Janice Fraser is an investor, speaker, and expert in emerging management practices to support innovation at scale. A Silicon Valley veteran, she’s built a storied career as a product manager, founder, facilitator, and confidant for entrepreneurs and enterprise executives alike. But her impact extends beyond the Valley with innovation and transformation projects at NASA, the Obama White House, Procter & Gamble, and many other companies in the Fortune 500. As an investor, she is particularly committed to championing and extending access to the brilliant entrepreneurs who are typically underrepresented in the world of venture-backed startups.
In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover Janice’s career from the early days of Silicon Valley to consulting for lean startups and large enterprises. We dive into her philosophies on how regular people can become everyday leaders, and her strategies to create clear communication and durable decision making in a fast-changing and polarized world.
Questions We Explore in This Episode
How did Janice start her professional career? How did she pivot from magazine publishing to Silicon Valley? What impact did Netscape have on her career path? What was the story behind LUXr and how did it start? How many companies went through LUXr’s accelerator program? What lessons did Janice learn about product and lean startup from LUXr? What opinions does Janice have about Eric Ries’s book Lean Startup? How does a lean startup philosophy prepare a company for possible success or failure?
What was it like when LUXr was acquired by Pivotal? What impact did Janice have on Pivotal’s structure? What is a good ratio of designers to developers? What benefits did going lean and restructuring have on Pivotal’s ability to grow?
What was Adaptive Path? How did Adaptive Path influence H2R Product Science? How well defined was “User Experience” back then? What were internet products like in 2001? How did Janice get into consulting? What flexibility does consulting offer one’s career? What role do consultants have at larger companies? How can consultants help a large company balance problem solving and deployment? How is a large corporation limited vs a small startup?
What is behind Janice’s philosophy of “regular people”? How did Janice learn to be a manager, an executive, and a leader? How do you adapt strategies to be repeatable by almost anyone and at scale? What “human” aspects become more evident in an enterprise? How do you create psychological safety for executives and company leaders? What impact do psychological safety, diversity, and inclusion have on a company at different levels? How do you find the dangers and incentives affecting people at different levels in an organization? How can taking the personally safer, and not innovative choice, create larger problems for your organization later on? How do “regular people” move the conversation towards innovation at scale? Is it harder to start a company or to start a PTA?
What qualities do all leaders have in common? How can “regular people” become a leader in their field? How can company leaders be better at listening to the perspectives of those at other levels of the company? How does privileged information affect transparency and create gaps in communication? How can privileged information create uncomfortable situations? How can uncovering where people are coming from help create more effective communications? How can aligning on where people are coming from streamline decision-making?
What are Janice’s 4 tenants on creating everyday leadership? How do you align people when an information differential can not be overcome? How do you align people to communicate from the same starting point? What is the difference between valuing an outcome and valuing output? How can decision-making towards a shared outcome over a deliverable improve communication? What myths do Elon Musk & Steve Jobs create about leadership? How can leaders better leverage the talents of others to achieve sustainable outcomes? What 3 types of people need to be considered when creating a decision? How do we create durable decisions? What myths are there around decision-making when the focus is to have the best decision, the right decisions, the fastest decision, and consensus?
Quotes from this episode“The world is made up of regular people, and if we don't equip regular people to do extraordinary things, we're in trouble.” Click To Tweet “If you change it from everybody trying to agree on the right answer to ‘could everyone live with this?’, you can get a lot farther, a lot faster.” Click To Tweet “When we lead, we acknowledge what is true in this moment. We decide what are the outcomes that are worth moving toward. We leverage the people around us to move toward that outcome. And we make decisions in an efficient, durable way… Click To Tweet
Holly: This week on the Product Science podcast I’m excited to have a conversation with Janice Fraser. Janice is an investor, speaker, and expert in emerging management practices to support innovation at scale. A Silicon Valley veteran, she’s built a storied career as a product manager, founder, facilitator, and confidant for entrepreneurs and enterprise executives alike. But her impact extends beyond the Valley, with innovation and transformation projects at NASA, the Obama White House, Proctor & Gamble, and many other companies in the Fortune 500. As an investor, she is particularly committed to championing and extending access to the brilliant entrepreneurs who are typically underrepresented in the world of venture-backed startups. Welcome Janice.
