Agile vs Lean vs Design Thinking

I had the pleasure of speaking in London last week at Mind the Product. It’s a twice annual gathering of product managers and their colleagues that attracts nearly 1500 attendees. Given the location, The Barbican, and the audience size, I couldn’t resist taking a selfie from the stage.

There’s an unforgettable scene in my favorite movie, Goodfellas, where Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro and Ray Liotta pay a late night visit to Pesci’s mom. Despite their best efforts to leave quickly she invites them to eat something.

During the late-night meal, they discuss a painting in her kitchen. The painting is of a man with two dogs:

After passing the painting around, Pesci utters one of the most memorable lines of the movie when he remarks about the painting, “One dog’s going one way. One dog’s going the other way. And this guy’s saying, ‘Hey, what do you want from me?’”

I recently had a similar, albeit less “Goodfellas”, experience with a client of mine. In a conversation prepping for an upcoming workshop they said to me, “Our tech teams are learning Agile. Our product teams are learning Lean and our design teams are learning Design Thinking. Which one is right?”

The question of which one is “right” came about because the seemingly competing trainings put the various disciplines on different cadences, with different practices targeting different objectives. The collaboration, shared understanding and increased productivity they were all promised was nowhere to be found.

This is not the first company where I’ve come across this challenge and it’s not surprising. The productization of Agile adoption along with increased interest in Lean Startup in the Enterprise and Design Thinking has led various coaches and trainers to focus narrowly on one of these ideas and then market their services to the audience they believed was most likely to buy. Well-meaning managers trained their teams within their discipline and never thought to look beyond because their new coaches never suggested it.

The net result? Confusion at best. Chaos at worst. Teams that were supposed to start building trust through cross-functional collaboration were now at odds about how to start, who does what and what their ultimate goal was. Tech teams were focused on increasing velocity. Product teams focused on reducing waste. Design teams wanted lengthy, up front research and design phases to help discover what the teams should work on. Very quickly they found themselves pulling away from each other, as opposed to collaborating more effectively.

Their managers were left like the Goodfellas painting — one team going one way, one team going another way and the manager in the middle saying, “Hey, what do you want from me? (I trained them in modern methods.)”

There are valuable components of each of the various processes teams are trying out these days. As an organization seeking to leverage the benefits of continuous improvement and a software-based service offering your job is to pick and choose the elements that work well for your teams and the brand values you’re trying to convey. In my practice I’ve found that a few core practices are a good place to start. I recommend:

  1. Working in short cycles — take small steps, try something new and see how it works. If it fails, you’ve invested very little. If it succeeds, keep doing it and improving on it.
  2. Hold regular retrospectives — at the end of each cycle, review what went well, what didn’t go well and vow to improve one or two key things.
  3. Put the customer at the center of everything — if you’re struggling to get alignment as a team, focus on customer value. How do we know we’re shipping something users care about? How do we find out? How does that affect what we prioritize? These are good questions to ask on a regular basis.
  4. Go and see — regularly walk around, talk to your teams, ask them what’s working and where they’re struggling. Bring those learnings back to your management meetings and share with your colleagues. Patterns that yield good outcomes should be amplified. Those that are causing problems should be remedied.

At the end of the day your customers don’t care whether you’re agile, lean or practice design thinking. They care about great products and services that solve meaningful problems for them in effective ways. The more you can focus your teams on these things the better their process will be.

What have you seen work? Where have you seen challenges like this? Leave a response in the comments.

[Jeff]

@jboogie
jeff@gothelf.co

P.S. — A new, book-length version of this article has been published on Amazon.


Book News

Lean UX 2nd Edition is now out and available
Sense & Respond will be out on Harvard Business Press in Feb 2017

The 2nd edition of Lean UX is now available on Amazon and, as of today, is the #1 new release in UX and Usability books. Sense & Respond is our follow-up for the leaders looking to build companies and teams that support the approaches we advocate for in Lean UX. It is available for pre-order now. If you end up reading one or both of the books, we’d be grateful for your reviews on Amazon.


Upcoming Workshops

Sticking to my plan to travel less in the second half of 2016, here’s where I’ll be for the rest of the year:

Graz, Austria — October 17–1-day Lean UX in the Enterprise workshop as part of the World Usability Congress.

Linkoping, Sweden — October 21–1-day Lean UX in the Enterprise workshop as part of DevLin conference.

Lean Startup Week, San Francisco, California, USA — Oct 31 — Nov 6 — super excited to be back at Eric Ries’ premiere Lean Startup event. I’ll be giving a talk on the main stage. Click/tap this link for $200 off the price of a ticket.

Budapest, Hungary — Stretch Leadership Conference — Dec 1–2, 2016 — I visited Budapest earlier this year for Craft conference. This event, produced by the same folks, is focused on building better teams and companies. Very excited to be a part.

New York City — Feb 7–8, 2017 — Jeff Patton and I sold out our first, 2-day Certified Scrum Product Owner course in NYC last month. We’re planning another one next February back in NYC. Early bird tickets are on sale now.

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As always, if you want me to work directly with your company on training, coaching or workshops, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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