On "Trust" in Product Development

22 February 20193 min read

I rather rudely butted in on an interesting twitter exchange yesterday, which started off about assessments. John Cutler was sharing what he has learned from doing and iterating on them recently.

Having done quite a few assessments over the last decade (and iterated and improved how we go about it) the observation I shared was that the main thing I’ve learned is that Product Development is the opposite of the Anna Karenina Principle.

In my own experience doing this over the years I've found it's the opposite of the Anna Karenina principle.

Unhappy teams and orgs are often *very* similar, while happy/successful teams and orgs can be quite different.

— Joshua J. Arnold (@joshuajames) February 20, 2019

The “Anna Karenina Principle” comes from the first line of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, where the author observes:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Tolstoy, Leo, graf, 1828-1910. (1980). Anna Karenina. Oxford ; New York :Oxford University Press,

Unlike unhappy families, unhappy or unsuccessful Product Development organisations are often very similar, while happy or successful teams and organisations can be quite different.

To elaborate a little: the most common trait of an unhappy or unsuccessful Product Development organisation is a lack of TRUST.

I would suggest that this lack of TRUST comes largely from a lack of FLOW combined with a lack of FOCUS (things that I can observe more directly and find evidence for) – which leads to a lack of MOMENTUM. Momentum, specifically, with respect to the “outcomes that matter” to various stakeholders.

Ultimately, it’s this lack of MOMENTUM, the feeling of “getting somewhere”, the feeling of movement and progress, inevitability even – that if that is missing, it soon shows up with a deterioration of TRUST.

And low trust environments are often ugly. That’s when people revert to their old rules of thumb about how to get stuff done, or how to protect themselves. They reach out for what worked from them before in more simple settings or in different contexts. There’s usual a lot of focus on getting rid of people who are seen to be in their way, or pointing the finger and blaming others in the system. It’s all very sad because they’re often quite misguided in their diagnosis about what has gotten them to that place. People rely on “false friends” that they hope will help them –but end up making things much worse.

And so, whilst the method and questions I’m asking during an assessment may seem somewhat adjacent or even unrelated to TRUST, at the end of it one of the main things I’m trying to figure out is what the contributing factors to a lack of momentum might be. Because without it, trust evaporates – and then you’re already dead – whether you know it or not.

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