How to deliver 10X productivity (Part III) for Knowledge workers?

Part 3 of a 3 part essay on the future of work in a post COVID-19 World?

A well communicated message can make the difference between inspiring a workforce and making it sigh whenever Monday morning comes around. Take one small example, how do you name a document? Everyone has their own way. Some people use personal conventions, some randomly pick a name, while others might follow a standardised procedure they’ve brought in from another organisation. It’s a small thing but what a document is called can make all the difference. Who hasn’t tried seven different ways of searching for that one important document needed for the Board meeting that starts in five minutes? But here’s where it gets interesting. What if there was technology smart enough to name documents for us based on criteria we define, and therefore automatically standardising the process across your whole organisation? AI has the potential to structure the unstructured without the work becoming reductively homogenised.

I have spent much of my working career building software products, marketing them or taking them to market. I worked in the USA helping to build an automotive electronic document management (EDM) solution as a SaaS product before the term SaaS was a common term. It was designed to manage certain types of documents (APQP & ISO 9000 to be precise, Source Quality-One) that the automotive supply chain shared. It was at this stage I got my first introduction to lean and agile thinking. For example, when a tier 4 supplier, such as a steal producer would update a document, this would then update a tier 3 producer, like an engine maker, and so on up the chain. The documents were independent but connected through a backend database, and this idea and the advantages this interconnection had, always stayed with me. As someone who has worked in many different industries (CRM, EDM, Automotive, Banking, Travel, API’s, Video Transcoding), it’s this cross-industry perspective that gives me a solid purview that often allows me to see opportunities where others might not. It’s from this background that my 10x productivity hypothesis was born.

Tomorrow’s Technology Today

Many people don’t realise just how much AI technology is already in our daily lives. Just take one of the commonest uses of AI today, rough planning. For the smartphone generation who have always had maps built into their phones, they might be unaware just how differently we used to do things. Getting from A to B in a car without the use of a disembodied voice telling us to turn around, used to be a semi-painful/humorous activity that could (in my experience anyway) result in arguments, accusations and general grumpiness. But then came along companies like TomTom who utilised AI to plan your journey for you; goodbye maps. You still had autonomy over your journey, but also a tool that responded to and updated your plan accordingly. And then as smartphone technology improved, the need for a separate tool decreased; goodbye TomTom (TomTom still trades today in fairness). This streamlined the process further, but the initial premise of AI doing the work still remained. 

People Supported with AI

I recently got to see a knowledge worker-based AI tool in action. It was an expert system (a form of AI popular in the 1980s that has become more powerful due to recent AI advances) called AIC from a consulting company called Rialto Consultancy. This AIC carried out sentiment analysis and degree of alignment analysis between leadership teams, which then went on to create a set of deliverables that helped to overcome the usual 70% failure rate seen in change programs in larger organisations (Source: McKinsey).  This system was built as a result of research undertaken by Harvard professors, Thomas Schelling and Chris Argyris, one of whom received a Nobel prize for his work. 

In effect, the expert system drives increased performance and the likelihood of a successful change programme through better orchestration of the individuals involved (Source: Bain & Co.), lining up the detractors and getting them on side. Because change relies on human beings, therefore the human condition can drive success and/or failure in equal measures. However, a tool like AIC shows how having all the data and insight overseen by AI, can increase the chance of success significantly. By establishing a protocol that ensures every contributor is receiving the same information, this information therefore becomes accessible to everyone, leaving any egos in the room free to concentrate on other things. One thing is for sure, in the future more decisions will be made by algorithms and humans working together which will aid leaderships teams and Boards to make better strategies and/or successful growth approaches. But if after the recent A Level fiasco in the UK has left you wary about the use of algorithms, don’t be; the problems occur when algorithms are left without human oversight. Properly managed, AI working with knowledge workers can free them up to concentrate on problem solving work and thus increase productivity.

The Future of AI

Anyone who has spent any time looking at the open AI API GPT-3 will have seen first-hand how powerful this technology has become. GPT-3 however, has been built mostly using open source data sets that have plagued the AI space by introducing bias and a number of high profile and embarrassing bunders.  Nevertheless, as demonstrated above, AI can successfully be used for a number of knowledge working tasks, with the breadth of these tasks increasing with every new innovation. And if applied the to the challenge of 10x productivity, I believe we could see a significant step change in productivity. 

