Technical teams are learning Agile. Product teams are learning Lean. Design teams are learning Design Thinking. Each of these approaches has different cadences, different goals, and different incentives.

So, what’s to be done?

For our May Leaders in Change event, which was our largest yet, we invited author, speaker and executive coach Jeff Gothelf to explore this. Hosted by the kind folks at Capital One, Jeff drew on extensive research, and his experience as a team leader, and delivered an outstanding presentation that explained how we got to where we are, and how we can better align ourselves to be truly collaborative, and build extraordinary products.

Scaling up

Jeff pointed out that tension between teams is a problem that develops as businesses scale. In a startup, everyone is ‘wearing many hats’, and all work revolves closely around their users and their needs. At this point in an organisation’s lifecycle, knowing the customer and acting on this knowledge, is pretty much all a startup has to focus on.

But, once an organisation has made some money, things change. They begin to hire in specialists. They begin to grow teams. Perhaps most significantly, they begin to move along their timeline as an organisation. By this, I mean that they can now look backwards, and can make the connection that because they were right about X last month, they will be right about Y. At this point, product development can start to be influenced by stakeholders and their assumptions – rather than only responding to the customer needs.

Losing control

Processes help us control production. Jeff used the excellent example of a 1920s car production line to illustrate the Waterfall approach – which works very well when building a physical product like a car. You know exactly what is needed to build a car, and you know how a car will be used.

But now, even traditional products such as cars are becoming digital. And when it comes to digital, it’s much harder for product teams to accurately anticipate how users will engage with products.

To illustrate this issue, Jeff talked about the rise of ‘finsta’. Instagram is synonymous with perfection and has built a product that helps users create that perfect shot. But, as a reaction to this pressure, people began to create “finstagram” (fake Instagram accounts), to post the unfiltered reality of their lives. Users are subverting the product to create something new, and it is only because Instagram was able to respond, and create Instagram Stories, that they’ve been able to benefit, rather than struggle against this.

So back to cars. Every car produced these days has complex software embedded that can be upgraded and improved. It is no longer a finished product, but a responsive, evolving product. The most technologically advanced models, such as Tesla, are allowing customers to reimagine their experience of owning and operating a car, right down to the infrastructure it uses – whether intended or not. For example, Tesla found that their car owners were using their ‘supercharger’ spaces as parking – circumventing the issue of finding parking in busy cities but causing a headache for other users in need of the space.

Putting down the process hammer

Impressively, Elon Musk responded publicly to this issue and came up with a solution in just six days. But speed is not the most important thing about this example. Jeff noted that an Agile process, while an effective approach to delivering a product – doesn’t have a brain. A process doesn’t know when it’s done. It focuses on doing what it’s doing to a good standard, as quickly as possible.

At first glance, a solution to Tesla’s problem would be to build more charging points to solve the customer’s need – in essence, to speed up delivery. But, if they had done that, while you might free up some space for a while, as they sell more cars, they’ll have the same issue. Ad infinitum. But by thinking about the situation differently, the team came up with a solution that not only avoids large construction costs but instead engages users to change behaviour. Who knows if the idea will help solve this problem in practice, but it’s certainly a much easier way to test.

Do more, less

Jeff made a great point about the waste of user research. Before any UXers start picking up the phone to me, this is certainly not to say we don’t need user research – quite the opposite! But the archetypal one-way mirror assessments are time-consuming, running through a detailed session for 15+ people – when everyone learned what they needed to after the first five. The real value from research is in how organisations respond to what their users are telling them.

Whether you’re driven by quantitative or qualitative data – it’s important that you have a continuous understanding of what’s happening. But, more so than understanding, you need to be able to respond, and quickly.

Jeff gave the great example of Ford’s research into self-driving cars. As we know, the challenge of building a piece of software that has the capability to drive, manoeuvre and anticipate us humans on the road is a huge challenge. One important part of building such a piece of software requires an understanding of how humans react and respond to self-driving cars. So, rather than build a complex prototype, they decided to disguise a human as a car seat. Yes, really. This is a much lower-cost way to explore how humans interact with ‘self-driving’ cars that can be repeated and expanded on easily. Ford is getting the insight they need, without a big investment, allowing them to focus on the insights, rather than the research.

Sing from the same hymn sheet

One of the biggest limitations of trying to align teams working across Lean, Agile and Design Thinking is that they are working toward different goals, and are invariably incentivised in different ways. Jeff noted that this issue seems to be one that many companies overlook. They are asking people to change their behaviour, but they reward them for their old behaviours. In order to ‘healthily’ incentivise cross-functional teams, leaders need to look at how they can align measures of success, and incentivise collaboration rather than hero culture. For a team to be truly cross-functional, they must be empowered to engage and explore how best to work together. This is where transparency can be really helpful. Stand ups, demo days, Scrum of Scrums – these are familiar ‘rituals’ for teams that help align everyone in the same direction – to the customer.

After all your customers don’t care whether you’re Agile, Lean or practice Design Thinking. They care about great products and services that solve problems for them.

If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend exploring Jeff’s book, Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking, which explores these ideas in more detail and is a must-read for leaders who are looking to better align product teams to deliver great things.

I’m always interested in talking about the challenges of building a great product team – do say hello at

About Leaders in Change

Leaders in Change is an established forum for leaders in the digital industry to talk about key areas of change they are driving. So far, we have led conversations on aligning lean, agile and design thinking, Ai and machine learning, communication for leadership, setting expectations, delivering success, and Ai.

About Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf is an author, speaker and executive coach.

He co-founded Neo Innovation in New York City and helped build it into one of the most recognized brands in modern product strategy, development and design.

He is the co-author of Sense and Respond, Lean UX and Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking. Recently Jeff co-founded Sense & Respond Press, a publishing house for modern, transformational business books.

You can read more about his work on his website and connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

We recently interviewed Jeff about his career as part of our FFS series.


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