What is the Pivotal Process?

Before moving to Pivotal Cloud Foundry I was a Senior Product Manager at Pivotal Labs, one of the top software consultancy firms in the world. We work with award winning startups to Fortune 10 companies coaching them on how to determine user value and build that value efficiently with software. What is different from most consulting firms is that our clients work alongside us building out products from our office to learn by doing and to also remove them from their current company’s daily processes.

Once companies and individuals are able to experience the benefit that working in a similar way as Pivotal provides to their businesses, employees and customers, these groups then look for ways to effectively scale that process across the organization. Unfortunately, altering the way companies have built products, some of them for over a century, with hundreds of thousands of employees, is extremely challenging. Having a specific process and series of steps to follow makes enacting change easier to scale as you can provide materials / trainings that are rolled out across the organization. As a result, on a weekly basis I am asked,

“What is the Pivotal Process? What is the step-by-step approach that we need to take in order to be successful?”

Unfortunately, if you are to try and copy the Pivotal Process step-by-step, the outcomes that you would expect will not materialize at your organization. To continuously provide value to your users, companies need to create their own process that works within their industry, culture and product lines based off of what I like to call the The Pivotal Framework (TPF), not the Pivotal Process (Note: The Pivotal Framework is something I created and is not officially used throughout Pivotal).

A process is a systematic series of actions directed to some end (basically following directions step-by-step without questioning it) while a framework is a structure designed to support something, like a process, and is composed of parts joined together. When clients come to work at Pivotal Labs they are exposed to the Pivotal Labs Process. This is what works well for Pivotal Labs based off of the clientele, industry and market. We have a different process for our product group, Pivotal Cloud Foundry, but that process is based off of The Pivotal Framework (TPF).

“In an environment of uncertainty, following a specific process will almost always end with a subpar outcome. Understanding the WHY behind each part of the framework allows teams to adapt accordingly and continuously provide value to their customers”

The Pivotal Framework (TPF)

TPF is composed of Values and Principles from Extreme Programming, Lean Product Development and User Centered Design methodologies. Pivotal has then added Practices from these methodologies along with tools to aid teams in utilizing the framework. In the same way with products, it is most important to get the outcomes you want vs the output. TPF strives to focus on the outcomes you are looking for and the output can change.

Extreme programming (XP) is the core of the framework that is created from a developer’s point of view instead of the business determining how development teams should work. XP sets the Values for TPF. It is focused on decreasing the time it takes to release software, increase the quality, increase open communication, obtain rapid feedback, simplify architecture and have respect / trust for others. Further Readings: Extreme Programming and Planning Extreme Programming by Kent Beck are the best resources to gain a more in-depth understanding of XP.

Lean Product Development (LPD) is added onto XP and is focused on decreasing waste as much as possible. This means understanding who your users are, what their problems are, if those problems are worth solving before determining if you have the right solution for that problem. Once you do have the right solution, then it is building the smallest part of the product that is believed to provide the highest user value as fast as possible. Further Readings: The Lean Startup and books in the Lean series by Eric Ries, which was influenced by Steve Blank are the best resources to gain a more in depth understanding of Lean Product Development.

User Centered Design (UCD) is the other methodology added onto XP and complements LPD extremely well. UCD focuses on consistently understanding the needs, wants and environments of users. Further Readings: Talking to Humans by Giff Constable/ Frank Rimalovski and The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank.

The combination of XP, LPD and UCD is extremely powerful because of how well they complement each other in creating value for users quickly, maintaining high quality software and doing it at a sustainable pace. When you work with Pivotal Labs you will see and experience the practices that come with these methodologies that include:

  • From XP: Pair Programming, Test Driven Development (TDD), delaying decisions until the last responsible moment, expecting changes in requirements, frequent communication, small and frequent releases.
  • From LPD: Minimum Viable Product, Continuous Deployment, actionable metrics, pivot or persevere, build-measure-learn cycles, business model canvas
  • From UCD: Personas, workflows, scenarios, information hierarchy, think-make-check cycles, wireframes, mental models, paper prototypes, assumptions, validation.

These are all easily recognizable but to build your own process you need to leverage the Values and Principles that make up the TPF. Each of the practices map back to these Values and Principles.

TPF Values (from XP):

  • Constant Communication
  • Simplicity
  • Rapid Feedback
  • Courage — speak up about problems and feelings
  • Respect — trust and equality

TPF Principles (from XP, LPD & UCD):

  • Constant Feedback — XP: Constant Feedback / Lean: Learn & Improve, Seek Perspective / UCD: The Process is Iterative
  • Diverse Team — XP: Diversity with Skills and Perspectives / Lean: Empower the Team, cross functional team, right resources / UCD: Multidisciplinary skills and perspectives
  • Small Chunks of User Value — XP: Flow and Baby Steps / Lean: identify the value stream, reduce waste, define value to customer in small chunks / UCD: Address the whole user experience, understand users, involve users throughout the process
  • Self-similarity — Use similar structures, don’t start from scratch if you don’t have to
  • Humanity — We are humans building products for humans
  • Shared Responsibility — across the whole team

Another concept that is an important part of TPF are Balanced Teams. A Balanced Team is an autonomous team that has people with a variety of skills and perspectives that support each other towards a shared goal. Many tend to silo the work of building a product. For example, having a PM and/or designer go off and do product validation, then bring in the engineering team. Instead it is crucial to have all groups involved from the start so that each aspect can be thought of throughout the process. It is not limited to PMs, designers and engineers. A Balanced Team can be any discipline that is involved in the product.

It is important to spend the time to understand why each of the Values and Principles are important and what they each provide to the team, company and product. The details can be found in the books mentioned above.


There are a wide range of tools that have now been created to help teams work within The Pivotal Framework. To illustrate this we will go through the high level steps of shipping a product.

Discovery & Framing: Determining if there is a problem worth solving, if that problem is the main problem for the users you’re after, if there is a better set of users to go after, if you’re providing the best solution to the problem and then providing the best solution for those users. At the same time understanding technical feasibility, risks, competitive analysis and business benefits.

  • Tool: We have our own internal portal that walks through the methodologies, process and additional tools but the closest thing to get insights into this is the book, Sprint by Google Ventures. They utilize a similar methodology with their portfolio companies.

Prioritization of Work: Once it is determined what we will be building to test that we are on the right track, we will generate stories for the dev team and designer(s) to work through.

  • Tool: Pivotal Tracker is an opinionated backlog management system that enables teams to be extremely focused and follow XP and LPD Principles and Practices.

Build & Test: Once stories are prioritized the team can begin designing and building out the application / service. As part of XP, the team writes tests before writing code and once the code is delivered, the PM will do acceptance testing on each individual story.

  • Tool: Spring provides tools for developers to quickly build common patterns, standup services and applications in distributed systems.

Continuous Integration: As with LPD, we strive for short feedback loops to know if we are heading in the right direction. With XP, we want the same thing with our code. As a result, we are continuously integrating as we build out products to make sure we do not leave it to the end before deploying. This is another method for routinely de-risking our products from the technological perspective.

  • Tool: Concourse provides teams with a way to set up continuous integration and deployment pipelines. It also has a simple GUI so teams can quickly determine state of their jobs.

Deployment & Management: Once the product has been built and tested, the product should be pushed out to customers as soon as possible. Each release can be seen as an opportunity to learn if we are heading in the right direction. We want to make sure that we release early and often with small chunks of user value.

  • Tool: Pivotal Cloud Foundry is a cloud-native platform for deploying and operating applications at scale. Dev teams can quickly spin-up resources, data services and connect, each with a single command

There is certainly a lot to take in here so feel free to reach out with any questions!