The Jeff Gothelf Hypothesis: Driving Business Agility Requires Humility, Curiosity, and Psychological Safety

Jeff Gothelf is the co-author of Lean UX and Sense and Respond, as well as the co-founder of Sense and Respond Press, in collaboration with Season 1 guest Josh Seiden. In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how making the transition to Agile needs to be organizational, the common mistakes that happen when different parts of the business are out of synch, and how to fix them.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Jeff Gothelf Hypothesis: Driving Business Agility Requires Humility, Curiosity, and Psychological SafetyHow did Jeff go from a broke musician to a career in tech? How did he transition into more advanced design and eventually make it into product management? What caused Jeff to hit his breaking point with his UX design position? What happened when Jeff found himself in a leadership position in an organization transitioning from waterfall to Agile? How did this lead to the publication of Lean UX?

How do you use bad answers to shared problems as clues to find what works? What were the first antipatterns they noticed? Why do people higher up in an organization receive less training? How does this lead to waterfall demands on Agile teams? What leads teams to try to cram the entire design process into a sprint? How do you solve the cross-functional, collaborative nature of design in an Agile process without frontloading it?

How have the problems in the industry changed over the last ten years? How do you structure incentives and performance management in Agile? Why do many organizations run into problems by waiting to address this issue? Why is this such a thorny issue? What can you do to help companies transition more effectively?

What are some of the biggest mistakes Jeff has made? Is honesty always the best policy? What is it like talking to students who learn about development from Lean UX and don’t know what waterfall was like? Why does Jeff always include discovery in any work that he does?

Why is humility such an important component of what Jeff teaches? How do you create a space where people feel empowered to admit they were wrong? How do you use a process on your process? How can an Agile division work within a non-Agile company?

How did Jeff and Josh start writing Sense and Respond? How is a response to the question, “we love Lean UX, we want to work this way but my boss won’t let me, what do I do?” Why did they decide to engage management with Sense and Respond? How did they write a book in order to create a conversation? How did they decide to start self-publishing with Sense and Respond Press? How have they designed it to give their authors opportunities?

Quotes From This Episode

They assumed the mindset was that yes, it's a sprint but we're still not iterative, we're incremental. And so if we don't get this perfect in the sprint, we're never going to get a second chance to come back and fix it. - Jeff Gothelf Click To Tweet There is still a disconnect between how we need to lead and manage agile teams and how organizations currently do that and incentivize those teams. - Jeff Gothelf Click To Tweet Humility says that what got me here may not get me there. I've got an opinion about how to proceed, but let me collect some evidence and make sure it matches my assumptions, and if it doesn't I'm willing to change my mind. - Jeff Gothelf Click To Tweet We reduce the risk, we experiment, we learn, and we iterate because there is no recipe that's going to fit every single organization. - Jeff Gothelf Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science Podcast where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learn from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly: Okay. So this week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m super excited to have a conversation with Jeff Gothelf. Jeff you may know as the e-author with Josh Seiden of Lean UX, and also of Sense and Respond, and lately, I believe, a co-founder of Sense and Respond Press. Is that correct?
Jeff Gothelf: Correct.
Holly: So I’m so excited to have you here. Tell us a little bit about… Did I miss anything about what you’re doing today? And then let’s travel back in time after that.
Jeff: Absolutely, Holly. Thanks so much for having me as a guest. It’s a pleasure to be here. These days I work, and have been working for the last few years as an independent consultant with primarily mid and large sized organizations helping them… I’ll tell you this, I get the call when organizations have begun their agile transformations, and they’ve brought in the consultants and the coaches, and they’ve tried to apply the recipes, and when everything breaks down that’s when I get the call.
Jeff: And I come in and I say, “Look, we implemented Scrum and the engineers are super happy, but the product managers don’t know what to do, and the designers are completely left out of the cold, and so how do we make all these folks play nice together?” And so that’s the kind of work that I’m doing these days both at the product team level doing a lot of training and coaching as well as the executive level really helping folks understand how to build the kind of cultures that support agility, continuous improvement, continuous learning, customer centricity and so forth.
