Episode 114 – Scott Berkun: How Design Makes the World

Episode #114
Original Air Date: 10.05.2020


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Our Guest This Episode: Scott Berkun

Everything we use, from clipboards to computers, was designed by someone. In his new book, How Design Makes the World, Scott Berkun explores how good and bad design impact our daily lives. In this episode we examine the big questions Scott asks in the book: What are you trying to improve? Who are you trying to improve it for? How do you ensure you are successful? And how do you avoid unintended harm? Scott urges project managers to consider these questions when delivering a set of requirements.

Using many examples from the design world, Scott shows what good design is, and why it’s important to step back and learn from the way design experts think to help us make the right decisions in our own projects. Scott gives practical advice for idea generation and brainstorming to bring a successful project to fruition.

Scott Berkun was a program manager at Microsoft for nearly a decade before pursuing his passion of writing. Scott is a bestselling author and popular speaker on creativity, leading projects, culture, business and many other subjects. He’s the author of eight books, including Making Things Happen, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Year Without Pants. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, National Public Radio, CNN, NPR, MSNBC and other media. His popular blog is at scottberkun.com and he tweets at @berkun.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"So something as simple as idea generation, if you’re not in a roomful of people you trust, none of these methods or techniques are going to help you because no one’s going to feel safe enough to offer what they really think."

- Scott Berkun

"...that whole process of really thinking about people, and studying people, is widely overlooked. It’s presumed that the person writing the requirement knows everything about the customer, and that’s usually flawed."

- Scott Berkun

"...there’s been a wakeup call for all the designers and project managers who work in the tech sector to go, oh, wow, there are all these unintended consequences we had in the things that we made. And we need to grow up and become more mature in how we think about our role in society."

- Scott Berkun

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In his new book, How Design Makes the World, Scott Berkun explores how good and bad design impact our daily lives. In this episode we examine the big questions Scott asks in the book: What are you trying to improve? Who are you trying to improve it for? How do you ensure you are successful? And how do you avoid unintended harm?

Table of Contents

01:09 … Meet Scott
04:23 … Scott’s New Book: How Design Makes the World
07:04 … Q1: What Are You Trying to Improve?
11:12 … Ideas Generation Rule: Yes, And
13:57 … Ideas Generation Rule: No Half-Assing
16:43 … Ideas Generation Rule: No Blocking Questions
18:42 … Ideas Generation Rule: Make the Other Guy Look Good
20:28 … Q2: Who Are You Trying to Improve It For?
25:21 … Q3: How Do You Ensure You Are Successful?
30:15 … How Do We Overcome Bias?
34:17 … Q4: How Do You Avoid Unintended Harm?
41:20 … Advice to Project Managers
43:07 … Get in Contact With Scott
44:00 … Closing

SCOTT BERKUN:  So something as simple as idea generation, if you’re not in a roomful of people you trust, none of these methods or techniques are going to help you because no one’s going to feel safe enough to offer what they really think.  And often the problem is that these brainstorming meetings are done with 20 people, 15 people.  There’s no way, even in a healthy organization, the likelihood there’s that much trust among that many people, that someone’s going to feel confident raising their hand against something they know is probably really weird.  And that’s why often brainstorming and idea generation happens the best in smaller groups.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, mm-hmm.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Four people, five people.

BILL YATES:  That’s a great point.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Because even if they don’t know each other, in 10 minutes they can get a sense of each other and develop some trust.  And that’s often a problem with project management is that it’s done at this large scale, and the stakeholders and committee members, and we’re going to brainstorm.  But there’s 50 people in the room.  It’s like, no.  That’s a dog-and-pony show.  That’s not where the real brainstorm is going to happen.

WENDY GROUNDS:  You’re listening to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio is Bill Yates. So in today’s episode we get to sit down with a special guest, Scott Berkun.

Meet Scott

BILL YATES:  Scott Berkun is an author, and he has had a big influence on me.  He wrote a book called “Making Things Happen” that I got a hold of early in my project management career, and just loved it.  Just ate it up.  Since then he wrote a book that I really enjoyed also called “Confessions of a Public Speaker,” which I recommend to all our instructors when we bring them onboard. It’s so good, so funny, great advice, and the book that we’re going to focus on today he just wrote this year, in 2020, and it’s called “How Design Makes the World.”

WENDY GROUNDS:  I actually had a look at one of his other books that’s called “The Year Without Pants.”  The topic, it intrigued me, the title should I say, and then I saw it was written about working remotely.  So if anybody has questions about that, I’d recommend that book.

BILL YATES:  Okay, good.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Scott, welcome to Manage This, thank you so much for being our guest.

SCOTT BERKUN:  It is a pleasure to be here.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Before we get into the nitty-gritty of your books and what Bill wants to talk about, I have a question. So you transitioned from project manager into becoming an author and a speaker.  Why and how?  How has it worked out, and why?

SCOTT BERKUN:  Well, the how has worked out well, so I quit my job as a tech project manager guy in 2003, and it’s now 2020, and I’ve been doing this for 17 years.  I’ve written eight books.  And this is the only way I make a living.  So I’ve been very fortunate and lucky, it’s worked out great.  I mean, I’ve been successful enough, I’ve finally made it onto your show.  So this is like a great day.


