Democratize creativity

Power to the people!

Power to the people!

In the industrial-era model of managing a company creativity was reserved for the executive suite. Only leaders and managers were allowed to determine what the company was going to build and how to implement it. These decisions were then pushed down to the execution teams who took this direction and executed it to the letter. In a known domain with known constraints, market forces and consumer behavior this was a productive and efficient way to work.

In software there are too many unknowns. We have no idea how complex a project truly is until we begin it. We have no idea how the product will be used by our customers. In fact, we have no idea IF it will even be used at all. To dictate a fully thought-out solution from the executive suite to execution teams is a recipe for failure.

Instead, your company should strive to democratize creativity. Take advantage of all the talent available in your organization and task them with coming up with the solutions for your business’ problems. Build diverse cross-functional teams and ensure that the freedom to be creative is distributed evenly – not just to the designers. Let them be creative. Let them try solutions. Let them fail and learn. The products these autonomous, self-organizing, creative teams create will be far more successful and innovative then anything you could have dictated to them.

Posted in enterprise, lean startup, Lean UX, Productivity, work ethic | 2 Comments

Agile coaches, I am your friend


(image courtesy of Shutterstock)

I spend a lot of time consulting with large organizations grappling with making Agile work as an engineering practice and then expanding it to include marketing, product management and eventually user experience and design. Often these companies have invested not only in training but in full-time coaches dedicated to making sure these new practices stick. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these coaches are very good at building in the rituals and policies necessary for improving the agility and predictability of the engineering organization only.

As any coach will tell you, having only one department work in an agile fashion  is far from ideal (this is what’s often called Agile Fall – a hybrid process where the up front design work is done in a traditional waterfall fashion and then handed off to engineering for scoping and prioritizing into iterations). With Lean UX gaining popularity as a solution for integrating design into the Agile process, we are often called in to help figure out how to get the whole team working the same way.

The first people we meet when we arrive are the on-site Agile coaches. Immediately, I can sense their concern. They aren’t difficult to ascertain:

  • How will this affect the rituals and rhythms I’ve been teaching the engineers?
  • What am I not doing that they feel there’s a need to bring in another teacher?
  • I don’t know anything about design. Will this new training make it obvious?
  • If I’ve not been coaching a holistic approach to agility, will this threaten my job?

I want to allay all of these concerns. I want to bring user experience and design into the Agile process in the most effective way. I want the groundwork you’ve laid as the on-site coach to take root and involve the entire team. Without that, the benefits of iterative design can never be achieved. I want the teams to not only deliver great software. I want them to deliver beautiful, usable software. I want to help expand the Agile values of collaboration and communication to the entire product team. In short, I want to help make you and your teams successful.


Posted in agile, design, enterprise, Lean UX, Productivity, ux team | Leave a comment

Turn Left!

Turn Left!

Turn Left!
Drawn by my colleague Chandu Tennety


Change is hard and often scary. Change in the enterprise is even scarier because it involves changing the way people work, how they’re compensated and incentivized, how they manage (and are managed) and what determines success. Whenever I work with organizations undertaking a significant change — like becoming more agile or building in lean startup principles — I often liken it to a sharp left turn.

The thinking (at least in my head) goes something like this:

- The organization is going along, full speed, in the direction it has always gone, doing things the way they’ve always been done.

- At the helm, someone has made the decision to change the way things get done.

- This person announces this change to their subordinates and the rest of the company and in doing so, metaphorically, turns the steering wheel sharply to the left.

- Many of the employees are hearing about this change for the first time during this announcement and are caught off guard.

- Some brace themselves. Others adapt to the turn. Some go with the flow. And still others are not prepared, don’t want to accept the change and are slammed up against the car window (see the sketch above).

It’s these folks, the ones with their faces smooshed up against the window, that are going to resist change the most. Many of them will not go quietly or willingly and some will not go at all. As an organization, you should be prepared for this churn and the inevitable parting of ways that will come with some of your current staff. These may be people you like, who are deemed valuable or even indispensable* and that’s when, as an organization, you must double down on the transformation you’ve undertaken. In fact, if you’re not losing a few people, the change you’re seeking is likely not significant enough.


*Regardless of how “indispensable” someone may seem in your organization (and I’ve certainly felt that way about former colleagues), remember this quote from Charles de Gaulle: 

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” 

P.S. – The killer sketch in this post was done by my Neo Columbus colleague Chandu Tennety.

Posted in agile, enterprise, lean startup, Lean UX, Productivity, work ethic | 5 Comments

Designers — an untapped pool of Agile leadership

Designers make great agile team leaders.

