Problem space. Shipping space.
In every team I’ve been part of — be it at my time at the BBC, or my own agency – I’ve always made it a point to have one meeting a week focused on production. Not design. Not strategy. Not asking how everyone is. All of those are important things, and will be addressed in their own way, but no, this meeting is about shipping.
The first of these I experienced was when I was an intern at a design agency in Manchester, UK. Every Monday morning, the company would gather and line-by-line go through the ‘job list’. Every project owner (usually a designer or account handler) was asked to give a status update for that week. One sentence. Either ‘on hold’, ‘to print by Friday’, ‘photoshoot Thursday’. There were hardly any questions. It was a short snapshot of what was happening, what had to be done, by when. All other discussions were taken after the meeting. This meeting served two purposes:
Gets everyone on the same page with what is happening.
Focusses minds on production.
That last point can be a challenge.
The wonky Double Diamond
We’re all probably aware of the Double Diamond, right? That nice symmetrical visualisation of how work happens in empowered product teams. Makes sense.
Throw into the mix the balance of teams preferences and you can get a different looking diagram. A diagram with lopsided diamonds.
Let’s consider a fictitious scaling start-up. Product teams are organised with a couple of designers, a user researcher, a content designer, and some engineers. All headed by a PM and lead designers and engineering. The entire company is comprised of teams like this and there is a strong sense of individual chapters – design, engineering, product — cross-cutting the org. All good. And probably familiar to many of you. Yet. They are struggling to ship. In fact, they haven’t shipped anything substantial for a year. Why is this?
In my experience, this has been down to a few things but most notable the people on the teams and their preference and comfort zone of sitting firmly in the problem space rather than knuckling down in the production space.
I like to think of it like this, the problem space has more mass than the production space for some people. It has stronger gravity. And the tiniest of distractions can start that pull towards it. It could be a question or an insight from user research. All of a sudden, a product team whose preference is to sit within the problem suddenly starts moving away from production/shipping and back to spinning the wheels.
Problem space environments
It’s not just teams that are at fault here. Many, many teams are super-productive at shipping products. But put them in an environment or industry that isn’t and they can also start running into problems.
At my last job we had this problem when our project sponsor left. In his place the organisation formed a committee (yeah, yeah, I know. But that’s how many academic and science institutes work). This committee was comprised of very senior stakeholders in the organisation who were all scientists.
Science is a reductive field. It’s about moving from a place of not understanding to a place of knowing, using evidence, and all the steps in between. It’s about the problem space. Sure, biologists may design experiments, and write papers on their findings, but it is not a creative field. Meaning: it’s primary way of being is reductive rather than creative. This modus operandi was a fundamental problem to shipping digital product for a few reasons:
- The stakeholders inhabited the problem space.
- The organisation’s very reason for being was to understand life at a fundamental level. The problem space.
Now, I’m not picking on EMBL here. My time working with other academic and scientific institutions has been the same. The problem space is alluring enough, but when you add into the mix systemic preference of both the people who work there and the industry direction, the mass of the problem space can be over-powering. To the point of not shipping anything.
The right balance
There are many different ways by which organisations and teams can provide the right balance between problem space and shipping space but these have worked for me:
- Hire diverse teams. This is the hardest, most important thing to do. Getting the right mix of people, preferences, and skills.
- Hire balanced leaders. Leading design or product teams needs to have the right balance of focussing on the big problems without it being at the expense of the getting stuff out of the door.
- Have production focussed discussions as a group. Once a week. Short and snappy. With the right people in the teams this meeting will start to add mass to the production space.
- Tune into the org or industry bias. Problem space (science, research, pharma, academic), shipping space (journalism/news, manufacturing).