EP 44: How Team Trust Inspires Innovation
Kelly: So today, we're talking about innovation at agencies but we're going to focus on the role that team trust plays in pushing our work further on behalf of our clients. My guest and good friend today is Jay Melone, partner at New Haircut, a digital project product strategy group based in New Jersey. And Jay, just like every time we get together, I'm really, really excited for the discussion, so welcome.
Jay: Thanks Kelly. Thanks for having me. This is a good discussion. I'm glad that you put it on the table for us to talk about today.
Kelly: Yeah, so let's start with I guess foundational question. Why do you think teams at agencies or consultancies, even in-house teams, why do you think that they lack trust to begin with? I think that's a good place to start.
Jay: So I'm of the 50% of people that believe that everyone is doing their best so I don't think that people are untrusting. I think their environments cause them to put up walls just like in in our personal lives, in relationships that we have at home with our kids, with our partners. I think the same triggers happen to us in the work environment and agencies, in-house teams, any kind of team that's working together where trust is required for groups to come together and to create together is very vulnerable, and requires trust and accountability and all these things. When that's broken, people start to put their walls up and then I think trust becomes a really a limiting factor.
Kelly: Can you share a quick example of sort of how you've witnessed this and some of the work that you've done with other brands or groups or agencies or whatever it is?
Jay: Yeah. Well, almost all the time I get asked to join an organization and like all human beings, they're reaching out to me because they are ready to move the ball forward and create something, bring something to market. And sure enough, time after time, what will happen is we'll be in the room trying to think about what it would look like to bring that solution to market and we get into this creative space where people are asked to put their best ideas forward. And what happened with me is over the course of many, I run a process called the design sprint and the goal of design sprint is to move from an idea, a group of understanding of an idea and put something in the form of a prototype so you can test it and bring it to market thereafter. And the groups that I work with are typically excited about the process and the methods.
But what I've seen happen either in a training format or even in a live environment with groups that are trying to work on a business priority is that their ideas tend to be safe. So they'll be super excited about that we're working together, that even that they're in the same room as someone that they're not used to being in the room with. So a designer being in the same room as an engineer maybe not so crazy but the designer being in the same room as an accountant as a lawyer, someone that works in the finance team, bringing those people together doesn't typically happen and so the process is supposed to put them together so that they can just create but what happens is some of those ideas that they've had in the back of their heads or that have been on the road map for a really long time requires the company in a cultural all together to decide to invest in that.
And if you have these groups of people in these organizations that are untrusting, then people start to submit ideas that they know they’ll be safe, that their head won’t get chopped off. They raise it up. So it's come about in so many different scenarios. Typically what I've learned, I read Riley's book a few months ago and he is a great way of he called out a process for categorizing organizations with pathological and generous being on the outset and most of your typical corporations are pathological in a sense that it's untrusting. Power resigns in a few corner offices and ideas get kind of disseminated down. And when you have working environments like that, the people that are in the room they’re expected to innovate and create together. They're kind of looking, they're kind of side-eyeing how those decisions got made without a true understanding of will my ideas be inspired, entrusted, backed, and supported.
Kelly: Right. So it's interesting to me, you actually started your career out as an engineer then you began as you've put it sort of to appreciate or started to appreciate design and you ultimately landed in product management. So what's been the biggest insight that you've derived from your own path, from when you started your career to what you're doing now?
Jay: Well, so once in a while get phone calls from people that want to become a facilitator or they look at folks that are typically working in strategy or research or design altogether and they might come from this sort of engineering background or the people that are the finish line let's say. So when I came from an engineering perspective, I also thought like what do I know about strategy and testing and research and great ideas in general and how to have those discussions because like most engineers I was fed with requirements and product specs.
I was asked to bring it from the sort of well documented but still rough ideas and bring that out to market. So when people that are coming from that product background whether they’re a technical product manager or an engineer. A lot of them have that same fear and hesitancy, can I do this work? And I always tell them, your superpower is that you know what the finish line looks like.
And so, like the success of my career has been to be able to bring what the finish line looks like and what it requires to build products and all the feasibility questions that go into that to almost act like a crystal ball to say this is where we're gonna end up. And I've been fortunate enough to be able to string a process and roles and experiences and backgrounds together to move from the finish line all the way to the starting point to be able to connect those pieces along the way. So I've been fortunate to be able to do that because now I can speak to many different folks and challenges and different kind of things that groups are trying to experience.
