Design Software

Watch “How to Break Free of the Feature Factory” with John Cutler

John Cutler looks at 12 Signs You Are Working in a Feature Factory, talks about some hard conversations to be had, and how psychological safety is a prerequisite to escaping the build trap.

In the closing talk of 2017’s MTP Engage Hamburg, John Cutler looks at why his post 12 Signs You Are Working in a Feature Factory touched a nerve for so many people in product development.

There’s widespread tension in our industry, John says. While everyone talks about “outcomes over output” and says they strive for “real impact” with their craft, in our day-to-day work many of us simply give all our priorities and attention to shipping features.

Why is this? Are we powerless to do anything about it?

As you’d expect if you’ve ever read any of John’s blog posts, his presentation is full of smart and provocative statements that challenge you to think carefully and beyond the obvious.

How to Break Free of the Feature Factory

My Takeaways on Feature Factory

The part that of the talk was drawn for the original viral post in Medium was the “signs that you’re working on a feature factory” (emphasis mine):

  • no measurement
  • rapid shuffling of teams and projects
  • success theatre
  • infrequent (acknowledged) failures and scrapped work
  • no connection to core metrics
  • no PM retrospectives
  • mismatch between prioritisation rigour and validation rigour
  • no tweaking/iteration
  • culture of hand-offs
  • large batches
  • chasing upfront revenue
  • shiny objects (edited) 

One of the reasons I’ve found the talk fascinating was how the whole “Outcomes over Output” is what everybody wants, but the hard conversations that need to had with teams and stakeholders don’t happen.

If you’ve been following my series on design strategy, you will know that I like keeping a list of questions in my back pocket that I can use to trigger conversations to bring issues to surface. A few come to mind (Perri, M., Escaping the Build Trap, 2019):

  • What unique value does each of our product lines offer that make this a compelling system?
  • What overall values and guidelines should we consider when deciding on new product solutions?
  • What should we stop doing or building because it does not serve this vision?

In the talk, John also emphasizes the importance of psychological safety as a prerequisite to empower outcome-driven, mission-based teams. I don’t think there is much to add to what he said there (check out Joshua Kerievsky‘ work on Modern Agile).

As I mentioned in some of my design strategy writings, I’ve found that asking questions can trigger the conversations that begin to create the psychology safety, bringing focus and energy to teams (Smutny, M., Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2019).

You can develop your own questions based on your knowledge of your own team dynamics, or you can experiment with methods like Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M., 2008), World Café (Brown, J., & Isaacs, D., 2005), or Open Space Technology (Owen, H., 2008). You can read more about them in my article Strategy, Facilitation, and The Art of Asking Questions.

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Read more about how to ask questions for creating team momentum in Strategy, Facilitation, and the Art of Asking Questions (Photo by Burak K on

About John Cutler

John Cutler is the product evangelist at San Francisco product analytics software developer Amplitude. In his twitter handle, he describes himself as someone who loves wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data.

Recommended Reading

Brown, J., & Isaacs, D. (2005). The world cafe: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2008). The appreciative inquiry handbook: For leaders of change. Berrett-Koehler.

Owen, H. (2008). Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler

Perri, M. (2019). Escaping the build trap. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media

Smutny, M. (2019). Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings. Bothell, WA: Civic Reinventions, Inc. (August 10, 2019).

By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in several countries (Argentina, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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