Holly: That’s awesome. I think that’s perfect for our listeners because so many of them are in that state. They’ve been trying to do these things, and it’s not all working or they will find that out soon if they haven’t yet. But it can work. Before we go into more about what you’ve learned and how you approach that today, I’d love to go back in time a little bit. I always like to kind of paint a little bit of a picture of how leaders like yourself come to be because I want everyone to know that it’s a path that people can take. So tell us a little bit about how you got into tech in the first place.
Jeff: Sure. I think it’s interesting. I was a broke musician in the ’90s. My aspiration was to be a rock star, and I was playing in bands and trying to tour the East Coast. And in the late ’90s, kind of mid to late ’90s I was doing that pretty much full-time with crappy day jobs, and I was pretty broke, that’s the truth. I had no money and I wanted to go… I had met the woman who would eventually become my wife, and I wanted to take her out on dates, and I had no money. I had nothing. In the late 90s during the dotcom 1.0 days, if you could spell HTML, you could get a job.
Jeff: And I can do more than spell it, I could actually write it, and I taught myself basic website design and markup. And so I got a job. I got a job in the kind of the web 1.0 world as a front-end designer and technically a coder although back then maybe that was considered code. I certainly wouldn’t call the code today. It’s just markup. And then I spent the next 10 years building up from that into information architecture, UX design, some UI work and then ultimately product management and team leadership.
Jeff: And what’s fascinating is that I hit this critical point ten years into my career. I had been designing websites as primarily a UX designer for a decade, and the work that I was doing was not fun, and it wasn’t interesting. I was writing documents. I wasn’t designing experiences, I was creating specifications documents. And the worst part about that particular process was that on a good day 50% of my work got implemented, which meant that on a good day 50% of my work got thrown away, which meant that on an average day more than half my work got thrown away on a regular basis.
Jeff: Honestly, if it was going to continue like that for the next 10 years, I wasn’t going to do it. So I hit this kind of breaking point. Now, the interesting part is that right at that time I was starting to lead teams and I began to lead a team at a company in New York City called The Ladders. And I was lucky enough to have a good team and a good boss who provided me with the space to experiment.
Jeff: And we needed to figure out how to build this UX team in an organization that was transforming from waterfall to agile. And 10 years ago, 11 years ago no one had an answer for that. Everyone had horror stories and stories of failure, but no one had a good answer for that, and we were lucky enough as a team to iterate and work on ways to try to fix that. We found something that worked for us after about six months of iteration and trial and error. And I started speaking and writing about that material, and that became the core of the Lean UX conversation. I met Josh around that time, he was doing similar work with some other folks, and everything changed with the publication of Lean UX.
Jeff: Lean UX, the conversation and the publication people stopped asking me to design websites and started asking me to teach what was in the book. And for me that was transformational because that was not the linear career path I was planning or I had expected, and it was timed in such a way that it allowed me to do two things. One, it got me out of the deliverables business. It got me out of writing the specifications document, but it also put me in a position to help other people get out of that reality as well, and that was new and inspiring, and fun, and I was super passionate about that.
Jeff: In the last eight or nine years, I’m building off of that to build that practice to be… Not just Lean UX and product discovery but cross-functional collaboration, organizational agility, the Sense and Respond conversation we have going on with leaders, and it’s been a ton of fun. I’ve really, really been enjoying it in my career in the last 10 years.
Holly: Yeah. It sounds like it was a big shift once that happened and that’s inspiring too because I think a lot of people who are still sort of in the trenches sometimes I call being on the core product development team whether you’re a designer an engineer, product manager, but just being on the front lines, I think they all still face… There’s so many organizations where they still face that after work is being thrown out or worse even in organizations that call themselves agile. And I love to just spread stories of people who’ve seen it get better.
Holly: And I think one thing about what you just said that really struck me as something I haven’t heard a lot about is people who as many as 10 years ago were a part of the transition as opposed to either just… Like myself I just went and gravitated right away to super small less than 10 people startups where there was no history of waterfall for us to deal with or people who just came to it later once others had gone through the transition. But it sounds like you were really there right when companies were trying to figure out beginning that, how do we move over here.
Jeff: Look, one of the things that we did was we went and we talked to the organizations that failed at this. So there was no good answers, but there were lots of bad answers. And the bad answers are clues. That’s how we learned. We try something, it fails. And so if you talk to enough people who couldn’t make it work, you start to see patterns.
