Focus on value

I’m far from the first to say it, and I know I won’t be the last. Everyone talks about focusing on delivering value for end users, whether they are consumers, businesses, or fellow employees. If everyone knows how important it is, why is it so hard to maintain this focus?

In the beginning

Everyone (well, almost everyone) starts off with good intentions, following agile and lean principles. Combine the build-measure-learn cycle with frequent production deploys and a laser focus, and everyone is happy. It isn’t a perfect recipe for success, but it’s a proven model. Problems are identified, solutions are validated, customers are developed, and value is delivered.

Drift

No, I’m not talking about Pacific Rim. Drift is what happens over time if you don’t continually reinforce focus on value. The initial rigor around delivery gets sloppy, and products fail. What factors can lead to drift?

Growth

Rapid growth, both in terms of revenue and personnel, can dilute focus as companies struggle to adjust. Growth can result in culture change, communication issues, and lack of clarity around vision and direction. Strong discipline is required to focus on value through periods of extreme growth. It’s easy to slide into bad habits as founders, investors, and the market clamor for faster and faster growth.

Profitability

When growth slows or a market matures, company leaders may make profitability the primary goal. Guess who suffers the most when the goal is profit? That’s right — the customers. When employees are told to focus on profitability and efficiency, new product development and enhancements to existing products often fall by the wayside. Only cost-cutting projects and projects with tremendous revenue potential get green lights, and that approach rarely results in consistent value for users.

Agile estimates

Many organizations who practice agile development slip into the habit of measuring success purely by story points delivered. Story points can be useful in terms of providing a sense of time and effort, but they should never be a proxy for delivering value. Just because your burndown charts are looking good and your completed points are going up and to the right doesn’t mean you are delivering something customers love. Customers don’t care about your story points, they care about great products.

Customers don’t care about your story points, they care about great products.

Desire to please

The desire to please your boss is nearly universal. After all, he or she likely is the one who has the most say in whether you succeed and advance at your job. But what if they tell you that you need to deliver this product no matter what? It takes courage to push back and to insist on product and customer validation. The easiest path is to follow orders and ship the product the boss is telling you to ship.

Success

Paradoxically, initial success can be a big reason for losing focus on value. A successful launch of a product can lead to overconfidence. Flush with the public reinforcement of the original idea, companies can fall into the trap of believing they know what’s best. Lean principles slip, and the next product is launched without properly validating the idea.

Maintaining focus

So how do you avoid drift? There’s no perfect answer. You can make checklists. You can require a “value-added” justification for all new features and products. You can even create a role that is dedicated to maintaining focus.

When it comes down to it, the focus on value is everyone’s responsibility, from the CEO to the newest employee. Each person needs to consider how their work is adding value for customers. Regardless of your position, if you don’t see a connection, you need to speak up. The long-term success of your company depends on it.

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