Three steps to reduce risk in product delivery

When did you last get feedback? Maybe you asked for it or it was given to you unsolicited. Irrespective, it is pretty natural to think back to when your manager or colleague last shared an observation with you about yourself in response to this question. If feedback can be useful to you for your career and professional development, then why wouldn’t we want the same during product or service delivery?

Using feedback, and specifically the concept of feedback loops, you will gain a framework for designing, when, where and how quickly you get feedback to reduce risk for your product development. When referring to risks, we can categorise them into two groups:

  • Technical Risk: Can I create it, and can I create it defect free?
  • Market Risk: Am I creating the right thing, and in the right time frame?

Feedback loops by their very nature imply that when feedback is obtained, it is fed back into the system and acted upon. Not using this invaluable data is a pure waste in lean thinking and plain dumb with respect to common sense. Feedback loops can be either ‘single loop learning’, where the goal stays the same and the data used to reach said goal, or ‘double loop learning’, where, based on the feedback, the goal might be adjusted.

As an example, your satnav uses single loop feedback. It’s destination never changes but, based on traffic conditions and maybe the occasional wrong turn, it still keeps heading towards the same place. However, a human navigator can benefit from double loop feedback. If the traffic becomes too bad, or a major road is closed, you can decide that the extra time now required might not justify your trip and turn around and go home.

Technical Risk

How do you know how well you are doing in your ability to deliver and deliver defect free? It would be surprising if you didn’t already have some feedback loops to address your technical risk in place already. You might call them, ‘status reports’, ‘peer review’, ‘testing’, or ‘sign off’. The essence of these is to capture issues before you give the output to your customer. Collectively these and similar try to address, ‘can I create it?’, and ‘can I create it defect free?’.

From a customer experience point of view, being able to deliver a product with the right level of quality (mindful that this can vary), and knowing you are capable of delivering it are useful operational measures. You also want to try to limit the amount of failure demand that is being generated, leaving as much capacity available to deliver what you want, rather than having to go back and fix what you didn’t do well to start with. Failure demand can originate internally or externally. One is annoying the other could lose future business.

The process of creating a quote and then receiving a purchase order described using feedback loops.

Visualising your feedback loops

Just as it is important to validate your output, it is important to make sure your process, or your ability to deliver, is also addressed. Both the agile frameworks Scrum and Kanban introduce the concept of regularly reflecting and making improvements through activities like the retrospective and use of models. Non-IT organisations might use ‘lesson learned’ or ‘after action reviews’ to gain similar insights, albeit, not typically as often in the agile space, which we might describe as having feedback loops with longer cycles.

Market Risk

What part of your current process validates that what you are building is what the customer wants? The worst case is finding the thing you have lovingly created over the last few months does not sell. At the speed that business moves today, running your business with a ‘create it and they will come’ attitude will not get you very far.

What channels do you use to get feedback from your customers today? Are you proactive and ask or does it only come unsolicited through your support teams?

Assuming you do talk to your customers on a regular basis the questions you pose to your customers can either gain lots of insight or simply be a waste of time. Consider the following examples, ‘Do you like feature X that makes the widget faster?’, or, ‘What is it about using the widget you believe could be improved?’ The first is likely to generate a response which has little value, whereas the second will allow for a considerably wider and informative response.

It’s not just the questions you ask either, it is the data you collect. The Standish Chaos Report regularly shows around 45% of features delivered in product development are not used. Knowing what is being used or not allows you to remove items of no value, and therefore save operational costs. It also allows you the insight to prioritise improvements for functionality that has the greatest use by your customers.  Companies you look up to such as Spotify, Netflix and Linkedin, all capture usage data and run experiments. They know very clearly which functionality doesn’t get used. This is yet another example of a feedback loop.

But it is not just a case of knowing this. Having introduced feedback loops to listen to customers and monitor how they interact with your products and services, you then have to do something with the data. Does the feedback help you reach your destination or does your destination need to change?

In the article about using Outcomes we explored how these were a powerful tool over requirements. As part of your conversations with customers you will create hypotheses about what you think you can solve to create demand for your product. Using the tools from the Lean Startup movement you can now try to validate these hypotheses before you have spent any time even creating the product.

Improving your feedback loops

1. Identify what loops you have today

Your first step is to review the loops currently in place throughout your product delivery pipeline. Having done so, categorise them in two ways:

  • Risk Mitigation: What is the purpose of the feedback loop? Does it reduce technical or market risk?
  • Type of learning: Is it validating single loop, or corrective double loop learning?

If you struggle to categorise a loop, consider if this means you are not getting value because it’s the wrong thing to get feedback on or if it’s just not being used. Loops that don’t add value are a waste.

