I think every agile team should be viewed as a small startup. When you do so, you can begin viewing senior leadership largely as venture capitalists (VC). They’ll occasionally visit your office, they’ll provide valuable expertise and insights that will help your small company succeed, they’ll paint a vision of your competitive landscape so you can make better choices, and most importantly, they’ll infuse your small startup with cash. This metaphor can only be extended so far, and we could talk endlessly about the complexities of decision making within this model, but we won’t. Instead, I’ll borrow a quote from Martin Fisher:
Knowledge is the process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.
So how do we simplify this? How can we paint a simple view to understand which decisions are for our VCs to decide, which is for the start up’s leadership, and which is for those in the trenches turning ideas into working product? Here’s how I answer those questions:
- Strategic vision. This is the responsibility of our VCs. They’ll shape our overall strategy, fund great ideas, and not fund others. They’ll define large epics and describe what actionable metrics (not vanity metrics) to impact. They might describe their vision using end state and intent, which I touch on briefly here. From time to time, they’ll ask for updates on the state of things to ensure their investment is in good hands.
- Tactical decision. This is the responsibility of our startup’s founder. He’s very engaged with his eight-person company. He has a wealth of knowledge and has made a number of helpful mistakes along the way that have left a mark but also made him smarter. He’s our product owner. He thoroughly understands the strategic vision, and he reforms this vision into tactical decisions. He does so in order to better communicate these ideas to the team. The artifact of his collaboration with the VCs and his team is a collection of user stories that he intends—hopes–to impact the actionable metrics outlined to him by the VCs.
- Action. Up to now, no product has been created. Now it’s time for those on the team—those in the trenches—to practice their craft and make strategy-turn-tactics a reality. They do so by decomposing their stories into tasks. As they create working product, they’ll uncover things that might not quite make sense, and they’ll turn to their product owner with questions. In most cases, the product owner has answers. In a few cases, he turns to the VCs for advice. We’re a small startup so every person matters, every minute matters, and every dollar counts. We need to make product smartly, and we do so by ensuring our founder—the product owner—isn’t buried in noise or meetings but available to provide direction and decision to his company.
Do you know what I like best about this description? Everything before the team’s involvement is a thought experiment. It’s the team that turns vision into reality, and until customers can interact with vision, no one really knows if the right decisions have been made. Customers tell us if we made good decision through the products they buy, and it’s the teams who make these products. They are the heroes in every company, and we should ensure we express that through our words and actions. They transform thoughts into viable products, and as I’ve written about before, bias toward action is paramount.
But I digress, and I realize none of this is earth shattering. Still, how often have we seen stakeholders making decisions for product owners or, worse yet, making decisions for the team? By having this simple model to draw from, it’s helped me have more fruitful conversations when I see decision making occur at the wrong levels. I hope it’ll do the same for you.