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PODCAST - Unpacking the digital shelf

Interview: Technology that Drives Outcomes with Suzanne Abate from The Development Factory

A true digital transformation partnership between business and IT must focus on products, not projects. Outcomes, not outputs. In an interview with Peter Crosby and Molly Schonthal, Suzanne Abate, owner of the Development Factory, describes how technology products can contribute to higher levels of connectedness, productivity, and profitability.

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Transcript

Peter

Welcome to Unpacking the Digital Shelf where we explore brand manufacturing in the digital age.

Peter

Peter Crosby here in this era of digital transformation. There's a ton of technology projects being spun up and a lot of them fail. Suzanna Abate, owner of technology solution provider of the Development Factory, joins Molly Schonthal and me for a deep dive on the need for ownership, agility and efficiency in digital transformation. 

Hey Suzanne, thank you so much for joining us as you are a technologist and someone in the business of building incredible apps. I just wanted to start by asking, is there an app that you love that you wish you'd built?

Suzanne

There are probably a handful and then a lot that I wish people had built better. The product that I'm really excited about right now is called Nuclino. And I, I'm not sure

Peter

How do you, how do you spell that?

Suzanne

It's N. U. C. L. I. N. O. It's really, it's just a simple markup text editor/ documentation tool. So you know, in product kind of the incumbent for some time has been Confluence. And for folks who use Confluence to manage all of their product documentation or various sort of internal documentation? No, it's got a lot of customizable capabilities but a lot of the time it's just a real pain and Nuclino just kind of came along and really prioritize a super simple interface. There's a feature that I love which is it allows you to see all of your documentation and kind of a graph form. So you know like a web of documentation and you can see what is the nucleus of that documentation and then what are the sort of the nested children documents. You can see it in a list view, sort of like a Trello board. Super clean, super easy to use. They've got a great mobile app as well. So a really big fan of just simple products. I like simple products a lot.

Peter

It's tough because I mean having been a user, often a reluctant one of Confluence, it does seem so complex and unfriendly because sometimes that's the process that you're going through. It's a place where stuff is stored and held and supposed to be able to be referred. Is there something about the experience that to you lifts it up out of that and how does that relate to how you approach, you know, your design?

Suzanne

Well, I think, you know let's give the folks at Atlassian a break so far as they have challenges that a lot of companies have as they scale, which is, you know, they grew additional products, they acquired additional products and now you're wanting to start to think about, gosh, how can we make the integration of these products better, more seamless for our users? And there's a process involved in that and we may talk more about that, but I think for Nuclino my impression, and you know, I don't know the founders, but if they're listening I'll be happy to talk to them. I think they just came along and said: “Let's be super focused on a very specific problem, which is organizing content and making it easy to find an easy to edit.” And maybe over time they'll try to evolve up and away from that. And maybe in doing so we'll lose some of that simplicity. I mean, it reminds me a lot of, of the folks at 37Signals, or Basecamp now and you know, their ethos around product focus is so admirable because when you do put something out in market and you start to get that feedback in, it can really test your resolve for having a really clear vision and wanting to honor that vision. And so just to say: “Hey, we want to be a really, really great document editor and we're going to focus on all of the ways to make that functionality delightful.” It's that focus that I think shows in the product and the usability is there for me in the user experience is there for me, which is why I like it so much.

Molly

And I thought we’re talking about an air purification system based on the name. 

Peter

Boy naming is so tough, but I'm taking the clean part of it as being the operative piece of that. Having a clean interface, you were talking about the need for technology not only to deliver the value, but I think delight the users who sort of do their work through it every day I think is super important. And, and to that point I wanted to just have you tell our listeners who are brand manufacturer executives, probably a lot of them sort of in the Atlassian space, sort of dealing with existing systems and new tasks that they're trying to accomplish and trying to make sense of that world and provide to their IT business partners. What is it that their business needs are and translating that into technology. Tell me a little bit about Development Factory and sort of what your philosophy is in taking on that task.

Suzanne

Yeah, so I'm the Co-Founder of a company called the Development Factory. We're based in Los Angeles and we've been around for over a decade working with businesses of all kinds in all industries to become more product minded and to ultimately develop software solutions but not only in kind of the development of the solution itself, but really sort of understand how technology can either improve operational efficiency or introduce new revenue opportunities and then maybe the responsibility that comes with bringing some of those software solutions to life. So we do product strategy, we introduce cross functional teams. We were as an augmentation to existing teams and I personally do a lot of coaching and education within large organizations who are looking to kind of make that shift into product centricity.