However, in order for people to interact effectively with the technology, we will need AI that is explainable (XAI) so decision making processes are accessible and transparent. We need to be able to look into the ‘black box’ (the algorithm) and understand how and why a classification was made. The range of algorithms and applications for AI is staggering. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with what is going on with AI, I would encourage you to check out AI Forum which is a useful resource for the latest research and news.   

From More of the Same… To a New Breed of Solution

We are starting to see a new breed of productivity apps but in some cases, they are taking us way from the prize of increased productivity rather than helping to deliver it. Instant message-based tools like Slack and MS Teams hold great promise but that they take us out of our state of flow and do nothing to help structure the real work. They facilitate the communication, yes; they help support the connections and the messages I discussed in the last essay, yes; but they are yet another distraction from the real work. 

So, to help with all these interruptions, a huge range of easy to use project management tools have grown up in recent years. These move away from the MS Project style (mostly waterfall based) bloatware, to tools with superior user experiences like Jira,  Monday and Asana. However, in many cases they are little more than shared task lists with the ability to attach the documents (the work). Essentially, the project management tools are gathering all the information together in folders (tasks) and files (subtasks), but the method of transmission of the work, the document, is still the limiting factor as it remains unconnected and therefore open to duplication, wasted time etc. 

I am interested to see how documents and modern machine learning algorithms might forge a whole new type of productivity application. We are starting to see hints of the future with Microsoft 365 PowerPoint with its ability to auto design slides. If you’ve not seen it, I recommend you should because it demonstrates a small glimpse of the future. Another example is Google mail with its auto complete capability that can finish sentences for you.

So, if your appetite has been whetted, here are some productivity tools that are starting down this road, all addressing small discreet elements of the 10x productivity challenge. You may have heard of companies like Grammarly, an AI based spell checker that can help you create different types of writing. But actually, the companies closest to delivering 10x productivity are probably companies you have not heard of, like Notion who pitch themselves as an all in one workspace for notes, tasks and wikis, or Coda who pitch themselves as a new document for teams, and who recently secured $80M from famous Google venture capitalist, Kleiner Perkins. And AirTable who claim you can organise anything with a spreadsheet-like database, who also recently secured a $185M Series D round of VC investment. Then there are other companies like Monkey Learn and Agolo who offer tools for language classification and text summarisation, all of which hold promise for the development of self-organising documents. Even Microsoft with Microsoft Fluid are starting to recognise the traditional paradigm is broken and finally for good mesaure dont forget or overlook Miro great API and innovative visaul work tool.    

The Future of Productivity

Every organisation wants to be successful and maximise productivity. And every person in every organisation wants to work on things that matter, that make a difference, and that one day might just help to get them promoted. Yet so much work inside organisations are non-value-adding, and some are even value destroying. The law of diminishing returns means as an organisation gets bigger, it becomes harder for everyone to start on the same page, meaning 10x productivity slips further and further away. For start-ups who are focused on delivering the founder vision this transaction can be particularly difficult as teams grow and grow. 

So how is 10x productivity actually achievable? It’s finding the correct balance between the four kinds of knowledge work, Reactionary, Planning, Procedural and Problem Solving Work, that demands our focus; and making sure everyone understands the Purpose, People and Connections, Process and the Message.  That’s where tangible and accessible 10x productivity lies when combined with the right technology tools and training.  everyone’s ability to understand how they contribute to the big picture is challenged along with their ability to be truly productive. And with working from home, these challenges have never been more significant. Keeping a team motivated, focused and well informed is not easy, keeping a team motivate and focused and well informed is not easy. 

So unfortunately, at the moment you can’t buy an off the shelf solution to deliver true 10x productivity, but I believe in the not too distant future we will see this kind of innovation more and more. I hope my observations can help you address productivity in your own work environments, and maybe by using some of the tools and ideas I have shared in the previously essays, you can begin to organise your own 10x productivity workspace. I’d love to hear your views and how you address productivity in your own organisation. Let’s keep the conversation going, J. 

How to deliver 10X productivity (Part II) for Knowledge workers?