Holly: I love that.
Jeff: Anti-patterns really.
Holly: Yes.
Jeff: And so that was great. That really helped us. We could say we are not going to do this, but how are we going to get around that, and that was a far more interesting conversation than just kind of stabbing in the dark and trying something that we thought might work.
Holly: Yeah. So what were some of the first anti-patterns that you started to notice in those conversations?
Jeff: One the first ones that we saw is that the higher up in the organization, the less training the individual got. That was super interesting. The individual contributor level teams were getting agile training, scrum training, whatever it was, but then as your position in the organization was higher up in the ladder, you got less and less training. And so what was happening was the leadership of these organizations was making the exact same kind of demands on an organization I was trying to work in a completely different way. And it broke, it broke the process immediately because essentially they were making waterfall demands on agile teams.
Jeff: And so that was out completely. So that was one big anti-pattern. Another anti pattern that we kept seeing was this challenge of integrating design into the process and actually there’s a couple of variations on this anti-pattern. One of the things that we saw was teams trying to cram the entire design process into a sprint, literally like a full-fledged traditional three-month waterfall design phase into two weeks plus delivering and shipping software during that two-week process.
Holly: Oh my god. That must have been a mess.
Jeff: Yeah. It was a mess, and look at the why. Why were they doing that? They were doing it because they assumed that the mindset was that yes, it’s a sprint but we’re still not iterative, we’re incremental. And so if we don’t get this perfect in the sprint, we’re never going to get a second chance to come back and fix it. And so we’ve got to do as much design as possible in every sprint so that was a big problem for them as well.
Jeff: As I think about these anti-patterns no one had no one had solved the cross-functional collaborative nature of design. Everyone was doing big design up front, and that’s waterfall at the end of the day. You can call it agile all day long but it’s not agile. I hate to use that phrase because I tell people not to say that, but it wasn’t. And so we saw those same struggles over and over and over again. And it helped us understand like I said where at least not to go.
Holly: Yeah. Now, 10 years later or so, do you think that those same problems exists? How is the industry as a whole progressing? Has the percentage of people with those problems changed? Is it like just the tip of the iceberg? How are we doing?
Jeff: If I showed you my travel schedule for the fall, the answer is there are still lots of people with this challenge, which honestly I’ll be honest with you is shocking to me. We, you, me, Josh, the agile community, the Lean UX community, the design thinking community, these ideas are not new. I mean, design thinking has been around a long time. Lean UX was published in March of 2013. So we’re looking at six and a half years at this point that that’s been out there. And there’s been lots of books before that and since then in conversations to talk about how to build cross-functional collaboration.
Jeff: And still it breaks today because for a variety of reasons, but I think the biggest reason is that it breaks today and that why I’m still so busy is because there is still a disconnect between how we need to lead and manage agile teams, and how organizations currently do that and incentivize those teams.
Holly: Yeah, tell me more.
Jeff: I spend six months doing executive coaching with a big bank in the US working with the top leadership of that organization introducing them to what it means to manage and to lead an agile organization. And we spent six months with the highest levels of folks in this Bank and this is an organization that has spent millions and millions of dollars on their transformation effort. They’re using the right language. They’ve provided their people with the right tools. They’re creating the kind of collaborative spaces that allow all of this to happen.
Jeff: But the thing that they’ve ignored from day one and continue to ignore is incentives and performance management. So how do we measure whether people are actually doing good work in this new way of working? What do we incentivize? What do we reward? And if we maintain the incentives and the rewards from the waterfall world, it breaks the agile team model because we’re asking our people to work in one way and we’re paying them to work in a different way, and people will inevitably optimize for what gets them paid.
Holly: They sure will. So have you helped other organizations through that piece of it? I think that the incentives and performance management side is a really gnarly problem. People have a hard time changing. I’m curious if you have patterns or anti-patterns on that particular area?
Jeff: The anti-pattern I see is people leave it for last. And they leave it for last because it’s thorny. So imagine you’re your traditional legacy organization like a bank or an insurance company or a brick-and-mortar retail, and you’ve got employees in that organization who have been there for 15, 20, 25 years, and they have done a good job. They have worked their way up the corporate ladder, they had a clear career path ahead of them, they know what they need to do to get there, and then 20 years into their career, you move the goal posts. That’s what we’re doing.
