The JIRA Test

The failure to understand the business and product thinking behind product decisions leads to a significant waste of energy in startups. The misunderstanding threatens empowered teams, leading to poorly designed products and a disengaged workforce.
Over time, this situation creates a rift between Product and Engineering. Both parties focus on “their side” and fail to co-create product value.

The failure of Engineering and Design teams to understand product strategy is too often considered acceptable or, worse, expected. If you’ve heard “Engineers don’t want to hear about customers,” you’ve been on that kind of team.

Leaders should be alarmed when this situation arises, yet it’s rarely identified as an issue.

The signs are not obvious. Sometimes it’s seen in product launches with no adoption as customers find little value in the new product. It also shows up in slowly delivered features, low-quality results, and a disengaged team passively expecting work orders as JIRA tickets.

The work motion becomes exclusively top-down - leadership hands down product ideas, product managers write a product spec in isolation, and the engineering team codes it. Product motion is a slow, painful waterfall.

Of course, this is not how the best products are built or how a team becomes empowered and engaged. To connect day-to-day activities and long-term strategy, Engineers, Designers, and Product Managers must think about business and understand customers.

Connecting business, customers, and product work is more straightforward in some industries than others. B2C companies have an advantage, as product teams are more likely to use the product, thus connecting the dots. Product leaders must go the extra mile in B2B businesses. Product teams are more than capable of understanding customers if they are given the tools and information required. This task is one the product team needs to tackle directly and continuously.

Before diving into how to share business context, I recommend testing where the team stands by running the JIRA Test exercise. The exercise aims to see if team members can tie the team’s sprint work to the company's mission and metrics.

How to run the exercise

You can use stickies or a tool like LucidChart. One advantage of tools like LucidChart is that they can pull JIRA tickets dynamically.

First, get the team together and randomly pick 10-15 recently resolved/completed JIRA tickets.

For each ticket, ask team members if they can

  • Identify what opportunities are tied to this ticket.

  • Name the bets the team had placed on this work.

  • List leading metrics we hope to influence with that work.

  • Connect one or two company-/team- key results or metrics the ticket impacted.

Once the exercise is complete, recap with the team. Be honest with them; the failure to answer these questions is not on them. In fact, it’s on the product team and leaders!

If your team did great, they could tie work to opportunities and bets and finally talk about how they contribute to company objectives; amazing! You’re one of the few product teams that have managed to empower your Engineers. On the contrary, if the team sees their work completely orphaned from business objectives, you have work to do!

People’s desire to understand extends far. The need to find meaning in work is a basic human need. So powerful is that need that studies show that employees would cut their salaries to get more meaningful work.

I often hear the excuse that the startup is not doing something big enough for people to care. That’s a cop-out; there’s no need to build rockets to Mars for people to feel a sense of purpose. Almost anyone can get excited about something when they understand the “why.”

The Product Team is here to provide a shared context for the team. When it’s not a company mandate, the whole company suffers. Productivity is low; attrition is high.

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