Janice Fraser: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Holly: I’m so excited to talk to you today. So as our listeners know, I usually start with a journey into product and hear what are some interesting stories you’ve learned along the way. And I’d love to hear more about your background. I know you’ve got a long career, tell me a little bit about how it began.
Janice Fraser: It’s interesting that I really have had a long career, and sometimes I start with my career in Silicon Valley, but I want to go back further than that because I think that we forget that jobs that we’re in now were not invented. So when I started my career I was actually in magazine publishing, and I did that for five years. I thought that was going to be my forever future thing. And then Netscape happened and that brought the whole wave of the internet, the web and all of that. And when I started at Netscape I thought I would be just a company employee, because that’s the only modality for work that we had. But I met a couple of women there who were independent professionals, and I was like, wait a minute, that’s a thing. You can do that thing? So there again was a thing that I didn’t even know existed so I couldn’t have planned out my careers. That describes the whole thing, it was always say yes to interesting opportunities. And so I found myself in Netscape and Silicon Valley, we didn’t even know the term product manager in the way that we understand it now. And so I started starting companies, and for 20 years from 2007 until just a few years ago, I was founder entrepreneur. And raised venture capital a couple times, started services companies a couple times. So you don’t start six companies if you’re a billionaire, that means that some of them were successful and some of them were not. And through all of that I just learned a ton. And about 10 years ago, I shifted my focus from entrepreneurship and Silicon Valley style entrepreneurship and into how does this play out in very large organizations. And so that’s how I ended up doing corporate innovationey kinds of stuff. And I would say that in my career, my happiest moments have always been when I was at the front edge of new things with a small group of other people who are also at that front edge of new things. And then I try to figure out how to make it boring. I really like taking the thing that is in the hands of the elite few and making it accessible to regular people. So I keep a sticker on my computer that says regular people, because I really love regular people who are just doing the work.
Holly: Yeah, that’s awesome. So many things in there that I’m interested in and things that I know about from your LinkedIn profile or your writing. One of the things that I wanted to hear a little more is you were one of the people who were a part of LUXr, and we interviewed Kate Rudder back in one of our earlier seasons. And so I’m curious to hear your perspective on that. What was that about and what did you learn from that journey?
Janice Fraser: LUXr was wonderful, and Kate and I have been close friends for a very long time. So Jason, my husband and I started at LUXr in June, 2010. And we started it as a services firm, a couple of my venture capital investors from previous companies. On the same day, coincidentally, I was having update, how’s it going conversations with them. And they both, on the same day, asked me to develop some sort of a program for their portfolio company to help them create better products. And that was the beginning for me of a really interesting exploration, which led to the founding of LUXr. That’s when I discovered lean startup, and I went, oh, wait, wait. This describes all of the ways in which I have done a bad job as an entrepreneur in the past. It’s like a friend of mine once said, it’s like Eric Reese x-rayed my body and told me where all the bones were broken. And I think that’s 100% percent true for me. And so LUXr started as basically an accelerator, this was in the early days of when accelerators were just getting started. And we had over the course of a few years, 50 companies go through the program. So it became this crucible for how to do this work. And so when we decided to productize LUXr that’s when Kate joined us, she joined us about a year into the journey. And it was one of those commercially not successful but intellectually incredibly enriching and methodologically enriching times, we learned a lot about how to have a product. And we learned a lot about how to get other people to make better products and how to routinize all of that process. So it was… I think it’s influence was much larger than its commercial success. So very impactful work.
Holly: Yeah, that’s awesome. So back in 2010, how foreign was lean startup as a concept to people?
Janice Fraser: Oh, nobody knew about lean startup really. Eric’s blog was what I would call micro famous. It was big enough in the Silicon Valley area but it hadn’t yet spread globally. And then over the course of the next year it just had caught fire. So he wrote the original blog post in 2008 under the name lessons learned, and in the year or two that followed from summer 2010 until 2012, it just was like the coolest thing that everybody was doing. Because people were really hungry to know how do you do entrepreneurship reliably well. This was what LUXr was about. That’s just it’s. Not that you can raise the ceiling on success with lean startups so much as you can raise the floor on failure. So you fail in a less costly way. So instead of wasting 400 hours to figure out that your idea was wrong in some way, you’re wasting four hours. And there was a real pent up demand for that kind of just simple rational process.
