In a previous post, I’ve argued for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make good decisions that are critical in the business world.
That said, my opinion is that facilitation here does not only means “facilitate workshops”, but facilitate the decisions regardless of what kinds of activities are required.
- Good Decisions versus Chance
- How to Make Good Decisions
- Strategy and Stakeholder Management: Who Decides and How?
- Systematic Approaches for Making Good Decisions
- Beware of Analysis Paralysis
- Prioritisation Methods
- Good Decisions and the Cost of Changing Your Mind
- Recommended Reading
- It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.
- A compelling vision should be easy to explain to everyone, specific enough to provide guidance for decision-making and flexible enough to allow for individual initiative as well as changing conditions (Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, 2015).
- (Don’t) Trust Your Instincts: limitations in our thinking (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017) easily produce problem-solving approaches that are implicit, narrow, and flawed, they tend to create an insular mindset that discounts other people and their alternative points of view. And they tend to produce bad decisions.
- Sometimes the simple act of setting out your problems, objectives, alternatives, consequences, and trade offs will fully clarify the decision, pointing the way to the smart choice (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015).
- What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things.
- Priorities Make Things Happen (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).
- What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals? (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017)
- It can be frustrating (and expensive) to make changes in projects after execution has begun. And the closer to the end of the project, the more expensive — or less room for — changes can be.
- By building, measuring and learning, designers are able to get closer to great user experiences sooner rather than later (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2013).
- Don’t make the mistake of executing business ideas without evidence; test your ideas throughly, regardless of how great they may seem in theory (“How to Get from a Good Ideas to a Validated Business” in Testing Business Ideas: A Field Guide for Rapid Experimentation, Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., 2019).
Good Decisions versus Chance
Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective can be provided at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g. during project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
In reality any product that makes into the the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience (Garrett, J.J, Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, 2010).
It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions (for more on ensuring decisions align with objectives, check the PrOACT approach later in this article).
In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.
Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood — as my colleague Anton Fischer usually says — it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.
Good Decisions and Vision
I know that product vision might not be the most exciting topic in the Product Development industry, but my experience has been that a clear and well communicated product vision gives answers to core questions and give everyone a tool for making good decisions in their own work.
The design team needs to assess the extend to which the challenge at hand is driven by a vision that is shared by asking three questions (Calabretta et al. “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design: 8 Essential Practices Every Strategic Designer Must Master. 2016):
- Is there a project vision? Does the company have a clear view of the project direction, and where it fits into the raison d’être (the “why”) of the company? How exactly will the project help the company fulfill it’s why? A satisfactory answer to this question should emerge during the early stages of a strategic project, when the brief is formulated. Lack of clear-cut answer to these questions usually signals the absence of a strong, cohesive project vision.
- Is the project a good fit with the wider goals of the organization? Sometimes the project vision does not align with the KPIs or primary goals that the organization has expressed elsewhere. This usually happens – for example – when a trend emerges and organization may act impulsively because they are afraid to miss out on what they see as an opportunity for growth.
- Is the vision shared across the company? If there is a clear project vision, is there widespread awareness and alignment within the company? Can various department move in the same direction during project setup and implementation?
Good Decisions and Outcomes
In the old days of engineering, setting project goals wasn’t that hard. How have we historically given teams a goal that they can work on? Mostly, we simply asked teams to build features—but features are the wrong way to go. We often build features that create no value. Instead, we need to give teams an outcome to achieve. (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019).
You might be asking, “what you do mean by outcome”. Joshua Seiden defines as outcome “a change in user behaviour that drives business results.”
In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. Outcomes creates focus and alignment.
You can help the team start thinking in terms of outcomes by asking three simple questions (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019):
- What are the user and customer behaviours that drive business results? If the team gets stuck on trying to answer that question, there is a good chance that working on alignment diagrams will help.
- How do we get people to do more of these things?
- How do we know we’re right? The easiest (and the hardest) way to answer that question is to design and conduct tests.
