Hard Yards: Transformation through Product Management

Jason Lamb, Managing Partners A colleague’s mandate to build an Ironman suit for the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) led Jason Lamb to realize the opportunities that could be unlocked within the defense sector through the introduction of modern product management disciplines. While working on his MBA at the Darden School of Business, Lamb was introduced to such disciplines by, among others, Mark Pushinsky, an early Agile adopter and Certified Scrum Trainer. Lamb and Pushinsky attended Jeanne Liedtka’s Design Thinking course and the two partners began to refine their belief that Dual- Track Agile—the blending of design thinking and agile practices—held the key to unlock countless possibilities in product management.

While at the time, organizations in the defense sector were utilizing waterfall development techniques which tether a final product to requirements generated far in advance of development and restrict the ability to adapt as needs and technology change, Lamb, a former Navy SEAL, saw a correlation between his military experience and the core tenets behind agile product management and digital transformation. For example, SEAL platoons are cross-functional, a best practice for building software development teams. Post mission debriefs and after-action reports equate to agile retrospectives that promote continuous improvement. Moreover, the imperative for special operations personnel to train like they fight is analogous to the DevOps mandate to close the gap between development and operations.

"You cannot tell people, ‘let us do design thinking and be iterative and experiment,’ while having a low tolerance for failure. There is a massive conflict right there"
Mark Pushinsky, Managing Partner

Drawing on more than two decades of experience in Special Operations and the Intelligence Community, Lamb founded Hard Yards, and brought on Mark Pushinsky as a fellow managing partner. The company began introducing commercial product development methods to entities such as USSOCOM, Army Futures Command, Naval Special Warfare, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to facilitate the technology transition and enable digital transformation.

At the outset, the company ran a design event focused on helping the new Army Futures Command identify the right technologies they would need in megacity and subterranean environments. The challenges were the same ones identified by the USSOCOM Ironman suit project; limited insight into small commercial companies and communicating emerging needs within an acquisition framework built to eliminate risk. By leveraging the Human Business Technology (HBT) model which drives product teams to build solutions that are human centered in design, business or mission driven in the way they deliver outcomes, and technically feasible, Hard Yards was able to demonstrate a user-based approach to generating requirements. First, Hard Yards conducted ethnographic research and end-user interviews in advance of the event to collect and analyze user-derived problems, then they depicted the problem scenarios on illustrated posters. The posters became the focus point in their facilitated dialogue sessions with groups of Department of Defense (DoD) operators and commercial technologists. The illustrations and storytelling from the interviews were vital to clarifying the end user needs without traditional requirements jargon. The problem statements were also instrumental to accomplishing the main objective: presenting government requirements in an easy to understand manner. Pushinsky says, “The purpose was to enable industry to bring their innovative technical solutions to bear on hard national security problems. The feedback we received was that it was very effective at communicating the actual need.”

Design Thinking and Agile Methods that Transcend Industries

Leveraging and refining Hard Yards Dual- Track Agile process, the company began supporting other engagements across a variety of contexts, such as a rapid prototyping event focused on counter- Unmanned Aerial Systems (CUAS).

We are not zealots about any one methodology; we don’t believe that companies should lead with tools. We pride ourselves on our mixed martial arts (MMA) approach to innovation

The combination of Design Thinking and Agile methods ensures clients do not just engage in rapid development, but also deliver optimal user experience (UX) while measuring outcomes to validate the processes.

Longer term, end-to-end engagements followed, as Hard Yards began training, mentoring, and coaching entities on the full spectrum of transformation from team practices and Agile ceremonies to culture and organization design. Hard Yards encourages a broadminded approach toward creating business agility, an iterative cycle of ideation and validation, with the goal of designing solutions that meet evolving customer needs. Rather than “creating a perfect solution based on requirements,” clients are presented with multiple paths they can select based on emerging needs and the changing environment.

This approach resonated with commercial as well as government entities, and current clients now include a Fortune 10 medical device company, a major US bank, and other companies across a range of industries. However, through each engagement, Hard Yards strictly adheres by a “train-the-trainer” model to reduce dependency, empowering teams to build internal capabilities that stand the test of time.

MMA Approach to Problem Solving

When it comes to baselining theory and lexicon, Hard Yards recommends three classes (Certified Scrum Master®, Certified Scrum Product Owner®, and Design Thinking) to expose an organization to innovation practices. However, Hard Yards maintains a software and framework-agnostic approach. Lamb elaborates, “We are not zealots about any one methodology, and we do not believe that companies should lead with software tools. We pride ourselves on our mixed martial arts (MMA) approach to innovation.”

The MMA-based approach can be attributed to Pushinsky, a black belt in jiu-jitsu with a storied history of transforming large-scale software development programs, training thousands of people in the process. Pushinsky’s imprint is visible in the way Hard Yards extracts value from various frameworks—be it Scrum, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Kanban, DevSecOps, or Design Thinking/Human Centered Design (HCD)—to create a dynamic approach to building improved products, motivated teams, and engaging everyone in a digital transformation.

