Product quarterly planning for focus and speed, part 2: Objections and practicalities

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Quick recap

You really need to read part 1 before this post, or it won’t make much sense.

But the TLDR of part 1 is:

  • In scale-ups you need to move away from the idea that everyone must know all the context and can do whatever they want. That idea slows everyone down and distracts them from doing their actual jobs, as you scale. 
  • Using written briefs, product and organisational leadership needs to explain what they want and why. Product squads need to respond with how they will deliver it.
  • The result is trust, clarity, focus and speed.

Nutrition facts
AI-generated content in this article: None.
Where this pattern applies: Software scale-ups, 100-200 people. But it may apply more broadly.
Warning: Applying the wrong technique/pattern for a given context will cause negative effects.

This post covers objections, and also the process, timing and templates for making it happen.


Objection 1: How does senior leadership actually know what objectives to set?  Aren’t they going to ignore customers and make terrible choices?

Continue reading “Product quarterly planning for focus and speed, part 2: Objections and practicalities”

Product quarterly planning that creates focus and speed

I want to give a specific, proven recipe that product leaders can follow to get product squads clear and aligned quickly, so they can focus on delivering great results fast.
This post gives the core ingredients and principles. 
In the next post, I give some step-by-step instructions and templates.

Nutrition facts
AI-generated content in this article: None.
Where this pattern applies: Software scale-ups, 100-200 people. But it may apply more broadly.
Warning: Applying the wrong technique/pattern for a given context will cause negative effects.

We dream of speed

“I’m back working on a tiny startup again. You can go so fast!  Because everyone is aligned and focussed on the goal.  If only we could keep that as we get bigger.” — S, a product-manager friend

“We’ve pretty much lost a whole quarter. The squad is hearing one set of instructions from one stakeholder and the opposite from another. They don’t know what to do.” — M, another product-manager friend

Speed is the number one capability that enables success for any digital business. [1]

Software squads that go fast rely on clear context and sensible, unambiguous goals.  If your squads don’t have that, then they can’t go fast.

The Art of Action

To get that clarity, and unlock the speed, you can use a recipe based on mission command. It’s an approach invented by Prussian general Von Moltke in the 19th century, and proven ever since[2].  Most people in the digital product space have heard of it. But most don’t know how to apply it well. Marty Cagan is a big proponent, but fellow fans I have spoken to all say “Empowered is good, but it’s a bit vague”.[3]  

The Art of Action [4] is a classic book which explains the reasoning behind mission command, and why it’s effective. That makes easier to apply it with sanity and conviction. After reading the book, and applying it with some success, I’m all fired up.

Axiom: In a scale-up, too much freedom slows you down

Von Moltke’s military campaigns and scale-ups have a lot in common: They need to move fast, but there’s too much information for everybody to know everything. You need coordination to make sure that people with limited information don’t bump into each other or do irrelevant things. 

If squads are spending their time on trying to identify, debate and select strategic problems to solve, they are gonna be spinning their wheels a lot. Instead, squads need to focus their effort on actually solving strategic problems that have been defined clearly by product and business leaders.

Then squads will have time and bandwidth to craft awesome solutions that work for customers, and make business win.

“The team is given a small number of problems to solve…”


5 rules of the quarterly planning game

Continue reading “Product quarterly planning that creates focus and speed”

How to actually make an impact as a product designer

(I wrote this for the OfferZen Blog – because the issue had been bugging me after some conversations with designer friends. It contains ideas I’ve learned at OfferZen, I guess – an organisation where people really get things done.)

Digital product designers often tell me they chose their career because they want to make a positive impact on real people’s lives. But they often seem to look a bit disappointed. It seems that because of the approaches designers take to their work, they often don’t achieve that impact at all.

I’ve been there. And I’ve got some hard-won tips to help overcome the problem.

But first let’s examine why it happens…

Your designer-brain: Blessing and curse

I’m not a formal expert on thinking styles or personality, but I’ve hired, trained and worked with great designers for the last twenty years. And I think there’s a fighting chance that you have:

  • An opposable mind. Strategist and design thinker Roger Martin wrote a book about it. Powerful design thinkers, he argues, can hold an idea and its opposite in their heads at the same time, without getting freaked out. “What if this were true? Or what if that were true?” Or any of the other options in the middle. That skill is what lets you explore many alternatives to find the best one.
  • A tendency towards perfectionism: Poor service, inconsistencies, doors that you pull when they look like you should push them – they all drive you crazy. But it’s your sensitivity to those details that makes you the right person to design something better.
  • An N in the middle of your Myers Briggs type indicator (rather than an S). N stands for iNtuition. And if you do lean that way, you “tend to trust information that is less dependent upon the senses, that can be associated with other information.” About 2/3rds of people are NOT like you. They are more “likely to trust information that is in the present, tangible, and concrete”. But if you only thought about things you can see and touch today, you wouldn’t be so good at imagining the UX of tomorrow.

Feel special? You should.

