Why use Impact Mapping?

Impact mapping is a strategic planning technique. It prevents organisations from getting lost while building products and delivering projects, by clearly communicating assumptions, helping teams align their activities with overall business objectives and make better roadmap decisions.

Our products and projects do not work in a vacuum. They have an interdependent, dynamic relationship with people, other projects, the organisation and the wider community around them. Yet currently popular planning methods either expect the world to stand still while we deliver or give up on creating any kind of long-term big-picture view, leaving a huge communication gap between business sponsors and delivery teams. Impact maps visualise the dynamic relationship between delivery plans and the world around them, capturing the most important assumptions as well as delivery scope. They help us adapt plans effectively and react to change, while still providing a good road map for delivery teams and a big-picture view for business sponsors.

Impact mapping helps to reduce waste by preventing scope creep and over-engineered solutions. It provides focus for delivery by putting deliverables in the context of impacts they are supposed to achieve. It enhances collaboration by creating a big-picture view that business sponsors and delivery teams can use for better prioritisation and as a reference for more meaningful progress monitoring and reporting. Finally, it helps to ensure that the right business outcomes are achieved, or that unrealistic projects are stopped before they cost too much, by clearly communicating underlying assumptions and allowing teams to test them.

Similar approaches to impact mapping are used in many proven management styles, including US and UK military Mission Command and workplace empowerment in commercial organisations, as well as several goal-driven requirements engineering methods for software. Impact mapping has several unique advantages over similar methods:

  • It is based on a method invented by an interaction design agency and similar to a team-building method, which means that it facilitates collaboration and interaction. It is significantly less bureaucratic and much easier to apply than many alternatives. It also facilitates the participation of groups of people from different backgrounds, including technical delivery experts and business users, helping organisations use the wisdom of crowds.
  • It visualises assumptions. Alternative models mostly do not communicate assumptions clearly. Impact mapping does, and because of that it helps teams to make better decisions in rapidly changing environments such as IT. The visual nature of this method also facilitates effective meetings and supports big-picture thinking, which provides organisational alignment.
  • It is fast. One of my clients recently said that it would take them months to achieve what we did in just two days. Because of this, it fits nicely with iterative delivery models that are now becoming mainstream in software.

In essence, you should care about impact mapping because it can help you build products and deliver projects that make an impact, not just ship software.

When everyone involved in delivery understands the objectives, expected impacts and key assumptions in the same way, products and projects benefit from better focus and less waste. This is why goal-oriented requirements engineering methods are becoming increasingly popular in software academia. The current goal-oriented requirements engineering practices mostly focus on the early requirements phase – they end where most traditional specification techniques would start. This provides a big-picture view, but it also significantly undercuts the effectiveness of such techniques in modern software delivery.

Iterative delivery methods and lean startup ideas place significant emphasis on integrating the learning from delivery into refining scope, specifications and requirements. Upfront plans are inadequate because the landscape changes too frequently.

Impact maps bridge the two worlds: they facilitate strategic planning and thinking to create a big-picture view focused on key business objectives, but also facilitate learning through delivery and help us manage project roadmaps. They represent and organise project scope in a way that is easy to evolve, reprioritise, grow and shrink as necessary to react to changed market opportunities or new knowledge.

Strategic planning

Impact mapping is a great way to engage senior business and technical experts at the start of work on a product module or project milestone to create a shared understanding of scope – not from a technical but from a business perspective. Visual meeting techniques and collaboration ensure that senior decision-makers share an understanding of key business assumptions. This helps to align everyone with the overall vision, and gives delivery experts enough information to make the right decisions later.

Defining quality

An impact map clearly shows the impacts that technical deliverables are supposed to produce, from a business perspective. This visualisation defines the expected quality of software from a holistic level, and ensures that everyone involved in delivery and decision making shares the same understanding. An impact map helps the delivery organisation maintain a strong focus during delivery, and helps to prioritise and define activities related to improving or assuring quality. The role of testing becomes proving that deliverables support desired actor behaviours, instead of comparing software features to technical expectations. If a deliverable does not support an impact, even if it works correctly from a technical perspective, it is a failure and should be treated as a problem, enhanced or removed.

Roadmap management

An impact map communicates scope, goals and priorities, but also assumptions on two levels. The first is that a deliverable will support a change in behaviour of an actor, produce an impact. The second is that once the impact is supported, the relevant actor will contribute to the overall objectives. This visualisation makes impact maps a powerful tool for roadmap management.

Once a deliverable is shipped, we can measure the actual changes in actors’ behaviour and the impact on the overall objective. We can then re-evaluate our strategy and decide whether to continue working on the same part of the map or move on to something else.