In my last article “Why objectives and value are important in software development” I gave examples to show that it's important to diagnose before prescribing technical solutions. But what does this entail?
Diagnosis can be as simple as asking "why". When someone presents what, ask why. Sometimes the response is more of a what, in which case you may have to dig deeper, keep asking why! This can be like peeling the layers of an onion. At some point you find the center, the core objective.
Businesses exist to create value. Objectives are guiding principles to create value. For example, most businesses value profit. One objective to create profit may be to expand the customer base. Value is often intangible, for example employee morale. An objective to increase employee morale may be to pursue equitable workload distribution. Objectives are a means to the value (end). Value and objectives are numerous, focusing on them will hone the skills necessary to identify and create value, another reason to ask why.
Eventually after peeling back enough layers, you will arrive at a rather fundamental objective.
Let's say someone asks, "Can we generate a PDF of X every night and email it to Y?" Follow up with "Absolutely, but first can we talk about what this will accomplish?" If other people are affected by or invested in the request, involve them too. Make sure to involve the person that will write the check. A typical response might be "Right now John creates this by hand and it consumes a significant amount of time." So we've identified a possible objective, saving time. Again, objectives are a means to an end, in this case it's probably about money.
Objectives often create more than one type of value. Now that you have an understanding of the objective, use it to ask further questions to assess related value. Go grab John and include him too! These are some things you may consider:
Involve everyone in this exploration and expand upon what value is desired, quantifying and qualifying it as you go.
With a shared understanding of value, everyone can brainstorm investments in software or otherwise. These options can be analyzed to quantify the level of value they may create and the potential cost. Neither the value nor the cost can be quantified exactly in advance, that's the nature of making investments and taking risk. However, an estimate of a solution without determining if it will create value puts everyone in a much riskier situation. Assessing the value reduces risk.
With enough practice, this approach will hone your ability to make successful investments. Who wouldn't want that?
Also, I'd recommend throwing out any notion of the original request and working from the value to identify solutions. Sadly, the original request is going to bias your thinking, just try not to let it narrow your vision. There are many ways to accomplish an objective and to create value. Keep an open mind to maximize the value.
With clearly identified value, the team can find ways to measure how much value is created. In the example above, find a way to measure how much time is saved, count historical mistakes, ask John how we can measure the time or if he already measures it. Measure historically if possible, starting now and going forward. Monitor how things improve (or not). Keep these metrics simple and estimate what it will cost to measure them. Make sure it's worth the investment to measure. A few good measures can help the team improve future value analysis: maybe the value was less than expected, maybe it was more, maybe there was unidentified value.
If you don't do this analysis, how can you compare one business investment to another? Some investments are more lucrative than others. Who wouldn't want to tackle the most lucrative of investments first? If you have several pending investments and you've done a value analysis of all of them, you can easily prioritize based on the value!
Since we have a more accurate measure of value and cost, we can prioritize based on ROI. Think about this: if the people who will make the investment have determined that the value they think is possible is low relative to the cost or potentially a negative ROI, why would you make that investment? Likewise, if they have identified a high ROI investment, why wouldn't that be at the top of the list of priorities?
Though asking why can help you start this process, it's best to start with objectives first. Goals and problems are plentiful, encourage people to track them and bring them to the team as objectives and not as requests. This will eliminate the bias in a particular solution and will eliminate the need to backtrack to the objective.
When doing business, we should assess objectives first, thoroughly ask why, and determine what value we hope to create. Identifying technical solutions should come after, along with an assessment of their value and cost. Successful software development is about creating value, not software.