How do we know if we’ve lost our way?
Someone asked me not so long ago: “How do we know if we’ve lost our way?”
I was doing some mentoring for a product team who work for a friend. It was one of those ‘ask me anything’ sessions that was going well for a change. The questions were not stale and formulaic. We were getting to think about the real things that the team was working on. I was being helpful, which is always a nice feeling and not a foregone conclusion when you try to speak to a product team working in an area you have very little expertise in.
It was a good session.
Until the thunderbolt came.
How do we know if we’ve lost our way?
Do you feel you have?
Is saying ‘yeah’ tantamount to pointing fingers?
What if everyone else says one thing and you say another. How do you come back from that?
Let’s start somewhere else.
Who owns the blueprint?
Who is the custodian of where we were going when we set off on this journey?
If you don’t have a North Star map, product promises, all those good things, you may be like… pants, were we meant to write that down?
And yes. You were. And if you didn’t write it all down, if you did not do it back when you started, the second best time to get that down on paper is now.
Now is always the best time available.
In committing that direction to paper you get to align. You get to surface doubts. You get to agree on what’s important. You get to face the same way.
It is not nothing.
But let’s face it, it is not everything either.
You may have the North Star and the product vision and the custodian of the vision and the best intentions in the world and still find yourself wondering: Have we lost our way?
So, I asked tentatively. What is happening?
Is it a product market fit issue? A client feedback question? A colleague disagreement?
Is unease at the root of the question?
Is it a problem we are facing into or is it a temperature check?
“What do you mean?” they asked.
Do you find yourselves going territorial over features?
Do you find yourselves defending your roadmap against your clients’ wishes?
Do you stick to the plan over what the market seems to ask of you?
Do you know what pains each line of code is solving? What gains it is adding?
Do you all know?
A team member (in my actual day job) asked me a few days ago how sure I was that every engineer was losing sleep over her clients.
The truth? I’m not all that certain that everyone is sleepless, frankly. There’s a few hundred folks. More than one client. But I love that she wants them to. All of them. This is the way. That’s how she knows she hasn’t lost her way. It’s the compass she can offer.
I confess, I like it. And if you work with me you will hear me say ‘a product without a client is a very expensive hobby’ about 17 times a day. Because it’s true.
But as I sat there with this team that wasn’t my team (we are back to the opening story again, folks, do keep up), it was so much easier for me to read through their anxieties with a little bit of distance. It was easier for me to say to them what I am about to share with you. And it was easy because I had no skin in the game. Because their anxiety wasn’t my anxiety. Because I was a neutral bystander. And what I told them was this.
There are a few tools you can use to keep checking whether you’ve lost your way.
A map and compass are essential. You need documents and artefacts that distil what you are building and why. And for whom. And you need your users and your customers to be part of a constant feedback loop. Because needs change. And you need to change with them.
You also need ways of aligning internally and checking in with each other and confirming you all understand things the same way.
You need to always find ways of remaining linked up no matter how big your team gets or how fast you go.
You also need places to come together and make sure you all understand things the same way, in the detail. It can be the whiteboard by the coffee machine, a steerco, a standup, a Slack channel. Whatever works for you. Just make sure you do it.
I confess, at 10x we do all of it. And more.
It works for us.
Find what works for you.
You also need people who are willing to ask the question and shout ‘halt’ if they think something takes you off course, if they think you are losing your way.
But above all else, the way you know, not so much that you haven’t lost your way, but that you will never lose it for long, is a team that keeps asking. A team that burns with the desire to get this right.
So, long answer to how do we know if we’ve lost our way is product promises and North Star maps and market validations and client feedback and roadmap alignment and velocity metrics and delivery cadence adjustments.
The short answer is: you never do 100%, so keep asking. Keep talking about it. Keep listening to your colleagues and listening to your clients and testing the tools and asking the question.
Because the thing about not losing your way is often about course-correcting, reflecting and growing.
And the course you need to follow may not be on the map you drew back when you started. But it is on the map now. And this is your way.
And if you keep asking, if you keep listening, if you keep getting together and reflecting and doing the work and really learning from it, you may go in a completely different direction than you originally set out towards.
But you will never lose your way.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!