So we need to focus on trying to make that happen so that everyone who works there can stay happy, but also the end goal is when you do something that works great for someone else.

Sarah:                  And we would celebrate positive reviews for example, as a way to refocus the company around "This is why we're doing these things."

Sarah:                  And I think similarly, outside of work, spending time with people in the real world is really important. I have two kids, and talking to them, especially ... They're getting a little bit older now. Not that old, but nine and five, and talking to them about the way the world works. Talking to them about, for example, the semi autonomous car that I'm working on has been super fun. And seeing the questions that they ask about it, and how they are imagining it in their lives is always re-energizing.

Daniel:                That's wonderful. I think being able to, and enjoying, explaining your work to people who are not in your work. My mother loves what I do. And I think she gets it. And that's really cool. To explain service design blueprinting to my mother, which I have done, and have her to be like, "You're right."

Daniel:                Business is like ... To be able to see that spark go off in your mother's head, or your five year old son's head, and be like, "Oh, wow."

Sarah:                  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                When you said that you love people, that is a great way of reinvigorating your spark. Just sharing what you love about your work in the simplest way possible, which is really beautiful.

Sarah:                  Yeah. And also just paying attention to the way people act in the world even if it doesn't have to do with your thing specifically.

Daniel:                Yeah. Well, yeah. This goes back to the designer always being a noticer. Observing.

Sarah:                  Yeah.

Daniel:                What do you ... Are you a photo person? Do you absorb these little ... What details are you absorbing around the world? What amuses you when you're walking around?

Sarah:                  I sometimes take photos, but not always. I'm mostly just look at things and then think about them, and then find someone I can tell about it.

Daniel:                So is it like what, there should be no confidential issues for this one, I hope. Is there something recently that you're like, "Well, hell. That is just crazy."

Sarah:                  You mean aside from politics?

Daniel:                Yeah. Well, we could just spend a whole nother hour talking about that. Yeah, no. In the sort of-

Sarah:                  So that's taking a lot of my mental space lately.

Daniel:                Oh, it sure is.

Sarah:                  I mean, and actually, well. I don't know how relevant this is to the conversation, but as a part of that, I was reading an economics article about populism and about how technology relates to populism. Specifically, actually, automation, and how that is impacting our job market. So I've been thinking a lot about how people interact with automation lately. That, and also how people need work. How people really enjoy productive, meaningful work, and the sort of tension between those two things has been something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Daniel:                Yeah. I mean, it's weird making ... Every time I get into an Uber, and I haven't deleted Uber because I haven't, but I love talking to my Uber drivers because they're always such interesting people. If you get into an uber or Pittsburgh or Chicago or Singapore, you hear a great story. And everyone I talk to, I think to myself, "What's going to happen when this is a fully autonomous car?"

Sarah:                  Yeah.

Daniel:                These people who have been picking up extra money and have enjoyed the flexibility and are being able to pay off their lease on their car, I definitely have that question where it's like, I don't think Uber is going to pay a tax to transition these people into a new form of work.

Sarah:                  Right.

Daniel:                And that is a real thing.

Sarah:                  It is a real thing. And I feel like it's something that we as designers who work on technology, should be thinking about. I don't have any answers for it for sure, but I think that the way that our work impacts people who aren't actually just our users I think is really important. And I feel sort of surprised that I actually haven't been spending as much time thinking about it, because [inaudible] that I've started thinking about it so much now, but haven't before. So in retrospect, it's sort of surprising to me.

Daniel:                Well, you know, that's a really great question because I think in the design school I went to, Pratt in New York, I definitely started to see, when I would go back over the last ten years for thesis presentations, more and more people becoming more socially aware in like, "What are we making? Why are we making? Should we be making anything? Aren't there enough things already?"

Daniel:                I think design is waking up. So I wouldn't be so hard on yourself. I think as a young designer, you do it because you love making stuff and you love helping users in solving problems. And then you begin to realize-

Sarah:                  Right. Not just products but I think technology as a whole, right? I think it's easy for this sort of Silicon Valley, even New York City, that mindset of like, "Well, technology is great. Technology can save the world. Technology is such an overwhelmingly positive force." But just to think about the greater society and humanity that it resides within, and the fact that it maybe isn't always.

Daniel:                So that leaves me with my last index card, which was from the last five slides you had, which was about just giving more love. And you took hearts and you put them over most of the issues, like how do you give more love to all of these things? What does that mean for you? What does giving more love in this context mean?