Molly

So the reason that we're talking to Suzanne is I was talking to the Mars organization and about some of the changes that they made when they launched a digital shelf initiative. And one of them was a product change and another one of them was a way of working change. They changed the way that they approach technology products. And I asked JJ Schmidt at Mars: ”How did you guys roll that out in your organization?” and he said that Suzanne had been at Mars and helping that organization change the way it thinks about rolling out a technical product. 

Peter

Tell us a bit about that, Suzanne. Like what was that? Both sort of the specifics you can share about the, the Mars project, but also in relation to that larger philosophy of how that rollout should happen at almost any company.

Suzanne Yeah, so I think what I see a lot when I go in to do product coaching within enterprise organizations is that silo effect that is just so common to companies at scale. And so, you know, there's an IT department that's been born and grown over the years and that IT department or you know, digital solutions department is kind of living off on its own separately from marketing teams, separately from sales teams, separately from business units. And a lot of the times is treated like an order taker or a fulfillment center. So business unit is over here connecting with something that they might need or want or a customer is asking for. And somehow that need gets translated over to this fulfillment center. And then they have to balance: 

  • Do we have bandwidth for this? 
  • How should we build this? 
  • What is it supposed to be?

And you kind of perpetuate this disconnectedness from what the solution is itself and who should be bought into. So I think in particular, one of the things that folks at Mars were really looking to do was break down some of those walls between those different departments and say: “How can we start to be a little bit more integrated? How can we start to be a little bit more cross functional?” And one of the things that that requires is a level setting of understanding across those different stakeholders. So if all we do is educate the developers or the project managers to think differently about agile software delivery or product management principles, that's a step in the right direction for those teams to become more oriented to the way that folks are doing business. But there's still the ones with kind of exclusive knowledge. So the better approach is introducing those principles across an organization so that those other stakeholders have shared language, shared understanding, and can participate more meaningfully in the process.

Molly

Suzanne, could you say more about being connected to what the product is supposed to do for the company? You mentioned that sort of midway through. 

Suzanne

Say a lot about it actually. I mean I think the first thing that I want to say is being solutions oriented as a person is a bit of a double edged sword. Right? And I say this as a product person, you know, you're tuned to: I hear a problem and I immediately go toward what a fix is. And I think the first thing is that a lot of the times we assign solutions without fully really understanding the problem or the value in solving that problem. So that's the first piece is to ask, did somebody just say: Oh, we need this, we need this dashboard or we need this sales tool. We need this website, or we need this app.” , without stopping to really assess well do we need it and who specifically needs it and what is or are all of the problems that they're trying to solve and how motivated are they actually to solve those problems or even change their behaviors in order to do it.

Peter

And Suzanne, I just wanted to say on that sort of meaty topic right there. I'm sure part of your process is to try and get to the nub of that, try and answer those questions of value and make sure that it's sufficient. Is that a journey you take them on?

Suzanne

Yeah, I mean this is certainly as a consultant, that's a journey that I'll take any client on if they come to me. I mean I'm well known in, in the industry for turning away checks at the door because a lot of folks will come in and say: Hey, can you build this thing for us? And you know, I'll have five or 10 questions right off the bat that they can't answer in a way. And I say, you know, in good conscience: “I can't take your money until we do a little bit more generative research or a little bit more idea validation because I'm not sure that this solution that you're proposing is the right one or the complete one.” And that's all well and good as an approach when you hire my team and when we come in. But better is also to introduce or indoctrinate that approach within an organization itself. Or sometimes I refer to this as a mindset of maybe so maybe that's a good solution but maybe not. And maybe we should learn a little bit more about that before we kind of start investing resources into it.

Peter

And so when you talk about choosing to take the check or not, part of it is finding out whether that potential customer can even have the mindset of maybe. I know sometimes in my career even, I've been set on: “No, that's what we're doing.” And you have to be willing to sort of step back and take the time to step back and reconsider it. 

Molly

So one of the things I'm fascinated with is the focus the industry has on KPIs right now. When you think about disconnected organization silos, one of the causes often cited is these departments don't share common KPIs. And I'm wondering, Suzanne, when you go into an organization where it seems unclear what the purpose of doing this thing is, building this thing, creating a new service product, et cetera, what do you notice about the KPIs are or lack thereof? 

