No such thing as a technology canvas? Now there is.

Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash

There seems to be a canvas for everything these days. Alexander Osterwalder from Strategyzer can take credit for much of this with the creation of the Business Model model canvas and distribution under creative commons license.

Some of the other canvases you may have used or heard of are the lean canvascontext canvasvalue proposition canvasecosystem canvas…the list goes on.

To help prepare for a recent workshop that involved a holistic discussion covering the customer, business and technology, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to use a combination of the business model canvas, value proposition canvas and a technology canvas to help shape up the discussion? 

So, when I did a Google search for “technology canvas”, to my surprise, there wasn’t anything that I could find that came close to the simplicity and broad coverage that some of the more established customer/business canvases provide.

Following an exhaustive search, the closest thing I could find was the AWS cloud strategy canvas, however, this wasn’t broad enough for what we were after.

So, with a seeming gap in the world of canvases, my colleague and I decided to create our own. In defining the scope of what the canvas might cover, we agreed, it should achieve three key objectives:

  1. Business alignment: Given technology is an enabler of business outcomes, ensure the canvas is anchored to the business strategy and objectives.
  2. Go beyond just the technology: Extending the scope of the canvas to cover the complementary areas of people and process.
  3. Flexible application: Identify categories that are generic enough to cover a wide range of technology related contexts and problem areas.

As noted in objective 1 above, the core value of the canvas is to ensure it ties back to the business strategy and outcomes that ultimately, technology is meant to support.

This is important as it reinforces that fact that technology decisions should follow business strategy. And if done correctly, business strategy is based on the core customer problem to be solved. 

With the technology canvas having traceability back up the strategic decision making chain, it helps to ensure a strong rationale and logic to the technology decisions and recommendations that will ultimately enable customer and business value. Additionally, this helps to make the prioritisation and investment decision process much easier!

The Technology Canvas 1.0:

So here is what we came up with:

The intention is that you move through each section in a clockwise direction. Focusing on those areas that present the greatest challenges and opportunity given your situation.

In using the technology canvas as a discovery tool, it is best used in a workshop format to rapidly identify the following:

What you know

What you don’t know

What you need to know as a priority

This is where the benefits of the exercise really pay off as it uncovers in a group environment the areas that you know the least amount and ideally, gain alignment around where you should concentrate your effort.

If using the canvas in a workshop format, you should be able to move through each section in 5- 10 mins. This means if you have only an hour to meet and discuss, you should be able to do a quick first pass of the canvas and identify where a more focused discussion might be warranted.

It’s important to note, that having a supplemental space to sketch or illustrate will be helpful, in particular around the technology topography or architectural design. 

I’ve highlighted below some considerations as you progress through each section of the canvas.

Business strategy and supporting solutions:

As I’ve noted above, technology is an enabler for business outcomes. Given this, we’ve positioned the business strategy as the first section in the canvas with the objective of anchoring all the other sections back to this area.

If there are a lot of unknowns in the business strategy space, I’d be concerned as this sends a strong signal of feasibility risk, in particular, the potential of a weak foundation for technology related decisions and delivery.

It is the responsibility of the business to ensure the organisation is doing the right thing, i.e. the thing that will solve a customer problem, that people are willing to pay for and will generate business value. 

As for the technology team, your job is to ensure you build the thing right.

It is worth challenging the business on their strategy to ensure it is rock solid in the articulation of ‘doing the right thing’ to provide the confidence to design the right solution and inform sound technology decisions.

Some of the key considerations in discussing this area include:

What key business priorities does technology need to support?

What is the core customer and business problem that technology will help to solve?

What technology challenges are limiting your ability to meet business objectives to date?

What is the desired future state of your business-enabling technology?

Additionally, in this section, it is worth agreeing on the specific solutions (products/services) that technology currently support with consideration of those that are already in market and/or those the business is looking to introduce into market. This context is important as it will help frame the system context and the extent to which you are dealing with legacy systems vs. a blank slate to begin your technology discussion.

Understanding the system context:

The next two sections should provide the 10,000 foot view. For those who are big picture thinkers, this is where you will shine. This area focuses on two sections:

Ecosystem:

Evaluating this area is extremely important in that it provides a bird’s eye view of the entire ecosystem that you play in. Given most organisations cannot do everything themselves, it is important to get a view of the ecosystem you operate in, specifically, the inter-relationships across suppliers, distributors, partners, infrastructure providers, etc, down to the end customer. 

Having a clear view of this helps to ensure that everyone understands the level of complexity within your ecosystem and the role your organisation plays to set the context for your technology strategy and choices. Additionally, this view provides insight around the kind of data that needs to flow through the ecosystem and the dependencies to make this happen.

Integration / Partners:

Falling out of the ecosystem view is identifying who are your key suppliers, what kind of relationship exists with them (and the quality of that relationship) and any other potential partnering opportunities you might be considering. Understanding your third-party dependencies and any limitations (or opportunities) will have downstream implications.

