Business outcome language: an introduction for software engineers

Using a business outcome language helps keeping the problem definition focused on the value that you should deliver to your customers. Let’s explore together how to make sure our language is not polluted by technical details.

As a technological leader at your company, you are the citizen of two worlds: the business world and the implementation world. Each world speaks its own language, so it’s vital that they communicate clearly and unambiguously.

Your first days in the implementation world

Software engineers typically start their career in the implementation world, with few contact opportunities with the business world.

As a software engineer what excites you is the challenge of solving a problem. You crave more problems and you feel more satisfied as you solve them. Your brain is triggered by the problem definition and it starts spitting out all of the possible ways you can achieve the expected result.

The problem definition at this stage is probably in an implementation-oriented language with little indication as to what business outcome the company is looking for. It’s likely that you don’t care about that though because you only care about the coding challenge.

Your language evolves around the how

In the implementation world you develop a language that is specific to the solution to the problems and the tools you have to solve them.

You communicate with your peers by focusing on how to achieve the solution. The discussions often develop around the technical details of the existing software.
The foreigners living outside of the implementation world look at you with surprise and curiosity: your words don’t really make much sense from the outside.

The first contact with the foreigners

There comes a point in your career when you have to interact with the people from the business world and work together.

Depending on the approach your company has for building product, this interaction can often be an opportunity for the two worlds to collaborate and find a sensible outcome to pursue.
The most effective way of doing this is by a common language: the business outcome language.

Certainly, this is often challenging for the implementation people because their native language is not well understood outside their world. Using the implementation language comes naturally for them. Explaining how something can or cannot be achieved through implementation details feels incredibly easy.

The trouble with the implementation language

Let’s see a few examples of why using the implementation language for every interaction can be counter-productive.

We can’t do that!

dilbert, technical debt, comic strip, business outcome language

“What you’re asking is impossible to do by that date. The amount of technical debt we have accumulated means that we need 3 months to refactor the service classes to be capable of supporting this new functionality. We also have to update to the latest version of the database in order to support that change…”

– An implementation world native

While those might all be valid reasons as to why the specific change in question is hard to achieve, they are contributing to setting the wrong tone for the conversation.

Raising very specific technical concerns is going to shift the conversation to an explicit technical negotiation.
The people from the business world will inevitably, and often subconsciously, try to petition the implementation people for a middle-ground solution. This achieves a similar outcome but overcomes some of the technical limitations that have been raised.

When the negotiation is successful it might feel like a WIN-WIN situation but in reality, it isn’t.

First of all, the business people might have just agreed to build functionality that is polluted by workarounds and has evolved around technical constraints instead of around the customer.
Similarly, the implementation people might have just accepted to build more technical debt into their world.

I speak your language too, I’ll tell you exactly what you have to do!

dilbert, feature creep, comic strip, business outcome language

“We need to add a new button to the page so that the users can export the data as PDF.”

– A business world native speaking the implementation language

The above example is outlining exactly which technical solution should be used without even specifying what the problem to be solved is.
Imagine the following problem definition, instead: the users want to share the insights data with their colleagues with minimum effort.

While an “Export as PDF” button might try and address the issue, it only partially solves for it. Exporting as PDF, saving it to your disk, finding it again to attach it into an e-mail doesn’t necessarily mean minimum effort.

Having clarified that the users want to share insights with minimum effort helps the engineers come up with a much more effective solution. One possibility is providing the users with a “Share” call to action that sends the insights to the desired recipients, without having to export anything.

Clarifying what the problem is instead of mandating a specific solution will let the engineers and the designers explore the best approach within the current constraints.

A technical language anchors down the thinking

The implementation language is a powerful way of describing solutions. It is very detailed and it helps engineers be unambiguous as to what has to be done.
Its power, though, makes it dangerous if used in the wrong context.

Bringing too many implementation details into the discussions anchors the thinking to the status quo, potentially preventing from identifying the right value for the users of your product. It is important to defer the implementation evaluation to the very end in order to let the thinking evolve and articulate in the space of the business outcome that the company wants to achieve.

Help free the language from the technical constraints

As a technological leader, you should be fluent in both languages. Take advantage of this and make sure the conversation stays away from implementation details by ensuring that all the people involved speak a business outcome language.

Understand the technical limitations and concerns raised by your compatriots and translate them into the appropriate language, weighing what is really worth including in the conversation.

Make sure not to preclude innovation and avoid constraining the thinking to the status-quo of the technical limitations. This exercise will help you evaluate many more implementation opportunities than before.

Cover photo by Headway on Unsplash

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