Blog / Filling Gaps

October 10, 2014

Kintsukuroi: The beauty of being broken

We’re not big on job titles at Unboxed Consulting and if you have the smarts to get through the door you can pretty much grab any one that takes your fancy assuming there’s no reasonable resistance. I took “Head of Product” without much thought about the implications but quite enjoyed the sense of importance it might give me - lolz.

We are generally much clearer concerning the roles we adopt within our client engagements. When working on a well established product or where there’s a degree of certainty around what it is we’re building, we put a solid Scrum team together. This consists of a Product Owner, a Scrum Master, a Tester, Front and Back-End Developers, Designers - UX/Service and Visual/Graphic/UI, a Copywriter perhaps and other roles as required. We’re always flexible and, more often than not, some of these roles will be filled by our client’s own team. The PO will almost always be from the client - full-time and co-located if at all humanly possible - and we integrate other members of their team in design or development roles if they have resources available. This helps massively with culture creation, knowledge transfer and sustainability after our engagement ends.

On early stage projects however, where there is often high uncertainty, we start with a much smaller, more flexible team of … generalists. We’ll have the client PO (of course), a developer (full-stack), a designer (a unicorn!) and … someone else … generally me. Over the past year or so, we’ve tried a number of names for this role - “Business Analyst”, “Lean or Agile Coach”, “Proxy Product Owner” to name a few - and whilst they all kind of make sense, none of them make me feel good about myself.

What is it that I am so good at doing?

There is definitely an “adhesive" role to play in these situations, making sure the team is working together effectively and that the project continuously delivers value to the client’s business. A kind of early stage “Scrum Master” perhaps? There is a “coaching” element to the role, staying lean to avoid wasted effort and constantly reaffirming the agile principles. But there is also a function within the team itself and that is the role of “gap-filler”.

In a recent talk at UX Craft Cape Town, (http://www.slideshare.net/kerryanne/the-elephant-and-the-dassie-a-tale-of-evolution-and-kinship) Kerry-Anne Gilowey spoke about the multitude of possible roles on digital projects and how no team can contain a specialist in all of them (see slides 45-49 particularly).

This is evidently true in any reasonably complex digital project, but especially true on early stage projects where it’s important for the team to stay small, move fast and learn constantly. The roles of Scrum Master, Coach and Gap Filler must potentially be covered from within this very small team. Each team member will see the world through their own lens (again see Kerry-Anne’s presentation); the designer may be focussed on the service at a high level but will also need to think about the UI elements, the developer may be a devops genius but he must also make sure the UI is deliverable. Inevitably there will be gaps and these gaps must be filled. In extreme cases new knowledge may come to light and a change in personnel can be made but, more often than not, the existing team can do a “good enough” job.

“Good enough” is a key term here. At this stage we are not looking to create the best final solution but to prototype possible solutions and test them “in the wild” as a method to explore and understand and learn. As long as we are clear what we are trying to achieve, we generally have sufficient cross-functional skills within the team to deliver everything we need. Start-ups do this through necessity and Lean Startup has done really well in explaining how to focus this effort to maximize learning and reduce waste.

Keeping an open mind as to what can be done within the team and moving forward without the need for specific expertise is one of the most enjoyable parts of my role. Perhaps this journey in the discovery of what it is that I do is as uncertain as the team structure on early stage projects. I know the amazing results that can be achieved through application of Lean principles- the ones that are intrinsic to the job that I love - and for now, being a "Gap-filler” is “good enough” for me.