đź“– Book review: Sense & Respond

A great book for knowledge workers. This is a map to help you navigate in our increasingly digital world. Sense and respond, product management, teal organizations, reinventing organizations

đź“– Book review: Sense & Respond
Sense and respond

Sense and respond is an excellent book for knowledge workers. This book is a great map to help you navigate in our increasingly digital world.

This book by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden is a much more polished product than their previous one, Lean UX. “Sense and respond” is synthetic, better organized and more natural to read. The information flows more and has been generalized to any organization. It covers examples from the business world. It also offers positive and negative examples from many industries.

The core thesis is very similar to the tenants of the agile movement: we don’t know what the future holds for us and as a consequence, we need to:

  1. Embrace “continuous uncertainty” (business, technology, human behaviour, etc.)
  2. Learn continuously (experiments, personal growth, business growth, etc.)
  3. Release experiments
  4. Continuously integrate (ship new functionalities as fast as possible to some users)
  5. Set up an appropriate culture (everyone involved and engaged)

Each chapter contains a useful summary of the key points. It makes it easy to refer to the book or come back to it later on. I took a picture of every chapter summary, and those are very useful to refer to later on when immersed in your craft.

Part one: Chapters 1–4 — Why do you need sense and response?

The first chapter explains “the why” and provides an overview of the “sense and respond” model.

The authors explain the differences between the old “product-based, industrial world” and the new software-based agile world. They explore different examples from various industries. If you already work in an organization that has transitioned to this model this can be redundant and even boring. You can skip chapter one!

The second chapter gives an overview of the sense and response model:

  1. Small autonomous teams (and then teams of team to scale)
  2. Learning via loose plans and controlled risk-taking (and failures)
  3. Value creation using real conversations with customers
  4. A data-based approach to decision making

Chapter 3 is about resistance: why do companies/organizations resist change. What to do about it? This chapter is useful if you are in the transition phase. But not only! These obstacles are common to classic organizations who want to transition to a “sense and respond” model. A recommended read even if you work in a software startup or within an already practicing sense and respond organization.

Chapter 4 is about the prominent role that software has in the world.

“Software is eating the world”
Marc Andreessen, VC

Software affects or will affect every area of human civilization. As a consequence, everyone needs to embrace the exceptional fluidity of software (never complete, easy to update at no cost even for billions of users, etc.). The old management playbook has to change! It is essential for the “legacy” organization. Without this critical organizational change, they will become obsolete in no time.

Part two: Chapters 5–8 — A manager’s guide to Sense and response

The title of this part is misleading. Even if the manager role is changing more than the other contributors: everyone is a leader. And everyone is a change agent. The culture is everyone’s problem and responsibility, not only the manager’s responsibility. As such, this part would be better called “A “change agent’s” guide to sense and respond.

Stated positively: the second part contains lots of actionable information. This information would help any individual contributor inside a sense and respond organization. With this knowledge, you will be able to maximize your impact! This is only true and possible if you can convince the management supports those initiatives.

Chapter 5 is about the famous “Definition of done.” In the software world and especially in the SaAS industry, a product is never completely done. Each product growth is organic and unique to this product and specific market conditions. Each product relies on an ever-changing ecosystem both inside and outside of the organization.

  1. Being “agile” implies a different way to create roadmaps and prioritize work
  2. Uncertainty is part of the game, and everyone has to agree that the plan is only that. The plan will never become a reality… as planned.
  3. Roadmaps and prioritization should be outcome-based
  4. Alignment is key. The role of managers is to align the teams both inside and outside the organizations.

Chapter 6 is all about collaboration. The classic cross-functional and autonomous team is at the core of the collaboration process. This is a team with cross-functional experts. They have total autonomy to ensure that each feature will help achieve an agreed-upon positive outcome. They master the design (usable), the technology (feasible) and the business (valuable) aspects of the problem space. Co-located teams seem to work better and be more efficient. Blameless retrospectives are crucial to individual and collective learning.