Jeff: That is messy and it’s difficult, and it’s an issue hat organizations, I think, are trying to avoid because it’s going to cause a lot of turmoil, it’s going to cause churn. It probably cause turnover. And I think organizations aren’t willing to pay that price at the moment. And so to me that is something that if we can get ahead of that as quickly as possible and experiment with different ways of incentivizing and measuring folks, and then somehow figuring out how to apply that to not just new employees. That’s easy.
Jeff: We’re hiring you. We’re going to pay you this way. We’re going to reward you this way. But how do you transition? Somebody has have their sights set on a certain position, a certain office in the building, a certain level of compensation, but now you’ve changed the criteria for them to achieve that. How do we ease people into that in a way that makes them comfortable and in a way that sets them up for success?
Jeff: And again this comes back to that first anti-pattern that we talked about, it comes down to training and professional development, and coaching in a way that organizations typically don’t invest and interestingly enough, and I know this from firsthand customer development work, leaders and executives also don’t invest for themselves. And so it’s a really thorny issue, and there’s no silver bullet here.
Holly: Yeah, definitely. It’s really tough, and I think… I don’t know. Before we started recording, we were chatting about living in different places, and I live in New York, but I grew up in the suburbs of New England. And I just went back to visit family and found myself sort of just contemplating how differently prepared people in different parts of the world are for change. And in these large institutions what I find is that people there are… That it’s a rare and beautiful thing when you find the people there who are primed to be the leaders of the business agility. It’s too rare.
Jeff: I mean, look, I’ll tell you a quick story just to illustrate, I can really hit this point home. Before I started doing more kind of Lean UX consulting, I got a UX consulting gig. It was six-week gig with a company just north of New York City, an old company, 100, 120 year old company, and it was six weeks to do a heuristic evaluation of a couple of different systems that they were redesigning and re-implementing. I spent five of those six weeks just getting the credentials to access the systems.
Holly: Oh my god.
Jeff: And then I spent a week doing the heuristics that was supposed to take six weeks. Why? Because nobody in that organization wanted to take the risk of being the person who gave the consultant the keys to the systems and then the consultant then turned everybody’s world upside down with their critique and their feedback. Nobody wanted that on their back because they were super happy with the way things were and change was terrifying.
Holly: Wow. That is really an extreme story.
Jeff: Yeah.
Holly: So I’m curious what happened. What did you do with that one week?
Jeff: Well, I did the best I could. I mean, look, you know how it is, right? Every week, it’s an email to the client saying, “Hey, it’s Jeff. I still don’t have access to the system.” And they’re like, “Oh, really? Sorry. Email Jennifer.” You emailed Jennifer and and then Jennifer is like, “I’m out on vacation. Ask Bob.” And you’re like, “Okay, Bob. It’s another system I don’t have access to.” And literally every week you’re sending these emails and at the end… And every email says something to the effect of, “Well, that’s another week of the engagement that we lost and I can’t add it on at the end.” It is what it is. They paid for six weeks and I gave them weeks worth of work, and it was their fault not mine.
Holly: Yeah. I’m chuckling over here with like, yep, I’ve seen these sorts of things. Oh, man. So I think some of how you got here was working with teams, who did this first and then went in and taught others. What are some of the things that you’ve… What are mistakes you made when you try to do it but now you teach other people how not to do?
Jeff: It’s interesting. You look back and even the stuff that I do today, I look at the… I teach workshops a lot of workshops both in house and public workshops. I’ve got a standard deck that I work from for each type of class, and then I modify it for the current situation. Sometimes I look back at decks that I created five, six, seven years ago and I have to wonder who wrote this material. You don’t see incremental changes that you make over time, but if you’ve taken a big leap back a few years, the differences are stark.
Jeff: And I think that that’s… So when you ask me what are the some of the mistakes that I made, there isn’t so many over the years, different ways of teaching this stuff, different ways of framing it, different ways of trying to make it work in organizations. Just consulting most basic consulting mistakes that I’ve made. I’ll you another story. There was an organization that hired me to come in and to teach a week-long immersion workshops. It was five days. We’d do Lean UX, product discovery, some agile stuff. They’d do customer development, prototyping, the whole thing.