Part 2 of a 3 part essay on the future of work in a post COVID-19 World. 

As we discussed last time, in order for 10x productivity not to be just a pipe dream for your organisation, the four different types of knowledge work that you and your employees wrestle with every day need to start working for you, and not against you. In the second of my three-part essay on the future of work in a post Covid-19 world, I’m going to be examining four key areas that demand your focus if we are to move forward towards 10x productivity. Interestingly each also relates to a question, Why, Who, How, What and although I don’t discuss when, timing is always a critical aspect of being productive.  

Purpose – Why 

An organisation’s big purpose, its why, mission, vision, is supported by many smaller purposes, which in turn are supported by its knowledge workers. These smaller purposes make up all the different objectives that when optimally aligned, keep the organisation productive. So, a clear and defined purpose, big or small, with clear and defined objectives, is key for a high performing organisation. A major part of this is down to clarity decreasing waste, which therefore increases time for problem solving work, which in turn engages employees, and if you can turn that engagement into inspiration, it’s been shown that employees who are inspired can be 125% more productive (source: HBR). Yes, that 125%.  So, purpose deals with two essential needs – clarification of work and workforce inspiration. One is tangible, the other less so. The level of increased productivity between highly motivated and unmotivated members of staff has been shown to be significant (source: Forbes). Problematic levels of motivation during the Covid-19 pandemic have been widely reported such as with video conference fatigue, demonstrating these challenges in a very real ways. Bestselling author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek is quoted as saying, ‘There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it’. In the third part of my trio of essays, I’ll be discussing how new ways of working can help turn engagement into this ever-illusive inspiration.  

People and Connections – Who

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing’ – 

W. E. Deming, engineer, author, and management consultant. 

Work stems from people and for the most part, it is done by people. Concepts like work in progress (WIP) limits can help staff manage their workload and work optimally. However, this concept is not widely adopted outside of the automotive and some manufacturing industries. The switching costs, switching from one type of work to another (reactive, planning, procedural), should not be underestimated and has a significant impact on the most productive type of knowledge work; problem solving. Switching costs therefore impact on peoples’ ability to get into a state of flow and deliver quality pieces of work. Flow is the concept of being in the moment. Everyone has experienced flow at different times in their life. It’s when your brain is firing on all cylinders, you see connections and possibilities that weren’t there before, and when you remember to check the time, inexplicably, hours have passed. This is not because you haven’t been paying attention, but because you were in a state of flow. Distraction is the enemy of flow, and yet we allow email and instant messaging to fuel our work worlds and continually interrupt us, making it harder than ever to get into this state.  Work stems from people. At least at the moment for the most part. Artificial intelligence has the potential to change this, but more on that later.   Businesses are like living beings, they react to stimuli. When change happens, the effects ripple throughout the entire organisation; and if the change is not managed efficiently this can result in wasted time and energy, a bit like a stubbed toe turning into a broken foot. And just like a living being, the knowledge contained within an organisation needs care and attention as it’s not just held in files and folders. How information is exchanged around a business depends on connections, and the standard of these connections will impact on productivity.  You can’t stop an employee from leaving, but you can provide clear connected pathways to ensure that the knowledge in their head remains within the organisation. And the knowledge workers that remain need to understand how their work impacts and contributes to the whole. The McKinsey Global Institute has shown that productivity improves by 20 – 25% in businesses with highly connected people. Communication, be it face to face, software, though API’s or middleware; much of it stems from its tools and processes which are often narrowly focused within an organisational silo. Increasing and improving the connectivity, therefore increases and improves productivity. However, 74 percent of employees say they miss out on crucial company communication (Source: Mindshare), which should make you wonder just what else your business is missing out on.  

Process – How

The next fundamental block is process. Although many of us may not realise it, every piece of work we do has a process. This could just be the way you’ve always done it, it might be notes or tasks you create, or it might be a clearly documented process that every employee is required to follow. But all work has a process behind it.  Great organisations recognise this and invest in documenting and optimising their processes creating standard operating procedures and target operating procedures. They use continuous improvement to identify and deliver better ways of working. It’s through this work, core competencies can be established and used for significant competitive advantage. Great examples of this would be General Electric, and SONY who are both well known for their use of ‘Playbooks’ and six sigma to define their process.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of businesses don’t have clear processes, instead they rely on recruiting smart people and letting them do it their way. This can work, but when people leave, the owner of the process leaves too, and so does the institutional intelligence they brought with them.  