Having a strong vision, clear goals, and shared understanding of what problems teams are trying to solve, and focus on outcomes helps reduce the friction, create focus and alinagment. That doesn’t mean that all decisions that need to be made during the project lifecycle are easy or simple. So how do we ensure we make good decisions that ever so bring us closer to our vision and goals?
How to Make Good Decisions
We all want to believe that all decisions are made with care and consideration, even though we know it can’t possibly so. There is limited time and limited brain power, and not all decisions can be made equally well (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).
The first step to making good decisions is to stop relying (too much) on instincts and challenge our own biases. Are you aware of your own biases? Let’s find out!
(Don’t) Trust Your Instincts
Humans tend to place a lot of value on instinct. Especially as the pace of modern life forces us at times to think quickly on our feet and make immediate decision, we believe that having superior instinct helps us get along. That’s certainly true to an extend. But the problem is that sometimes we confuse instinct as a substitute for good judgement. Instincts — otherwise knowns as gut feeling or hunches — are probably wrong the vast majority of the time (King, P., The Art of Clear Thinking, 2019).
Creating great choices start by recognizing that (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017):
- our thinking is implicit and rarely questioned.
- our models of the world can be influenced by forces we are unaware.
- we default to simplistic models of world and rely on basic heuristics to get through the day.
- we tend to seek out the single right answer to any given problem.
These limitations easily produce problem-solving approaches that are implicit, narrow, and flawed, they tend to create an insular mindset that discounts other people and their alternative points of view. And they tend to produce bad decisions.
Instincts and Biases
In part, we fail to make good decisions because of glitches in our thinking, including deep-seated biases that produce troubling lapses in logic. Each of us fall prey to these glitches to some degree, no matter how logical or open-minded we believe ourselves to be (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017).
One way to avoid such traps is — obviously — beware of such biases and keep asking questions.
With regards to biases, here are a few to be aware of (Hammond, et al. The Hidden Traps in Decision Making, 2013):
- The Anchoring Trap lead us to give disproportionate weight to the first information we receive
- The Status-quo Trap biases us towards maitaining the current situation – even when better alternatives exist
- The Sunk-Cost Trap inclines us to make choices in the way that justifies past choices, even when these were mistakes
- The Confirming-Evidence Trap leads us to seek out information supporting an existing predilection and to discount opposing information.
- The Framing Trap occurs when we misstate a problem, undermining the entire decision-making process
- The Overconfidence Trap makes us overestimate the accuracy of our forecasts
- The Prudence Trap leads us to be overcautious when we make estimates about uncertain events.
- The Recallability Trap prompts us to give undue weight to recent, dramatic events
With these biases in mind, you should tigger team discussions before they make any big decision (Kahneman, D., Lovallo, D., & Sibony, O., “The Big Idea: Before You Make That Big Decision” in HBR’s 10 must reads on making smart decisions, 2013):
Questions that decision makers should ask themselves
- Check for the self-interest bias: is there any reason to suspect the team making the recommendation of errors motivated by self-interest. Review with extra-care, especially for overoptimism.
- Check for the affect heuristic: has the team fallen in love with its proposal? Rigorously apply all the quality controls on this checklist.
- Check for groupthink: were there dissenting opinions within the team? Were they explored adequately? Solicit dissenting views, discreetly if necessary.
Questions that decision makers should ask the recommenders
- Check for salience bias: could the diagnosis be overly influenced by an analogy to a memorable success. Ask for more analogies, and rigorously analyse their similarity to the current situation.
- Check for the confirming bias: are credible alternatives included along with the recommendation? Request additional options.
- Check for availability bias: if you had to make this decision again in a year’s time, what information would you want, and can you get more of it now? Use checklists of the data needed for each kind of decision.
- Check for anchoring bias: do you know where the numbers came from? Can there be unsubstantiated number? Extrapolation from history? A motivation to use a certain anchor? Reanchor with figures generate by other models or benchmarks and request for new analysis.
