Megan Leigh McDonald
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'Don't make me think.' Steve Krug

Megan Leigh McDonald

Questioning Authority

Okay, so the title is a little misleading, since I’m not talking about being a rebel here as much as I am going to express my own questions about the relationship I have with authority. I was thinking about this recently and realized because of my unique experiences growing up in the Army, I may have some hidden issues with authority – maybe not, but I think it’s worth reflecting on. In fact everyone who works in any kind of job should probably reflect on that at some point.

In a lifetime, we move in and out of a series of relationships that involve authority, starting with the primary parental relationships, moving on to teachers, coaches, mentors, bosses, policemen, directors, etc. Our relationship with the concept of authority impacts all these relationships and the subsequent experiences we have in a lifetime.

Growing up as the child of a military man, I grew up with the symbol of U.S. authority around me everywhere, as well as a highly defined structure of how that authority translated from the highest rank to the lowest and the various roles and tasks assigned to each. Everything was pretty clear. There was no grey area between roles, no

Scrum Task Board Template

Even when working under the ‘Waterfall’ methodology, I always make it a point to keep a ‘task board’ at my desk or nearby. It’s something I borrowed from Scrum but it works so well for my own personal workload.

Process and the Laws of Physics

Is there such a thing as too much change? That seems like such a taboo thing to say out loud. I don’t want to be seen as someone mired in the past or unable to move forward through a dynamic and fast-paced work environment. As I look back on the many clients I’ve had over the years, I see countless professionals and offices with diverse processes. And I see this diversity of what is considered ‘process’ and ‘change’ as one of the many great mysteries of life itself.

I believe ‘process’ is the way we handle change in business and that it’s dictated by several natural laws:

1. The Law of Entropy: The amount of energy it takes to change is inversely proportionate to the lack of change that preceded it. This plays into our everyday experiences at work when people become complacent, don’t rely on data to drive decisions or foster an atmosphere of ‘group-think’. There can be a lot of change that seems to happen as most of the group follows very easily with the strongest personality. But this may not be vetted to be the best change or change that matches the company’s goals. It takes vast amounts of firm hand-holding to turn this kind of environment around. It seems to me, that there is a tendency for a large staff turnover when this happens.

2. The Law of Inertia: The amount of resistance is directly related to the amount of momentum needed to change. Somewhat related to Entropy, Inertia is more about the consistent action necessary to gain speed. If you know your goal and you move toward it, only to be constantly derailed by resistance, one never builds up enough speed to efficiently reach the destination. And, of course, the danger of getting thrown off course only grows with each setback.

3. The Law of Matter: This has more to do with the conservation of energy and its transference from one form to another. If you think of a business process like this, we have a whole lot of kinetic energy at the beginning part of our process and need to take the thoughts whirring around in the brains of a bunch of professionals and transfer it into a product that at the end of the day, transforms into dollars spent by consumers. There are plenty of things we can spend our energy on, but if we don’t realize that execution is a process of taking one form of energy and translating it into another, we may never get past the beginning stage.

There is a point when we think far too much and act not enough. This goes even for the people whose roles are at the very beginning of a process, for those are the people who set the pace and get the ball rolling for the rest of us. As a UI Designer, I get my energy from Product people whose ideas, creativity and understanding of data mixes with mine to produce something wholly different — wire-frames and mock-ups that visualize a different reality for our users. And so on and so forth throughout the rest of the PDLC.

I think process and change are the same things. I think because we’re a business comprised of people in the natural world that we need to look at ourselves in relation to that. What we do each day is molded by these abstract and often hidden concepts. Taken from physics but somehow very relevant, we are always part inertia, part resistance to entropy and part efficient transfer of energy whether we’re walking down the street or sitting in a board room.

A Sheep in a Wolf’s Clothing?

I was thinking about this metaphor all day today and as ‘black and white’ as it is, it is a starting point for looking at how we perceive ourselves in contrast to our coworkers at times. I have to be honest here, I’m a Sheep…not in the sense of following the herd but in the sense that I am a genuine, gentle and open person. I’m huggable, which may not be very professional in a large corporate environment but in most of the circles I’ve been in the past, it was an asset and, to be frank, a nice part of living this life.