But remember that every superpower has a dark side. Here’s yours: Your broad range of ideas, your imagination and your perfectionism can stop you from getting anything finished. Before you know it, years can go by without you actually achieving anything you really wanted.

Three rules to make the most of your talent

So below are three rules I’ve been learning and relearning for my whole life. They can help you use your design brain better, and make that proverbial “dent in the universe”…

Continue reading “How to actually make an impact as a product designer”

Multiplying the value of product teams with design

Good UX design is essential for digital products to win, most of the time. But often teams don’t know how to work with their designers effectively, to get the competitive edge they expected from Design.

Design activities can feel alien to engineering teams and designers can feel isolated, since they’re often in a minority. Designers with limited experience can struggle to influence team practice, or take the lead at the key moments when they should.

I did this talk with Dean Broadley to offer some viewpoints and practical ideas about how agile teams can use design and designers more effectively.

Dean and me, doing the talk. We’ve known each other for years, so that helped!

A few highlights of what we covered…

Continue reading “Multiplying the value of product teams with design”

How to make digital teams work better together

Effective team culture and communication is a key ingredient for delivering great products. Developers, designers and product people have really different priorities and styles, and getting them to gel together as a team needs attention and skill.

I moderated a panel about ways that tech teams can work better at the Merge conference in Johannesburg in December 2019. It was part of the “Tech team playbooks” track.

Topics included:

  • How to encourage constructive and honest communication without hurting people’s feelings
  • Making mistakes, and dealing with them constructively
  • Knowing whether you’re making good decisions when each outcome is too small and lag time is too big

Plus amusing detours into Gmail in North Carolina, Tastee Wheat, measuring whiskey consumption and the effects of sleep deprivation on junior designers.

The remarkable panel members: Ashi Krishnan, Warren Foxley, Ridhwana Khan, and Dean Broadley.

Here’s the video, if you’re in the mood. There’s also a transcript. Or, get the podcast version..

A few tips on landing your first job in UX

I was invited to join in a session run by Bakery for people wanting to move into a career in UX.

I touched on a few favourite topics including:

  • How many UX designers it takes to change a lightbulb, and why we should be proud of that. (The answer is “does it have to be a lightbulb?”)
  • Outcome over ego: Great designers work in service of the design, and the user and the outcome, not their own artistic vision.
  • You can still build up a UX portfolio even when you don’t work in UX. The trick is just to do some UX things in your current role: Interview user, map journeys, identify points of pain, conceptualise solutions. There’s always something you can do. (One attendee told me, afterwards, that he’s admissions officer for an educational institution – but that he was mapping and improving the admissions user experience).
  • There are couple of tips for how to handle a UX interview and a UX assignment/critique session. Jump to slides 42 and 43 for those.
  • And how to get paid more as a UX designer: Learn how to talk about the financial value of what you do.

Here are the slides from the talk.

“Everything” I think about UX – and why

I was interviewed  Anne Gonschorek, from Offer Zen. She wrote a great article about UX, that made more sense than most of the things I write.

In it, I ramble on about…

  • How designers think
  • How to do human centred design
  • What design thinking is (sort of)
  • Designers working with developers
  • Lean UX

It also contains a surprising number of pictures of spice racks. Like this one.

Thanks, Anne and Offer Zen, for all that generous effort. I hope everyone gets something out of it.  I certainly did.

Here’s the article…

A whopper of a usability issue – and the product lesson it teaches us

It was a big fat usability issue. I haven’t seen one like it for years: a broad, bamboozling beauty that ate 3 hours of my time.

I thought I’d capture it here for you as a special treat. Donald Norman fans will love the mental models aspect. And for product teams everywhere it’s a grim reminder that you need a robust product delivery process, rather than just assuming “it’ll obviously work for customer.”

Let’s set up parental controls, kids!

The kids were turning into housebound zombies so I bought a new router with parental controls. An TP-Link Archer D7. It had an app so you could control and configure it from your iPhone.

I sat down at my computer to Continue reading “A whopper of a usability issue – and the product lesson it teaches us”

Design Thinking: How, why and why now?

The popularity of the term “Design Thinking” seems to be spiking at the moment. So I did a talk about it recently at Cape Town’s Western Cape Funding Fair.

The talk is at the bottom. First – some thoughts!


Design Thinking isn’t…

Design Thinking tends to inspire passion. I think the primary reason is that it’s a lot of fun, and it promises a solution to a pretty dreadful status quo. But sometimes people expect Design Thinking to be a universal approach for situations of all types – which it isn’t. In Digital, for example, Continue reading “Design Thinking: How, why and why now?”

Making good software: UX, Agile and product management

This is my UX SA 2015 talk.

It’s about how to do effective UX work with Agile teams, and support a product manager. It contains:

  • persuasive, logical explanations of why we need to approach things with lean UX
  • practical activities a designer can do in the lean UX process
  • lobsters, koolaid, a stork and Sweet Brown.