Notes for (The One Truth About Product Delivery)

Presenter(s):  Gwen Betts

Date-Time:  August 16, 2019 @ 11:30 AM

Key Takeaways

This talk explores the multiple dimensions of “the one truth” – of how we work together today to deliver software solutions – with parables from the front lines and lessons on how to address challenges head on.


Gwen Betts began her presentation with a summary of her work as a Design Leader and with a personal note that today is her birthday.  Happy Birthday, Gwen!  She is presently the Director of Product Experience for the cyber security software project Rapid7.

As a 15-year veteran in the industry, she has held several titles:  Web Designer, Technical Support Lead, Director of CX, Web Developer, Product Designer, Brand Designer, Director of Webops, UX Consultant, and Head of Marketing.  This blend of experience has informed her holistic view with respect to delivering experiences to customers, which she explains does not reside solely in the realm of product design – it includes touch points and how people are engaging with brands today.

In her career, Betts has observed the concept of truth manifest across the spectrum of teams and organizations.

What is this truth?

Is it a guiding light?  Does it make us feel we are going in the right direction?  Is it a moral compass or about absolutes?  Is it about perspective?  Is it about safety and comfort?  Is it just a mindset?  Is it a place, a time, or a scenario?  Does truth have a history?  And is it something we have inherently in ourselves or is it as a collective as well?

In contemplating the questions, Betts has discovered the answer is really about the intersections of truth.  Everyone has a truth – from the individual to the team to the collective.  It is the intersections of truth that make our jobs in UX and Product fascinating.

A lot of what we are all trying to do is seek out truths.  In terms of product delivery, it is about the truth of unmet customer needs.  Not just what customers say they want or need but reading between the lines to understand what they mean.  The customer often gives you symptoms or pain points and not the actual problem.

So, how do we collaborate as teams to deliver the right solution at the right time?  And what is our role at the individual level – contributing to our team and toward outcomes for our customers?  These questions operate around the one truth, which is a concept about our customers, our teams, and ourselves and how we work together to fulfill unmet customer needs.

Why is this important?  Because what we do is anchored to delivering on a mission (delivering on an outcome for a customer).

So, where do we start?

Betts starts with the concept of operationalizing things, a practice that allows us to deliver on promises to our customers.   Consider systems, systems thinking, methodologies, and frameworks.

Frameworks in particular allow us to think conceptually about the way we work, to easily consume processes so that we can streamline things, make sense, and understand [our method of achieving ambitious goals, delivering on customer outcomes].  We create frameworks to help us discover these truths.

Betts discusses some truths about operationalizing frameworks.

Truth #1:  Frameworks are “really hard to operationalize.”

There are a variety of frameworks in place today (e.g., Apple, Scrum, and Lean) that work for the right companies at the right times, depending on needs.  But the practice of putting a framework into place can be frustrating.  People may not understand why or agree with your approach, or they may feel overwhelmed themselves.

To illustrate, Betts refers to a familiar framework – the concept of People, Process, and Tools (technology), often called the “golden triangle.”  She notes that what is interesting about the golden triangle is that it does not always account for the concept of environment (and instead of a triangle Betts prefers to think of the framework more as a ladder with People at the foundation).  To bring in the right people to solve the right problem and have them thrive and succeed, you must create the right environment.  The concept of environment considers culture and core principles.

Understanding a framework helps us better understand the areas we need to invest.  With the golden triangle, start with environment  – the culture, the core values, and the mindset.  Once you have that, it becomes easier to get the right People – your most important asset, as they make the processes and tools in your environment successful.

The first thing you often do when walking into a new company or joining a new team is to observe, and then you build up relationships.  When putting frameworks to work, people and relationships are paramount.

This brings to light an interesting dichotomy – the concept of being relational vs. transactional, both of which are important depending on when you need to employ them.

To illustrate, Betts cites a real-world example of a team responsible for a platform service that needed to get general consumption from a bunch of other teams.  For the company, this was a new way of forming and building teams, building services or product, and working together.  Implementation was challenging.  As Betts put it, the team was “pushing a boulder up a hill” [with the new process].  The team would often approach other teams with a brief summary of their mission and a request for help – i.e., “If you can just give us requirements, that would make our job easier.”