You may find it useful to create a similar diagram to the one featured above during this process.

2. Review what loops are missing

Having now identified what loops you already have and how you use them, the next step is to look for opportunities to gain feedback where you are not. If you’ve mapped your loops diagrammatically, you may find it obvious where you have gaps.

Use these questions to inspire your thinking:

  • Is there potential to add nested loops to provide more levels of protection?
  • Where have you found problems with quality before?
  • What could your customers tell you earlier?
  • Are you using experimental techniques to validate hypotheses?
  • Are your loops imbalanced with too much emphasis on just the technical or market risk? (this might be appropriate or that you don’t have enough loops in place)

3. Make your loops shorter

Your mantra should be that you want fast feedback. Faster feedback allows you to make quicker decisions and change your direction accordingly. For existing and your proposed new loops, explore how could they be made shorter.

In some situations where your feedback can only occur after an event (e.g. Customer Satisfaction), consider how you can use leading to lagging metrics.

Next Steps

Being more consciously aware and improving use of feedback loops will increase your competitive advantage. They are a prime method of risk reduction on your projects as long as you address both the technical and market risks.

Work through the improvement techniques mentioned above with your team or organisation and implement your changes. Consider what metrics you might use to demonstrate how the improvements have worked. If you are using Kanban you will be already familiar with the use of models and data to monitor your flow.

Finally, consider how you can bake into your process reviewing and improving in the future.

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Things I’m reading

I’ve been mainly having my head down in to two books over the last couple of weeks.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing ImprovementEliyahu Goldratt

This is a parable that explains the concepts of production flow through the story of Alex who runs a manufacturing plant. I found it a very interesting read and didn’t feel like most books I read. In fact it felt like I was reading a fiction book, something I generally only do on holiday; so felt like a guilty pleasure, while learning new things at the same time.

I think that if you’ve not done any other reading or thinking about flow, you might miss some of the lessons in the book. In a way this is because they are presented by the nature of it being a story quiet subtly.

While the story is in a manufacturing plant, you can take the essence of the concepts in to knowledge work too. I’d recommend reading this if you are seriously trying to understand more about flow.


Digital AdaptationPaul Boag

I started reading this book as one of my clients had the author, Paul Boag, in to do a all-hands talk to aid their understanding on what digital meant to them. This is a pretty quick and easy book to read with a good all round view of what being digital means.

I’d suggest this is a beginners book, as the topics are touched on and not dwelled upon and if you’ve done much reading in this space before you won’t find it terribly radical.

Having said that, as we are kicking off a refresh of the this website, the part on creating a digital strategy I found useful to solidify my thinking and help convey that to the digital agency we’ve employed to do the work.

About creativity

I read with conviction last year the book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, which if you’ve not read I highly suggest you do. Not only is it fascinating, but also provides lots of proven techniques you can use or adapt for your business. This blog plays to my cognitive biases and covers some of the key quotes and ideas in a summary form so it was a lovely refresh or if you’re new to Ed Catmull, take a look.

Dealing with more demand than there is supply

We all have to accept that there will always be things that drop off the bottom of our lists of things to do and worrying about this is not productive. Neither is saying yes and trying to start all of them. This refresher article from Forbes looks at why saying yes all the time isn’t helpful and how to set some expectations in this space.

Things I’m reading

Open BookThere is so much fabulous content out there today that it could be a full time job just reading a small part of it. This is a start of what I hope to be a semi-regular series of snippets from articles, blogs and books I’m reading that I haven’t selected to spend more time on. I’d love hear if you like these or if would like to recommend anything to me.


Visual memory, what can you remember?
Explores how the human brain filters out information. What is interesting is that while this is far from new, the examples they studied we might have thought would not have been filtered out.

The benefits of physical task boards
While this article bolsters my own cognitive bias, it does refer to proper scientific research that outlines how memory retention is better from a physical medium. My understanding it’s more about the act of physically writing than the board.

Empowering your empowerment
Explores some common misconceptions about how to empower people in your organisation.

Pushing decisions down
Tips and observations on how to let decisions be made without the need of managerial intervention. Great when you’re trying to get an organisation to move to a more  self organising and learning way. As an aside you might be interested in the author’s TED talk on the same subject.

Learning by do?
Discussing how to blend teaching new concepts and learning through failure. Interesting insights with great links to research in the area.

So what do you think about these? Anything I should read? Let me and others know through the comments.

How using outcomes can drive your agile delivery of value


Is your organisation successful in delivering value through agile methods? If not you are not alone. A great many who are either new to agile or have been doing it for a while struggle to get value delivered. While there can be many reasons for this, one common reason is because there is a lack of focus on the outcomes being delivered.

