Strategy Backlog Management

How to rapidly gain agreement on a unified strategy in a cross-functional setting where impact, coordination, balance, and efficiencies must be optimized and are critical to manage? With multiple sometimes competing or overlapping initiatives at the functional leadership level, a leadership team must continuously review alignment and make decisions that provide the best overall outcome for the organization, staff, and external stakeholders.

We offer a simple three-stage, potentially one-page, model to facilitate a cross-functional strategy discussion and recommend a systems thinking perspective for designing solutions.

 Strategy Discussion:

  • Identify, confirm, and list pressing near-term strategy issues that must be addressed
  • Seek input from functional departments
  • Synchronize with existing quarterly plan and initiatives
  • Rank, group, and clarify
  • Model mission-level workflow between key departments, and gain agreement on critical success path
  • Identify most important cross-functional points of integration at leadership level
  • Present in context of  two or three year major objectives
  • Time-boxed small group dialog selectively working on those issues with the potential for greatest positive impact 


  • The result of a strategy discussion may be one or more change initiatives
  • These may be simple tasks that can be assigned and completed quickly
  • These may be new or revised processes, communication models, modification of functional tactics, etc.
  • Or more extensive work that requires a project orientation and process.
  • This could provide initial objectives for a more detailed and formal strategic planning process


  • Once a change or project is complete the result of the strategy discussion becomes an operational process or activity.

The process repeats itself as strategy questions are resolved into change and operations, new strategy issues surface, and the backlog is groomed to produce the ideal work sequence. This format presents a common WIP board for management of strategic work to improve integration, alignment, efficiencies, and optimize desired organizational results (metrics, impact, outcomes). Close attention to the design of performance metrics and alignment of metrics will make-or-break the ability of a team to make the best decisions consistently.

Outcome Management and User Story Mapping

Present in the non-profit space, donor pressure to demonstrate effectiveness of program activities has resulted in adoption of a planning and measurement model focused on outcomes over time. A number of naming conventions are in use including Logical Framework Analysis, LogFrame, Outcome Management, Outcome Mapping, and Results Management.

The purpose is to effectively plan activities and measure results that emerge downstream from tasks performed during a project. This model supports a lifecycle horizon beyond a formal project, where by definition there must be a specific beginning and an equally specific end.

  • Be more specific during planning stage on change objectives and strategies
  • Early test of assumptions on change theory and strategy
  • Create evaluation framework
  • Clearly identify boundary partners (direct and indirect stakeholders) that may be object of change initiative
  • Progress markers or milestones describing progress (incremental) leading to ideal outcome

Outcome Management focuses on activities that lead to outcomes that can be measured over time, not just a final milestone or product. Often this concept is applicable to complex change, non-linear or discontinuous initiatives, and organizational, behavioral, or social change.

Reading Jeff Patton’s fine book, User Story Mapping, he provides the vision and methods to tell an entire story, helping stakeholders and developers see and stay connected with the future impact of their individual or group work. His approach facilitates fundamental questions and group dialog such as, “Why are we building this?”

Perhaps his most important strategic contribution is to articulate a sound argument for outcome vs. output, especially output focused simply on simple feature quantity or speed to deliver more features.

  • He defines, “We measure what people actually do differently to reach their goals as a consequence of what you’ve built.”
  • He summarizes, “that positive change later is really why they’d want it.”

The book continues with an excellent perspective on how to think about and critique planning for resource investment: “Minimize output, and maximize outcome and impact”. Certainly applicable in the resource constrained volunteer non-profit field.

These are two complementary models where effective cross-domain leverage of tools and techniques have a strong potential to improve process and results. I recommend adding Jeff’s book to your library.

Complacency, sustaining high standards, controlling risk

Two prisoners in adjacent cells were able to cut large openings in the rear of their cells,  descend four stories into depths of the prison interior over multiple nights to break through a brick wall, cut through a two foot steam pipe twice, and cut through a chain securing the final exit manhole cover.

Over a period of weeks if not months:

  • Guards did not verify human features at night during hourly checks (stuffed sweatshirts)
  • Not inspecting interior spaces of prison, since October 2014 (no alarm system?)
  • Not inspecting prison cells, thoroughly, ever?
  • Prisoners routinely accessed tools stored by contractors, replacing carefully each morning
  • Not changing prisoner cell assignments periodically
  • No audit or review of processes
  • Staff training?
  • Prisoners had access to interior prison space for repair work, and learn about interior
  • Little evidence of random or surprise inspections, audits, or stress testing
  • Staff over-riding established security procedures without notification
  • Increased risk permitting prisoners to wear civilian clothing, have bags in their cells, etc.

Complacency and slipping standards will up-end a project likely at the worst possible time.


Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA)

The design-layout process of trace routing a printed circuit board requires device, technology, and material knowledge, plus the design talent and competency to fit a set of connection-dependent devices on to a board using one or two sides and two or more trace layers.