The Message – What 

But if you want successful connections, you will also need to get the messaging right. In fact, if any of the above fundamental blocks are to work efficiently, it all comes down to the messaging. Messages are everywhere in our modern world, from the 280 character tweet, to the hefty documents we use to educate and inform. Organisations rely on sound bites, press releases, meeting minutes, sales decks, emails, IMs, FAQ sheets, the list goes on and on. Message creation, and then subsequent message updates can result in organisational waste if the initial clarity is lacking. The creation of assets left unadopted by teams across an organisation, or a message so jumbled that every employee interprets it differently, are all stumbling blocks to productivity. Simply put, messaging is knowledge sharing and knowledge management, and unless a business has invested in the right communication tools, as the organisation grows, any messaging problems, and therefore hindrances of attaining 10x productivity, grow with it.  Traditional ways of working are evolving, we didn’t need a pandemic to show us that, but maybe it’s taken one to make us see where the fault lines our in our companies and organisations lie. In my final essay, I will be pulling everything together and showing how the application of artificial intelligence is the next stage in the 10x productivity revolution.  

How to deliver 10X productivity (Part I) for Knowledge workers?

Essay (1 of 3) on the future of work in a post COVID-19 World.

Even before Covid 19 changed our working lives, for a long time the way the majority of companies work has been buckling under numerous pressures. For example, how many times have you felt your heart sink on opening your inbox and seeing all your productive time vanish until after lunch? So with remote working the new normal for the foreseeable future, now more than ever, the way we work desperately needs to evolve to keep us on track and in doing so, boost our productivity. Businesses need new tools and processes that support asynchronous working. But how will these work, and what will they achieve?

How about 10x productivity? Sounds like a dream, right? Sounds like unattainable marketing speak you’ve heard 100 times before. Stand up meetings! Do emails in bulk, not as they come in! Never eat lunch at your desk! But actually, 10x productivity is very attainable, if you look at it from a holistic organisation-wide perspective. Which is easy, once you understand what it is you need to achieve.

An organisation that is highly productive is greater than the sum of its parts. Such businesses have a clear understanding of their purpose, their mission. They have an inspiring vision of the future, and a strong constructive culture that empowers and motivates employees to do great work. Finally, highly productive companies have an understanding of the core competencies that make up the foundation for a high performance work environment. They focus on productivity because its though productivity business can increase profitability, lower operating costs, reduce waste and environmental impact, improve competitiveness and increase engagement, to name just a few reasons. In the new world of work where growth for growth’s sake needs to be questioned, productivity might be the obvious replacement that organisations should be fixating over.  

Another critical element to becoming a high performance organisation is a clear understanding of waste. If you haven’t already read it, I would strongly recommend getting a hold of a copy of The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker which sets out Toyota’s strategy in the 1980s. Toyota demonstrated the power of total quality management, just in time, and work in progress (WIP) limits, all based around constraints theory with roots in ideas proposed by American engineer, statistician, and management consultant, W. E. Deming. By interrogating every component of their organisation and aligning them, they were able to visualise what they needed to achieve in order to increase productivity. This strategy ultimately delivered a transformation in the automotive industry. 

So 10x productivity need not be a pipe dream; it’s something that with game changing strategic thinking can be made real. At least that is my hypothesis, but let me share my observations on why I have made this educated guess.

Jason Nash

Let’s look at the building blocks of the most critical aspect of today’s workplace: knowledge work.

To start, we need to understand what knowledge work is and how can we measure productivity of knowledge workers? The definition of knowledge work from Wikipedia is ‘Knowledge work can be differentiated from other forms of work by its emphasis on “non-routine” problem solving that requires a combination of convergent and divergent thinking’. Knowledge workers are therefore the people whose jobs involve handling or using information, often using a computer. And they are at the very heart of how one might deliver on 10x productivity ambitions, especially as this kind of role is undergoing significant change as technology and global pandemics continue to redefine how and where we work. 