Sarah:                  Right. So I said briefly in my talk, what it means to me is focused attention and committed engagement. I mean, that sounds like love, right?

Daniel:                Yeah. That is love, yeah.

Sarah:                  You know. It means showing up and paying attention, and having conversations that might not be easy conversations, and not taking your eye off those things. In any of those examples, engaging more and prioritizing more around that topic would be helpful. And giving it any of the energy that you can find, whatever that might look like.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  So I wasn't super prescriptive about, "These are the five activities you should do."

Daniel:                Yes, yes.

Sarah:                  But in general, I think paying attention, empathizing, communicating, and acting. All of those things together.

Daniel:                That's really ... I mean, that is just so simple but I'm going to have to say, when you were talking about the meeting structure, when you're navigating framework versus details and really hearing somebody, and making them heard before you say yes or no. Just saying yes by listening to them, but then making up a concrete action that shows evidence that puts your money where your mouth is, you say. "I'm hearing you, and put that In JIRA." And guess what? If you keep telling that person, "I hear you, and put that in JIRA," and it never makes it in a release, what do you think they're going to ...

Daniel:                Eventually, they're going to be like, "I never get it into the release." Well, you need to eventually actually take real action.

Sarah:                  Right. I mean, hopefully, those things come up for conversation at every spring planning. That you say ... You talk about the reasons for, and the reasons against, and you talk about what the overall goals are. And then we definitely had moments where we realigned our goals, because we realized that we were constantly leaving out a certain group of things that a lot of people felt were a priority, but that due to our current structure, weren't making it into any release. And we said, “This is a thing that's happening, and we notice it, and we need to find out why and to restructure our goals to make sure that we get some more balance of this consideration."

Daniel:                So this adaptive cycle is really important, and I think you see it in one on one conversations, and you see it in team conversations. It's really good to hear you talk about that.

Sarah:                  Yeah, it's super important because none of these things are a solution, they're all process.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  They all, you need to come back to them and rework them, and continually pay attention to them.

Daniel:                So Sarah, the hour has just flown by. It is an absolute delight to talk to you. I would like to ask you my favorite question, which is, is there anything I should have asked you that I have not asked you?

Sarah:                  No. I mean, I don't know about should have.

Daniel:                Well, is there anything else you'd like to share around these topics that we haven't hit on?

Sarah:                  I mean, I'm particularly, to backtrack a tiny bit, I'm particularly interested in how automation, in terms of simple automation, like in your home, how that really needs to actually have more conversation built into it. How there's this sort of an idea that, "Oh, this product can now do this thing for you." So it's just going to do it for you, is actually really flawed. And instead, it actually needs to act more like a person, then. If it's going to behave like a person and take care of something for you, then it needs to actually communicate with you like a person.

Daniel:                Yes. Oh yes, we didn't talk about that at all. So yeah, this is the ... I finally read that Easy Hard article, and he talks about the, "Okay, so when I walk into the room, the light will go on. That's easy. But wait, my wife is in bed sleeping, so okay, well, sensors to detect that she's in bed."

Sarah:                  Right.

Daniel:                And then it's like, "Oh, well, there's a dog sleeping on the bed. But I still want the lights can go on because I don't care about waking up the dog."

Daniel:                And then, "My wife is lying on the bed watching TV, and I want the light to go on when I walk in."

Daniel:                And the solution is, "Read my mind."

Sarah:                  Right, exactly. So you and I also talked in person, we talked a little bit about the nest for example. Where the nest just said, "Oh, I've just figured everything out for you, and I'm just going to do it. But I'm not going to tell you about it, nor am I going to allow you to ask me about it. I'm just going to do it, and you don't get to know."

Sarah:                  If a person did that, you'd be furious. So I think that the more of that consideration of, if something's going to take agency on your behalf, it has to be able to communicate with you in a way that ... Sort of a similar way that you would expect for a person who takes agency on your behalf.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  Does it tell you before? does it tell you after? "Oh hey, I did this thing for you." And definitely, if you ask it, "What did you do?" It should be able to tell you.

Daniel:                Yes. So right, I actually have this as a card which I was going to leave, because I didn't want to push too hard on this, but yeah. An agent is somebody you say, "Can you just go do this?" And then they do it. And something that has agency, there's more ... We talked about the ramp of trust. You give more trust to that thing, and they handle a lot of stuff in the background for you. How does that ramp of trust, how does this agent, this digital agent, build that trust?

