Erika: I’m like, “You’re fine, but wow, I’m glad I don’t have your job.” She told this really heartbreaking story about an organization she was working at, a giant Internet company. She was working with one executive who was advocating for this new product direction. They were going to be redesigning some things.
She knew that he was wrong in some of his assumptions, and she said, “You know what? Let’s talk, and I’m going to go over some of the work we’ve been doing that I think is really pertinent to what we’re talking about here.” She set up a meeting with this executive, and then she went back to her research.
She spent days, she described it. She even worked over the weekend going back over her findings and making sure she had her case all laid out. She put together a really nice presentation and an accompanying report. She was all set. She walked in Monday morning to find out that this executive had canceled their meeting and never rescheduled their meeting.
That right there, to me, is the crux of the issue. It doesn’t matter how good your research is if you’re not integrated into the decision-making process. You will be ignored, and it doesn’t matter how good the research is if it doesn’t have an impact.
That’s very different from the academic perspective, where you are doing research for research’s sake. There isn’t this sense of your research is valuable to the extent that it assists some external goal. When you talk about applied research, not pure research, what we do, the research only matters…
When you come right down to it, you’re not doing this for publication in a journal. You’re doing this to help a business, so the value of your research is measured against how much it helps the business. I’m saying business in the broadest possible sense.
For people who still have that academic perspective, that can be just as distressing and repellent as I saw this career path. [laughs] That whole moment and that whole conversation both helped me empathize more with people that come from that type of career and that type of background and made me feel much more confident in my own position.
When I go out and talk to people, a lot of times I get researchers who are very happy that they have a way to bring people into the process, but I do still find that there are people who come from academia, which is not a traditionally collaborative environment. A lot of it has to do with that.
When you get your professional training in an environment that absolutely does not reward collaboration and then you go into an environment where you’re really supposed to help make a team succeed, you don’t have the tools for that. This is one of the things I really emphasize and what I’ve really been working on.
People think that working together, talking about the same things in the same room with a group of people means you’re collaborating. Collaboration, really, really doing it, is both unnatural for people and very difficult and requires this high level of attention and commitment.
The nice part about working with research is doing this research together makes teams more collaborative. By being collaborative and doing the research, it makes the research more effective. It’s this really virtuous cycle, but it doesn’t happen on its own. It absolutely does not happen on its own.
Researchers, as humans, will do what’s habitual and comfortable for them, which is want to be a specialist, and go off in a corner, and do a rigorous course of study, and write up a report. Then, designers and developers will do what they want to do, which is not read anything and go off and do things that are interesting and feel productive to them.
You have to recognize that changing these behaviors is not insurmountable, but it requires intentional effort on the part of everyone involved. Once you have that, then it’s all great, and you get people working together. Sometimes, you have to make a change if people come from a much different culture.
If people come from a really strong, engineering-driven Agile culture or people come from an academic research culture and you get them all together, you have to work on change.
Jared: In order to make change in the team, part of it I think people run into is this idea, “Well, if I’m going to do research and the team’s going to be heavily involved, now I have to train them how to do the research. What if they do it crappily and the research is not as rigorous as my standards allow?” They get themselves wrapped up in this.
There’s all this practice that has to happen that if it doesn’t happen, we’ve made something that we can’t base decisions on. One of the things that I’ve seen when people start to do this collaborative stuff is that none of that really matters.
The real epiphany is that moment where, I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, you have a stakeholder or developer or somebody who has been working on this project for months or maybe even years. The first time they see a real user using the thing that they worked on, they go, “Oh my, why didn’t we do this two years ago? It would’ve settled so many arguments.”
Even though it was one participant, or even half a participant by the time they come to this epiphany, they’re suddenly all engaged, and they’re like, “Wow, this is so different than what I expected.”