The Magic Coaching Wand

How the Zalando Personalization Unit improved with a diagnostic

Posted on Jan 10, 2019

How the Zalando Personalization Unit improved with a diagnostic

In our coaching work, doing diagnostics can already create huge improvements without a lot of action on our part. Working at scale, Zalando has around 150 tech teams, this helps create an impact on the whole organisation.

In this blog post, I will share the story of a diagnostic done in a unit of seven machine learning and data scientist teams (ML/DS) in Berlin, Helsinki and Dublin. Key points include:

  • a diagnostic is an improvement on its own: what gets measured gets improved, be it that the unit becomes aware of blind spots or they get confirmation from an expert.
  • you can initiate improvements at scale if you do the diagnostic co-creatively and openly, having everybody in the unit agree on the overall situation using tools like “Lean Change Canvas.”
  • systemic problems are visible; affecting local teams and roles, but can not be solved there. They need to be tackled at a systemic level.

What follows is a personal experience, and how sometimes solutions are not obvious and have to be found by following a path that only emerges as you walk it.

The universal key that did not unlock the door

On the request of the Dedicated Owner (DO) of the unit we did interviews to get multiple perspectives on the “problem”. We talked to the DO, the Leads, Senior Engineers, Data Scientists, Product Managers, Producers, UX… This is our universal key of request clarification to differentiate symptoms from root causes and to find the systemic pattern.

Normally request clarifications unveil the path to a solution. This time it failed.

We talked to motivated, honest and open leads that really want to make a difference and support and grow their collages. We met a DO that gives freedom and support to his leads and teams. We found really passionate Data Scientists, Engineers and Product Managers. All of them were aware of the problems they collectively faced and what was causing them.

Why was an empowered group like this – with willingness and skill – not able to solve their own problems?

“You can not understand a system until you try to change it."

We started interacting with the system. Which of our solutions will it adapt and which ones will it refuse? Which problem will the system allow to be solved? We tried a one day leadership training, three day agile workshop with two teams, a session about agile at scale, story splitting, and a few more topics. We got a lot of good feedback for this work. It caused a lot of local optimizations and improvements.

But listening to the people felt like the “problems” stayed the same. The mood of the people hardly changed. Are we as humans so used to having problems that we refuse to let them go? That we actually miss them when they are gone?

The big picture made small

What are we not seeing? We tried a new approach. Based on “ Jeff Anderson's Lean Change,” we created a simple canvas: Urgencies - Vision - Next Steps. Rooting it in a more complex framework would allow us to scale the canvas later into a more powerful collaborative change board.

This time we asked the entire team to fill the canvases within a coaching session. The outcome was, once again, unbelievable. All teams had a great vision of how they want to work. They know precisely which next steps they can take to improve.

The elephant in the room

We have great teams. They have leaders that asks for and supports self-driven improvements.

Why don’t the teams “just do it”?

We asked the Dedicated Owner for a meeting. We prepared a room and then asked the Dedicated Owner to go pick the canvas (urgencies, vision, next steps) from the open team spaces and pin them into this room. It was a physical and transparent act of the Dedicated Owner to take care of the problems to start the meeting.

The Breakthrough

The magic happened in the meeting when we had the canvases from all seven teams on one wall in the session.

The Dedicated Owner started discovering the pattern. First the smaller, local patterns, then the systemic pattern that seems to affect every team to different degrees but cannot be linked to a single team or role. These are the patterns you can only see when you take a step back and look at the whole picture.

It wasn’t clear which role should drive which topic or improvement, when, and for what reason. We called this the “Ownership Pattern.” We also saw that we were jumping from having an idea or a goal right into delivering on it. We called this the “Product Pattern.”

On the local level, the responsibilities of who owned what and who did what seemed pretty clear. For topics “in between” (i.e. two roles) and “across” (i.e. several teams) as well “through” (i.e. certain processes) there was a lot more uncertainty.

Why? What happened in the past that we now have this pattern?

Zalando introduced further team autonomy and dedicated ownership. Zalando became successful because of its ability to execute and deliver new products very quickly. What is the effect of this on the culture of this area? Are there even more organisational or cultural influences? We were deep-diving into Zalando's past.

The Magic Happens

When we understood the origins we could understand the pattern and the effects. Now, could we initiate change by telling everyone what insights we found? No.

The magic happens when everyone is having their own, “Aha!” moment, just like the Dedicated Owner in the meeting before.

The next weeks we invested in creating these “Aha!” moments across the whole department, sharing and aligning the insights in a self-exploratory way. We also made sure that no one felt blamed or hurt by the insights i.e. about their role, but everyone had a shared understanding so we could jointly move on.

It was in this time we suddenly saw improvements happening in the unit without us triggering them: new boards, visual backlogs, canvases, roadmaps, UX sketches, goal alignments started popping up on the walls. The teams were acting on their next steps realizing their visions.


It was not us coaches, but the Senior Data Scientists, Engineers, Producers, Leads, Product Specialists, Product Owner, UX, … everybody moving a piece and making an improvement.

We coaches learned that a co-creative and open dialogs with personal moments can unlock the door to continuous improvement. We learned that an outside perspective and self-reflection – without blaming or hurting anyone – is needed from time to time to unstick and move forward as a unit.

On your next request, instead of creating an improvement plan you can try an open and co-creative diagnostic and – with a bit of good fate – create a self-engaged and sustainable improvement at the scale of a unit.

Join us at Zalando to initiate improvement and progress in our units.

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