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  • Showing posts with label agile. Show all posts
    Showing posts with label agile. Show all posts

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011

    Design thinking: A New Approach To Fight Complexity And Failure


    Photo credit: String Theory by Michael Krigsman

    The endless succession of failed projects forces one to question why success is elusive, with an extraordinary number of projects tangling themselves in knots. These projects are like a child’s string game run amok: a large, tangled mess that becomes more convoluted and complex by the minute.

    IT projects fail all the time. Business blames IT, IT blames the system integrator (SI), who then blames the software vendor. After all this blaming and shaming, everyone goes back to work on another project without examining the project management methods and processes that caused the failure. And, so, they fail again.

    There’s no one definition of design thinking. It’s a mindset and set of values that applies both analytical and creative thinking towards solving a specific problem. Design thinking is about how you think and not what you know; it is about the journey and not the destination.

    Having followed Michael Krigsman’s analysis of IT project failures, it became evident that design thinking can play an important role in improving enterprise software development and implementation. 
    The design thinking approach offers a means to address the underlying causes of many project failures — poor communication, rigid thinking, propensity toward tunnel vision, and information silos.

    I have distilled important lessons from design thinking into six principles that can help stop project failures. Along the way, we will draw comparisons with Agile development, since that distinction is often a source of confusion when discussing design thinking.

    These six principles, based on design thinking, can help any project team operate more successfully.

    1. Put a multi-disciplinary team in charge

    You can’t pin down project failure on one person or one topic and yet we continue to use a person-centric method to manage projects. No one on a project team wants to fail. If you collectively put responsibility of the failure or success on the shoulders of the team and get them trained and motivated to think and behave differently you will mitigate much failure.

    Multidisciplinary teams champion the user, business, and technology aspects of a project in a more comprehensive manner than would otherwise be possible. Typically, an IT team talks to business stakeholders who then talk to end users, which creates communication gaps, delays, and inefficiency. Far better to create a single team that includes participants from all areas, creating a single unit that includes multiple perspectives.

    Try to staff your project team with “T-shaped” people, who possess a broad understanding and empathy for all the IT functions, but who also have deep expertise in one domain to champion that perspective. This approach can ensure that your solution is economically viable, technologically feasible, and delights the end users. A more balanced team also humanizes the project and its approach. Stay small and resist the temptation to set up very large teams. If you believe the “two-large-pizza-team” rule, those projects are team-driven and tend to be more successful. Start-ups can build something quicker because they are always short on people. As your group get bigger and bigger, other people tell you what to do and team members feel less connected to their work as it relates to the outcome.

    2. Prepare for failure in the beginning

    I recommend kicking off the project with a “pre-mortem workshop.” Visualize all the things that could go wrong by imagining that the project has failed. This gives the team an opportunity to proactively look at risks and prepare to prevent and mitigate them. I have sat through numerous post-mortem workshops and concluded that the root causes of failures are usually the same: abstract concepts such as lack of communication, unrealistic scope, insufficient training, and so on. If that’s true, why do we repeat the same mistakes, causing failure to remain a common situation? Primarily because many people find it hard to imagine and react to abstractions, but can relate much better when these concepts are contextualized into their own situation.

    3. Be both vision- and task-driven

    Design thinking emphasizes storytelling, shared vision, and empathy towards all stakeholders involved in a project. On many projects, participants focus exclusively on their own individual tasks, thus becoming disconnected from the big picture.

    While design thinking strives to connect participants to the larger vision, Agile development can be very task-driven. Everyone gets a task without necessarily understanding the big picture, or vision, or even seeing the connection between his or her tasks and the final outcome. In this situation, a project can fail and people may not understand their role, thinking they failed due to someone else’s work. If participants don’t realize their tasks contributed to a failure, they won’t try to learn and change.

