Jürgen Spangl (Atlassian): Better Meetings = Better Collaboration
Blake Bartlett: Welcome back to the Build podcast. I'm Blake Bartlett, a partner at OpenView. We're here to help software founders and operators identify and unpack sustainable growth strategies in the ever- changing world of SaaS. Today, we hear from Jurgen Spangl, Chief Experience Officer at Atlassian. Jurgen has been a leader at Atlassian for almost 10 years. He was the long- time head of design, and more recently joined the C- suite to oversee all aspects of the customer journey and experience. In today's episode, we unpack Atlassian's company principles and values and how they influence everything at the company. This includes how Atlassian approaches meetings. Specifically, we dive into two of Jurgen's favorite meeting formats: journey mapping, and sparring. All that and more in this episode of Build. So let's dive in with Jurgen Spangl. Well Jurgen, thank you for joining us here on the Build podcast. It's great to have you on the show.
Jurgen Spangl: Thanks for having me.
Blake Bartlett: So I want to start first with Atlassian culture and what drives the company. So my knowledge of the business is that Atlassian is a company driven by its values. So I'm wondering, are there specific values that stand out to you as being your personal favorite?
Jurgen Spangl: Yeah. So values at Atlassian are very important and it's probably one of the few companies where you feel them every day. And when I think about our values, it's like we have five. Be the change you seek. Open company, no bullshit. Build with heart and balance. Play as a team. And don't fuck the customer. They are all very powerful. And you asked me for, do I have a favorite? It's like one or two probably resonate more with me, just purely my personality or where I'm coming from. And those two are open company, no bullshit, and be the change you seek. But the interesting thing about those values is, they are beautiful as a system. And you always use them as a system and together. And what we have learned over the time is that when folks use only one of them to make a point, then it's very often actually used as a weapon. And I'll give you an example. We are an incredibly open company. So our intranet, which are only like our on Confluence, which we call Hello, pretty much everything is open and everyone can comment on things. And sometimes someone writes a blog post and then you get a reply." Hey, so it's the motto of open company, no bullshit. Let me just download all the things what I don't think is good about this blog post or about this page." And then it's mostly used as a, let's say, a justification of why someone can just critique someone heavily. But this completely forgets about the other value, play as a team, or build with heart and balance to balance this off and put this into context. And I think this systemic approach and playing multiple of those values makes them so powerful and so strong, and helps us as a company continuously evolve our culture.
Blake Bartlett: And how does this system of values influence how you thought about building the design practice at Atlassian specifically?
Jurgen Spangl: It's similar probably. So back in the days, now I'm now almost 10 years with Atlassian. In week two, I believe, when I started, and now back then we had, I don't know, six, eight designers? In week two, I told my previous boss like," Hey, I think I need to bring the team together for a workshop, because we are lacking design principles or a design language." And he, back then, asked me," Hey, hey. Take it easy there. Don't push it that hard." And this was one of those things of, no, you just take it. Be the change you seek, and you push it forward. And then we push something out very quickly. So this, I'd say, this drive of establishing the team, got manifested very early on. Another one is, I generally invite people to challenge pretty much everything what I say. And I invite them," Hey, this is my thought currently, but please ask the hard questions." And it's something what... it's very... you can feel it in my leadership team. And then I think it permeates out to the larger team. And this, again, is built on," Hey, open company, no bullshit. I'm generally a blunt person. I invite you to also challenge myself and others."
Blake Bartlett: So you spent a lot of years, as you just mentioned, building the design practice and thinking about design at Atlassian. But now you're thinking about something new, which is customer experience as the chief experience officer. So what does CX mean at Atlassian?
Jurgen Spangl: Yeah, it was an interesting next step. Over the years we established a design practice and had a big impact across the company with bringing a shared language across our products. Then we rebranded the company, and how this all hangs together. But the next step, what we wanted to take is, when think about experience, it's about all the interactions. The sum of all the interactions customers have with us. This starts from marketing, sales, community, to our products in support with our partners. And my team's job is to help us continuously improve those experiences and have them harmonious across Atlassian. Because the challenge what you have as a scaling organization is that you have more and more people in teams interacting with the customers and the users. But from their perspective, they still expect one experience, or a similar experience no matter who they talk with. And that's what we wanted to take as this next step of, how can we craft those, I deliberately call them, harmonious or over consistent, those harmonious experiences, end- to- end at any given time?
