Deliverables should be a knowledge worker’s best friend but, like all good friendships, the relationship can get complicated. One of the most direct ways to improve the quality of knowledge work is to spend more time and effort to define appropriate deliverables.
My faith in deliverables has grown out of decades of practical consulting experience, where defining the appropriate deliverable can mean the difference between mediocrity and success. A deliverable is an identifiable work product intended for someone outside the knowledge work process that marks the end of that particular process. Examples of deliverables include:
- A consulting report prepared by the consultant or consulting team containing recommendations to the client sponsor.
- A list of recommended job offers to prospective employees prepared by a campus recruiting team and handed to the hiring manager.
- Production Release 1.0 of a new application system installed and operating on the companies intranet.
- A project work plan and business case delivered to a steering committee for approval.
Why Deliverables Are Relevant
In the world of industrial work, process outputs are well-defined. This gives organizations a straightforward process improvement path. Holding the outputs constant allows process improvement to proceed by identifying and eliminating activities that don’t add value to the output; to break down, reorder, and redesign process steps to create more standard outputs with less input; and so on.
This path isn’t available to knowledge work practices. The goal is not to produce well-defined, standardized outputs. Deliverables are the closest analogue but their value depends on how well they match the unique needs of their users. No one is interested in a spreadsheet full of someone else’s data; no teacher is likely to value a copy of a paper you’ve submitted to another class. Understanding what aspects and features of a knowledge work deliverable are most valuable to its intended user is key to focusing efforts on producing the desired deliverable.
Natural vs. Artificial Deliverables
Some knowledge work processes produce obvious and natural deliverables. A campus recruiting effort generates a list of candidates to extend offers to. There may be a variety of associated supporting documents (e.g., interview notes, assessments), but the list is the deliverable and is a natural outgrowth of the process.
Other knowledge work processes generate more amorphous or less obvious outputs. For example, what’s the deliverable for a typical project status meeting? Shared understanding among the project team? Agreement about the state of the project between the team and the project sponsor?
Consider the typical status report as a more artificial than natural deliverable and ask how much value resides in this particular item. If you can define the deliverable more effectively, is the world a better place?
Defining Better Deliverables
The better we can define deliverables, the better and more effective we can make our knowledge work. Rather than ignore the end product, we need to be systematic in extracting as much as we can about the expected deliverable that can guide our effort to create it. There are three productive paths to explore in using the deliverable to drive your knowledge work.
- Path #1: Understand the user’s essential quality need
Does this deliverable need to be exactly correct whatever the time or cost, as good as possible given a particular deadline/budget, or the best you can come up with on the phone? Each deliverable demands a different approach; each requires a conversation (and perhaps a negotiation) with the end user. The history of systems development is littered with examples of failing to follow this path.
- Path #2: Balance uniqueness and uniformity
We’ve been conditioned by one hundred years of industrial experience to value uniformity. In knowledge work, the value of uniformity is to free time and attention for the essential uniqueness we’ve defined. The folks in marketing may believe that corporate identify standards are about branding. For a knowledge worker, they let you ignore formatting decisions to focus on the content that matters.
- Path #3: Specify stopping conditions
There was an joke that was old even in my early consulting days that you knew the design phase was complete when the budget ran out. Possibly the biggest challenge for managing knowledge work is determining how to recognize that the deliverable is done. Think of the unfinished doctoral dissertations and manuscripts of the great American novel gathering dust on a shelf or lost in a lonely directory of a disk drive. Too many knowledge-work efforts fail simply because no one thinks about how to recognize what "done" will look like.
Focusing on deliverables means working backwards with the end in mind. Knowledge work is valuable to the extent that it produces end results, i.e. deliverables, that meet the unique requirements of a particular customer or end user. Time invested in understanding what that deliverable should look like will yield the greatest return in defining and focusing the activities that contribute to creating that particular deliverable at the right time and place.