Next up we are talking with Julia Harrison. Julia is a product manager, improv comedian, and ready to help you be awesome to work with. It’s our first time welcoming Julia to our ever-growing on-stage community, so feel free to ask her more questions @JuliaFromIT.
Your #ATLDN workshop ‘Being awesome to work with’ focusses a lot on cultivating the individual. So much about agile is about teams, why do you think the individual deserves this attention?
Teams are made of individuals, all with thoughts and feelings and free will and — usually — things we can improve on for the benefit of the whole team. When people in teams have ideas, hopefully the whole team wants to build upon and improve them. Often this process involves some animated discussions (good!) but with the best of intentions can leave the person whose idea is being ‘improved’ feeling a little bruised. They might feel they’re being judged negatively because their idea wasn’t perfect. One of the [outcomes of this workshop](http://2019.agiletourlondon.co.uk/Session/being-awesome-to-work-with/) is knowing how to prevent that from happening.
There’s some not-so-serious improv in your workshop. Tell us about how this has helped a team you were working with.
One of my favourite things is when I get to run this session with a team I’m working on. Sometimes participants worry when they learn a new communication technique that it might be awkward if people notice them using it. If the whole team learns the same thing then yes, that will probably happen. But it’s fine! Worst case, people know you’re making an effort to be awesome to work with. Why would that be a bad thing?! What I’ve seen in practice is that you also start to notice the ‘old’ behaviours and gently nudge each other to use what you’ve learnt. And because you learnt the techniques in a playful way, it’s a fun thing you share and work on together.
Your LinkedIn profile says you have a “reputation for ruthless prioritisation”. As a Head of Product, what tools, processes, and practices do you use to facilitate this prioritisation?
It’s easy to think about prioritisation as a process you go through periodically to stack-rank a product backlog. While that’s an important activity, I think some of the most useful prioritisation calls are the ones that happen in the moment, while work is in progress. Prioritisation is the discipline of having everyone doing the most valuable thing they can be doing at that moment. Like “actually this piece of work is good enough as it is, we could do something else more valuable now”. Or maybe the opposite, “making this thing really good is important enough that it’s worth delaying something else”. We all have biases, particularly when we get so immersed in a particular task that we forget to step back and remember the wider context. So prioritising in the moment isn’t automatic, and the more we talk in our teams about how to spend our time in the most valuable way, the more we’re able to support each other, spotting when someone is in danger of falling into a rabbit hole. I’d say it’s more of a culture than a particular tool or process.
From Morgan Stanley to eBay to the government, you seem to work a lot in highly regulated environments. How do you innovate when compliance is important?
Having constraints can bring out the best in people’s creativity and ingenuity… up to a point. But being clear about where the boundaries are is important. I’ve seen teams held back not so much by rules but more their own fear of getting it wrong where the rules are ambiguous. It’s also necessary to challenge assumptions — it could be that organisational folklore tells us we can’t do a thing a certain way, but nobody really knows where that decision came from. Creating an environment where people feel safe to ask questions is crucial. And innovation isn’t only about making new things — solving a problem by re-using an existing thing, or finding a way to deliver enough value by doing less is every bit as innovative (and as a product manager, if it can deliver value sooner, I’m all in favour!).
A different workshop you do is ‘The Charisma Toolkit’, which reads: “This half-day workshop explores ways to be warm without being creepy, feel confident but not appear arrogant, and be taken seriously without being aggressive.” How does someone with a tech career end up doing something so different?
When people see me at a conference they don’t usually guess that I’m an introvert, I used to be terrible at public speaking and I used to hate networking.
In about 2010, I was really lucky that my employer brought in Deborah Frances White from The Spontaneity Shop to run their session The Charisma Key. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was life-changing. I didn’t leave the room a different person, but I learnt some small, easy changes I could make to help me appear more confident and feel more confident. Over time I built upon those, and was curious to learn more. I did some improv training, learned about storytelling, and continued to practice the things I’d learnt. Then in 2016 when I heard there was a Train the Trainer course for the Charisma Key I signed up in an instant!
I had so much fun the first time I did the workshop as an attendee, and facilitating both that and the Being Awesome session are among my favourite things I get to do. No two groups are the same and we always end up laughing a lot. I love my day job, and I love being able to do something that, though it seems very different, is so relevant to working in agile teams.
Bonus Question: Tell us a fun, unique fact about you!
Before social media was a thing, I once started a small email campaign that indirectly led to Eddie Izzard doing an escapology act on a six foot unicycle on Comic Relief.