Blake Bartlett: So owning all of the customer touch points and all of the customer's experience, that singular experience that somebody in the shoes of a prospect or a customer has, that's a lot. And there's a lot of different touch points. There's a lot of different, then teams and folks that you need to work with and collaborate with. So I'm wondering, how do you, with all of that differences, how do you manage and tackle collaboration and cross- functional work?
Jurgen Spangl: And it's the whole, let's say, customer experience. CXOs is something what's evolving. They have multiple different flavors out there. And when I look at the teams I have in my organization, I deliberately pick those ones to help us mature in this space. And so I have research and insights in my team, and they help us to understand our customers, understand their context and then pass it on to our teams and help them make better decisions. So that's one part. The other part is, they also help us monitor how we are doing. Are we actually, like are our customers getting more satisfied? The next pillar, what I have is, future work, which is all about looking forward. What trends are out there? What do we learn from our customers? What do we learn from academia? What do we learn from other companies, from sports teams? How do teams work? Because that's very close to our mission, unleashing the potential of every team. So we need to understand where teams are going and how this is changing. The next pillar is programs and practices. So we actually moved program management over from engineering into my area. And it's, I'd say, an unusual move, but I think a very bold and forward looking move. And the reason why we did this was because we want to help the organization to start at the very beginning understanding the customers, coming up with concepts, exploring, and then making those things, and then all the way to the impact. And usually, when you have program management, and the largest part is actually, is this make phase, working with the engineers and executing on all those things. And the important thing is there's actually more to it. And it's the before and after, which is also important. So that was one part. The other one was, especially with the practice group, we, as organization need to continuously change and improve our DNA, how we do those things. And having the program managers and the practice folks embedded all over the teams help us change and improve how we operate as an organization. And then the fourth pillar I have in my team is, grew up within Atlassian is all of design. Product design, service, and content design. And we just recently brought them all together under the umbrella of experience design to get more accountability of crafting those interventionists. One interesting thing probably about, Blake, and I'll come to how do you work with the cross- functionals teams in a second is, when we looked into how do craft the CXO organization, I looked a lot and like," Hey, how are CTOs organized? Is it fairly similar to a CTO function?" And it is in most parts, but with chief design officer function. But one aha's what I had when we crafted this role was, there's actually also quite some overlap with a chief financial officer role. And it's this accounting part of how is the experience going? And we can actually learn a lot from the financial world, how the model forecasting from a revenue perspective, how can we help teams make better decision of what impact their initiatives would have from an experience perspective? And it's something where we are very early on, but which I'm very excited about, how do you connect our customers to our financial systems? And how can you help teams not just build business cases from a financial perspective, but also build, I call it, initiative cases from an experience impact perspective?
Blake Bartlett: Well, that's interesting. I think that that brings up a point that I've certainly seen in real life, which is when people talk about experience, a lot of times they think about the user experience in the product. And that is incredibly important, but there are so many things that touch their experience with your company. Like you mentioned with finance, and the billing experience is a component of the customer experience. If you have great UX in the product, but then the billing experience and actually paying for it is a nightmare, it affects your overall perspective of working with that vendor.
Jurgen Spangl: Yes, correctly. And this is, that's probably also one of the hardest challenges of working across all those teams and disciplines. And it doesn't matter how you organize your company. There's always so many people involved in delivering something to a customers and users. And I see it as the job of my team of helping us connecting those dots, designing for journeys and not just moments. As you said, it's not just like," Hey, the UI and the product experience needs to be good." Yes, of course it needs to be good, but sometimes it might actually be better to improve the documentation or the, I don't know, the onboarding in the product, or the marketing messaging. It might promise too much and then you can't deliver it in the product. So how can we balance this out? And sometimes this might actually be more cost effective to deliver than always just changing the product. Yeah, it's our job bringing those teams together, or visualizing to them what it means from a customer's perspective, so that each one of them understands better the relationship between all of those things.
Blake Bartlett: So a lot of that is the case for cross- functional work. And I know cross- functional teams and cross- functional work is certainly a popular topic these days that a lot of people are attracted to, because they see those benefits. However, there also are challenges. And so I'm curious, what are some of the challenge you see with cross- functional work, and how do you manage those challenges? Do you have any frameworks or pro tips from your own experience?
