96. Should we be designing the future of our workplaces differently? | Jonathon Hensley, CEO at Emerge Interactive


Jonathon Hensley | CEO at Emerge Interactive



Welcome to Episode 96 of The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future, featuring industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. The Future of Work is NOW.

In this second outing with Emerge Interactive CEO, Jonathon Hensley, we look at the connection between product and work experience design. 

We start to look more practically at how technology is only a tool and it’s how we connect the human to it that is the key to success. 


Jonathon Hensley Web


Jonathon Hensley is co-founder and CEO of Emerge, a digital product consulting firm that works with companies to improve operational agility and customer experience.

For more than two decades, Jonathon has helped startups, Fortune 100 brands, technology leaders, large regional health networks, non-profit organizations and more, transform their businesses by turning strategy, user needs and new technologies; into valuable digital products and services.

Jonathon writes and speaks about his experiences and insights from his career, and regularly hosts in-depth interviews with business leaders and industry insiders.





[00:00:00] - Jonathon Hensley
The promise of technology is often misunderstood. When a new technology is introduced, the expectations of it are very, very high and the actual outcomes, the results it produces are very low. That's a very, very large level of effort to implement these technologies and to change the way that organizations work.

[00:00:29] - Doug Foulkes
Hello and welcome to episode 96 of Chaos & Rocket Fuel: The Future of Work podcast. This is the podcast that continues to look at every aspect of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn. I'm your host, Doug Foulkes, and my co host is the CEO at WNDYR, Claire Haidar. Claire, nice to be on the podcast again with you this week.

[00:00:50] - Claire Haidar
Doug, it's always good to be back in the studio with you and recording these sessions and conversations with you. They're a highlight a week to week with me.

[00:00:59] - Doug Foulkes
Claire, Jonathon Hensley, he's the CEO of Emerge Interactive. We're chatting to him about product design in the future. Bring us up to speed quickly on what people missed last time and what they can expect from today's episode.

[00:01:13] - Claire Haidar
Doug, very quickly, the reason why I'm excited about this conversation that's unfolding, is because I believe that work is going through a very large evolutionary shift. People are moving away from the thought and the habitual practice of just expecting people to show up at work. Companies are realizing that it is becoming more and more critical to their competitive advantage to actually consider work through a design lens and to create work experiences that are meaningful, because it impacts outcomes.

[00:01:46] - Claire Haidar
In segment one, we had this conversation with Jonathon, and the reason why we chose Jonathon as the guest to have this conversation with is because he is the CEO of a product building company, Emerge Interactive. So he naturally applies design thinking principles and product building principles every single day to the products that they build for their customers. So we're taking that and applying it to work.

[00:02:11] - Claire Haidar
In this segment number two, we're taking a step back, first of all, and actually just asking him as a baseline to give us his definition of work. And then we get into some really practical applications where we ask him to take us through some of their product building client examples where they have actually worked on the work experience. It's not that they've just built a physical product or a digital product for a customer, but that product has actually touched the work experience of the people inside that business.

[00:02:41] - Claire Haidar
Very interestingly, something that surprised me in this conversation was how it actually turned into the world of medicine, and the hospital experience, and that whole patient care realm, which is something that every single one of us can relate to.

[00:02:56] - Doug Foulkes
Yes, it went down a bit of a rabbit hole, but that's nothing new on this podcast. Let's catch up with Jonathon.

[00:03:02] - Claire Haidar
I'd like us to really start applying these concepts that you've shared with us to work itself. But before we go into that application piece, do you mind sharing with us, what is your personal definition of work? And you can answer this because they're two totally interrelated things, is do you believe that work should be designed?

[00:03:22] - Jonathon Hensley
I love the question, I've never been asked that. So my definition of work, I would say it's the activity focused on creating value, would be the way I would define work. I do absolutely believe that work should be designed and can be designed effectively. I guess to add a little bit of context for that is, part of that belief comes from, depending on the type of organization that you're building and how the work culture that you're establishing, I think we have to think of work being designed in multiple ways.

[00:03:59] - Jonathon Hensley
Sometimes we're trying to, in the best case scenario, in my personal opinion, is we are building a culture that empowers every person in the organization to contribute at their best level. The structure that we can provide team members to do that gives an opportunity to learn and to unlock their own potential in fulfilling that role that they have within the organization. I think if you leave that open ended and undefined, you really hinder the ability for an organization as a whole to collectively come together and achieve an outcome., especially when we're focused on creating value in the world, I think that that shared understanding of how we can work together and having a structured environment for that becomes really important.