Holly: So what were some of the other steps in the journey? How did you get involved in the more corporate transformation side?
Janice Fraser: Well, LUXr was more or less acquired by Pivotal. Technically if you look at the paperwork it wasn’t technically an acquisition, it was an aqua hire. But it was more than an aqua hire because what Pivotal was acquiring was the methodology. So Kate and Jason and I still own all the methodology, but Pivotal basically got a worldwide perpetual license forever. And we used that methodology to really change their product management practice and to integrate user experience into the product management collection of practices. So when I started at Pivotal, this is just an example of how much the product management practice changed over that time. And I was there for two years. When I started at Pivotal, the ratio of developers to designers was 50 developers per designer.
Janice Fraser: And when I left two years later, the ratio was five developers per designer.
Holly: Much better.
Janice Fraser: And we went from having two offices to having 22 offices. So at this time of massive expansion into offices globally, we were able to establish and spread really a much more modern product management practice, and including design compatible practices. So LUXr was really the methodology that came into Pivotal to enable that transformation to happen. And working with Pivotal obviously led to working with very large organizations.
Holly: Yeah, and for any of our listeners who don’t know, when you say Pivotal you’re talking about Pivotal Labs.
Janice Fraser: Yeah, so Pivotal Labs was a part of a larger organization called Pivotal Software, which had built Pivotal Cloud Foundry, which is a platform.
Holly: Yeah, actually my ex-husband worked on Pivotal Cloud Foundry, was maybe at Pivotal, I don’t know what years you were there, but might have been there at a similar time. Okay, I want to actually go backwards because I forgot to ask you about something else that was impactful to me in my career, which is Adaptive Path.
Janice Fraser: Sure.
Holly: I went to a UX research intensive at Adaptive Path and that is how I began my journey into creating and running workshops and trainings myself, because I just had so much fun at it.
Janice Fraser: Wonderful.
Holly: And I was like, “Why is work not this fun, this work should be this fun?”
Janice Fraser: I love that. I love hearing that, because our mission at Adaptive Path when I was there was to be the best place in the world to practice user experience. And there’s a reason that that was a really meaningful approach for us to have taken. So Adaptive Path was founded in December, 2000, and it started as an equal partnership across seven people who roughly did the same thing but came at it from different angles. And we launched the company at south by Southwest in 2001. And at the time, we still hadn’t all standardized on the phrase user experience. It was still, what is this thing? And the way I describe it is we were like, yeah, there’s this internet thing. But all the things we made with it sucked. And so Adaptive Path was how can we make them suck less? And that was our mission. And what is the discipline by which we can make things suck less? And so I was there for six years, I was the CEO of the company eventually. We started as seven equal partners, but as we grew, we had to organize. And that organization led to needing somebody to run the ship. For a while that was me. I was there until December 31st, 2006. And if you think about it, during that era, those six years were the time when we were defining. So A, there is a field called user experience. Here’s what it does, here are the elements of it, and here’s how you can do it well. And so the experience you had, the training that you got, all of that was really an important part of the mission. And in order for us to know how to practice user experience effectively, we had to create a place where it was possible to create user experience effectively. And that’s why we wanted to be the best place to practice in the world, because it meant that we were figuring out how to do that.
Holly: Yeah, so one of the themes that I’m curious if it’s primary or more of a by-product for you, is that you’ve done a lot of consulting, working at companies that are doing consulting rather than necessarily being in-house. Is that something that was planned for you or did that just happen?