Jurgen Spangl: It's not easy. When you do it, it's super valuable and you get so many different perspectives. Like just bringing a field ops person who's out there with the teams closer to the product teams and allowing them to have the exchange. And even finding out who you need to talk to is one of the challenges. One of the interesting things though is, there's also the downside of, if you try to push this too far, then you have so many people involved in every meeting or in every session. And it becomes harder and harder who actually makes the decision on what. And a couple of, I'd say, plays, patterns, tricks what we are now started to use more when we collaborate with them across the organization. One is when we have meeting sessions, or I'm quite a lot in product leadership meetings, or in my leadership meetings where folks come in and they share something, and either want our feedback or a decision is made. Actually typing what kind of session it is. And usually, the ones which we go is, it's either an info session where you share something, and it's mostly for helping others to understand better. So it's about clarifying question and you invite folks in. Or a decision session where you come in and you lay out either multiple options, but you need to be very clear on who is the decision maker? And in what way is this person making the decision? Is it a decision by voting? Is it a decision by this person gets all the input in and then makes a call based on the input? And what we learned, it's the clearer we up front about those things, the better the session comes and the more people feel involved because their roles and responsibilities are clear. And then the last type of meeting and session we have, how to bring folks together is, what we call sparring, which is very often, you share a raw idea. And then you invite people to help you make the idea better and also be brutal. You invite them to be," Hey, no, tell me why it's not working from your perspective." Be deliberately the person who pushes a bit harder, or be deliberately the person who constantly builds on top of. And I know that's usually very often in critique you see that like," Yeah, use the term and instead of but." The beauty is actually in both, and you need both of them. But it's, again, coming back to how cross- functional teams collaborate. Being specific of what type of session it is, helps people put in a frame of mind, and also gives them more comfort that they're here for their unique opinion, for their unique view point what they have. And this helped us a lot of facilitating those cross- functional sessions.
Blake Bartlett: I really like that concept, because I think a lot of times most meetings have an agenda, but the agenda is," Here are the topics we're going to talk about." And then you just jump straight into the meeting. What you're talking about here is, is changing the concept of an agenda to not be a table of contents, but all the way at the very beginning, what kind of meeting is this? And that sets the expectations, that gets people into the right mindset for, what are we trying to accomplish in this session? What is my role in this session? And then you can participate accordingly. Because I think a lot of times everybody comes in with a different expectation as to what this meeting is, and then that leads to the chaos that ensues, especially if it's cross- functional then.
Jurgen Spangl: Yes. And one thing, what we started introducing over the last few years is we actually now at the top of it, we usually, we borrowed this from Amazon, with their six pages. We now actually very often start our meetings with reading some Confluence pages. We actually, at the top of the meeting we say like," This information session will be successful if..." And then have two, three bullets in there to be very clear what we are after. And I give you an example. Yesterday, we had a session with the product leadership team where my team came in, and it was about what should be our satisfaction goal? How fast should we be there? And Lisa, one of my players, set up the session." Well, this information would be successful if PLT has a shared understanding of all the drivers and influences of satisfaction. If product leadership team agrees to the goal and the timeframe we want to reach this goal." And the third one was," If product leadership team agrees to engage with us in a plan to create a plan, how we can reach this goal?" And then there was the whole content of the page, and then we had a whole debate about it. And this helped the team also constantly have in mind," Okay. What is the person who set up the meeting, what do they need to make this meeting successful?" And this avoids sometimes meetings go off track, or derailed, or someone keeps on talking about certain things. Bringing it always back to those things.
Blake Bartlett: The alignment is key on what kind of meeting is it, and what would make those meetings successful, and what are we driving towards? It's amazing how, again, like you said, that's simple, but it's really hard to do. And it's really easy to do in one meeting, but it's really hard to do across all meetings across your entire org. And so it really does become this discipline and this thing you need to stay focused on. You mentioned a couple of the types of meetings and being clear upfront on what those are. Two of them that I wanted to unpack. One you referenced, which was sparring, and the other one was journey mapping. And so, curious to know what these look like in real life. So maybe if we start with journey mapping. What is journey mapping?
