Wondering about viability? Let impact mapping reassure you

Impact mapping is a strategic planning technique to help you manage goals, decide on priorities, and spot risks, as well as figure out solutions.

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Wondering about viability? Let impact mapping reassure you
Contributor Photo - Natalia Kolińska

Natalia Kolińska

QA Business Analyst

It leads to raised awareness in building a product and more mature delivery, because all interested parties are focused on what is important for the time being and not just pushing extra features at the end users.

As a result, the development team builds a product that actually responds to a specific business objective or at least intentionally tests some assumptions to check the potential value.

Why?

One of the most important advantages of impact mapping is that it supports stakeholders while making roadmap decisions and let them adapt quickly to the changing business environment. What is amazing about this technique is that it is quite fast, visual and collaborative, because business representatives work side by side with the technical experts.

Awareness of both the goal and big picture enables the development team to prepare better recommendations, not only related to selecting a specific technical solution. During the decision-making process more options are available for discussion and usually the optimal, shortest way from deliverable to a goal is selected. That often prevents teams from creating over engineered solutions.

If a software solution is not the best choice it might be reasonable to solve a problem with a non-technical option and focus on building some other software that will actually bring the business value. In my opinion, impact mapping can be used both for high level business as well as more detailed product goals.

Additionally, using impact mapping saves money - we can test an assumption or solve a problem fast, and a working code is not always the winning solution.

Moreover, it might be also useful for managing personal goals because - why not?

Who?

The technique is designed to improve collaboration between business stakeholders and senior technical people. However, I personally think it might also be suitable for the development team members as long as they have extensive knowledge about the product and understand business goals.

How?

How do you start with impact mapping? At our company, we started with trying it out on ourselves. I did attend a workshop lead by Gojko Adzic and afterwards conducted two similar internal trainings with the team. It is quite easy to start with, as Gojko prepared ready-to-wear open source instruction that helps you to prepare your own workshops. Reading his book ‘Impact Mapping: Making a big impact with software products and projects’ may also clarify a lot. But the easiest way is to practice and I would very much like to encourage product owners and their teams to do that.

What?

Let’s have a look at the impact map structure and try to understand its flow. An impact map consists of four levels: goal, actors, impacts and deliverables.

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Impact Mapping Road Chart

Goal - why are we doing this?

The business objective will always be the heart of an impact map. It supports us in the reflection of what aim we want to achieve and answers the question ‘why are we doing this in the first place’. Moreover, comparing the solution with the original goal will help the team understand and check its value.

In order to write down a good goal do not hesitate to ask the question ‘Why?’ multiple times till you are sure you have arrived at the real reason. It is also good practice to agree on metrics for the goal (not only of success, but also for what we feel will be a failure). Real numbers will definitely be of help while figuring out impacts and deliverables.

Actor - who is affected?

We specified the goal, now we need to think about who will be impacted by decisions made in the context of that goal. Building products is always about the people, we focus on their pain points, needs and goals. And it is not only about the end users, but also a company’s employees or competitors.

This part seems to be the easiest one, but do not forget about secondary and off-site actors as well as people who might obstruct the goal.

Impact - how should the behavior change

What is exactly an impact? The easiest definition? A behavior change that we would like to achieve to measure the business value.

In this step we should focus on what we really want. This is the time to consider the relations of our actors in the perspective of a business goal and create impacts that answer the question how should the actors’ behavior change? What actions should stop, start, occur less or more in order to satisfy the business aim.

To define a good impact we can try to focus on small changes and limit the options for instance to one user type, one location, or a specific time period, just to test the idea and explore it further if it appears valuable to the business.

Deliverable - what can we do to make the impact happen

Now we can talk the scope. It seems to be the least important part of impact mapping, but definitely a good place to think about functionalities. List as many ideas as you can and try not to limit yourself to technological solutions, maybe there are offline options that will fit the goal perfectly?

What’s next?

Once you have a list of deliverables that actually reflects the goal that you are aiming at, there are several steps to take next:

  1. Estimation - check how complex the ideas are.
  2. Prioritisation - based on estimation (or not) decide which actions suit the need best.
  3. Road map - if you want to implement more of the deliverables, it is high time to divide them into a high level plan.
  4. Creating epics, user stories, user story map - once we have a plan which deliverables are first to try out we can focus on getting to know more about them.

Tips and tricks

It is crucial to define a good goal in the center of the map. If you feel that there is trouble with forming the right objective, maybe instead of trying right away with an impact map, just start with a goal refining session, focus only on the ‘why’ question.

Please do not be tempted to put a deliverable in the place of a goal, because the entire process will likely fall apart.

If you are using impact mapping for the first time, the impacts might need some more attention. Try to find some examples or prepare some cheat sheets for the mapping session in order to help your team grasp the general idea.

At the deliverables stage it is worth checking if the solutions that had been written down actually respond to a specific impact and are not just a loose wish list.

Conclusion

As simple as impact mapping is, it might be a bit confusing to use for the very first time. Defining goals and impacts may be a challenge to start with, but once you get used to the rules the whole method will help you keep track of priorities and plan the shortest path to fulfilling the business goal.

And the last tip? Impact mapping really makes sense if you use it not only once, but make it a habit throughout the process.

Want to learn more?

Follow Gojko, go for a workshop, read the book or best - try it out!