Janice Fraser: Nothing really was planned, that’s part of the being at that front edge, is that you just never know what’s going to come up next. And so you say yes to interesting opportunities. And my pattern was that I would work at a company for a few years and then I would start my own thing for a few years. And then I would go independent for a few years and then I would start my own thing again for a few… So there was this kind of pinging and ponging back and forth between different modalities of work, and independent consulting is something that is just really easy. I can do that tomorrow. I can do it any day. I can quit a job and I can start consulting on my own. That became part of my portfolio career I think is what they’re calling it now. And what I find is that sometimes the people who are trying to figure out how to do stuff are the people who are consulting. And so joining forces with the figure outers, a startup or a large corporation doesn’t have the ability to figure stuff out, they have to just execute. And so wherever I can band together with people who are in the figure outing modality, that’s where I want to be. And so when I was at Bionic recently, that was a really figure outing kind of time. And I was with other people who were like, there’s a big problem here. We’ve got to figure out how to fix this problem. And the way that Bionic framed the problem, it was that large corporations can’t grow. And they can’t grow because they can’t create something from nothing. A very large corporation is great at taking something that’s big and making it infinitesimally bigger, but they can’t take and love something very, very small and see it grow. It is nearly impossible. And I thought that was a really interesting problem. And David Kitter and Christina Wallace and Anne Berkowitz were all trying to figure out how can we do this reliably well? So that made it really interesting for me. And through that, you get to then go deep with a few different clients and really see what are the patterns that emerge in those practices? And then I like to… Once I’ve figured a few things out, I like to codify them, make them repeatable so that really pretty much anybody can do it.
Holly: Yeah, going back to that regular people thing.
Janice Fraser: Yep, it’s all about regular people. Because you know what? The world is made up of regular people, and if we don’t equip regular people to do extraordinary things, we’re in trouble.
Holly: Yeah, sadly. But we can, we can equip regular people to do extraordinary things.
Janice Fraser: Absolutely. Absolutely, and regular people do extraordinary things literally every day.
Janice Fraser: So more of that please.
Holly: Yeah, exactly. And more sharing the knowledge on that. So tell me a little more about Bionic. I came across Bionic at the New York lean startup conference in… Gosh, I don’t know, 2017 or 2018. And round in that time, Eric Reese’s book about enterprises had come out. What experiences did you have working in enterprises and were they similar to what’s in that book, or were they different?
Janice Fraser: Oh yeah, absolutely very similar to what’s in that book. And also David Kitter and Christina Wallace around the same time wrote a book called new to big. And it’s one of these relatively small, but very to the point kinds of books. And full confession, I contributed one of the chapters to the book. But I found working with large enterprise to be a really interesting human problem. And Eric’s book captures some of it, but Eric’s book is really big and thick and meaty. And so I found that book to be a reference that you go to when you need it, and it was super influential for a couple of my long term clients, Proctor & Gamble is still someone that I work with really closely. But also there were a few really simple human lessons that I think both… That Eric’s work ongoing and the new to big get to, which is that a lot of this change relies on how you create incentive and safety for people. We talk about psychological safety in a whole bunch of ways now, which is great, but we tend to talk about psychological safety as it relates to people lower on the org chart. We need to make it safe for the innovator to innovate. We need to make it safe to have diversity, equity, inclusion. And I think all of that is absolutely right and important. But what I think we haven’t yet noticed is that it needs to be safe to be a senior vice president who invests $10 million in an early stage innovation fund. And those people, just like everybody else, are motivated by where is their danger and where is their incentive. We tend to avoid things that will get us into trouble and we tend to gravitate toward things that will give us reward. And when you think about psychological safety as it relates to those people, it’s easy to poo-poo that and say, “Well, they have all the privilege already. They have all the power already. They can just do whatever they want.” Well, actually that’s not at all true. Everyone at every stage is beholden to somebody higher up. And so as I started to work with these extremely large organizations, you can just keep going up the food chain and say, “What is it for this person that creates danger? And what is it for this person that creates incentive?” And you just step it up and up and up. Right now, I’m doing a lot of work with the United States Air Force. You can go up and up and up with them too all the way to Congress. So if you’re trying to figure out how do you create safety for the senior leaders in any context, let’s say in the DOD, how do you create safety for those people to make more innovative decisions so that let’s say for instance, fewer people can die? Well, you end up going all the way to Congress and figuring out what is the legislation that creates incentives on the one hand and preclusionary measures… I don’t know what that word would be. Disincentives on the other. It’s like, where is there danger and where is there incentive? And in a corporate environment that goes all the way up to the C-level executives, how does a CEO justify to his shareholders on an earnings call? Because it’s always a he, let’s just be honest. It’s always a he. How does that CEO justify in an earnings call that they’re going to take some large portion and put it towards highly speculative innovation? And so when we think about why is it that… I can’t pick on Proctor & Gamble, but why is it that all of the home cleaning products are sold in plastic bottles with lots of water? That’s super inefficient. Well, it’s because the alternative would be highly risky. We could right now, if we chose to as a culture, replace all plastic jugs and pods of laundry detergent with small flat sheets. We could do that, but it would be very risky when it comes to selling, because the shelf space at the Target and the Walmart matters. So I feel like we’re not going to get where we need to get to as a planet, as a culture, unless we can create incentives for even the top people to have psychological and actual safety so that they can make bolder moves that appear on the surface to be very risky.