In this example, Betts saw a lot of friction and people getting upset.  The team was treating their relationships with other teams like a transaction.

When building trust and credibility between teams, especially with new working relationships, we need to adopt a different approach and language (to be relational).  For example, instead of “we need to do this thing and you need to help us,” approach and language should be “we have this initiative, we’re spotting some trends, we think this might be a problem, and is this a problem for you? Can you talk with us about it?  How can we make this successful for you?”

In other words, focus on how we can help you (relational), not how you can help us (transactional).  A relational approach comes down to showing you care about people and their problems, trying to understand what motivates them, and focusing on how you are going to help them.

Truth #2:  Product delivery is not quite an assembly line.

It is easy to think of product delivery as an assembly line.  For example, brake manufacturers of Ford and Toyota have revolutionized assembly line production to be more productive and efficient.  You simply break production into smaller parts and delivery that way.  The expectation is that people, process, and technology are all in place, and all deliver on time – i.e., everything will go great.

However, reality is messier.  An assembly line mindset is helpful for thinking in general terms about how we work together.  But it does not consider how people value themselves and their missions and how they see themselves fitting into their role, which can be quite messy at times.  Assembly line thinking also tends to incentivize disconnected teams and work streams.  When you don’t see how what you do ladders up to mission success, you tend to focus on your task and what you can do, and you identify with that instead of the mission.

Betts underscores the point with the notion of making people feel your org chart.  When you incentivize disconnected teams and work streams, you create silos.  Then when you go to piece your software together and launch your campaign, your customers feel the silos and org charts.

Instead, you want to embrace the overlap.  As a prime example, there is a lot of overlap in what UX and PM’s do.  Sometimes they develop an “us vs. them” mindset because they think of areas of ownership as their unique differentiator.  However, Betts sees the differentiator is really in teams and not individuals and recommends embracing the overlap.  Figure out how you work together and embrace the dynamic.  Trust is key to doing so.

Dysfunctional teams tend to bear down on areas of ownership, MOAR Process, hand-offs, and sign-offs.  This gives rise to an “us vs. them” mindset that is not about truths, or customer need, or delivering on customer outcomes.  In contrast, functional teams tend to focus on partnership, more talking, collaboration, and contribution to mission.

Betts reminds us here of an earlier point – it is all about delivering on mission.

Truth #3:  Chaos can be productive …channel it!

Consider the double diamond model – a collaboration style for UX’ers and designers around discovering, defining, developing, and delivering [on ambitious goals] – which is sometimes chaotic.  In its first phase the focus is on “building the right thing” – research, accurately understanding the right problem, and creating problem statements.  In its second phase the focus is on “building the thing right” – i.e., exploration, design iterations, and prototyping for customer feedback.  This model helps us understand the push and pull of working together.  At its heart is the concept of participatory design in all stages.  Instead of performing in silos, bring all stakeholders together in workshops and different participatory design sessions.  This does not mean everything is designed by committee, or that this is the only way you work.  You still divide and conquer based on skill sets and suitability.  But you come back over and over for the push and pull between building the right thing and building the thing right.

Betts also notes that a project experiences repeated expansion and contraction throughout its life-cycle.  Expansion is marked by chaos as people come together; contraction, by people retreating to make sense of the chaos and bringing order.  Where there is friction or failures, it is often because people do not feel consulted at the earliest stages or they are getting something in hand-off or for sign-off when a project is already at a high fidelity stage or point of no return.

Truth #4:  Accountability is a team sport.

PMs are not the only people responsible for product success.  We are all accountable.  People carry a strong identity to their job function.  When you have siloed teams or an assembly line process, people carry a strong sense of identity toward their job function; their specific task.  If teams are not mission-based and do not understand what they are delivering on, then what they do understand becomes their function or task.  The challenge is getting people to think and work beyond that, to understand everyone is accountable to mission success.

Accordingly, Betts advocates that we practice a missionary mindset, not a mercenary mindset.  A missionary mindset can be applied to everyone on your team.  It is a mindset and language of partnership, collaboration, and contribution rather than focusing on areas of ownership, my job-your job, or us vs. them.