    On the other hand, vision-driven approaches are very powerful. People perform their tasks, but the story and vision persist throughout the project; the same story gets told by different people throughout the lifecycle of the project to avoid that big picture fading away. All the tasks have a bigger purpose beyond their successful execution. Even good project managers miss this point. At review meetings, it is important to evaluate what the team did right but also revisit the vision and examine how recent outcomes fit the overall story.

    4. Fail and correct then fail again

    Design thinking contradicts other methodologies that focus only on success. In design thinking, failing is not necessarily a bad idea at all; however, we fail early and fail often, and then correct the course. In many projects, people chase success without knowing what it looks like or expecting to fail; therefore, they do not learn from the process.

    One of the challenges with traditional project management is the need to pick one alternate and run with it. Turns out that you don’t know everything about that alternative and when it fails, due to the irreversible decision that you made, you can’t go back. Far better to iterate on a number of alternatives as fast as you can before deciding which one will work. This approach requires a different way of thinking and planning your project.

    5. Make tangible prototypes

    Agile proposed creating unstructured documentation as opposed to making structured requirement documents. But, unfortunately, that is not enough to solve many problems. One of the core characteristics of design thinking is to prototype everything, to make a tangible artifact and learn from it. The explorative process of making prototypes makes people think deeply and ask the right kind of questions. It’s said that “computers will never give a wrong answer but it will respond to a wrong question.” The prototypes encourage people to focus on what I want to know as opposed to what I want to say. This is very important during the initial design phase of the project.

    One of the biggest misconceptions about prototypes is that people think they are too complex to make and are overhead or a waste of time. This isn’t true at all. Prototypes can be as simple as a hand-drawn sketch on a paper or as complex as fully functional interactive interface. The fidelity of a prototype is based on what kind of questions you want answered. People tend to fill in gaps when they see something raw or incomplete whereas hi-fidelity prototypes can be too complete to solicit meaningful feedback. As I already mentioned, most people respond better to an artifact as opposed to an abstract document. Prototypes also make the conversation product-centric and not person-centric. They also help to get team members on the same page with a shared vision.

    6. Embrace ambiguity

    One of the problems with traditional project management methodologies is that they make people spend more time in executing the solution and less time on defining the problem. Design thinking encourages people to stay in the problem space as long as they can. This invariably results in ambiguity, which is actually a good thing.

    Ambiguity fosters abductive thinking — a mindset that allows people to explore what is probable with the limited information on their hands without concerns about proving or concluding that it actually works. It helps people define a problem in many different ways, eventually letting them get to the right problem they eventually should focus on.

    This also supports the emergent approach that design thinking advocates as opposed to a hypothesis-driven approach. In a hypothesis-driven environment, people tend to focus on proving a premise created by a small group people. Rushing to a solution without defining the problem, and having no emergent framework in place to include the insights gained during later parts of the project, certainly contributes to failure.

    ORGANIZATIONAL BARRIERS TO SUCCESS

    Even the best methodology requires organizational commitment to success. For design thinking to work, it is also necessary to address these common organizational issues, each of which can impede progress and limit successful outcomes.

    Lack of C-level commitment: Although design thinking is applicable at all levels in an organization, executive management must bless it by publicly embracing and practicing design thinking. Top down initiatives and training only go so far.

    When the employees see their leaders practice design thinking they are more likely to embrace and practice it themselves. The same is true with adoption of social media and collaborative tools inside an organization. The best signal to your employees is by showing them a firm belief in the method by practicing it firsthand and sharing positive outcome.

    Resistance to change: People in any organization are usually fundamentally against change, even if they believe it’s a good thing. They don’t want to get out of their comfort zone and therefore practice the same methods that have resulted in multiple failures in the past. Changing behavior is difficult but fortunately design thinking can help.

    One of the ways I have taught design thinking is by taking people away from their primary domain and have them solve a very different kind of problem such as redesigning a ticket vending machine or a fast food restaurant. My team was hugely successful since it was a completely different domain and it didn’t interfere with their preconceived notion of how a project should be executed. People’s reservations are tied to their domain; they are willing to adopt a new method and new way of thinking if you coach them outside of their domain and then encourage to practice it in their comfort zone.