[00:04:51] - Claire Haidar
Which is interesting, Doug, I know you're going to weigh in your next, but it's interesting because that completely goes back to the very first comments that you had when we asked you about the alignment pieces, which you feel are so important in product building that comes down to that individual alignment. How am I creating value and why does it matter?

[00:05:15] - Jonathon Hensley
Yeah, in work that I've done, there's a wonderful neuroscientist by the name of Dan Cable who teaches out of the London Business School. He wrote a wonderful book called Alive at Work. I've had the opportunity to work with him a little bit. And it's amazing when he has really tied this idea of alignment and this individual engagement and recognition to that it's not just a psychological need or a way of driving a healthier culture, but there's actually a biological component to recognition, where there's this constant, innate human nature of wanting to understand cause and effect. And this idea of building community to shift from why me to a why us narrative in an organization where we can accomplish something as part of a team, or part of something bigger.

[00:06:15] - Jonathon Hensley
I think that alignment is just another expression of that, that is trying to create a framework for organizations to be able to bring that through into the way that they develop products. Especially though I think when we think about internal products and the amount of digital transformations now taking place around the world, which has only been accelerated over the last three years exponentially out of necessity, that work has to be very intentional.

[00:06:45] - Jonathon Hensley
And there's a challenge in the type of work that we do around technology is that, the promise of technology is often misunderstood. When a new technology is introduced, the expectations of it are very high and the actual outcomes, the results it produces are very low. That's a very, very large level of effort to implement these technologies and to change the way that organizations work, and behavior, and understanding.

[00:07:17] - Jonathon Hensley
Whereas eventually as that technology matures, it absolutely accelerates beyond people's understanding and basic expectations, and the roles now become flipped. And so as an organization is going through this transformation and we think about kind of these needs is that technology and product adoption is really actually more of a people-centered challenge than it is a technical challenge.

[00:07:42] - Jonathon Hensley
How do we actually connect people to the power of the tool that we're creating? The technology is not the solution, it's really the powerful tool set that we can provide individuals and teams and organizations. I think that really understanding that human component, that is the essence of everything in an organization, the technology is only just as good as the tool as we've designed to support those people to being successful is just paramount.

[00:08:13] - Doug Foulkes
Jonathan, my next little question is really just a follow on from that is, could you give me any examples of where work has been designed or maybe where it hasn't been designed?

[00:08:26] - Jonathon Hensley
Sure, I think that there's a couple.

[00:08:30] - Claire Haidar
You're taking a deep breath, but this is a mission, it needs to be accomplished, Jonathon.

[00:08:37] - Jonathon Hensley
Well, it's a wonderfully broad question that I'm trying to think of a very specific example and answer to. I'm going to use a very broad example, but I think everybody listening can really identify with is that, we created this incredible tool over the last 30 years of email, that everyone to use professionally speaking and many personally. And it's this incredible tool that has changed the way that we work. Now, it's based on somewhat of an old mental model of writing letters, something that's been around for centuries. And we've streamlined it, we've optimized it. Now we can organize it and we can include groups of people in these communications and it has all of these capabilities now that are incredibly powerful and important.

[00:09:31] - Jonathon Hensley
I think that when we look at that, it's a tool that is constantly being finetuned to focus on true optimization and enhancement of the way that we work with very very clear intention of those building these tools. And I think that it's a really powerful thing to think about. The same thing can be said for something like a product like Microsoft Word. When word processors first came out, they didn't have automatic spell checking, they didn't highlight the words that you were working in to say, "Oh, that's misspelled or maybe your grammar is incorrect."

[00:10:08] - Jonathon Hensley
And the product teams that are building these tools, what's used the most? Where can we create value, where can we help people? And through very selective intention we're able to say, what if we just brought this into the forefront? What if it was checking the document as I went? What if I could help correct and improve the quality of the writing that was taking place within these tools? And so I think that those are fantastic examples of taking things that seem very basic today that are incredible enhancements of the way that we work and are very thoughtfully being architected by these product teams to create as much value for the end user as possible.

