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Leaders: Focus on the end result of your technology projects, not the little details

It’s easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish. Here are some tips to stay focused on the end result and tell a compelling story to stakeholders.

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Image: skyNext, Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Marketing is often a great source of inspiration for rethinking any process that involves human beings. Done well, it often requires a deep and nuanced understanding of human nature, yet has a staggeringly simple and no-nonsense objective: To compel someone to buy something. Whether it’s an advertisement for a political candidate attempting to get you to “buy” them with your vote, or the latest consumer gadget, it’s interesting to observe the different techniques employed to compel you to open your wallet.

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Good marketing often creates emotion, and emotion is usually a stronger motivator than an analytical argument, especially when you have a 30-second YouTube ad or highway billboard as your canvas. Successful politicians of all stripes have done a masterful (and perhaps frightening) job of whipping voters into an emotional frenzy, while their less successful colleagues prattle on about policy details. Similarly, the ad for the latest gadget from Apple might imply that you’ll become an artist with their products, rather than regaling you with details on megahertz and megapixels. Even a local carpenter might show pictures of a family enjoying a wonderful meal on a table she built, rather than providing specifications on the type of wood glue and joinery used.

In all of these instances, the marketing gets you to focus on an end result, one that’s a marked improvement from the viewer’s current state. Of course, to get to that end state you’ll need the fiery politician, iGadget, or farm table, but once you’ve locked on the end state, those seem like administrative details that are easily overcome.

As technology leaders, we often fail to imagine, articulate, and maintain an unrelenting focus on that end state. Most technology projects spend more time evaluating the nuances between Vendor A’s software and Vendor B’s software, all while key stakeholders fail to articulate a consistent and compelling end state for what all the bits and bytes will actually accomplish. While this may seem like fluff, a compelling end result story will keep stakeholders engaged and passionate, even when times get tough. 

Here’s how to maintain a focus on the end result:

Co-create a compelling story

Resist the natural temptation of most technologists to spend the majority of your time on the “how” before you’ve created a compelling, shared “why” with all the key stakeholders. Just as Apple never markets its products with boring lists of technical features, you should you avoid droning on about ROI and throughput. Take the time to deeply understand the challenges your project is meant to solve, and don’t be afraid to use basic storytelling techniques.

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Cast problems as good vs. evil, complete with villains and heroes in shining armor. Those lost invoices are no longer a technical problem but a dragon to be slain by your merry band of technology warriors whose swords and spears are new systems and process improvements. Just as fairy tales use children’s language and imagery to teach complex moral lessons, use the language of your stakeholders even if it might be uncomfortable. Using their language and allowing them to create the detail and richness of the story about the end result allows them to feel ownership. Your team is now partners with them on their journey, rather than a distraction that’s doing something to them.

Allow the team to dream

When designing and implementing your solution, ask the team to imagine how their lives will be different once it’s implemented. Ask them to close their eyes and describe how their future work day will be impacted once the new tools are in place. How might they feel at the end of day? How will their interactions with colleagues and customers be different based on this new system?

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Not only will you get detailed information that will help you design and implement your system, but you’ll connect an improved future state to your project. Your team and the project are no longer yet another administrative hassle to be minimally acknowledged; you are now purveyors of a better future and far more likely to get engagement and momentum.

Connect every activity to the end state

We’ve all been in meetings where stakeholders are asking for progress on a project, and we’re proudly sharing completion of a complex phase of work or how the team dramatically overcame what seemed like an insurmountable technical problem, and those across the table are checking their phones or fighting off sleep. Rather than focusing on the activities that are completed, focus on how they connect to the end-state vision that you co-created with the stakeholders.

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Let’s say you spent several weeks building out a complex QA environment that allows for automated build/test cycles. You could regale your peers with the technical challenges and the details of your build process as they check their Instagram feed, or you could share that the team spent several weeks building out the tools that allow you to quickly evaluate how close the project is to realizing its end state vision. You might also share that this technology will allow you to quickly validate that their vision is being realized, and let you demonstrate these new capabilities more quickly, since your team is so excited to realize the end state that it felt the investment in extra work was well worth the effort. This simple connection to the end state has turned impassioned observers into key investors in the success of your QA environment.

There’s an art to this process that can feel uncomfortable, and just like marketing, is easy to overdo to the point that it feels contrived and manipulative. If nothing else, forcing yourself and your team to spend more time articulating the end state, and allowing that vision to be co-created with your stakeholders, will show the power of this technique.

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