    Lack of industry backing: Despite being informal, undocumented, and non-standards-based methodology, Agile experienced widespread adoption. I would attribute this success to two things: a well-defined manifesto by lead industry figures and organizations publicly committing to adopt the methodology. Design thinking lacks these attributes.

    Even though industrial design companies such as IDEO has evangelized this approach, there’s still confusion around what design thinking actually means. This also makes it difficult to explain design thinking to a wider audience. If a few organizations publicly endorse design thinking, create a manifesto, and share the best practices to gain momentum, many of the adoption hurdles will go away.

    Lack of key performance indicator (KPI) frameworks: Design thinking faces the same challenge that most Enterprise 2.0 tools face: lack of measurable KPIs.

    For number-driven leaders, lack of a quantifiable framework to measure and monitor the impact of a new methodology is a challenge. Some leaders are good at adopting new ways of doing things and others are not. In these cases, isolate a project that you can’t measure and start small. Contain the risk but pick a project that has significant upside, to keep people engaged and motivated. You may still fail, or not achieve a desired outcome, but that’s what the design thinking is all about.

    It’s worth noting that Agile, as a software project methodology, has well defined quality and reliability KPIs such as beta defects, rejected stories during a scrum cycle, and the delta between committed and delivered stories.

    Fail early and course correct the next time. Remember that adoption and specific practice need correction and not the method itself. Don’t give up.

    FINAL THOUGHTS

    During my extensive work on design thinking - practicing, coaching, and analyzing — I often talk with people who believe that design thinking is merely a methodology or approach for “visual design.” This view is a false perception. Design thinking comprises a set of principles one can apply during any stage of the enterprise project lifecycle along with other project management methodologies. This approach is valid for the CEO and executive management all the way to the grass roots.

    Another common point of confusion is the distinction between design thinking and Agile methods of software development. The primary difference is that Agile offers a specific set of prescriptive processes while design thinking encapsulates a set of guidelines and general principles. Although not the same, the two approaches are highly complementary (even on the same project), because both recognize the benefits of using iterative work cycles to pursue customer-centric goals.

    Always remember that real people work on every project. The best methodologies are inherently people-centric and help participants anticipate likely causes of failure. Visualizing failure early in a project is an excellent means to prevent it from occurring. We’re all human and may make mistakes but certainly no one wants to fail.

    Design thinking can make potential failure a learning tool and not a final outcome.
    _______

    I had originally published this post as a guest blog post on Michael Krigsman's IT Project Failures blog

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009

    Designing An Innovation Incubator To Prevail Over Innovator's Dilemma

    The large scale software companies often deal with the tension between incremental and revolutionary innovation. They know that if they only keep listening to their customers' requests the very same customers will put them out of the business. Clayton Christensen has captured this phenomenon in The Innovator's Dilemma. Over a period of time these companies have managed to execute the incremental innovation really well to deliver the same software release after release and occasionally introduce new products. However most of these companies struggle to incubate revolutionary innovation inside the company since it is fundamentally a different beast. The executives are often torn between funding the revolutionary initiatives to ride the next big wave and funding the incremental innovation that the current customers and the market expects. It is absolutely imperative for the executive management to differentiate between these two equally important but very different types of innovation opportunities. Many companies have set up in-house incubators to bring revolutionary innovation to the market but in most cases the incubators are set up as yet another department inside the company that shares the same legacy and bureaucracy. Following are some suggestions on setting up and running an incubator to avoid the innovation disappear down the rat hole:

    6x6 cubicle in Iowa won't cut it: There is nothing wrong with Iowa but I won't build an incubator there. Pick a location that emanates entrepreneurial spirit, attracts talent, and is surrounded by good colleges. Scout for a location that has good work-life characteristics where people feel the energy and have social outlets - pubs, hiking trails, good restaurants etc. San Francisco and Palo Alto in the Silicon Valley are a couple of examples of such locations.

