Neglecting the small stuff for lack of the big stuff

It’s true that producing stuff (eg developing a digital product) without an overall strategy is problematic. All that producing-stuff without clear purpose or direction is probably not entirely wasted, but it won’t be efficient. That is, some of the effort will be wasted, and some will not.

Clearly what’s needed is some kind of overarching definition of purpose, strategy, success criteria, etc, towards which everyone can direct their attention. However, it has to be owned at the right level.

Too often I’ve seen development teams not making progress with their core work (which, in the end, is some list of tasks) because they worry there is no guiding purpose or principal or strategy. For example, they may think the user problem is not sufficiently understood within the orgnisation, or their work does not connect to the business strategy, or they don’t know if there is a business strategy. Their error is to try to fix the problem themselves by creating that strategy or user insight or whatever, and to make time for that they necessarily spend less time on their core work.

Unfortunately this makes the problem worse. The thing they say is missing should be provided from a higher level within the organisation. Only then can it be implemented widely and systematically. When the team does define the user problem, formulate the strategy, etc, it doesn’t stick—it’s typically rejected by the senior people because they don’t understand why the team needed to create it, and—because the senior people weren’t involved—it excludes their knowledge and expertise.

What the senior people therefore see is a team that spent time on something purposeless and abstract, while also neglecting their core work. It’s two strikes against the team, which is then seen as a problem team. The team doesn’t recover once it has the strategy because it’s not something that is understood or accepted by anyone else.

But there is a solution, and I’ve seen it work well. The solution is for the team to pursuade the senior people that the missing high-level-thing is a needed, and to help them find a way to put it in place. Sometimes that dialogue is easy (“Yes, I was thinking the same thing—can I task you with doing that?”) and sometimes it’s difficult, requiring each party to learn about the daily pressures of the other and reframe the problem in a way that’s meaningful to both.

In this solution the team doesn’t directly attempt to solve the problem, but tries to get the problem recognised and solved by the more senior people who should be doing it. Meanwhile, the team continues to do its core work, even while they recognise that its focus could improve.

A strategy or a plan needs to be owned at the right level if it’s to make a difference.

Photo by Tim Dennell