Unserious

Relationship Design with Denise Burchell

November 30, 2023 J.B. Skelton and Molly McMahon Season 1 Episode 4
Unserious
Relationship Design with Denise Burchell
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

When we think about our best work, the things that come to mind are probably about the work itself, but guest Denise Burchell poses that team member relationships are the real determiners of success. In this episode, J.B. and Molly learn how to design those relationships for maximum impact and innovation as Denise shares valuable insights garnered from years spent leading cross-disciplinary teams. They also explore shifting focus from products to people and how to plan for the relationship dynamic, remote or not.

"You can do anything with a distributed team that you can do with an in-person team... you just have to make up a lot of the serendipity with orchestration." - Denise Burchell

0:10 - Intro
1:22 - Shifting from product first to relationship first
7:30 - Aligning with executives
13:53 - Hire, Fire, Boss!
17:38 - Ways of working and macroeconomics
20:48 - Team ideation for the TED conference
26:35 - On distributed and in-person teams
30:42 - Reflections and outro

Connect with Denise on LinkedIn.

Mentioned in this podcast:
- Create Inclusive Collaboration Experiences During the Design Process training by Molly and Denise on Salesforce Trailhead

Follow Unserious in your podcast app, at unserious.com, and on Instagram and Threads at @unserious.fun.

J.B.:

This is Unserious.

Molly:

When we think about our best work, the things that come to mind are probably about the work itself what ideation practices you use which create a framework, produce the best ideas, how you organize that work and keep it on track. But if you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, the real determiner of success is the quality of the relationships between the real and imperfect people doing the work and how, together, those team members deepen trust with their customers. And, like anything else, it turns out, you can design those relationships for maximum impact. That's the superpower of our guest today. Denise Birchell is a trailblazer of design strategy and relationship design. She transforms businesses by unlocking the creative potential of high-functioning, diverse and cross-disciplinary teams. She has collaborated with leaders at Nike, ted and Genentech and led teams at places like Frog Design and Salesforce Design, as well as IDEO, where she and I first met. Denise, thank you so much for talking to us today.

Denise:

Thank you for having me.

Molly:

I appreciate it. One thing that you have talked to me a lot about is about shifting from product first to relationship first in business today, and I'd love to hear how come, why that focus on relationships and work today?

Denise:

Relationships are actually the fuel of work. They make us work better as teams. They make us work better as people, when we like who we're working with. When we take the time to get to know who we're working with, we bring a level of excitement and passion to the work that's just not replaceable. I react a lot to this notion of product first because I think product first thinking is quite narrow actually. It's this notion that, oh, we're going to do whatever is right for the product, we're going to make decisions on what's best for the product and we're going to sometimes have to say no to whatever the users are telling us that they want. And fundamentally for me, I think if you build a product for the sake of a product instead of for the sake of its users, your product has a very limited shelf life and a limited market and adoption cycle. So I'm all about fueling the people to make products for the people. So it's relationships backwards and forwards and front to back.

Molly:

I love that. One of the things that I've really admired is that you are developing new crafts inside of design, and one of those crafts is the craft of relationship design. I'm wondering if you could define for us what relationship design is and what might be some of the methods or ways of working when you are a relationship designer.

Denise:

Yeah, absolutely so. Relationship design just came from the basic insight that relationships are the fundamental building blocks of value. Very jargony speak right there, but what it means is that relationships are how business is done, it's how products get made, it's how things get sold, it's how products take off and things become viral. Without relationships, without humans sort of pushing these things forward, a product is just an idea, is just a build, is just a small encapsulation. Relationship design also acknowledges that on the user side of the equation, things are rarely ever used in a vacuum. I like to think of a cell phone. If we think of the cell phone as this notion of personal technology, it's the thing that's on our nightstand at night. It's intimate in bed with us sometimes. But it's also the thing that changes social dynamics. At a bus station or a train station, on the subway platform, people no longer talk to each other because everybody's got their nose in a cell phone. And so when you think about the usage of the products and services that we build, it makes sense to not just think of what am I doing for the individual user I have in mind. It makes sense to think of the user in the social context. What's the team behind them? What's the community behind them? Where are they when they're interacting with this product or service? And how do we, as designers, start to create a practice that takes all those things into consideration, because they really do impact the experience of using the products and services we build?

Molly:

One of the things that I've learned from you is that who a team is and how they work impacts the quality of a product or a service or an experience that is designed, and I'm wondering if you can give an example of like maybe what good relationship design might look like in the world, or maybe what would bad relationship design look like in the world?

