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Presentation: Using Bets, Boards and Missions to Inspire Org-Wide Agility

Track: Human Systems: Hacking the Org

Location: Empire Complex, 7th fl.

Duration: 2:55pm - 3:45pm

Day of week: Monday

Slides: Download Slides

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What You’ll Learn

  1. Find out why it’s important to uplevel teams and become outcome focused.
  2. Get actionable approaches for linking work to impact.
  3. Learn about Bets, Boards, and Missions, and how to apply them in your organization.


We have all encountered the “messy middle” in our work. The messy middle exists somewhere between the high-level company strategy and the immediate week-in-week-out team-level “work”. It spans multiple teams and groups...often encompassing months and quarters worth of work, with very little shared understanding.

Making work and our intentions at this level less messy--without sapping autonomy, mastery, and purpose--is critical for whole-org agility. This clarity and alignment is key to unlocking the potential of impact-driven individual teams (vs. prescriptive, feature factories), and our broader organizations.

In this talk, we will explore

  • building a shared language around value creation that can inspire creative solutions
  • the notion of nested/networked bets, and how speaking in bets can “hack” prescriptive, solution-based roadmaps
  • ways to nudge your organization towards more transparency (w/o it biting back)
  • ways that engineering management inadvertently perpetuate a lack of clarity (and what to do about it)

I hope to leave engineers and engineering managers with specific actions they can take to nudge their organizations towards a greater sense of impact and coherence.


What is the focus of your work today?


The focus of my work is upleveling teams as it relates to their product development practices. The company that I work at builds a product that is a product intelligence product. So it provides insights to product teams. But what we've noticed is that that's only one part of the big picture when it comes to teams embracing a more sort of impact informed or evidence-informed or data-informed approach. There is a whole host of other things that need to happen for those teams to be able to embrace that mindset. A lot of teams theoretically think oh it would be great to be more data-informed or mean be more outcome focused but they don't really have the full picture in terms of all the tweaks and improvements that they might be able to make that possible. My mission is to help up level teams everywhere, not just customers and not just internally, when it comes to being more outcome and impact focused on their work.


What’s the motivation for this talk?


There is this pattern that I see over and over again where the people working on the frontlines of the organization need to see the impact of their work and understand how it fits into the bigger picture of the organization and the bigger the mission of the company. I call it the maker need: When you're a maker you have this need to connect your work and know that it makes a difference and it's been well thought out.

The motivation for this talk is to explore approaches to linking that work to impact, actionable things that engineering managers or leaders can do, hacks that they can do immediately.

Developers every day they're sitting there writing tests. They have everyone scrutinizing their work. It works or it doesn't. Passes or it doesn't. They're highly scrutinized to making cost-benefit decisions every second of their work. And meanwhile when it comes to the bigger picture, did the work, has this contributed to the mission, has this helped human beings out in the world, is the product working. It can feel very opaque to them. So that's my personal mission for the talk.


How would you describe the persona and level of the target audience?


Leads, engineering managers, directors, of engineering directors.  It's the people closest to the workers who are being asked by the people working around them for more sense of impact and transparency.


Your presentation is about “Bets”, “Boards”, and “Missions”: Please give us a high-level explanation of what these terms mean.


Bets refer to a way of discussing work and risk and upside in your organization in a way that becomes a lot more accessible than talking about experiments. We often talk about experiments and I think engineers especially as scientists and other people they very much gravitate to the idea of an experiment. But in most people's environments, it's more like we're playing a game. It's a strategy game. Bets create a dialogue that you can use internally to be able to bubble up risk and talk about upside and talk about risk in a healthier and safer way. Sometimes talking about experiments is actually intimidating to people, talking about bets helps create flow in understanding.

A lot of people are familiar with combined boards and other visualizations of work. What I think is underutilized are program level boards, boards that span multiple teams and help frame dependencies and other issues that might be impacting the flow of work. They can be used to communicate mission and purpose and create a focal point for the team. I will dig deeper into the power of hybrid boards and other information radiators to help kind of create this sense of coherence and alignment.

There's a lot of talk these days of projects versus products, people generally realize that there are limitations to the concept of a project, At the same time, the word product has been overused. Everything in the company is a product, every team is a product team and every team has a product owner. A happy balance is to think about these things as missions. Missions do have an end goal but sometimes the end goal is not super clear. Sometimes it's a point on the horizon, sometimes it's specific sometimes it's not specific. I'm going to talk about how to introduce the language around missions to guide the organization, guide product, guide design in the right direction.


What do you feel is the most important trend in software or Org-Wide Agility right now?


I think the most important trend is this idea that you cannot simply copy one way or one approach, and install it in your company. The cutting edge companies, the most advanced companies, are able to run parallel operating models and be highly adaptive in terms of their structures and how they approach problems.

A typical company might have a reorganization and it's the biggest disruption in the company and they only happen very very infrequently and it's a big deal and often people leave the company and there's a lot of tears and heartache. What I'm seeing is that companies are taking a much more, for lack of a better word, agile approach to org design and they're able to run the right structure for the right problem.

In some ways that mirrors what people are doing the technology, in software you're not going to solve all problems in the same way nor are you going to try to structure your organization all to solve one type of problem in one way. So these kinds of fluid organizational structures, and the systems and processes needed to support that approach, is something that I find very interesting.

Speaker: John Cutler

Product Evangelist @Amplitude

John Cutler is keenly focused on user experience and evidence-driven product development. He mixes and matches various methodologies to help teams deliver lasting outcomes for their customers.

“Team tetris and the feature factory will only take you so far. Cross-functional teams desire so much more, and my passion is helping them get there. It’s a win/win for the front-line teams, the business, and the customer and user.”

John currently works as a product evangelist at Amplitude. As a former UX researcher at AppFolio, a product manager at Zendesk, Pendo.io, AdKeeper and RichFX, a startup founder, and a product team coach, John has a perspective that spans individual roles, domains, and products.

His viral enthusiasm has been heard through speaking/teaching engagements at Agile-Lean Ireland, UX Thailand, Front, Oredev, Mind The Product, Agile 2015, Heart of Agile Philadelphia (2016), and various ProductCamps (Vancouver, Los Angeles, Raleigh NC) and MeetUps (Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, New York).  John’s talk on Feature Factories was voted one of the Top 10 Product Talks of 2017.

Mixing in some less-than-typical experiences — driving rickshaws in NYC, and touring the US with “five other weird creative people in a van playing music” — John blogs prolifically about collaboration, product development, diversity, UX research, lean startup, and user experience. Some notable posts include The Evolving Product Manager Role, Persona(s) Non Grata, 12 Signs You’re Working in a Feature Factory, and Stop Setting Up Product Roadmaps To Fail.

Find John Cutler at