Understanding the big picture

Often overlooked, we can do better at understanding and aligning on the external forces that affect our business

In my last post, Struggling to Find Focus, I shared how the lack of focus makes it difficult to do valuable work. As a follow-up, I want to share a first step in the approach we've relied on at Purple Sector that can help you and your teams find focus.

How do you know if you need to find focus? Think about all the ideas and false-starts that typically populate our product roadmaps and backlogs. These tools look more like graveyards than fields of burgeoning potential. It's usually a sign of misdirection, short-lived priorities, and confusion about what is important to the business and its customers. Teams flounder, innovation grinds to a halt, and no manner of clever acronym can make your bottom line look good. It doesn't have to be this way.

Let's talk about where to start, because like most things that drive positive change, it can be daunting to find the first step.

Start at the top. No, I don't mean the C-suite, I don't mean the board. I'm not talking about the business itself but the external context in which it operates. Start by identifying all the bits and bobs we don't have any direct control over, but impact how we do business. This can include regulations, policies, societal forces, trends, etc. There are some factors that would be common from company-to-company, such as operating a business during a pandemic, adjusting to remote work, etc. There are other factors that might be more specific to your business and the industry you work in, think regulated industries like healthcare and finance, and policies they must adhere to.

While these factors aren't likely to change often, it does happen, and you need to be able to identify and communicate those changes and their impacts to the entire organization. Think back to March 2020 where everything was flipped on its head because of the pandemic. Some companies couldn't survive the change and quickly shuttered, others excelled as they identified how they could respond to address our new reality, while others still flounder to understand how to react to our changing circumstances. Companies that are unable to react to external forces aren't relating the day-to-day work back to the larger landscape effectively. Sometimes it shows in obvious ways, other times it's a slow burn.

I know it sounds simple. Business 101, right? But we overlook this a lot. If we don't take the time to talk about it, document it, and revisit it — we're not aligning our teams to a common truth. A new external factor might require fundamental change — but we often lack the language and practice to talk about how it impacts day-to-day activities because we are so caught up in delivering on our understanding of the past. We dive quickly into executing on ideas and hope those smaller details will sort out the big picture for us. But if you don't have a general idea of the big picture, then how will you find it?

Getting started doesn't have to be complicated, but it needs to be deliberate. Assessments of external factors don't happen very often (or at all) and often only include a select few in senior management. But this is the kind of information that is hyper-relevant to teams executing the work because it gives them context and something to focus on. Without it, they are making decisions based on their own assumptions.

At Purple Sector we like to take a collaborative workshop approach to guide these types of exercises and conversations. A bit of structure goes a long way, but the mechanics are simple: write those external factors down (on sticky notes, Google Docs, napkins), group related items, and then identify which are the most important. And don't skip this part — challenge and discuss it! Chances are you will already start to see if your current plans align or not.

Starting to understand the external forces starts to bring more purpose and direction to the smaller ideas — it gives those ideas homes. Those homes give teams a better understanding of how their contributions relate to the big picture. This, starts to bring focus. I only say starts because there are more levels to unearth — your business goals, your customer needs, your product offering — that further hones that focus. You have to start somewhere, and this is only the first step, but it will bring you and your teams more confidence that the work being executed matters: to your business, to your customers, to your employees.