It is a highly iterative search, test, layout, and refinement process to converge on final layout:

  • A Looping or cyclic process
  • Clearly identifiable coupled-activity where interrelationships and information associations determine tactics, next steps, and outcome
  • Can estimate duration, or a range, and with parameters for revising first converged solution (assumption: low frequency designs)
  • RF designs will take much longer (physical layout critical)

Performance: circuit characteristics, board size, duration, and quality are based on designer skill, domain knowledge, and experience.

FPGA Coupling May 2015

Most interesting is the layout process where an FPGA is part of the schematic and board design. The majority of pins on an FPGA can be software defined and allocated at load time. This results in an even more highly-coupled and interdependent process with integrated change between schematic and physical layout as concurrent decisions on schematic, layout, and device placement are made during the board design.


Architecture Drift

Agile as a development method offers many advantages; however, the benefit of constantly changing code also presents a challenge to architectural consistency. Rapid code modification can limit the ability to leverage a well-defined architecture with clearly defined module boundaries, and can lead to a number of problems including structural code erosion and code overlap across modules.

In a distributed environment with multiple teams working on different parts of an application, the lack of an accurate map of boundaries can make it difficult to determine the correct location for new functions. The lack of a well-defined structure for the project can block developers from noticing important missing capabilities early in development.

As is always the case, discovering missing requirements towards the end of the project can lead to significant time and resource impact to resolve. DSM Clustering analysis can be an effective tool to visualize architecture, migration, and facilitate a common team understanding.

Does every child need to know how to code?

This fall, the British Broadcasting Corporation plans to give out 1 million programmable devices to every 11-year old starting secondary school in the U.K. This initiative is part of the Make it Digital initiative aimed at improving technology skills in the country. It’s the first year of a major coding initiative UK, and the BBC wants to play a part in training the next generation of programmers. By combining computer concepts with popular culture, BBC hopes to retain young user engagement, for example with content in Doctor Who.

The Micro Bit device is tiny and fits easily into the palm of a hand. Children will be able to create text via a series of LED lights, and they will also be able to use it to create basic games. The device is delivered as a small PCB with some LEDs and a single micro-USB connector, powered by a watch battery, and similar in concept to a simple version of the successful Raspberry Pi.

The project is supported by a host of partners who contribute funding to the project including Freescale, Samsung, Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor, CodeClub and ARM. The BBC will be providing a range of learning activities and resources, and there will be a resource finder to allow students, teachers and parents to find and access this material. At a time when the BBC license fee is under review, such an ambitious project is a reminder of the BBC’s public service contributions.

100 Prototypes for One Design

Kikkoman Feb 2015

For some projects, the process of exploring ideas may benefit from sustaining an extended period of uncertainty. The instantly recognizable red-caped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle is one example. The designer, Kenji Ekuan, developed 100 prototypes over three years to come up with his final design, which combined an elegant and simple curving form with an innovative drip-free spout. It would be interesting to see the range of concepts and ideas developed and considered before converging on the final solution. Clearly a successful project, introduced in 1961, more than 300 million of the bottles have been sold and is on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Laser Cut Cardboard for Prototyping

_DSC9468What a great way to rapidly create components for a high fidelity prototype. Low cost, generally free, recyclable material that can be quickly and accurately cut by a simple laser panel cutter. Check designs for fit, interference, and develop better solutions with a real prototype that can be manipulated, adjusted, and evaluated by individuals and team members.

What’s your car’s IP address?

Everything connected: Your phone, watch, house, and now your car.


The US government is moving forward assertively with a plan and standards that call for personal vehicles to be part of and always connected to a wireless Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) network, constantly sharing information as they navigate roads and intersections.

Preliminary estimates of safety benefits suggest V2V could prevent 600K crashes and save over a thousand lives each year. Additional applications could also help avoid other risks through forward collision, blind spot, do not pass, and stop light/stop sign warnings.

A live pilot has been underway in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, starting in 2012. In this real-world study, residents are driving nearly 3,000 personal vehicles equipped with V2V safety technology.

V2V-equipped vehicles can perceive some threats sooner than sensors such as cameras, or radar, and warn their drivers with immediate information. V2V can also be combined with vehicle-resident technologies to provide even greater benefits. Road surface sensors in cold climates could transmit warnings on icy conditions miles in advance and rapidly in the face of changing weather conditions. Better to know about black ice before you have the frightening experience of applying the brakes and nothing happens.

The question of privacy rises to the surface. With every private vehicle continuously transmitting GPS location, speed, direction and other information, who manages this data? Do insurance companies or law enforcement agencies have access? And, what happens to the poor pedestrian, when stop lights are no longer needed at intersections and disappear?

Although no dates are mentioned in recent NHTSA announcements, reports have suggested that V2V communications could be mandated as soon as 2017. Rearview cameras will be required in 2018.

The integration of sophisticated technology into the automotive industry will only accelerate. Traditionally, the industry produces products made of steel, glass, and rubber. The future is clearly a world of talented people from computer science, engineering, system engineering, and project management delivering amazing new capabilities and benefits.

Great Design Tools Remain Great