- Check for the halo effect: is the team assuming that a person, organisation, or approach that is successful in one area will be just as successful in another? Eliminate false inferences, and ask the team to seek additional comparable examples.
- Check for the sunk-cost fallacy, endowment effect: are the recommenders overly attached to a history of past decisions? Consider the issue as if you were a new CEO.
Questions that decision makers should ask about the proposal
- Check for the overconfidence, planning fallacy, optimistic biases, competitor neglect: is the base case overly optimistic? Have the team build a case taking an outside view.
- Check for disaster neglect: is the worst case bad enough? Have the team conduct a premortem: imagine that the worst has happened, and develop a story about the causes.
- Check for loss aversion: is the recommendation team overly cautious? Realign incentives to share responsibility for the risk or to remove risk.
Strategy and Stakeholder Management: Who Decides and How?
Have you ever made a decision by asking for advice from your friends or by observing what others are doing? Have you picked the clothes to wear to a party based on what your friends were wearing? Can you think of a time when you changed your beliefs or behaviors because a person in authority, such as a teacher or a religious or political leader, gave you ideas about new ways to think or new things to do? Or perhaps you started smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, even though you didn’t really want to, because some of your friends were doing it.
Your answers to at least some of these questions will be yes because you, like all people, are influenced by those around you. When you find yourself in situations like these, you are experiencing what is perhaps the most basic of all social psychological processes—social influence, defined as the influence of other people on our everyday thoughts, feelings, and behavior (Hogg, 2010).
Understanding the culture and principles behind how teams and stakeholders make decisions becomes critical for designers to know when, what and how to influence in order to drive design vision forward. If some team members are using principles-first logic and others are using applications-first logic to reach a decision, this can lead to conflict and inefficiency from the beginning.
While leaders have always had to understand personality differences and manage how people interact with one another, as globalisation transforms the way we work we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers and colleagues around the world (Meyer, E., The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, 2014).
When these cultural differences collide, it leads members of global teams to respond emotionally to what they see as ineffective behaviors of others on the team. Worse still, most of us are not even aware of the system of our own culture uses to make decisions. We just follow the patterns without thinking about it.
It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.
Systematic Approaches for Making Good Decisions
The connection among decisions you make lies not in what you decide, but how you decide. An effective decision-making process will fulfil these six criteria (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015):
- It focuses on what’s important.
- It’s logical and consistent.
- It acknowledges both subjective and objective factors and blends analytical with intuitive thinking.
- It requires only as much information and analysis as is necessary to resolve a particular dilemma.
- It encourages and guides the gathering of relevant information and informed opinion.
How let’s look at some systematic approaches for making good decisions.
The PrOACT method (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015) — which stands for Problem, Objectives, Alternatives, Consequences, and Trade-offs — is a every effective for making good decisions by breaking down the decision-making process into basic components:
Work on the right decision problem: what must be decided? The way you frame your decision at the outset can make all the difference. To choose well, you need to state your decision problems carefully, acknowledging their complexity and avoiding unwarranted assumptions and option-limiting prejudices.
Specify your objectives: Your decision should get you where you want go. Ask yourself what you most want to accomplish and which of your interests, values, concerns, fears, and aspirations are most relevant to achieve your goal.
Create imaginative alternatives: your alternatives represent the different courses of action you have to choose from. If you didn’t have different alternatives, you wouldn’t be facing a decision. But have you considered all the alternatives or at least a wide range of creative and desirable ones? Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.
Understand the consequences. How well your alternatives satisfy your objectives? Assessing frankly the consequences (intended or unintended) of each alternative will help you to identify those that best meet your objectives — all your objectives.
Grapple with the Tradeoffs: because objectives frequently conflict with one another, you’ll need to strike a balance. Some of this must be sacrificed in favour of that. Your task is to choose intelligently among the less-than-perfect possibilities. To do so, you need to se priorities (read more about prioritisation methods later in this article) by openly addressing the trade offs among the competing alternatives.
