Decision Flow and Product Line Strategy

A disjointed decision flow can cause many headaches.

by Paul O’Connor

Years ago, I stumbled upon a powerful insight into product development. It came to me while working with a large enterprise software company. The job was to help set up their new software to support product development and portfolio management. Today we call this “workflow automation.”

The Decision Flow Insight

The insight seems simple, but it’s packed with much more than I first realized. The understanding is that all processes have three flows and that these flows interconnect and affect each other.

  1. The first is the workflow, often laid out in Gantt charts and project roadmaps. Project managers know workflows all too well.
  2. The second is an information and data flow. It captures, manipulates, and reports bits and bytes, whether as graphics or data objects. Presumably, the data flow should match and support the other flows.
  3. The third is a decision flow. It’s the complete set of decisions, choices, and judgments that drive and guide the workflow.

The Flow of Decision, Judgements and Choices

The insight about the interconnected nature of the three flows and their impact on one another allowed me to take a deep look at product development practices. It helped me see the enormous impact a decision-flow has on a workflow and the outcomes. As much as managers seek to speed workflows and deliver information and data in a timely manner, overall product development performance is unlikely to improve if the decision-flow is disjointed.

Curiously, it’s the decision-flow the experts are least likely to change.

Because decision flows always involve senior managers, those seeking better workflows and information flows are not eager to work on improving decisions flows. Decision flow is like the electrified third rail no one dares to touch.

Seeing Your Decision-Flow

In product development, the decision flow begins before idea generation and ends after the product launch. Plus, it includes every decision and judgment made in portfolio management and roadmapping.

In large companies, the decision-flow can cause major problems when it’s turbulent and disjointed.

You’ll see managers making choices throughout development, from gate decisions to agile sprint judgments and setting priorities. Each decision can affect the workflow and information flow across many projects. Plus, each decision may affect other choices.

Colliding Concerns

The problem is there’s often a collision of product design, project risk, and strategic intent within each choice or decision across all projects. Unfortunately, these collisions can affect every project and translate from one to another because the flows interconnect. The issue transfer might be because of resource sharing or outcome dependencies, or critical market timing may cause one project to upset another project. It’s common for companies with many projects underway to see decision flow consequences pop up every day.

Empowering Without Guidance

When you view decisions, judgments, and choices as a flow, you’ll see the importance of decision flows. Disjointed and disconnected decisions create a turbulent decision flow which disrupts the entire development flow. Organizations then seek to smooth their product development efforts with resource and portfolio management, coupled with enterprise software support. They address the workflow and information flow directly and then hope for the best with their decision flow.

Poor decision flow is a serious damper on product development.

The problem is when the decisions and judgments, as a set, are not coherent. While one decision may look great in isolation, the whole set becomes disjointed when combined in a flow with other decisions.

Linking Decisions to Work

A turbulent decision flow can harm separate development projects and an entire product line’s performance. It causes project delays and poor resource efficiencies, and it creates increased risks and costs. Unfortunately, the lack of decision coherency also decreases the potential gains expected from product-related work.

Decision Flow ≠ Governance

Don’t confuse decision flows and governance. That’s a common mistake for many companies. The term “governance” came from the IT world, not from product development. In the IT world, governance includes all decisions and relegates project choices and judgments to separate teams.

The product development flow is different. It demands integrating many topics like marketing, technology, and supply chain. Plus, managers must push their knowledge and thoughts using sharp strategic thinking, brilliant creativity, and intelligent systems analysis.

Ad Hoc Oversight

Product development governance is oversight of how the three flows come together to carry out a strategy. It’s about the best use of processes and tools, coupled with organizational structures and behaviors. It should oversee the decision flow. Governance should not be the decision flow.

Governance should oversee the decision flow, not BE the decision flow.

Yet, in many companies, product development oversight tasks are ad hoc undertakings. Product development governance instead becomes the title given to making major decisions within the decision flow, just like IT governance. Unfortunately, by doing this, it becomes taboo to improve the decision flow. Who will tell top management to change what decisions they make and how they wish to make them?

Top Management’s Role

Managers in the trenches know the disjointed decision-flow problem too well. They’re the ones who take it on the nose when project problems arise. Top management and leaders may treat the disconnect as a workflow or information flow issue. But when you examine the situation, you’ll often see those at the top contributed to the problem without even knowing. Then, after spotting the issue, they struggle to fix it.

Empowering Chaos

Most of us recognize it’s good management to empower individual contributors to make decisions. It speeds up work, and it avoids delays. But it can also create problems when one decision or judgment doesn’t align with the others. The flow gets more disjointed and turbulent when management allows more development projects to start.

