Unlock innovation with an outcomes-first approach

Drill bits

Some recent reading showcased two simple and powerful ways to boost organisational innovation. Both are proven in their own right; combined, they can offer a robust, end-to-end method for exploring the opportunity space.

I first encountered Amazon’s ‘Working Backwards’ process in this Inc.com piece last year, which I stumbled across again last week.

The Working Backwards framework articulates, through a series of exercises and artifacts, the desired outcomes for a given project or initiative. Characterised by a narrow focus on customer needs, it is an almost literal interpretation of Steve Jobs’ quote from 1997: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos suggests that constructing representations of the outcomes the product will deliver is a better initial investment than any line of code. It forces those outcomes to take centre stage, as a prerequisite to any discussion of implementation.

Done correctly, working backwards is a huge amount of work. But it saves you even more work later. The Working Backwards Process is not designed to be easy, it is designed to save huge amount of work on the backend, and to make sure we are building the right thing.” – Jeff Bezos


Similar themes emerged in another forum a few days later. I was in conversation with Jim Kalbach about his book ‘The Jobs To Be Done Playbook’ for UX Belfast.

As with Working Backwards, the power of Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) lies in a deceptively simple premise. Rather than assume that everyone involved knows the fundamentals around a project or initiative, it demands that any assumed knowledge is set aside, and insights rebuilt through the lens of customer goals, or ‘jobs’.

Typified in Levitt’s famous quote “No one wants a quarter-inch drill bit they want a quarter-inch hole”, JTBD offers a refreshingly pragmatic alternative to an all-too-common approach where, armed with technology, enterprises go looking for a problem to apply it to. To use a second tool-based metaphor, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

JTBD requires that an organisation shifts from a mindset of “how can we sell our technology to customers’ to “what outcomes are customers trying to achieve and how can we adapt to become more valuable to them?”. The book presents multiple techniques for reframing challenges in this manner.

Kalbach states: “Before creating solutions, define the value you’re going after. Regardless of the starting point for innovation in your organization – either with a need or with a technology – you’ll need to align around value creation.”

Mapping customer ‘jobs’ requires understanding their intent, their ultimate aims, and then strategically positioning your own solution into the process.

The two frameworks are eminently compatible. JTBD can provide the ‘true north’ for Working Backwards to navigate to.  And these are just two of many frameworks which can be combined to unlock innovation in an organisation.

I have shelves and devices filled with books and articles on thinking frameworks, gathered over the last dozen or more years. If these tools share a common trait, it is one of simple, structured questioning. So simple that it is often a challenge to have them accepted as a credible route to progress.

Asking basic questions can be seen as facile, but more often as an unnecessary obstacle as everyone rushes to get into the weeds.  It is significant, then, that Amazon and increasing numbers of groundbreaking tech companies give store to these techniques.

There may be no silver bullet for success, but there is a sure-fire route to failure – the inability or unwillingness to ask fundamental questions.

  • “What value are we creating?”
  • “Is this solving a real problem?”
  • “What assumptions or limiting beliefs are we working with?”
  • “What outcomes do customers want us to provide? What do those look like?”

Without the capacity to stop and address these kinds of topics, companies are doomed to pursue a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy. Sometimes that works out. Many times it does not.

The irony of the ‘Working Backwards’ moniker is that it makes much more sense than trying to create something from the ether, armed with nothing but assumed knowledge, some smart technology, and marketing muscle.

As suggested in the Bezos quote above, asking hard questions is not easy. Many enterprises bypass this completely and head straight for a comfort zone of technology first. Recent history is rife with impressive innovations that led with technology but failed to solve a real problem or deliver a desirable outcome. Just ask Segway, or Google Wave, even Google Plus. 

Both Working Backwards and JTBD encourage teams to forget the technology and instead focus on what customers want to achieve, and where value can be created.

Unless such fundamentals are addressed, there is no credible foundation for product development. And yet so many are prepared to take the risk and just build.

It’s hard to imagine anything more backward than that.

Alignment above all

Gears in an engine

Technology may change rapidly, but the fundamentals of effective communication not so much.

The role played by clarity in achieving successful results should not be a surprise. What is surprising is how often it can be overlooked.

Regardless of its nature, the success or failure of any initiative will rely to a large extent on the degree of alignment amongst those involved. The question “what are we building” can yield as many answers as there are factions, and this is true of teams from enterprises to startups.

Executive decisions are rightly expected to be followed by action. But the fear that accompanies an instruction to proceed often kills the opportunity to think deeply about desired outcomes. Agile dogma tells us we need to move fast. The fear of being seen to not be moving can generate countless docs and meetings as attempts are made to assert the rightness of one set of priorities over another. Lots of noise, very little signal, and a dearth of alignment. 

The lure of consensus always looms large. After all, consensus can begin to get everyone moving. At its worst consensus is a form of groupthink. It may be capable of placating a fractious group and get them through to the next meeting. It is unlikely to impress customers however, who won’t care if you reached consensus, but will certainly sense a lack of alignment in the construction of their product or service.

Consensus is tactical; alignment is strategic.

Alignment involves orientation to a direction and commitment to a purpose. It can’t be articulated in purely marketing terms. Or design terms. Or engineering terms. And it must embody unambiguous support, across functions, to the aims of the project. Alignment should release every discipline to plan its contribution to clearly understood outcomes.

The good news is that achieving alignment is not alchemy. Any number of tools or frameworks can assist with driving a team, or multiple teams, towards an aligned state.

As both an exponent and practitioner I will always promote the design thinking process as a fast track to alignment. Your mileage may vary; anything capable of cutting across disciplines and reframing a challenge in objective terms is a positive step.

The most successful teams I have encountered used value as the ultimate framing – specifically, how is it being created or enhanced for the business, and for customers. Anything less than clarity around both of these will lead to muddy goals and unsatisfactory outcomes. We all deal with ambiguity in our working lives. But where this translates to vagueness, danger lies.

“What problem are we solving?” is an easy – even obvious – question to ask, but it can be problematic to answer definitively. It may even take an unpopular pause for breath to do it. To quote Covey, “With people, slow is fast and fast is slow.” 

An aligned team will move faster, and with greater precision, than one without it. 

The investment of time and rigour in achieving true alignment will repay itself many times over. It is worth fighting for.