Give teams a problem to solve, not a solution to implement

Last month our webinar featured Jonathan Bertfield and Sonja Kresojevic on how to make the case for Lean Enterprise change. After their presentation I interviewed them on the specifics of their ideas. Watch now.

This post was originally published to my newsletter subscribers (13k of them now). If you’d like to get these in your inbox sign up here

Your teams have been running some flavor of Agile for years. You’ve hired product managers, designers and engineers who have a keen interest in the customer. You’ve created small, dedicated, cross-functional teams and given them the tools and workplace facilities to do their best work. You’ve established a shared vocabulary and an organization-wide focus on innovation and agility. And yet, sprint after sprint, month after month teams are rushing to get features out the door. Adjusting course — i.e., the agility you’ve been seeking — means adding stories onto an already impossibly long backlog and the idea of managing to outcomes — meaningful changes in customer behavior — seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

Sound familiar?

If it does, I have some good news. You’re not alone. I also have some bad news. You’re not alone. This is a common pattern in organizations who have been on their agile journeys for a few years. If you look at these journeys from a recipe perspective, they’re checking all the boxes. They’re hiring the right people, forming the right kinds of teams, using the right words and presenting organizational missions that seem to align with an agile mindset. So where does this break down?

It breaks down in the way work is presented to teams. Despite all the efforts mentioned above, teams still get work handed to them as a solution to implement. “Build the mobile app,” they’re told. This deliberate strategy is a vestige of a manufacturing mindset. Teams are given something “to build” and the expectation is that they deliver this exact thing in a timely fashion. There is a belief that building digital products shares the same level of certainty as manufacturing physical products. It doesn’t. Digital products have a much higher level of uncertainty and require agility to discovery the best combination of code, copy and design for the customer’s needs. While modern product teams may have agency over the tactical implementation details there is little tolerance for diverging from “the thing” they set out to build.

Giving teams a solution to implement provides an illusion of control. Middle managers and stakeholders can confidently answer questions about what the team is working on and how they’re progressing. “They’re working on the mobile app for our consumer-facing business and they’ve already built 7 features!” This approach layers a façade of certainty over a process that inherently requires embracing continuous change. It also simplifies the measure of success into a binary choice — your team either shipped the product on time or it didn’t. This, in turn, leads to budgeting and prioritization decisions that measure the quantity of product delivered (again, a relic from the manufacturing world) rather than the customer value gained. To borrow a phrase, no agile transformation recipe or plan survives first contact with a solution-focused organization.

To truly take advantage of the agile components your organization has put in place consider adopting an emergent strategy. Instead of giving your teams a solution to implement, give them a problem to solve. Let the best solutions to that problem emerge from the team’s discovery work and usage of the ideas and experiments they develop. Without a pre-defined solution to work towards, the team has to collaborate and experiment to discover what the optimal approach is to solving their problem. In addition, the measure of success is shifted radically away from the “manufacturing” of software and towards the meaningful and beneficial changes in your customers’ behavior. These new measures of success are known as outcomes and they can only be achieved if teams have the opportunity to iterate and learn from their initial ideas.

For example, instead of “build the mobile app,” teams are tasked with “driving an increase in mobile revenue by 25%.” Is an app the solution? Maybe. Is it geo-fenced alerts? Maybe. We don’t know. And neither does your team. By giving the problem to solve, they work towards the solution that best meets customer needs rather than assuming they know what it is at the onset.

So why don’t more companies work this way? Because, while it seems like a simple tactic, it has broad organizational implications. It will change the way budgets are written and projects are chartered. It will discourage explicit scheduling practices and delivery-focused incentive structures. And perhaps most challenging, it will force your organization to work towards a culture that embraces uncertainty, experimentation and learning.

If you’re investing heavily in your agile transformation but work is still measured as the amount of code you’re delivering and how quickly you can deliver it, you will always struggle to reap the full benefits of this transformation. Instead, trust the smart people you’ve hired to solve your toughest business problems by changing how their work is assigned, measured and rewarded.

P.S. — Sometimes leading these types of changes falls to you but you’re not in a position of true authority. How can you use your position to lead anyway? Join us on April 24 for our next virtual masterclass with Sense & Respond Press author Tim Herbig to discuss his ideas of lateral leadership and driving change from within. Sign up here.

P.P.S. — I’ve been working with my friends at NUMA Paris on an internal training program for process transformation and professional development teams called Agile to agility. If you’d like to learn more, check out our site and reach out directly.


Upcoming Events
Join me for these amazing events in 2018:

Virtual April 24, 2018 — Leading Agile Teams When You’re Not The Boss — a virtual masterclass with Sense & Respond Press author Tim Herbig.

Barcelona — April 24, 2018 — Lean, Agile & Design Thinking Half-day Masterclass — Join me for this low-cost, half-day event in Barcelona where I will discuss how these ideas work together and then bring on a panel of local leaders from Mango, Telefonica and Schibsted to share how they put these ideas into practice. Sign up to learn more.

Dublin, Ireland — April 25, 2018 — Sense & Respond: How to Build & Lead Successful Lean Practices in High Growth Companies — 1 Day workshop as part of Agile Lean Ireland.

Berlin — May 15–16, 2018–2 Day Certified Scrum Product Owner class with Jeff Patton (2/3 sold out)

London — May 21–22, 2018–2 Day Certified Scrum Product Owner class with Jeff Patton (50% sold out)

London — May 29, 2018 — Leaders In Change Breakfast — FREE event for senior executives

Barcelona — June 7–8, 2018–2 Day Lean Product Management Workshop with Itamar Gilad (9 seats left)


As always, if you want me to work directly with your company on training, coaching or workshops on the topics of organizational agility, digital transformation, product discovery and agile leadership, don’t hesitate to reach out or consider micro-hiring me for short, remote consultations. Each consultation slot is 60 minutes long, you send me your topics in advance, we exchange a couple of emails to set context and then connect via video conf for the scheduled time. Pick a time that works for you.


This story is published in Noteworthy, where thousands come every day to learn about the people & ideas shaping the products we love.

Follow our publication to see more product & design stories featured by the Journal team.