TABTalks #1: Scaling Lean with Jeff Gothelf

By The App Business under Insights, #TABLife 07 October 2016

TABTalks is our new programme of bi-monthly talks, from leaders and tinkerers from creative backgrounds, who are exploring new ways of applying technology and ways of working. It's an opportunity to invite our industry heroes to share with us their experiences and insight.

We were absolutely delighted to welcome our very first speaker, Jeff Gothelf, to the Spitfire Building last week to kick off TABTalks. Author of LeanUX (and with a new book, Scale & Respond on the horizon), Jeff is an advocate of design, leadership, and all things agility. Joining us over lunch, Jeff gave an insightful talk on an issue that many companies are currently facing - how to scale Lean up from a single team, to multiple teams, and eventually entire organisations.

During his talk, Jeff outlined why scaling Lean can be so difficult for large-scale organisations, and how we can make that transition easier.

Experiments are a good thing

When companies hire an agency, they generally want a specific product or feature. However, customers expectations are constantly changing - and at high speed: what people want now is different to what they wanted, even just 6 or 12 months ago.

In this challenging environment, being able to learn and adapt fast is essential. Therefore, as a partner, it’s imperative we help clients understand that experimenting, learning and continuous improvement aren’t luxuries that fall by the wayside in the face of deadlines or tight budgets: they are core to both agility, and Lean.

We’ve written elsewhere about the need to experiment, and Jeff’s talk only reconfirmed for me that experimentation is essential if we are to arrive at the best product possible released to people in the shortest amount of time.

Scale principles, not processes

A key takeaway for me was the awareness that scaling up specific processes to bigger teams, and eventually entire organisations, is not only difficult but also very wasteful. To make a process for hundreds or even thousands of employees requires a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, but the unfortunate reality is that trying to make these processes fit everyone means that they will ultimately fit no one.

Instead, Jeff notes that scaling principles, rather than processes, is much easier, and it works at any scale. During his talk, he noted four principles that he believes can help any organisation become more Lean, regardless of size:

Customer value = Business value - We are huge believers of this here at TAB, and we weren’t surprised that Jeff, as a promoter of customer-centred values, explained how critical this element is to any business. In essence, when you focus on creating value for customers first, they will be more loyal (driving retention), and they will become advocates for you (driving acquisition). So, really, focusing on maximising value for customers will lead to maximised value for the business.

Value learning over delivery - Jeff notes that when teams are aligned to goals, they will optimise locally to reach those goals. But this can often lead to a zero-sum game, where as one team gains, they make it more difficult for another team to reach their goal. He notes that for this principle to work, the entire company needs to be aligned, working towards the same thing.

However, when teams are aligned, providing a safe, yet constrained, space to learn new ways of solving problems can create brilliant new solutions. Wonderfully creative things happen when smart people are given the space to experiment and learn new ways to solve problems (a sentiment close to our hearts here at TAB).

Radical transparency - Many Agile methodologies, such as Scrum and Kanban, ultimately promote transparency within teams. It is a key aspect of creating high performance. Businesses as a whole can also take advantage of this, and many of the largest tech companies in the world are doing just that by, for example, releasing beta or MVP versions of software early to users, and iterating based on their feedback.

Any company can do the same - it’s something we advocate passionately here at TAB: speak to your customers and expose your work early because they will let you know whether or not it is valuable to them, and therefore if it is valuable to you. Take a look at our post on creating a great MVP here.

Practice humility in all things - This principle is one that really struck a cord: the idea that to create something great - software or not, you must be humble. Based on what you as a team know, take your best guess at the answer and get to a strong opinion - but hold that opinion loosely, not rigidly. Things change. So, in the face of evidence, you must be willing to change course. Access to users and teams outside the core product development team can help to ensure that, based on what we know, we are doing the right thing.

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Jeff’s talk was a great way to kick of TABTalks, and we are really looking forward to his new book which comes out next February. For now, we will leave you with one last piece of wisdom from Jeff: ‘If you are a company who is, or is looking to scale, in the 21st century, then you are first and foremost a software company.’