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July 24, 2009

Subject to Change : Adaptive Path Design

I just finished reading, Subject to Change: Creating Great Products and Services for an Uncertain World, by Adaptive Path Design.

This was not the book that I anticipated, but it was an excellent and thought-provoking read nevertheless. I had hoped to read about project management in the face of a changing world and a shifting project definition. Generally, project management hinges on a fixed definition of (scope and specs), schedule, and cost. When change appears, and it always does, traditional practice is to manage the change and then bill for the change, perhaps punitively.

Project Management likes the notion that the scope, specs, schedule, and budget will remain fixed and unchanged for the life of the project. In my experience, that's a rare exception to the norm. Usually change happens, and if you start with the perspective that the project is frozen, change is frustrating. In my perspective as I fumble through things, change is an opportunity to move into what we've just figured out, or what we should have been doing instead.

I know a project manager (civil construction) who bids and manages his project proposals right down to the bone on the initial proposal, and finds his project profit in billing for the changes - which he says are inevitable and certain. When he prepares a project proposal, he's really betting on how disorganized the client is, on how little they understand their needs. He's betting against the traditional waterfall approach to project management, and betting that the client's changes will "force" them into an unplanned, reiterative design effort after he's won the job with a very competitive bid. His clients love him because he's so open to changes, where others are resistant to changes.

So, I've been hoping to read about project management in the face of a changing world, because I think that's the major deficiency in the current project management body of knowledge (PMBOK).

This book talks about design (and more specifically, Agile reiterative design) as a process that develops products, delivers artifacts, and allows for change and development. They talk about focusing on the experience of the product, and how the product fits into a system (eco-, info-, etc). They talk about the organizational properties that tend to thwart effective experience-focused design.

They spent some time giving their view of strategy, which is something I've been reading more about- there seems to be a multitude of opinions or expressions of what strategy is.

Next the book exploded for me, when they introduced the notion that effective experience-focused design and effective system design is the key business skill, and the system is the product. Apple sells the iPod, plus iTunes, plus iStore - but those are just the components. What they're strategically selling is the system, and system usability and the system's alignment with the desired customer experience is what they're really selling.

Then they moved into design competency as a business method. If a company can use effective Agile techniques, that's a core competency and a competitive edge, whether they're selling knives or laptops, or running the Mayo Clinic. I really appreciate the way they set out their theme in the context of product design, and then elevated a few clicks to a meta-perspective of using Agile techniques as a business process. It's very well written.

Create and evolve your repeatable process is the advice that was my biggest take-away (or at least, the one I've recognized so far). Discover how you deliver "wows", pay attention to what works and what doesn't, and use each project or product to also improve the pattern/process you're using - and extend that process lesson to products, finance, every aspect of the business. That's a powerful thought.

In their closing summation, the authors suggest that in a world of uncertainty and change, embracing the uncertainty is the only sustainable course, and recognizing that vast uncertainty bring wide possibility is the only profitable course.

I really liked this book. There's a YouTube video below of a presentation the authors made on the Google campus.


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