I recently had the Nest Thermostat installed; a sexy piece of gadgetry that replaces both your home heating programmer and thermostat. It made me think about focusing on outcomes to deliver considerable customer benefit and make for a much better user experience.

The problem

At it’s basic level my problem definition was ‘I don’t want to be cold in the mornings’. Traditionally, an organisation would be heading off down the requirements route, trying to work out how to make this happen. In part this is human nature, our brains are wired (especially engineers) to find solutions to problems. Before you know it Systems Architects or Business Analysis type roles create lengthy requirements documents based on (if we are lucky) conversations with the customer.

It’s unlikely once these documents have been written, the contents would have been validated with the customer. Even if they did, the way the requirements were written it was hard for a customer to say if it was right or not. If I as a customer saw a requirement saying, ‘engage the water pump at 6am’, how would I know if this added value? Might I even understand it at all?

When I think back to my original heating controls, when I first set it up, I had little or no knowledge of how long the house would take to warm up. In absence of this, I used a simple, but likely to be flawed plan, of working backwards from when we normally woke up. So in our house, the heating used to kick in at 6am, in the hope that at 7am it would be warm enough.

With a focus on outcomes you turn this around and might ask the customer, what does ‘not being cold mean?’ and they respond, ‘well say 20deg Centigrade at 7am’. On the Nest Thermostat this is exactly what you do.  Set the schedule to the outcome you want and don’t worry about how long it takes to get there as the new ways of working sorts this for you.

When you create your product or service, this is just how a delivery team would work. The customer or in Scrum their representative, the Product Owner, owns the outcome, 20deg at 7am, and the delivery team would own the solution of making that happen. While the client might have a passing interest in how the solution looks (no lump wood fires in the middle of the kitchen floor), it’s important not to be prescriptive with the solution as this can hinder the creativity the delivery team need to find a great solution.

Help the customer find the outcome

So while I’ve said you need to focus on outcomes, not every customer is going to come along and articulate the outcome straight away. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It is your job to help them and you to get to the true outcome. Techniques like 5 Whys, or using the coaching approach of, ‘what does that get for you?’ repeatedly allows you to unpick the problem.

From doing this, you may find there are large assumptions in their thinking, so some of your next steps might be doing some validation of the most riskiest ones, even before you start putting hands to keyboards and starting to code. To help guide you through the process of experimenting, try using a tool like the Javelin Experiment Board.

Don’t assume technology is needed

Solutions end up being by their very nature similar to things you’ve done before and often are tied to technology. What if initially part of your solution was done using a concierge service, where you staff a service and run it by hand while you validate what is really needed and how it might work. You may discover part of the solution is actually cheaper run this way than investing in the technology to do the same thing. Or it allows you to focus on the highest value items first while giving coverage through the human touch.

Outcomes can lead to innovation

When you have not had an auto-suggested a solution given to you, your creativity skills can be used to the fullest. It’s these moments of creativity that true innovation can occur. Asking yourself questions that start with, ‘What if….?’, help to unlock the ideas.

Next steps

Starting today, make sure your organisation’s focus is on outcomes of the most valuable items. Not doing so will result in products and services that do not satisfy the customer and underperform.

Be prepared to help your customer get there. See this as not a means to an end, but a way how you can truly add value to your relationship. Be ready to explore solutions and create an environment where that allows innovation to flourish.

If that still seems unclear then Tootechnical Ltd can help in two ways:

  • Product Management Pathway, a 12 week education program for your Product Managers, Product Owners and client teams to learn how to create products that your customers truly want.
  • Coaching, working directly with your organisation developing the skills to do this.

If either seem of interest, get in touch for a free initial assessment.

How dot voting can reveal the unexpected

While facilitating a stakeholder workshop recently, I ran two rounds of grouping and ordering. One I used dot voting, one didn’t. On reflection I was surprised with the results.

The question asked during these processes following a pattern of, what are your top three things you do/don’t like about a tool.  The stakeholders wrote their three things on post-it notes, which where then collected and read out in random order, and the stakeholders agreed on their grouping.

In the first round, we had three largely populated groups, and several smaller ones. Therefore we didn’t dot vote, as it was felt by the group, with me admittedly leading them, that these three groups represented the most important for the group overall.

Results without dot voting

Clearly three large groups were created.

On the second round, there were not any clear winners, by number of post-its, so we dot voted. The surprise came, that one of the top three items was a “group” of a single post it note. Everyone was happy with the outcome and we moved on. This single post-it note from a single person, turned out to be very important to people, but it didn’t come out when they were thinking up their three items.