[00:10:53] - Jonathon Hensley
And so I think that designing with clear intention and really having awareness of how a product is used and why it's used, really getting back to what drives the user is an absolutely critical thing. When we think about empowering employees, I think many organizations need to make sure that they are designing with those same foundational principles of great product management, where they're empathetic for the employee. They're understanding what drivers, they're understanding the things that they have to do all of the time and finding ways to create and add more value to that.

[00:11:33] - Jonathon Hensley
And especially when you have leaders today that are saying well, our people are our number one priority and our number one resource, then protecting their time, so it's focused on where the most value can be created, becomes just smart business and that has to happen with intention.

[00:11:49] - Doug Foulkes
You said a word early on once, and now it's starting to creep in more often, and it's all about value. Just in the bit of research that I did coming into this that was very apparent in everything that you work on and the way that you run your business, which we will get into shortly. But everything is about value these days.

[00:12:08] - Jonathon Hensley
It is. I think that it's helpful to highlight value comes in many different ways. And I think that's part of what in product we're always looking for, and especially when we're analyzing current workflows versus what could be done to support those with new product or new workflows is, value can be time, it can be money, it can be attention, it can be focus, it can be the ability to cross connect. So I think value is often overly simplified, at least in the business world to revenue. They equate that to value but very often that's a horrible measure because it's a lagging indicator. It's a result of everything else that's already happened.

[00:12:51] - Jonathon Hensley
So where the real value creation is taking place is happening much much earlier on, so we need to look at where those leading moments and attributes that create the value and not intended outcome, that doesn't really give us any insight on how to perpetuate it effectively.

[00:13:08] - Claire Haidar
Jonathan it's interesting, when Doug and myself were putting the framework together for our conversation today, this question, I actually asked myself the question, you know what I mean, I put it there for you, but I asked myself the question. And the thing that came to my mind, and it's purely just because we happen to be navigating this with the clients of ours right now is, we're working with a hospital group to look at how we can potentially redesign their workflow to put the patient at the heart of that, which is something that you'd be very familiar with, because that's a typical challenge that a digital product agency would be looking at.

[00:13:48] - Claire Haidar
So it's really interesting where my mind went when I answered this question was, not directly to tools and the examples you've provided around, like email and document processors are spot on. I don't know if you know this about me, I have a whole thing about email and how it's actually shaped us as humans in terms of our work behavior. Spot on, and I couldn't agree more with you, but it's like you went down to that micro-level, where I was thinking about it more at a macro-level where if you look at how hospital systems today have been designed, they've been designed around process rather than value.

[00:14:32] - Claire Haidar
And I didn't connect that dot when I answered the question first. I only connected that dot now in the conversation when you defined work as the activity of creating value. I think one of the big major shifts that we're going to see with regards to how work is going to evolve within this digital transformation era that we're living in is that, people are going to face that reckoning where they're going to realize that almost everything that they've built around work has been around the process and the optimization of the process, rather than the value creation for the people going through the process and the people receiving whatever is being created at the end of the process.

[00:15:18] - Jonathon Hensley
It makes complete sense, I could not agree more. I love the hospital example. I find it so fascinating because I do think that, as you said, I think the entire healthcare market is coming to a crossroads that is going to be extremely confrontational for those that have been leading these healthcare organizations for the last several decades around exactly what you're talking about. I think partly of what I say, and I'll speak mostly for what my personal experience and the work that I've done here in the States, is that I have never met anybody in healthcare who doesn't have good intentions.

[00:15:59] - Jonathon Hensley
But how to recognize those intentions inside of and creating a better work experience and patient experience, I think is very difficult. Your front line staff, the nurses and those that are caring for patients are just incredible. But the disconnect on how they're supported to help them achieve outcomes is just unbelievable because the actual disconnect is in complete contrast to most healthcares' missions for the organization. And so it's a really big challenge that is going to have to come to a reckoning at some point.

[00:16:39] - Jonathon Hensley
As an example, I was working with a children's hospital around workflow for the patient, and this young girl unfortunately had been diagnosed with cancer. So she first wasn't feeling good and she ended up going to her pediatrician, the pediatrician then made a referral, and then the referral made another referral, and then they had to go to a cancer specialist and the progress went on and on and on and on.