We can measure performance as the amount of work (or output) that an employee completes during a period of time (their input). In organisations that produce physical work a simple example might be the amount of bricks a bricklayer lays in the course of a working day. However knowledge work in the service business sector can be harder to measure, although a simple example here might be the number of lines of code a software engineer produces, or the number of words a copywriter has produced.

All knowledge work falls into four different blocks: reactionary, planning, procedural, and problem-solving. Let’s go through them and highlight some pitfalls.

Reactionary Work: 

This makes up a large and growing proportion of our daily work. Reactionary work is replying to an email, or instant message. It’s often minimal value-adding and, in many cases, not particularly well-governed. For example, requests for information or tasks often go unanswered. Why? Because they disappear into inboxes with over 121 other requests on average every day (source: Radicati). Products like Slack have effectively become the equivalent of the virtual water cooler conversation, but have not necessarily increased the productivity they promised, in part because they have increased the amount of reactionary work.  The average organisation can lose up to 20% or 1 day a working week of its productive capacity (source: HBR). Now, you may think of this as naturally occurring organisational drag, but I hypothesise that much of this is down to time spent on reactionary work, and it will have increased due to new internal communication channels and distractions such as Slack and MS Teams. 

Planning work:

The next block of work is planning, relating to both near or long term plans. A lot of this work, especially long term planning, can be a form of waste. A now somewhat dated 2014 article (source: Bain) said as much as 97% of strategic planning is a waste of time in multinational companies. Yes, 97%! It’s easy for businesses to get caught in a planning loop where last year’s plan has not yet been fully executed before the new plan needs to be worked on. I know first hand how dysfunctional this can be, especially when the ideal environment for 10x productivity highlighted at the start of this 3 part essay is missing. And it’s not just the wasted hours and energy that needs to be taken into account, but the wasted employee goodwill when they see their hard work superseded before implementation.

Procedural Work: 

Procedural work can be as simple as planning out your day, ensuring you are working on the right things at the right time, or as complicated as building detailed operating procedures to ensure consistency across a team or department. It is as varied as the work demands. But as any manager knows, localised procedural work can only be effective up to a point. If clear communication strategies are not implemented business-wide, productivity decreases as time is lost due to reasons such as competing egos, misfiled documentation, and duplication of work. And procedural work can be high value, especially if it’s focused on new processes that help a business define new distinctive competencies. 

Problem Solving Work:

And the final block, problem solving work. Problem solving work, which includes training, adds the most value to our work experience by engaging and motivating us. It’s when we find new and creative pathways, which impacts on an organisation’s overall output and innovation. And yet despite how important this work is, it is often the work we spend the least amount of time doing. Why? Because it requires us to focus and ideally enter a state of flow. But how can we do that if we keep being interrupted by the above? This is why you need to focus your attention, and not just your time to truly increase personal and business productivity (source: Forbes).

So those are the types of knowledge work you and your employees wrestle with on a daily basis. In my next post I going to cover the six intersecting blocks that are fundamental to actually getting the work done and driving 10x productivity. Organisations who have found how to align these have successfully gone on to improve productivity at every level.

Corporate social responsibility: Can we afford not to get this right, and can creative problem solving play a part?

I was struck by Apple’s recent public commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2030.  It’s no surprise to me that Apple, which prides itself on thinking differently, has demonstrated real leadership in this area.  However, it is my firm belief that all similar Fortune 500 companies should demonstrate this kind of leadership.  

Doing the right thing should never be a hard decision, but in reality, it can take real guts, especially if that decision runs counter to making a profit. A good example of this is Delta’s CEO Edward Bastian (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting) who recently said:

“If you board the plane and you insist on not wearing your mask, we will insist that you don’t fly Delta in the future.” It is a clear message that is backed by science, but has become political in the US for various reasons.  This is a clear example of doing the right thing. It’s right for the company as it encourages safe travel, it’s right for travelers because it improves their safety, it’s right for society because it reduces the spread of the virus and it’s right for shareholders because it supports sales in the mid and long term.  

