A boomerang and an orange
Unruly’s approach to making both tactical and strategic progress
Since I joined Unruly as a Product Manager in February 2016, there has been a near-permanent battle between making progress towards what I’ll loosely define as strategic and tactical goals.
Unruly’s place in the industry that it operates in (our main product, UnrulyX is a platform that websites can use to monetise their content with video advertising) means that there is a seemingly continuous stream of (relatively small) pieces of work that the Product Development team could do that would enable UnrulyX to sell more opportunities to run video ads (and so make our website partners more money).
Another truism at Unruly is that there is a very long list of strategic pieces of work that have the opportunity to significantly impact our ability to monetize our partners’ content over the next 6–24 months.
In this context, we found it very difficult to enable our stakeholders to make sensible prioritisation decisions that enable Unruly to make tactical, opportunistic gains without derailing our medium-to-long term strategic direction.
Until recently, we had four Product teams of developers whose work would be prioritised every two weeks (the length of an Unruly iteration). On a good day we might provide the opportunity for our stakeholders to choose between either completing work that has the potential for an immediate return on investment or work that we expect to pay off in the medium term. More often, the teams would only have the capacity to fully prepare the tactical work to be prioritised.
Strategic projects would stall. The allure of seemingly guaranteed short term returns would be prioritised above more speculative investments that offered payoff in the 6 month+ range.
Another attribute of our approach to planning was that we would aim to take a selection of fully costed stories for our stakeholders for them to prioritise — this would inevitably result in wasted effort. Either fully costed stories would never get prioritised or the time that would elapse between doing the research and wanting to start implementing the feature would be so long that it would be necessary to revisit the research later anyway.
At the turn of the year we decided to change the way we enabled our stakeholders to make Product Development investments decisions with the objectives of a) making it possible to make progress towards both tactical and strategic goals and b) stop wasting our research efforts.
We have created a new team, the Boomerang team, whose work continues to be prioritised every two weeks but now we prioritise on the basis of a) anticipated outcomes of problems being solved and b) a very rough idea of cost.
Only once a story has been prioritised, do we attempt detailed research and estimation. At which point we present the fully costed solution back to our stakeholders to check whether the final cost estimate justifies the value.
The Boomerang team is a permanent team with temporary members (think Trigger’s broom) with the exception of the Product Manager who leads the group. Developers from the four Product teams would rotate into Boomerang for 1–2 iterations before returning to their “home” team (hence, Boomerang) and each team would send 1 or 2 developers to Boomerang (depending on the nature of the work that had been prioritised).
What is remaining of the Product Teams (after they donate developers to the Boomerang team) is focussed on delivering whatever is needed from them to achieve a strategic quarterly goal.
It’s up to each team to identify what’s needed from them to help achieve the goal and prioritise their work accordingly. So now, the gap between research and implementation is blurred — it’s only really noticeable due to a team discussion between research and implementation to ensure the whole team understands and buy into the approach.
The cross team focus on a single goal helps with collaboration. We have realised that the distribution of effort required to meet the goal has fallen unevenly between our four teams so the least constrained team is sending developers to help the most constrained team — a decision we take each morning stand up.
The reduced pressure at the story level enables the teams to make progress towards the goal in a way that takes them towards their product and technical vision. It means the work is truly strategic — we’re progressing towards Unruly’s strategic commercial goals and allowing the teams to make strategic investments in our technology in tandem.
In case you’re curious, while the “Orange team” name hasn’t really stuck, it originates from the colours used in the presentation used to pitch this new process.
A boomerang and an orange
We’re only 2 months into our new approach but the initial goals of the Boomerang team have been met: deliver something themselves and enable work to start towards the quarterly goal.
After a challenging start, the Orange team is humming and if we don’t hit our goal by the end of the quarter it won’t be because of a failing process.