Project Management

Sense & Respond

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Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden, leading tech experts and founders of the global Lean UX movement, share their insights into how organizations can grow and thrive based on their ability to sense and respond instantly to customer and employee behaviors.

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Jeff Gothelf
Joshua Seiden

Recent Posts

Your next agile project: your career

Good Agile Teams Are Diverse Teams: How Diverse Teams Allow You To Solve Problems Early and Often

Moving from Project to Product: What Does “Product Thinking” Actually Mean?

Is Your Organization "Sort of" Agile?

Three Obstacles That Leaders of Cross-Functional Teams Face, and What To Do About Them

Your next agile project: your career

For years I’ve worked with teams helping them increase the agility of their product development efforts, leadership and culture. The thinking went that with a culture based on evidence-based decision making, continuous learning and customer centricity the organization could overcome any obstacle thrown its way without a company-wide panic. Since we have a learning loop built into everything that we do and we respect the evidence and insight it generates we create the environment where course correction is not only welcomed, it’s celebrated.

One of the places where we haven’t focused this approach nearly as much is ourselves, and more specifically our careers. Most folks take a standard approach to their career path — the one we’ve all been taught. Go to university. Get a degree. Find an entry-level job. Work your way up to management. Get the corner office. Save for retirement. Incremental improvements based on the assumption that the next best job will always be there, as will those promotions and corner offices. The reality we’re facing today — even before the pandemic threw the business world into disarray — is that those assumptions are rarely true. The loyalty we show to our employers is rarely reflected back to us and that straightforward career path we were promised often ends up looking like a zigzag line, if it’s even continuous at all.

(My new book, Forever Employable: How to Stop Looking for Work and Let Your Next Job Find You, has more tactical exercises like this.)

Why then haven’t we taken a good look at applying the basic principles of organisational agility to our careers and professional growth? The amazing thing is that these principles can be grafted onto to your professional path very easily. Let’s take a look.

We start with a problem statement to solve:
I set out to become successful in software engineering and follow a traditional subject matter expertise career path. Given the increasing volatility in the tech space, lower barriers to entry and the commoditisation of software engineering, finding the next best engineering job has become increasingly difficult. This causes me stress and anxiety about how to provide for my family and ensure stability and financial security for the foreseeable future.

How might I improve my professional development activities so that I ensure I always have a broad spectrum of opportunities available to me as a next best step in my career? I’ll know I’ve achieved this when I see at least one inbound job opportunity that I believe is a good fit per month.


In this statement, we’ve identified the current condition, the challenge to that condition and what the target condition could look like in terms of outcomes — changes in the behaviour of my target audience (in this case, it’s employers).

We move on to declaring assumptions:
I assume that my target audience is made up of CTO’s at companies I want to work for (a specific industry or type of organization), and that that the benefit they would get from hiring me is a better software engineering team and culture plus less stress on their day to day workload.

I also assume that I can get their attention by posting short videos on YouTube that share some bit of my knowledge or expertise. My expectation is that this content will reach this audience and ultimately motivate them to contact me when they have vacancies.

We then write our hypotheses:
I believe that by providing short videos on YouTube showcasing my tech expertise to CTO’s at companies I want to work for, I will build a strong audience that will continue to grow and consider me for future employment.

I will know I am right when I have at least 1,000 subscribers by the end of the year and I receive at least one relevant inbound job lead per month.


Finally, we run experiments:
Before you set out to buy a $10k home video studio invest $10 in a steady tripod and position your iPhone on it. Record yourself in front of a whiteboard sharing a 5 minute video of something you feel would be valuable to the people you’re trying to influence. Post it to YouTube and tell everyone about it. See what kind of feedback you get, make another video and post it again.


This is one, very specific example of how to apply the same exact principles of agility and continuous learning we use in product development to your own career. The template is nearly identical. The variables will change based on how you’d like to proceed in your career and where you’d like to grow. Just like in product development, our ideas are not always going to be right about what’s good for our career or is a good next step. And just like in product development, our goal is to influence the behaviour of others in a way that benefits them and us. In this case, you’re not focusing on customers of products but consumers of your skills, expertise and experience.

Want to learn more about this? My new book Forever Employable has tons more information.