Holly: Yeah, and how do we do that?
Janice Fraser: We start talking about it for one. And I think that, again, I’m showing a lot of my politics here, but I believe that the power of the every person, of the regular people, is massive to create this change. If the expectation begins to be that we have to stop putting water in plastic jugs and putting that on store shelves that we drive our big cars to, if we as citizens change that expectation, then all of the other interests will fall in line. Because that’s using the rules of the capitalism game to create change.
Holly: Yeah, it’s interesting to hear you say that because I recently signed up for a more eco-friendly laundry subscription. It comes in a paper box and it’s a little bit better for the environment.
Janice Fraser: Awesome. Well, and honestly, I’ve been working with Proctor & Gamble for a long time. And I know that company is filled with really great people. They really see the challenges, they see the problems. And I know that they’re doing the right thing long term.
Holly: Yeah, and there are always people inside these large organizations that are fighting to do the right thing. And then as a consultant, one of the questions is how do you help enable them? How do you help create that right environment that they can be more successful in?
Janice Fraser: For sure, and each one of us in our lives has the power to lead. And when I think about what is leadership, we tend to think about there are team leaders, there are leaders of social movements. But I also think that each one of us has a role to play as a leader in our context, whether that context is our group of friends, the context is the people who sit at our dinner table. And when we lead, we can acknowledge what is true in this moment. We can decide what are the outcomes that are worth moving toward. We can leverage all the people around us to begin moving toward that outcome. And we can make decisions in an efficient, durable way so that we can progress. And those four things really are I think the core leadership practices that I’ve seen in play across all of the folks that I’ve observed that are effective in the last let’s say decade. So whether it’s startup founders, social movement organizers, large corporate leaders, government leaders, they all have this ability to discern what is true in this moment, decide what the outcome is that’s worth moving toward, rally the people, and leverage their expertise and energy toward that goal. And they do this by making decisions that everyone can live with so that you’re not always fighting with each other.
Holly: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I’d love to dive a little deeper into each of those elements if that would make sense. I actually was struck by the first one about acknowledging the current state, because that is something that is often very hard. And I feel like we’ve all been in situations where we’re at a company and the company leadership are not acknowledging the truth of what’s going on. And the people, the middle management and the lower level people have a different picture than what they’re hearing from the executives. And I think it takes a lot of bravery for people, to be honest, especially if the current state isn’t what everybody wants. What are your thoughts?
Janice Fraser: Sure. Well, that is actually my favorite. Of the four principles that I just outlined, that’s my favorite one. We walk into a meeting and we have been taught and trained to have an agenda to the meeting and to declare what our goal is for the meeting, but we haven’t been taught to notice where we are when we start the meeting. And everyone could be starting with a completely different understanding of the starting place. And so if you walk into a meeting, you’re like, our goal is to get to point B. And let’s say our goal is to get to San Francisco, but if you’re starting in Chicago and I’m starting in Denver and someone else is starting in Milwaukee, you can’t all get there through the same agenda necessarily. So my belief is that the first thing we have to do is align on point A and where are we starting from? And sometimes that in itself can require just tremendous amount of alignment work, and discovering that we are not aligned is probably the most important discovery you can make if you want to make progress fast. So I’ve seen enough up and down the org chart to know that sometimes senior leaders see things that they cannot talk openly about to the whole staff, to all 2000 people. That’s just the reality.
Holly: Do you have any examples of that?