Denise:

So when I think about good relationship design, I actually think about the way that the Salesforce design team itself was put together and run. So the Salesforce design team was created with leaders that represented the key silos in product team, in distribution, in marketing and in operations. And the reason that Teddy's Merhal, the founder of the team, brought these leaders together is because he knew that relationships are the building blocks of value and he knew that in order to do something horizontal in an organization that relies very heavily on metrics and success milestones that are vertical and siloed, he knew that it had to be a level of trust in individuals that got different groups of people to engage and participate and support our work. So, bringing together this sort of four corners of Salesforce into his leadership team, he already had a step in the direction of getting buy-in to what we were doing. We also created a comms strategy from the start that understood different levels of engagement with what we were doing. So we had a Slack channel where we would broadcast. We had a quarterly meeting where we would tell people what we were doing and what we were about to do. We would talk to individual leaders in a very sort of let me hold your hand and explain how this might have something to do with the goals that you have, and then, in general, we had an open invitation for people to talk to us and bring ideas to us about how we could work together, and so this comms plan, at multiple levels, understood the matrix nature of the organization, and it understood that you need top-down support. You need bottom-up support in order to actually create a movement that really allows you to elevate design, which is fundamentally what we were about doing.

Molly:

How do you align executives to work in relationship-centered ways? Like I'm like, how did people, how did you do that? Because it can be considered soft, it can be like a nice to have, not a strategic imperative, like what are your tips or tricks or wisdom on how you align executives around working in more relationship-centered ways?

Denise:

First of all, they already have a bias toward relationships, because they can't really have gotten to where they are without having the relationships that got them there, and so it's about sort of helping them understand how the relationship that you're building with them is helpful to them as well as helpful to you. You're not constantly just talking to them when you need a favor right. You're building a relationship that's a two-way street. Sometimes it's about I can offer you insights from an area of the organization that you can't see, or a level within your organization that you can't see. Sometimes it's I bring a different level of cooperation from the external to the internal of the company right, like I have a broad network outside of people, experts, who we can tap for whatever. But fundamentally, executives are also in a high pressure situation to deliver on very specific business outcomes, and so it is our job to frame our work in the terms of those goals and that pressure right. I have to know, I have to be curious. First of all, what is top of mind for this executive? What are they accountable for this quarter? And then I have to squint. When I'm just scoping some work, I have to squint and say, okay, how can my work be additive and help this executive achieve something they are on the hook to achieve? Because that is how you become important to that executive. If you can slip your work into the slipstream of their priorities, if you can show the ways in which you're a partner to them instead of a time suck, that's golden. That's what they want to hear.

J.B.:

So that feels like very much a big, mature company situation. I think when you go to startups, a lot of the executives that you're working with you're the mature one. You're comparatively quite senior. You might not have the same level because you didn't found the company, but you're trying to convince these founders and product leaders that relationships matter and really you need to start with listening. It's not something that comes naturally to them. There's no data that listening is really important. How do you get them there?

Denise:

So I've got two thoughts to share. On that one, I am a former startup founder, so I've seen this up close as well. The first thing I will say is that the VC-funded startup system is fundamentally broken. The incentives are scale first and ask questions later, and that is in direct tension with that idea of build a product that people love and then scale it Right. I think that if you're just a small business out in the world and you don't have this pressure to hockey stick your growth to get the ROI for your investors, I think you do things very differently. You have an ear toward what your customers want because, at the end of the day, you're answering to your customers. In the VC-funded startup world, you're answering to your board and, frankly, the incentives that they have drive a lot of those decisions to not listen to customers. So I've found that, frankly, I just don't work with super early stage startups that are VC-funded because, you're right, they don't have data that says that pleasing customers matters. But let's use some common sense here. If you're playing a longer game, don't you have to please your customers? Isn't that kind of basic? Yeah, data is always backwards looking. So, as someone who works in innovation, data is a really hard thing to rely on. You just can't count on data backing up your story. However, there are some things you could do. One of the things that I like to do is to create an ecosystem map, and my ecosystem map is about the stakeholders as well as the users. I need to look at who are the experts at different things in my organization. Those are the people whose intuition is going to be in play. And those are also the people who will have those fundamental concerns about will this idea scale or is this the right idea to build now, and what you have to do is just spend a lot of time one-on-one, listening to their concerns and understanding that those concerns come from a place of valued experience. Yeah, and if there's one person voicing that concern in the room, chances are a lot of others in the room are feeling that same concern. And so then you move to tool number two, which is prototyping. Since you don't have data to say, this is the right thing to do. We know it because it's data is backward looking. What you have to do is figure out how do I structure experiments that help build confidence in the ideas? The way to build confidence in the ideas is to go head on addressing the objections. I don't know if this idea will scale. Great, how do we start to experiment with whether or not this idea will scale without building the thing? Because here's the thing is that it's very expensive to build a product and then learn you're wrong, if you can come up with an experiment that helps you understand the potential for scalability without actually doing the scaling. You can go a lot further in convincing a leadership team to buy into it or even a startup founding team to buy into it.