SCOTT BERKUN: So the why, the primary reason was a selfish one, I had a good career, I was very lucky, I worked at Microsoft, worked on some very important projects, had a good career there.  But I turned 31, 32, and I started to ask myself the question, is this all I’m ever going to do?  And I have always been a curious person, an ambitious person about the world and trying to figure out – there’s so many things I’m interested in.  I don’t want to spend my whole life working as a project manager if maybe there’s something else I should at least try.

So my goal was to quit and to force myself to do something else.  And I buffered myself for the prospect of failure by saying, well, if I go out in the world and do something else, and I fail, I like managing projects, so the worst thing could possible happen is I’ll come back and do what I was doing.  But not to try something else seemed like a terrible strategic mistake.  So I quit, and I’d always been interested in writing, I was not a journalist or anything, I’d written a few articles here and there. It was always a thing in the back of my mind, someday I’ll write a book, and so I was like, today is that day.  I’m becoming middle-aged.  I quit.

So I tried to become a writer, I worked on a book that was a total failure, and I couldn’t find a publisher for it, but I learned through that book, the seven months I spent working on that book, I like this, so if I can make this work, I want to do it.  And then I wrote a book that Bill knows of that was originally titled “The Art of Project Management.”  It’s now called “Making Things Happen.”  And so that book was all about how to be a good project manager, and that book did well enough to support me to do a second book, and then the third book, and then now I’m here.  So that’s the how and the why.

Scott’s New Book: How Design Makes The World

BILL YATES:  Scott, I’ve got to tell you, I was really inspired by your first book.  “Making Things Happen” hit me at a perfect time in my career.  It kind of opened my eyes up to some challenges that project managers face.  As a result, many of the things that you have in your book are concepts that we talk about in our classes here at Velociteach. So you’ve had an impact on me and on much of the content that I’ve helped write, I’ve been recommending that book for years.  I’ve also recommended your book for speaking, which is “Confessions of a Public Speaker.”  This is a hilarious book, I can’t believe how transparent you are in this book.

But the book that we want to focus on today is “How Design Makes the World.”  Some of the concepts really register with me because between a designer and a project manager there are so many similarities.  Project managers, their job is to solve problems, designers are doing the same thing, and many times there are so many common links and traits between the two.  So I thought it’d be a great conversation for us to have today.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Absolutely.  I totally agree.  I mean, I’ve always felt like everything is a project.  As a project manager, you meet someone at a party, although no one goes to parties anymore these days, but you meet someone on Facebook or somewhere and say you’re a project manager, most people go, oh, like it’s a boring thing.


SCOTT BERKUN:  And then I go, well, wait a second, you know, how did you build your house? How did you rearrange your office?  How did you deliver – whatever the thing you deliver at work is, how did you do that?  And so they explain, like, that’s project management, if it’s a movie you saw that you liked, somebody managed that project, if your city or your state had provided you a sufficient number of masks to keep you safe, someone managed that project.  Everything is a project, so a project manager means it’s central to everything.

And so design is the same thing, that if you like the layout of your house, or you have public transportation in your city that works well and is safe and reliable, somebody designed those things. And that it comes with a plan where it overlaps the project manager.  What’s a plan?  Well, you have a set of goals, a set of constraints, a set of budget restraints, and you’re trying to match the goals you have with the constraints that you have, and that’s what project managers do, but designers do it from a different angle.  Designers are focused more on the ideas, and project managers are focused more on delivery, but to make anything happen in the world, you need both.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.

SCOTT BERKUN:  And the division between them has always bothered me.  Although this new book is focused more on looking through the world from the designer’s point of view, I’m still a project manager. So a lot of that sensibility is infused in the book, that you could have a great idea, but if you don’t have an organization that is managed well enough to deliver on that idea, then the idea doesn’t…

BILL YATES:  It’s not going to happen.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Is not going to matter much, yeah.

Q1. What Are You Trying To Improve?

BILL YATES:  Right, right.  I enjoy talking about this with my friends who are innovators.  You do need both, and the disciplines are very similar, but there are some unique characteristics or strengths for the really true designer versus the true project manager.  If you can find somebody who’s got a little bit of both, then you’ve really got a gem there.

Now, I want to get into the book.  So the book really tackles four big questions, and the first question is what are you trying to improve for the designer, which I would argue that’s the same question for the project manager, too.  The first question needs to be what are you trying to improve?  I really got pulled right into your book because you talk about some funny examples, and you talk about some that are pretty heart-wrenching, too.

And the funny one, I love the book by Don Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things.”  So Don Norman talks about the Norman doors, and there are videos out there.  Listeners can go to YouTube and look for Norman doors.  They’re hilarious.  So he’s like, I must be an idiot because there are doors that I walk up to, and I’m not really sure if I should be pushing or pulling.  Do I grab the latch, or do I push the latch?  That’s one of the things that really jumped out to me.  We have to really lean into that question, what are you trying to improve?  So what were some of your inspirations in that first question?

SCOTT BERKUN:  Well, a stereotype about project managers that – there’s some truth to most stereotypes.  It’s unfair to always assume someone who is a project manager embodies those stereotypes, but there’s some truth to it.  And the stereotype about project managers is they don’t really care so much about certain kinds of quality.  So if you gave a project manager a set of requirements, some project managers will go about, “My job is to deliver on those requirements as they are written.  And I’m going to manage the project.  What’s the schedule?  What’s the budget?  I’m going to get the project finished.”

