Don’t Deliver Value. Create Benefit.
Agile focuses on removing obstacles to continuously delivering value. This motivation is worthy, but subtly reinforces an obsolete approach to business. It maintains an industrial view of value as something created by producers and delivered to consumers. The post-industrial digital economy requires a circular view of value as something co-created by service providers and service users. Instead of “delivering value”, business becomes about “creating benefit”.
With the increasing understanding of the importance of design, organizations are experimenting with ways to integrate Agile and Design Thinking. One such experiment is the “design sprint”, which runs through an entire design cycle in a single iteration. Some designers object to the time-compression involved. They claim that design requires the ability to think creatively without being boxed in by immediate deadlines.
The design sprint, along with most Agile-Design Thinking integration experiments, falls into the industrial value trap. It assumes that “value” can only arise from the delivery to customers of finished code. What if we think about the problem in terms of creating benefit instead? Central to design thinking is understanding real user needs rather than imposing your own assumptions about what people need and want. Informing your entire design and development organization with accurate understanding creates benefit.
This perspective saves us from being tricked into thinking we have to turn everything into code, or even a finished design, every iteration. An iteration during which we realize that we shouldn’t build X because no one wants it, or that we shouldn’t build it using Y interface because no one can use it, saves us from delivering useless or unusable code. It also saves our customers from having to navigate that code. User research or testing that results in scrubbing a planned but misguided solution thus creates benefit for all.
This perspective also lets us integrate Design Thinking into the most important Agile mechanism, which is improving flow and adaptability by breaking work into smaller pieces. Instead of approaching a design sprint as a monolithic process, we we can focus on each component activity. Whether you research and ideate and prototype and test in a single sprint or not becomes irrelevant. Each activity informs the next. If research tells you to abandon an idea, you can fearlessly drop it and do some more ideation instead of moving on to prototyping. Every one of these activities creates benefit by improving customer understanding. Any one of them contributes to a “successful sprint”.
Things were central to industrialism. Assembly lines and television commercials made it possible to make and sell more things. Relationships are central to post-industrialism. Relationships happen through conversations. Conversation requires listening as much as speaking.
Done right, Agile and Design Thinking (and DevOps) make it possible to continuously improve your relationships with your customers. Doing them right requires focusing on listening as much as speaking. Incorporating listening dissolves the disconnect between design and development. It reflects a common focus on benefit instead of value. In fact, if we wanted to create a post-industrial version of the Agile Manifesto, we might start with:
- We value creating benefit over delivering value