Janice Fraser: An easy example would be, you’ve got CEO of a 2,500 person company and it’s about to be acquired by an 80,000 person company. You’re going to work on that deal for a year, and you’re going to march into every meeting and you’re going to have strategy meetings with probably vice presidents or senior directors. You’re not going to be able to talk about any of that. And so there is an information differential in every meeting that you go into, especially at the more senior levels. And so you’re always working with incomplete information. So what matters though, is that for the purposes at hand, to do the work that needs to get done today, you’re all starting from the same place. Is it’s an art knowing how much you can say and how much you cannot say. There was a time, this is ancient history now, there was a time after I had left Adaptive Path. I was still on the board of directors, but I was no longer involved day to day in the operations of the company. I had moved on, I was doing a venture funded startup. And I decided I was no longer interested in being on the board. A couple of other people changed anyway, and was going to step off and just be a shareholder. So in an instant, the shareholder meeting closed, we voted in the new board of directors, the shareholders who were not on the board exited the room, and the board had a conversation that the shareholders were not privy to. So in one moment, I went from having information privilege to not having information privilege. And that’s just the reality of how governance works. And it can be really uncomfortable. It was very uncomfortable for me to suddenly have… I am no longer allowed to have that information, but you know what? It’s also very appropriate. That was something that nobody ever explained to me when I was coming up, I came from humble beginnings. And I mean really humble. We were on welfare and mentally ill family, and all sorts of chaos in my upbringing. I didn’t know anybody in business when I started working, literally I had nobody to teach me how this stuff worked. So as I was coming up through organizations, I was really unhappy that I was not privy to all of the information. Because I wanted the information and it made me mad that I wasn’t allowed to have all the information. So I think I was probably pretty difficult for some of my bosses. But now that I’ve had a chance to see how it plays through at multiple levels at the very senior level, at the mid level, at the entry level, it makes a lot more sense that everyone can’t have all the information all the time, and that people will make decisions that you don’t understand. But if you start each session, whether it’s a quarter, a year, a meeting with where are we all starting, what is the place that we can all align on as our starting place, then you’re going to be able to get farther faster if you can make that explicit. Even if there’s an information differential.
Holly: Yeah, the thing that it leaves me wondering is how do you overcome when there is a big information differential, or what happens if you get into trying to solve a problem and you realize that everyone’s not starting at the same place?
Janice Fraser: Well, so those are two somewhat different questions. The first is how do you overcome when there is an information differential? And I would reframe the question to say, how do you align when there’s an information differential? So one of the things that I found is that I was trapped for a long time in the idea that we should all have the same information all the time in order to be aligned. And it is incumbent on the person who has more information to figure out how to align with people who have less information. Or if people simply have different information, then you share those two different perspectives and you align on probably a third perspective that is some approximation of both. So I worry a lot right now in interpersonal situations, in leadership situations about alignment. Can we be aligned on this true depiction of the current moment? And that’s all that matters. It doesn’t have to be the full, complete depiction of the current moment, but it has to be true and it has to be one that we all see, understand, and agree to. So if you can just focus on what is salient and relevant in this moment about where we are, and let’s all share that. And if you can do that, then you can move forward together much more quickly.
Holly: Yeah, it’s one of those things where I think it sounds more simple than it is, it’s actually very, very hard to get to that kernel that’s the right kernel that you can align everyone around.
Janice Fraser: Well, even exposing misalignments is a huge service to the group. Super random example, not random at all. At a certain point, at the beginning of the pandemic, I have a 19 year old son. He was 18 at the time, he was going to early college, he had just finished his first semester and he came home for spring break when COVID started. So it was very early days of the lockdown, nobody was vaccinated. There was no vaccine. There was no cure. There was no nothing, but it was still really, really early days. And we had to make a decision as a family about whether he would go back to campus or not. No campuses had been shut down yet. Some schools were giving you options to stay home and to take remote learning. It was a very vague time. So in that kind of a situation, you have this really clear point B. Point B is we will have made a decision about whether or not Evan will go back to campus. Point A though, you’d think it was the same, like, holy crap, there’s a pandemic. What are we going to do? But we handle all these things as family meetings, and so our 30 year old daughter came and sat down at the kitchen table. So there was me, my husband, my son, my daughter, and my future son-in-law. And we were having this conversation. And it was a challenging conversation, and we were not making headway. And what we needed to do was orient on where we were. And this is one of those cases where certainly there was different information. It wasn’t that some people had more information and other people had less. It was that each one of us had different information and that we had different points of origination. So my daughter’s very cautious, her mindset from the start was, there’s no good reason to put somebody on a plane for any reason ever right now. So her starting mindset was a very much of a no. My son was like, yes, I want to go back. And my husband and I were in different but similar quandries because you want to allow the young person to have their experience but you also want to be cautious, but you don’t want to be a snowplow parent. So each one of us had our own mix of inner conflict. So each one of the four of us was in a very different place, but what we didn’t know from the start was that my daughter was a absolute no and that she had data to back it up, and that she was there to make a case. And so once we figured that out, we could say, okay, so Gina, it seems like you’re stuck in this one mindset. What are you thinking? What is your starting place? And then we each told our starting place. Simply revealing that each one of us had a different starting place helped us to know how to run the meeting so that we could get to a decision. That’s the real truth, is that in that particular case, it was that we each had our own ideas and our assumptions about each other were not accurate. And so we had to clearly state where we were in order to figure out how to make a decision. It’s like we could plan an agenda, but that agenda was useless because our starting places were so different than what we thought. That’s the point. Sorry, that took me 10 minutes to get to the point there.
