Command & Control: Human Knots

C. Todd and other students in the Product Design class attempt to unravel their human knot.

This summer I’m studying Product Design in a program called Boston Startup School, a 6-week training program run by Techstars Boston. I’ve fallen way behind on blogging, but hopefully this is the first of many reflections on the amazing lectures and projects we’ve been doing at the Harvard iLabs!

Today Rob Rubin, previously VP of Engineering at Carbonite, now VP of Education at edX, got Boston Startup School up and moving for a few awesome exercises. For a Monday morning, yoga, dancing and untying human knots was daunting, but now I know the coffee’s working!

Our first exercise had pairs of people attempting to ‘manage’ their partners step by step to make 60 steps in 2 minutes. We then changed roles and had the ‘manager’ simply time the exercise, leaving their partner to instruct themselves. The lesson was immediately clear: micromanaging slows things down enormously, and managing for autonomous productivity gets things done way faster and way easier.

That lesson was illuminated in each activity we did — when groups of 5-7 people created ‘human knots,’ leaving one person out of the knot to manage the unraveling process may have made things more streamlined, but it didn’t make things happen any faster, and people felt less proud of the results than they did when the whole team managed the process together. In this exercise, one of the coolest discoveries was that no person in the knot could really understand the full complexity of the issue. We each saw the knot of the person in front of us, and had to trust each other to call out the solutions we saw, and respect that they would be accurate. As Rubin said, “not one singe person at Apple knows how the whole MacBook works.” They each understand one part of the problem, and together, form the solution.

Here are a few other lessons learned this morning:

1. Never underestimate the power of the visual cortex. Visualizing processes and metrics is key to conveying their meaning.

2. You can expect what you can inspect. Metrics are essential to continuous learning, improvement and discovery. Know what you’re going to measure, and keep track of that data. Dig for data points everywhere.

3. Competitive environments do not breed productivity. Instead, being open, honest and direct facilitates a much more productive workplace. You should work with people you like, trust and respect, and support each other’s successes.

4. The power of the Note-taker is enormous. Like a historian, the person taking notes (ie. during a usability test) is in control of what information survives the moment and influences future decisions. The note-taker chooses what is remembered, and therefore ultimately decides what is changed about a product later down the road.

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