Jeff: It’s a really fun week, but in order to do it right I have to do a bit of discovery and diagnostic work at the beginning of the process, and that generally involves interviews and retrospectives and that kind of thing. And so I did a series of interviews and retrospectives with this organization and then I did a readout with the leadership of that organization of what I found. And I’ll be honest with you, I found some things that were fundamentally broken in that practice.
Jeff: And I was brutally honest in the readout, brutally honest. Because that’s what I thought they were paying me to do. It turns out to my surprise that was not what they were paying me to do because that call ended fairly abruptly and immediately my phone rang and it was the client whose boss’s boss were on the previous call, and they laid into me like I have never, never been laid into in my life in a professional setting. What do you think you’re doing? How dare you say these things? You’re making everybody look like a jackass. It’s not that bad. On and on, and on, and on, and on.
Jeff: God, I felt like an asshole, forgive me for doing it, for just reading back what I had discovered. To me that was a massive learning moment. It was this realization that yes as a consultant people are asking you to point out the flaws but don’t make people look like idiots. And especially in front of their bosses. Again, it feels pretty basic today, but back then that was a big learning for me. And so all these things, these kind of lots and lots of learning moments that I picked up over the years that make their way into my practice and at the micro scale, I don’t notice them.
Jeff: But at the macro scale when you taken up a bigger leap back and look at the material, it’s so fundamental. Again, just another quick story. We’ve written Lean UX twice. There was the first edition which was published in 2013, and there was the second edition that was published in late 2016. When I personally went back to look to reread version one, and think about what version two was going to be improved, I was mortified.
Holly: I hear that from people a lot, and I can imagine. I mean, you got to go back and be like all the things I’ve learned since then they’re missing here.
Jeff: Yes, yeah. I was like who the hell published this thing. Who green lighted this book because my god there’s so many things I need to fix here. And so stuff like that, that I think that there’s learning every day that takes place and then kind of the bigger leaps you have to really take a macro view on it to really see.
Holly: Yeah. I love the stories. Stories make everything come to life, right?
Jeff: Yeah.
Holly: What are some experiences I guess… Oh, here’s something I’m curious about. Now, that you have written a book that’s used to help people understand how to do UX, you know on an agile team in a lean fashion, have you also talked to people and worked with people who this was their first reading your book was their first introduction to what it might be like to design in the professional world today like students who were just out of school and who don’t have all the context of what waterfall was like before.
Jeff: Yeah, actually it happened to me a long time ago. This was kind of as the Lean UX stuff was starting to take shape and I was starting to get a bit of inbound demand to come give talks. I was asked to come speak at Foursquare in New York. At Foursquare today their customer facing stuff is far, far less important than their kind of back-end stuff. But back then it was all front-end stuff. It was the days of Foursquare we were all vying to be the mayor of whatever, the mayor of the Starbucks, right?
Holly: Yes. I remember.
Jeff: I enjoyed that and that was fun for a while. And so I go I want to give a talk there and I’m trying to think how old I was at the time. I mean, I must have been… Maybe I was 40. Maybe I was 39, something like that, 38, 39, 40 something like that. And I go to give this Lean UX talk, and at the time the Lean UX talk was a comparative talk. Waterfall sucks and it was like this and this is the new way. And I gave this talk to this group of engineers and designers who were all 22 at Foursquare. And it went over like a lead balloon. They were looking at me like, “What the fuck are you talking about? I’ve never worked this way. I have no context for the comparison that you’re drawing,” because I’m used to speaking to people at banks and insurance companies, again in brick-and-mortar retailers, and Foursquare was a hot young startup, and they’re all like, “What is this jackass talking about? Because I have no idea.”
Jeff: Literally just blank stares. And you know this. You know when you give a talk and you’re in front of an audience that just doesn’t get it. The vibe in the room it’s just the air is dead. You’re just looking at the clock and just waiting, waiting for it to go out. Absolutely. Again, like you talked about a learning moment, like that’s another mistake that I assumed that this audience was just like many of the other audiences that I was speaking to at the time and they weren’t, and in this particular case the product that I had delivered to them was completely inappropriate.