Holly: So what happened in the end? I know it’s not your point, but now I’m super curious. What did you do?
Janice Fraser: Well yeah, so we decided that he could go back. And then two or three days later, before he actually was scheduled to go back, they pulled the plug and said, “Nope, we’re closing campus.” So the decision ended up getting taken away from us in the end, but it was a really interesting set of conversations. Because we didn’t know how deadset against it our daughter was. She was almost angry that we would consider it.
Holly: Yeah, people have really strong opinions about whether to take risks or not take risks around COVID.
Janice Fraser: Yeah, it’s not unreasonable, there’s a wide range of appropriate responses to this bizarre situation.
Holly: Yeah, I found myself in a similar situation. I’m a mom of an eight year old and a five year old. So when COVID began, they were six and three. And when the schools reopened, whether or not to send kids back to school is all the other parents wanted to talk about.
Janice Fraser: Yeah, it’s those kind of things where you want to talk about it forever and you never get to a right answer because there is no such thing as categorically right. Those are the places where we really get into conflict with one another, where we can really build resentment toward one another, and where we can burn a lot of time and just create tons of friction and bad feelings. And so I think that those are the moments where we need leadership the most. Where we need regular people in the moment to have some sort of framework for understanding, like how do we move forward from here? And step one is, where are you right now?
Holly: All right, so take us through the other steps. What was step two?
Janice Fraser: It’s not really steps because you end up doing them in any order, but it’s really about valuing outcomes. So rather than valuing the output or a process, it’s what is it that we want to have achieved. Knowing what will be different when you have been successful and really putting your value on that rather than on, I’m going to make a deliverable or I’m going to adhere to every step in this plan. So that’s part two. And if you’re in agile software, this is a product, I can talk to product people about productey things. It’s great. When you’re in product and you’re working in agile process, what you want is to enable, for instance, a user behavior. It’s not to put this button on this page in this place, it’s to enable the outcome that that button would achieve. And maybe there’s another way to achieve that outcome. And so you work on from an outcome rather than an output basis. So when I think about things like user stories and whatnot, I’m always thinking about what is the outcome I’m trying to enable rather than what are the steps? So it’s, I don’t measure progress by how many story points I’ve delivered, it’s what have I enabled the user to accomplish?
Holly: Yep, and then remind me, what were the other two components of this everyday leadership?
Janice Fraser: The next one, the way that I say it is leverage all the brains. So part three is that what I see the best leaders doing, is instead of believing that they need to have the right answers or they have to be the one to solve the problem, it’s that they activate other people, they harvest their knowledge, experience, capabilities, and get everyone moving toward that outcome together. So sometimes for instance, in a meeting I always want to invite three kinds of people to a meeting. The people who have the power to say yes, the people with the expertise in the problem area, and the people who have to live with the outcome. And it’s like, if you leverage what those three kinds of people know, you’re going to get to a good solution pretty quickly. So leveraging the brains is about just believing that we’re in it together and that if we lock arms together, we can do a lot, rather than believing that there’s some value in isolating information, isolating ourselves, being the one with the answers. And I put capital letters on that, the one with the answers. That’s not how the rest of us lead. That’s the mythology of the Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, the great man theory of leadership that says that you should be the smartest person in the room. NO, honestly, you don’t, that’s all mythology. None of it is true. Nobody has all the answers. In a world that changes this quickly, you can’t possibly. So what you have to be able to do is leverage the people.