Sometimes the simple act of setting out your problem, objectives, alternatives, consequences, and trade offs (as well as any uncertainties, risks, or linked decisions) will fully clarify the decision, pointing the way to the smart choice. If not, you should to reconfiguring (or reframing) your problem in various ways.
Six Thinking Hats
The Six Thinking Hats — a concept articulated by Edward de Bono — is a powerful tool for brainstorming and innovation. By breaking down thoughts into six “parallel” or “lateral” areas, it allows a spectrum of thought, from gut feeling to data analysis, to be separately discussed. By using these six types of thinking in a structured way, groups can more effectively approach problem solving (de Bono, E., Six Thinking Hats, 1999).
If you’re interested in exploring creativity techniques like lateral thinking, please check out my lecture on Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats for the MA Integrated Design at Köln International School of Design.
Weighing in Our Options
One of the goals of the leaders should be to help organizations multiply their options — to an appropriate extend. Too many options and you can become paralysed when trying to make a decision. Too few you may be cornered into a course of action that doesn’t work for you (“Multiply your possibilities” in The decision maker’s playbook. Mueller, S., & Dhar, J., 2019).
While weighing in your options, there are a few important considerations to have in mind (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):
- Always include a “do nothing” option: Not every decision or problem demands an action. Sometimes, the best way is to do nothing. Sunk costs are rarely worth trying to recover!
- How do you know what you think you know? This should be a question everyone is comfortable asking. It allows people to check assumptions and to question claims that, while convenient, are not based on any kind of data, firsthand knowledge, or research.
- Ask tough questions! Cut to the chase about the impact of decision. Be direct and honest. Push hard to get to the core of what the options look like.
- Have a dissenting option. For more important decisions, it’s critical to include unpopular but reasonable options. Make sure to include opinions or choices you personally don’t like, but for which good arguments can be made. This keeps you honest and gives anyone who see the pros/cons list a chance to convince you into making a better decision than the one you might have arrived at on your own.
- Consider hybrid choices. Sometimes it’s possible to take an attribute of one choice and add it to another. Like exploratory design, there are always interesting combinations in decision making. However, be warned that this explode the number of choices, which can slow things down and create more complexity than you need. Watch for the zone of indifference (options that are not perceived as making any difference or adding any value) and don’t waste time in it.
- Include any relevant perspectives. Consider if this decision impacts more than just the technology of the project. Are there business concerns that will be impacted? Usability? Localization? If these things are project goals and are impacted by the decision, add them into the mix. Even if it’s purely technological decision, there are different perspectives involved: performance, reliability, extensibility, and cost.
- Start on paper or a whiteboard. When you’re first coming up with ideas/options, you want the process to be lightweight and fast. It should be easy to cross things out, make hybrids, or write down rapid-fire For some decisions that are resolved quickly, the whiteboard list is all you’ll ever need.. If it turns our you need to show the pros/cons list at an important meeting, worry about making an elaborate spreadsheet or slide deck later.
- Refine until stable. If you keep working on your options, it will eventually settle down into a stable set. The same core questions or opinions will keep coming up, and you won’t hear any major new commentary from the smart people you work with. When all the logical and reasonable ideas have been vetted out, and showing the options to people only comes up with the same set of choices you’ve already heard, it’s probably time to move on and decide.
“…the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.”“Integrative thinking” in The opposable mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking, Martin, R. L. (2009)
- Articulate the models. Understand the problem and opposing models — even, or perhaps especially, those that make us deeply uncomfortable — more deeply.
- Examine the models. Define the points of tension, assumptions, and cause-and-effect forces, with the aim of getting to an articulation of the core value that each model provides. The intention is not to help you choose between these opposing models, but to help you use the opposing models to create a great new, choice.
