How picking low-hanging fruit can sour your design effectiveness
Achieving quick win after quick win. What’s not to get excited about? The paradox of digital teams relentlessly chasing quick wins is that it is likely to be slowing down the growth of your business.
At this time of year in the UK the fruit trees are laden with the autumn harvest. If you go out picking fruit you can quickly spot the difference between the short term opportunist and the seasoned forager.
The opportunist grabs at what’s in front of them blinkered to anything not in immediate sight. Quality and taste are a secondary concern to their frenetic snatch and grab. They often drop as much fruit on the ground as they manage to collect.
In contrast the seasoned forager has a strategy. They know what they’ll do with the fruit they pick. They have the right clothing and equipment to get the job done efficiently. They know how to reach the best fruits.
The same can be said for digital teams. There are unintended and often unforeseen consequences from overly focussing your efforts on the low-hanging fruit. Here are five danger signs to look out for and ways to avoid them.
Danger sign #1. You get busy doing busy work
For you and your team it’s go, go, go. Calendars are bursting with meetings, workshops and design reviews. Decisions are being made. Delivery and deployment is ongoing. Analytics data is being paraded around in PowerPoint decks.
Rushing around can easily disguise the fact that although you feel productive you’re producing little of real value to the user and the business. You know you’ve fallen into this trap when you’re constantly asked to tinker with what already exists and implement small-scale predefined solutions.
A couple of great questions to regularly ask your team are: “What have you worked on in the last month/quarter that you’re most proud of?” and “What have you worked on recently that has most improved a user’s life?”
If the answers don’t come readily or don’t excite your team then the chances are you’re inadvertently just picking at the low-hanging fruit.
Danger sign #2. You can’t find time for more impactful work
When your team is head down with pressing deadlines it becomes hard to remember to also look to more distant horizons. A design team has a finite amount of time and energy. In focusing on the immediate you are sacrificing time to address the longer-term and potentially more impactful work.
Plotting a course to a more valuable future requires a plan, a map, and ongoing course correction.
Let’s start with your strategy. Do you have one? Does the digital team use it in their decision-making? Does it say what you’ll not do (or not do yet) alongside what you’ll focus on? A good strategy should give everyone clear direction and remove distractions.
In digital design you’re never far from a map. Be it a product roadmap, customer journey maps, service blueprints, agile user story mapping, site maps, data mapping etc. Maps are useful to give shape to otherwise hard to see landscapes. Zooming out gives you a wider perspective.
The often underrated “impact vs effort” matrix is a simple yet powerful map. Plotting your work in progress makes it visually clear if you’ve developed too much of a taste for the low-hanging fruit. If you have then it’s time to adjust course and restore balance in your team’s digital diet.
Danger sign #3. You develop a taste for vanity metrics
Low-hanging fruit is often accompanied by easy to reach analytics. Foraging around in analytics tools for a big enough number to justify the work done. As long as the graph goes up any data point will do.
Measuring cause and effect with accurate attribution is tricky. A precise single number is extremely hard to arrive at when actions result from a complex web of factors including decisions made over time, across channels, and influenced by multiple people.
3M has a long and esteemed track record of delivering value from innovation. They bring over 1000 new products to market every year. This focus on continuous innovation has helped them to stay competitive in constantly changing marketplaces. To create a culture of ongoing innovation they measure it. The company has a mandate for each division to generate 30% of its profits from products introduced in the last four years.
What gets measured provides a strong signal on what an organisation holds important. Introducing longer-term metrics for innovation shifts the culture to explore new opportunities rather than just optimising existing products.
Danger sign #4. Your sticking-plaster solutions mask the underlying problem
Design teams attract problem solvers. People feel energised and rewarded by work that has purpose. If you end up in an endless cycle of quick wins you’re not going to be getting the best from your team.
If the focus of your team’s efforts are quick wins then ask yourself what’s preventing them from doing more ambitious work. It could be the absence of a coherent strategy. Or it could be a lack of quality control. Let’s take each in turn.
With no strategy — or one that is so abstract it doesn’t translate into prioritising what to work on — design teams fill their time with work that has high volume but little value.
To find out if this is the cause, ask your design teams to go through what they’re working on and articulate how it aligns with the organisation’s strategy. If they can’t connect their work to it then it’s time to clarify and re-communicate your strategy.
A lack of time for quality control is the other major cause of getting stuck in the rut of endless optimisation. A culture of ship-and-then-fix can quickly lead to a growing pile of preventable technical and design debt. Get your team to estimate the time spent patching up what could and should have been better polished the first time around.
Danger sign #5. Your design teams forget how to be inventive
If all your design team is asked to do is small-scale work you’re at risk of a stagnation of the imagination.
Design innovation is a habit. The more you do the better you get at doing it and the better you get at doing it the more you do. Like many positive habits the hardest part is getting started and sticking to a routine.
A good test of your inventiveness is to periodically take stock of the work your design team is doing. I like to classify work into three broad categories futures, features and fixes to see if there is a healthy balance in the team’s efforts.
If you need to jump start the team to address more innovative ideas then run a programme of design sprints, host a hackathon or set time aside for skunk works style projects. These techniques ringfence the time to inject speed and intention into looking for and tackling more impactful work. They can provide the gateway to a more considered programme of innovation.
Design transformation comes from climbing a little higher
There are hidden and unpalatable side effects when you overly gorge on low-hanging fruit. Quick wins take time and attention from your design team that could be more productively spent. It’s too easy to inadvertently get trapped in an ever-decreasing circle of smaller and safer tactical patches.
Design transformation takes effort. Staying relevant to changing customer needs and keeping ahead of your competition are constant and ongoing challenges. Picking the low-hanging fruit might seem a sensible approach but the biggest rewards are only available for those who reach a little further and climb a little higher.