Posted by Jeff Gothelf on: July 13, 2020 06:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Good Agile Teams Are Diverse Teams: How Diverse Teams Allow You To Solve Problems Early and Often

Have you ever been asked to put lipstick on a pig? If you’ve ever worked as a designer, then you know it works something like this…

Your client will come to you with with a product that’s very close to being done, almost ready to ship, and ask you to “fix the design.” They can’t exactly tell you what they want, but they know that something is wrong. Very wrong. 

Maybe the product is ugly. It probably is, but that’s probably not the real problem. The real problem is probably deeper. The product is confusing. The product doesn’t do what customers want. Or maybe it’s just… missing something. They’ve come to you, hoping that design will fix it.

But we all know how this story ends. The designer shows up, sees the pig, and complains (usually under his or her breath), they just want me to put lipstick on this pig.

Before you go complaining that some pigs are beautiful, let’s just agree right now that no amount of lipstick is going to this little guy into a movie star. Photo by mali maeder from Pexels

Why does this happen? In the design world, we understand that this is a problem caused by bringing designers into the process too late. Early in the process, designers can help identify what customers and users want, and can help define the way the product works, the problems it solves - not just how it looks. In other words, the issues that show up late in the process can often be avoided if the right people are involved early in the process. 

Now this may sound like a commercial for design, but it's not. It happens to engineers too. Even though Engineering is often involved in projects close to the beginning, every engineer can tell you a story about the time he or she was handed a set of orders from "the business", and being told to "just build it." (This isn't exactly lipstick- on-the-pig. It's more like Frankenstein's monster.)

So, this this is actually a public service announcement: every discipline needs to be at the table early in the process so they can work on the project together - for the duration of the project.

Good Agile Teams are Diverse Teams

Good agile teams tend to be diverse teams. They are diverse across a range of dimensions. From culture to race to gender to skill to roles. They possess a mix of perspectives that allow them to identify critical issues early. They possess the decision-making capability to decide how to address the problems and opportunities that they find. They possess a mix of skills that allow them to fix these issues before they become unfixable. Business, design, engineering, etc, all working in collaboration.

Sounds great, right? Well, it doesn’t always feel great. That’s because the very thing that makes teams like this effective — their diversity — can also make for a lot of conflict. Studies show that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams, but they also experience more conflict.

Build Collaborative Teams Intentionally

To handle this conflict, you want to get ahead of it. 

  • Anticipate problems by creating Team Working Agreements. Team working agreements allow teams to create a commitment to collaboration — and give teams tools to address conflict when it inevitably arrives. 

  •  Get good at interviewing your team-mates, your customers, your stakeholders. Listen not just for what they tell you, but also for what they might not be telling you.
  • Build empathy and understanding across your team by creating empathy maps. Take what you’ve learned from your listening work and model it in a structured way to gain insight about your co-workers.
  • Finally, take what you’ve learned and build better plans — plans that take advantage of everyone’s perspectives, skills, and abilities.

Sound intriguing? Want to learn more? Check out our new online course, coming soon on PMI.org.

Posted by Joshua Seiden on: November 18, 2019 10:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Moving from Project to Product: What Does “Product Thinking” Actually Mean?

Product management has become one of the hottest job titles in most organizations. Is it really that different than project management? In short, it is. And the difference is fundamental because the nature of projects and products couldn’t be more different. The more an organization can embrace a product mindset, the more agility that organization exhibits, the better they can sense and respond. Let’s take a deeper look.
 

Project vs Product -- 3 ways to reframe your mindset


Projects end. Products are continuous. 

In traditional project management we usually work towards a fixed scope. There’s a clear deliverable at the end of the project and once it is handed over to the client or customer, the project is over. The team celebrates and moves on to the next initiative. Their responsibilities are effectively over for this project. The measure of success in this instance is the successful delivery of the project in a way that works as it was designed.
 

Is that the optimal solution? Does it provide real value to the users of that solution? Does it achieve the goals of the business that sponsored it? Generally speaking, this is not the responsibility of the team that built that project nor the project manager who drove it to its successful launch.
 

In contrast, products are continuous systems. Defined explicitly: products are the way an organization delivers and captures value. They don’t have an end. Products are never done. For example, when is Amazon done? When is a bank done? When is your hair stylist done delivering their service? When we view our work as a product we realize that delivering the components of that product are not the measures of its success. They are the continuous evolution (and hopefully improvement) of that product. Our goal when we approach our work with a product mindset is not to celebrate the incremental and iterative deliveries of features, functionalities and improvements but rather their outcomes -- the measurable changes in the behavior of the people who consume those products.
 