Daniel:                That's what you're talking about there, that conversation that this digital agent is willing to have with me. To say, "Hey, I'm going to go take care of this thing for you. Is that cool, boss?"

Daniel:                And you go, "Sure, absolutely."

Sarah:                  Yeah. I mean, I think a lot can be learned from the way that people do that same interaction, which is that idea of first, I notice that you do this thing, and I tell you, Hey, I notice that you do this thing."

Sarah:                  And then I say, "Do you want me to set it up so that it will be like this?"

Sarah:                  And if I say no, then you might say, "Well, why?" Or you might try again later.

Sarah:                  And if I did do it for you, then I reassure you, and I say, "Hey, just so you know, I did this for you."

Sarah:                  So that you don't wonder, "I told you to do it, did it do it?"

Sarah:                  And then you offer ways for people to check. If past all of that, they have this question, "Hey, did you do this thing?"

Sarah:                  My favorite thing is that a lot of the smart home ... People have this moment where they're like, "What is happening right now?" Because the system is behaving in some way that is impenetrable, and you have to be able to have an answer to that question. What is happening right now? You have to have an answer that is easily provided.

Daniel:                That is actually so interesting. It's almost like ... I'm a PC user, so I don't know if you even know what I'm talking about, but if you ... On Mac, there's a task manager. You can just see what programs are running. Like, "Why is my computer fan going at a million miles an hour and everything's hot?"

Daniel:                You're like, "Oh, right. It's because Skype has decided to use 90% of my resources." That's something that I want to be able to do. Check my email.

Sarah:                  Right. Because if you can't get the answer to that, then you figure everything is possessed or crazy, or broken. And then it has lost all your trust.

Daniel:                Right. Well so, then this brings the question up, because we talked about Clippy last time, which you described as oversold or over-scoped. Because, "I can do everything!" How do these agents become more like Alfred in the Batman? Where deeply trusted, deeply capable, but obviously some things he knows he's not good for. He's not going to actually fight the Joker, ideally. There are limits.

Sarah:                  Yeah. I mean, some of it comes down to personality. Clippy's personality was just completely all wrong. But then yeah. I mean I think it is about scope. You wouldn't pick some stranger up off the street and then suddenly have them manage everything about your life. You would start small, and you would double check on it, and then you would slowly begin to trust it, and then you would maybe expand from there with constant checks.

Sarah:                  Like I said, any time when trust is lost, then you have to be able to scale back without ... And/Or investigate why something went wrong.

Daniel:                So this is still a big burden, because in the Easy Hard article, he talks about a voice system that as a 10% failure rate, is really frustrating to work with.

Sarah:                  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                And we have a very quick level of like, "Wait, this doesn't do everything? This thing is dumb." Response.

Sarah:                  Right. But everything ... Yeah. I mean, there, because the boundaries aren't clear with a voice. With voice, through the promise is, "Oh, it can talk to me." So you don't expect it to be able to turn on the washing machine by itself necessarily, or buy milk. But you do expect it to be able to talk to you. So its boundaries and what it can do that are narrow, are narrow in ways that aren't super clear.

Daniel:                Yeah, because people love asking Alexa to tell them a joke.

Sarah:                  Right.

Daniel:                Or the, I think one of the talks was about Alexa versus Siri when you say, "Siri, do you know my husband's name?"

Daniel:                And then Siri's like, "No, you haven't told me that yet."

Daniel:                And Alexa says, "I'm concerned that you don't know."

Sarah:                  Yeah.

Daniel:                And those are two ... When you talk about personality, those are two really different personalities.

Sarah:                  Yup.

Daniel:                The analogy I often use is, I don't know if you're a comic book fan, or if you've watched the Avengers movies, but at one point, he's got Jarvis who's running the Iron Man suit. And Jarvis is this English butler that he's programmed, and at one point, Jarvis breaks, and he gets Friday, which is this plucky 1950s newspaper reporter gal. It's like, "Right on it, boss! I'll get that for you!"

Sarah:                  Right. Yup.

Daniel:                And I don't know which personality people want. My girlfriend calls her Alexa echo, because I think she thinks it's vaguely sexist to have it be her female slave. So how would you navigate that Scylla and Charybdis of all these personality requirements that people have?