Suzanne

I think one of the things that I notice often, especially in organizations that are still what I would call kind of project oriented, is that the KPIs are classically project minded. So did we deliver on or under budget? Did we deliver on or over time? And time and budget as KPIs for creating a product don't encourage anybody to think about value creation, right? You're really just commoditizing the very thing that you're building. And if you're commoditizing it at the build level, then you'll most certainly be treating it as a commodity in and most likely in abandoned commodity. As soon as it's been built or as soon as it starts to deprecate, which is almost immediately after it's been launched without proper love and care and iteration. So I think part of the big shift is to say, let's elevate our thinking beyond time and materials towards impact. And that could be impact for the end users in terms of saving them time or saving them money, bringing them joy or impact to the business ideally and impact to the business, right? So if we can have that perfect balance of a business value and customer value and try to set KPIs inside of that space, then we can be confident that what we're working on is going to be worth it and have ROI on all sides.

Molly

It's the last role that I was in. I was leading a team that was sort of an IT team with the business mission e-commerce mission and the idea of challenging traditional IT teams to think about business impact was sort of scary for the folks on the team. Or there was like fear, like, we don't even know what those metrics look like or that's not our jobs, I guess more tragically. Occasionally people say: “That's actually not my job” What do you do in those situations? 

Suzanne

Do you mean not my job to tell the it people what's important or not my job to ask?

Molly

Not my job as an IT person to be connected to a business outcome. Like I'm, I make it right. 

Peter

So the measurement is: “Did I make it?”

Suzanne

Yeah. I mean, you know, I'm going to be inflammatory and I hope that's okay. I mean for me that's a perspective in general that I really struggle with because I think, you know, the proverbial sort of sitting back and crossing your arms and saying, not inside of my jurisdiction or not in my pay grade or whatever. As a long time entrepreneur who's used to sort of playing all of the roles and doing all of the things, my whole approach, is wanting to understand how everything is connected and wanting to contribute. The first thing that I would say to that is that I would hope that the culture ops team within that organization is doing a better job or trying to do a better job of encouraging and an attitude of connectedness. And there are ways that that can be done.

This kind of, I think maps back to the product management training and some of these ideas we were talking about with Mars earlier, which is getting people in the room together to be bought in together. So, you know, if I'm over here in IT and I don't even know the stakeholders or no one's having a conversation with me, or I'm being treated as just, you know, the person that's clicking the keys and getting the thing done, it's understandable why that mindset builds up, but it's not inspirational and aspirational. And so how do we get people excited again about the work I think is an important part of that too. 

Molly

I remember in IT, you know, when, when another organization was really mad at us, they would say like: “Why don't you just stick to fixing printers?” You know, that was like, that was like a big insult. When you talk about moving beyond that, right, sort of next gen it and building this level of connectedness to other organizations. So you've had sessions where you've done this for clients. What are some of the “A Ha” moments from different organizations and coming together?

Suzanne

I think the big one is this concept of ownership, right? And you know, these terms, product owner, product manager are tricky because they get used interchangeably. They have their roots. You know,  the product owner title in particular kind of has its roots in scrum. But what I like about ownership is this idea of investment, right? So I'm invested in this solution, in the creation of this solution, in the value delivery of this solution. And it also speaks to the commitment that needs to come with product, which is again, different from that project mindset. So when we manage a project from inception to completion, we complete and then we sort of dust off our hands. And if it's been a particularly grueling project and we go out and we drink lots of wine afterwards and we say, “Thank goodness that's behind us now.” But in ownership of product, getting the product out the door, whatever that first iteration is just the beginning of a long line of changes and learnings and further iterations that need to come. And so if you can sort of instill this idea of ownership from very early on, then I think what you're also starting to shift is that mindset of pushing it off a cliff and dusting your hands a bit. And that's a powerful one. And also people, you know, the saying is you own what you create, right? So getting people bought into the idea that the thing that they're creating matters is also really powerful and change is the attitude.

Molly

Yeah. Does that ,because we all know the it backlog. And so does that mean that in order to do this organizations need to choose to do fewer products with more impact to the business? Is that what you've seen need to happen? Or can you have this sort of ongoing relationship? 

