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How to Create a Perfect Product-Led Timeline

By Scott Williams
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Most of us have been part of or impacted by a business transformation program at one time or another. But many of those programs end up being clunky, drawn-out and ultimately ineffective.

Of course, any good attempt will have well-worded vision statements and apparent executive backing. Still, the people who make the business work can often feel disconnected from what we want to achieve.

Product-led transformation offers a solution, but you won’t find it in strategy decks or leader comms. Instead, you will find it in the timeline. 

If you are running a transformation, you probably like making things better than they were before. It just feels good. But for those improvements to take hold, we have to reconnect people to the future our transformation programs intend to produce. A thoughtfully prepared and continuously iterated plan of carefully crafted activities, milestones and metrics will help us do it.

But first, the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read):

  1. Product-led transformation is all about a focus on value creation for customers.
  2. The value our customers need is constantly changing, so we must be prepared to do the same.
  3. Embedding that change requires holistic planning and a precise sequence of small, measurable goals.
  4. Developing those goals from an employee experience point of view will allow us to create more value for customers.
  5. See point number 1.

Now, I realise that writing those statements is one thing, but putting them into practice is something else. Executive expectations, funding draw-down mechanisms and publicly announced market commitments can impact how we plan and run our transformation programs. So how can we reconcile those facts with the need to do things a little differently?

Let’s begin with a definition for product-led transformation:

Re-focusing your business on the fundamentals of real value creation, while embracing the benefits of the faster engines that digital and Agile practices have delivered.

Adrienne Tan, Your Digital Transformation Program Is Wasting Your Money

So, if “real value creation” is why we are here, what’s next? 

 

We will need a reasonably robust tactical plan. But while that set of discrete steps and actions is critical for leading us to our desired future, there is more to the story. The tale isn’t complete without the sequence of those activities and the measurable milestones and metrics we intend to hit along the way – a timeline.

How do we begin creating this timeline that will solve all of the world’s problems? The first step is how we approach the plan itself. 

Often, what goes into our transformation plans can be summarised like this:

 

  1. Design an entirely new way of operating in detail.
  2. Figure out what all the team structures should be.
  3. Write all the job descriptions and create a people transition plan.
  4. Redesign all the necessary processes.
  5. Install any new technology systems.
  6. Train everyone in their new role and ways of working.
  7. Implement everything.

Those points become our significant milestones, and the big-wigs measure us against our progress towards hitting them. Sure, many detailed and overlapping activities are sitting underneath those milestones – each occurring at the appropriate time. Still, we sequence our activities to hit those milestones in that order. 

There are many problems that we cause ourselves by approaching it this way, the most frustrating of which are:

  • Comms are often highly controlled with limited meaningful information.
  • The people on the ground get nervous and don’t feel part of the change.
  • The time delay between any incremental transformation benefits renders them nearly meaningless to our customers.
  • Oh, and it’s extraordinarily disruptive when it happens.

Approaching our plan in a new way looks and feels more like this:

  1. Design the new way of operating at a much higher level.
  2. Pull together some idea of how you want to organise the significant components.
  3. Break the big picture down into thin but holistic end to end slices that can be designed and implemented over time.

It may look like it when in a list like that, but there aren’t fewer steps overall. There are, however, fewer activities to getting something meaningful implemented much more quickly than we would otherwise. We still may need to create people transition plans, redesign processes, implement technology and conduct training. But now, our scope at any one time is smaller. Having less to complete means you can get there faster.

Those ‘thin but holistic end to end slices’ become our new milestones. They are thin because they focus on the smallest piece we can get away with and still call it a meaningful change. They are holistic because they involve all the people, processes and technology needed to make them work. And they are end to end because they contain all of the components to deliver outstanding customer experiences.

These new milestones also put us in a much better position to measure progress. The difference is that ‘progress’ gets redefined as people benefiting from change instead of completing tasks. 

That shift in languages means our metrics start to read something like this: 

  • Team A has seen an X per cent increase in productivity.
  • Process B now has an X per cent reduction in cycle time.
  • Customer segment C has seen an X per cent improvement in NPS.