Kelly: Yeah. And then a lot of our past conversations you referenced Doctor Brene Brown's work a lot and especially her care to lead. Can you share a little bit more about her research, how that's kind of impacted, how you really show up in your role now and especially on like the shame and vulnerability and how that sort of pushes teams forward.
Jay: Yeah, so she's totally a hero of mine. I'm trying my best to get into her workshops but I have to get some coaching credentials first.
Jay: But I told a story recently where I was listening to her Dare to Lead book and she started using words like training and research and innovation and things that I thought only existed in the world of product and service design. And she has always talked about this armor that we have that we use and all of our lives where we kind of armor up to enter into any kind of conversation. And so, she was talking about leading teams but before they get into the work of deciding what they're gonna work on for the year, if this is an executive group really trying to stop and understand the problems that they're working through. And most of the time, the starting point was in the form of trusting one another and then she connected it to these pieces about how innovation becomes inspiring and exciting once there is that trust and accountability. So some light bulbs went off as I was reading her Dare to Lead book.
Kelly: I could imagine.
Jay: Connecting it, yes, and connecting it to the same kind of hesitancy that I saw in the workshops that I either teach or lead. I was like man, it doesn’t matter who's in the room. The whole point is that it's human beings and we're scared and we're vulnerable and we're not sure if we want to stick our neck out. And it doesn't matter if the outcome for you is executive alignment or doing some kind of offsite retreat to rebuild the company culture or if you're trying to build an act for the next feature. All of that requires a commitment for the team to get together and trust one another so that you can do it together because as we all know the greatest products can’t be designed built from one person. It requires a team.
Kelly: Right. And I think that's a really important point that you're making that innovation, we're not just talking about innovation from the standpoint of product development. We're really talking about innovation in terms of culture and addressing maybe some of the problems or thinking more creatively about solving a problem at an agency. It doesn't have to be innovation in the way that we kind of take that term and we apply it to product development or the other things that we often apply it to an agency world. I think that's a really important point.
Jay: Yes, so whenever I use terms like design thinking or innovation, you're totally spot on. So group, the people that recoil from that, they could be engineers, they hear design and they're nervous to enter into that discussion but you could also have groups that are into finance, legal and what not and they think that's not. But what the greatest thing is that design thinking or innovation or any kind of like innovation process can totally be engineered to help you do your job better so just because you're brought in maybe your introduction into design thinking and innovation is to help a product team create a new product.
But what's really amazing is when you take those tools and you apply them to your job. So salespeople applying design thinking to build empathy into their sales process and understand what's important to their customers. It is only going to help them and it's going to slow them down to speed up the whole process all together instead of just adding volume to the number of calls. They're making really truly understanding the problems that their customers are facing. It could be applied to any kind of team, any kind of outcome that you're trying to get to.
Kelly: Right. And you recently authored a piece on something very similar and you quote out Brene Brown's work, vulnerability in design thinking and you published out on boxes and arrows. Can you talk a little bit about that piece?
Jay: Yeah, it kind of go back to what I was saying before. It came from the inspiration of listening to Brene and connecting the pieces that, really kind of connecting my story to her story and seeing that where she gets groups to understand, I think what I was excited about is that she gets groups to the point where they have that foundation of trust. And my work requires that work. But without my work, once you're trusting, there's not really this regimented process to move from a team that trusts and can create together to actually getting to the finish line. So it was kind of this, thought piece that said, man, if we can actually create these cultures of trust and then bring together some of the structure and co-creation of design thinking or design sprints that's a really powerful combination.
But I'm hoping that more groups are open to experimenting with and sometimes it's just taking really small pieces and introducing them into the front of an innovation practice. So even just starting the discussion, like stakeholder interviews and kind of understanding what some point to everybody, that's great but once you have the team in the room and everyone's armors up just asking them, why is this important to the group, what are we trying to achieve. And there's some really great questions that Brene has mentioned that you can see the discussion with and I talked a little bit about those in the article. Really just letting the group feel that they can be safe, that this is a safe place for them. And I think the biggest push back is that groups are there to deliver and to get a job done and innovation requires results and outcome and speed and action and all these things. And it's amazing that it you just start and spend 15 minutes at the beginning of such a program, if you're in the room for two or three days that fifteen minutes, the return on that is exponential. You’ve laid the foundation for the team to spend the next couple days really kind of trusting one another, leading into the process.