Designers make great agile team leaders.
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Implementing an agile product development process has many challenges. One that is not regularly addressed is who will lead each of the scrum teams. Many organizations default to the, seemingly obvious, answer of the scrum master. Often ill-defined (even with “certification”) this role is essentially the Agile version of the project manager. But Agile teams are supposed to be self-organizing, leaving traditional project managers without much to do. Given Agile’s software engineering roots, it is most common to see developers at the helm of these teams. However, there’s another pool of talent that’s gone largely untapped for these team leadership roles — designers.

Designers, like the Agile process, have worked iteratively since their inception. They work incrementally, building and refining experiences based on business and customer feedback. As they mature and lead organizations they’re tasked with building consensus both within the design discipline and with other departments. They bring a strong sense of empathy to the team often acting as the main customer advocate. Product strategy and scope creep can often be tempered when the debate is framed in the context of customer value. Designers do this well. They’ve developed a unique expertise in this, having spent years defending seemingly subjective design choices to stakeholders, clients, developers and executives.

Engaging customers in conversation about work in progress is one of the most valuable forms of feedback (remember “customer collaboration over contract negotiation” ?). This is the source of a team’s empathy for their customer. Designers have been involved in the research and usability testing process for many years. It’s familiar territory — and one that should be shared with the rest of the team.

Meeting facilitation is another skill top designers have. Designer-only brainstorming sessions are a common occurrence in many agencies as well as in-house design teams. Even within these “safe” confines many strong debates arise. Design leaders can engage their teams in activities that encourage divergent thinking following up with consensus-building convergent activities. These skills are invaluable when working with cross-functional Agile teams. The empathy designers have for the customer extends to their non-designer colleagues. Basic skills are transferred along with jargon leading to a cohesive team speaking the same language and viewing their product development challenges through the same lens.

Seek out the strong designers in your organization and put them in charge of your scrum teams. Their honed empathy, facilitation and customer advocacy skills will help focus your teams on the right problems to solve while iterating towards the best way to solve them.


Posted in agile, career path, design, enterprise, Lean UX, Productivity, Uncategorized, ux team, work ethic | 7 Comments

The answer to the Agile-UX question

Designing the answer to agile and ux

Designing the answer to agile and ux
(image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Making user experience and design work in an Agile environment is one of the biggest challenges facing product development teams today. Lean UX is the most effective way to design a process to solve this challenge. However, there is an even more fundamental and critical transformation your organization has to make in order to facilitate the adoption of Lean UX and solve the Agile/UX question.

Your organization has to value design. 

Adopting Lean UX and ultimately integrating design and agility in your product development process is expensive. It will force changes in team structure, incentives, hiring plans, feature choices, team dynamics, prioritization and many other facets. All of these changes cost something – time, money, morale, political capital, etc. If your organization doesn’t see value in design as the differentiation in your product’s success, it will be very hesitant to pay these costs.

If you’re struggling to make Agile and UX work in your company, ask yourself how willing your colleagues and supervisors are to pay the costs of making this marriage work. If the answer is “not very likely” then your organization doesn’t value design and you’ll never solve the Agile/UX question in an effective way.


Posted in agile, design, enterprise, Lean UX, Productivity, ux team | 7 Comments

20 years of technology and music – my interview with Carbon Leaf

(Note: This post is a bit of a departure from my usual content. For those who don’t know, there was a period of time where I was an aspiring musician – I play keyboards – and played with a couple of bands that gave “making it” a real shot. During those days, we connected with our local comrades-in-arms Carbon Leaf. Recently, I found myself reflecting on how much things have changed technologically since we were in those bands all those years ago. It inspired me to reach out to my buddy Terry Clark, one of the founding members of Carbon Leaf, and ask what’s changed in the past 20 years of being an independent touring band. His answers are below. Enjoy.)

Carbon Leaf in 1993:

Carbon Leaf - 1993







and Carbon Leaf in 2013:

Carbon Leaf 2013






1.Can you give a quick recap of Carbon Leaf’s history? How long have you been together?

We started at Randolph-Macon College in spring of 1993.  Basically just as a diversion, with no serious ambitions.  After a few months together, we started writing our own material and really liked what we were turning out, so we stayed together after graduation.  Eventually, all of us relocated to Richmond, VA where our weekend gigs started stretching to three, four or five days long.  We were releasing our own music on cassette and CD, basically selling them (or giving them away) at shows and a few local record stores. In 2002 we had to privilege to win an American Music Award as Coca-Cola’s best-unsigned band.  That opened a lot of doors for us as and definitely introduced us to a lot of people. The following year, 2003, we signed a record contract with Vanguard Records and released 3 albums through them. During this period, Carbon Leaf was fortunate to have a couple of successful radio singles that really helped put our music into a lot of new ears. In 2009 we left Vanguard and restarted our own label, Constant Ivy Music, and have released 5 new projects to date… including 2 full length albums in 2013: Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle and Constellation Prize.  We have always been “road dogs”, touring our butts off – to the point of wearing out five vans and three trailers.