But they’re not necessarily going to go and interrogate those requirements and go, wait a second, maybe this requirement isn’t all that smart.  Or maybe requirement number three actually contradicts requirement number nine.  They’re both in there.  They sound good.  In the committee meeting individually they sounded fine, but now that you actually have to build the thing, there’s some problem in how the design that’s going to come out of those requirements is going to be.  And so thinking about what are you trying to improve, it should be usually about what are you trying to improve for somebody else?

You are trying to make public transportation more efficient so people can get to work faster, or you’re trying to make it so the layout of a hospital makes it easier for a doctor to get to the emergency room.  If there’s something you’re trying to improve by focusing on the actual person than what you’re trying to improve for them, that should be a way to frame how you do all of your work.  And that’s often overlooked in the management of most things because that requires stepping back outside of your group team politics, outside maybe even of your business model a little bit, outside of your daily frustrations and annoyances to go wait a sec, let’s step back.  What are we really doing here?

Now, I worked at Microsoft for a long tim.  I’ve worked at another tech company, and a common thing that happens in the tech world is the engineering team gets so excited about building something, and the technology’s really interesting. It’s cool.  There’s this new thing, and they want to build it in this way, and they’re excited about it, and they start building, and then they fall into the trap of they are building something that the team wants to build.  It’s not necessarily going to improve anything for anybody, just something they have decided they want to build because it’s interesting.


SCOTT BERKUN:  And so asking the question, what are you trying to improve, well, an engineer who’s building something that’s purely really about something they think is cool can’t really answer that question. So in reality, what they’re trying to improve is I want to improve my sense of coolness for what I am making.

BILL YATES:  Right, yeah, mm-hmm.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Which is a terrible answer, but this happens. This is a common thing.  So the goal of that question was – it’s a simple question. But the idea is to refocus a person and a project on let’s step back, what are we really doing here?  Are we making it easier to be productive in email?  Are we making it safer for people to work in dangerous locations?  Like let’s step back and not forget what the real plot of all this effort is for.

Ideas Generation Rule: Yes, And

BILL YATES:  Yeah, that’s so key, and it’s a struggle for project managers; right?  I mean, we get down in the weeds pretty quickly.  That’s kind of our job, and then we’re delegating or working on tasks that are so specific, and it’s hard to step back and ask those questions.  And honestly, for me, sometimes it was a fear of I’m afraid to ask that question because we’ve already committed to this delivery date, this budget, this set of features.  If I ask this question, I’m a little bit afraid of the answer I may get.

But here I want to pivot for a second because you’ve actually shared this in several things that you’ve written and spoken on, which is on ideas generation.  You give some practical advice for idea generation.  You say, okay, once we’ve settled on a problem statement, that thing that we need to improve, then the project manager, or it could be an outside facilitator, can guide the team in following four rules.  Now, I just want to mention those rules and get you to speak to them because I think for some project managers they haven’t really done this before, and it could really be a game changer for them.  So the first one is the – it’s called “Yes, and.”  So what is the “Yes, and”?

SCOTT BERKUN:  So those rules come from improv.


SCOTT BERKUN:  I’ve taken an improv class twice in my life.  I found it a revelatory experience.  I highly recommend it to any living person who has to operate in a world with other people.  People have a terrible fear when I tell them that because they think “improv” means you show up somewhere, and someone’s just going to, “Be funny now.  Go.”

BILL YATES:  Right, right, yeah.

SCOTT BERKUN:  It’s the opposite of that.  You show up, and there’s very, very simple games they teach you that are about listening and about paying attention.  It’s very simple.  A lot of them are games that are like party games.  In some cases you may have played them before.  They’re very, very simple.  But they involve other people, and you listen, and you say something, and you respond.  So the four rules you’re going to go through.  “Yes, and” comes from there.  The fundamental rule of improv is what whatever the other person says or does, you can’t question them.  Your job is to follow their lead.

So if someone says at the beginning of an improv game, “I’m a fireman,” you’re not allowed to say, “Wait, you’re a fireman?  I thought you were a” – you can’t do that.  If they say they’re a fireman, you have to follow them into their world.  “Oh, yeah, the next fire is going to be a” – you just have to, whatever they say.  And for people who are critical thinkers, for people who like to question things, for people who have cynical mindsets like project managers, “Yes, and” is really hard to do.


SCOTT BERKUN:  Even in a game.  So that first one is just, when you are in the process of entertaining new ideas, at least for 10 seconds you have to shut that part of your brain off and go, all right, fine.  This person always has ridiculous ideas.  For 10 seconds, whatever they say, I’m going to see where it goes.  That’s what that means.

Ideas Generation Rule: No Half-Assing

BILL YATES:  Good, yeah.  Okay, what about the second one?  It’s called “no half-assing.”

SCOTT BERKUN:  So “half-assing” is a very blunt term for when people are only pretending to participate.  And improv is based on theater.  So you’re performing.  You’re onstage.  And part of making a performance work is everyone has to be fully committed.  It’s the only way that it works.  So if someone starts an improv scene by saying, “The building’s on fire,” and I respond by going, “Oh, maybe we should go check it out,” that’s not how someone would respond to hearing that.  That’s half-assing it.  Yes, I am responding.  Yes, I’m doing “Yes, and.”  I’m trying to follow them.  But I’m really – I’m demonstrating.  I’m not really present.