Jurgen Spangl: Journey mapping is multiple things. And it's very often it gets used to map out an intervention. So it's basically a map. I think that's why it's called journey mapping. Where you visualize all the different interactions customer or user has with us. So in its simplest way, it's like, let's say a purchasing flow. They somehow get aware of, or they somehow realize they need something in a certain area, like certain product. Then they become aware of what different products are around there. Then they start researching this. So they go to your website, to other websites. Then they go deeper, try to understand this. Then they might want to find out pricing information that at certain point to make a purchasing decision. And then the onboarding of the product. So that's like a journey map across, let's say, a purchasing experience. Very often, this is used to get the team on the same page and expose what's actually going on. And it helps to explore, to connect, and help us identify where should be focus on, how satisfaction across those things. Also you can overlay it with metric. So this is the, I'd say mostly, the creative or design part about journey maps. And we actually have a couple of templates up on our playbook, which we externalized. So there's a couple of templates, how you facilitate this and how do you do those things. That's one part of journey mapping. What we started doing over the last, probably one, one- and- a- half years, we actually use journey mapping as a showcases. We call them end- to- end showcases, and it's less than mapping. It's more the walkthrough of how does it feel from a customer's perspective to go through those journeys? And we started doing them also on a very senior level for our most important journeys, which I aligned to our company objectives. And, oh man, this had an impact. This helped us on the one hand side as a catalyst to get the team like,"Oh, we need to present this to senior leadership." On the other hand, it got us as senior leaders way closer to our customers. And we understood where they say experience is good, where is it not too good. It helped us to figure out what is actually our shared understanding of what quality aspects what we have? And this helps us on the one hand side stay close to the experience our customers go through, on the other hand, be more aligned of what direction do we set as next steps. And so I now started thinking of it as two components. One, the creative part of creating those journeys. And the other one, the showcase part. And we now do them on a regular basis on basically across the company. It's again, it's almost a new type of meeting type what I explained early on. It's like the showcase type where you go in there and then you just share back how those journeys look like from our customer's perspective.
Blake Bartlett: I like that idea because I think on a customer- facing team, you could have folks talking about the customer journey. Or on a product team, they could be talking about a specific flow that a user would go through, and that being a journey. But you're pointing to the idea that you can do journey mapping across all different types of teams and problem sets, all the way up to the most senior executive groups within a company. And so it's this powerful type of meeting that shouldn't just be isolated to one team occasionally, but should be entertained really across the board.
Jurgen Spangl: Yes. So we currently, we built this... We try to get it in our own playbook, in our DNA. And teams, the more often they do, the better we become, the more we refine the machinery and logistics. Because, again, as soon as you go cross product, cross discipline, cross function, it gets harder. But those things then help us do this and facilitate this. And I think the most important thing is, every company talks about you want to be customer- focused, and it's customer- focused, but it takes effort bringing the customer in. And it's not just a bit of a vox pop here, and a big vox pop there, or reading some comments. Seeing them actually going through those journeys is incredibly powerful.
Blake Bartlett: So shifting gears to the other meeting type, which was sparring, and you alluded to it before, but curious to know what is sparring? When do you do it? And what does it look like in real life?
Jurgen Spangl: So sparring is very similar to design critique, but you can do it broader. You can do it, not just for designs. Our engineers now use also sparring, our PMs use sparring. Pretty much everyone in the company can use sparring for whatever it is. So, what is it? So it's basically, you come with a concept, an idea, a proposal, and you invite others to help you make it better. And this can be in the form of you add to it. You try to punch holes into it. Like you just... It's you, as a person who goes to the sparring, you deliberately invite others to hit it as hard as possible so that it becomes stronger and the idea becomes stronger. Or you realize," Hey, it's actually not a viable idea. And we might need to focus on something else." And what we learned over time is, how do we do this in the best way so that it's not all... Sparring sometimes can be brutal because it's, like when you bring something in that you put your sweat and blood behind it and you have a certain level of conviction, and you need to have a certain level of conviction that this is the right path forward. And then you ask others to make it better. But very often this means that they highlight things where it doesn't work that well. So this is something what, as an individual, you need to learn to get comfortable with, because you know that when you go through this, the end result is better. Even so you might end up somewhere completely different than where you started. We started doing this in the... When I started it, this was one of the other things what they introduced very early on when I started at Atlassian, and it started all in design, but by now it's used pretty much across the company. Yeah, which is one of those things. It's great to see that we invite more openly, people for feedback and shaping better products and experiences.
