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An Abundance of Initiatives—Now What?

Scott Sehlhorst
Reading: An Abundance of Initiatives—Now What?

Strategic product management may be the “quarterback” role on a leadership team, helping the team choose and execute the right plays. As a team, we have more good ideas than our organization has the capacity to execute.  Which forces the discussions about making choices – what do we do, what do we do first, what do we choose not to pursue?

In a modern enterprise, this is not a once-a-year throw it over the wall exercise.  The complexities of our markets and advancing technology make that approach inadequate.  It is no longer a discussion, but a series of discussions – and specifically, decisions.  Those decisions reflect not only setting out on a given course, but regularly course-correcting to respond to the changes which attend.

These decisions about where to invest have always been outcome-oriented to some degree, balancing a potential return with a likely investment.  Historically, though, organizations have not revisited the assumptions, but rather doggedly pushed forward in spite of what they learn.  The learnings may not ever make it back to the leadership team, being contained at a level where people believe they are responsible for delivering the work “as ordered.”  At LeadingAgile, we are helping enterprises to change from this dictation model to one of collaboration.  Executives cannot improve their decisions without improving the inputs to those decisions.

Historically, the language of feedback has been in the command-and-control world of order-givers and order-takers.  Feedback came in the form of status reports – percent complete against the list of work items, percent complete against the allocated budget.  These signals were entirely inside-out.  They represent less than half of the information needed to make ongoing economic decisions – they only talk to the cost side, and have a debilitating implicit assumption – they assume the first plan will be the right plan.  It never is, yet organizations still struggle to break from the momentum of pursuing this form.

The larger – often overwhelmingly larger – impact on outcomes comes from the benefit side of the decision, not the cost side.  Outcome-oriented course correction mandates that our teams evaluate, estimate, and experiment to reduce the uncertainty of our expected outcomes.  This is the only way to discover when our solution approach is wrong, when we’re solving the wrong problems, or when we’re doing it for the wrong customers.  Further – what may have been right at the start of the effort is often no longer so. 

Change is beyond our control.  Discovering and adapting to those changes is our choice to make.

In a modern organization, three things must exist in the product development system.  There must be opportunities to learn, not opportunities to provide status updates.  Team members must perform the activities to learn – both about our system and about our markets.  Most importantly, the value of that learning must be realized through updates to investment decisions based on what we’ve learned.  When we give and take orders, this is almost impossibly hard.  When we collaborate, this becomes possible.

Next Agile Unplugged: EP 02 | Mike Cottmeyer and Dennis Stevens

Scott Sehlhorst continues to build on over 25 years experience working in mechanical engineering, software development, and product management & strategy consulting.

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