BILL YATES:  You’re not really in, yeah.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Right.  And it can’t work.  If I’m committed, and I fully go with it, that might help the other person keep going and go somewhere interesting.  But if I show up, and I’m not really – I’m only pretending to care, then everyone will know that, and I’ve killed the possibility of us finding something interesting.

BILL YATES:  That’s so cool, and I think of brainstorming sessions that we’ve had with team members before, like think about a risk identification; right?  I may be thinking in my head, well, here’s a crazy idea, but I’m a little bit afraid to say it because it’s kind of dumb.  But if I go ahead and speak it out, it may be way out there. The likelihood that this thing would happen is so far out there. But it may trigger a really valuable idea from you. So I need to go ahead and speak it. I need to create that sense of trust and that lack of fear in my team so that they’re really fully in, they’re not half-assing, they’re committed to the process.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Yeah.  You just mentioned a word in there that I think is among the most important words in all of project management, which is “trust.”  It’s a short word.  Everyone goes, yeah, I know about that, but everywhere I’ve been, every time I’m a consultant somewhere and visiting a team or project, that’s the one thing that is obviously broken, that no one is trying to fix.  So something as simple as idea generation, if you’re not in a roomful of people you trust, none of these methods or techniques are going to help you because no one’s going to feel safe enough to offer what they really think.

And often the problem is that these brainstorming meetings are done with 20 people, 15 people.  There’s no way, even in a healthy organization, the likelihood there’s that much trust among that many people that someone’s going to feel confident raising their hand against something they know is probably really weird.  And so that’s why often brainstorming and idea generation happens the best in smaller groups.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, mm-hmm.

SCOTT BERKUN:  You know, four people, five people.

BILL YATES:  That’s a great point.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Because even if they don’t know each other, in 10 minutes they can get a sense of each other and develop some trust.  And that’s often a problem with project management is it’s done at this large scale, and the stakeholders and committee members, and we’re going to brainstorm, but there’s 50 people in the room.  It’s like, no.  That’s a dog-and-pony show.  That’s not where the real brainstorm is going to happen.

Ideas Generation Rule: No Blocking Questions

BILL YATES:  That’s good advice, yeah.  Break those groups into smaller groups, then come back together and share a consolidated list.  So to have that trust, and to make sure that the ideas are still flowing, that leads into the third, which is no blocking questions.  Describe what’s a “blocking question.”

SCOTT BERKUN:  Well, let’s say that, in your scenario, let’s say it’s me.  And I raise my hand, and I go, look, I have this crazy idea.  What if we cut all the items in List A?  We cut them all.  And instead we invest it all in this new thing in Feature B.  And before I can even walk through the potential, someone raises, “What about the committee?  We’re going to have to go back to the committee.  They’re not going to go for this.” So I haven’t even walked through what the idea is yet.

Going back to the committee, as frustrating and painful as that might be, there’s a fixed cost to it.  It could be done if the idea is valuable enough, and so to cut someone’s legs out, cut the legs out of the idea before you’ve even heard it, you’re creating a blocking question.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, you can shut it down.  Right, right.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Yeah.  So that blocking question as a project manager is important to ask at some point because you are the frontline of sanity and making sure you’re not overcommitted, you’re not overscheduled.  But you can’t – you don’t want to cut the legs out of this possible idea before you’ve heard the full picture of it, and that’s why that’s the third rule is you’re trying not to block things.  So in improv theater it’s very rare you’ll hear someone ask a question.


SCOTT BERKUN:  Because that takes the energy out of a thought.  If someone comes in – I’m keeping this fireman example for some reason.  If someone comes in the room and says “There’s a fire,” and you go, “Are you sure there’s a fire?  Like, how would you know?”  No, you’d say “Where’s the fire?”  Like you want to keep the momentum going and let the idea die on its own because it wasn’t good, rather than it being cut down by you, assuming it’s bad.

BILL YATES:  That’s cool.  That leads to the fourth.

Ideas Generation Rule: Make The Other Guy Look Good

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, I’m intrigued by the fourth one.  Make the other guy look good.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Yeah.  This gets back to, like, this gets back to trust.  A lot of organizations there’s not a lot of motivation to make the other project manager or the lead engineer look good because you feel like you’re competing with them for prestige or for a bonus or something.  But the idea from improv theater is that it’s a team activity.  So if ever you’ve seen any of these improv TV shows, or even if you’ve seen a movie where there’s great acting, what’s often not known is that what you identify as the great line or the great joke is set up by the other person.  In comedic duos there’s usually a straight person and the person who seems really funny.  The reason why the person seems funny is the other person who sets up the context for them to be funny.  But they often get far less credit because they don’t get the punch line.

And sports is the same thing.  I’m a sports guy.  I love basketball.  Basketball, people pay most attention to who gets the most points.  But there’s a person who sets them up to get points.  That’s called “an assist.”  So making the other guy look good is about assists, that you’re trying to create a situation for someone else to have a great idea.  You’re trying to either create a framework or a scenario, or someone has an idea that’s kind of half, it’s like, maybe that’s good, maybe it’s bad.  And you, like, that’s where “Yes, and” comes in.  You come in, wait, if we do that, and we add this to it, that could complete the idea.

