When dealing with many development teams and functions, coordination is a highly valuable endeavour for everyone to have a sense of purpose and direction and unite against a goal. Most companies and teams I have encountered who perform well in outcomes have effective communication across their organisations. Across our teams at insightsoftware.com, despite best efforts of communication, it was clear more could be done and this is re-enforced by our commitment to continuous improvement.
We already held regular product roadmap and all hands presentations,daily and weekly standups, digital displays surfacing the roadmap and backlogs from Jira, Aha for idea capture and views of the roadmaps. Despite all this, aligning understanding of the next release has been a challenge. It’s not that everyone doesn’t know what features are being tackled as the agile backlogs solve that problem and more, but when exploring the reasoning and understanding of value and impact of each release, answers were varied. As soon as you have many development teams each with their own backlogs there is a risk of silo’s forming. Other functions across the business also interpret their own directions from objectives and can also become functionally silod or aliented by not knowing the language of release management and product. In such cases I firmly believe more needs to be done to improve communication. In fact failure to do so will result in interpretation and a slow but gradual degradation in functional goals above company goals.
Connecting Through Product Release Goals
I believe that everyone in a product company should be aware of what we are releasing next, what problems we are looking to solve or opportunities to explore as well as who we are targeting. Everyone whose careers and futures reside in the company they are part of and have committed to, has a right to know what the wider business is working on and why it’s important. Such understanding has a profound effect on focus and commitment and also improves the chances of reaching the desired outcomes. Understanding direction and reasoning helps people align unilaterally to a common goal and builds a wider network of interaction, contribution and communication. On that note we set out to create a simple solution to communicate the following 4 whys each product and major release:
- What are we developing ?
- Who is it for (can be supported by evidence through interaction, contact and research)?
- Why this is important for the customer/user and us as a business ?
- When are we aiming to release this difference/change ?
Introducing The Wonder Wall
We needed something that was accessible,clear, low fidelity and concise whilst being passive and simultaneously engaging. It also had to be something that you could look at and conclude reasoning through correlation without any or little further explanation and this had to be transferable to remote teams and all business functions. We needed to expand beyond the feature lists of agile backlogs and roadmaps, which despite adding value weren’t enough.
Looking further into activities and structures in place to build upon, we had a release structure in place in the form of our GA release pattern to which we do 3-4 per year (smaller releases were more frequent). Each major release (GA) aims to explicitly improve the product by addressing specific customer jobs to be done, solving known problems or exploring new opportunities through new features and changes. This ranges from new products and features to sometimes new technologies underpinning the solution to improve performance.
Having used impact maps a few times in the past, this simple connected visual structure felt like something that could provide a visual representation of our goals. The structure is simple and it allows lateral expansion of reasoning and correlation beyond just features to provide context and meaning. Having prototyped a few examples and adjusting some designs we settled on a version 1. With that set we immediately commissioned the installation of a large unused wall space of approximately 12ft x 8ft with a magnetic whiteboard surface in the heart of the London office. This surface meant that we could use iterate overtime using rapid low fidelity methods at low cost. Although I can’t show our actual wall for obvious reasons, below is a model:
Results So Far
When first installing the wall we didn’t know quite what the effect would be. We didn’t launch it with strong intent, but let it exist and emerge and observed behaviours and responses. The immediate reaction from development teams was more surprising than expected. Despite all the tools and backlogs, the teams began to feedback that they had more awareness what other teams were doing. In each release we have platform changes, product changes and other things which inadvertently get lost in the agile backlogs, details and team focus it seemed. The other interesting and unsolicited behaviour was that sales, support and services teams started to engage with the board and groups of their teams would stand in front of the board for discussions.
The product management teams with the support of our business analyst who has been leading the impact map design, now model the impact map based design in Lucidchart, then hand craft a version on the wall when the team are satisfied it is simple and precise enough for the wall. We also maintain that the image on the wall is created with pen and post-it’s as this seems to re-enforce the informality and encourage more engagement, whilst keeping the cost of change low and quick.
So far it’s seen to be adding value, but we will continue to observe and itterate as we learn.
From the success so far we have committed to erecting the wall in at least 2 offices managed by champions in each space. We also photograph and maintain the wall in a digital space and intend to expand this further. Using feedback we are also looking to refine the design as we learn.
Our product manager Naill McLean who is very passionate to better distribute the value of change is working on a blog post explaining the next iteration and a bit more detail and the impact map. I shall be sure to link to this when published.
If you have applied any similar idea and are willing to share your solutions and experiences, please comment below.