Holly: I feel like those are the things it’s only through… We all… Those of us who do this practice continuous discovery and teach others how to do really customer focused work. I feel like we all get here through various versions of those experiences, right?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Holly: That’s how we know. And it’s even coming back to… When you were saying this before it made me think of this parallel in my mind of as a person who spent enough time with engineers and with designers, and with product development teams, I have lived through the pain of what happens when you… I read your article this morning about fixed scope, fixed time projects, always ending one of three ways and they’re all bad. And I was thinking that that’s a particular topic that’s I’m passionate about because I’ve lived through so many versions of the bad things that happen.
Holly: And it’s only because I already so deeply know that pain that I will put in the effort to do the hard work upfront to make sure that we’ve got some more reasonable set of expectations going into it. When I think about that, I think back to things like companies always waiting until the end to do the compensation part because they haven’t yet lived through the pain of what happens if you wait until the end to do the compensation part, right?
Jeff: Right.
Holly: It’s only once enough of us have lived through that pain and told the story, and shared this is what happens when you make those mistakes, that people will actually be incentivized to act sooner.
Jeff: Absolutely. And look, I mean it’s part of the reason that I include discovery in all the work that I do. Now today, like I said, I’m not really designing software products anymore, or I haven’t in a while, but I design classes, I design curriculum, I design organizations, et cetera, and if you go in there with the arrogance that A, I’ve done this before and I’ve worked with banks before, and you’re a bank, and then it’s all going to be the same, you’re going to end up getting chewed out by your clients in front of everybody else very quickly.
Jeff: And look, what’s the underlying component there, right? The underlying component which is what I teach 100% of time is humility. Humility is not to say that I’m an idiot I don’t know what I’m doing, humility simply says that what got me here may not get me there. And I’ve got a strong opinion about how to proceed, but let me collect some evidence and make sure that that evidence matches my assumptions, my point of view, my opinions, and if it doesn’t that I’m willing to change my mind. And to me, that’s the key, but the key to all of this, the key to building great businesses to building agile teams that all of this is humility.
Holly: I had some of my own experiences with that where being such a fan of science and studying science before moving into tech, that’s the central tenet. You’re not a scientist if you don’t that you could be proven wrong and you want to know what the truth is, right?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Holly: For me, one of the learning curves was figuring out how to identify whether other people have that mindset because I just sort of assumed that people would, but they don’t all. We’re not raised and socialized for that to be the norm necessarily, and so I’ve had to go through like how do I identify who’s exhibiting this straight, and how do we build it in people because once you have that, you can do everything else because you just have to gather the evidence and learn, and keep responding.
Jeff: Right, but here’s the thing, and this again getting to the root causes of why all this stuff breaks, and everyone is like agile sucks. It’s not agile that sucks. Philosophically, it makes total sense. But if you have a culture, so we’re humble, curious creatures and we’re going to go to do discovery work and learn thing, but if I learned something that conflicts with what I’ve already put forward to my team, my boss, my colleagues whatever it is the client, and it’s not safe for me to come back and stand up in front of those people and say, “Listen, I was wrong. I had this good idea. I thought it was a good idea, but I found out I was wrong.”
Jeff: If it’s not safe, if we don’t create the psychological safety, if we don’t encourage people to learn and then to use that learning to change their minds and get smarter, and get better, and improve, then this whole agile agility whatever, customer centricity, all this stuff, it’s out the window because no one is going to take any risks and no one’s going to do. Even if they’re doing discovery work, they’re not going to do anything with it because they’ve already committed to doing something else. And so to me these are the core components that make or break these kinds of transformations.
Holly: Yeah. Have you gotten to go to approaches to helping companies create that safety?
Jeff: Yes. And it’s kind of a meta process. It’s using the process on the process. Really, that’s the key.
Holly: I love it. I do that too.
Jeff: Yeah.
Holly: [inaudible]
Jeff: It is. But it’s basically saying, “Look, if the process feels risky, how do we de-risk the change? Well, we derisk the change by reducing scope. So instead of changing the way that 50,000 people work or 500 or even 50 people work we’re going to change the way that five people work or 10 people, and we’re we’re not going to change the way that they work forever, we’re going to change it for three months. And we’re going to use that as an experiment.