So it’s really about thinking like a team, that you are just as successful as a project if Fred or Sally came up with the idea than if you did.  And that means that, on looking out, how can I set up Fred or Sally to have the idea or to bring their idea to fruition?

Q2. Who Are You Trying To Improve It For?

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Okay.  So we’ve tackled the first question from the book, which is what are you trying to improve?  The second question is interesting, who are you trying to improve it for?  So the good designer needs to be reminded of this question and really focus in on it.  You start with a classic example of the Segway.  And the Segway was going to be that invention that completely revolutionized the world.  There were some hilarious quotes that you put in there from some real leaders – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, et cetera – to the Segway and the impact that it was going to have.  It was going to be bigger than the Internet, man.  It was huge.  And that didn’t quite play out.  So tell us, how does this question relate to the Segway example?  Who were you trying to improve it for?

SCOTT BERKUN:  The Segway’s a great example, particularly for the tech world, but it applies to lots of projects, too.  I joked before about these teams of engineers who are notorious for just building stuff they think is cool, and they think the coolness of it is just so obvious that everyone will want to get it, buy it. And the Segway is an example of that.  Dean Kamen, who was the primary inventor of the Segway, he was a very successful inventor. So he’s really a brilliant guy, he’s invented lots of things, he invented a chair that was for disabled people that was an unusual chair.  It had all these properties of keeping them centered and balanced, this gyroscopic design.  It’s really an impressive invention.

But the goal for the Segway was that it had this technology they’d already built.  They were trying to – how can we take this technology and apply it to a mass market problem?  So they had a technology already, and they were thinking about the business case.  Let’s apply this to everyone somehow.  So they framed their design process by starting with this technology first, and they skipped over the process of asking the question, what are the real transportation needs that people have in the real world?  We’re thinking billions of people are going to buy it.  Why?  Because it’s a cool technology?  No, it’s a terrible, terrible answer.

In the design world, and the project management world has some similarities, but in the design world the language for this is called – it’s called “user research,” where you want to go out into the world and go, let’s put our technology aside.  Let’s go out into the world and study how actual people, these possible target groups, what are they actually doing right now, and so what are the strengths and weaknesses of what they’re actually doing.  And that’s something Dean Kamen and the Segway team never did.

They never stopped to say, wait a second, what is this Segway going to replace for people?  They assumed it would be the car, they just assumed it, they really didn’t know. So they took no effort to go talk to people who owned cars and figure out what it would take, what the Segway would have to do for them to give up their car, they just assumed it.  And that’s like level one of just ignorance about design, that you’re presuming all these things about what people actually do, but then level two is who are you designing for?  The common answer, especially among tech startup types, or even entrepreneurs, is often, “My thing is for everybody.  I want everybody to use my new super-duper gadget, web app, 5G whatever.  I want everybody to use it.”

Which sounds great.  It’s super ambitious, but the problem is that everybody’s a little bit different. If I’m designing – let’s say I’m a sports guy; right?  Basketball.  I want to make a new line of sports sneakers for everybody; right?  But then you go, okay, everybody’s who? Well, there’s men and women.  Designing a sneaker for a man versus a woman is different.  The shapes of the feet are different.  Their style choice is different.  Okay.  Two big segmentations right there, and then there’s a little below that.

So for men, designing a size 4 shoe versus a size 13 shoe, there’s probably a whole bunch of different design constraints for how that should feel, but also how you engineer that.  You start getting the segmentation when you realize designing for everyone actually means a lot of grouped understanding, designing for Group A versus Group B versus Group C, and breaking that down into requirements, et cetera.  And so that whole process of really thinking about people, and studying people, is widely overlooked.  It’s presumed that the person writing the requirement knows everything about the customer, and that’s usually flawed.  The book pokes at some of the problems that people who assume that make.

BILL YATES:  It is something that project managers and designers have to be reminded of all the time, which is who are you building this for?  What are their true needs?  Like you said, I’ve fallen into this trap myself as a project participant and a project manager.  I’m convinced in my head that I know exactly what the user is going to flip out about, but that’s just not the case.


WENDY GROUNDS:  We just recently talked to John Carter, and he was one of the co-inventors of the Bose noise canceling headphones, and so they had invented these, I think for the bass.  They thought that…

BILL YATES:  Yeah, they wanted to boost the bass.

WENDY GROUNDS:  …everybody was interested in that, and when they took it out to stakeholders and to just the general public, everybody loved the noise canceling feature, which wasn’t what they had considered at all.  So that was kind of cool, yeah, same thing.

BILL YATES:  Exactly.

Q3. How Do You Ensure You Are Successful?

WENDY GROUNDS:  How do you ensure that you’re successful throughout the entire project?

SCOTT BERKUN:  So the best answer from the design world is you have to have some part of your process where you’re constantly, continually in the loop of your process for developing an idea, coming with a prototype, finding requirements, prototyping, engineering plan.  There’s a loop that you go through in your thinking where you’re refining, and so you’re refining what actually the project is.  Somewhere in that loop has to be you going back out to your customer or back out to the people in the world you’re designing for and bringing this thing back to them and studying again.  Because you’re making all these assumptions along the way that your sense of what the problem you were trying to solve and who you were trying to solve it for is consistent.  But that’s probably not the case.

