Streamlining the decision-making process facilitates conversations that prevent possible bottlenecks down the road, which impact schedule and product costs.
Imagine your office is a design manager’s utopia, where every deadline is met early, designers sprinkle pixie dust to make beautiful and “easy to use” products, projects are always under budget, decision making happens during one conversation and everyone agrees. The reality is there is no such thing as designer pixie dust, projects are rarely under budget and decision-makers don’t have a clear path to resolve problems quickly. These conditions could put you in the uncomfortable position of sacrificing either quality or the deadline, and quality is obviously out of the question.
I have seen projects stay in limbo for years, but I have also seen projects get to market in an unbelievably short amount of time. What it comes down to is decision making. For example, in start-up culture, decision-making happens quickly because a small core team can collaborate, communicate and understand the company’s goals. This is more difficult in a large corporation. Internal bureaucracy complicates communication between specialized teams that are focused on their tasks – they can’t see the forest for the trees. When decision-makers have a clear path to get to market, the project schedule can move faster without affecting the quality of work. Quality and speed don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
When key decision-makers find themselves at crossroads where paths seem fogged by the unknowns, it is likely that the project will come to a staggering halt. This could significantly impact schedule, push out product launch, increase costs and give competitors the chance to beat you to market. It is no small task to get key decision-makers on the same page or heck, even the same calendar! But if decisions aren’t made on time, there is a real cost of delay associated with the product not getting to market on time – or ever.
It is possible to create a clear path and get key decision makers on board in order to manage a successful product launch. Having specific dialogues can streamline the decision-making process and can help prevent bottlenecks down the road.
Before kicking off any project, objectives must be established on a management level. (And no, listing features on a product requirement document does not count as alignment.) As you may have experienced, PRDs don’t list management goals or reflect company wide initiatives. Without proper alignment, your team may find themselves focusing their efforts in isolation, often making well-intended decisions that don’t align with obscured expectations. This creates confusion, frustration and can wind up sending the team back to the drawing board.
So how do you establish clear communication with upper management so that you can set your team up for success?
Break down communication barriers early to create upper-management transparency. It is important to keep decision-makers focused on the big picture, not stuck in the weeds. To accomplish this, identify the key decision-makers or stakeholders within your company and bring them into the conversation. Doing this will allow you to create a council of stakeholders and better understand their goals and intentions for the entire life of the product. Have direct one-on-one or small team exchanges to create transparency and an open-door mentality. Before jumping too deep into problem-solving mode, seek to find out each team member’s goals for the project outside of meetings. With all of the cards on the table, it’s easier to see both common and conflicting goals.
For example, if the project requires a voice from the downstream and manufacturing teams, use this opportunity to proactively bridge communication gaps that may impact the schedule down the road.
Building a communication foundation can help unify and transform an otherwise diverse group into a team of advocates. This can help you better understand the people you work with, thereby allowing you to target their goals and later create actionable tasks that everyone can jump on board with.
Speaking of actionable tasks, no good comes from designing in a vacuum. Without a proper framework, internal teams will have a hard time making decisions and spend time chasing their own tails. The problem is that design is never straightforward, there are always trade-offs to be made. If your team lacks a clear decision-making scheme, how will they balance conflicting goals?
First, have the stakeholders define what success looks like from their perspective, and create a list of these “success drivers.” The definition of success can consist of things like cost, physical size, consumer safety, ease of use, time to market, platform flexibility, etc. As a group, use your newfound open communication skills to consolidate the full list down to 3-6 success drivers. Don’t be afraid if some of them are conflicting to some degree – use this to inspire creative thinking during ideation.
The definition of success for a product varies from person to person, but when management is aligned, the internal team can make decisions quickly. The power of success drivers is that they help balance conflicting requirements. It is good practice to refer back to the original success drivers during phase gate reviews to remind the stakeholders of the big picture objectives.
Outlining success drivers can also help situations in which your decision-makers leave halfway through a project by giving replacement personnel a place to understand where the project objectives originally started.
Now that everyone is on the same page, it’s time to inform decisions. This is where the going gets good. Design teams need to quickly evaluate ideas to determine if they’re worth pursuing. Without validation, your team may spend time and resources developing (and possibly holding onto) ideas that aren’t good for the project in the long term.
Get your hands dirty and create mock-ups. Getting something physical in front of your stakeholders can help facilitate conversations that otherwise may be hard to understand. Interacting with objects can spark new ideas. It also aids in eliminating concepts that do not work. Having this type of information streamlines decision-making and will help your team focus energy on clearing the biggest rocks from the path.
Another way to quickly iterate and validate is by gathering VOC (voice of customer) data. This is a great way to get statistics and inform decisions. VOC does not need to be done through a series of scheduled blinds tests all the time. To get results fast, try a low-fidelity VOC tactic such as talking to people within your network or sending out a survey to your direct peers.
Once concepts have been explored, revisit the success drivers established during the framework phase and evaluate how the solution meets the success criteria and overall business strategy. Have your team rank each success driver against the product by creating a matrix. Down select concepts using this list of success drivers. Your team will clearly see which concepts fulfill the stakeholder requests, thus creating a clearer path to making quick decisions.
Each project has its obstacles to overcome. While you can’t predict every hurdle along the way, you can instill decision-making strategies that increase the chance of success. When communication lines are open, success is clearly defined, and concepts are validated, your team is well equipped to make smart decisions when challenges arise.