Lean UX & Enterprise Change Management
[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome, Jeff, to the Getting2Alpha podcast.
Thanks so much for having me.
I’m delighted to have you here. Let’s start by getting a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you get started working in design and tech, and what did you decide to pursue along the way?
Sure. I was a broke musician. Coming out of college I tried for a few years to be a rock star in a couple of different bands, and as these things happen it didn’t work out the way I’d planned. This was happening, this was culminating in the late 90s, the mid to late 90s as the web was peering and becoming a thing. Perhaps the good and the bad thing of the late 90s was if you could spell HTML you could get a job back then. That certainly was no different for me. I started building websites and picking apart websites for my band and other bands, and then I got a job working at a services company in the web 1.0 days. That was a job as a front end developer, which is a much different role than it is today, much, much more simple, much easier job back then, and doing some graphic design.
Then over the years, that translated from front end development and graphic design into information architecture, so I read the polar bear book. That really transformed my life back in 1999/2000, and then the IA work that I started doing translated into more UX work and interaction design as the web became more interactive. I ended up moving firmly into UX in the mid 2000s when I worked at companies like AOL and WebTrends, and when I came back to the east coast about 9 years ago, I ended up at a company called The Ladders where I was tasked with building a UX team. That company was transitioning into an Agile working model at the time, so my job was now two fold. It was to build a team, but to figure out how to make Agile and UX work together.
That’s really where a lot of the ideas … That’s really the pivot point in my career. Up until that point I was doing straight ahead design work, UX work, team leadership, team building, that type of thing, product design work, and then when we started moving to the Agile UX stuff, it eventually became what we called Lean UX, and as soon as we started publishing the ideas around that, the conversation shifted for me personally from help us design this product to help us design our process, and that led to the world of consulting that I do now, fueled by the Lean UX book and certainly no shortage of conference appearances and that type of thing.
That’s great. What was the thing that first prompted you to start sharing your knowledge by writing and speaking and teaching others about design? What are the topics that you’re most passionate about that are near and dear to your heart?
Yeah, so to get started again, a task of building that design team in an Agile environment, the first thing that I did was I went to Google and I searched Agile and UX, and there wasn’t a lot there, but what was there was almost all negative, failure, failure, failure. This doesn’t work, this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work. We got to figure out how to get away from this Agile thing if we want to do good design work. In speaking to the people who wrote those posts, I learned a lot of anti patterns, and figuring out how to work through those anti patterns led to some successes, and given the dearth of success stories or even any tactics about how to make these 2 things work well together, I figured some people might be interested in this.
We started blogging about it, writing about what we were doing and how we were doing it, doing some podcasts, that type of thing, and it took off like wildfire. It really was. People were starving for this type of information and were looking for some folks who had made it work, and that became really interesting, and so we codified that, I codified that in an article 5 years ago in Smashing Magazine called Lean UX – Getting Out of the Deliverables Business, and that really sparked a global conversation around the ideas of design, Agile, Lean startup, etc., what does that look like in a modern, increasingly continuous, increasingly Agile world?
That for a long time was what was near and dear to my heart, was making sure that design had a clear role to play in the product development process as it became Agile, which in the traditional Waterfall world, there was always a place for design. It was there. It was a design phase. It came after the define phase, but in Agile, it became less clear. That was my passion for a long time, was making sure that design had a clear presence in the Agile software development world, and that really fueled a global conversation and drove a lot of the work and the consulting work and the consulting company that I helped build at Neo for 4 years.
What’s interesting is that after a while, there’s only so much change you can make at the team level before it starts to hit changes that need to happen at the management level, and that’s where I’ve been focusing lately, and so the stuff that’s near and dear to my heart has evolved in the last couple of years to far greater in scope at really looking at how organizations are structured, how organizations are designed, how companies manage in a world that is increasingly being driven by software. These days, my passion is convincing executives that they’re in the software business no matter what it is that they actually provide, and that managing software businesses is different than the classical management model, the manufacturing industrial management model that’s been taught in business schools for the last 100 years. That’s really what I’ve been working on lately, and it’s really interesting how that’s transitioned from design to designing products to really designing organizations.
Tell us 2 or 3 key ideas about how designing organizations is different than the classical management model, just to give us something to chew on. You’ve got a head of steam and a lot of passion around this.