So the way that you ensure that in the software world is called “usability studies.”  Often usability studies are called “usability tests.”  And that’s kind of a misnomer, a “test” means it’s something you do at the end, that you built this thing, this new website, you spent all this money on it, and you’re going to test it at the end and pass the test.  Wrong framework, because now, let’s say at the end you discover there’s something wrong, you can’t fix it.

The right way to think about it, it’s a usability study.  You’re going to take your thing, your new headphone, your new sneaker, your new N95 mask, whatever it is, and periodically during your design process you’re going to, all right, so let’s take a break, we’re going to take this out to five people, give them the actual prototype and watch them use it. We’re going to watch, we’re not going to tell them what to do.  We’re going to watch them try to use it, and then we’re going to take notes and learn.

And so most tech companies, the good ones, have figured this out. It has to be part of your process that every week or two weeks or every month you’re going back out, and you’re refreshing yourself in the reality of what people actually are like, and so that’s how you ensure it along the way.  Without that, you end up like the Segway, where you invest millions of dollars on a project plan, it has all these assumptions you’ve forgotten about, and so it ends up being a failure.

BILL YATES:  Then you’ve got the “mall cop” using that Segway, and that’s about it.  Yeah.  So you’ve got a quote that I just want to read off about prototypes, it’s from Tom and David Kelley, the founders of IDEO.  “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good prototype is worth a thousand pictures.”  I know all the Agile folks that are out there are going to be going, oh, yeah, this is speaking, this is right up my alley, prototypes, you’ve got to have prototypes.  You’ve got to put it in the hands of the customer as quickly as possible so you can get their feedback.

And I think this ties back to that second question so well, which is you have to remember who you’re solving this problem for, who you’re designing a solution for, and then they have to be a part of your team and a part of your effort until the end of the delivery; right?  Too many times, I mean, I cannot tell you, early in my career so many times I would start a project, and I thought I had the requirements nailed.  And then we’d tell the customer to go away, and we’d work for weeks without showing them anything, and then again you’d have that moment of you could just see the disappointment in their eyes when you present the results.  And they’re like, okay, some of this is good, but some of this is totally not what I wanted.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Yeah, yeah, and it gets more complicated than that. So one of the things early on in the book about these Norman doors and why they’re so common is that it’s often more complicated than that, I agree with everything you just said.  The customer needs to be involved because the people building it are not the customer, we have an internalized view of the world.  So you need to have them involved, but there’s another layer of complication to this which is the customer is not necessarily the user.  The person paying for the project, it could be an IT manager at a company who wants something that’s going to let people manage their email, but the customer then has now a thousand users at their company that are actually going to use the product. 

the customer’s thinking I want this built so it’s easy for me to maintain as the IT manager for the company.  But that may conflict with the actual users of the thing because easy to maintain for the IT manager might restrict a bunch of important features for the users.  So as a designer, as a project manager, there’s several layers now of how you have to think about what are you improving and who you’re improving it for.  Because the customer is going to, well, I want something that’s easy for me to manage.  But the people who are going to use it may hate that.

So a layer as a designer or project manager, and this can be very complicated politically, is working with your customer to make sure they are managing the tradeoffs, the design tradeoffs of satisfying their need as a customer with the needs of their users.  Because they often are blind to it in the same way that we’re talking about.  And this becomes this extra layer of consulting kind of work that project managers have to do, but also product designers have to do, of educating your client and customer about some of these very easy to make kinds of philosophical mistakes that they may not be aware of.  Which is why this stuff isso hard.

How Do We Overcome Bias?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, that’s so true, Scott, you’ve got great advice in the book about recognizing and overcoming organizational obstacles, and I’m going to leave that as a homework assignment for our listeners.  They’ve got to go check that out. So the one thing I want to hear you talk about was a really good reminder to me, and that was overcoming bias.  I, just because of human nature, I am biased, I have lived in a certain area of the country.  I’ve traveled a good bit, but again, I’ve kind of got a base where I’m from.  I went to a particular school, I played sports, so I’m influenced by that, I’ve been probably kicked in the head a few times.  Worked in the IT area, was a project manager in that area.

So we all have life experiences that create a certain bias.  And then we’re asked to understand our customer and understand requirements that they’ve probably typed out and handed to us, or we’ve had a meeting.  So I’ve got my own bias, and I’ve discovered that my team members have a bias, too. So how do we overcome this bias?

SCOTT BERKUN:  This is really hard, I mean, so it’s clear these are difficult fundamental human issues, with everything going on in our country right now and in the world.  This is just – this is stuff that we struggle with as a species about how to find common ground, even if we don’t agree, to get to common ground.  So I don’t have – I can’t claim to have a universal answer to this.

If I did, I’d be very busy right now, but the simple answer from all my experience as a project manager, it comes back down to that word that you brought up at the beginning, which is trust, that there are a lot of people I don’t agree with about a lot of things, but we have some shared basis of respect for each other’s intelligence, respect for each other’s good nature, that even though we disagree, we do share a desire for an outcome.

And that was my job often as a project manager, that even if I’m in a contentious meeting, or a meeting with a partner group or some vendor that we’ve had a difficult relationship with, my job as a leader is to get the key people in the room to get back to having a shared goal. A shared goal, and so it could be very simple, it could be, hey, we all agree we all hate each other, we’re sick of this project.  Let’s get it done.

