A disjointed decision-flow can cause many headaches.
Years ago, I stumbled on 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 insight seems simple. But it was packed with much more than I first realized. The simple insight is that all processes, whether related to product development or not, have three flows:
- a workflow,
- an information and data flow, and
- a decision-flow.
The insight allowed me to take a deep look at product development practices. This was a big deal. It helped me see the huge impact a decision-flow had on a workflow and the outcomes. As much as consultants seek to speed workflows and deliver data, performance is unlikely to improve if the decision-flow is disjointed. And curiously, it’s the decision-flow the experts are least likely to change.
Spotting The Decision-Flow
In product development, the decision-flow begins before idea generation and ends after the product launch. But it also includes every multi-product decision and judgment made in portfolio management and roadmapping. And when you deconstruct a decision-flow you’ll see managers making many choices, from gate decisions to agile sprint judgments and setting priorities. Design, risk, and intent collide throughout the flow. And that’s where we see issues.
In large companies the decision-flow can cause major problems when it’s turbulent and disjointed.
The problem is when the decisions and judgments, as a set, lack coherency. And this drawback can impact both product development and a product line’s performance. It causes project delays and poor resource efficiencies. And it increases risks and costs while decreasing gains.
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 business 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. And even if they spot the issue, they struggle to fix it.
Empowering Without Guidance
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.
And these problems are especially difficult when a company has many product development projects underway.
Some projects may deal with improving different technologies. Other projects may seek to create new concepts. And still others may be full development projects. The problem is that disconnected decisions will destroy cohesion across the projects. It can even make the resulting whole be less than the sum of its parts. It can squander the advantage of being large and employing scale.
The decision-making problem looks even worse when you look at it through a portfolio management lens. This is when decision makers try to tackle their big concern ― ‘how to get the most completed the quickest.’ 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 good answers almost always falls short. It’s because there’s an unspoken secret that blocks coherency. It’s that top managers may not agree on what’s best.
Take it from this ‘experienced’ product development consultant, it’s common to see even the greatest leaders and top managers make up what’s “best” as they sit in a meeting. And what appeared best last month may not be best now. But let me be more specific. It’s when top managers don’t share a common understanding of a product line strategy. Or it’s when they don’t agree on the roadmap for carrying out the strategy.
When companies have many people working on many projects, decisions and work can drift apart. And 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. This demands a good strategy and a well-defined roadmap to carry out the strategy.
Linking Decisions to Work
A product line strategy is the sum of related decisions and choices… coupled to the resulting work. And 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 notable market needs.
But decisions are meaningless without a direct connection to project work. It may be to start or redirect projects. And it may be to speed up or slow down work. Or it may be to stop a major initiative entirely. In all cases, the connection between a decision-flow and a workflow is key.
The connection also means that when you see disjointed decisions, you’ll likely see disjointed work. Consider how many times you’ve seen a manager discretely roll her eyes and say something like “I don’t understand why they’re doing that work.” Who made the decision to do the work? Is it part of a coherent game plan? Surely somebody knows. But 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. In turn, the decisions drive work in a direction that adds to the whole. It’s that simple. Yet it’s also difficult to do.
Strategy and Culture
There are two critical challenges in building strong strategy guidance. The first challenge is to understand what makes a good product line strategy. And the second challenge is to overcome the cultural influences that alter decisions and work. Let’s look at each.
Many managers are quick to use the word ‘strategy’ to substitute for other words like approach or game plan. That’s fine, but when it comes to product line strategies, we know what separates good ones from bad ones. That’s because we can pinpoint its parts. We can also evaluate each part and their unison. The key is to learn the nuances of the parts and to use the knowledge to detail the decision guidelines. You can learn much more about that here and here.
And that’s great. But culture also influences decisions and work. And such cultural influences may align or not with strategy. The problem is that too much misalignment can be fatal, no matter the strategy’s brilliance.
The disconnect is why Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s when the strategy sets up a good decision-flow and a good workflow, but behaviors and routines can overpower each. The result is an ineffective strategy. It becomes a delicious breakfast.
What makes this difficult in big companies is that culture is rooted in behaviors and beliefs based on past successes. But strategies look to the future. And in the future, past behaviors and beliefs may be more a burden than a benefit.
Bridging the culture-strategy gap is a serious leadership challenge. It starts with building awareness of the problem. And it calls for understanding the essence of good strategy. But notable gains demand more. It often requires a change to the organization and to development processes.
Strategy Guided Decision-Flow
A smart strategy and roadmap can correct a poor decision-flow. And a good decision-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. In every case you’ll see a good decision-flow is key to a product line’s success. Many mangers know this intuitively. But the challenge to the fix a decision-flow is not a matter of intuition.
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.
Whitepaper– Good Product Line Strategy Matters.