Feedback from coworkers is that I’m sensitive, responsive and attentive. I’m ‘there’ – 100% solid there at all times. The flip side of being sensitive though is that I’m, well, sensitive. Occasionally, I encounter people whose viewpoint of the world is so different and opposite of mine that they would describe me in ways that are inverse to the above. And sometimes, people see me accurately and find my buttons and proceed to push them liberally. Me, being the sensitive and responsive type, will give them exactly what they want. This is the part of myself I want, maybe need to change.

But change is a tough process and some argue that we never really change. I mean, for example, I might learn to control my response to someone who is rubbing me the wrong way whether purposefully or not. But I’ll probably never eradicate the pain that I feel when someone harshly criticizes me. I think, in me, there is a sense of justice and fairness and I believe somewhere down deep, maybe under the very bottom of my soul, that if I play fair so will others. It’s idealistic more than naive.

So what I’m really experimenting with in bringing up this metaphor is that if the Sheep and the Wolf are metaphorical roles we sometimes act out with each other, then I’m a Sheep donning a Wolf’s skin to walk amongst the tougher, more thick-skinned individuals. However, in taking on the Wolf’s skin, I question, how much of the Wolf will I eventually take on. Will I, in turn, lash out at another Sheep in order to toughen them up and remind them that a Wolf is always around the corner somewhere? Is there a transformation from Sheep to Wolf or vice versae? Will a Wolf who takes on more of a Sheep’s qualities in turn become more gentle and sensitive given time?

I don’t mind the Wolf or its hide because in some ways it offers protection, but I’m a Sheep underneath it all and I happen to love that. In the end, I know the real concrete psychological solution to my problem lies not in this metaphor of the ‘Other’ but in muting the pitch of the incoming criticisms, softening the blow and reducing the intensity of my own sensitivity to it. Result? I react or respond less. But then again, maybe the metaphor still works…I should just grow my woolly fur a little thicker so that the Wolf can’t find a firm claw-hold.

More Than One Way to Tell a Story

Corporations are difficult entities to run. There are a lot of people to manage and a lot of personality conflicts that get in the way of productivity and plain old ‘morale’. I have a theory, though, that to effect change in any organization, we don’t need self help gurus or corporate therapists to come in and fix our dysfunctions. Instead of seeing a therapist, we need to each become a therapist.

Anyone who has ever been to a therapist knows that it feels like stepping in a pile of doggy poo. You’re sitting there on that couch because you’ve either got a problem to ‘fix’ or someone has strongly encouraged (i.e., blackmailed) you to go. Whatever the reason, that therapist is an ‘authority’ based merely on the fact that he/she ‘knows’ how to fix you and you’ve got doggy poo on your shoe. In a word, it’s a little humiliating. It’s not like going to a regular doctor who fixes physical ailments and at the worst makes you feel guilty about not flossing or having high cholesterol.

And there is usually no physician at work that could help anyways. No one is going to analyze the facts and give you a prescription to follow to get better results from your cross-functional team. And the last time I checked, there is no magic pill for getting people to cooperate, collaborate or even listen to anyone’s voice but their own. If there were, I would be distributing it in the form of brownies every Monday morning.

Situations in constant stalemate may drive you to a therapist, but seeing a therapist is no picnic. It’s an exercise in which you expect him/her to tell you what your problem is and he/she doesn’t. A therapist will refuse to tell you the direct answer, and, instead, proceed to drive you mad by guiding you to see it for yourself. I feel like if my therapist knows what’s wrong with me, why can’t he just tell me? Why is he keeping it a secret? This could sometimes, be how we feel about each other at work too.

But therapists are there to help you solve your problems, not to solve your problems. And, that a-ha moment IS enlightening. It builds an appreciation for how well I can hide from my own self when I don’t want to accept my flaws or those of the people around me. I always recommend it even if you have to make up a problem to fix because you just learn so much. And, the last time I checked, there was no liberal arts requirement for ’emotional IQ’.

