“What have you tried to fix that problem?”
Over the past year, I’ve spent most of my time working with Product Managers, UX Designers, and Leadership of companies going through some sort of change. Change in process, change in roles, and a lot of change in expectations. Usually this is branded as an “Agile Transformation”, but whatever you want to call it, it’s change.
With that change comes a lot of uncertainty, and resulting from that, angst. In the middle of that angst, surfacing whenever someone tries to offer some advice to navigate the change, I hear the same phrase over and over again:
“I can’t do that.”
I can’t innovate because the Product Manager does not let me spend more than a few hours on my designs in every sprint.
I can’t ship our product as a leader because my Product Managers do not take initiative.
I can’t manage my product correctly because my leadership dictates down things to build.
I can’t talk to the customers because UX Designers leave me out of the user research.
I can’t experiment because we are a bank.
I can’t talk to customers because the legal team won’t let me.
In every case, there’s usually a finger pointing at another human being, somewhere in the organization. Being the coach, I always ask one question when I hear a problem or blocker stated.
“What have you already tried to fix that situation?”
99% of the time I’m met with a blank stare as the answer. No one has tried. No one has tried to ask leadership for the room to try something new. No one has asked to be included in user research. Leadership has not tried working with the Product Managers to figure out why they lack initiative and how they can help.
No one had poked to see if the constraints really existed.
My friend Chris Matts once told me a great story. He was working at a bank when he was told he was not allowed to do something. “Who said I couldn’t?” he asked. His boss pointed them to their boss. Chris went and asked the boss the same question. The boss pointed Chris to their boss. Chris went to their boss. In fact, Chris went all the way up to everyone’s boss, until he reached the legal department who said, “Actually, it’s fine if they do that.”
In many companies I’ve worked with, the story is the same. “We can’t do that here,” has become the standard response. “I’m not allowed to,” the standard follow up when asked why. But, when you track down the root cause of the issue, things aren’t always what they appear to be. There’s usually more flexibility that you originally thought. You just never asked.
In bureaucratic and hierarchical companies, I’ve seen the fear of questioning ones boss or higher ups. I know there are definitely some places where this is justified. If you are a leader, I hope you recognize your position, and make it safe for your people to approach you.
In other cases, there is no hierarchy between you and the people you need to engage. There are governing bodies, like legal, but they are not your boss. They provide the constraints, but it’s up to you to figure out how tight they are.
In the case of your team, if you cannot talk to your teammates openly you have a bigger problem than being allowed to go on user research visits.
I see the same behavior in teams where leadership has bought into the change, as well as when leadership has not. It all comes back to human nature and a willingness to try something new. Stepping out of the comfort zone is scary. Talking to human beings is scary, for some people. As a person who despises conflict, I get it.
But, as a coach, I can tell you that it’s impossible to help people who won’t try. And people who do not try, do not grow. I have seen those who do try, even if they fail, become better team members and leaders. Those who don’t, end up stewing in their angst for years.
So in 2018, please try.