J.B.:

When we come back. Cross-functional teams and transformation with Denise Birchell. More on Sirius in just a moment.

Molly:

Denise, welcome to Sirius. Obviously, you can tell how serious we are. So, instead of Mary Shaggirkill, we're going to play hire, fire or boss. I'm thinking about your artist background and your history as a sculptor. So would you looking at Frida Kahlo, georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt? Who would you hire, who would you fire and who do you want as your boss? Oh wow.

Denise:

Okay, all right. So initial stab here. Yeah, I think I might rather play Mary Shaggirkill. No, I'm kidding, I got it, just kidding. No, I think I would love to work for Frida Kahlo, just because, holy crap, she's been such an influence. I'm a Latina, you can't tell. I totally look the white half of my heritage. But I would love to just kind of absorb the energy and the. You know she does not take herself seriously, and I love that about Kahlo, you think so. I mean, she takes her art seriously, but I don't think she takes herself seriously. Okay, like she goes in all directions, she doesn't. I don't feel like she was the kind of person that, like she was my fire, she was your fire.

J.B.:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I would have fired her, that's a big help.

Molly:

He's on it yeah.

Denise:

Tell us it's the eyebrow right.

J.B.:

No, it's not it's not the eyebrow, it's. She's too much of a downer to be around. All the time I was like I don't know that. I want her on my team.

Denise:

Okay.

J.B.:

She's gonna like, it's gonna be, it's gonna be, it's like, oh God, like we've all worked around those like really moody creatives.

Molly:

This is an HR issue because she has, like, some physical ailments.

J.B.:

This is the biggest. No, I know, I know, I know it's like.

Molly:

You need the moral dilemma in the HR conversation.

Denise:

She's like how many different protected classes am I part of? Really, let's go for it, definitely like a leadership conversation right now.

Molly:

I'm always reviewing Frida Kahlo in Silicon Valley.

J.B.:

Yeah.

Molly:

That's awesome. Keep going.

Denise:

Denise. All right, so I would fire Georgia O'Keeffe. I just don't think she can conduct herself professionally, if we're honest.

J.B.:

Too much, too much hitting on the young ladies.

Denise:

Exactly. I'm sorry. Why does every piece of work product come out looking like a mola? Why?

Molly:

Oh man, so that means you would work for Mary Cassatt, I suppose by default.

Denise:

I think I always do end up working for Mary Cassatt. The more traditional, the like you know, maybe sort of older school kind of people, so sure it fits.

J.B.:

I think that that's a. I think it's a good call as a boss and not and not what you think that you're getting into.

Denise:

That's true, so much of the time, right, yeah, not what you think you're getting into.

J.B.:

That's right. That's right. It seems like right now and I'm not sure if it's like we're coming out of COVID we're still working remotely. Why are so many companies struggling with transition and change efforts right now, especially among highly cross-functional creative teams?

Denise:

The pandemic threw a big wrench into the ways of working. I was recently talking with another friend about this how pre-pandemic. It was very common to have an offshore team doing some development or running a call center or doing some kind of very well-scoped work that they could do almost separately from the in-person team back at headquarters. The pandemic threw everybody into the all remote, all the time bucket, of course, and companies started hiring remotely. Some of them had a more regional strategy where they were thinking about how to keep people in the same time zones. Other companies were like yay, finally, we can just hire the best person for the job, no matter where they are. So now we're in this post-phase, post pandemic, not in the sense of COVID is done, but in the sense of the way that it's impacting our work. A lot of folks are being asked to come back to the office, but companies can really only ask that of local employees and they've hired some remote employees for some really core functions and core jobs. So we're in this moment from a ways of working perspective. At the same time, we're looking at this macroeconomic context where companies are just really focusing on optimization, they're focusing on efficiency, they're focusing on quarterly returns. It's the year of efficiency, everywhere, that's right, and so when you're in a moment like that, the tendency from a mentality perspective and a mechanics perspective is to clench, to hold things tight, to bring things in closer. So this transition is not necessarily going well for them, because they're trying to do things differently in more than one way at a time, and a lot of times the answers that they have looked to in the past when they've been trying to make a transition say it's a digital transformation or something like that they've thrown technology at the issue. Yeah, and in this case, you can't just throw technology at the issue. You have to start to understand that transitions are moments where you need to deal with processes and orders of operation. You have to deal with humans and the messy context that they bring, and you have to deal with technology and all of those things. In time and space can be a lot to juggle, and I don't think that companies are really focusing on the transition itself. They're so busy focusing on efficiency and focusing on their products that they're really not taking the time to look at how all of the elements of the system are working together and, in many cases, working against them.

Molly:

You talked about transitions, and the things you need are process that includes systems and ways of working. You need to think about the humans that's, both your teams and your users, and the diversity of expertise and life experiences within that, and you also talked about technology as tools, but there's something in that around how you create adaptiveness and how that adaptiveness really leads to groundbreaking innovations, high quality work and high functioning teams. Yeah, and that's something that is your secret sauce.

Denise:

I mean, I got the rare privilege of working with Genentech and they were sponsors of the 2012 TED conference, and so we had a huge space at the TED conference to do something with. The brief came to us very open-ended it was. You know, you have to tackle a topic of interest to Genentech and to TED and it's got to be fucking awesome. Can I say fucking yeah, it's got to be fucking awesome is what the client said.

Molly:

Yeah, of course it does. Of course it does, it's got to be fucking awesome TED and Genentech and IDEO it's got to blow some minds.

Denise:

That's right. And at first I was assigned to the project as an experienced designer and we got into research and started to think about what are the different things that TEDsters need out of a TED conference, what are the mindsets you're in when you're at a conference, all those kinds of designing things. But about a month into our project the project leader had a health emergency and had to bow out. And at the last minute they said okay, denise, can you come in and lead this team? Wow, and it was definitely a cross-disciplinary team and we didn't yet have a concept. And there were eight weeks between us and the TED conference and we were a little bit terrified, oh yeah. And so we had this brainstorm one day and luckily the client was along for this ride of ambiguity, and comfort with ambiguity is a rare thing in a human being and probably more rare in a client situation. So we come up with this brainstorm and one day somebody just drew it on a post-it note what if we turned DNA into music? Wow, and we all kind of laughed about it like sure. How would we do that? Yeah, and then we thought about it Could we do that? And we started working on all of the various details. Well, how could we do it? What could we do? So, before long, we added a music producer to our team, because all of the music that we used was composed for the event. That's amazing. And a development team, and we thought, okay, how are people going to interact with this? The end of the day, the experience was that people would come to our stations and they would pick a swab packet out and it had a pin on it. We had these 2,500 trait pins and they all had traits on them that you could relate to. Some of the traits were like I have vampire fangs or I have curly hair or I've got, you know, scraggly toes. That may not have been the most flattering of them. The idea was to show off the potential for Genentech to develop these swabs in 24 hours, which was a piece of technological innovation that they had only recently developed. We ran into so many different hurdles. The lawyers came in at the last minute. You can't give people genetic results without having them sign legal forms and is insurance covering this? Is this medical Lawyers? And innovation.

Molly:

A match made in heaven. A match made in heaven or not?

Denise:

But at the end of the day, this was one of the best examples I have ever seen of a project that resembled the team that created it, and one of the biggest insights for me was about cross-disciplinary teams and how bringing together people with incredibly different backgrounds cultural backgrounds. You know their practices and specializations from a design perspective and creative perspective. You know even, to some degree, socioeconomic backgrounds. All the people were in the room together and it was an incredible sort of example of how the team comes together and puts their hearts into their work and develops something that the world has never seen before, and it came off without a hitch at TED. You know, six weeks later and I have to tell you, during one of the early prototyping sessions, we brought in all of the big wigs at IDEO who have been to TED and were going to TED, brought them through a prototype and it was, by all accounts, the biggest prototype failure I have ever had. We all had those we all had those. And a certain leader at IDEO was like six weeks until TED and this is where you are, and his great advice to us was don't fuck it up.