    I cannot overemphasize the impact of an inspirational physical space that fosters innovation and drives people with insane urge to be creative and build something disruptive. Ditch Steelcase and shop at IKEA. Have a loft-like set-up with open seating, project rooms instead of conference rooms, and have all the furniture on the wheels. Can you write on all the walls? Have alternate comfortable seating all over the places - bean bags, red couches, chairs and coffee tables with tall bar stools. Innovation does not happen in a cubicle. Have an entire team paint the loft with bright colors as a team-building exercise. Pay a mandatory visit to IDEO and d.school in Palo Alto if you haven't already been there.

    No process is the new process: The incubator should not inherit your organization's legacy processes. You cannot expect your employees to behave differently to solve a problem if they are restricted by the same process overhead. Throw your application policing process out of the window and let people experiment with whatever works well for them. One of the main reasons why incubators fail because they rely on the organization's product roadmap and capabilities. Don't pick up any dependencies instead simply consider your organization's capabilities as one more source that you can evaluate for your needs. Use open source as much as you can, build your own partner relationships, and OEM whatever you can.

    Pizza-size multidisciplinary teams: Can your entire product team be fed on two large pizzas? Smaller and tighter teams reduce the communication overhead, churn, and produce amazing results. Don't follow your corporate headcount calculations. Go for smaller teams. Hire I-shaped and T-shaped people to form a multidisciplinary team. Have a good mix of internal people who understand the business that you are into and the external people that are entrepreneurs or have worked in incubators. Get help from the external recruiters to find the right people since the internal recruiters may or may not have expertise to find and hire the kind of people that you are looking for.

    Be agile and design think everything: Design thinking and agile methodology empower the teams to apply an ambidextrous and iterative approach to take on the revolutionary ideas in highly ambiguous environment. Encourage wild ideas, defer judgment, and be iterative. Be visual in storytelling, stay close to your customers and end-users, and have persuasive, catalysts, and performance design. Focus on useful over usable. Have a good-enough mindset and ship often to get continuous feedback to keep improving. Iterate as fast as you can and keep your sprint cycles small.

    Seed, Round A, and Round B: This is where many organizations get hung up on an upfront $200M business case to qualify the business opportunity as incubation-worthy. If all the start-ups required to have a detailed upfront business model we would not have had Twitter, Facebook, Google, Craigslist etc. The same incremental business case mindset simply won't work for revolutionary innovation. The disruptive innovation has characteristics that many people haven't seen their in their lifetimes. The organization need to adopt the VC model and embrace the high risk high reward business environment. There will be plenty of failures before you hit a jackpot but that's the fundamental premise of VC funding. Have a separate budget and an investment decision process that provides autonomy to an incubator to make their own decisions without going through a long chain of command. Have multiple rounds of funding to ensure that you are tracking the potential of the innovation right from the seed to the maturity.

    Explore all exit strategies: Don't expect to go-to-market with everything that comes out of an incubator. The mainstream product teams in your organization may or may not embrace and support the innovation citing the reasons "not invented here" or "too radical". Focus on your customers and success stories. If you are successful people will come to you instead of you selling the outcome to the organization. Be courageous and kill the products that are not working out and experiment with other exit strategies such as spin-offs, outright sale etc. Try to keep the product portfolio moving. High volume and turnover is a good thing for an incubator. Financial success is not the only success that counts; happy customers, re-invigorated organization, and global visibility as an innovation player are equally important KPI.

    Reward high risk behavior: People work for uncertain and highly ambiguous projects for two reasons - higher reward for higher risk and passion to build something new. Design your compensation structure that is fundamentally different than your corporate title-driven compensation and includes a generous equity option. The titles don't mean much when it comes to an incubator. What really matters is the skills, attitude, and the knowledge that people bring to the table. The career path in an incubator is very different than a conventional corporate ladder. Make sure that all the people that are part of an incubator truly understand what they are signing up for and are passionate for the work rather than simply waiting to be a "Chief Innovation Officer".
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