Strategy execution: Building transparency & predictability into the uncertain

Building an element of transparency and predictability into your software delivery or the execution of your transformation strategy is key to building trust and positive relationships within both your internal and external customer base.

There’s often pressure on teams to work to fixed scope and timescales or provide 100% accurate estimates – both of which can put unnecessary pressure on teams resulting in unrealistic expectations from a stakeholder perspective, and in the worst cases, can lead to unintentional mis management of those expectations from the team responsible for execution.

Without some level of predictability, a business can’t plan which can result in a chaotic operational approach and unnecessary strain. When you’re part of the team being asked to provide predictability in uncertain circumstances it can feel unreasonable and stressful, but it’s worth acknowledging that these are feelings that are also shared when you’re part of the team that’s asking for predictability.

Even in the most uncertain circumstances there are ways to build in elements of predictability; I’ve summarised some of the simple but effective ways to manage better predictability and transparency in the scenarios below.

1.      A date dilemma in strategy

You need to provide a completion date but don’t have all the data to allow you to do this.

So many examples of this type of scenario come to mind; ranging from needing to provide a date for completion of a complex piece of engineering work that requires a level of technical investigation before understanding what the work to be done is, to delivery ownership for a project and finding yourself under pressure to commit to an end delivery date before you have all the facts to hand whilst dealing with multiple unknowns and moving parts.

The first step in providing a better degree of predictability is to have clarity around what information you need in order to allow you to get to this point. In the example of the complex piece of engineering that requires technical investigation a team could give predictability to the business around the “known known” element of the work, i.e. when the technical investigation will be done, and in turn this provides some predictability around when they can expect to be able to publish a date based on the findings of the investigation or spike.

What originally starts off as “we can’t provide an estimate for completion because we don’t know what’s involved at this stage” turns into “we can’t provide an estimate for completion because we don’t know what’s involved at this stage, but we’ll have a better understanding once we complete our investigation in a week and we’ll be able to provide an update then”; same conclusion but much more palatable and with a better degree of predictability for the business which is something that can be planned around resulting in less tension and interruptions for the team as stakeholders strive for ad hoc updates.

In the example of the project delivery with multiple moving parts, consider publishing a high-level plan for a plan. What are the key delivery pre requisite milestones or deliverables you need to have clarity around before you can estimate an overall time for completion? By pulling this information together and reporting on it in a regular, concise and succinct manner you’ll build confidence within your stakeholder group and provide them with an element of predictability that allows them to plan ahead whilst managing expectations.

2.      An investment in safe hands?

You need to build investment case predictability and confidence in your execution.

This is where transparency really comes into play. When you’re building out an investment case it’s essential to consider building in iterative checkpoints to provide stakeholders with the opportunity to assess where you are in relation to where you said you’d be at any given point in time. Model out your projected spend with an overlay of predicted return at the same point in time (month on month or quarter on quarter will both work depending on overall timescales for completion) and ensure you build in review calls to support each checkpoint to go through a formal read out of progress. These don’t have to be long reviews, and in fact short and sharp often work better for senior level execs who are typically concerned with multiple strategic programs at any one point in time.

At the start of the execution against the investment case, you will inevitably be dealing with multiple unknowns and risks some of which will have an impact on the overall investment case. As you start to work through the delivery execution, you’ll gain better clarity which in turn can be communicated to your stakeholders and provide a deeper level of predictability through your framework of iterative checkpoints.

I’ve talked in previous posts on strategy about providing a regular heartbeat of updates to help foster transparency in strategy building, and this scenario is a great example of where this works really well.

 3.      Where is our product going, and why?

You need to take customers on your product portfolio journey.

Call it a roadmap, call it a direction of travel, but having a summary of the aspirational direction your product portfolio is heading in is such an important tool for helping with planning for both your internal and external customers. It’s worth considering including elements such as pre build / buy / partner commitment discovery to show where you’re headed as a business, and in any internal versions it’s worth considering calling out any key decision milestones around elements such as migrations to new platforms and end of life activity for any legacy products. Make it really clear on your roadmap which elements are committed or aspirational deliverables versus those which are investigatory only at this stage to support expectation management; some of the items out to the right of your roadmap will inevitably change with market, customer and business needs so it’s important to ensure there’s a common understanding of this.

Regularly publishing a version of your roadmap to both internal stakeholders and customers will allow the business to plan effectively around product delivery, for example to foster holistic business readiness to support new product releases and is also an essential tool for your customers to use as input to their business strategy planning.

 And if all else fails it’s worth considering the following:

1.      Put yourself in the shoes of your stakeholders to really understand the “why” behind the desire for more predictability. An ask for a level of predictability is not an unfair one.

2.      It’s OK to not have all the answers upfront, and you should feel comfortable openly talking about this with your stakeholders. You can still provide predictability on the elements you’re in control of whether that be via a “plan for a plan” approach or setting expectations around a timeboxed discovery / investigative exercise.

3.      Communication is key. Highlight issues and disconnects in understanding as early as possible to avoid wasted effort and build internal alignment. The more effectively you communicate, the more trust you will build both internally and externally.

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