Much is written about how to innovate in tech. Still, it boils down to the simple ability of individuals to focus on and prioritise the right things on a day to day basis, and that other people in other functions prioritise not only the same right things but also at the SAME TIME! This is where most organisations fail.
In Are You Lost in All the Priorities, I wrote about a methodology (slicing, pacing, and themed releases) to execute quickly on a set of super-high priorities across the organisation. I focused on how a young and immature organisation does not have prioritisation and execution processes in place to execute many large priorities in parallel. This is typical for startups as they are growing. However, the reverse question is this: Given the organisation’s current processes and people, what type of priorities can the organisation successfully execute on without getting hindered by the processes they have set up? This question is relevant for both young and mature (and large) organisations.
A company is typically set up around a defined customer group with a corresponding go-to-market strategy, channels, partners, sales (and marketing) and with employees who fit with this strategy. The product management and engineering organisation builds products that fit this market, these end-users, and this go-to-market. The company’s business model (how money is made) is accompanied with an operating model (how the company is set up to create value), and both people and processes are established around this. For startups and scaleups, both the business model and/or the operating model(and maybe also the market) are still being discovered, and the product strategy is still being formed. For a mature organisation, these things have been settled, and people take a set of truths for granted: “this is how we do things.”
For a young company, this is what creates the ability to scale up, but it is also exactly what prevents the organisation from doing new things. This is especially painful in a scaleup organisation as structures and “how we do things” are starting to get shaped and accepted, but the organisation is still not mature enough to have established ways of doing new things.
There is a value chain that goes from each individual developer and UI designer and all the way through the organisation and out to the partners and the customers. For example, there is consistency in what product marketing is messaging and what is added as features to the product. The organisation “knows” the criteria and how to evaluate priorities. This is what immature organisations don’t have, and in mature organisations, this is what makes it hard to go outside the established boundaries and bring to market a product to a new customer group, through a new channel, or using a new and disruptive technology:
You need to change the known “truths” across all functions in your organisation and in a coordinated way.
Any innovation or product development effort that is outside the known will require discovery and trial and error. If you try to do this in your existing organisational structures, the known “truths” will create resistance. Trying to both discover what is the right thing to do and implement that across all the various groups in your organisation at the same time will feel similar to trying to push a long piece of string across the table. You need to go back and forth and push a little bit on each spot over and over again, and it takes forever.
When a company grows and prepares for scale, people and groups will specialise and bring with them a piece of the “truth” about what the company does and how things should get done. This has been settled in larger organisations, while scaleups bring in new people and the “truths” are not yet agreed upon. Everything that fits with existing “truths” will be easy to execute on. Everything that is outside gives you that feeling of pushing a piece of string.
This is why I argue for doing a “slice” across the organisation when you need to substantially change or adapt your business model and/or operating model. You want to empower a small group of people to make quick decisions in a coordinated way across all the relevant functions in your organisation. You want all of them to have the same set of priorities at the same time and in the same order. This is NOT each function agreeing to a set of priorities and executing on those integrated with all the other activities. This is a tight-knit group of people who are tied into their functional areas, but who have joint objectives and deliverables as a cross-functional team. This slicing can be done in many different ways. The approach described in Are You Lost In All The High Priorities is just one.
You want to make sure that the learnings can be brought back to the main organisation, and this is one of the key reasons why many organisations resist organising a slice! The argument goes that this change is so key to the organisation that it needs to be done through existing roles, functions, and teams. This idea is a fallacy! Even when the desired end state is known, organisational change takes time and is risky. Not knowing where you are going and bringing the entire organisation with you is doomed to take too long time and have a too high risk.
Yes, there are organisations that have successfully implemented highly flexible and agile organisations that are capable of rapidly reacting to changes conditions and requirements. If your organisation is like that, congratulations! You have the capability of light-weight exploration of new opportunities built into the organisational culture and processes. The “slicing” will happen integrated in what you do.
For most organisations though, even tech organisations, you need on an ad-hoc basis create the slices through the organisation that you need to explore new opportunities . Over time, doing “slicing” should become an integrated organisational capability, but you don’t start there.