Absolutely. It’s interesting the biggest quality that an executive or executive team or an organization has to adopt is a quality of humility. That is the key to all of it at the end of the day. In an industrial model, there is less risk, and if there’s less risk, people successfully operated with less humility. What I mean by that is that let’s assume you’re making a car, for example. You know exactly what the car is going to look like when it’s done, you know exactly what components need to go into it, you have a clear sense of what the cost to produce the car is, you have a pretty good sense of what you’re going to sell it for, what your profits are going to be, and you have a pretty good sense of what people are going to do with that car.
In that situation, there’s a lot of knowns, and so the risk is a lot lower, and so the focus is really on efficiency and the optimization of the production process and the manufacturing process. When you’re managing a software business, all those things are unknown. Software essentially is never done. In the continuous world, software is never done, and you really don’t know what your customers are going to do to it when you deliver its market, and you don’t know if it’s going to work exactly the way you hoped, and you don’t know what it’s going to look like.
Adopting a position of humility simply means as an organization, as a leader, or as a team, we’re still going to have a strong opinion about what we believe this product should do and how it should behave and how it should look and what the experience should be, but we’re going to work to learn quickly whether those opinions are actually true, and in the face of evidence that refutes our initial set of assumptions, we’re willing to change course.
That’s really the key. The key is this ability to say it has to be … You have to have the ability to say I was wrong about this, and you have to work in an environment that embraces that, says, “Okay, you were wrong about that. Tell me why you think you were wrong and what you think we should do next?” Then move on, based on evidence, to the next possibility for solving that particular customer need or business problem.
Everything flows from that. Everything flows from that position of humility, how we incentivize our teams, how we assign work to those teams, how we measure success. All of those things change. Really, fundamentally, if you think about it, the success of car manufacturing is how many cars did you manufacture, and then ultimately how many did you sell, and what we’re looking for in software driven businesses is customer behaviors as opposed to the number of features that you launch or how many people were actually using the features. It’s more about did we get customers to use the service, did we get them to use it regularly, did it make them more successful in life or in work, did they tell their friends about it, did they pay us for it? Those are all the things we can measure, and you can optimize your efforts based on those customer success metrics as opposed to did we ship 10 features this month.
That’s really the biggest change in all of this.
Wow. Is that a problem that, as you travel around the world, and I know you’re in great demand and you’ve been all over the world, do people come up and share with you that that’s a problem in their organization?
Yeah. The short answer is yes, and everywhere. It’s the reason, really, it’s the reason that inspired Josh Seiden and I to write our second book, Sense and Respond. The overwhelming feedback from the people who read the Lean UX book, the overwhelming feedback from the teams that I work with, and even the middle managers/senior executives that I work with is that’s not how we operate. We work in a place that assumes that the manager has the answer, and that management knows exactly what needs to happen and when it needs to happen. If that doesn’t happen, then someone gets in trouble. Reconfiguring the culture of these organizations is a huge challenge and it’s prevalent everywhere, everywhere all over the world, certainly all over the United States, in every domain, in every industry. There’s still this mentality that …
It comes down to a level of trust. If you’re an executive or a manager and you’re entrusted with a particular business unit or a product or a service, it’s a question of do you trust your teams to do good work? If you hired good people and you’ve given them good problems to solve and you’ve incentivized them properly, they will do good work, but you have to trust them to do that, and it’s missing in a lot of organizations. Again, I think this comes down to not just humility, but incentive structures. There are more incentive structures built around shipping than anything else. Did you launch the iPhone app? Did you ship that feature? Did you integrate that vendor? Whatever it is and that is what people get rewarded for. If that’s what they’re getting rewarded for, that’s what they’re going to manage to, and so the system struggles to change.
We’re going to get more into that Sense and Respond book in a moment, so stay tuned. As you travel the world, you hear these stories, as you roll up your sleeves and work with your clients and executives, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see well meaning product creators making in the early stages of testing their ideas?
