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Alex Mecklenburg: values for the next 20 years of product development

At our July Meetup we were joined by Alex Mecklenburg. Alex is the Co-founder of Consequential CIC, a social innovation practice specialising in responsible strategy, cultured change for creative and technology-enabled businesses. She is passionate about messy humans, collective human possibilities and responsible businesses. Alex believes that connections and relationships are the fuel that drives innovation and enables organisations to thrive.

Leveraging her 20 years of experience in the creative industry, Alex now works at the intersection of creativity, technology and cultural change, She is a certified leadership coach and team facilitator, a member of the and the cofounder of Truth & Spectacle, a creative leadership lab.

The 5 values for the future of tech product development can be found in the text below
5 Values for the Future of Tech Product Development courtesy of Consequential

Alex's talk centered around how as founders of Consequential, she and her partner Sam Brown developed a set of new values for building products, based on the agile manifesto. The agile manifesto was published 20 years ago, and sought to change the way we develop technology. The agile manifesto is as follows:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

So the purpose of the agile methodology is to support teams and organisations in finding better ways to develop software. In practice, agile has come alive in these two ways:

  1. As an incremental way to build products: with iterative practices and procedures which are understood across the whole team/organisation

  2. As a way of working together: with shared language and values about teamwork.

Alex pointed out that while agile was a great response to how we build, the world of technology is extremely fast-paced — it may be time to question how useful and relevant the original agile manifesto is today. This is especially important to think about now, seeing as the global pandemic has pushed everyone (across all sectors) to start asking fundamental questions about how to do things.

The agile manifesto pointed out the problems with how we developed software at the time; so Alex's new set of values seek to do the same thing. But a lot of the time, trying to embed ethical practices into an agile framework can feel like a hindrance. At this stage of the talk, Alex asked an open question to the group: how much space is held for responsibility and ethics in agile? One attendee said:

Many organisations operate within a culture of moving fast and breaking things (to be fair, so are their competitors!) and that's the environment in which they're implementing Agile. In practice, that means much of their early focus is on building a minimum viable product. Nice-to-haves like ethical considerations are deferred to later iterations. Unfortunately, they can keep kicking the can down the road to the 'next' iteration or when they do look to incorporate such features they're more expensive to implement.Ade Adewunmi

Another person noted that in theory, there’s plenty of space in agile for ethics, but in practice no one is using this space.

Alex continued by invoking the old saying: it's easy to just focus on building the best product in the world, to the point that we forget to ask if it's the best product for the world. We can no longer afford to ignore what's happening in the world when building new products; in the twenty years since the agile manifesto was published, we've become increasingly ideological. Brands no longer have the luxury of ignoring the political context they sit in (Sprout Social did a study on why this is), and equally product teams cannot stay insulated and introspective.

This is why any values for future product development need to take what's happening in the world around us into account: what kinds of values can we set out today for technology that we want to see in the future? What things can we observe happening in the world that should inform how and what we build?

Teams are already starting to change the ways in which they work — there's a shift from using autonomy as a motivator, to using purpose instead. Building both on this and how agile has shaped the way we build over the past two decades, Alex has put together a new set of values.

The five values for the future of Tech Product Development are:

  1. Stakeholder-conscious over customer centric

  2. Objectives over outcomes

  3. Foresight over failing fast

  4. Collective responsibility over disjointed disempowerment

  5. Critical questioning over rigid rituals

We can now look at how these five values apply to the two key ways that agile has been deployed, as at the beginning (as an incremental way to build products, and as a way of working together).

The first three values help us think about the future of agile as an incremental way to build products:

Consider the stakeholder-conscious over customer centric value. We can't continue to centre the customer as the highest priority, while leaving other key stakeholders out of consideration — the consequences of this have been too great. The customer landscape is incredibly complex, which means teams have to make product decisions that may benefit some stakeholders over others, and striking this balance is an important challenge.

Objectives over outputs: Objectives are specific goals an organisation wants to achieve, whereas outputs are simply the products they make. Objectives should be the main focus and guiding light of any team. Currently, we over-emphasis outputs as our measure of success by always asking 'how much stuff have we produced' instead of looking at our agreed upon goals. Outputs are just supposed to be the stepping stones towards the main objective.

Foresight over failing fast: the old mantra 'move fast and break things' is losing relevance; failing fast is about shipping products as quickly as possible and seeing how they fail — this can be done with much more awareness. The problem is, many organisations do not place value on using foresight, i.e.: the reflection needed to understand the potential consequences of their products. Front-loading your process with foresight should not be seen as a hindrance, but rather something that is part of being agile.

The last two values look more at the future of agile as a way of working together: motivations are different to what they were twenty years ago; people want to work in teams that have a commitment to society, and prioritise environmental sustainability.

Collective responsibility over disjointed disempowerment helps us think about how all members of a product team can have a say in shaping what is being built. There's a sense of responsibility in teams like this, to deliver something of value to the end user. But it's harder to map that responsibility in much larger organisations, where a single team might only be building a very small part of the product.

In 2019, AI Now produced a report which recommended that 'tech workers should have the right to know what they are building and to contest unethical or harmful uses of their work'. It's clear that teams should know what they are building, so that they are empowered to have a say in shaping it.

Finally, we have critical questioning over rigid rituals: everything flexible has the tendency to become rigid over time — even the ritual of agile. People will adopt it as an exciting new process, and then stick to the process strictly, causing it to grow stale very quickly. Being stuck in a rigid ritual often means an organisation will discourage critical questions and exploration. Stopping to question a product adds great value; it's not about slowing down development, but rather about inserting healthy friction into the development process, ultimately leading to the best possible product.

Alex ended the session by asking: could these five values for the challenges we are facing moving forward?

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