Design Leader Insights - John Schrag

January 16, 2023

Alex Smith: Hey, John, thanks so much for being on the show.

John Schrag: Hey, thank you for inviting me.

Alex Smith: Yeah, for sure. And to get started, can you give the audience a little bit of context and background in your history in UX?

John Schrag: Sure, I came into UX kind of by surprise I, when I went to university, I was studying computer science. And at that time, UX wasn't really a field you can take in school, it was a, it was a graduate course, actually, that a friend of mine told me about. Only available to graduate students. I was an undergrad, but I petitioned because I was interested. And I took this one course where we did,  we read like hundreds and hundreds of UX papers of well, computer human design. So I got a very big view of the field, which was great. And I wanted to work in that. So I got a job as a programmer. And I was trying to introduce these ideas into the company, which is, you know, had never heard of these ideas before. Like you should pay attention to what users want, or you should do usability testing. And I had some success that way moving on. So eventually, you know, as my career went along, we spent about 10 years as a developer full time and then about 10 years as a designer full time. And then I had a little sideways lunge as an Agile coach, because I got really interested in process, because I was having a lot of trouble sometimes getting design and developers to work together well, so that just the process, became an Agile coach for a while, and eventually ended up being Director of Design at Autodesk where I had a team of like, 40-50, 50 I think it was the biggest it ever was, designers in that reporting to me.

Alex Smith: Very nice. Thanks for that background. Yeah, I came across you during a talk I saw you give at UXDX in New York recently. I think what stood out to me was a lot of, I guess what you learned over your career surrounding developing an effective design culture and a culture of psychological safety. I think that really resonated and I'd love to learn more about that. How did you get into that? How did you learn how to create an effective culture that actually you know, motivates the team versus maybe stifles innovation? 

John Schrag: Yeah, I think having a bit of a design education really helps there. Like I started studying a lot of stuff about classical design and various schools of design. And there's a lot of things that design these ideas about, you know, that you have to absorb what's around you, you have to really learn how to listen to people, before you start to do your work, and that idea of listening really struck home when I was working as like the sole designer development team that didn't care about design, or that didn't pay attention to all this. And you could just, how do I get a voice in there? How do I get people to hear what I'm doing? So I came about it, honestly. And just keep trying new things all the time and seeing what works and what doesn't work. But Amy Edmondson's research into psychological safety really, like,made me go oh my God, that's it.  That's just kind of she's encapsulated it and she's nailed the kind of the big, important points on it. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, let's dive into that. I think it's super important. What is that? What is psychological safety? And how should managers or maybe independent contributors be bringing those ideas into their team? 

John Schrag: Yeah, so psychological safety is a property of a team, not of an individual, that's kind of a key thing. And if you’ve got a psychologically safe team, what that really means is that people on the team, feel that number one they belong. Number two, it's safe for them to not know stuff, like I can ask for help.  And I won't get ridiculed, or I will get, you know, put down. Thirdly, that I can, that my contributions welcome. And fourthly, this is the biggest thing of all is, are you safe enough, do you feel that you can tell everyone else in your team that they're doing things wrong? Do you think you can say you guys are all messed up, we should do this other way. If you feel safe enough to raise that conversation, you don't think you get to get ridiculed, you know that your boss is going to shut down the conversation, then you're in a psychologically safe team. And I should point out that if you don't feel that you can raise questions like that, then you'll never get innovation. If no one feels they can say we're doing it wrong, then how are you ever going to do anything different? Hey, John, thanks so much for being on the show. So psychological safety is super critical for innovation. 

Alex Smith: And so let's say your design team has established psychological safety. It's a great open, you know, environment, everyone's transparent and feel like they're growing together.  

But then they're working with another department, maybe that doesn't doesn't think the same, or maybe the, you know, the dev team, or the product team isn't aligned with that. How should they approach then collaboration across departments? 

John Schrag: Yeah, so that's a really good question. But again, reverse psychological safety is a property of any given group of people. There's a you know, if you have a team that has a sort of toxic posture, they'll often end up with this with the learned helplessness. You've heard that. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, yeah. Explain that to the audience. 

