Business / Design

The Funnel of Uncertainty

I borrowed from the cone of uncertainty, which is a project management construct used to explain the evolution of a team’s ability to define the duration of a project. At the beginning of a project, little may be known about the actual work needed, while at the end of the project, everything is known! The cone of uncertainty is also used to describe projected paths for hurricanes; an harbinger to estimate human risk and property damage. For weather forecasting it does a good job of communicating both the projection and the inevitable uncertainty. It’s the best forecasters can do.

I’ve adapted this concept to use a funnel to reflect the process that product development teams should employ to refine a concept and evaluate technical feasibility to inform business viability. This is a process, it’s not something that happens naturally, like a hurricane moving across the Pacific towards the shore. If we treat our projects like a hurricane projection then we’ll “reap the wind”. But if we handle our projects, from inception on, with a predefined process we can get the predictability and risk insight we need to make good decisions.

Note the changes in diameter: from infinite above the funnel to constricting down through the funnel. This illustrates the refinement, the growth towards the accurate truth. This same change in diameter also expresses the capacity of a team to contribute. At the top, talk is cheap and many ideas can be bounced around without a lot of investment. By the time the project is getting architecture and final scoping, you really reduce the team’s capacity to contribute to maybe two projects at once. Then during the meat of the project, it’s obvious and intentional that a team is really focused singularly at that time. In my experience with product development, if you can’t get this kind of focus then you won’t be getting the kind of quality you need. That said, a big sign of a maturing team is the ability for a few roles to step outside an active project to plan for upcoming projects without hurting delivery velocity.

Our capacity to conceive new ideas will always outpace our ability to achieve them.

There are two keys to understand from the funnel of uncertainty. This is why I call it a funnel and why I use this as a model inside and outside of the development team.

  1. You will always have more ideas than you can implement. The funnel shows how there isn’t possibly room to actually work on everything on your list. Just the most important things and this requires discipline at the senior management level and it informs the level of investment you make in your product development team.
  2. There is a repeatable way to move from an idea towards progressively understanding scope and cost. And it’s not to just look backwards from the final product—that’s too late and too costly in smart businesses! The funnel has stages with gateways and decision points that allow you to regularly evaluate a project’s progress and viability before the you over-invest. It’s totally OK to throw out bad ideas, and it’s absolutely necessary to stop and throw out bad projects!

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