Jeff: And during those three months we’re going to learn what we know how to do, what we don’t know how to do, what’s easy, what’s hard, where the organizational hurdles are, how do we get through them, that type of thing. And if at the end of that three-month experiment with 10 people, we decide that this is worth pursuing further then we give those people another three months and we spin up a second team that starts to use the learnings from the first team. And if we can maintain that momentum, then we go to five teams, and then we go to 15, and then we start to get with these bigger challenges.
Jeff: But we reduce the risk, we experiment, we learn, and we iterate because there is no recipe that’s going to fit every single organization. And so to me, that’s the go-to trick here. And again, it’s so funny. Today, it feels so common sense to me. Of course, this is what we’re going to do, but 10 years ago these were insurmountable obstacles that I couldn’t think of how to get through.
Holly: Yeah. Do you ever have clients push back on going to that like say, “But I’ve got to train everybody at once or they’re going to revolt,” or any other things they might say?
Jeff: I mean, look, yeah. I mean really the challenges that I see in those type situations is they’ll say, “Well, that’s great, Jeff. You can train 10 people or 25 or even 50 people, but I’ve got 5,000.” In fact, I had a conversation this week with a new prospective client that I’m excited to hopefully work with, and they said, “Look, we are a 4,000-person division of a 120,000-person company. And even if we…” The question to me was, even if you successfully help us transform our division… Which is 4,000 people is still a massive amount of people. Even if you help us transform, if the rest of the organization doesn’t work this way, is it even worth it for us to do this? Great question, right?
Holly: Yeah.
Jeff: Because these folks, they don’t work at a silo and inevitably they’re going to have to deal with the other organizations. And so the question is, “Well, if we’re agile and they’re not, what happens?” And that’s a really great question because 4,000 out of 120 is it’s a good start, but you’re not done.
Holly: Yup, wow. So how do you answer it?
Jeff: Hire me. That’s what I tell them. We’ll solve it together. Look, it’s the same answer that we just talked about. It’s applying the process to the process. I said, “Look, the only way we’re going to get buy-in is with evidence, and so let’s build evidence. Let’s build evidence that this is a better way of working. Let’s prove the model out with pilot efforts within this division. Let’s scale it out to this division, and then let’s use the evidence that it works here to bring on the next division and the one after that.” We’re continually justifying the increase in scope with evidence, which is using the process on the process.
Holly: Yeah. That’s beautiful. So candidly, when I first came across your work, I had been heads down for a while in a high-growth startups, and hadn’t been reading books in a little bit, and then I came out for air, and Sense and Respond and Lean UX came to my attention. I found Sense and Respond in particular so helpful because for me that was my first time trying to talk to more people from the bigger organizations that had more of the traditional background to them. And I think I’d always sort of… Whenever people… They sometimes call it like transplanting but whenever… When a high-growth startup gets to a certain stage there start being calls for more experienced executives, and they start bringing in people from bigger corporations, and they say they’re going to help us provide structure.
Holly: But then everyone who has been in that more agile focus experience for a while gets really confused about what that means, and what parts of this are they bringing and all of that. And for me reading Sense and Respond was a really great way for me to understand that mindset and how you tell the story to people who have lived in that world for so much longer. And I’m curious to hear sort of like what is the story of that book because you talked a little more about how you got to Lean UX, but how did you get to Sense and Respond?
Jeff: Yeah. I’ve really come across as a broken record. Sense and Respond is the response to the feedback that we sensed from Lean UX. That’s the TLDR.
Holly: I love it.
Jeff: But it’s true. I mean, it’s kind of silly but it’s true. Lean UX has been out for six and a half years, and to our, really just amazement it continues to be an extremely popular book and has been tremendously successful. What that means is that Josh and I get regular feedback from our readers and they talk about the book. And if I was to boil down six and a half years with the feedback into one statement, kind of one high-level statement it would be this, we love Lean UX, we want to work this way, my boss won’t let me work this way.
Jeff: And so again being sort of a bit entrepreneurial and motivated to… After seeing the success of our first book we said, “There’s an opportunity here, and the opportunity here is to write a second book. This time not for the practitioners but for the bosses because clearly the teams get it, the teams want to work this way, but the environments and the cultures and the incentives that they’re working in don’t allow them to work this way.” So let’s start a conversation with the bosses and at the same time let’s prove a hypothesis to ourselves that two designers, Josh and I are designers by training and certainly for the bulk of our careers, two designers can write a successful business book.