Chapter 7 is “continuous everything.” This chapter expands on the DevOps movement. Every process required to build a product, a service or a platform has to become continuous. The recommendations are as follow:

  1. Ship new code every day
  2. Test new code every day
  3. Sandbox the risky aspects of any project
  4. Learn everyday
  5. Annual budgeting is incompatible with the fast-pace world we live in
  6. Sales and marketing teams have to adapt to a new world where value is delivered incrementally
  7. It is impossible to sell in advance a “feature roadmap” (also known as vaporware in the industry!).

Chapter 8 is about the required culture to promote continuous learning. This could be a subset of the precedent chapter. But I like the fact that this subject has its section. Without a culture that encourages some key behaviours, it’s impossible to experience any of the positive outcomes.

What should the culture encourage? Always be learning.

What behaviours are critical:

  1. humility
  2. permission to fail
  3. self-direction
  4. transparency
  5. a bias for action
  6. empathy and collaboration.

Book review conclusion

This book is handy if you are part of a “sense and respond” organization. It is essential if you are curious about this phenomenon or if you want to implement these changes. This is an easy and short read: with less than 230 pages, the synthetic view provided is highly valuable. It relies on many examples and prior art. The reference section is quite detailed (4 to 21 references per chapter) so that you can go deeper or validate the information (examples, theories, etc.).

I recommend this book for any knowledge worker. To be more specific, if you are a developer, a UX expert or designer, a product manager or a manager: this book is for you!

The Reinventing organization parallel

I see this book as an attempt to systematize the findings of the agile manifesto as well as Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. The original book by Laloux is a massive piece. It retraces the management behaviours through the history of humanity. A fascinating read for scholars and people passionate about human civilization. Reinventing organizations is not easy to apply in practice. The “sense and respond” organizations are defined as “teal organizations” by F. Laloux. They represent the most advanced and documented way to create holistic organizations.

Frederic Laloux highlights the fact that some organization types have been around for thousands of years. For instance, churches, firefighters, military. These organization models work exceptionally well during a crisis (during which time you don’t want to have a daily scrum and a retrospective at the end of the iteration!).

Another aspect covered by Frederic Laloux is that some people, because of their culture, can not thrive in a holistic organization. It is tough to find self-motivated candidates who want to workl as purely self-motivated knowledge workers. In these organizations, the recruitment process and selection process is so challenging: lots of interviews, a manager’s point of view, a team point of view, an expert point of view, emotional intelligence, etc.

Culture is paramount in these interviews: hiring someone with a culture incompatible with the self-management principle can have daunting consequences (for the new hire and the organization). As we all know, it is tough to validate a future hire culture during a few interviews.

Will this model (teal organizations or Sense and respond organizations) prevail, or will it be replaced by something new?

I have a different opinion than the authors. I don’t know if the “Sense and respond” model is a one size fits all model. The authors want to make their point and use some unconvincing marketing efforts to make it appear as if all other types of organizations are doomed. The book examples are not of statistical significance. We will have to wait and learn how the self-organization evolves and thrive before making such claims.

These transformations will take time. World culture would have to change drastically. In particular, every education system (primary, secondary, university) will have to evolve worldwide. The education system outcome will be to form lifelong learners (learning how to learn), not some human databases of facts and rules (output-based, easy to test).

Each knowledge worker’s place in society needs to evolve, as well. Today, we sense that money is not the only criteria we should use to decide what to do with our lives. The response should be a better society where each knowledge worker can thrive and contribute to a better world.

It’s too soon to tell if the model presented in “Sense and respond” is a civilization bubble or if it will succeed. Strong forces are in action: the current capitalist approach is almost exclusively output based. Most of the old organizations have shallow ethical standards: respect the law and maximize shareholder value. This output-based approach is in complete opposition with the sense and responds model, which is outcome-focused: having a positive impact, solving hard problems, growing and thriving individually and as a society.

Bonus: great illustration of the Sense & Respond model by XPlane

The Sense & Respond Process (courtesy of Xplane)