Some projects may deal with improving different technologies, and others may seek to create new concepts. Plus, some may be radical innovation projects. The problem is that disconnected decisions can destroy cohesion across the entire project set. It squanders the advantage of being large and employing scale. It makes the resulting whole be less than the sum of its parts.

What’s “Best”

The decision-making problem looks worse when you look at it through a portfolio management lens. It’s in portfolio management where decision-makers try to tackle their primary concern ― “how to deliver the most and do it quickly.” It’s deciding who should work on which tasks within which projects over what time-periods.

The goal is to realize the best development results. But coming up with excellent answers almost always falls short. It’s because there’s an unspoken secret that blocks coherency.

It turns out top managers often disagree with each other over what’s best.

Take it from this ‘experienced’ product development consultant. It’s common to see even the most outstanding leaders and top managers make up what’s “best” as they sit in a meeting. What appeared best last month may not be best now. This, as you’d guess, is a problem.

Leadership’s Contribution

Let me be more specific. The problem is when top managers don’t share a common understanding of a product line strategy, or it’s when they disagree on the roadmap for carrying out the strategy.

When companies have many people working on many projects, decisions and work can drift apart. This is the case for most product lines in large companies. The challenge is to realign the decision flow and workflow to drive the product line’s performance. Overcoming this challenge demands an excellent strategy tied to a well-defined roadmap.

Focus on Product Lines

A product line strategy is the sum of related decisions and choices coupled with required work. You’ll find that most product line work is to bundle technologies to form one or more new products. Hopefully, the technology bundles link to unique market needs.

But decisions are meaningless without a direct connection to project work. It may be to start or redirect projects, or it may be to speed up or slow down work. It could even be to stop an initiative entirely. In all cases, the connection between a decision flow and a workflow is critical.

Decisions Affect The Workflow

The connection also means that when you see disjointed decisions, you’ll likely see disjointed work. Consider how many times you’ve seen a top manager discretely rolls her eyes and say something like, “I don’t understand why they’re doing that project or that work.”

This question leads to several others. Who decided a team must do the work? Is it part of a coherent game plan? Surely somebody knows. Then again, maybe nobody does.

That’s where a product line strategy becomes so valuable. It creates guidelines and guardrails to align decisions, choices, and judgments. The decisions drive the work in a direction that adds to the whole. It’s that simple. Yet, it’s also difficult to do.

Clear Product Line Strategies minimizing turbulent decision flows.

Product Line Strategy

There are two critical challenges in building strong strategy guidance. The first is to understand what makes a good product line strategy. The second is to overcome the cultural influences that alter decisions and work. Let’s look at each.

Many managers quickly use the word ‘strategy’ to substitute for other words, like approach or game plan. That’s fine, but we know what separates good product line strategies from bad ones. That’s because we can pinpoint a product line’s parts. We can also evaluate each part and their unison. The key is to learn the product line parts and use the knowledge to create decision guidelines. You can learn much more about product line parts on our website.

Your Culture’s Breakfast

That’s great, but culture also influences decisions and work that may align or not with strategy. The problem is that too much misalignment can be fatal, no matter the strategy’s brilliance.

A cultures affect on decisions and work is why Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Even when the strategy sets up a good decision flow and a good workflow, behaviors and routines can be so strong that they still can overpower the workflow and decision flow. The result is an ineffective strategy. It becomes a delicious breakfast.

Behaviors and Beliefs

A company’s culture is rooted in behaviors and beliefs based on past successes. Yet strategies must look to the future. When traversing into the future, a company’s past behaviors may be more a burden than a benefit.

But to realize notable gains, companies must do more. Bridging the culture-strategy gap is a serious leadership challenge. It starts by building awareness of the problem and calling for a deep understanding of the strategy. It often requires a change to the organization and its development processes.

Strategy Guidance and Your Decision Flow

In every case, you’ll see a good decision-flow is key to a product line’s success. An intelligent strategy and roadmap can correct a poor decision flow, while a good flow enables a company to respond and adjust to market and technology changes. It’s this responsiveness that’s so valuable. It drives customer satisfaction, and it boosts earnings. Plus, it beats the competition.

Many managers intuitively know everything I’ve shared here. Their problem is that fixing a decision flow demands more than intuition ― much, much more.

Learn More

How does your company’s decision-flow affect your product line performance? Want to learn more about decision flow problems and how you fix them? Here are a few venues to consider.

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