Blake Bartlett: And you mentioned the presenter psychology, which I could imagine on the one hand, when you think about the idea of people helping make your idea better, that sounds great. But then you actually get into the room and it starts to feel, at least it could feel like criticism and you might be inclined to be defensive. So how do you mentally prepare for it to where you get the most out of it versus just coming out feeling bad?
Jurgen Spangl: It's a good one. So one, there's the mental part of the presenter, which I think just comes with time. And potentially, at the beginning, you go to other sparrings where you're actually a feedback giver. And what we learned to do is being a bit more structured of how we do this. And again, we documented this in our playbook is, you ask the people first just write down things on post-it, or I guess comments on a page. And we also experimented with different ways of expressing what level of feedback it is that we have those concepts of something what would stop the whole idea. Like it's really big, or is it just a small thing what to change? So, and if the feedback givers actually qualify this, then it becomes way easier to absorb. The other thing is what we also do is, again, more from a mechanical perspective is, if someone made the point already, there's no point in two or three other people hammering in the same point and just keep on piling on. Because then the point is already made. And then you're not actually focusing anymore on the subject we spar or the idea we spar, you actually starting to go a little bit more on the person, which is never the intent. It's always about the theme you spar about and never about the person who presents this. And again, from a mental perspective, it's this constant self- reminding that it's about the theme what I'm building, but it's not me as a person. And this is not easy, but it's... the more often you do it, the better you get. As pretty much with everything what we do.
Blake Bartlett: I like this idea that there are rules of the road and best practices, both for presenter, as well as for feedback giver. In that in order to make it a productive sparring session, everybody has to come in with a prepared mind, knowing what is my role? What should my psychology be? How do I give the right amount of feedback, but not pile on? And all the rest. And it's really important to view it, not as this nonchalant casual thing where I just vent about my initial reactions to something that's presented to me, but you really go in, and you're really engaged, and really thoughtful about it. And that's what leads to the productive output.
Jurgen Spangl: Yes. And it's, there's an interesting thing is especially when earlier, when you're not... And it's still a bit uncomfortable, you do this. Very often, you get like- minded people because you want to hear the good things about your stuff. It's actually important that you invite a diverse range of people. And early on, we mostly had designers, but over time engineers showed up, PMs showed up. And it was actually really good, because it helped them to understand better how an idea is formed. On the other hand, you actually get different perspectives in. So one of the pitfalls is actually getting too many like- minded people in there, and then you hear all the good stuff. And then you think," Oh, it was really successful because I got so much good feedback." I'm usually very doubtful or questionable. If it feels too good, I usually challenge myself that something might be fishy.
Blake Bartlett: It's funny. There's actually an often referenced trend in dynamic, in venture capital, which is if every single person inside a firm is enthusiastic about a company, when you make the investment, probably it's a good signal that it might not actually work.
Jurgen Spangl: Yes.
Blake Bartlett: The ones that are correlated with the best outcomes are the ones that oftentimes are the most controversial when you make the investment. Half the room thinks it's the next big company, and the other half the room thinks it's a terrible idea. And usually those are the best investments versus the ones that everybody is cheering about.
Jurgen Spangl: Yes. And the same is true for design. I can recall many years ago there was an article around this, and we actually quickly debated this. It's sometimes the sparring actually might not go that well, and you still go ahead. And that's, again, this takes conviction and confidence of the designer or the person who shares something. But, and this is okay, because the whole thing is not about trying to get group thing, or a consensus decisions. Those are usually the worst design decisions. It's, I think, it's very similar.
Blake Bartlett: So shifting gears to the last question in closing here, wanted to talk a little bit about post COVID, certainly everybody's favorite topic right now, but I've heard you refer to it as the next normal, as opposed to the new normal, which I really like. So one of the things you've talked about there is the idea of finite versus infinite mindsets. And so, curious to think how does that play into the next normal?