2.When you first started the band, how did you get the word out about shows?

When we first started the band, promotion involved a lot of flyers stapled to telephone poles and mailing out physical postcards to our fans.  We used to sort our mailings by zip code in an effort to get a bulk mail discount at the Post Office.  In short, it was incredibly time consuming and a pain in the ass.

3.In the early days, how did you make records? How did you distribute and sell them?

Our first recording was a 4-song demo cassette recorded at a friend of a friend’s home studio.  That was the dawn of relatively in expensive digital recording.  He had and 8-track studio consisting of a Tascam DA-88 and a Mackie board… pretty revolutionary for the time.  Duplication was accomplished at our apartment with a stack of 5 daisy-chained cassette decks.  It was an art to push play on one deck while simultaneously pushing record on 4 other decks!  We gave away cassettes by the bag full at shows, generally throwing them into the audience from stage.


Shortly thereafter, I got an entry-level job in a “real” recording studio in Richmond (In Your Ear).  I was allowed to record at night to figure out how things worked and to try to learn the art of production.  All of the engineers there pitched in a great deal and helped me immeasurably when, in 1995, we started what was intended to be a full-length cassette.  It turned out that CDs were cheaper than cassettes at that point, so the project really became our first CD – Meander.


As a bit of a recording footnote, we were using one of the first professional hard disc recording systems, The New England Digital Post Pro.  It was 16 tracks on four separate hard drives in an enclosure the size of a refrigerator… it cost $250,000 and weighed 600 pounds.  Seriously.


The CDs we sold at shows and on consignment at local record stores.  Almost all of those stores have since closed :-( and the biggest one has filed for bankruptcy.  They still owe us a little money, so we receive copies of all the legal proceedings… it’s pretty sad.


A few years / albums later, we signed on with a large independent distributor and they were able to get or CDs into a lot of store throughout the country.  Some time goes by and it seemed like we should be getting more money from them, so we hired an accountant to audit them.  It turns out they owed us $80,000.  Awesome.  Needless to say, we are no longer with them.



4.How effective were these early promotion tools? (i.e., how much return did you see on the time/money you spent on these tools?)

Our flyer and postcard promotions were kind of successful… gradually more and more people started coming to shows.  We relied a lot on word of mouth.


5.How has the internet changed the way you promote the band? Make records?

Our main goal these days is to communicate directly to our fans through our website (, Facebook ( , Twitter (, YouTube (, SoundCloud, Instagram, etc.


We also us a service called Topsin for organizing our email database… allowing us not only to send monthly newsletters to the whole list, but it also gives us the ability to GeoTarget specific areas that we are playing.  That way we can email just our Texas fans about our Texas shows and not have to spam everybody.


Through Topspin we can also sell downloads of all of our albums, give away free downloads and sell “official bootlegs” of all of our live shows.


A few years ago, we built a pretty decent ProTools based studio at my house and have done almost all of the production there for the last 5 projects. We trade files with people via the Internet using Hightail and Dropbox.


6.What role does social networking play in the band’s activities these days?

It’s huge. We try to stay connected everyday to let people know what we have going on and it allows us to easily communicate directly with the fans.  It’s fun and helpful to able to see what our fan like and dislike in almost real time.


7.Do you run your own social networking accounts or does someone else run it?

We run them ourselves.


8.Do you use technology (of any kind) to “test” your material? (i.e., to see if people like it, will buy it, etc)

Not really.  In an ideal world, we like to play new songs live first, before we record them.  That’s the best way to see if something’s working or not.

9.What’s been the single most transformative technological change, when it comes to keeping Carbon Leaf going, since you started playing together?

Computers.  Not only can we make a really good album on a laptop now, but we can also distribute it to the world, promote it and connect directly to our fans from that same laptop.


10.What do you hope to see in the near future for music technology?

Unfortunately, all of this technology doesn’t make the 24-hour van drive from San Diego to Austin any quicker. :-)


I’m not sure what is coming next, but I’m sure that it will be smaller, faster, and cheaper and will hopefully further reduce the barriers between our audience and us.



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Purity vs. Pragmatism


religion“That’s not Agile!”