Kelly: And I would also imagine that even though you're starting at the very beginning with that fifteen or twenty minutes and this might be a multiple day process. When they come in on day two, it's not like you have to go back to that. It's just all of these is compounding like we started with this fifteen minutes, we all understand we're on the same page, we're starting to trust one another that we have this whole day together. We come in the next day, we’re even more excited and even more energized and feel even safer to be able to put our ideas forward.
Jay: Yes, that's kind of the holy grail of how design thinking could work and it's really a shame where if I coach people or I mean teams at the really starting point, they’re so beaten up because it's typically, I work with an organization that I'm working with one person and you think about groups like Google and Spotify and Nike and all these huge groups and you always assume that there's these masses of people that are all in sync holding hands, building products together, and typically there's so much frustration around policy.
And who is allowed to talk to who and who's brought into a group to do the work together and it’s trust. Trust is at the center of all that. And so, sometimes you can't start with innovation. You have to start with getting people out of the building and just kind of understand that you're in it together so it's a little bit of symbiotic stuff but that's why I am such a fan of coaching and the whole realm, what coaches can do and the reason that I actually got into coaching very recently is because I've seen the benefit what coaching has done for me, to open me up to new ideas and make me curious about things and that's the starting point.
Kelly: Yeah, as we start to wrap up, I would love for everyone to kind of just hear a little bit more of your evolutionary story with New Haircut like I know what New Haircut started out and what it is today is vastly different and I think that's a good wrap up for the show.
Jay: Cool. So New Haircut, I start it with my former business partner in 2010. We started as a product development studio so building, anything that we can get our hands on, building e-commerce sites, animated videos. And for six years, our process was meant to get to the point where a customer told us what they wanted us to build. And after many, many products bringing them to market being really excited about the speed at which we can get those things done, spending all this time on lean, and agile and making process really home.
What we realize is we were rapidly really building products that had no fit and we're really solving more important problem so we started teaching ourselves design thinking in the form of design sprints and that really kind of opened up a realm of possibilities for us. We always thought that strategy and user experience and customer experience in design thinking was just for another type of human being and what we realized it just required a curious mindset, just being able to go out and talk to people, understand their problems connect it to business outcomes of what the company is invested in making.
And so, over the last three years we've retreated away from the delivery aspect of product design and into all the discovery and the strategy and the curiosity around why is this an important thing for us to be working on. It's pretty cool. And research, I had a total respect for people that spend their days and nights doing research in getting clear on the challenges that people face in their current experiences and so we've gone all in on product design but more importantly, more specifically really asking why does this problem exist and what's the right way to solve it.
Kelly: Yeah. And just for my own curiosity, how has that changed the way that you personally feel about the work that you're doing and kind of like who you are in the world in your purpose?
Jay: Well, I always tell people that there is a type of human being that can sell whatever they're asked to sell and for me, my job in the company has always been to sell and I had a real struggle selling for six years in New Haircut because quite honestly, I didn't really believe in what we're doing. I didn't believe in the value of it. I thought we were all really smart folks in the group but I didn't think that we are delivering ultimately value. And it's highly commoditized business to be in the world of product development.
Today, I get to go into all sorts of groups that are asking what's next for us. I mean, to be someone that is seen as some of that you would trust answer that question for your company, and there are pretty exciting companies that are doing really great things that millions of people are using their products and services. To be trusted that I can go into a group and help them answer that question of what's next and to build the trust with them and then to demonstrate that trust so that they can build it for the rest of their organization. Definitely keeps me going everyday. It's really exciting.
Kelly: Yeah, it's a beautiful story and you could just tell, it kind of shines through. You could just tell that you are so much happier just in the fact that you believe in what you're doing and you're connecting with people on that other level.
Jay: Yeah, it's been fun. Still lots to do but I'm having a lot of fun.
Kelly: Yeah, that's great. Well Jay, thank you so much. I always love our conversations and this one's no exception so thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Jay: Thanks Kelly.