Jurgen Spangl: So how we think about it, or how I think about it is, COVID was a massive catalyst of helping us understand that, work in a different way. When you look back from a history of perspective, it's like work was mostly geared for production, the people producing something. Very factory- orientated over the last few hundred years. But the workforce actually changed over the last few decades and it's way more knowledge work. But we still have similar patterns of going into work, coming back, 9: 00 to 5: 00. And COVID was this catalyst which made us realize," No, there is actually another way of how it could work and how this..." It gives us way more flexibility. Now, this demands that we actually curious and open mind, we need to embrace those new things. And this is, now to your point, finite versus infinite. There is pretty much when you look at finite games or mindsets, it's something with very strong rule base like a football or a soccer game. You know the rules, and then you play this thing and at the end, someone is a winner. Most of the things, or many things in the world work like this. It's most sport games or very often also business like you compete with someone else and you want to be the winner. And then when you contrast this with infinite games or infinite thinking, it's all about playing the game and advancing the game. And it's not about competition. Like the rules are not that clear. And it's about inviting others to the game and constantly improving yourself, and trying to make something better. And what's interesting there is, you basically constantly strive for being a better version of yourself. Being a better version of society. And it's not about beating someone else. And this is a different approach of looking at the world. Way more long- term focused, way more focused on one plus one is three and not everything is a zero sum game. Like, if I take this, then you can't have it. And I believe that the next normal, we need more of this. And it's pulling together as a society to solve the biggest challenges for us as a society, not for my company is better than your company kind of way.
Blake Bartlett: So one of the quotes that I love that I heard from you is that being human will be our superpower, not our weakness in the next normal. What does that mean?
Jurgen Spangl: I believe superpower of humans is around curiosity, creativity, empathy, caring for others. And when you look about the skills, what are needed in the future, and the World Economic Forum actually just ran a study on this skills, what are needed in 2025? It's all about analytical thinking and innovation, complex problem solving, creativity. In the past, you very often showed up to work. And then you were expected to leave your personality and all your self at home. And you just get your tasks done and work through. And then at 5: 00 or whenever you leave, you go home and switch over. But that's not how lives and work really work. And I believe that being able to actually bring your full self there and share in what state you are with your colleagues allows you to be way more curious, invite people, help them open up. You get way more diverse perspective. You get different points of view. Because there's a reality, and especially COVID and the next normal taught us this is, sometimes I have a hard time juggling my kids, or dropping them off at school, or with homeschooling. And then you show up in a meeting and you might actually do a quick check. We actually do this now. Like," Hey, how are you doing?" And people started to talk more openly about this stuff, and this then helps others, inviting them to participate in whatever state of mind they are. And I believe working in this kind of way will help us find better solutions and better solutions for the challenges what we have is at hand, than looking at everything in such a, I'd say almost robotic or archaic way that," No, we actually don't care about all this stuff what's going on in the world. Just act professional." I believe that this will go away and we will learn to be more vulnerable., So that we can take the full power each one of us brings. And this is this, just being human being who you are.
Blake Bartlett: I like that a lot because the term, work- life integration was something prior to COVID. But I think everybody had this question of what exactly does that mean? And then in the last year we've all seen that work and personal is merged together and we're sitting there on Zoom in our house, 24/7. And so you can't avoid that, but it's not just the logistics of work and personal life that are integrated now, it's so much more than that, that bringing your full self, being vulnerable, being human in work and at home is incredibly important. So Jurgen, thank you so much for spending time with us here on the Build podcast today. This was a fantastic conversation.
Jurgen Spangl: Thank you. Thanks again for having me. It was great chatting and sharing some of the thoughts.
Blake Bartlett: Thanks for listening to this episode of Build. If you like what you've heard, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and subscribe to stay up to date with all the new episodes. Follow me, Blake Bartlett, on LinkedIn to join in on the conversation, and let me know what you think about the show. Join me this season on Build as we look into the brilliant minds scaling Slack, Notion, Atlassian, and more to discover what it takes to build an awesome product and achieve hyper growth across every stage of maturity from seed, to IPO, and beyond. Now, if you're ready, let's build this together. See you next time here on Build.
Atlassian is a company driven by its principles and values. Jürgen Spangl (CXO) has been a leader at Atlassian since 2012, and he says these values impact everything at the company. This even includes how they approach meetings. Hear how structured sparring sessions and dedicated journey mapping exercises lead to better collaboration and better outcomes.