- Explore new possibilities. Play with the pathways to integration. Go back to the problem you have been working on. Take a step back and ask, how might I break my initial problem apart, along a meaningful dividing line, so that I could apply one of my models to one part of the problem, and the other model to the other part of the problem? What might a new answer look like in these conditions?
- Assess the prototype: Concretely define each possibility, more comprehensively articulating how might it work. Understand the logic of the possibilities, asking under what conditions each possibility would be a winning integrative solution. Design and conduct test for each possibility, generating needed data over time (read more about testing business ideas later on this article).
Integrative thinking spurs us to metacognition, empathy, and creativity. It helps mitigate some or our sticky biases. And provides a plataform for a different way of thinking about the work — one that leverages the tension of opposing ideas to create new choices and new value.
Integrative Thinking (or any of the other approaches I listed here) is not a silver bullet. It is not the single thinking tool for all circumstances. But when you find that your conventional thinking tools are not helping you to truly solve a problem, integrative thinking can be the tool that shifts the conversation, defuses interpersonal conflicts, and help you move forward.
Better Decisions, Fewer Regrets
If you’ve been doing any kind of facilitation or coaching for as long as I have, you’ve probably been approached by people over coffee, or after a workshop (or after whatever tough situation they are experiencing) who ask for help for solving problems or to make good decisions that don’t require complicated models, or there is no need for prototypes. These issues usually involves something more at the personal level.
Communicator, author, and pastor Andy Stanley (founder Atlanta-based North Point Ministries) have coached many leaders — both as a pastor and organisational change thought leader — and he has devised a simple process for making good decisions based on straight-forward, common sense set of assumptions (Stanley, A., Better decisions, fewer regrets: 5 Questions to help you determine your next move, 2020):
- Our decisions determine the direction and the quality of our lives
- A response is a decision
- Your decisions determine the story of your life
- Decide on a good story
- Good questions lead to good decisions;
- Good decisions lead to fewer regrets.
- While nobody plans to complicate their life with bad decisions, far too many people don’t plan not to.
- Well-placed, appropriately timed, thought-provoking questions helps us think through our decisions.
Andy Stanley introduces 5 questions that equip you to make better financial, relational, and professional decision. These questions are designed to serve as a decision-making filter for making good decisions.
- The Integrity Question. Am I being honest with myself … really? You may not owe it to anyone else, But you owe it to yourself to be honest why you choose what you choose, why you are deciding what you are deciding. Decide not to lie to yourself or be creative to justify your decisions.
- The Legacy Question. What story to I want to tell? The primary reason we don’t think in terms of story when making decision is that story is later. Decisions are now. We think about later, later. As in later when it’s too late to do anything about it. We don’t think in terms of story because we’re distracted by the pressure and emotions we feel in the moment. Decide on a story you are proud to tell.
- The Conscience Question. Is there a tension that deserves my attention? Sometimes — in fact, more times that we would like to admit — an option we’re considering create a little tension inside of us. Experts sometimes refer to this phenomenon as a red flag moment, an internal sense of “I’m not sure why, but something about this don’t feel right.” When that happens, you owe to yourself to pause and pay attention to the tension. Pause and ask yourself, “What about this bothers me?” Decide to pause even when you can’t pin-point the cause of your hesitation. Explore, rather than ignore your conscience.
- The Maturity Question. What is the wise thing to do? An option can be both not wrong and unwise at the same time. An option can be both not illegal and unwise at the same time. An option can be both not immoral and unwise at the same time. Ask yourself, in the light of my past experiences, my current circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing for me to do?
- The Relationship Question. What does love require of me? If you are to take advice from someone a lot wiser than me, consider these words: ‘Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.’ ( 1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Love requires Patience. Love is not pushy, Love requires that I move at others’s pace rather than requiring others to move at mine. Love requires kindness. Kindness is love’s response to weakness. Kindness is the choice to loan others our strength rather than reminding them of their weaknesses. It’s doing for other what they cannot in that moment do for themselves. Love requires to keep envy and pride from interfering with our ability to celebrate the success of others. Love requires us to allow other to shine. Decide with the interests of others in mind.