How the top three were voted for which one was not from the largest post-it pile

Top three with dot voting with one from a single post-it

My insight here is that dot voting should always be used when running this and similar activities, as the top items might not necessarily be the item that came up the most.

Try it yourself and let me know if you also see smaller groups getting voted up.

Why failure isn’t bad, as long as you learn

Failure is sometimes seen as a bad word. When you discuss this with people, you discover it carries baggage, often from an identifiable incident where their failure was criticised by someone of influence. They are right in some ways though that failure can be bad, but only when you don’t learn from the failure.

A key facet of Agile principles is to continually improve, the inspect and adapt cycle. Scrum has a specific ceremony for it, the Sprint Retrospective. Scrum is an empirical process, meaning that it should be continually adapted and modified for your team and your project to improve the output of results being produced. While the retrospective is the headline act, improvements are not limited to here. Scrum teams benefit from improvements, often through feedback on either individual team members from other team members or the Scrum Master, the team or the product themselves from the Daily Standup through to the Sprint Review.

Titanic, we have been learning from failures for a long time.

The Titanic: We’ve learned from failures for a long time.

While as Scrum is taking the limelight in the IT world, Scrum didn’t create the concept of continuous improvement. If you’ve been around the block before, you’ll likely to have sat in either an After Action Review, Root Cause Analysis, Digital Six Sigma or a Lessons Learnt exercise. Where they often fell down, was how often they were done. Scrum does them every sprint, so typically twice or more a month, yet I can recall sitting in a meeting in a past life where we needed to remember what we could have improved at the beginning of a project that started 18 months before then; sometimes I struggle to remember what I did two weeks ago let alone 18 months ago!

Outside of the corporate world, learning from failure happens in many places. I coach my clients that, there is no failure only feedback. In sport, teams watch the tape of the match afterwards to learn and improve.

Embrace failure

The Psychologist Carol Dweck, who has focused on learning and education says, “You can still learn from your mistakes until you deny them.” and John Wooden the basketball coach says, “You aren’t a failure until you start to blame.”

So how do we learn without blame. In Scrum we often quote the Prime Directive at the beginning of a retrospective. In essence we should be looking to the future and not dwelling on the past, by focusing on the issues and learn what caused them so next time you don’t walk the same path.

I once worked with a client where a team thought they didn’t need do the retrospective as they would, ‘just get better on their own’ – clearly not the case as I’d been brought in to help their improvement activity! You do need to spend time taking a step back from the day-to-day work to reflect and learn, as there is no fairy dust you can sprinkle to make this happen.

Culture also comes in to play here. In the US, failure is seen less of an issue. In fact someone who wants to run their own business is given more credit for having tried before and failed and trying again – they are celebrated for the trying. In the UK, people commiserate you for the failure.

Failures make you stronger when you learn

Learn and adapt, become better, become the best. In the Lean Startup, Eric Ries says, “a setback, [is] an opportunity for learning how to get where they want to go”. As Albert Einstein says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Learn from your failures, learn what to do differently, celebrate trying and celebrate the learning from trying.

Share your thoughts and tips on learning from your failures.

The Ups and Downs of Cultural Diversity to be run at the Scrum Gathering Paris

I am really pleased to announce that my proposal for a 90 minute workshop on Cultural Diversity has been selected for the Scrum Gathering in Paris. This is the European event run by the Scrum Alliance and runs 23-25th September.

Scrum Alliance Scrum Gathering Paris 2013 logo

Cultural Diversity can sometimes be seen as a negative, but it has the power to take teams and projects to places never thought possible.  This hands-on workshop will allow you to explore Culture Diversity, working through the benefits and hindrances it can bring to a project.  Cultural Diversity occurs in all teams, not just those spread across the world.  You will investigate how to unlock the diversity within your teams and leave with practical ideas to facilitate a similar session with your own teams after the conference.

To come along to this session and see many wonderful speakers from across the world, register now at the Scrum Gathering Paris website.

Why it is important to Experiment and not Gamble

For those familiar with Scrum, you will know that during Sprint Retrospectives as part of our Inspection and then Adapting, the team will often setup Experiments to try in the next sprint to help make their world a better place. They can vary greatly, examples could be, trying pair programming, or holding the sprint review in the common area for anyone to see.

So why is it important that we Experiment, not Gamble on trying something new? It comes down to linguistics. Experiment gives us the opinion that we are trying something, testing out a hypothesis. With an experiment, even if our hypothesis doesn’t prove to be true, we still learn something from having done it; this embodies a saying I often use with coaching clients, there is no failure only feedback.  I like to think of an experiment as a win-win situation.

