Better Tech Dev

Insights on Technology Development from Austin Higgins

Category: Process Improvement

A Better Status Report

I’m pretty confident that no one actually reads status reports on active projects. In the rare case someone actually takes the time to read them, they glance over the bullet points and store the physical (or digital) report in a folder – or more likely the trash can. They never look at them again. Or think about them. Or even want to think about them.
 
Many organizations opt for status presentations. Which by most people’s definitions are a waste of time. Why must I read the info on the report to you? Can’t you just read it yourself?  
 
While in-person meetings have the potential to boost compliance of reading or listening to a status report, there is another option. Meetings are superfluous and no one will take the time to read a status report. 
 
Perhaps people will listen to a status report instead? 
 
A 2016 Yale School of Management study found people can assess others’ emotions most accurately when communicating solely via voice—far better than written or computer-spoken words, and even better than video chatting. And if you’re in it for the speed alone, you can probably speak twice as fast as you can type. (Pierce, David. “Phone Calls Are Dead. Voice Chat Is the Future.” Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/phone-calls-are-dead-voice-chat-is-the-future-1531051200. 8 July 2018.)
 
Consider this:
 
  • Project leads create their standard status report that is stored in a shared repository like Box, SharePoint, Dropbox or a shared folder. 
  • Project leads record a 1-2 minute audio (or video) recording going over an executive-level summary, the key highlights of the project, upcoming milestones and any pertinent issues.
  • The recording is stored in the same repository. Business and technology leaders can simply listen to the short recording and go about their day.
  • No unnecessary meetings. Communication improves with voice instead of just reading a stale template. 
 
The technology exists to do this right this moment. Every smart phone in existence can record audio. Project leads are accustomed to giving updates on the state of their projects – the good ones can do it in under a minute. It is just a matter of changing perceptions and procedures.
 
The only downside of shifting to a voice-based status report is the discomfort of change. But business, technology and process always changes. The question is, will you control the change or will the change control you?

Practical Business Value by Austin Higgins

Most organizations use bloated methods to prioritize products and features of tech products. They spend weeks (and sometimes months) trying to come up with the perfect formula to determine what they should spend their time on.

Resource allocation is important. But at some point, too much analysis and debate ends up hurting the organization in the long run. There is no way to have a perfect answer or a perfect ranking of product features.

Pragmatism is important. Is it better to do the “right” thing or the actionable thing? Most of the time, it is better to be actionable.

This is why I focus on real, quantifiable business measures of success to prioritize products in a method I call Practical Business Value. Marketing and tech leaders should only focus on 3 key categories:

  • What do customers want?
  • What is the real, financial value?
  • What are the technical dependencies?

That is it.

Don’t reinvent the wheel and don’t turn every decision in to a science project. Understand what your customers want and need from you, determine what is technically possible and technically advisable and factor in the cost and benefit. Use effective financial metrics like breakeven and return on investment.

Then get to work.

The Importance of Hyperfocus

We’ve all seen it before. Requirements, documentation and designs are behind schedule. It takes weeks – or sometimes months – for teams to put together exactly what they have been working on. You need development to start to meet specific timelines, but the teams haven’t delivered.

What went wrong?

Probably nothing. There are competing priorities for people’s time. Status meetings, standups, governance, other projects and normal distractions of the office place get in the way. These aren’t excuses, just reasons why teams don’t deliver on time.

Is there a better way? Teams that hyperfocus on tasks – especially requirements – have a higher chance of succeeding: not just on time but ahead of schedule.

When I was consulting for a Fortune 100 client, the team I was working with kept seeing delays in business, UX and technical requirements. Based on certain estimates, it could take months just to define a mid-size project. I thought it was absurd! It turned out, teams were pulled in too many directions and weren’t focused.

We came up with a solution that has morphed in to Hyperfocused Product Requirements. The framework is simple: gather the right people, follow a strict timetable and deploy a flexible framework.

Get the business lead, a technical architect and some designers and analysts in a room together. Make sure these people have the ability and authority to make actual decisions. They shouldn’t have to go back and discuss with a steering group, 3 status meetings and a committee to decide on a user flow.

Timebox each activity so that everyone stays on task. Schedule in breaks and table anything that does not explicitly help reach the goal. Determine a level of detail and quality you are comfortable with before the session starts.

Start with a few questions: In 10 words or less, what are we building? What will this product do? How will customers benefit from this? In what ways will they realize the benefit? Then list out each step, task or feature of each answer. You can use classic requirements templates like “As a x, I must/should/would like to y so that I can z”.

Won’t this take time away from status meetings, updates, standups, governance and other projects? Yes. That is the point. If you get the right people together with a task, deadline and framework you will absolutely accomplish what you set out to accomplish.

The goal is to produce good work, not make excuses.

A Logical Approach to Creating New Products

Most people think coming up with new product ideas is meant for only a select few. You have to be a visionary, a genius or special in some way. This thinking is counterproductive to most people. In reality, just about anyone can come up with new product ideas.

There is a simple and scalable process for new product ideation called Systematic Product Ideation.

In the most basic way possible, new product ideation fits in to one of two categories: problem solving or growth.

You may be trying to solve a discreet and identifiable problem. An easy example is a seatbelt, helmet or most safety equipment. Or, you may be coming up with a new feature or use that did not exist before. A simple example is a smart phone or 90% of the technology you use on a consistent basis.

There are really only two ways you can come up with new product ideas, too. You either do it on purpose or you do it by accident. Another way to think of this is you come up with ideas either by feeling or by thinking.

You have 4 real categories of ideation:

  1. On Purpose and Thinking
  2. On Purpose and Feeling
  3. Accidental and Thinking
  4. Accidental and Feeling

Your brain has two main modes of thought: focus and diffuse thinking. When you are actively trying to solve a problem, read a book, learn something new, engage with a new person, you are more than likely using the focus mode of thinking. Thoughts are linear and connected. This thought method is perfect for deliberate ideation.

Deliberate Ideation

When you start out on an effort to create new product ideas, you can choose to focus deliberately and guide yourself through a number of questions:

  • What do our customers complain about?
  • What do our customers ask for?
  • What isn’t working in our product today?
  • What are customers using our product for that we did not intend?
  • What other products are our customers using with our product?
  • What are the physical limits of our product?

In this way, you are using the thought process called focused thinking. This is straight forward and obvious.

Accidental Ideation

But what about the other method, diffuse thinking? Diffuse thinking is where your mind and thought process wanders. Your thoughts are not necessarily connected and often non-linear. This happens frequently when you are engaged in a repetitive, low cognitive load task. Where does your mind go when you are doing the dishes or running? What do you think about on long, silent walks? Your mind can shift in and out of diffuse thinking just before sleep, as well.

You can prime your mind for diffuse thinking. Many great minds have used diffuse thinking to expand their thought process and come up with new ideas.

Salvador Dali was known for using a technique to open his mind to diffuse thinking. He would use focused thinking when looking for new ideas for his art. Then he would become tired and sit in a chair while holding a key. His mind would slowly shift to diffuse thinking and drift to sleep. As he fell asleep the key in his hand would fall to the floor instantly waking him and taking him out of diffuse thinking and back into focused thinking. He used this exact technique to come up with one of his more famous pieces of work — “The Persistence of Memory”.

So, what does this have to do with product ideation?

You can use either thought process to come up with problems to solve or areas of growth for your products and customers. Choose the right process for the situation at hand. Focused, deliberate discussion and thinking has its place in ideation. But do not forget to let your mind — or your team’s mind — wander while focused on other tasks.

Or just grab a key and take a nap. That works just fine, too.

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