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Defining Success: Seeing the Big Picture in a Software Development Project


One of the very first things we do once we’re partnering with a company is to establish a big picture vision and objectives and key results. When you’re clear on the big picture and your main objectives, the rest of your software development project comes into focus.

Below we explain why it’s such a pivotal step and what the process entails.


The Value of a Big Picture Vision

First, let’s look at why creating a big picture vision is important.

Simply put, lacking a big picture strategy usually means there’s a lack of cohesion and synergy within an organization. No one is working to the same schedule or even sure what everyone else is asking for when it comes to the software project. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that when that kind of scenario occurs, no one — from executives right down to developers — is happy.

Establishing a big picture vision is a great way to get all of the project’s desired features down in one list. It doesn’t mean you have to follow through with all of them, but it helps put everyone on the same page and understand where the priorities lie for different departments.

Ultimately, it gives you a roadmap you can take to stakeholders across the organization. Everyone understands exactly what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what’s most important. This gives everyone in the organization the chance to have better, more meaningful conversations, and also empowers project managers to really own the development.

The result is alignment throughout the company. With a big picture, you don’t get tied down in the minutiae of individual tasks or caught up micromanaging specific teams. This makes big picture visions and specifically OKRs (objectives and key results) effective at “aligning top-down strategy with bottom-up, team-level commitments to intermediate goals in support of that strategy,” writes consultant Jeff Gothelf in Harvard Business Review. “The strength of OKRs explicitly lies in de-emphasizing specific tasks, and instead emphasizing the value that those tasks deliver.”


We Start Big and Work Small

When setting goals of any kind, it’s important to start with the highest level vision possible and subsequently break everything down into the smallest increments until you get a set of day-to-day tasks developers can accomplish.

It’s why we always start by establishing an organization’s vision, objectives and key results before anything else. Doing so gives us a roadmap of exactly what needs to be done, meaning we get an idea of how big the task we’re undertaking is and how long it will take. This can even be translated into a dollar amount for the customer and added to the road map to give a visual representation of the workflow.

Don’t get too caught up in the details, though. Your big picture vision isn’t meant to provide the nitty-gritty details needed to complete a project —it’s simply a vision of where you want to go and how you’re going to measure your progress on the journey.


We Always Work With the Customer

The customer is an essential partner in building the big picture vision and establishing objectives and key results. They need to help us understand what’s required and what’s most important — even if they don’t know it themselves at first.

By working with the customer, we give them the opportunity to really own the vision and objectives. Even a small hand in the development of something naturally gives a person a level of ownership. The more they own the vision, the more they’ll defend it to stakeholders and the more likely they’ll be to stick by it when things get tough.

It also ensures that everyone is working together towards the same goal. “Creating alignment in the organization is one of the main OKR benefits,” writes OKR trainer Felipe Castro. “The goal is to ensure everyone is going in the same direction, with clear priorities, in a constant rhythm.”

It takes time and effort from both sides to accomplish this, and this is one of the reasons we have the partnership working agreement in place first. Without the cooperation of the customer, we’ll never be able to understand what’s really important to them and which features we need to prioritize. It will also inevitably lead to a disagreement later in the project if we don’t take the customer’s feedback onboard now.


Relate Everything Back to the Objectives

The beauty of spending time creating a big picture vision and a set of OKRs at the start of a project is that they make prioritizing work much easier further down the line. It’s not a question of “what should we work on?” but “which tasks will help us meet our vision and OKRs?”

So, once you have established a big picture vision and OKRs, refer to them repeatedly throughout the project. If you’re working on a feature that doesn’t relate to one of your key objectives, you need to question why you’re doing it. If you can’t articulate the business value it’s driving then you need to work on something else instead.

When your key results are quantifiable measures of business success, it’s easy to focus people on what matters, writes Kim Atherton, founder and CEO at OKR software provider Just3Things. Everyone works to deliver demonstrable business value as a result.


Revisit The Big Picture

Each step of your goal-setting process, from the big picture down to the day-to-day tasks, will need to be revisited at some point. But each of these stages has its own iteration cycles. So, while you will want to set expectations every day or week and look at tasks at the start of every sprint, you’ll also need to revisit your big picture vision and OKRs at some point.

The roadmap you sketched out at the start was never meant to be a rigid plan. As with everything in agile development, it can change. This is “the biggest confusion in software project management,” says Nave’s Sonya Siderova. “Roadmaps are dynamic, they can and must change in response to new information. For example, a long-term goal could be to turn more leads into customers. There are many methods to make this happen and features that could be implemented, but these should not yet be the focus.”

We revisit the big picture and OKRs every quarter or six months to ensure both the vision and objectives are still relevant. If they are, nothing needs to change. If the business has moved in a different direction or another development project has been prioritized, we can change the vision, objectives and key results as necessary.

Most organizations suffer from a lack of review meetings, says Alex Circei, cofounder and CEO at Waydev, a development analytics tool provider for engineers. “Having quarterly OKRs is typical of dynamic sectors (media, tech). This ensures more frequent discussions on progress, improvements and challenges along the way, that can be more easily solved.”

Once your big picture vision is established and your OKRs defined, we can start to understand your business and become a subject matter expert.


Images by: ThisisEngineering, Leon, airfocus

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