Monday, August 4, 2014

What's your measure of success?

In the software industry, or any industry for that matter, you're constantly making decisions as to where you're going to invest your time and resources. Maybe you're building a greenfield project and deciding where to start. Maybe you're 12 months into a project that isn't going as planned. Maybe your company or organization has pivoted it's business objectives and you're being asked to pivot with it.  Whatever the case, I've too often seen these decisions made without fully understanding what you're committing to and without having a clear plan to measure whether where you're investing your time and resources is actually being successful.

Measuring success isn't simply a matter of checking a box that something has been delivered. There's much more too it than that. You need to make sure you're delivering the right thing. You need to make sure that you're able to fail quickly if/when you discover that you're not on the right track. You need to have a clear definition of what's enough.

Here are five questions I like to ask before I invest in any project that allow me to have a clear understanding of what success looks like.

Do you have well defined user scenarios?

Well defined user scenarios allow you to know if you're building the correct thing or not. A well defined user scenario should clearly articulate what problem you're trying to solve, how you plan on solving it, and it should tease out some of the unknowns or external dependencies.

A great place to start with a user scenario is with a story board. Storyboards allow you to think about your product as it is used in the real world. Too often we start our user scenarios with an interface or UX design. These designs are great but they don't help us tease out the context surrounding our problem. For example, where users are when the problem occurs. Or what type of constraints the environment adds to the mix, like only having one hand available.

Can you show that you're providing business value now?

Does your new investment require that you wait until the product is complete before you can judge it's fitness? This should be a red flag that the structure and milestones of your project are not lined up correctly.

Agile using scrum and Kanban are two great ways to help you answer this question. Agile allows you to break things into smaller more iterable pieces. It gives you a way to measure your velocity as you go to help you adjust your milestones and scope. Kanban allows you to understand what work in progress is going on. It also allows you to understand and account for the unexpected work that inevitably comes down the pipe. Kanban allows you to make more informed resource decisions based on current resource allocations and throughput.

Is what you're investing in structured in a way as to allow you to change scope?

Do you have a way to show incremental progress? Do you have a way to see your work in action in the real world? If not, you should. Having a way to check-in and get a real world feel for how what your building works in the real world is crucial.

One way to do this is by setting up regular demo days. In agile, these tend to fall at the end of a sprint. It gives you a way to quantify what it is you're delivering and a framework from which trade offs can be discussed. I've seen pretty successful scrum teams decide what they're demo'ing at the next demo day BEFORE deciding what stories are in their sprint.

Having demo days allows you to break up larger work into smaller more consumable pieces. It also allows you to identify dependencies earlier in the process. Maybe your demo requires some work from another team? Maybe it requires some additional hardware or resources. Maybe it requires a deployment. Whatever the case, you're able to start asking the correct questions and unblocking your team before any work actually begins.

Are you able to measure success incrementally?

Demo days are one way to measure success incrementally but not the only way. Alpha and beta releases are another way. Getting something in-front of real world users (even just internally) will open your work up to a higher level of scrutiny which will inevitably make your product better. It will also force you to ask yourself the correct questions on how you measure success for individual features. For example, if you're adding a button to make peoples lives easier, how do you know if they're using it? How do you know if it was discoverable? How do you know if it actually solved the problem? Knowing the answers to this class of questions is paramount to the success of your project. Asking that class of questions helps inform the approach you take to solving your problems.

Do you understand the unknowns?

As you start asking the other questions it will become clear that there are always unknowns in your project that need to be fleshed out. It may be understanding the cost associated with the project and how it's going to be funded. It may be intra-team, inter-team, external, or 3rd party dependencies that are not apparent at the inception of the project. It may be that the level of effort is greater than the rewards for building any particular piece of your project.

Whatever the unknown, it should be your goal to root it out. You're process should make finding the unknowns easier than allowing them to crop up at just the wrong time.

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