Suzanne

Well, I mean, I don't know if it's fewer products or not. I think this goes back to the “Should we be building this to begin with?” If you've got a long list of products that you should be building, then you've got a long list of products that you should be building. And it sounds like a long list of opportunities informing why you're building all of those things. But if the protocol and the rhythm has typically been throw a solution at it or worse, you know, we've got budget that we don't want to lose, let's build something then yeah, you're just clogging a team full of a bunch of solutions that honestly nobody is really excited about. Right. Because it didn't start from a place of excitement and it's certainly not going to finish exciting at the, at the build level when, when things can get quite grueling over time. So starting with: “Do we need this, why do we need this?” And really challenging that. 

And this is again, I think another way where, you know, we've been putting a lot of attention in this conversation on the IT sides of the business, but we have to also put a little more accountability onto those other teams who are a little bit more customer facing or front facing and saying are they also respecting the resource constraints of the organization enough to say: “Hey, let's, let's really understand why we think that this is a good idea or why this is a problem and whether a solution for this makes sense and what that solution really needs to be.” So that's educating those both sides. That's where you could begin to create that continuity, better information coming in, better qualification of information coming in through the business units. And then therefore better reasons for doing the things being translated back to the building team or the IT team.

Molly

And for both teams to own the outcome as you were talking about I think is really important. So when an IT team can sort of throw something over the fence and say: “Our part is done. Like our part was just making it so.”, and then the business team says: “Oh, we'll just stand here and judge your work, but we own the business outcome that that doesn't work.” You know, Suzanne, you're describing a place in which both teams share an outcome and that outcome has to do with some measure of value. I'm thinking about a line that I saw on your website that says the development factory is speaking here. “We find that well-designed, well implemented technology solutions can contribute to higher levels of connectedness, productivity and profitability.” Tell us a little bit more about your ethos here.

Suzanne

Yeah, I think quite simply there is some resistance to technology and that sort of, you know, the drones are taking over kind of apocalyptic mindset. And the truth is that certain technology can actually allow us to redirect our efforts toward better things. So, you know, we as human beings have so much value to offer, but a lot of the times in our jobs, we're consuming hours doing mundane tasks. And if we're limited in the tools that are available to us for doing those mundane tasks, then sometimes those tasks are taking way longer than it really should take. Right? Things like uploading content into a system or creating a documents like we talked about earlier, finding documents that have been created in the, you know, the intranet as it were. And so being able to regularly assess how we're currently using tools or missing tools and then being comfortable and confident enough to say, Hey, like, let's create an automation for that. Let's create a solution for that. Let's free up some human capital. Because we can put people on things that we can't yet put machines onto in the same way. So for us at the development factory, we get very excited about working with clients who want to create solutions for efficiency, efficiency of time, and again, that redirecting of the, of the human energy toward higher pursuits.

Molly

We're really familiar here with organizations that have duck taped processes together to try to form a solution or the way that they do things involves a ton of manual labor, emails being sent, spreadsheets being created, manipulated, sent to other places, re-reviewed, et cetera. One of the things you've spoken to us about in the past is being aware of your inefficiencies. I mean, it sounds a little bit like a step program, you know, the, the first step is know that you have inefficiencies. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Suzanne

Yeah. Well, I think, again, this is a lot of it to me comes back to culture too, right? So is there a culture of nothing here ever changes anyways so what's the point and kind of, you know, kick the rock along the, the ground and move on. And I see this a lot when I go into training actually. So one of the things that I'm always aware of as a facilitator is what am I up against in terms of level setting the room around knowledge, but what am I also up against in terms of disenchantment? And a lot of that disenchantment comes when folks have been inside of an organization that has talked a lot about change but doesn't actually do anything about change. So one is are we as an organization, are we as leaders at sort of every level of management encouraging people to look for efficiency and communicate that upward.

If we're not, then that's going to be probably one of our first problems is people just aren't going to say anything. They're not going to have their own volition say: “Hey I didn't think to mention that 35 of my 40 hour work week is going to, you know, trying to save this single file that doesn't save unless I take this weird path because the tech that we use for that is so antiquated. But I just thought that's the way it is. And so I'm just kind of minding my business.” 

So inviting people to be looking for efficiencies, having regular communication around how are we getting those jobs done and is there friction in that. And again with B2C or or products that are customer facing, revenue generating, we tend to be a little bit more oriented to this, right?

We want to make the customer happy. How's everything working? Is the tool working out for you? When we build tools for internal use or we adopt tools for internal use or sets of different tools for internal use, we tend to not circle back and say: “Hey, is that solution still working out for us? You know, is, is that intranet that we adopted four years ago still the right intranet or you know, is it time to go to Nuclino because products are being introduced into market all the time and improvements are being introduced all the time?”

