In her keynote session at #mtpcon London 2022, Saielle DaSilva, Global VP of Design at StepStone and former Director of User Experience at Cazoo, explains the power of giving a fuck, describing through five f-words how we can add value, achieve alignment and make better decisions while creating a more inclusive and caring culture.
Watch this video or read on for key highlights from the talk.
- Supporting and valuing the feelings of those around you and promoting psychological safety will help you learn and establish points of focus
- Facilitate healthy friction as a key part of the alignment process to make better decisions
- Building a ‘speak-up’ culture and valuing diverse voices lead to greater innovation
Saielle begins by describing her experience of travelling from a young age between Brazil and the United States as the child of immigrants, and later in life around the world for work as a product leader. ‘The travel mindset’, she explains, is ‘a lot like a product mindset’; both involve exploration and investigation, decision-making processes and, unfortunately, often include discomforts that must be overcome. Saielle reflects on The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, (a book she picked up at an airport whilst travelling), the title didn’t reflect her professional experience as a product leader or the way she leads her personal life, ‘I give all the f*cks and it’s made me both delightful and difficult to work with’.
Outlining her talk, Saielle describes 5 f-words of highly successful product organisations – the habits, behaviours and practices you can reflect on in your current organisation or can look for in your next. For Saielle, as a trans woman, these factors help her recognise and choose ‘where is it safe to take who I am, and plug it into an organisation that’s going to make me feel successful and I in turn can make that organisation successful.’
Saielle introduces the first f-word, ‘feelings’, which describes the ‘personal practices and organisational discipline’ that are part of the hard constraints of product management. Product managers deal with people every day or, as Saielle describes them, ‘sensory little meat bags that run around and have a bunch of feelings about everything’. The mistake they often make is thinking that with a clear enough vision, or reinforced strategy, people will ‘put their feelings away’, but that’s not the case. ‘The only way to get better software is by looking after your people’, she says, ‘feelings are important’.
She describes her past experience working in a psychiatric hospital residential care unit, where people often have more extreme emotions and are less able to control them, ‘if we didn’t pay attention to other people’s feelings, that was life and death’. Saielle says that by creating a place of psychological safety and trust as well as prioritising patients’ feelings and supporting them, they managed to keep everyone safe. The same, she says, is true for working in product: ‘If you don’t give a f*ck about feelings you don’t give a f*ck about your work’.
When looking at challenges product people face when encountering stakeholders that exhibit heightened feelings, Saielle describes how positive this can be: ‘they give a f*ck and that’s awesome’. Referencing her experience with autism, she explains that the people who make their feelings known, ‘are easy to read’, and moreover they’re passionate, ‘they have things that they care about and they’re willing to voice them’. Finding ‘disgruntled unhappy misfits’ allows you to learn, Saielle says, ‘by catching what’s really going on I can start to understand where people’s focus is’.
‘Feelings will impact your focus’, Saielle says, introducing her second f-word. Focus is actually understanding what’s ‘important and how we make space for it’, not just about saying ‘yes’ to everything. As a product leader, this means clarifying how your work impacts the overall strategy and recognising the cost involved with changing course. ‘Every time you ship a new feature your software just got more expensive to maintain’. Saielle recommends building focus into the planning processes, considering technical debt and efficiency as part of all improvements, ensuring you’re not limiting your ability to shift focus later.
Referencing how teams often shift focus too quickly or pile on initiatives in an unsustainable way, Saielle points to the relationship between discipline and value, stating: ‘you can’t just thrive on busy’. Referencing her personal experience with ADHD, Saielle explains how challenging it can be to maintain focus on a single task such as unloading the dishwasher, as during the process she might visit different spaces, or start different household tasks that also require completing, moving on from one thing to the other, ‘I have to coach myself through that’, she says ‘I tell myself I am washing the dishes. I’m washing the dishes. I’m washing the dishes, because if I don’t, I will forget. And that is what focus looks like in my daily life.’
Repeatedly referring to your quarterly objectives or holding your 3-year vision in mind when making a decision will help you maintain focus and stay vigilant of situations where you’re tempted to make a trade-off. ‘Focus means trade-offs between things to achieve better results […] focus is about choosing what to say ‘yes’, and ‘no’ to, which leads us to friction.’
Friction is found in the process of decision-making and alignment, Saielle explains. She describes how negative friction forms when decisions are made without clarity, communication and space for discussion. In these instances, decisions are often pushed through without evidence or reflection, undocumented, and unvalidated. Even teams that self-identify as working in ‘low-friction environments’ are often actually just producing enforced cookie-cutter decisions that result in lost opportunities. Lack of alignment, or a decision making process without room for friction, is coercion, Saielle says, explaining how if ‘you spend more time selling ideas to your peers or your boss than you do talking to customers, you’re not doing product management, you’re doing politics.’
Conversely, positive or healthy friction comes with a culture of respect and position of equality, where everyone acknowledges that efforts are ongoing, and teams work to understand ‘the best possible outcome that we can get and how do we get there?’. Saielle references a report featured in Harvard Business Review by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall and Laura Sherbin, which showed, ‘Leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, and employees in a “speak up” culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential’.
Saielle recommends fostering such a culture, one that is safe enough to challenge and take risks, with the safety to ‘speak truth to power’, else ‘we limit who can contribute, we limit the range of problems we can address, we limit the imagination we bring to the table’.
Saielle introduces the next f-word: ‘facilitation’. She asks us to ‘make it easier for people to work with you’ by helping them to both understand and therefore support the decisions you’re making. She recommends sharing context through evidence and, importantly, giving people a way to structure their input, setting boundaries or rules of engagement. ‘You need to make room for people to jump in to get their hands dirty and to collaborate with you. If you are protecting your backlog from your stakeholders, you’re not protecting your backlog. You’re protecting yourself.’
Facilitation in essence is designing conditions for good decision-making, clarifying principles and documenting the things you’re doing. While it’s often an overlooked or undervalued skill, Saielle says, describing it as ‘femme-coded’ invisible emotional labour, it’s critical, as ‘your vision doesn’t f*cking matter if you can’t get from A to B through execution.’
Give a f*ck
The final f-word is ‘giving a f*ck’. ‘Everyone gives a f*ck about something’, Saielle says.
She admits she gives ‘a lot of f*cks’, especially after rebuilding her gender, personal life and career after the pandemic.
‘Things are too important not to give a f*ck […] feelings are the fuel for transformation, focus is necessary to sustain it. Friction is inevitable, and embracing it will make you more resilient […] let’s go give some f*cks.’