Betts also touched on the modality of purpose and identity. When people strongly identify with their role, it produces a certain push and pull – Do I belong to the UX team, or do I belong on the Product team?   What is the duality of these identities?  In practice, Betts argues the duality is a false dichotomy.  We can be both.  Embrace the modality of purpose and identity.  We can have more than one tribe, serve more than one team.  Although truths in various teams are slightly different, that is what makes us powerful in terms of delivering the right thing at the right time; of delivering on mission.

Truth #5:  Create leadership in everyone.

It does not matter whether you are a startup or an established large company.  Everyone needs to feel a sense of leadership.  Leadership is not just a role, it is a responsibility.  Trusting in your people plays a major part.  Do not hire people to just say yes – hire them to be experts and professionals at what they do and arm them for success.

Be a coach and a guide.  Provide the environment for your people to feel safe to explore risk taking.   They should understand the vision and mission and what they need to move forward in achieving goals.  Betts displayed her July 14, 2019 tweet in which she highlights this idea: “As UX managers, we need to stop speaking for our teams.  Instead, we need to create supportive environments, give them real ownership, and teach them how to speak up and own their own voice.  It’s messy at times, but our work is never perfect.  You also create leaders this way.”

As a coach and a guide (a leader), ensure the environment is safe and supportive, so your team members can deliver on their own voice and feel they have a seat at the table.  Set the vision and articulate the “why” early and often (to this end Betts is a strong believer in hyper-communication).  Reinforce the mission in everything: roles, goals, projects, you name it!  This helps people see their contribution toward the bigger picture.  State expectations constantly.  Delegate, delegate, delegate – this takes things off your plate and gives people opportunities for growth.  Let others use the opportunity to express themselves – depending on the situation, don’t always try to “templatize” for them.  They may not do things the way you would, but it does not mean it’s wrong.  Celebrate and elevate attitudes, behaviors, and successes that reflect the right dynamics within your teams.

Betts talked about the concepts of empowerment and enablement.  Empowerment is creating an environment with clear expectations and helping people step up, own their voice, and understand their ownership levels in that environment.  Enablement lets people own their voice.  It gives them the opportunity to step up.  You do not always want to speak for your team members.  It may not always feel natural or comfortable, but it helps them grow.

Final truth:  There is no “one truth.”

Betts noted these concepts are her truths, and she offers them with the sense that others may find them useful too.

She displayed a recent social media post by David Cancel, CEO of Drift, that helps illustrate the way she thinks about truth: “Show up.  Show up when it’s hard.  Show up when you’re scared.  Just keep showing up.  Show them your truth.  Do it by showing up and not backing down.”

Be aware of your own truths (and how they contribute to collective truths) and seek to understand the truths of others.

Betts wrapped up by addressing a common question; isn’t this just about empathy?  In short, no.  Empathy is very important and a foundational characteristic in what all of us do, but it is not sufficiently nuanced.  Betts prefers to think in terms of truth and intersections of truth to more deeply understand where we (especially in UX) fit in this larger puzzle.  Empathy is not our only strength or skill set – our truth is.

During Q&A, Betts fielded questions and offered the following.

In the [UX] industry, like any industry, words become buzzwords.  Empathy is fine, but a broad concept and not the “end all be all” in examining who we are with respect to working relationships.  Just as there is no silver bullet, there is no “one truth.”  Betts points out that truth helps us delve a little deeper into the nuances of who we are.  Empathy helps us understand what others would do, but not “what I would do” which needs a little deeper analysis.  Truth is a better concept for digging deeper.

She noted John Cutler, a Product Evangelist at Amplitude, is also a champion of frameworks and the mission-based mindset and supplies examples that are helpful.

Environment is super important [as a prerequisite] in showing the value of participatory design and getting people and organizations on board.  You must develop the right culture.  For companies that are not there (e.g., working in silos), this takes effort to make the shift.  Find your people that are working with a mission-based mindset and being more relational with others.  Similarly, a top down perspective and executive support is important.  Try to find sponsors (not just champions) willing to give participatory design a try.  You need management willing to try it, which can be a challenging problem.  Organizations need to start shifting the mindset first before inviting folks to take part in a participatory design framework.