“We’re not being lean enough.”


“We’re not supposed to make deliverables!”


Sound familiar? I hear these statements all the time from teams moving towards a more evidence-based approach to product discovery, conception and production. Somewhere, someone made a decision for the teams to now “do Agile & Lean” and so, books were bought, conferences attended and index cards purchased. The teams set off with a healthy mix of trepidation and optimism and began practicing the newly learned processes – visions of stand-ups, post-it notes, IPM’s and validated learning in their heads.


Except it’s never that clean.


Something gets in the way – reality. Reality consists of:


  • The client (or stakeholder) who doesn’t really understand what being agile actually means demanding roadmaps, and sitemaps, and journey maps and story maps.
  • The project budget, which is allocated not just for discovery but also for actual production of a software application.
  • Distributed teams who struggle to maintain transparency and real-time conversation.
  • Experiment results that don’t give a clear indication of next steps.
  • Technological constraints that won’t allow production-level scaling of the optimal solution.
  • A corporate culture that frowns on failure and makes collaboration difficult


And so much more…


What is the newly minted Agile/Lean team to do when faced with these harsh realities?


Do you push through, sticking only to the fundamentals in the books and tutorials hoping things will work out? Or do you take the pragmatic approach and adjust as needed to accommodate the realities on the ground?


The answer, of course, is the pragmatic route. Each project, team, product, company, industry and market brings with it its own context. These contexts demand a unique approach that can’t be predicted in a book or manifesto. The frameworks articulated in those books are starting points. Once they get wrapped in these contexts they will inevitably morph.


And that’s OK.


Ultimately, what you really need is to ship product. Lean and Agile will help you gather evidence, determine more successful paths, produce working software faster and build a shared understanding between your teammates, clients and stakeholders. Start with these philosophies. Use them to build evidence, insight, direction, learning and value. But keep this in mind – there is no scale for agility or lean-ness. There is no such thing as not being “lean enough” or “agile enough.”





Posted in agile, design, enterprise, lean startup, Lean UX, Research, startups, work ethic | 1 Comment

7 things I learned at Lean Day: West

The attendees of Lean Day: West

The attendees of Lean Day: West

Earlier this week we put on Lean Day: West in Portland, OR. The goal of the conference was to bring together practitioners of lean, agile, lean startup and lean ux from the enterprise and share their stories of success, failure and most importantly learning. Our hope was that every attendee would take away at least one tip, tactic, technique or method they could apply as soon as they got back to the office.

We had an amazing lineup of speakers including Greg Petroff from GE, Farrah Bostic from The Difference Engine, Lionel Mohri from Intuit, Bill Scott from Paypal, Emily Holmes from Hobsons, Jeff Hutkoff from The Weather Channel, Aaron Sanders from Co-Makers, Ben Burton from Corespring and Jono Mallanyk from Neo. Each presentation brought a different perspective on how to improve the product development process by focusing on the customer, objective outcomes and doing only what is necessary to move forward — all while navigating complex organizational hierarchies.

I learned a lot over the 2 and a half days and have summed up those learnings in the following seven thoughts:

  1. Lean can scale – if you needed any further proof that cross-functional agility and an organization-wide commitment to empowerment, waste reduction and great user experience can be achieved in a large organization, Greg Petroff from GE laid those doubts to rest. GE’s industrial internet design system empowers both GE’s designers AND their developers to prototype, prove out and create beautiful software tools.
  2. Lean crosses industries – on stage at Lean Day: West we had speakers from large manufacturing, media, education and financial services. All of them found ways to apply these ideas to their company and their audience.
  3. Perception of “roles” has to change – every success story shared at the conference focused on building cross-functional teams that respected *all* the skills each team  member brought to the group. The most successful teams didn’t focus on job titles or roles and didn’t limit each others’ contributions simply because it was “not in their job description.”
  4. Empower everyone – if there’s something a team member needs to do in order to move forward, provide them with the tools and the know-how to get that work done instead of making them dependent on other team members. This was a recurring theme.
  5. Be objective – each case study we heard centered on objective decision making based on pre-defined goals. These objectives were shared and bought in to by the teams so that when tough decisions needed to be made, they went much more smoothly.
  6. Don’t be afraid to throw things away – what’s worse – throwing away a half-built product you’ve proven won’t work for your audience or finishing and shipping it simply because you’ve come halfway? Throw it away – no matter how much you love it or how much has been sunk into it. If you’ve disproven something, be ruthless and dump it.
  7. Cultures have to shift – all of these ideals point to shifting cultures – even in big companies. Cultures will need to adjust to be more forgiving and promote experimentation. They’ll need to adjust by empowering the teams to make decisions without seeking approval. They’ll need to adjust by being objective and focusing on specific customer and business outcomes. This will take a while.

