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Q&A on the Book Sense and Respond

Key Takeaways

  • Every business is a software business
  • Running a software based business is different than traditional industrial-era management
  • Software is a living system that is cultivated through constant optimization, pruning and iteration
  • Managing product teams that deliver software-driven services to output (feature releases) only increases the bloat of the software and customer experience
  • Managing teams on outcomes and meaningful changes in customer behaviour is the key to organizational agility and building products/services customers love

The book Sense and Respond provides ideas for executives, managers and business line leaders to leverage the power of technology to build more successful businesses. Authors Jeff Gothelf and Joshua Seiden explain how you can use experimentation and learning and continuous market feedback to deliver valuable products to customers, and how to manage teams on outcomes and foster effective collaboration.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt of Sense and Respond.

InfoQ interviewed Jeff Gothelf and Joshua Seiden about the major obstacles to building organizations that learn continuously, how to overcome them, how organizations can manage on outcomes using agile methods, what organizations can do to enable effective experimentation and learning, and how managers can create an environment where professionals can align their work and collaborate effectively.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Gothelf: It’s been nearly five years since the release of Lean UX, our first book. In that time we’ve received a significant amount of feedback. The top item we hear over and again is that teams buy into the collaborative ways of working described in Lean UX but their companies and managers don’t let them work this way. This gave us the insight needed to identify a conversation we felt was missing with managers to help them understand how the world has changed for businesses and what that means for the way they lead their teams and organizations.

Seiden: In addition, in our consulting work with leaders, we saw that many of the management tools they used-- for example the annual product planning and budgeting cycles, or the way they hired and staffed teams--were not in sync with today’s reality. Worse, although these leaders understood the need to respond to technological disruption, they didn’t know how. So we wanted to write a book that served their needs.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Gothelf: Executives, managers and business line leaders looking to leverage the power of technology to build more successful businesses.

Seiden: This isn’t just for tech leaders. We’re hoping that this book creates an opening for leaders across the organization  to have a conversation about modern ways of working--about how to respond to digital disruption.

InfoQ: Where does the title of the book "Sense and Respond" come from?

Seiden: So many of our modern methods are built around feedback loops. If you look at agile software development, or lean startup, or even things like design thinking and DevOps and beyond budgeting--all of these methods are ways of dealing with complexity by using continuous feedback loops. The problem is that all of these methods have “brands” and thus the conversation around them often misses the point. Should we do agile? Should we do design thinking? We wanted to step away from the branding and emphasize the importance of the underlying idea: that in a world of complexity, you need to be guided by continuous market feedback.

Gothelf: Software gives us an unparalleled ability to sense what our customers are doing with the products we build. Our job is to collect that insight, in real time, and build teams and cultures that allow for rapid response to this insight. The sooner we can optimize the product, the more successful both our customers and we will be.

InfoQ: What are the major obstacles to building organizations that learn continuously?

Gothelf: Organizations aren’t used to managing to outcomes. Managing to outputs is easier because it’s binary. This makes it easy to manage and measure. It also aligns with the manufacturing era mindset of making “more stuff.” Software doesn’t require “more stuff.” It requires better stuff. In most organizations, “better” usually equates to “bug free.” In a truly progressive organization, better means that customers are more successful and in turn making us more successful.

Seiden: There are big structural obstacles--like the way we fund our work. Many organizations fund teams to make stuff, rather than to achieve an outcome. And worse, they dole out that funding in annual chunks. The problem is you frequently have no idea if the stuff you’re planning to make is going to be effective. So you lock the organization into a year’s worth of work, and you don’t give teams the ability to adjust to what they’re learning.

Another big structural obstacle is location--we’ve seen so many big companies that locate their technology teams and their business teams in two different cities. This makes meaningful collaboration and learning very very difficult.

InfoQ: How can organizations overcome these obstacles?

Seiden: There are top-down things an organization can do--like looking at planning and funding cycles, adjusting staffing models, and changing the way they connect product planning to strategy. There are also departmental things they can do--building a technical capability to release software continuously is a huge enabler. And then there’s the bottom up stuff--just starting with a small team.

Gothelf: The easiest way to do this is take a small team and give them a customer outcome to achieve instead of a set of features to build. Give them some time (8-12 weeks) and let them figure out how to work together to achieve that customer outcome. Use this team’s learning as the basis for broader organization change. Also, buy our book.

InfoQ: How can organizations in regulated industries or those who deliver safety critical products apply sense and respond?

Gothelf: Create sandboxes for experimentation. These are safe digital and virtual spaces that give teams a clear sense of what is in scope for testing and what is out. This forces the teams to get creative on how to learn what they need to move forward.

Seiden: It’s all about making it safe to fail. In healthcare for example, your experiments will look different than if you’re a consumer entertainment company--the negative consequences of Netflix changing up their user interface are tiny in comparison. But if you’re a maker of medical equipment, those consequences are life-threatening. So Netflix can test things in live software that a maker of medical equipment could never dream of doing. But that doesn’t mean that the medical equipment manufacturer can’t test with users continuously. They just need to set up safe-to-fail test environments--ones that don’t put lives at risk.

But regardless of the context, the principles are the same--you want to prioritize continuous learning, and you do that by looking at where failures might occur and making it safe to test and to fail and to learn.

InfoQ: How can organizations manage on outcomes using agile methods?

Gothelf: Agile fits perfectly with this approach. It teaches a customer-centric approach based on short learning loops. At the end of each loop (sprint) the team decides what to do with the new info they’ve learned and then adjusts course accordingly.

Seiden: The risk is that many teams have a misguided notion of agile--a notion that includes small units of work, but doesn’t include feedback loops. Without feedback loops, agile is just mini-waterfall--it’s a process that defers learning until the end of the process.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to enable effective experimentation and learning?

Seiden: Well, running experiments is actually really hard. The idea is simple, but putting it in motion takes practice. So a lot of the process involves patience, practice, and mentorship. We encourage teams to expect that they’re going to have to learn how to experiment effectively. It can help to bring in a mentor or a coach or someone who has done this before. But beware of cookie-cutter advice. Every team and every organization is different. So there has to be an expectation that teams are going to have to learn how to do this together.

Gothelf: Teams need guidelines and guardrails. If they know where they can experiment and where they can’t, they’ll take more independent steps to achieve their goals.

InfoQ: How can managers create an environment where professionals can align their work and collaborate effectively?

Gothelf: Managers need to exemplify humility. The more our leaders learn from their mistakes and share those learnings in public the more our teams get encouraged to do the same.

Seiden: Jeff’s point about humility is huge. The fundamental challenge of working with technology systems today is the high levels of uncertainty created by complexity. No one knows with 100% certainty if any given idea will work, or what unintended consequences our work will create. This doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of making good plans, but it does require us to be realistic about the limits of what we know--in other words, it requires humility. So, as managers we need to model this, and demand it from our people and our leaders.

About the Book Authors

Josh Seiden is a designer, product leader, coach and author who has been creating great technology products for more than 25 years. Currently working as an independent consultant and is known to his clients as the "product whisperer," helping teams deliver products and services that solve problems for customers and create value for businesses. He's the co-author of "Sense and Respond" (Harvard) and  "Lean UX" (O'Reilly).

Jeff Gothelf is an organizational designer 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 (HBR Press) and  Lean UX (O'Reilly).

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