It still amazes me how few customers see the idea in its most nascent state. There’s still this belief, still given that Lean startups have been out for 5 years, that the idea of customer … Obviously user research has been around forever, but even the modern version, customer development, and all that has been around for years at this point. It still amazes me how few organizations, teams, designers, product makers get their ideas in front of their potential audience, their target audience, in its earliest stages, and how much investment is made down paths that are never going to succeed. It’s done under the best of intentions. It’s not like these folks are out there to sabotage themselves or projects that they’re working on. I think they feel like they’re showing their work early, but in my opinion, they’re waiting way, way, way too long and they’re staffing up and investing far too much in efforts that haven’t proven that they bear fruit yet.
Frankly, I work with middle and large organizations more so than startups, but I certainly see it in startups, but I see it in large organizations all the time, large organizations that mean well. They’ve read Lean Startup, they’ve read Innovator’s Dilemma, they know they got to carve out this team and they got to give it time and funding, but then instead of giving it 5 people for 6 months and seeing what they come up with, they immediately dump 75 people in this unit and fund them for 2 years and hope that something good will come of it, and again, it’s an unwarranted investment given that nothing’s been proven.
To me, that’s the biggest mistake that I see, is there’s still this sense that, “no, we can’t show that to customers just yet,” regardless of the state of the thing, and that unfortunately yields a lot of waste and a lot of bad products.
Wow. How do you approach early testing and integration on your own products? For instance, you have this awesome new book coming out. You mentioned it’s based on a lot of feedback. Did you test early versions? How did you decide that that was the thing to pursue?
Great question. As a lot of folks know the book publishing industry is probably the most un-Lean, un-Agile industry in the world. It’s still very, very linear, very Waterfall. We wanted to … When I say we, it’s Josh Seiden and I, wanted to pitch our new book idea based on not just our opinion that people want this material, but this material has value and we can prove that out. Part of that, yes, there’s ways to do that. Obviously we were lucky enough because we wrote a book before that, and so we’ve been collecting feedback on that for the last 3 and a half years, and that book continues to sell very well every month, and people continue to give us feedback, whether it’s Amazon reviews or emails or tweets or whatever it is, we still get a sense of how people are dealing with the issues in that book. That’s one.
In assessing that, we wanted to write a new book. It was time to test some ideas. The way that I do it is incremental investments. The first thing I do is tweets. I tweet out topics that I think are interesting that will potentially make it into the book. Maybe they’re chapter headers, maybe they’re just stuff that we put into a table of contents, and I see the reaction that it gets. Does it spark conversation? Does it get retweets? Does it get likes? If that’s the case, I’ll invest a little bit more. Maybe we’ll try a few more tweets in that direction or write something for my blog about it, few hundred words to see how that conversation resonates. If that seems to go well, you can elevate the level of effort to a Medium post or something along those lines.
Again, all of this starts to drive and increase level of investment in a topic, in a particular path, and that’s really helped shape a lot of the content in the book, because we’ve been getting a sense of what’s resonating. There’s only so far you can go with that, at least in traditional book publishing, which is the path that we’ve chosen, because after awhile you have to then commit to a manuscript, get it written, and get it submitted, and then that becomes the snapshot in time that’s a printed book. There is some incremental product development based on feedback that goes into it, but after awhile you just have to commit to it.
Yeah, and I noticed Eric Ries did a Kickstarter to test the waters, etc. There’s a lot of different ways to see what it is that people actually want, but getting it into a book form is painful because you have to freeze it in time and Lean is great because it can keep changing, but it means it’ll reach so many people. A lot of people need that message.
Yeah. It still amazes me how impactful a book can be in 2016, just given how much content is being generated. There’s a lot of crap out there for sure, but there’s a lot of good content out there, too, and so it’s amazing to me that books still resonate as much as they do.
It’s form factor and it’s the entry way into a whole world, and that’s really easy to pick up on a plane or on a vacation, etc. You’ve had this amazing career, from design to Agile consultant and author and workshop leader. What do you feel is your sweet spot as a designer, as a creator, as a coach? What projects light you up the most?
It’s a really good question because it’s definitely shifting these days. I’m in a bit of a transition, I think, personally right about now because I think for years the answer would’ve been an interesting, complicated customer problem to solve in a product scenario. I still have that passion and would love to go back to that again, but I’m not currently doing that kind of work. The thing that really is interesting to me, the impact, is trying to have a meaningful impact on larger organizations as they begin to cope with the realities of 21st century business. We talked about software. The way that any business of scale or any business that seeks to scale in the 21st century is a software business first, and so it’s reconciling that with their traditional business models and managing models and then helping them reshape the way that they run their businesses. To me, that’s really interesting.