A huge thanks to all of our attendees, speakers and staff for such a wonderful. Follow @neo_innovation to learn about future events.


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Building In-House Innovation Teams: When to Stop Innovating and Start Scaling

Should you hand off?

Should you hand off?

In parts I and II of this series I discussed the qualities that make up successful in-house innovation teams and the need for those teams and their colleagues to foster a culture of transparency if they are to succeed. In this article I want to discuss how to decide when these in-house innovation teams need to shift their focus from pure innovation and move into scaling. More so, I want to discuss whether these teams should continue into scaling or hand off their work to a different team.

Continue reading

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The Human Cannonball – A Story of Untested Assumptions

In May of 1995 I graduated from James Madison University with my bachelor’s degree. It was a Saturday. On Sunday I packed all of my worldly belongings (essentially a mattress, a dresser, a Bob Marley poster and my 1984 Suzuki GS550 motorcycle) into a tiny storage unit. On Monday, I was on the road as the new sound and lighting technician for the Clyde Beatty – Cole Brothers Circus. I always joke that I actually joined to be the bearded lady (I had a lot more hair back then) but, in fact, I was pursuing what I thought was going to be my career – audio production – and this was a paying gig doing exactly that!


Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus - my home in 1995.

Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus – my home in 1995.

That summer was one of the most unique and interesting of my life. I had many adventures, learned a lot about circus culture (and myself in the process) and met many interesting people. One of the more interesting people in the circus was the human cannonball. In the 18 years that have passed since then I’ve forgotten his name but he was young (though older than me), blonde, fit – essentially an all-American football player type of guy. He was married and his wife was an aerialist performer in the same circus. He worked 4 minutes a day – 2 shows every day that lasted 2 minutes each. He collected about $1000/week I believe for taking the risk of being projectile vomited out of the mouth of a giant truck-mounted spring cannon, flying through the air and landing safely in a net about 100 yards at the other end of the big top.

The human cannonball as he enters the cannon.

The human cannonball as he enters the cannon.


I always wondered how he (or anyone for that matter) became the human cannonball. So, finally, one day I asked. I don’t remember who I asked or who answered me but I’ll never forget the story. It began with the previous human cannonball. To prep for the act every night the previous human cannonball (let’s go with HC for brevity) would drive the truck into the big top before the crowds arrived. He’d point the cannon in the appropriate direction and load in a dummy that was approximately the same size and weight as he was. He would launch the dummy, see where it landed and that is the spot where the safety net was erected. It was a simple assumption – “if the dummy weighs the same as I do then wherever it lands is where I will land and that’s where the net should go. “


One night the circus arrived at a new location during a thunderstorm. It was raining too hard to set everything up and test where the dummy should go. Instead, it was left outside overnight as torrential rains blanketed the area. The dummy absorbed a significant amount of water. The next morning, before the crowds arrived, the previous HC did what he always did. Drove the truck into the big top, aimed the cannon, loaded the dummy and fired. The dummy flew, landed and the net was erected. That evening, the HC got in the cannon in front of 3500 spectators and launched himself as he’d done dozens of times before. This time was different though. The dummy, soaked with water, was significantly heavier than the HC. This became evident as the HC soared well past the safety net and crash-landed on the circus lot floor. Needless to say this was his last flight. While he wasn’t killed he was critically injured and returned home to Florida to recuperate. While recovering, he tapped the guy cleaning his pool – a former local football player –  to be the next HC. I’m not sure if he shared with him his own fate as the HC and he chose to ignore it or if the seeming glory of the circus spotlight coupled with the pay raise compelled him to take on this new role. Regardless, the baton had been passed on and a new HC was born.


The reason to tell this story – besides its inherent uniqueness – is to make you think about the assumptions you make about your life, your business, your designs and your projects. Just because something was true yesterday, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true today. Things change – sometimes without you noticing – and can have a significant impact on your activity. Stay skeptical and keep checking even your most basic assumptions. It turns out these basic assumptions are actually the most critical and potentially life-threatening.



Interested in seeing how large organizations are building lean, innovative teams? Learn how to implement Lean Startup and Lean UX from PayPal, GE, Intuit, The Weather Channel and many others presenting case studies and workshops at Lean Day: West. Tickets on sale now. Now, get $100 off with code: blog.

Posted in agile, enterprise, lean startup, Lean UX, prototyping, Uncategorized, work ethic | Leave a comment