At work, I tend to speak my mind directly, but also try to grease the wheels and persuade when there is a disagreement – until it backfires. And then I’m left in the terrible position of feeling depleted, misunderstood and in some cases a bit resentful when something I strongly believe in is dismissed. Then of course, I risk being viewed as a petulant child if I express that, which is pretty far from the truth.

This all leads me to what I’ve been pondering: how to tell the story better? Specifically, I am starting to see that telling the story is merely simplistic persuasion. Maybe I can take a lesson from the discipline of therapy. When there is churn, I could try guiding people to the right answer, to see for themselves what needs to be done.

A good cognitive therapist has a unique vantage point, as well as tons of education that put them in the position to see the big picture from the first session to the last. And, in a very similar way, I feel as a User Experience Designer, I advise business stakeholders on how to solve their problems. Most of us use our gut instincts, but some of us also use statistics and user research to back up our advice. But we’ve all been there, in a room full of passionate people all trying to meet various business goals and no one agreeing on how and all of our efforts falling by the wayside.

At no time in my life have I seen so clearly how telling people something is so ineffective. I myself relate well to people telling me information. I absorb it, I look at ways to use it, I pick a point in the big picture and throw down a flag where that information is most usefully applied. But I have to remember that the way I think may be more unique than I own up to. So when a person is a unique thinker, the story is harder to tell, because people who hear it don’t really hear it the way the storyteller thinks it. Why else would five people see a piece of abstract art entirely differently?

As Designers, our colleagues have different perspectives and levels of experience that we have to take into account as well as respect. So I take a lesson from psychologists. I look at their methods and consider ways that I can prompt people to come to their own conclusion. I want them to have the a-ha moments that they can ‘own’ – it’s more exciting and productive for the business if they are empowered like that.

I can ask them sincere questions even if I already think I know the answer myself. I can ask them what they think the impact of a change would make. By doing that, I put myself in what I fondly call the ‘downward dog’ position because I’m essentially talking ‘up’ to them instead of down…I’m coming from a different place that allows me to speak to them respectfully.

I can deflect inconsiderate behavior by refraining from engaging in argumentation. I can ask someone why they are getting upset or look at them inquiringly. I could express concern.

I can also stop myself from caving by just remaining quiet a little longer before responding. I can rephrase or take it ‘offline’. I can stop myself from automatically being agreeable.

Working on bonding is potent. By taking the focus off of the ‘other’ in arguments, animosity dissipates. There is no ‘me’ and no opposite of me…there is only a ‘we’. That is a powerful word, if used wisely.

Understanding that the relationship is about me leading my counterparts to see what I see or vice versa, focuses my interactions. Then, any way that I can accomplish this goal is good and anything that gets in the way is something to be dropped. I hope this doesn’t come off as overly analytical or cold. I wish that I could say all communications were organic and natural, but they’re not especially in large, diverse groups and corporations. However, I do think the more I practice these skills, the more natural they will feel.

Confessions of an ENFJ

“Dear Diary…Today I made introverts the world over nervous when I stopped by their desk to chat, irritated some fact-driven people by saying ‘I just know it’, smothered my little sister and made someone cry by being honest; but then I apologized and almost cried myself because I hate the idea of hurting anyones’ feelings.”

This is the life of an ENFJ, which is what I am, according to Myers-Brigg. I am big-eyed, full of wonder and find inspiration in idealistic people, things and events. The good thing about being an ENFJ is that I’m also the one who introduces people at parties and work functions. I’m confident and comforting and often correct in my intuitive assessment of people and situations. My feelings show in my face and flood over a crowd of people, often influencing them in a subtle way, making parties more fun and bad times better. I grease the wheels and give people a necessary piece of humanity that often isn’t part of our everyday experience. And I use my judgment, a double-edged sword to distinguish between right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, good and bad and all the grey in between.

Yes my enthusiasm sometimes is unwanted. Yes my confidence appears arrogant at times. Yes I could stand to think more and collect facts. Yes I could stand to consider someone’s feelings before I joke about something personal. And you bet I should probably tone down my emotions or ‘passion’.