Unlike traditional consultants, Hard Yards trains and coaches through implementation to create an organic capability to transform and sustain performance. The training extends to areas such as business & IT strategy, data & analytics, design & architecture, product development & management, and IT investment, with the goal being to create “repeatable processes” to drive cultural change within an organization. “The clients can take back those practices to their home base and share the teachings with the rest of their teams,” adds Pushinsky.

To achieve the same, Hard Yards offers The Scrum Master Accelerator, a scalable solution where cohorts of Scrum Masters learn and apply all the skills necessary to become more effective in their role and grow into confident Agile coaches. As for active product owners who are new to Agile, Hard Yards provides the Product Owner Accelerator, which enables users to acquire new skills, tools, and techniques to operate assertively in their role.

The uniqueness of these programs stems from the real-world experience delivered by real-world practitioners. These events also foster learning and networking with peers. Lamb says, “We have a comprehensive catalog of principles and experiential content to help people apply the theory in context. We let our clients prioritize the content that we deliver, based on the different pain points that they have at any given time.”

Originated from an old sailing phrase, "doing the hard yards" refers to the crew furling or unfurling the canvas from higher spars (yardarms) that was not a welcome task. In a similar vein, when it comes to keeping up with digital disruption, Hard Yards team is motivated to take on the difficult, irksome, tedious, dull and unglamorous work or effort needed to achieve success.

In general, Hard Yards caters to the needs of organizations that are lower on a capability maturity model or high-performing larger organizations that want to measure the impact of the methodologies implemented. “From what we observe, organizations often implement these practices very tactically at the team-based level, when, in fact, there are bigger organizational design or cultural impediments to applying best-in-class product development practices. Therefore, we work with executives to improve portfolio management, we encourage cross-functional team-based design, we help create transparency in the organization with regard to how they prioritize and identify impediments, we measure how much work they have in progress, and we address how they incentivize and address aspects like technical debt,” Lamb explains.

Moreover, Pushinsky mentions that in a typical transformation, organizations are usually focused on practices, such as Daily Scrum, Story Boards, Burndown charts, and more. However, those practices form just the tip of the iceberg. The icy mass below the surface comprises culture-related aspects like how decisions get made, value is defined, and leaders spend their time.

By identifying transformation impediments and working with clients to align the enterprise through training, coaching, and hard work, Hard Yards helps its clients bring change and measure the relative impact on all facets of the organization:

• culture (behaviors, values, stories, and artifacts)
• strategy (vision, mission, imperatives, roadmap)
• leadership (mindset, decision making, communication, and style)
• organizational design (functions, roles, skills, incentives)
• infrastructure (technology, facilities, and tools)
• practices (daily Scrum, Program Increment planning)

This innate ability—to identify a client’s impediment and turn it into a strength—is highlighted through a success story involving a leading healthcare firm. Before its engagement with Hard Yards, the client faced significant cultural and consensus-building challenges to align the executive team to drive change. Hard Yards applied a user-centered design process as a part of discovery to help develop a shared context. Agile training and coaching generated a common lexicon. They worked with the client to create a prioritized backlog and implement the Scrum framework. The results were tremendous. Gus Nicoll, the Client COO stated, "The Hard Yards team brought deep and diverse experience to bear and they unlocked our team's potential to deliver great products in a much more responsive and effective manner." Besides improving its internal accountability and transparency, the client gained access to an integrated roadmap that detailed the implementation of new business intelligence tools, adoption of the solutions, and recommendations for enterprise-wide adoption.

The Next Phase

In the face of an ever-increasing demand for measurement, Hard Yards is building a business intelligence practice to work with clients to understand how they measure their outcomes, by applying live web analytics in a broader way across the facets of people, process, and product, and leveraging client APIs and data. Towards the second half of 2020, the company will build a more technical, DevOps focused coaching capability in addition to its current, business process-centric coaching services. Fortunately, years of experience refining remote delivery of training and coaching enabled the company to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions rapidly. It is indisputable, a bright future awaits Hard Yards, which is made up of a group of passionate thinkers, designers, and builders. A proud Lamb says, “We were recently awarded a services agreement with a huge company in San Francisco. That is a cool feat for a small, Virginia-based company like ours.” Lamb is also optimistic that 2020 will see Hard Yards making further inroads into the defense sector. Given the rapidly changing environment and pace of technology change, CIOReview recognizes Hard Yards as an emerging leader charting a course for the industry.

Hard Yards

Arlington, VA

Jason Lamb, Managing Partners and Mark Pushinsky, Managing Partner

The Hard Yards empowers business leaders and organizations to be more effective, innovative, and transformative in their product development. When it comes to baselining theory and lexicon, The Hard Yards recommends three classes (Certified Scrum Master®, Certified Scrum Product Owner®, and Design Thinking) to expose an organization to innovation practices. However, The Hard Yards maintains a software-and framework-agnostic approach. With a mixed martial arts approach to innovation, The Hard Yards extracts value from various frameworks—be it Scrum, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), Kanban, DevSecOps, or Design Thinking/Human Centered Design (HCD)—to create a dynamic approach to building improved products, motivated teams, and engaging everyone in a digital transformation.