Laboratory glassware

On the other hand, Gamble implies we are participating in a risky action, something where there is usually a good chance of loosing something, and in casino terms, more so than winning. This is a win-loose situation.

Does this matter? I believe it does. The words we use, either verbally or in our internal dialogue shapes our thoughts more than most of us appreciate. Framing a situation as win-win, gives us the mind-set from the beginning that what ever happens, the outcome will be positive.

A negative mind-set brought on by the potential loss from the gamble however, will lace the entire experience with negativity, such that when the desired outcome is not a positive, we grieve the loss. We risk beating ourselves up for failing, or others for not contributing effectively.

Keeping a positive frame of mind, one that is open to the choices available to us has many benefits to allowing us space to try new things and break out of the norms that can restrict us.

We should also be aware of the language we use, next time you ask someone how they are today and get the response, “Not bad”, ask yourself, are they in a positive mind-set or a negative mind-set.

If you have examples of how language has limited yourself or others, please share in the comments of this post.

How subconscious anchors impact your mood & actions

When I am coaching (not in an agile sense), it is sometimes useful to introduce Anchors with the client. An Anchor is a coaching term taken from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) methods, which allows the client to trigger a desired state on demand. The textbook example is someone who wants to be more confident when presenting, and in a coaching session, you can give the client an anchor so that when they stand in front of a group they can trigger their anchor and assume the positive confident state they desire.

Anchor with chain

You like everyone else will have anchors already set that you don’t even realise. Whether it’s the smell of your grandparents house, the view from a holiday cottage, the touch of a loved one or a hearing a song you danced to at a school disco. What happens is these subconsciously set anchors, when seen, smelt, heard or felt instantly take you back, putting you in to the state you were at the time, be that positive or negative.

Today I noticed I have gained a new anchor, one I had not consciously looked to set. I have a new client who’s offices are in London and therefore I’ve been catching the train more than I have recently. Owing to an hour-long journey in each direction, I had told myself to use this as a gift to catch up with reading or work that never makes it to the top of the list. Sitting down today in my seat, within 30 seconds I felt invigorated and full of energy and got a book out to read, even though it was 6.30am! Yet if you compare me to 5 minutes before, yawning and wishing I was still in bed on the taxi to the train station, it would be hard to believe they two time periods where so closely linked.

Be aware that anchors exist, and that you have them yourself.  Think about people, places, sounds or smells that cause you to feel and act differently. Is the reaction you have positive or negative?

Being aware of your change in state when something happens is the first step of getting benefits from it. If it is positive then you might want to amplify it, or look to get that state in other situations. If it’s negative, and assuming you want to change it, start to think of positive states and their triggers to change the anchor to a positive or neutral state. With a little practise you can probably see some results yourself, however if you find you are in a stuck state every time the trigger happens, then you might find a coaching session helpful. Myself or any other coach will be able to help.

Let me know some of the anchors you find you have you didn’t realise in the comments below.

What would I do if I weren’t afraid?

I have just read the wonderful book, Who Moved My Cheese. It’s not a large book, in fact, it only took me a mere 50 minutes from cover to cover. I do feel however it’s power is greater than it’s size.The book takes the form largely of a story about two mice and two little people who are looking for cheese in a maze. The cheese being a metaphor for the reader’s own item of change.


“It is not necessary to change; survival is not mandatory” Deming

Deming says this slightly tongue in cheeky, as the reality is change is all around us; standing still isn’t really an option. In the UK in the last two weeks alone, several large high-street brands have gone in to administration because they have not changed and not adapted to the changing world around us. These businesses (HMV, Blockbusters and Jessops) all reacted too slowly and by not enough to technology; believing that being a high street brand of many years would save them.

For me reading the book, the quote that stuck was, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?“. I am sure I am not alone in able to think of times when being afraid held me back from a goal I wanted to achieve. Through seeing the characters in the story, you can identify parts of yourself in all of them and through doing so see how this helps or hinder you. Being afraid isn’t bad, we should learn to harness the energy and turn it to our advantage.

While this was my immediate take away from the book, I’m sure that if I read this book again in a couple of months, the meaning will be different as I will have moved on.

I would recommend this book as if you are working with agile teams, or coaching individuals or facilitating groups, as these activities are all working around the idea of change in some shape or form. Understanding people’s different perspectives will help you in this role, from the way you work with them to hearing their opinions. It will help those who are going through the change to read the book also to go through this change; you might want to get it for the entire team.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus(c.535 BC – 475 BC) said, the only constant in life in change“. As true today as it was 2500 years ago.

If you are wondering about change I highly recommend you, Buy Who Moved My Cheese

If you have read the book, please share your take-away from it.