Delta has also demonstrated great leadership with regard to the environment. In February 14, 2020 Delta announced its intention to become the first carbon-neutral airline.  Now, with all the challenges facing the travel industry, this might have been a premature wish.  But it demonstrates the kind of stance and commitment that business leaders at all levels need to take.  This program will cost the airline well over 1 billion dollars to implement. However, directionally it seems like the same type of ‘win win’ approach as the mask wearing statement. This approach is right because it protects mid and long term profits for Delta – and not just Delta, because ALL businesses require a sustainable environment and a functioning and stable society to protect revenues – both for today and for future generations. 

These kinds of challenge can be addressed in part by programs like Salesforce Pledge 1%, in which 1% of sales, support, time and products are given to good causes. These kinds of programs will need to be more broadly adopted if we are going to overcome the kinds of challenges that many parts of the USA are witnessing.

COVID-19 has been an acute and real problem, swamping everyone’s thoughts but we should not forget the significant environmental changes we will face in the next fifty years which bring their own, very real challenges. To that end, even oil companies like BP are getting in on the act with a 2050 goal of being carbon neutral. Oil and gas operations are being completely offset by more efficient production, production reduction strategies and carbon sink projects. I believe that 2050 is a cop-out target personally but directionally at least, the right leadership stances are being taken. 

Now Imagine if Delta and BP could accelerate their business model changes to support each other to create a real win for all stakeholders.  With just a little creative problem solving, the possible becomes probable. We need more of this kind of thinking. Creative thinking that looks at constraints as opportunities, that see problems as a catalyst to drive significant and real change. We need more effective partnerships that avoid win-loss and strive for success for all stakeholders. 

With a focus on network analysis and the connections between businesses, we can enable new partnerships that can lead to breakthrough business models which solve society’s most pressing problems. We should use employee diversity and creative problem solving to do the most important and valuable work in the post-COVID-19 world, leaders of all spheres of influence need to demonstrate new levels of humanity and compassion for each other and raise the bar for their organizations and society. 

This leads me to a future topic—is there such a thing as good profits and bad profits?

I am interested in everyone’s views as a business leader, employee or an investor. Please share your thoughts. 

#leadership #corporatesocialresponsability #creativeproblemsolving

Product managment can feel like trying to eating an Elephant!

Elephant carpaccio has nothing to do with cruelty to elephants, it’s the process where software people practice and learn how to break user stories into thin vertical slices. It came from Elephant carpaccio Alistair Cockburn. I want to use the concept to challenge your thinking. Should we as product managers be working with elephants? One of the many roles of product management can be described as creating elephant carpaccio; however, you’re still trying to eat an elephant, and I would argue most of us can’t realistically hope to eat an elephant… however big your business appetite. A better approach to eating elephants is to shrink it down to something more bite-sized, let’s think burger. You need to move away from managing demand, in this case the elephant, to managing supply. But to get there, you need to manage your stakeholders and reach an agreement.

At its core, the job of product management is one of balancing the needs of all the many business stakeholders’: customers, prospects, the market, sales, support, executives… the list goes on and on. Yet if we think customer first, a lot of these sometimes-conflicting needs can be addressed quite simply. What do customers want? They want good quality solutions that address their pains or jobs to be done, it’s that easy. However, it’s easy to forget this in the never-ending product release cycle that product managers live within.

What’s your target? Get, Keep or Grow?

First, if you buy into the concept that keeping and retaining customers is more valuable than getting new ones, this starts to define a set of variables you can use to determine how you prioritise. Of course, you need all of your business stakeholders to buy into this. This includes making sure your sales teams are not outselling and promising things that you’re unlikely to deliver in the short term or medium term.

It’s should be obvious, but too often this simple rule is not followed. You must sell what you have today, not what is coming tomorrow (its common sense right?) but as I have discussed in other articles, common sense is not so prevalent especially in business were strategy and goals are not well aligned. I hear a question, I thought selling technology was about selling a vision? Yes, it is. You can sell the vision and its important to do that. However, the requirements need / have to be managed by someone and that someone should be the product manager. Having the right product narrative comes in to play here – what’s the big problem you’re trying to fix (the villain)? What the vision for solving the problem (the hero) then you get to them and at this point, you sell what you have, not the future.

