"It starts with the notion that we don’t have all the information we’d like to have, and we’re not sure whether our plans will be effective. In other words, it starts with a certain amount of humility, a quality that is often in short supply in business."
Together, Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden have spent years working with digital product teams and the companies that support them. They’ve helped teams launch digital businesses, and trained individuals, teams, and leaders around the world. They wrote their first book, Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience that is widely regarded as one of the most important User Experience books in recent years.
With their followup, Sense and Respond: How Successful Organizations Listen to Customers and Create New Products, they teach us how to take the structures and methods of software companies and apply them to organizations of all kinds and sizes in order to maintain a two-way conversation with customers and create new products despite uncertainty. The term “sense and respond” describes the basic mechanism, the feedback loop, at the center of this approach.
The Big Idea
Create a Culture of Continuous Learning
"If you ask people to build features, they will, and they will value the delivery of those features, even if delivery doesn’t create big picture success. They will value the traits and behaviors that make it possible to deliver features. On the other hand, if you ask people to be responsible for success, you are asking them to work in a new way."
The command and control culture of the industrial age rewards sticking to the plan, even if you learn that the plan no longer makes sense. This is called the delivery culture.
A delivery culture that values hitting your production deadline targets is in direct conflict with a culture that prizes discovering and embracing emergent customer values. In a delivery culture, there is no time for conversations with the market and no time for learning and iterations.
Instead of a top-down, order-taking culture, sense and respond methods push decision making out into the organization, allowing the people who are the closest to the customer, to the markets, and to the situation at hand to make the decisions. It values what these people know, and, even more, it values their ability to learn.
There are seven important elements that make up this learning culture:
- Humility — Being aware that we don’t have all the information we’d like to have.
- Permission to fail — Experimenting means we can be wrong. And that’s OK.
- Self-direction — Empowering people and allowing them to push towards the direction they want to pursue without waiting for permission.
- Transparency — Sharing all new information, good or bad.
- A bias toward action — Preferring action to analysis. Learning comes from action.
- Empathy — Putting ourselves in our customer’s’ shoes and trying to understand their worldview.
- Collaboration — Together is better.
Embracing change means embracing culture change, and how to change culture is not an easy question.
Considering that culture is what we do, we can promote culture change by encouraging people to do new things, creating new perceptions and new points of view.
Leadership is essential when we want to get people doing new things, it’s the reason why culture change must be led. Leaders have to make culture everyone’s priority through top-down and bottom-up culture change initiatives. This is the way the sense and respond approach can be used to implement a sense and respond culture. Culture is in effect a product of your organization’s ongoing conversations with itself about itself.
The New Definition of “Done”
"So making a thing, creating an output of some sort, is not our goal. Instead, success is the extent to which we achieve an outcome and help our customers achieve an outcome they seek."
In the industrial-age mindset, success was the launch of a product, especially if it was on time and on budget, because at that time the connection between a product and its use were usually pretty clear. In traditional and well-understood product categories you could be reasonably certain that if you could make something that worked, met demand, and was priced correctly, you would be successful.
As our products have gotten more complex and as customer’s expectations have risen, our level of uncertainty about our services has also grown. Simply making a thing is no longer good enough, because the link between purpose and actual use is less clear.
Amazon’s 2014 Fire Phone can perfectly highlight the point. They created the Fire Phone initiative to solve a business problem: Amazon wanted complete control over the store that its customers visited on their mobile devices, which was impossible with an iPhone due to the 30% shares Apple would take on each sale.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, insisted on including a lot of cool features, such as a 3D display. However, Amazon did not bother to create a two-way conversation with the target audience and they could not define what its value would be to customers. Unsurprisingly, the project was a failure due to the top-down, change-resistant planning that had been used. Such a process is the norm in large organizations and is usually outlined in a document called a feature road map.
It gives a clear sense of where we are, where we’re headed, and what features we’ll build to get from here to there. It sets expectations about when features will be included. It’s also a complete fabrication.
Providing outputs is not enough—our customers are looking for outcomes. This is the new definition of a product or service that is “done”.
It’s About People, Not Technology
"So the final piece of the puzzle isn’t really about technology. It’s about people, specifically the people in your organization. Are you set up in a way that allows you to respond? Can your speed of response match your speed of insight? We’re not talking about how fast you can make things, but rather how fast you can decide to make things."
The limiting factor is now operational. Changing the speed with which we can respond to new insight is all about decision making. Trusting people and using the individuals best positioned to make real-time decisions are the key principles here.
The most common way to organize teams so that they can respond quickly is to use agile methods that promote team-level empowerment and decision making based on data. This will hand over control of the tactical decisions to the teams that are closest to the insight and value learning by moving from question to question. The teams will be able to learn and pivot without having to stick to a predefined plan.
In order to generate such a behavior, the team should be allowed to make mistakes—as long as they are relatively small and the team can learn from them. The team should also be provided freedom, within clearly stated constraints, to make their own decisions—so time will not be wasted waiting for executive feedback. And last but not least,, value has to be placed on customer behavior as a measure of progress—not on the number of features the team will be shipping.
A sense and respond organization has to trust and empower its employees if it wants to exploit the insights collected using the technology.
Sense and respond methods rely on a continuous feedback loop—an ongoing conversation between our organizations and the people they serve. This way of navigating uncertainty has been developed in parallel across many disciplines with methods like agility, design thinking and lean startup. Taken together, these methods are the future, and our challenge now is to look at our organizations and institutions and evolve them—or risk seeing them replaced by newcomers.
Are you practicing sense and respond? Do you know what your customers value, or are you only assuming? Grab a colleague, start a discussion and speak with customers to see where you can get a foothold on this path.