“Everyone is too busy” is not a prioritization strategy

Posted on April 12, 2017.

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A week ago I sent out the above tweet. It was in response to a comment I got while in Copenhagen speaking to a group of C-level executives about the ideas in Sense & Respond. The executive who said, “Everyone is too busy” was reacting to the idea that continuous learning and improvement should be built into the way our teams work and, more importantly, how they are managed and incentivized. His point was that while learning sounded nice in theory, everyone was too busy shipping features and fixing bugs to add this new activity into their workstream.

My response was that being busy was not a badge of honor, a goal to aspire to nor was it an excuse to not do the critical work required to reduce the uncertainty of digital product development. In fact, it revealed a deeper cultural issue: the lack of an objective, safe way for teams and leaders to say “No” to work.

At first blush saying “No” might come across as insubordinate. But it’s critical for leaders and teams to have a clear framework for deciding what to work on and what to leave in the icebox. In fact, by deciding to do certain work, teams are implicitly saying “No” to many other projects. I like the way Jason Fried put it:

To help teams determine where to best spend their time, they must be managed to outcomes. Outcomes are measures of customer behavior. These are the behaviors that we want to encourage in our customers because they make them more successful. The more successful our customers are, the more successful our business becomes. There are two main benefits to managing to outcomes:

  1. It keeps the customer front and center in all conversations — Many teams end up caught in the day to day minutiae of shipping features, fixing bugs and optimizing conversion funnels. Rarely are teams asking how this is working for the customer because the incentive structure in most companies is based on getting those bits of code, copy and design out to customers by a specific deadline. Managing to outcomes incentivizes teams to figure out not only which solution is best but then how to optimize that solution so that it’s implementation best meets the customers’ most pressing needs. The quality of the solutions is determined not by when they were delivered but by how effectively it shifted the user’s behavior towards a better end state for them.
  2. It provides an objective prioritization process for leaders and teams — Outcomes serve as filters. As new work is proposed it has to pass a tough pair of questions:

– How does this idea help us achieve the kind of customer behavior change we’re seeking?

– Does this idea seem more promising than the other ideas we’re currently working on?
If the idea, regardless of how attractive or who proposed it, doesn’t fit the outcome goal of the team, they have a clear, objective way to say “No” to the idea. If the team believes the idea can help them meet their outcome goals, the second question forces a comparison to current prioritized activities. If this is not more promising, based on existing knowledge, than current work, then the team can once again say, “No” or at least, “Not yet.”

Being busy is not something you hear in companies’ culture manifestos. In fact, we don’t want our teams to be busy. We want them to be productive. If we measure productivity by the quantity of work they do, we’re applying an industrial-era management model designed to optimize the production of physical goods to software teams building complex systems. If we measure productivity by the impact our work has on customer behaviors, outcomes, we’re building a customer-centric culture that empowers our teams to make evidence-based decision not only on the efficacy of their work but on what they work they choose to do.

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Book News

Sense & Respond now has 100% 5-star reviews. Once you’ve had a chance to read it we’d be grateful for your reviews on Amazon.

Research Archive Made Public: In the last newsletter I shared with you that Josh and I made our book research archive publicly available. Head on over here and find over 1000 links to primary and secondary research we collected over the 2 years we spent writing Sense & Respond.

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Barcelona — May 31, 2017–1 day Lean UX in the Enterprise Public Workshop 
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New York City — June 20–21–2 Day Certified Scrum Product Owner Course with Jeff Patton 
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