Delivering an output is designed to be an ongoing, uneventful part of building continuous products. Instead of celebrating each output, we focus on the outcomes we seek to generate to tell us whether this product is worth any more investment or effort.
 

Projects are linear. Products are circular. 

Because projects end, they have a linear planning process. We work from one phase to the next, handing off our work to the next discipline in the production chain. We ask each discipline to estimate their levels of effort and we put together a linear project plan or roadmap. Our goal is predictability and consistency. We often don’t account for variability or new discoveries because we want to provide a confident answer to the question, “When will it be done?”
 

Products continuously evolve and, as mentioned above, don’t have a specific “end” when they’re conceived. They’re designed to deliver value on an ongoing basis. As new feedback comes in from the use of the product, the team must respond to that feedback and adjust their plans based on this new information. The entire basis for Agile as the new way of working is based on this idea. As an organization learns new things (senses) about its product it adjusts how it responds to those things. The plan changes. The organization and therefore the product exhibit agility. This is critical to success in today’s rapid change environment. Product thinking ensures that our plans stay as agile as our products.
 

Projects are components. Products are systems. 

The continuous delivery of new ideas to market is where projects shine. But these deliveries are simply components of the overall system, the product. Each component may or may not deliver real value to the consumer and the business. Product teams optimize their ways of working to sense as quickly as possible whether this value is being delivered and realized and, if not, to adjust the planning and the system accordingly.
 

Why is this important? Because the consumers of our products are inevitably going to be other people. And these other people, we’re sorry to say, are almost always unpredictable. They don’t use the products as we imagined. They struggle to complete tasks we thought were simple. They abandon our products for seemingly more difficult or “older” tools because of familiarity. Our responsibility as product thinkers is to connect with our customers, understand these pain points and challenges and adjust our product planning to reflect the insights we gain from these conversations.
 

This insight is what allows us to plan the next set of components (mini projects) we want to introduce into the system (the product) remembering that our goal isn’t the deployment of these new components but rather the successful alleviation of the challenges the humans who use our products told us they were having with it.
 

Project managers looking to increase the agility of their teams and to build more of a product mindset in the way they work need to consider these 3 elements of product thinking. In addition, they need to carefully adjust the tools they’ve been using to match this new reality. The tools and methods we use for planning need to embrace agility and reflect that in the work project managers produce. Agile roadmaps provide guidance and direction but can’t commit to fixed time and scope, since it is unknown in a continuous system. The needs of the people we serve are continuously changing which requires today’s project managers to learn how to assess these evolving needs on a regular basis through regular customer interviews. Finally, the needs of the product teams will evolve as well. The tools, data, insight and feedback they require will morph as the product system evolves. As a project manager, it’s your responsibility to empathize with the evolving needs of your team so they can do their best work as well.
 

We have many more articles coming up on how to do these new activities and they are all part of the online course we’re building and launching soon right here with PMI. Learn more and sign up here.

Posted by Jeff Gothelf on: October 18, 2019 12:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (21)

Is Your Organization "Sort of" Agile?

At least once a week, we stand in front of a room of executives, leaders, managers and practitioners and ask the question, “How many of you work in an Agile way?” Without fail, 99% of the hands in the room go up. The other 1%, the honest ones, raise their hand halfway and wave it side to side indicating that they are “sort of” Agile. Why “sort of”? Because in most cases organizations are implementing Agile, the process. While these teams are going through the motions that Agile recipes dictate, they rarely see any increased value from this. Instead, we work with leaders and teams to help them increase their agility. Agility is an organization’s ability to react, in real-time, to new information, product insights, market changes and competitive threats. We believe the only way to do that is to build a Sense & Respond organization. 

We cover many dimensions of a Sense & Respond organization in our book with the same name. In this article we wanted to highlight the most important dimensions of this type of organization and call out how each of these dimensions increases the agility of our organizations.[We’ve highlighted a few important tools we teach people to use to achieve these goals. Stay tuned for news about trainings we’ll be offering to the PMI community on how to use these tools.]