[00:17:06] - Jonathon Hensley
None of that experience was really thought through of what's the fear? What's the process going on into that for that young girl? What does it mean for that family to have to take the time off of work? What is the stress and anxiety of stopping in the middle of day and getting to your appointment, then trying to find parking, the parking lot's full or you're in the wrong parking lot because you need to be on the other side of the hospital or the campus? What does that look like at every facet and why are we making this family go through and enter the same information 15 different times? So there's a huge impact on experience and a lot of it has to do with workflow inefficiency, and we're not enabling time with patient for true care.

[00:17:54] - Claire Haidar
Interestingly enough, the complete opposite experience of what you've just called out is, I myself am navigating cancer at the moment and I've been through the hospital system now this year, and I happen to just be referred to an incredible hospital system where I've been blown away, I've never experienced medicine this way in my entire life before. Yeah, it actually is a really good example that you raised there where, there's clearly some hospitals like this one in Dallas that have brought that design thinking to it. And then there's others like the Children's Hospital that haven't yet taken it there.

[00:18:33] - Claire Haidar
Which leads to the point that I wanted to make, and I'd love to get your thoughts on this is, when I think about these things, when I think about healthcare, when I think about education and all these forms of work that drive value in society, they seem to be really big, difficult, systemic challenges that it doesn't seem like agencies like our company and your company have the ability to really wield the level of change that's needed. It's almost like it needs to be addressed at a societal, governmental level. What are your thoughts on that?

[00:19:11] - Jonathon Hensley
Well, I think first off I should say, I'm sorry to hear that you are going through cancer, but thrilled to hear that you have found a provider who can provide you that incredible, excellent experience of care.

[00:19:23] - Claire Haidar
Thank you, Jonathon, I appreciate that.

[00:19:25] - Jonathon Hensley
It is a gift in that circumstance.

[00:19:28] - Claire Haidar

[00:19:29] - Jonathon Hensley
And it's really wonderful to hear that there's a group out there providing that experience. There definitely seems to be an exception, not the norm. Well, again, I find that most providers are trying their very best with what they have to provide that where they can.

[00:19:44] - Jonathon Hensley
To answer your question, gosh, there's a couple of ways that I want to answer this, because it's a great question that is worthy of unpacking a little bit. I guess the first part I would say is depending on the environment of the situation, the level of change that has to take place, I think that you do need to have government and policy or large scale NGOs involved in many cases to help create the environment for that culture shift to take place. If it's within an organization, the incredible opportunity is that outside of external regulation and policy, is that every organization has the ability to design their culture by intent. I think that you either design the culture you want in an organization or you inherit the one that your leadership and your management team create unintentionally.

[00:20:38] - Jonathon Hensley
So I think a lot of leaders have a responsibility, if they want to be stewards of that kind of change to not only really define clearly their mission, but they need to have a very clear and coherent strategy, which is a whole other topic in itself that is tied to the actual cultural incentives of the organization itself. Many times what I've experienced is the actual incentives within an organization are in conflict with one another across departments and functions. So if you want to create change, we have to figure out better ways of unifying how all of our work ladders up to the purpose of an organization.

[00:21:27] - Jonathon Hensley
Another facet to it I think, is that when we design work, this goes a little bit back to the engineering example, but many times we're so focused on the steps and the functions, that we lose sight of the psychological need and the challenge that has to be solved there, and how we actually need to engage people to become part of that process change. Many times, at least in the product space and the larger organizational transformations that I've experienced, there is this idea of, we're going to go create this wonderful tool, and we're going to give it to everybody, and they're just going to love it. It's like if they're not part of the process, then they never really felt heard and if they're not heard, it's going to be much more difficult to connect to them the value that you want that product or service, or system of change to actually produce.

[00:22:22] - Jonathon Hensley
So do you want a higher cultural impact on trust as an example? Well, are we evaluating our systems and our workflows based on providing trust? And what are the precursors to that trust? Transparency, honesty, direct feedback, whatever those other attributes might be for that organization. But those are pretty kind of fundamental attribute of generating trust. If we're not actually evaluating our workflow processes and we're only looking at them of what the inputs are to the outputs for the next step, we're missing an entire layer that actually is probably the most critical layer to actually being able to enable the change.

[00:23:06] - Jonathon Hensley
I think that where consultants and agencies and outsiders can provide extreme value is when you have open leadership in these organizations that are looking for that perspective and are continuous learners, and are looking where they're subject matter experts in what they do, they're passionate about it, but they recognize they could be more. TDoughat's sometimes where I think that we can have a tremendous influence on perpetuating that culture shift and change that isn't directly driven by government policy and outside influences.

