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Unlocking value by integrating UX Design in Development Sprints — a distributed leadership approach!

Did you ever feel like the third wheel?

When I joined Celonis, the company had recently shifted from individual specialized teams to cross-functional teams as part of the new operating model introduced at the time. Hence, most of the teams were adapting to the new structure, adjusting to their team members’ routines and work mode. Everything was new, exciting, and as it happens with every change, there were challenges, but every challenge also brings opportunities.

“All the collected data from primary research, including interviews and feedback, was not fully used by Developers and Product Management. Thus, our Users were not at the center of our product development process.”

During my first weeks of work, I quickly realized that UX design did not have a “Leading Role” in its full capacity in my team yet. After empirical evidence by participating in several Scrum ceremonies, it became clear that UX design was not fully integrated into the development process and was seen as a supporting role.

I started to map processes and strategize on how I could continue to add value to such a fantastic organization. Considering my innovation and design thinking background, I decided to approach the new challenge with a beginner’s mindset; I used the “how might we” method to come up with an initial hypothesis that is broad enough but, at the same time, narrow enough that the team is provoked to think of specific, unique ideas, and ultimately real solutions.

How might we better integrate UX into our product development process?

Ownership is king

You may be wondering what ownership has to do with UX not being fully integrated into the process, but you will soon realize that ownership was one of the missing links we discovered and that it empowers people to solve problems and drive value in the most innovative companies worldwide.

To further elaborate on that hypothesis, I drilled down to my own experience. Having spent several years working with design agencies, start-ups, and Global Fortune 500 companies, two major patterns emerged in every successful project I worked on. First, every team member in those projects had “ownership” while working in a highly collaborative manner. Second, a distributed leadership approach within the organization enabled the delivery of solutions to complex business problems.

How does this relate to integrating UX in Development Sprints? 

Organizational structures that allow people in cross-functional teams to have a “Leading Role” with no supporting actors are what make the magic happen. It is all about team collaboration in a high-performance environment and enabling everyone to have ownership. Whereas, when UX is not embedded in the development process, UX doesn’t have ownership in the team.

It might sound obvious to some of you, but this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to the “old” hiatus between “now let’s test and get the user’s perspective” and “we need to ship this as quickly as possible.”

Nowadays, leading organizations need to understand their customer better than the competition and integrate that data with engineers to deliver world-class solutions. Yet, “Integrating designers into the agile product development process is an ongoing challenge for most organizations” said Jeff Gothelf, the author of the award-winning book Lean UX. “It’s a challenge that continues to plague most organizations mainly because the reason scrum was brought in was not to do more thoughtful, customer-centric work but rather to ship more code faster.”

This is when I would like to start talking a bit about distributed leadership and how it helped us.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is fundamental to stimulate ownership. It involves a more collaborative, open, and decentralized way of doing things. It means giving people ownership and accountability to explore and use new forms of work and new technologies to solve their problems. It is a kind of leadership that blends top-down and bottom-up decision making.

The most valuable companies in the world today, whether it’s Google or Amazon, are organized in an agile way in which decisions are made by the people who are closest to the customer, as pointed out by Maile Carnegie during an interview for MIT Sloan Review. At Celonis, we embrace that work mode because it rewards us with more speed in delivery and speed to value.

Most of the traditional organizations that I’ve had the opportunity to work with in the past are still very much organized around functional, old-style managerial hierarchy structures. Having those hierarchical structures, they usually have long lead items, are very slow at incorporating customer data & insights, and the decision-making process runs super slow.

Moreover, at their “Distributed Leadership” research at the MIT Leadership Center, Deborah Ancona and Elaine Backman identified that in a complex and uncertain world, as we are now, leadership structures are a game-changer.

Deborah and Elaine emphasized that:

“Addressing these issues will require cooperation, reliance on others, and a willingness to engage internally and externally, up and down organizational hierarchies. It will involve working together with people who are different from us, sometimes leading and sometimes following. It will require “distributed leadership.”

So what to do about it?

A favorable aspect was that my team already shared ownership and lived distributed leadership, the perfect starting point for coming up with a process improvement. After mapping out the process our team followed, I continued to analyze what we could do to improve it. The findings were fascinating and presented an excellent opportunity to deploy continuous improvement initiatives in our team. The key takeaways from my analysis were:

  1. There was room to develop further the common goal and purpose amongst the team. The lack thereof often resulted in group thinking / opinionated discussions rather than evidence-based / alignment meetings. My UX expertise was left at the far end of the development process.

  2. There was a real opportunity to increase transparency and collaboration between UX design and engineering. Often a lot of effort was required to avoid losing sight of implementation feasibility discussions in the early stage, especially in a customer-centric approach, and hard to sync on others’ tasks and collaborate.

  3. Last but not least, putting our customers’ “job to be done” at the center of our daily activities with a crystal clear and shared understanding of the problem we’re solving for them and how to optimally deploy/ship the Solution.

The lack of integration between UX and development poses challenges, even in the most “agile” organizations. However, as mentioned above, every challenge comes with opportunities, and, as I like a good challenge, I was looking forward to embracing this one. Thus I continued to follow in a “how might we” fashion and asked myself:

How might we integrate UX into our agile team for maximum team effectiveness?

“ I did the research, read articles, books, listened to podcasts, assessed my archives, talked with industry leaders, and even did a training in Lean UX & Agile at the prestigious NN/Group as part of my Personal Development Plan offered by Celonis.”

