This is by no means the first time I’m focusing on this topic of ever changing and complex product organisation and the perceived control we so badly seek to achieve.
In two previous newsletters (links at the bottom), I discussed other aspects of this topic, but I will keep coming back to it and adding layers, because I believe this is one of the biggest challenges we currently face.
Agile, Lean, SCRUM, Kanban etc. they’re all saying the same thing
If we look at the principles and philosophies behind most of the well known frameworks/processes/manifestos, they are all saying the same thing and attempting to solve the same problem: the constantly evolving world of product development.
Influenced by evolving technology, changes in the market, lower barrier to entry for competition and ever evolving ideas. In this case, the only constant we do have is that so much is uncertain, especially when we start exploring beyond 6 month intervals.
The advantage of all these adaptive processes is in their ability to modify as needed.
However, on the flip side, they can also create a feature factory, that produces quantity not quality. Super efficient in delivery, but easily loses site of what’s important.
If done without some structure or a strong leadership, they can easily pile up larger and larger tech debt while creating more uncertainty and discomfort in the team.
A solid vision and strategy
It’s also become clearer that having a solid vision and strategy are key when thinking about the business as a whole.
Done well, they helps us define purpose, direction and scope. Usually focused on longer intervals of 3 or more years, they help keep teams focused on where they are meant to go as a product.
The challenge arises when many companies have unclear or purely aspirational Vision and Strategy.
A Vision that seems too abstract or like we’re reaching for the stars may seem inspiring when reading, but when the team then has to actually do the work, does it help guide the work being done? More often than not, it doesn’t.
Strategy is about defining a plan to move you closer to your vision. Often companies define a strategy that is unclear or too conceptual, like “Expanding to new markets…” or “Build a stronger organisation…”.
Again, what does that really mean? A Strategy should be actionable, focused on solving problems.
I could go on about this topic, but suggest you read Good Strategy, Bad Strategy
by Richard Rumelt who can explain it much better than I.
Trying to maintain control
For many organisations, control means knowing everything that is going on and having a clear picture of everything.
Easy enough when you’re a startup maybe, but imagine an organisation of hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. It is impossible to know exactly what everyone is doing at all times.
If the company has investors and shareholders, there’s the added pressure of constant evolution and innovation. There’s the need to report what you’re going to do and how exciting it’s going to be for the business and their investments.
This often forces a shift towards outputs rather than achieving goals. It becomes about constantly showing shiny new things, without thinking about the quality or the actual value of the product.
Equally, we see complex and overloaded planning cycles 1-2 years in advance, despite the fact that we all know that all of it will go through various changes.
This forces the teams to have multiple work streams at various levels of complexity and definition.
In this case, our attempt to take control often has the opposite effect and we land up with bigger quality debt on the product and the subsequent blocking of growth and actual innovation.
Focusing on actual problems
This is what seems like the unattainable utopia. Building a product focused on a solving problems and bringing value.
It’s interesting how the bigger an organisation gets, the easier we seem to forget that our initial success was our focus on a problem to solve.
Customer/User/Nature/Something-centricity are all a big craze right now, with every organisation claiming to focus on some centricity or another, but in truth, most focus profit-centricity.
I’m not saying I believe in a world where we can build products for the sake of it and shun profitability completely. What I am saying and what most designers, product people, researchers etc. have been trying to say for quite some time is that focusing on profit as the main driver will almost always (if not always. Missing stats on this) have negative effects at some time.
However when we focus on a need or problem, we build on our value to impact those interacting with our product. If we solve that need well, profit is guaranteed (provided you have a business model that generates profit) as well as longevity.
We build the right thing the right way.
Bringing it all together
Considering that the only thing we can be certain of is that change is constant in product development, we need to consider that all the above is both wrong and right at the same time.
If you know me, you know I’m advocate of all approaches and none, in that we need to adapt the approach to the company and context. But I do believe that we can have some basic guidelines connected to each of the points above.
#1 - Give the people purpose
Set a vision and strategy that are both inspiring and actionable. It’s good to have a compass to both challenge our assumptions and inherent need to react to the market or competition. Make it a part of your work. Hold the organisation accountable to what was envisioned vs. the adaptations constantly squeezed in.
#2 - Focus on problems
Constantly ask why you’re working on something. Amazon is a great example of focusing on the customer first and then working backwards
to what they will build and how it will work.
The advantage of this approach is that we are always focused on an actual need, rather than a perceived or assumed need.
Many companies have tried applying this approach with moderate results, because in most cases the impact on revenue or the industry may not be immediate, which tends to make everyone nervous.
“Quick wins” can be a dangerous if not well done.
#3 - Focus on adaptability
I’m not going to spout out all the same principles as the manifestos, but their foundations are good. We need to be adaptable to change and uncertainty. Many lose site of that and focus on the rituals.
Also, without a solid Vision and Strategy or a customer problem to solve, being adaptable is pointless. The image of a dog chasing its own tail comes to mind.
Constantly “pivoting” is another dog tail chasing example. If we constantly change direction, we’re literally going around in circles.
#4 - Focus on impact/value, not outputs
Many state that we need to focus on outcomes over outputs, but I would venture we need to go a bit further and focus on the impact/value.
In this approach, we have data and metrics to appease all levels of the organisation. From product all the way to the revenue, but without adding the complexity of planning years in advance and with the added advantage of making the Vision and Strategy seem more tangible and connected to the work.
#5 - Be Honest
Many hours and effort are wasted on exploring a half baked concept or trying to justify time already invested by wasting even more time.
It’s hard to admit when we’ve made a mistake. It also seems to be hard to admit that we’re basing so much on assumptions.
This is probably the biggest pitfall of many organisations, teams and people. The simplest approach is to be brutally honest with yourself.
Even if you feel something is worthwhile building, but it’s not very clear or based on too many assumptions, figure out what you need in order to reduce that uncertainty.
Either you need to reduce uncertainty or the risk if you’re wrong.
Conclusion: Embrace the change
If we accept that change is always going to be happening. That control as seen in the industrial ere does not make sense anymore.
Rather, let’s embrace a form of control driven by what we want to achieve and why. Is your organisation able to deliver that? If not, what needs to change? (Hint: It’s rarely about adding a much more defined process)
Do you identify with the content of this newsletter?
How would you answer these questions? Would you like to chat a bit more on the topic?
- Does your organisation feel messy?
- Are there too many unknowns in your process?
- Do you feel blocked from innovating?
- Do you feel your work is focused on the wrong things?