[00:23:46] - Claire Haidar
Fully, fully agree with you on all points that you've said, Doug, you know me, I could go down this rabbit hole for a very long time, but I will restrain myself.

[00:23:57] - Doug Foulkes
I'm going to stop you, in fact. Jonathon, I may be spoken a lot in a lot of detail in this section. I do have one final question and it might be more of a comment than needing a full answer. My question is, if you had a magic wand, how would you redesign work for global impact? And my thought was, as you were talking, is it just as simple as looking at things through the eyes of the user or the patient?

[00:24:24] - Jonathon Hensley
I think you nailed it perfectly. I would say that most organizations, if I wanted to wave that magic wand, it would come from that leaders lead with empathy. That we lead with an understanding of the people that were there to serve as leaders. I'm a big believer that the industrial era age of leadership is quickly falling to the wayside as it should. The best thing we can do is figure out ways to not just provide opportunity for people, but to actually empower them to do more and really unleash their potential. I think when we think about work, we need to really think through the lens of the work that we do through that lens of empathy.

[00:25:09] - Jonathon Hensley
I think the other key thing to that, that is really important to highlight is we have to, as leaders in using empathy, do the very difficult task, especially these days of understanding that there's a significant difference between truth and reality. That's a very strange thing to maybe hear me say, but I'll put it through this kind of lens. My perception of reality is different than yours based on my personal experience and maybe how I'm looking at a problem. But there's a truth to that reality that we need to find.

[00:25:55] - Jonathon Hensley
Many cases I think leaders have to get kind of tunnel vision that they confuse that their reality, their perception of that reality is the truth. If we don't start to step into the shoes of our employees and we don't empathize with our customers and we're not practicing that ability, we are losing sight of the whole picture. If we want to maximize the impact that we can create, then it's really important that as leaders, we never lose sight of the whole picture. And that's okay if you don't agree with everyone, but it's essential you don't become disconnected from that truth. I think the most effective leaders that I've ever experienced continuously practice that. They're constantly checking themselves and reevaluating and trying to ensure that they have the best picture they can that has a complete and truthful view of what's happening in the world for people.

[00:26:54] - Claire Haidar
Fully agreed again. It's interesting, I was having a conversation, we invited somebody into our All Hands yesterday to have a fireside chat with me. He's just written a book on asynchronous to remote work, and the factors that really make it successful, and the factors that make it not work. One of the books that I just actually brought up in the discussion because of various dots that we're connecting was, and I'm not sure if you've ever heard of this book, Jonathon, but it's called, The Courage to be Disliked. I believe it's also Japanese authors, Ikaro and Fumitaki. And essentially it ties into what you're saying here, where real leaders don't operate from this place of needing to be affirmed or needing to be liked, as the title of the book says, but very much operating from a place of reality and factfulness, and using those array of facts to determine how best to create value. Which kind of brings the whole conversation full circle.

[00:28:03] - Jonathon Hensley
I love that. I've never heard of that book, but it's now on my reading list.

[00:28:08] - Claire Haidar
Okay, great. I highly recommend that you do go. Just to give you some, where it fitted into the conversation that we were having yesterday as a company was, Liam, the guest we invited, was talking about how the problem with remote work is that, very often it's the person with the most charismatic personality on any Zoom call that gets the most attention. And you typically see that play out not only in remote work, but in in-person spaces and moving the whole culture very deliberately to more of a written base takes actually allows more people, and the research supports this, allows the quiet, fact driven, more introverted type of individuals within the workspace to allow their voices to actually filter out to the top, which creates healthier organizations, which creates overall more wealth and bottom line ROI for companies. So definitely read it, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it because I think a lot will actually connect there for you the way it's connecting for me.

[00:29:16] - Jonathon Hensley
Yeah, it sounds like a wonderful book. I will definitely add that to my reading list and pick it up.

[00:29:21] - Doug Foulkes
And with that, we draw this long involved part of our conversation about product building with Jonathon Hensley to a close. If you missed the first part of our conversation, you can check it out on your favorite podcast platform or on WNDYR's website, wndyr.com. We'll conclude our chat with Jonathon shortly. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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