Holly: Absolutely, I love that. And then the final one was about making a decision?
Janice Fraser: It’s about durable decisions. We think a lot about making the best decision, making the right decision, having consensus, and making a fast decision. Those seem to be four themes in decision-making theory. And none of them are possible. In most of the decisions that we have to make there is no categorically right or wrong decision, they’re all variations of pretty good. And so if we stop worrying about making the best decision or the right decision, and we start worrying about making a decision we can live with, then what we’re doing is we’re emphasizing what would it mean for us to not be able to live with that decision? So you think about a decision. There are examples that you can think of where you thought that a decision was made in a meeting, and then you find out two weeks later that someone came in and they changed their mind. And now it’s all in a different direction. And you were going off in direction one, but everybody else is going off in direction two. And so it was just a waste of time. We’ve all experienced this, that decisions get unmade or revisited or relitigated, then you have to have the same argument again. And so, as I observe this, what I see is that decisions get tested, and those tests come in many forms. And what we want is instead of making sure that we have, for instance, full consensus. When you’re with a group of people trying to make a decision and you go for consensus, a lot of those tests come before the decision is made. And so you get people attacking the decision and playing devil’s advocate. And sometimes people will play devil’s advocate just because they think that it sets them apart intellectually. And if you just say, “You know what, it’s not necessary for us to have consensus. What if we just made a decision everybody could live with.” That’s a different standard, and it’s a lower standard, but it’s a pretty good standard. And so instead of spending 80% of your time trying to get that last couple of people on board with a consensus-based decision, you can just stop all of that. I was helping to facilitate a meeting, actually it was Eric Reese’s meeting, with a pharma company that was about a year away from IPO. And they were creating their annual strategic plan, and there were six tables of 10 people each. And I was there as a facilitator, Eric called me over and he’s like, “Well, this table is really stuck. They’ve been working for two hours and can’t seem to make a decision here.” And so I said, “Well, what are the options on the table?” And they laid out what the couple of options were. And there’s one person who was advocating, who was clearly describing another two or three options on the table. And I said, “So tell me a little bit more about it.” And he spoke for a few minutes. And it was clear that he was very passionate and he wanted to keep talking. And I said, “So it sounds like there are really two things that you’re talking about, not three or four. There are really just two things you’re talking about.” And I said, “How many of you are interested in going with option one?” Nine people raised their hand. How many of you are interested in going with option two? One person, that one passionate person raised his hand. And I said, “Okay, well, it is not democracy obviously.” Sometimes the one person is right, but Hey, Mr. One person, could you live with it if you went with option one? And he said, “Oh yeah, totally.” And the decision was made just like that. And so if you change it from being the right answer to being, could you live with this, you can get a lot farther, a lot faster. So that’s what number four is.
Holly: Yeah, I really like that story. Do you have any other stories of times where you’re able to change the way that people approach decision-making?
Janice Fraser: I founded the PTA at my son’s elementary school. So he went to public school in San Francisco, and when I got there there were two parts to the school. There was the Japanese bilingual program and there was a general education program. And there was a really sophisticated parent community for the Japanese bilingual program but there was nothing for the general education program and nothing for the whole school community as one. And so I was like, “Well, that seems wrong.” And so I was like, “How about if I start the PTA?” And it turned out starting a PTA was way harder than starting a company, way harder, and changing the nature of decision-making. And changing the standard of decision-making enabled us to just get some stuff done, and that year we were able to activate something like three quarters of a million dollars worth of grading school yard resources and updating the school facilities resources. So accomplishing that was really challenging.
Holly: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, I think we’re about out of time. So the last question I have for you is how do people find you if they want to learn more?
Janice Fraser: Janicefraser.com.
Holly: All right.
Janice Fraser: I am easy peasy.
Holly: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. This was a pleasure.
Janice Fraser: My pleasure. So good to talk to you, Holly. Thank you.
Holly: Good to talk to you too, Janice.