Getting in there with a large company … Look, I recognize the daunting nature of those assignments, but I think that’s part of what’s exciting about it. If you can get in there and you can make a little bit of a dent, make things a little bit better, more success, I’m going to say more agile, but lowercase a, agile, right, greater agility. I think that’s what’s really interesting to me and that’s what I really enjoy doing right now and where I’m focusing a lot of my efforts.
Awesome. What trends are you seeing that are new and exciting in design and tech? Whose work are you paying attention to? There’s a lot going on. What’s relevant in your world?
That’s, yeah, really interesting because the word design in that is really broad for me. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in products, there’s a lot of stuff going on in organizational design. What’s interesting to me at the product level, I don’t have one yet, but the Amazon Echo is a really interesting device. It just came out of the blue and became a big hit for them. I haven’t interacted with one yet, but that one is really interesting. Again, at the product level, I have my first virtual reality experience at a conference in Poland not too long ago and was really blown away. I expected it to be clunky and not interesting. They literally put you in a scenario in this particular demo where you’re a rock climber on the side of a cliff, and the guy is telling me in my headphones, he says, “Jump, jump off the cliff,” and I couldn’t do it. I knew full well it was not real. I was really blown away. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity there to see how that materializes, and it seems like there’s a lot of companies doubling down on that.
I think more broadly, work that’s more relevant to me in terms of the work that I’m doing right now, the folks that I’ve been watching and admiring for years to see what they’re doing, I think there’s interesting work. Jeff Patton’s been doing great work for years. I’m always curious to see what he’s doing. Doing a little bit of work with Barry O’Reilly who wrote “Lean Enterprise,” to see what he’s doing. Hanging out with some of the faculty from lean startup companies, Smith and Jonathan Birdfield and those folks over there. Again, smart folks doing really interesting work. I’ve really taken a lot away from Christina Wodtke‘s OKR book, Radical Focus, which was a terrific read and a great intro to that topic. Those are the folks that I’ve been paying attention to a lot lately.
Great. We’ll be sure to include those links in the show notes. Where’s your focus these days? What’s coming up on the horizon that’s exciting for you?
The release of our new book, Sense and Respond, is the most exciting thing on the horizon. We’re looking for that to come out in late November/early December 2016, and it’s coming out on Harvard Business Press. It’s been 2 years of work, of research, of case studies, of putting together this practical introduction to what it means to manage a continuously learning business fueled by software. That’s the biggest thing on the horizon right now.
Wow. That’s exciting. We’ll be sure to include a way for folks to sign up for pre-release notice.
Absolutely, and in fact, you can pre-order it on Amazon. It’s up on Amazon at the moment, so you can sign up for our mailing list at SenseandRespond.co, or there’s a link there to pre-order it as well, which we’d be eternally grateful for .
Awesome. You also mentioned that there may be some new workshops coming up. Is that something that you’re ready to talk a little bit about?
You asked me earlier how we test and validate our work, so yes. The short answer is yes there is a new workshop coming out. We’re in the beta test phase of it now, so we’re running very small, low cost MVPs, experiments of this workshop to learn how well this new material is resonating, where it’s working, where it’s not, and my goal is by the fall to have it ready for broader … Just get back out there and teach the workshop. The focus of the workshop is advanced … It’s called Lean for Leaders. It’s essentially the next class … If you’ve taken one of my Lean UX workshops, then this is the next step in that process. This is the … You know what hypotheses are, you know what experiments are, you know what assumptions are, and now you’re trying to manage a team, or run multiple experiments, do delivery and discovery at the same time, and how do you handle that?
I think that that is something … Again, based on feedback from the other workshops, what’s next after this? This is the new workshop. We hope to have that done. That should be out in the fall once these MVPs shake out some of the bugs.
Nice. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your amazing story, and I’m very excited about the work you’re doing now. It sounds like it could be really impactful.
Thanks so much for having me. This was great. I’m excited about it, too, and I hope we can catch up again in the future and share how hopefully some good impact case studies and stories.