Customer-Centricity

In a web-driven world where customers—both B2C and B2B—have overwhelming power, it continues to surprise us how many organizations still don’t put their customers first. Many companies never talk to their customers, instead making assumptions based on previous experience and hoping (yes, hoping) that everything will continue the way it always has. A Sense & Respond organization recognizes the customer as the ultimate authority on value. As our friend and consultant David Bland likes to say, “You can decide what a minimum product is but the customer decides if it’s viable.” In fact, the product has no value at all if customers don’t use it. We therefore teach the companies we work with to understand their customers deeply, to create empathy maps and proto-personas and to build a continuous cadence of conversation with them. These conversations allows your organization to “sense” how well you’re delivering value. And it’s this continuous customer-centric insight that allows your planning and decision-making to begin to be truly agile. 

Continuous Learning

I once had a ski instructor say to me, “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” Even if we work for large, established successful organizations, we cannot rest on our laurels. The pace of change today is too rapid. This means we must create an organization that values and rewards continuous learning. Organizations must sense through every channel available whether their products and services actually serve customers well. We work with our clients to build research plans, create interview guides and build bridges to frontline departments like sales, customer service (call centers) and retail employees. We balance this learning with quantitative data to ensure that we’ve got a 360 degree view of what our customers are doing and, just as important, why they’re doing it. 

Evidence-Based Decision Making
Sensing is worthless if we don’t respond. It’s our responses, their frequency and our ability to adapt them quickly that drives the agility of our organizations. Responses, while often guided by gut instinct and experience, should always be based in evidence. The insight you collect when sensing is that evidence. It provides the foundation for your teams to make the best possible decision they can at every moment and reduces the risk of those decisions failing to improve the situation. One technique we often teach is framing a decision as an experiment. Instead of making a big, potentially risky change to how a system, service or company works, we launch a small, low-risk version of it. And then we wait (not too long) to see how user behavior shifts due to this change. If the change we see meets our expectations and desired outcomes, we scale the change and optimize it. If not, we roll it back, begin the sensing process again to understand why it didn’t work, and try again. These short Sense & Respond loops are the muscle that organizations need to build if they want to increase their agility. 

Incentives
Organizational agility thrives when it’s rewarded. When teams we work with struggle to implement the Sense & Respond way of working we find there is often a conflict between what the team is being asked to do and what the team is being paid to do. The techniques that enable continuous learning and customer-centricity can be taught to product development and other types of teams with success (we do this on a weekly basis). But teams will not put these tools to use if that is not what the organizational culture values and rewards. In these situations we end up with the folks mentioned at the beginning of this article, the “sort of” folks. 

When we work with leadership teams, one of the things we stress is that while the processes, vocabulary, tools and techniques that support organizational agility are important to fund, train and promote, their full potential won’t be realized if we don’t change how we incentivize these cross-functional Sense & Respond teams. 

The Dimensions of Agility
These are just a few ways that we’ve seen organizations begin to increase their agility. Rather than simply implementing Agile recipes, they think more broadly about how to put their customers front and center and enable their teams to continuously learn from these customers. What have you seen work well to drive agility? What techniques do you use? Share them with us in the comments. 

Join us on Nov 8 for our first Sense & Respond webinar with PMI. Details and sign up options can be found here. 

Posted by Joshua Seiden on: September 14, 2019 11:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Three Obstacles That Leaders of Cross-Functional Teams Face, and What To Do About Them

I used to live in the suburbs next to a guy named Jim. Jim spent a LOT of time outside in his yard with loud, gasoline-powered equipment and tools. His favorite tool, and the loudest coincidentally, was his leaf-blower. And while he did have a stellar looking yard, the noise that emanated from said leaf-blower on a daily basis—multiple times a day—conflicted with my work-from-home conference call schedule. Often.
 

Any sane person would immediately assume that the level of attention Jim paid to his yard was excessive. And they’d be right. But I lived next to him for 10 years and over that time developed a different understanding of Jim’s perspective.
 

Jim had an angled driveway that connected directly to his garage and house. Rainwater and snow-melt would flow down the driveway towards the garage and into a grate. If that grate clogged with leaves, branches and twigs that fell from the big trees around our houses, Jim would get water in his basement. This was the main driver of his leaf-blower obsession.
 

Jim would regularly show me how much debris he’d cleared each day and note that once again his basement would stay dry. By experiencing this situation together with my neighbor I was able to learn, quickly, why he was behaving in this particular way. This experience formed the basis of our shared understanding. Because we had done something together, at the same time we had a clear understanding of what happened, who it happened to and what drove the action. The only thing we had left to decide was what to do about it. (Spoiler: better headphones for me did the trick.)
 