With this foundation, you can start to create a set of variables, a matrix and some metrics to help you prioritise all of the requirements, but you can’t hope to do this unless you have got control of the new requests coming in. So often I see businesses drowning in a sea of requirements – features requested by customers through sales without a clear understanding of the problem or the job to be done. We all understand the pressure of selling a solution however feature bloat is a real issue and has hidden costs across the business, more code to manage, more support calls, more sales complexity, more marketing… the bigger the elephant is, the harder the problem you’re trying to solve.

Line up your stakeholders

When we think about stakeholders in business, we don’t think about the kind we see in the classic vampire films but maybe we should. Departmental egos, unrealistic expectations and conflicting strategic priorities can soon make the product manager feel like they just can’t win. The best way to address this is to take stakeholders to one side and walk through the variables and the prioritisation matrix you have defined. Getting everyone at different levels within the organisation onside is critical. In smaller start-ups, this is less of an issue as everyone is focused on the single product vision, but in more significant business, this can be complex and time-consuming. To help you manage them, you need to be equipped with the facts, and you need to work across the business with all your internal and external stakeholders in order to get agreement on what matters. If you work in a business where everything matters, then it might be time to start looking for a new organisation. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. If a business is trying to do everything then they are trying to do nothing and if your strategy is not clear, or is trying to fight on too many fronts, then you can’t win. I will cover strategy in a future article but what fascinates me is that there are only a few key strategies (market expansion, diversification, market penetration, product expansion) yet business go wrong in trying to pursue too many of them at the same time and not funding them at a level that can lead to real success.

Ratios and ranges can be your friend

Ratios are good things to use to help you get a handle on the health of your products and your product management process, in the same way, ranges are a good thing to use when you’re estimating. Building software is not like building a car where you design the components and assemble them; the goal to make each car the same as it rolls off the production line. Anyone that has built software knows there are many ways of solving development problems. Should I use an Array, Dictionary, Set or roll my own collection type? Because of this, a lot of general management thinking, much of which originated with General Motors in the 1950’s, does not help you manage digital products or development teams. You need to be equipped with the facts and you need to work across the business with all your internal and external stakeholders to get agreement on what matters. So, many CEO’s and even CTO’s or CIO’s don’t understand concepts like constraints theory or the real value of time i.e. opportunity cost. So, product managers end up at the sharp end of all of the conflicting priorities.

a lot of general management thinking, much of which originated with General Motors in the 1950’s, does not help you manage digital products or development teams

If your ratio of new defects to existing is increasing, then you have a quality problem and your most likely overloading the system with too many stories per sprint. The same holds for new support incidents to existing ones. Its’ ‘working as designed’ comments, demonstrate a breakdown in the requirements management process and / or a lack of design input. Adding new customers, if existing ones are leaving in droves, is counterproductive and especially if the new customer brings with them new requirements. This can make the problems even worse. This can be a real problem when moving to new countries with new market requirements. Using the bowling alley approach highlighted in ‘Crossing the chasm’ can be useful when making these kinds of decisions and doing them at the right time.

Herding Elephants

It’s just common sense, but if sales have been tasked with selling, then you can understand how these conflicts emerge. It’s also where looking at ratios of departments within a business can be useful, what’s the ratio of Development staff to the ratio of sales? The traditional business needed large sales teams but in modern platform business, these ratios are changing. With improved customer experience comes self-service, onboarding, social support and a range of cost-effective ways of serving customer needs. Much of which can be supported by product and product managers, but you need to make space for them in the backlog. Also, the company needs to have a focus on improved customer experience at a fundamental level, not just lip service, or it just one more thing to be prioritised with everything else i.e. a bigger elephant.

How to prioritise will have to wait for another time, the different mathematical approaches to prioritising have real value: MoSCoW, Class of service, Weighted look-ahead approach, Incremental funding model, Cost-benefit analysis, HiPPO decisions, Equity, Weighted shortest job first or CD3. Don’t get me wrong these all have a place, and I have used many different types in my past. However, the maths you use to prioritise does not get around the human aspects of managing expectations. It can’t magically make your development teams 50% more productive or increase your development budget by 100%. So, they will help you make smarter prioritisation calls, but they can’t fix management bad practice and unrealistic expectations. For those, you need to win over the hearts and minds of your colleges, and for that, you need to be able to explain why you have prioritised in the way you have and told them: what they will get, what they won’t, when they would get it and why. Get your people to start thinking burgers, not elephants.