Jeff: And we did it, and that was the pitch. The pitch was to write a business book that made the case for agility at the executive level, and we sought out business book publishers, and we focused very specifically on getting a business book publisher. We ended up with Harvard Business Review Press, which we were thrilled with. That’s exactly who we wanted to work with, and that’s how that book came about.
Jeff: And what was fascinating from an experience of writing the book just to kind of share that a little bit, Lean UX was we wrote about the work that we were actively doing on a daily basis, so it was. Easy in a sense to know what to write about. The writing part was hard but I didn’t have to do any research. I was going to write about what I was doing.
Jeff: Sense and Respond was designed to create a conversation that Josh and I wanted to have but were not currently having which was this cultural incentive, organizational agility conversation. And so we had to go and do a tremendous amount of primary and secondary research to inform the book in a way that would appeal to our target audience. And while it’s not been as successful as Lean UX, just at the sales numbers levels, it has certainly been successful and created that conversation that we saw from the get-go.
Holly: Because you applied the process to writing a book.
Jeff: Exactly.
Holly: That’s awesome. So what are you up to? I know you’ve been publishing books as part of Sense and Respond Press?
Jeff: Yes. So interestingly enough after publishing with two publishers, I decided to ask one of the more successful self-publishing authors and a friend of mine Christina Wodtke how she did it. What was the secret sauce of successful self-publishing? And she and I over a dinner in Switzerland, a few years ago, she shared with me her process of how she self-publishes, and I said I’ll give it a shot. And so I took one of my more popular blog posts, and I extended it to 6,000 words, and I self-published a book called Lean vs. Agile vs. Design Thinking, and that book did well. People bought that book.
Jeff: I mean, 6,000 words this book is almost an exaggeration that extended essay basically, but people bought it, and to me that again triggered a really interesting realization, “Hey, people like short reads and practical, tactical things they can take away. Maybe there’s a business opportunity here.” And so I enlisted my trusty companion Josh Seiden who I genuinely enjoy working with and continue to do so every day, along with Vicky Olsen who is Josh’s wife launched Sense and Respond Press, which is our attempt to do three things.
Jeff: One, it’s to publish short practical business books for busy executives. So that’s number one. Second, it’s to help first-time authors unlock their first book. And third was to provide a platform to elevate voices of unrepresented minorities, and to increase the diversity of authors that are publishing business books to the world these days. And we’re doing okay on that front and we could always be doing better, but we’re doing pretty well on that front to continue to push that envelope as much as we can.
Jeff: And we’ve got 10 books published to date. There are seven more in the works. We’re actively soliciting new authors on our website and And you’ll notice that the books are templated. They’re a series of books that focus on everything from Debbie Madden’s Hire Women, so how to increase gender diversity on tech teams to Innovation in Government by Sara Hudson and Hana Schank, to more tactical stuff like Elena Astilleros’ facilitation book, the Invisible Leader. We’ve got books on innovation by Ryan Jacobi, and so forth. And really, really practical, tactical stuff, spend an hour, read the book, get something new, put it into action that same day.
Holly: Awesome. When I first saw that you guys were doing that, I just thought like short practical books for busy leaders just like makes so much sense. So I’m glad to hear that you guys are still moving on that.
Jeff: Yes. It’s moving forward, and you know what’s interesting is that we’re evolving that business because, look, no one is getting rich selling books unless your last name is Kardashian, right? We’re taking those same authors and we built a speaker series platform for them to get them into companies, to give talks, to really give them the kind of opportunities to share their content more broadly than just in print form. And so it’s super exciting, and it’s fun, and it’s entrepreneurial, and it’s experimental. I’m psyched that we continue to do it as well.
Holly: That’s awesome. Well, I guess the last thing is how can people find you if they’d like to go follow you?
Jeff: So it’s super easy, That’s where it is. I’ve recently consolidated everything back under my website, all my writing, all my events. Everything is there. So that’s the easiest place. And all the links for everything else are there. I mean I’m on Twitter, but Sign up for the newsletter. You get one email a month with some content and some links, and it’s fun.
Holly: Awesome. All right. Well, thank you so much. This has been a pleasure, and I can’t wait to share this conversation.
Jeff: Awesome, Holly. Thanks so much for having me. This was a ton of fun.
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