BILL YATES:  Let’s get it done.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Let’s make a sacrifice to get this done in two weeks so we don’t have to think about it ever again.  I’m a New Yorker; right?  So that’s a skeptical and sort of a negative-sounding shared goal.  But that can be refreshing, that everyone knows, hey, I don’t like you that much, that’s okay.  For two weeks we’re going to do a really good job, and then we’re done.

BILL YATES:  Let’s finish it; right.

SCOTT BERKUN:  And there are obviously much more positive shared goals you can come to, but the person who’s leading the project has to be the starting point for getting people on the same page about something. And that’s the basis for how you overcome these things, and at the beginning it can be really small, but that’s how you grow. 

You plant a seed, you find out who on the other side or who in the contentious room is most aligned with you, and then maybe you have a side conversation with them.  Hey, look, this has been a difficult project.  You and I, we seem to have a bit of trust here.  How do we grow it, and then bring more people on the team into our shared trust on this so we can get this done? And that’s tough, it’s hard, it’s not fun, but I don’t know of any other way.

BILL YATES:  I agree.  It’s such a process.  I think even like in Ed Catmull’s book, you know, from Pixar and Disney, “Creativity, Inc.,” so he shared how even with his teams of incredibly creative people and such diversity, there were still blind spots. And so he admitted, you know, he said, for me, even as a leader of this team, I know I have blind spots, and the problem with blind spots is they’re blind spots.  You can’t see them. So you need to have people that you can trust to mentor or coach and raise awareness of that. 

So it’s a good reminder, I think, again, to project leaders to think about your team, think about how diverse you are in terms of experience and background, and then make sure that you’re really reaching out to a diverse group of users that are going to be ultimately using those deliverables that you create, and make sure that you’ve got that diversity represented in your solution.

Q4. How Do You Avoid Unintended Harm?

WENDY GROUNDS:  Something that stands out in your book is you talk about the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.”  Now, I spent 15 years in healthcare in South Africa many, many years ago.  Let’s just leave it at that.

BILL YATES:  Just a couple.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, but that kind of stood out to me.  So you’re requiring the project manager to pause, just look at the big picture, and to think about who might be hurt by your work now or in the future.  Could you just talk to that?

SCOTT BERKUN:  Yeah, so a lot of my background, again, is in the tech world.  The tech sector has had a wakeup call in probably the last five or 10 years about the downsides of social media and the downsides for privacy and for how advertising works.  And so there’s been a wakeup call for all the designers and project managers who work in the tech sector to go, oh, wow, there are all these unintended consequences we had in the things that we made. We need to grow up and become more mature in how we think about our role in society.

And so that reflection back to the Hippocratic Oath, Mike Monteiro is a designer who wrote a book called “Ruined by Design” very recently, and that book was about designers need to take responsibility for what you make.  Even though you’re not the project manager or the executive, you’re involved. So the Hippocratic Oath is the oldest standard we have in the Western world for saying I, as a professional, I have an obligation not to hurt anybody. Which is astounding, if you think about it, in our corporate business capitalistic centric world view because to compete means you’re going to hurt somebody. And I’m not against capitalism or anything, but  I’m just saying that having a stake in the ground from some professional group, doctors, is a very useful challenge to how designers and technologists and project managers think about their work.

We don’t have anything quite like that in the – well, actually so some engineers do, software engineers don’t.  Some engineering professions do, but the design world and the tech world doesn’t, and that’s what I was harkening back to.  We do believe that we’re making the world better.  But we don’t really poke that many holes into our projects to ask the question, which is my fourth question, who might be hurt by what you are making now or in the future?  Who might be hurt?  Because that forces you to question the possible unintended consequences, no one makes a piece of software thinking that people are going to die or have their privacy hurt by this.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

SCOTT BERKUN:  We have to be – you should be accountable as a project manager.

BILL YATES:  Scott, so I think there are practical aspects to that, too, as a project manager.  There are times when I am so focused on my deliverable and how that thing is going to work, I don’t think about the department or the customer who’s going to have to maintain it.


BILL YATES:  You know, you made the analogy before about maybe there’s a CIO going, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I never knew about this, so I’ve got to bring up the whole team now just to support this new technology. There are times when we’re making decisions just because we want to hit a deadline or hit a milestone, and if we stopped and thought about, okay, if we deliver a week later, that gives us time to clean up this, this, and this.  That makes it that much easier for the user, that means they’re less likely to throw this piece away. So that means that the team, the support team’s going to be able to maintain it easier, have less overtime, less stress on them.

So there are some, like, some internal costs, too. It’s not just that shell casing that we’re putting our product in that’s going to go in a dump someplace, but sometimes there’s like the human cost of extra work or complexity that we’re adding that we need to slow down and think about.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Yeah, I think maintenance is another one of these sort of – it’s not a dirty word, but it’s a diminished, oh, what do you work on?  Oh, I work on – oh, so you work on maintenance.


SCOTT BERKUN:  But this is where maturity comes back into play. If you’re a project manager or an executive or someone in power, and you’re making stuff, the mature, wise, if you’re great at what you do, you should be thinking about making stuff that’s great for the long term, stuff that will last. And so that means that maintenance is the most important thing about what you have built.  If you think it’s going to last five years, 10 years, 50 years, 100 years, part of your job then, to be good at what you do, means you’ve designed for that. So you’ve designed and accounted for that, and that’s normally not in the mindset of a lot of project management.  Like you said, you’re hired as a contractor, you build a thing, and then you’re gone.  Why should I care?  I’m not paid for that.