Beware of Analysis Paralysis
As you probably noticed, all the methods I’ve mentioned above involve creating options. While having alternative help increase our chances of making good decisions, it also creates the danger of team being stuck with Analysis Paralysis.
Analysis Paralysis will most likely happen when teams have too many options to consider. The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. (“Hick’s Law” in Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell, W., Holden, K., Butler, J., 2010).
From that perspective, I find it incredibly important that — while designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinking, explore multiple solutions — probably one of the most the most critical aspect of facilitating good decisions is to help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).
Knowing when teams should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.
What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things. Many miscommunications and missteps happen because person A assumed one priority (make it faster), and person B assumed another (make it more stable). This is true for programmers, testers, marketers, and entire teams of people. If these conflicts can be avoided, more time can be spent actually progressing toward the project goals (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).
Unfortunately, this sense of priorities might not always be clear with teams, either because leaders have not defined priorities, or priorities have not be clearly communicated.
A few reasons why not every leader practices prioritizing (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you, 2007):
- When we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment.
- Prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what is important, to know what’s next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision.
- Prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful.
The goal with prioritization is to determine what to complete next in order to get maximum value in the shortest amount of time and to avoid multi-tasking due to competing priorities (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017).
There are a few things you should ask yourself and/or the team when we keep coming revisiting and renegotiating the scope of work (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):
- What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
- How will you signal when work has been prioritised and is ready to be worked on? In other words — where is your line of commitment? How do people know which work to pull?
- How will we visually distinguish between higher priorities and lower priority work?
If you have priorities in place, you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument around a more useful primary consideration. This refreshes everyone’s sense of what success is, visibly dividing the universe into two piles: things that are important and things that are nice, but not important. Here are some sample questions (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
- How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
- What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
What follows are some of my favourite ways of facilitation investment discussions and prioritising design work.
Design Criteria Canvas
Whether you’re designing a new Value Proposition, Business Model, or even an entire strategy for the future, design criteria form the principles and benchmarks of the change you’re after. Design criteria are not formulated from thin air. Rather, design criteria incorporate information from your business, vision, customer research, cultural and economic context, and mindset that you have formed along the way (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016):
The UXI Matrix (created by my good friend Jon Innes) is a simple, flexible, tool that extends the concept of the product backlog to include UX factors normally not tracked by agile teams (Innes, J., Integrating UX into the Product Backlog, 2012):
Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI)
Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI) is a strategy and innovation process built around the theory that people buy products and services to get jobs done. It links a company’s value creation activities to customer-defined metrics. Anthony Ulwick found that previous innovation practices were ineffective because they were incomplete, overlapping, or unnecessary.
Clayton Christensen credits Ulwick and Richard Pedi of Gage Foods with the way of thinking about market structure used in the chapter “What Products Will Customers Want to Buy?” in his Innovator’s Solution and called “jobs to be done” or “outcomes that customers are seeking”.
Ulwick’s “opportunity algorithm” measures and ranks innovation opportunities. Standard gap analysis looks at the simple difference between importance and satisfaction metrics; Ulwick’s formula gives twice as much weight to importance as to satisfaction, where importance and satisfaction are the proportion of high survey responses.
You’re probably asking yourself “where these values come from?” That’s where User Research comes in handy: once you’ve got the List of Jobs to be Done, you go back to your users and probe on how important each Job is, and how satisfied with the product they are with regards to each job.
Once you’ve obtained the opportunity scores for each use case, what comes next? There are two complementary pieces of information that the scores reveal: where the market is underserved and where the it is overserved. We can use this information to make some important targeting and resource-related decisions.
You can learn more about how I’ve combined Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI) and Jon Innes’ UXI Matrix by reading Product Definition and Requirements Prioritisation.