Sarah:                  Well, I mean, obviously, getting feedback is important. I mean, picking one that you can establish some branding around and really focusing on making that one as appropriate as possible, I think is really important to start out with. Because if you just go out with just a huge wide array that people can choose from that people don't really know, and it also makes it harder on the team to make sure that they all are really great.

Sarah:                  So picking one ... I mean, I mentioned that branding and that sort of emotional design, that affection development between your product and your users, is really important and can really help you in cases where something might go wrong.

Sarah:                  So those things just have to be tested, and tested, and tested. Because people internally might think one thing, and then ...

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  They might be wrong.

Daniel:                So this is very interesting, because I was talking with Paul Pongaro earlier this week, who gave a talk on conversation design at the IXD conference. We talked about conversation design as a manipulation, right? And that there's both good and bad connotations to manipulation, but when you're talking about building capabilities into an agent to allow me to trust it, you're manipulating people to feel a certain way about it by giving it a certain personality, certain relationship building skills. You are making this thing that is going to manipulate us, and that's a very ... That's a heavy responsibility.

Sarah:                  It is. But you're playing within the bounds of social behavior.

Daniel:                Yes.

Sarah:                  I mean, obviously, you're not trying to make it lie or [inaudible 01:01:32]. Not disclose its taxes or something, but you're ... You know-

Daniel:                The American people don't care, by the way.

Sarah:                  No. In every conversation that you have with another human being, I mean most human beings, they modulate their responses in a way to either fit norms, or to put you at ease, or to just not be weird, essentially.

Daniel:                Yeah, you're right.

Sarah:                  And so hopefully, as long as you have sincerity behind the things you do to try to facilitate the best kind of conversation you could have, I don't think you're really in ethical gray territory. You're just being social.

Daniel:                Yes. I want to celebrate the word you just used, because sincerity is such an interesting word, I think. I've been having some conversations about conversations where authenticity comes up, and it's a very ... Especially around brand people, they're like, "I don't want to talk about authenticity anymore." It's like it's a very tired word. But sincerity is a very human word, and I think there's something really lovely about that, that particular choice.

Sarah:                  Yeah. Me too, and I think people have fairly strong sincerity meters.

Daniel:                Right. And the designer behind it being sincere, the relationship between the company and the person not being overly extractive, right?

Sarah:                  Yeah.

Daniel:                And so that's something where that is all about building trust. That Amazon, Alexa's not going to buy something without you understanding what you're buying. And you can return it if they did. So that kind of transparency and trust is definitely a part of that agency. That trust that you give to that agent.

Sarah:                  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel:                Which is really cool. Well, that is a really ... I'm glad you brought that up, I'm glad we talked about it. I think we're out of time. I really appreciate you giving me your time, this is a real ... We touched on some really great stuff. I will include your talk, both the medium article and the slides in the episode notes, and I just really appreciate you talking the time to talk about some of these topics because I find them very essential for our times.

Sarah:                  Yeah. It was totally my pleasure. I really enjoyed it.

Daniel:                Awesome. Thank you so much, Sarah. Have a great weekend!

Sarah:                  Thank you! You too!

Leland Maschmeyer on Negotiations and Hallucinations


I first met Leland when he was giving a talk at SVA’s Design Criticism Program back in 2010 and he referenced “Finite and Infinite Games” by James Carse...I knew, right then and there, that we had to be friends!


Lee is the Chief Creative officer at a food company which will not be named (for reasons...but linked here), which Fast Company rated in the top 10 most innovative companies in the world. When I met him, he was one of the Founders of Collins, an agency that Forbes tapped in 2016 as an agency defining the future of brand building.

We had a wide ranging conversation where we tried to find a theory of change: can you only harness trends and follow patterns, or can you create the future? We also discuss how companies need to digest chaos and turn it into Creativity and Action through balancing volume of ideas captured, velocity of ideas turned into opportunities and maintaining a Variety of ideas in the mix. I hope you enjoy listening to Lee as much as i enjoy talking with him!

Links and Notes:

Eight Flavors, by Sarah Lohman

Innovation through features vs The Jobs to be Done Framework

Finite and Infinite Games

IxD17 Users versus Owners (video not posted yet!)

Sketch notes at

Reinventing Instagram:

Harvard Negotiation Project and classes

Other book mentioned:

On Improv:

Rejection vs Acceptance vs. Creation


On cherry blossoms and cradle-to-cradle-design

My whole life is waiting for the questions to which I have prepared answers.