Shared Understanding And Cross-Functional Teams

To increase the agility of our organizations we also need to build a team structure that builds shared understanding. In the old linear world, waterfall processes worked well. One discipline did their work, handed it off to the next discipline in line and repeated the process. Efficiency was the goal and the time to production of the final product—well defined and well-understood—was the measure of success.
 

The model that replaces discipline-based silos in today’s uncertainty-filled contexts is the cross-functional team. These teams are made up of individuals with the skillsets necessary to deliver an entire product from beginning to end. They work together on the same project or initiative at the same time. They discuss their work together on a daily basis and adjust their approach based on input from everyone on the team.
 

Cross-functional teams reduce the cycle time of learning, so teams can better understand whether their product is truly delivering value. The faster a team learns, the more agility it exhibits. Working together in short cycles (called “sprints” in the Agile world) builds shared understanding. Shared understanding—like the kind Jim and I had because we were neighbors —is the currency of an agile team. When something happens,the team doesn’t have to waste time explaining to each other what happened. They were there. They experienced it first hand together. Instead, the team can move to a far more productive conversation: “What are we going to do about it?”
 

Leaders who can help teams build shared understanding save time, money and effort and lead to an improved quality of their product or service. But leading cross-functional teams to achieve as much shared understanding as possible has its own challenges. Here are three challenges to consider as you work towards managing and increasing the agility of your organization.
 

The team leader doesn’t have the same technical or domain expertise as the rest of the team

If you’re in charge of a cross-functional team odds are you rose to that role through a specific discipline. Maybe you were a software engineer or a business analyst. You were probably very good at that job but you’re certainly not an expert on how every other discipline should do their job. One of the things we teach in our courses is to set clear goals and guidelines for the team. Then get out of their way. Trust the team to do their best work. If you don’t understand how they do their work consider running a series of discovery interviews— something we also cover in our online and in-person courses. Ask them questions like, “How do you make decisions?”, “What constraints do you have on your work?” and let them explain their process and decisions.
 

Aligning the team to priorities and building consensus can prove difficult

If you were to ask a cross-functional team what the most important thing they needed to do next was, you would get as many answers as there were disciplines seated at the table. All of them are right but which one is the number one priority? In this frequent situation it’s your job as the team lead to determine which priorities are currently critical to the success of the initiative. You probably don’t know either. In high-uncertainty contexts, this is normal! So what should you do? We teach the teams we work with to frame their work as testable hypotheses. This allows the entire team to express which features they believe they should move forward and how they will know it was the right decision. Teams test their hypotheses to determine which thing, if we don’t do it right now, causes the biggest risk to the project. That’s the one the team should work on next.  It doesn’t mean the other ideas are wrong. It just means that you are going to defer work on those items until these higher risk issues are solved.
 

How do we keep everyone “busy” throughout the entire initiative?

Throughout a project’s lifecycle certain disciplines will be busier than others at various times. In the early stages design and product management do a lot of work while during the middle the engineers pick up the bulk of the work. What do the less-busy disciplines do during those times? Since we don’t want to break the team apart and move less busy people to other projects for fear of breaking the shared understanding the team has created we need to learn what other skills these folks bring to the table. Can they talk to customers? Can they do QA or UAT testing? Can they build a presentation to educate other departments about the upcoming changes the team is building? In addition, these same folks can likely continue doing their core work. Not everything fits into a sprint and so there is almost always something for designers, writers, business analysts and project managers to do. As Josh recently wrote on his blog, “Agile teams should be doing all of these things continuously, in every sprint. You want to be researching continuously. Designing continuously. Building continuously.”
 

Shared understanding is the key to agility

Agility is a goal all companies should strive to achieve. Your choice of how to staff and lead teams will impact this goal significantly. The more cross-functional your teams can be, the more shared understanding they will gain, the more agility the teams will exhibit. Nevertheless, this staffing model isn’t free. It has its own challenges that, as a strong team leader, you can overcome with some training, some improvisation, some humility, and some creativity.
 

We’re working closely with PMI to build offerings that teach shared understanding, collaboration and agility and we’d love to hear from you. What have you seen work well on cross-functional teams? What has been challenging in making them work? Who have you seen do this well? Reply in the comments and let’s build a list of best practices.

 

We're collaborating with PMI to create new online resources, webinars and in-person events to help you build, maintain and scale your Sense & Respond organization. To keep track of what we’re building together sign up here

Posted by Jeff Gothelf on: August 21, 2019 06:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)
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