System design and execution:

Now that we know the lay of the land, it’s time to get into the detail that most engineers and architects love. Bring on boxes, diamonds, circles and all of those interconnecting lines and arrows! This is where the rubber hits the road and the whiteboard comes in handy.

Architecture/Design:

Drawing out the architecture, the various components that cover the technology stack and how these inter-relate. This is where I’d augment the canvas with a whiteboard or some other visual tool that will allow people to sketch out a high level view of the system architecture. My collaborator on creating the canvas is a big fan of the C4 model for visualising software architecture.

The areas worth noting within the actual canvass might include:

Key components of the architecture

Any areas of concern / challenges / risk within the design?

Areas of focus (i.e. replacing a legacy system, upgrading a system, etc)

Channels:

Now that you have a view of the architecture, this section of the canvas focuses in on the different ways the business interacts with its customers. This is critically important as all the effort of IT boils down to this point, the interaction with the end user. Within this section, ask yourself:

Is face-to-face a channel of engagement? If so, describe where these interactions take place eg. store front.

Or is your interaction with customers purely based on digital channels? If so, which are used, mobile, web, other devices?

Does one channel dominate others in terms of the proportion of use?

In the future state do you need all of the channels or intend to focus on one or few?

I highly recommend the use of a customer journey map based around your most critical use cases as a convenient way to gain a view of the various ways that customers interact with various channels across the various stages of the customer journey. Using this provides a great framework to understand the technology, systems and data that are required to support each stage of the journey.

Security, Identity & Compliance:

Within the security section, this is where it will be important to narrow focus as this section can easily warrant a canvas unto itself! Key questions to discuss might be:

Do we know what is the worst thing that could happen?

Where might we be compromised?

What current risks does the business face and what is the current security model and controls in place to control these and gaps?

Data & Analytics:

As with the security section, using one block of the canvas to capture the essence of the situation around data and analytics is challenging. I’d recommend only go as deep as is required on this item as you can set up a follow-up workshop to work through in further detail at a later date.

Some of the key questions to consider might include:

What type of data do you collect? Where is it stored?

How much data is collected and stored?

What kind of analytics do we need to perform?

Do we need to operate on real-time or batch data?

Are we dependent on external parties for data?

Do we intend to commercialise data?

People and process:

As we move into the final few sections of the canvas we start to move into the vitally important consideration of the people and processes that support delivery and operations. In looking at these the focus will be around three areas:

People & Capability:

Depending on the level of maturity and growth of your organisation, this is a section that is often glossed over. Taking the time to understand where your team strengths and weaknesses exist will be important, in particular understanding where your existing teams may have skills gaps to improve on and where investment in additional resources may be warranted.

It is also important to conduct a sense check on the team culture as the best crafted strategy and plan can fail without the right people and culture to support it.

Ways of working:

I’ve dedicated a section to ‘ways of working’ as like people, it plays a critical role in the decision making process and how people get things done. This section provides an opportunity to discuss the current process and governance in place to support the teams in their day-to-day activities. This includes the extent to which your team currently uses waterfall, agile or other ways of working and whether there are any opportunities for improvement or change.

DevOps & Information and monitoring:

Within these sections discussion should centre around how teams can work more effectively, specifically, how the teams might deliver applications and services at higher velocity and at higher quality. Understanding the current level of automation, tooling and processes to support continuous delivery and integration will be of value.

Cost of technology:

The final section of the canvas looks at what investment is required to support the technology, people and processes. Our recommendation is to look at this section last as it provides a reality check on where the current level of investment may be or where you may need to invest. Also, discussions around this section should consider the funding source, is it capex? Opex funded? Other? Also, is there a particular funding process or cadence associated with the context you operate within?

Additionally, this section can provide a view of objectives the business may have from a cost perspective and the extent to which the decisions you make align to these objectives.

Conclusion:

So there you have it! In a summarised form, your canvas might look something like this, supplemented by whiteboard diagrams and related information.

Now that you have your canvas and any accompanying architecture diagrams or related information, it’s time to agree on where you focus and commit to a plan of action.

A common method is to identify the riskiest areas or areas that present the greatest challenges to the business. One way to do this is to do a dot voting exercise or map out your assumptions from the canvas into a 2 x 2 matrix based on assessing each assumption by the level of importance/value and risk/urgency. There is no right way to do this. It really depends on your situation and what levers matter most in making prioritisation decisions.

As goes the tradition with a lot of these canvases, it is available under creative commons for your personal use and to use to derive alternative canvases.

Also, if you’re interested, would happy to talk to you about hosting a workshop to explore your business and technology needs!

Given this is 1.0, appreciate any feedback you may have to strengthen this canvas to benefit all.

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