Ensure Your Best Ideas Don’t Get Trapped In A ‘Black Box’

In every organization, some roles have what I like to describe as a “black box” problem: Other team members know these roles are valuable, but they aren’t exactly sure what tangible value they provide. No one can accurately describe what these folks do until something tactical is released.

This creates conflict when budgets, headcount and resources get prioritized. After all, how do you anticipate the effort that goes into problem solving and strategy when you don’t yet know the tasks involved? How do you explain to colleagues and stakeholders that the effort is well-spent when it can’t necessarily be measured quantitatively?

This was a challenge I was routinely up against when I was head of design at a global software company, so I came up with a framework to capture and account for all the “messy” ideas, strategies and initiatives that are important and have great potential but haven’t turned into an executable plan.

I recently used this framework when one of my clients struggled to manage his team’s bias toward task-based efforts, where they often “missed the forest for the trees.” This framework gets strategic initiatives that are not projects on paper, so they accurately reflect where folks should spend their time to impact your business.

Identify the spaces within your strategic program

Every job description has the day-to-day description of the work you do. But there are also the unwritten areas of your work that are critical to visualize and account for.

For instance, when I was running experience and creative design for a global software company, my job description clearly stated I was responsible for design delivery. But I also had to think about ways to integrate future design principles, upskill designers and researchers, prepare management succession planning, propose design direction for new markets and review potential company acquisitions. These initiatives are inherent to the role but not always articulated until they become specific programs with straightforward tactics assigned to making them happen.

For example, strategic initiatives like “global expansion into Asia markets” are significant undertakings. It’s not yet a project with executable tasks because you still have to figure out the strategy. But it still requires space within your day.

Visualizing these spaces allows them to be mapped, tracked and maintained—or even ended if that’s the inevitable outcome. No one will credit you or your team’s performance or understand your team’s bandwidth until these spaces are given the thumbs up to become a project. They’ll also never get prioritization, focus or—most importantly—funding.

Visualize your strategic efforts using a lean framework

I recommend leveraging a lean framework to visualize “black box” initiatives, so you can learn from them and inform what needs to be done before beginning an entire project. My favorite is the Lean PMO model developed by my former colleague and current friend, Linda Luu. Although Linda created her Lean PMO model to explore product concepts within a portfolio, it also helps leaders explore strategic initiatives.

Here’s how to break down your strategic program framework:

1. State your organization’s strategic vision.

Any strategic initiative should ultimately tie into your organization’s broader vision, as that’s how leadership teams will justify making them investable areas of work.

But in some large organizations, that overall vision isn’t tangible enough. In that case, a departmental vision can be helpful to incorporate. This becomes a more meaningful and digestible vision for large groups that may find the larger corporate picture irrelevant to their day-to-day.

2. Define the initiatives that will impact the vision.

Target impacts are the outcomes of the activities that will move the vision forward. As you articulate each impact, consider how balanced the overall portfolio is. Will some target impacts require more effort? Are others more in maintenance mode, like retention, coaching and growth of key people and successors?

Articulating your target impacts can spark great conversations with other stakeholders, as they prevent fixating on a tactical list of to-dos and instead focus everyone on outcomes.

3. Identify the strategic trials needed to advance each impact.

Next, outline the strategic trials required to achieve your target impacts. Each trial should identify your user and their need, problem or desired outcome.

A trial succeeds when it meets, proves or achieves conditions that confirm your target impact and, ultimately, the organization’s strategic goal. Each trial answers “So what?” and rationalizes your efforts.

4. Allocate the resources required.

Resources identify the people, services or vendors allocated against a strategic effort.

Your strategic framework outlines how resources are assigned and what they intend to do to prove the impact of each strategic trial. This could be releasing a feature, interviewing customers, optimizing performance through A/B testing, running a pilot with a small internal team, etc.

Tracking how you distribute these efforts among key people and teams—including your own—is critical to demonstrate progress, not just against understood projects already in place but also the strategic work that is often ill-defined.

I often see leaders put resources behind lofty initiatives without a clear focus. Providing resources with a strategic framework sets them up to succeed and gives them an endpoint so they’re not chasing ideas indefinitely.

Maintain, review and measure

Strategic programs can be challenging to measure but focus on your target impacts when in doubt. Did you learn what you hoped to? If something “failed,” did you learn what not to do? Did you prevent more costly exploration elsewhere? These are all wins.

These efforts shouldn’t require significant investments, so failing in this space is failing strategically. As long as you learn something, that’s a valuable outcome that has prevented a more costly project.

Businesses, markets and conditions are more complex and disruptive than ever, so new ways to collect the abstract, communicate it and gather others to progress it can be your secret weapon to cutting through the fog.

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