Molly

Yeah. So let's say I'm inside an organization and I have a process that is highly manual, so I get a file from Jim. And then I pass the file, I make some changes, I pass that to John who gets files approvals from trademark and then he gets another file from the supply team. And then there's another file that comes in from the marketing team and then he correlates it and he uploads it to three different systems. And then my team is also in charge of syndicating that information. And although I find it extremely inefficient, there's some security in it because we know it, we can be sure it works and, and we feel good about being a critical part of that crazy process. What would you say to me?

Suzanne

Well, there's two things that I would say. The first is, you know, sometimes people take comfort in this is where, this is maybe the darker side of ownership when you are the knowledgeable one about how things have always been done, sometimes people hold on to that very tightly, right? It's, it's like this is how I add value to the organization and if this gets taken away from me or if this gets made more transparent or easier, what will that mean for me? And, and we can maybe talk more about that if it's interesting, but I would say check in about that fear and ask yourself is my holding onto this and being the gatekeeper guardian of this process serving the greater good. The other thing that I'll say do it is it is a great opportunity to do one of my favorite exercises. I love doing this when I'm consulting with teams. I love doing this when I'm coaching with teams, which is story mapping. 

I'm a big fan of Jeff Patton and his work in the agile community and story mapping as a way of actually looking at existing workflows and then looking for friction points is a really interesting kind of meta exercise. So for the benefit of our listeners, cause I don't know, you know where they're coming in at this, story mapping is really just using post-its. Whether they're digital post-its or physical post-its. It's physical makes it a lot more fun and interactive and saying, what are all of the steps of this thing? So if it's my morning routine, you know, a hit snooze on the alarm, hit snooze again, make the coffee, have a shower, feed the dogs, get dressed, go to work. And when we build software, we have to kind of do these story maps to make sure that we understand the journey that our customer is taking or wants to take or the one that we want them to take.

But we can also use known workflows as a way of: (a) checking that everybody knows how the workflow goes. So this is one of the fun things that I see in these workshops is you put a bunch of people together who have typically been siloed or typically own one kind of post it within the workflow and then when you bring them all together they're like: “Oh huh, I had no idea that the file also then had to go to Jeff for whatever the thing.” So you're creating a more holistic vision that everybody can see kind of left and right of where they contribute. That's one really great outcome of that. The other really great outcome is now that you've got everybody looking at the same picture from end to end, you can begin to facilitate a discussion around where is there friction or where are their gaps are, where are their pain points? And then you kind of circle those as areas for improvement. And you know, in agile one of the core tenants, is just these conversations that you know, everything is really a placeholder for a conversation between team members. So story mapping is a great way to understand how things are currently working and then how those things could be made better and to do it in a collaborative cross-functional way.

Peter

And when you think of inefficiency as the value out of a product is that the first value and a do you need other value build around that is, I guess I'm asking is getting more efficient enough or is efficiency part of what you want to introduce in any product that you're building?

Suzanne

I mean I think efficiency is kind of one of the major pillars of great usability, right? So efficiency says can I complete the actions of the product in sort of as few clicks as possible? And so for me the answer is yes because just quite simply, why would we want somebody to take longer at something if we could get them to do it faster? It's not the only goal and it's not the ultimate value creator. So I think efficiency kind of capital E is a really metric I think, especially for tools that are being adopted to improve organizations and how they're spending their time, right? So if I'm bringing a tool in internally to manage workflows and processes internally, well, I'm doing that already to create efficiencies. So then yes the degree to which that tool can actually be efficient matters a lot. But either way, I think it's a good goal to assign to any type of software product is letting users move quickly through the actions and effectively through the actions.

Peter

Hey, Suzanne, thank you so much for joining us and for sort of bringing a fresh perspective to how these organizations can think about approaching defining the why's for their solutions and how we'll drive their business. We've really loved talking to you. Thank you so much. 

Suzanne

Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. 

Peter

It is so clear from this conversation that the tech is the last step in an overall change management process. What organizational shift are you driving right now? Have questions for Suzanne. Come to the digital shelf institutes LinkedIn page, or tweeted us at wind digital shelf, and please drop a review of our podcast when you have a chance. Just hit those five stars or four, you know, whenever you're feeling. And thanks for being part of our community.