But that’s a shallow – this gets back to the Hippocratic Oath, what kind of societal contribution are we making if we’re building stuff and disappearing?  Without even offering a plan for, hey, part of how we work is we can’t build it for you unless you pay us.  But here’s a little 10-page booklet about how you should plan to maintain this. That should be standard operating procedure for people who build stuff, and so it’s not.  And is that design?  Is that project management?  I think it’s both, but I don’t care what label is on it.

But I think our maturation as a professional community and as a society, I mean, America’s bridges are falling apart; right?  Like we’re not great societal-wise at thinking about infrastructure, so how do we maintain that?  And that’s about thinking about your next generation.  Are we designing for us, we designing for our kids, for our grandchildren.  All these things are like heavy philosophical subjects that often get excluded from talking about project management, but I think it’s all tied together.

BILL YATES:  That’s true.  Scott, so I’m sitting here laughing, thinking about the conversation that we had with Heather about orbital space debris.  We all want our cell phones to work great, no matter where we are, so, man, we’re shooting up rockets all day long. We need more satellites, and then, okay, what happens when the satellite dies?

SCOTT BERKUN:  Yeah, yeah.

BILL YATES:  So that’s another massive project.

SCOTT BERKUN:  It’s a kind of pollution, so we did the same thing with our rivers.  We dumped our sewage right – hey, it’s the river, hey, and then a generation later we can’t drink the water, and that’s just – that’s selfish thinking.  We’re not thinking about our next generation.

BILL YATES:  Well, Scott, thank you so much for walking through those four questions.  So that’s a peek inside the book, “How Design Makes the World.”  Guys, it’s a brilliant book, I mean, I’m not going to say that just for every book that we go through, but this one’s brilliant, and it speaks right to project management.  There is one thing that I saw in there.  So in the back of the book there’s this one-page summary, how to be a better designer, and a lot of it is just awareness and self-awareness and viewing the world as we perceive it every day.

There are also resources, you’ve got about seven pages in the back of the book where you list out movies, books, and other articles or resources that you’ve come across.  I encourage people to go get it and be inspired by it and change the way they view design, so thank you so much for that.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Hey, you’re welcome.  It’s a nice compliment.  I take that to heart.  I appreciate that.

Advice To Project Managers

BILL YATES:  Scott, since we’ve got you, I’ve got to ask you this, so what advice do you have to project managers that you can share with them who are early in their career?

SCOTT BERKUN:  I think the best advice for project managers is to become really curious about how projects outside of your domain are managed, because as I said before, everything is a project.


SCOTT BERKUN: So a chef at a restaurant is a project manager.  How do they – what are the requirements?  How do they deliver – how do they manage schedules? And how do they – that’s a whole world as a different vocabulary and a different set of metaphors than the one that you know. So same thing for making a rocket that goes into space or a website, everything is a project.  You become curious about it, and once you do, you will discover all these different ways of thinking about your work that will challenge you and will inform you with metaphors and tactics that your domain doesn’t know about yet.  So be curious, study other kinds of projects.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Scott, so can you tell us what you’re working on next?

SCOTT BERKUN:  My plan is super secret, but I’m going to share it with you.  But look, authors get asked this all the time, we kind of hate that question.  We don’t hate it too much because you are interested. That’s great, but for me, a book is a commitment, the book came out just a couple of months ago. My job until the world is better designed is to get more people to read the book, and even shy of that, if I can do it with means that don’t involve the book, I want a better designed world. I think most people do.  I’m trying to actively spend my time doing it, and so the book is a vehicle and an artifact to help make that happen. So that’s my goal for the rest of the year is to help make the world a better designed place. 

Get In Contact With Scott

WENDY GROUNDS:  One way that we can help with that is how can our listeners reach out to you? So if they want to talk some more with you, what’s the best way to reach you?

SCOTT BERKUN:  So I am easy to find, my website’s my name, ScottBerkun.com  I have a mailing list you can get on. I have thousands of blog posts on there about project management, design.  I’ve been doing this a long time.  That’s one, ScottBerkun.com. So if you’re on Twitter, I’m active on Twitter, and my handle there is @Berkun, B-E-R-K-U-N.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Thank you so much, Scott, we really appreciate you being here.  We’ve loved it, and we’ve loved talking with you.

SCOTT BERKUN:  You’re welcome, it was a fun conversation, so thanks for having me on, I appreciate it.

BILL YATES:  Thanks, Scott.  I appreciate it, it’s so awesome to talk to the author who has written some fantastic books in the area of project management, and it’s stretching our brain, man.  This stuff on design is fantastic, so thank you for your time.

SCOTT BERKUN:  Oh, thanks.  It was a pleasure.


WENDY GROUNDS:  Thanks for joining us this week on Manage This.  If you found value in this show, we’d appreciate a rating on iTunes or a comment on our website.  You have also just earned some Professional Development Units from listening to this podcast.  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.  That’s all for this episode, until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

One response to “Episode 114 – Scott Berkun: How Design Makes the World”

  1. Tammi B says:

    Very good info shared. Thank you!

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