A really smart and very skeptical person I know half-jokingly compares Myers-Brigg to an astrology sign. What do you expect an INTF to say…? (Only teasing.) Score or not, though, I value people who are stronger thinkers than me. And I need to be reminded of the value of thinking in my life, so I’m glad that I have people around, who give me reason to pause. Too often, I get a ‘bright idea’ and I’m off and running without thinking it through or collecting enough facts.

So the question that my friend’s comment begs, though, is do these labels stick? I validated my score twice and it remains the same. One thing I do know is that it’s consistent. And it did aptly describe my life experiences. Even if that’s just looking at the past through a reparative lens, it gives me a starting place to make sense of where I fit into the whole scheme of things and people in this world. The point of going through an exercise like taking the Myers-Brigg test is to recognize that each of us are similar but vary in some significant ways.

No matter who we are, it can be difficult at times to accept that others don’t always see the world or a joke or a business requirement the same way. It is challenging and I know I’m not alone in struggling to tell my story in a way that the listener will ‘get it’. I make mistakes, sometimes everyday. But it is the reality and it is the only way to access other people, their support or opinions.

What it takes is being able to recognize the way another person sees or hears a conversation, and momentarily step outside the self to explain one’s story or reasoning in a way that is accessible to the other person. Just telling is not enough. Showing is often not enough. But involving one’s self with an other is very powerful.

So whether this score cements my life experience or not, I find it useful and validating in many ways and I continue to mull it over as I struggle with my inner self and how it fits into my outer world choices.

A History of Problems

To start off, just want to explain why I haven’t been writing for the past few months. After relocating for a new job up in San Jose at PayPal (yay), I am starting to really feel at home and making some time to devote to my writing again. So on with the show…

Dreaming of Solving Problems
The other morning I struggled to wake up while listening to NPR (yes, I know…doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping but I like it).

New Job, New Adventures

I’m leaving so many of my friends here at Reunion. This is a small team but I’ve bonded so much with them, that the hardest part about leaving now is leaving them. I’ve learned a great deal from watching my boss, P. You can tell he really cares about his people. He takes great pains to gather all the requirements so that we can do our jobs that much more efficiently and clearly.

Celebrity Deathmatch: Agile vs Waterfall

Gotta’ love Monday meetings. No, seriously I am *not* being facetious in the least. Our wonderful Exec David Wolfe is a very inspiring person to work with and every Monday I get to absorb another piece of his genius. (note: I am *not* a suck-up)

Today’s session outlined the basic tenets of both Agile and Waterfall methods, with no judgment. Without demon-izing the Waterfall Method, we defined the basics of any methodology and moved on to point out the different situations in which one or the other would be useful.

I’ve worked with Agile’s predecessor, the Beckian XP. Reuters Financial Risk Management Team embraced these programming methods with ferocity back in 2001. As the User Experience Designer on a Development Team, I watched us go from heavy Requirements Documents to the lighter, more story-oriented cards. It felt like a sudden release from an entrenched way of being. Back in the beginning of that position, we were handed a heavy document that was constantly updated and edited, but never really veered away from.

The creativity of the Developers was often left out and the frustration at having to execute on requirements that were spelled out so clearly was palpable in our Tuesday morning meetings. So when we moved onto XP, the developers and PMs and Business Analysts integrated together in a really exciting way. Suddenly, we were identifying certain peoples’ roles as ‘customers’. These people spoke for the customer. As a UI person, I got to interview the people who were standins for our customers. I was able to take that information and pour it into my wireframes and designs.

Planning meetings with developers were dynamic as we sketched out flows on our white boards and had the option to change things around quickly instead of being tied to these heavy documents.

The big takeaway for me was that when a company or a project is in a high growth stage, it’s often really difficult (actually impossible) to predict what requirements will be from the beginning. Waterfall attempts to eliminate change and the cost of change by using prediction. I like astrology. I think it’s fun. But I realize life changes day in and day out. So the only way to actually deal with change, for me, is to embrace it and be nimble enough to keep pace with it, especially if a new idea is more efficient, productive or revenue-generating.

So, I pose this metaphor: if there was a Celebrity Deathmatch between Agile and Waterfall, I’m thinking Agile would win by sheer ability to stay on its toes. Anyways, this is an open call to all animators…I want to see this on YouTube!