The point is that we start tracking outcomes instead of outputs, but we don’t want to wait too long to get there. That means we have to rethink how we structure our work, which brings us back to those ‘thin but holistic end to end slices’ of the future we are trying to create.

We can still give the boss a plan to track while creating a better chance of delivering lasting change. Plus, aligning our metrics to impact gives everyone more confidence in our ability to address the original insight that triggered the need for change in the first place.

Do the plan and metrics look a little different than one our leaders have seen in the past? Possibly. May we require a bit more time and care to explain the benefits of this approach? Very likely. But it’s effort well spent to get a much better outcome for our co-workers and our customers.

There is additional ammo you can bring to the table as well. Remember the problems often created by a more traditional approach that we discussed earlier? Well, now we can talk about these kinds of things:

  • Comms are targeted to the right people at the right time with a more transparent narrative.
  • Smaller groups of people are directly involved, much sooner, which better connects them to the change.
  • The faster realisation of transformation benefits makes them much more meaningful for our customers.
  • We can better control the level of disruption to a business that needs to keep functioning through all of this.

To extend that train of thought, let’s jump back to the definition of product-led transformation for a moment. We said that “real value creation” is why we are here, right? Well, it’s us – the people who make the business work every day – who create that value for customers. The ‘business’ doesn’t do it. We do it. 

What happens when we have a timeline that better connects our colleagues to the change and our future vision? What are the impacts of helping them realise the benefits much sooner with a lot less disruption? Those people have a better overall working experience; that’s what happens.

The flow-on effect of focusing on exceptional employee experiences is that we will find it easier to identify, recruit and onboard high-performing talent. Word gets around. Good people want to work where other good people are doing good work. How do we define ‘good work’, you might ask? We define it as creating real value for our customers. Sound familiar?

All right – I suppose it’s time to talk about time. Remember when we discussed that there aren’t fewer steps overall? We have to be honest with ourselves here. The whole ‘transformation’ won’t necessarily happen any faster. However, you will learn much more quickly if your transformation is making a difference. 

It’s impossible to tell you exactly how long it will take to create the first version of your timeline. That depends entirely on the size of your organisation and the scale of the change. However, think in terms of small numbers of weeks, not months. The phrase ‘just enough’ will be your friend here. Do just enough design to understand how things might look in the future. Do just enough to identify the first set of thin slices that you can implement right away.

Implementing those slices may be a different story, and that’s all right. It could take a little longer to roll things out, but the same philosophy applies. It’s about establishing an iterative process of implementing small pieces, collecting learnings and using that information to decide what, if anything, you need to do next.

This kind of iterative process does have one consequence. The whole ‘when will this transformation be done’ thing loses its meaning once you get started. By the time you get to what would have been the ‘end’, you will have learned a lot that you didn’t know before. Combine that with the fact that the market has likely shifted too, and you come to a realisation. You are just adding new small milestones and implementing them in an ever-evolving, endless timeline of meaningful change.

OK – Let’s wrap this up.

The business landscape isn’t going to stop changing any time soon. So our goal should be to set up a system that constantly responds to market signals indicating it’s time to shift what we do and how we do it. A well-groomed and continuously executed timeline of small milestones and metrics sure does put us on that path.

If you are like me and have a bad habit of skimming through the middle of something like this, keep these things in mind:

  • Our transformation plans are not complete without a set of measurable milestones and metrics.
  • Breaking those milestones down into small chunks reduces change fatigue and allows us to implement sooner.
  • Implementing those small chunks sooner means we can measure impact more quickly and continuously improve as we go.
  • Continually improving by responding to what we learn improves the overall employee experience.
  • Demonstrating a focus on exceptional employee experiences connects people to the future we want to create.
  • Having people connected to the desired future state enables us to create more value for customers.

Spend as much time on how you will deliver change as you do on the change itself. Your people and your customers will thank you.

Consider learning more about The 7Ts of Product-Led Transformation.

Scott Williams is Group Director, Business Design for Rightpoint, a Genpact company.

www.rightpoint.com.au