J.B.:

So do you think you could do that again today with a distributed team?

Denise:

Oh, that's a really good question. I honestly believe you can do anything with a distributed team that you can do with an in-person team. I think it would have gone differently, it would have unfolded differently and the relationships would have been built differently. But at the end of the day, I do think you could do something like that with a distributed team.

J.B.:

Do you need more of runway or do you need more time? Do you need more resource?

Molly:

Do you need more belonging time helping people feel part of the team.

Denise:

I think you need two different things. I think you need to set it up. When a team is first coming together, you have to take very explicit action to address the human side of being on a team making people feel belonging, making people feel like you understand who they are and where they're coming from and you value the work that they're giving, and then setting the table for them to create those kinds of relationships with each other. So it's not just everyone with the leader, it's creating the space for each person to build a trust with other people, and that, frankly, moves at the speed of trust. So you may need a little bit more time for a team like that to gel. But the other thing that you need is careful orchestration and reflection along the way. We take a lot of things for granted that happen when we're in physical space together. There are just a lot of corners that we can cut, and when you're not all in the same project space physically together, you aren't overhearing things. So you have to start to think about what are the opportunities that I can create for the team to share their ideas and, similarly, what are the opportunities that I can create for people to kind of go heads down and be producing in a specific direction. You have to make up a lot of the serendipity with orchestration.

Molly:

Yeah.

J.B.:

Yeah.

Molly:

Denise, that is one of the things that you are a real wizard at. When I look at the amount of complexity, diversity, disruption that is happening in our personal lives and our professional lives today. It is around setting the table and orchestrating, and right now we're always going to be part of a team. Where somebody has a different life experience, speaks a different language, has different expertise, is a different age definitely does not look like me, and that art of inclusion and accelerating trust seems like a starting point for how you drive innovation and well-being for teams today, and that, to me, is like a big part of relationship design and what you are actually pioneering in the design space today, and that's one of the reasons why I love working for you, with you and learning from you, and so we're just thrilled that you were able to join us today on Unserious and share your wisdom and your stories and giggle with us about who we would hire, fire and work for. You're just pure magic, and I can't tell you what a joy it is to have had this time with all my favorite people, to have the chance to learn from you today, so thank you.

Denise:

Aw, thank you so much, Molly. I appreciate your kind words.

J.B.:

It's been incredible learning from you over the last hour. Denise, where can people find you?

Denise:

We are in this really weird space where Twitter is no longer a valid platform as far as I'm concerned, and so I guess you can find me on LinkedIn. I am Denise Burchell. That's where I'm at.

J.B.:

Fantastic. Thank you so much yeah.

Denise:

Thank you, Denise. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast. It's been so much fun talking with y'all.

Molly:

Man. Denise is dazzling, Gosh. I love how she talked about design today and how it's so much more than pixel pushing and creating products. I love thinking about it as an art, that art of relationships with customers, across teams, even with leaders, and how you influence them, you know. I also love that she talked about how she designed that relationship work at Salesforce and while I was at Salesforce with Denise, we actually wrote a course and we just finished it and I'm pretty proud of it and I'm honored that I had the chance to work on it with Denise. It's a 201 leadership course for free on Trailhead for how managers can build inclusive, cross-functional teams, and it's just like Denise. It's a mix of Brené Brown and Adam Grant, like mindsets with people first, practices and tools that equip diverse teams to build trust, purpose, predictability and make better decisions together. We'll link it in the show notes, but it's, it's great and it's another way to get to know the amazingness of Denise.

J.B.:

Molly, I took that course this morning and it's great. How good you and I has been one of the real through lines and themes of Unserious this season and its relationships with teams, relationships with key audiences, with clients, with the leaders we work with, and I just loved the structure and rigor and design thinking she put around complex relationships to yield maximum impact. Denise is just incredible. Yeah, and that's the show. Unserious is in its first season. Thanks to all of you who have subscribed, rated us and shared the podcast with your friends. We are so excited to see the Unserious community grow. Join us on Instagram at Unseriousfun and check us out at Unseriouscom to learn about the team here. Thanks so much for tuning in.

Denise:

I'm sorry. Why does every piece of work product come out looking like a vulva? Why?

Intro
Shifting from product first to relationship first
Aligning with executives
Hire, Fire, Boss!
Ways of working and macroeconomics
Team ideation for the TED conference
On distributed and in-person teams
Reflections and outro