Friday, September 30, 2016

The Two Sides of Teams

Collective wisdom outweighs individual insights

Most of us believe that collective wisdom outweighs individual insights – or do we?

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of agile development practices is the way in which teams decide what to do. What product should be built? What features are most important? What consumer experiences will work best? These are the most important questions for the success of any product, and yet for the longest time, answering these questions have not been considered the responsibility of the development team or the DevOps team.

Historically, someone with the role of business analyst, project manager, or product manager made the critical decisions about what to build. Or maybe some third party wrote a specification. While the technical team might question or push back on product decisions, too often the ideas and priorities were expected to come from outside. For example, the Scrum Product Owner role is often implemented in a way that favors individual insight over collective wisdom when it comes to critical product ideas and priorities.

Until recently, there hasn’t been a practical process for tapping into the collective wisdom of everyone on the development team when making key product decisions. But now there is: it’s called the “Design Sprint.”[1]  Combining a design thinking approach with the timeboxing of an agile sprint, this is a process that captures the collective wisdom of a diverse group of people. During the five-day process, the group not only makes critical product decisions, it creates prototypes and validates hypotheses with real customers as part of the process.

Design sprints were developed by Google Ventures to help the companies in its portfolio uncover a variety of product ideas and quickly sort out the good ideas out from the mediocre ones. Design sprints have been used at hundreds of companies with amazing success. While the Lean Startup approach starts by building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to test ideas, design sprints are a way to avoid building the MVP until you are sure you are starting with a good idea. They help you sort through a lot more ideas before starting to code.

Where do all those good ideas come from? Design sprints do not depend on individuals or roles to generate ideas; the ideas are generated and validated by a diverse team tackling a tough problem. The insights of engineering and operations and support are combined with those of product and business and marketing to create true collective wisdom.

There are a couple of roles in design sprint; one is a “decider.” The decider generally avoids making any decisions unless called upon by teams that do not have enough information to make the decision themselves, yet need to make a choice in order to proceed. In a small company, this might be the CEO; in a larger company it is more likely a product manager. But let’s be clear – the decider is a leader who articulates a vision and strategy, but she does not usually come up with ideas, set priorities or select features. That is what teams do.

Another recommended role is someone Google calls a “sprintmaster” – a facilitator who plans, leads, and follows up on a five-day design sprint. This person is almost always a designer, because the facilitator’s job is to help teams use design thinking and design techniques to answer key product questions. For example, on the second day of the sprint, everyone develops their own ideas through a series of individual sketches; on the third day, teams review the sketches jointly and create a storyboard for a prototype – or maybe a few prototypes. On the fourth day, the prototypes are created, usually with design tools. On the fifth day, the prototypes are tested with real consumers as the team observes. When most of the people on a team have no design experience, it helps to have a designer lead them through the design process.

Really good teams generate a lot of ideas. These ideas are quickly validated with real consumers and perhaps 10 or 20% of the ideas survive. This low survival rate is a good thing; investigating a lot of ideas dramatically increases the chances that one of them will be a winner. The trick is to have a very fast way for teams to generate, validate, and select the ideas that are worth pursuing – and the design sprint provides one good option.

Of course, success requires a lot more than a diverse team and a good process.

Deliberation Makes a Group Dumber

Most of us would be surprised by the idea that deliberation makes a group dumber. But that is the conclusion reached by respected authors Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie in their sobering book Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. The two set out to study the cognitive biases of teams, and found that groupthink plays a bigger role in group decision-making than most of us realize.

There is no advantage in diversity on a team if those who are in the minority – those who are different or soft-spoken or are working in their second language – do not feel comfortable about sharing their unique perspective. Yet Sunstein and Hastie note that in most groups, deliberation is very likely to suppress insights that diverge from the first ideas expressed (anchoring bias) or the majority viewpoint (conformity bias).

Brainstorming has come under criticism – for good reason – as a technique that favors talkative and confident team members over thoughtful members and those with undeveloped hunches. Brainwriting[2] is an alternative to brainstorming that gives individuals time to think individually about the problem at hand and come up with ideas based on their unique background. Brainwriting is used during on the second day of a design sprint, when individuals sketch their solution to the chosen problem. This gives everyone the time and space to develop their ideas, as well as a way to have these ideas anonymously presented to and discussed by the group.

After a brainwriting exercise, a group will have generated maybe 40% more ideas than brainstorming. Typically, a technique such as dot voting is used to prioritize the many ideas and select the best ones to pursue. Unfortunately, this is another technique that favors groupthink. Voting is likely to weed out hunches and fragile ideas before they have time to develop, so outlier ideas that come from those who think differently tend to be lost in a voting process.

The lean approach to product development is pretty much the opposite of voting. Instead of narrowing options early, the lean strategy is to pursue multiple ideas that span the design space, gradually eliminating the ones that do not work. In a lean world, teams would not prioritize and select the most popular ideas after brainwriting – selection at this stage would be premature. Instead, teams would identify several very different ideas to explore, making sure to include outliers.

It is important to ensure that the ideas which survive the selection process span a wide range of possibilities – otherwise much of the benefit of brainwriting is lost. One way to do this is to select ideas that have a champion eager to pursue the idea and one or two people interested in joining her. If small sub-teams are encouraged to explore the possibilities of outlier ideas, the group is more likely to benefit from its diversity. By giving those with minority opinions not only the opportunity to present their ideas but also the time and space to give their ideas a try, a much wider variety of ideas will be seriously considered.

Consider this example: Matthew Ogle joined Spotify’s New York office in early 2015. For years he had been working on the problem of helping people discover appealing music, most recently in his own startup. He joined a Spotify team developing a discovery page, but he thought the process involved too much work – he thought discovery should be automatic. This was a radical idea at Spotify – so luckily, Ogle’s team did not vote on whether it ought to be pursued, because it would probably have died.

Instead, Ogle joined Edward Newett, an engineer and expert at deep learning who was experimenting with the idea of a discovery playlist, to explore the possibility. When Ogle realized that algorithms could generate a playlist that was uncannily well matched to his tastes, he knew they were on to a good idea. The next step was to find a way to check out these magic playlists with more people.

They tried an unusual approach – they generated playlists matched to Spotify employees’ tastes and sent them out with an email asking for feedback. Almost everyone loved their playlist, and it became clear that this idea was a winner. Through a lot of quick experiments, the idea was improved, and soon playlists were delivered to a few customers under the name “Discover Weekly.” As it scaled up, Discover Weekly proved to be wildly popular and has become a dramatic success.

The Two Sides of Teams

There are two sides to teams. There is the side that needs to make its own decisions and the side that can turn decision-making into groupthink. There is the side that wants to leverage diversity and the side that tends to ignore the input from team members who are different. The point is this: if you believe in collective wisdom, be sure to collect all of the wisdom that is available. If you look closely and honestly at your current processes and team dynamics, you might be surprised at how much wisdom is locked in the minds of individuals who don’t feel comfortable participating in the give and take of a dynamic team.


[1] See: Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days  by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz. For a quick “how to” summary, see:

[2] Brainstorming Doesn't Work; Try This Technique Instead