After the extensive research and data analysis, I found it very interesting that one specific article was right on point and compiled the same key challenges we were navigating, the 5 Rules for Integrating UX with Agile and Scrum.

Jeff's 5 rules

As for the next steps, I presented the findings and takeaways to the team and explained why we needed to tackle this issue to unlock value. My team is fantastic; they supported the idea and engaged in a productive discussion on how we might improve our process. As John Maeda brilliantly said in one of his excellent talks:

“Technology makes possibilities. Design makes solutions. Art makes questions. Leadership makes actions.”

Our interactions’ outcome is that only the entire team can make a product shine, not each individual alone, working in silos, occasionally syncing and discussing. My team’s support, commitment, and engagement were very motivating and vital to draw a path toward becoming the best team we could be — become more efficient, learn, test, improve, and streamline our process.

What we changed

After identifying the main challenges and getting the team buy-in, we had what we needed to put a concrete plan together, launch the initiative, and improve our process. Below you’ll find a summary of the key actions and initiatives we rolled out.

A. Design Ticket

Together with our fantastic Product Manager, Max, we created Design Tickets for our Jira board. The goal was to have everything on the same backlog for the tickets to be discussed and prioritized with every team member. This allowed everyone to have ownership and increase transparency and communication amongst the team. Now, the design became part of the teams’ process and product development.

Gabi Lembo - Design Ticket

B. UX/UI Grooming

The Engineer, Philipp, had the brilliant idea to extend our Jira backlog into a visual board. Together with the Product Manager, Max, Philipp, and myself, we created the UX/UI Roadmap board to discuss and prioritize topics during bi-weekly Grooming meetings, such as UX Debt, feature requirements, and any other findings or comments received from internal and external stakeholders.

This initiative was crucial to align and bring multiple perspectives to the table when defining what to tackle next, considering business vision, user value, and development effort.

Roadmap - UX/UI Backlog Board in a Sprint

C. UX in Ceremonies

With the design tickets on our Jira board, the communication between designers and engineers became much more fluid and part of our new process. The real difference happened in the Daily and Sprint Planning.

  • In our daily meetings, the designer provides updates of what UX is doing, share key research findings, quickly share work in progress, get feedback, and if necessary, schedule meetings for later to discuss blockers, technical feasibility, or ideation sessions.

  • During the planning, we also review what needs to be done regarding design work. With that, we can define the work cadence, PMs can better estimate the team velocity for the following Sprint, and Engineers know what to expect and when.

The Challenges

The main challenges we faced to implement the above initiatives were related to creating the Design ticket. We had to find the fine line between highlighting the User’s problem, having all the information we needed to act upon, communicate the next steps, and the reasons behind the chosen Solution. The goal was not to end up with a “UX process lesson ticket” or a long, time-consuming ticket. The goal was to bring the User to the center of our actions, help us plan the next steps, and improve communication.

What helped us tackle this challenge was to map all our needs on a board and link each one to specific information that would fill that need. Then, we analyzed how we could simplify the amount of data, created a template, and iterated a few times until it was in a concise format. We then presented to the team and got their enthusiastic approval.


The Outcome

The above actions helped us to unlock value and identify several results that increased team collaboration, transparency, and overall productivity:

  1. We now have a clear direction about where to go and how to plan for the next steps. Every team member has ownership of their piece of the puzzle. –––– “When the value we aim to deliver is clear, making decisions becomes easier” stolen and tweaked from Roy E. Disney ;-P

  2. We improved our communication, collaboration, and team alignment. We noticed higher morale and motivation amongst the team as well as more efficient convos.
 –––– As Marty Cagan beautifully said, “if you’ve waited ’til sprint planning before you show your stuff to developers, you’ve screwed up.”

  3. We walked the talk and put our Users at the center of everything we do and their problems and job to be done as our efforts’ driving force. –––– “UX and Design move us even closer towards the Agile’s customer-centric goal of satisfying the user frequently and at high quality.” Jeff Gothelf.

  4. I feel empowered to lead on the next challenges ahead.

You can do it too

If you look into each of our actions, they may sound quite simple, but the impact was quite significant. We didn’t reinvent the wheel; we combined different methods and frameworks and created our work mode recipe. One of Celonis’s core values is the “Best Team Wins,” and this team spirit was the soul of the change and implementation we were able to execute.

“The crucial point is that we did it together as a unified team with distributed leadership.”

I couldn’t end this post without thanking the most amazing squad that I’m thankful for working with every day: Max Kohl, Philipp Koytek, David Toro, Paul Gualotuna, Mikea Mihali, Juan Diego Araya, and all the Celonis Team.

Our process is not THE formula for team success; it was shaped based on our work and needs. Our approach is not perfect, and we don’t aim it to be. Our goal is to keep evolving, learning, and getting better and faster together. If we can do it, you can do it as well. It’s just a matter of believing, planning, doing, and learning together.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is a success.” — Henry Ford.

Author Headshot for Gabriela Lembo
Gabi Lembo
UX Designer

As a UX Designer, Gabriela works at the intersection of product development and design to deliver customer-centric and transformational solutions to our global clients. She is well-known for her strategic and creative approach that leads to impactful results. Before Celonis, Gabriela spent more than six years in New York working with Startups, Agencies, and Global Fortune 500 companies. She is fond of typography and proud of the many design awards she received in the past few years.

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