After you’ve got a hand what what the business needs, along with an understanding of what users need, we should help the team answer the questions what’s actually worth our time effort? what’s worth the organization’s investment in the project? What’s worth our time and investment in the project?
The answers to those questions are determined by figuring out what the tradeoffs are between the product’s importance and its feasibility/viability (Natoli, J., Think first, 2015).
Prioritisation Grids can be adapted to use whatever axises you want (value to business and time to market, number of customers impacted and speed to adoption, importance and urgency, etc.) as long as all the stakeholders involved agree on the which criterion are more useful to the decision being discussed, and if there is enough expertise and data available for the team making the prioritisation exercise.
Objectives, Goals, Strategy, and Measures (OGSM)
Objectives, Goals, Strategy, and Measures (OGSM) is a one-page strategic planning and execution document that charts a company’s central focus for a fixed period. The main benefit of the OGSM is that it helps management refrain from setting convoluted targets (Lafley, A. G., & Martin, R. L., Playing to win: How strategy really works, 2013)
By restricting the plan to a single page, the OGSM sharpens employees’ focus and is an effective reference tool for direction in times of uncertainty and decision dilemmas.
Good Decisions and the Cost of Changing Your Mind
My dad was a Civil Engineer, building airports for the Brazilian Air Force back in the 1970s. He would tell me stories about how frustrating (and expensive) it was to figure out that something needed to change in projects, especially after construction has begun. And the closer to the end of the project, the more expensive — or less room for — changes to be.
There are many projects out there that fail because drastic changes were needed in the last moments, adding a huge strain on the finance of the product. In the world of UX, everybody knows that late changes can break a product design project. It’s all about spending money on decisions that were validated, so change happens quickly and early – while it’s still cheap.
By building, measuring and learning, designers are able to get closer to great user experiences sooner rather than later (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2013)
Design and Conduct Tests
Too many entrepreneurs and innovators execute ideas prematurely because they look great in presentations, make excellent sense in the spreadsheet, and look irresistible in the business plan… only to learn later that their vision turned out to be a hallucination (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing Business Ideas: A Field Guide for Rapid Experimentation, 2019).
You test the most important hypothesis with appropriate experiments. Each experiment generates evidence and insights that allow you to learn and decide.
If you only have one hypothesis to test it’s clear where to spend the time you have to do discovery work. If you have many hypotheses, how do you decide where your precious discovery hours should be spent? Which hypotheses should be tested? Which ones should be de-prioritised or just thrown away? To help answer this question, Jeff Gothelf put together the Hypothesis Prioritisation Canvas (Gothelf, J., The hypothesis prioritization canvas, 2019):
To test a big business idea, you break it down into smaller chunks of testable hypotheses. These hypotheses cover three types of risk (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, Testing Business Ideas: A Field Guide for Rapid Experimentation, 2019):
- First, that customers aren’t interested in your idea (desirability).
- Second, that you can’t build and deliver your idea (feasibility).
- Third, that you can’t earn enough money from your idea (viability).
What’s important to understand is that testing rarely means just building a smaller version of what you want to sell. It’s not about building, nor selling something. It’s about testing the most important assumptions, to show this idea could work. And that does not necessarily require building anything for a very long time. You need to first prove that there’s a market, that people have the jobs pains and gains and that they’re willing to pay (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, 2020).
Experiments replace guesswork, intuition and best practices with knowledge. Experimentation is at the hear of what software developers call agile development. Rather than planning all activities up-front and then sequentially, agile development emphasises running many experiments and learning from them. Applying this tactic has a number of benefits (Mueller, S., & Dhar, J., The decision maker’s playbook, 2019):
- It allows you to focus on actual outcomes: a successful project is not deemed successful because it is delivered according to a plan, but because it stood the test of reality.
- It decreases re-work: because the feedback cycles are short, potential errors or problems are spotted quickly and can be smoothed out faster than conventional planning.
- It reduces risks: because of increased transparency throughout the implementation process, risks can be better managed than in conventional project.
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