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What is the 'sense-and-respond' model?

Sense-and-respond is the alternative model to the one that dominates the status quo: predict-and-control (see: "What is predict-and-control?"). Essentially the idea is that we can absorb a range of data (qualitative and quantitative) and then react accordingly. This theory is grounded in accepting that we can’t plan too far ahead or expect to control the future; so the best we can hope for is to guide our way forward by trying something, observing the reaction and then trying something else. To use a common example, we play chess with sense-and-respond; we couldn't play it with predict-and-control.

Sense-and-respond at an organisational level involves setting up an open and honest two-way conversation between an organisation and the stakeholders it serves. It requires both leaders and employees to listen authentically to the marketplace and to react with integrity and speed.

Sense-and-respond became the answer to widespread challenges in the technology industry where software teams had to cope with constantly changing requirements on the products they were developing. To be successful they had to constantly seek out feedback on their product and then react to that feedback quickly. Teams started to recognise that they didn’t know how their market would use the products they were building until they interacted with them. Unlike products of the industrialised era, software was a constantly changing entity that did not come to life when it was ready for market but when the market became part of the creation process.

Sense-and-respond isn’t new, it is how people have self-organised for millennia across their personal, familial and communal lives. But as organisations over the past 125 years increasingly adopted predict-and-control as the default mental model (see: “What are mental models?”), so too did they sideline alternative approaches; effectively positioning such ideas in opposition to accepted business wisdom.

However, in a highly complex, rapidly changing environment (see: “What is the difference between a complicated and complex environment?”) the tables are turned: the predict-and-control approach is all but obsolete and sense-and-respond is king. Its emergence within the technology industry is partly due to their relative lack of organisational baggage and the potential to build an industry from scratch. But it is no longer just the domain of software developers - it is an essential strategic and operational philosophy regardless of industry or organisational size.

In his 2017 book, Sense and Respond, Jeff Gothelf explores how the below tools and practises key to sense-and-respond orientated software teams are now valuable to any team anywhere doing anything:

  • Structure your workforce around small autonomous teams.
  • Enable teams and the individuals within them to access feedback on their work directly from the market.
  • Supporting real-time responses to that feedback where teams can independently trial changes prompted by the market to receive further feedback and ultimately improve the product.
  • Invite the market into the development of a product as early as possible so that issues can be highlighted and acted on quickly.

“Responding to consumer feedback is no longer optional.”

Jeff Gothelf

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  1. Georgie Wiles

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