John Schrag: So yeah, so learned helplessness, the original, the original experiments were done on animals where they, it's kind of a horrible experiment to describe. The get animals to give little shocks and the animals would jump out of the way but they couldn't avoid the shocks. They're just made up so you can do, you are gonna get shocked. And after a while the animals give up and they just kind of stand there. And then even when they remove the barriers, the animals could just leave, they don't, they just sit there and get shocked, because they've learned you can't do anything about it. It's like that in the team, if you've learned that your input is worthless, your boss won't listen to your input, or they'll shut it down, people just stop giving input, they stopped caring. If you've got that kind of thing going on, that's a real hard problem to overcome.

Alex Smith: Yeah.

John Schrag: There, that's something kind of upper management needs to deal with. If it's just a problem of another team, as a team kind of being recalcitrant, I think one of the best things to do is to build personal relationships with the individuals in the team, if you can get them to work together as pairs. And then they kind of have to start to treat each other as human beings and, you know, listen to each other, because it's a different group again. You just got a group of two people, and you can build that trust on one to one, and then try and leverage that upwards. Doesn't always work. But I think it's probably your best leverage in. 

​​Alex Smith: I think exposing or seeing how multiple teams deal with agile and how they're running product cycles, teams are very different in every company. Is there a one right way to do that as maybe like the Agile Manifesto states? Or like, how do you view that? Because I feel like everyone's doing that differently. Everyone has a different pace.

John Schrag: You can go find agile coaches online who freak out about this stuff.

Alex Smith: Yeah, yeah.

John Schrag: I was, you know, I was a little naive when I started agile coaching. I had learned one way of doing Agile, right, and I was kind of developed a way to combine UX and agile, that was my 15 minutes of fame back 15 years ago, working out dual track agile, which is a way to combine it really nicely. Agile ideally, I always think of it as a metric on which you can measure whatever it is you're doing. So you can have totally different processes, and they can all be agile. So really what comes down to is working small, working iterative. Are you working smaller? Iteratively? Are you trying to remove all the stuff that's unnecessary? Any bits of process? And mainly, are you continuously improving your process? Do you continue to have this thing where you say, what are we doing? What can we do better? How can we make it more efficient? 

Alex Smith: Yeah.

John Schrag: And the idea is to get stuff out there. And if you're doing all that you're agile, if you're not doing that, yeah, I don't know what you're doing. But the other part, of course, is the idea of autonomy and the team. That the team has the ability to make changes. This is the biggest thing I see. In the talk, I gave it UXDX, I talked about how you introduce a new process, but that power extends to stay where it was. So we have a company that was working waterfall, and it's someone at the top saying, we're going to build this, this and this, go team do it. And then you install agile. And you still have someone at the top saying, here's a list of features we have to accomplish. Then you're not agile, because the whole thing of Agile is the people at the top should be saying, saying here's strategically what we want to do. And then your autonomous team figures out what are the things we need to build to accomplish that strategic goal. And they have like the tight, you know, they can work quickly agilely and then have the listen to the market, listen to the signals coming from it, and adjust as they go along. So that's the other big thing about Agile is that responsiveness and iteration.

Alex Smith: What advice do you have for new designers maybe looking for their first role or early in their career?

John Schrag: Yeah, so I think I had two bits of advice. Number one is flexibility. What I've you know, in my career is I come, I'm old, there's so often you find yourself in a non-optimal position. And you might have gone to school where they said, you know, things should work this way. You'd never want to get stuck in a point you go, well, I can't do stuff because things don't work the way they're supposed to work. You always have to meet people where they are.

Alex Smith: Yeah.

John Schrag: You sort of think, okay, maybe there's terrible design process here. They haven't done this or this. But I've got an opening here. Always think what can I do to take it one step better, one little step better. Get yourself in there and show your worth. You know, it's not enough that you know, the right way to do things. Design is all about communication, you have to communicate and give the developing team or the PMs, what it is they need, or what is they think they need.

Alex Smith: Yeah.

John Schrag: So flexibility is the main thing I would say. The other thing I would have is to not be afraid to use your research skills, if you've got good research skills, and turn them inward on the people you work with. If you're having trouble working with another human being I've done this with bosses before, with co-workers, is I start to think about them in the way I would do user research. I just sort of study them, what are they trying to accomplish? What are their goals? What motivates them? How is their work measured? And often that process separates the emotions from me from it. And allows me to work with them in a much better way and come to a deeper understanding and more empathy of them once you kind of pull yourself out of it emotionally. And think of it as a research target.

Alex Smith: Awesome, John. Well, thanks so much for sharing these insights. I really appreciate you coming on the show today. 

John Schrag: Oh, I had a great time. Thank you.