To come up with a new and exciting product or service is hard. To deliver it fully and on time is usually even harder. Many people are doing it, many books and posts have been written about this topic. Even more business trainings, seminars and conferences about how to deliver more, better and faster have been organised. Yet, most organisations are still doing it wrong.
I have been delivering new products and services all my life. And in every job I’ve ever had, I have encountered (to varying degrees) the same set of challenges associated with product definition and delivery. These challenges have usually different root causes and their severity and impact is dependent on the company culture, its market position, technical aspects and other factors, but every single company I have ever worked for struggled to deal with them. In my experience, the four fundamental challenges with definition and delivery of new products most mid to large companies (but not only them) struggle with are:
- Both scope and time to market are fixed and need to be committed many months in advance
- ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ — separation of the product/marketing and technology/delivery teams
- Past disappointing experiences leading to a ‘wish-list’ mentality and, associated with it, a lack of trust in the delivery team’s commitment and capability
- Too many or too powerful stakeholders
I have deliberately left out other notorious issues like lack and quality of resources, budget availability, prioritisation etc. because these are all, to a large degree, effects and not causes of the problems listed above. It is vital to stress though, that most of these problems are mutually intertwined, they influence each other and can be really solved only in conjunction, not in isolation. In this post, I would like to give my own perspective about how these challenges affect product delivery, what their origins are and how, I believe, they can be addressed.Scope vs. Time-to-market
This is an age old problem that has been discussed a billion times in all those great project/product management and business books we all sometimes read. Large organisations simply need to plan in advance, because that’s how certain things in business (e.g. booking advertising slots) work and thus delivery teams are pushed to commit well in advance. But that’s very difficult because unless a very risk averse waterfall delivery model is to be adopted (and even that usually results in a having a wrong product too late anyway — see my other post on a similar topic) they find it difficult to commit to a delivery of a complex product many months ahead. There are simply too many unknowns, too many variables to fit into a single master plan that can be committed to 100%. So what are the options?
Well, first of all, in complex projects (assuming that quality is non-debatable) there is no such thing as fixed scope and fixed time to deliver. It is only an illusion that management likes to create to feel (temporarily) good about company’s ability to deliver its roadmap. In reality, setting both of these constraints as fixed and unmovable usually means that at the end of the project, either (or both) scope is smaller and/or time to market is longer than intended. As painful and difficult as it is, the only way to successfully fight this problem is to decide what is more important. Is there a direct competitive pressure that forces you to come up rapidly with something you can position against the new service/product your biggest rival just launched? Or are you trying to come up with a brand new innovative product that will blow people’s mind? There is no such thing as fixed scope and fixed time to deliver. It is only an illusion that management likes to createIn most cases, when you ask yourself the hard questions, it turns out that scope and delivery time do not have equal weight and impact on the product success. Whichever is more important needs to then drive the key decisions. Is time absolutely critical? Then let’s very strictly focus only on the most important features, on things that really matter and let’s defer all the nice-to-haves to version 1.5 or later. Is it the scope? Does it simply have to have all the features in the backlog? Then let’s be realistic about how long it is going to take to deliver.
Anyone who has ever delivered anything knows that this is much easier said then done. But I firmly believe that it is critical to position scope and time-to-market as parameters on the correct places on the product’s ‘what-matters’ scale and accept that one being higher than the other means, that some frequently painful trade-offs will have to be made. Without fully understanding that, it is close to impossible to keep control of the project and to deliver against its defined success criteria.‘Us’ and ‘Them’
Everyone knows this: We (usually technology) are the guys who are actually delivering this product and They (usually marketing) are just coming up with these stupidly complex ideas and incredibly short time-scales. What the hell are They doing? And in reverse: We (marketing) spent months defining, researching, planning, discussing this fantastic new product and They (technology) always tell us it can’t be done or when they say it can, they anyway deliver it too late. What the hell are They doing? Do you recognise this? I bet you do. We all do. And yet, it does not have to be that way. As you probably know yourself, there is no simple solution to this problem. And the reason is that organisational and management structures, company culture and past experiences are very strong hinderances in fixing this.
In most organisations, marketing (or ‘Products’ if you like) have a different boss then technology does. While that makes sense from all sorts of reasons, it also creates a tension right there at the very top level that it then propagated throughout the organisation. Technology and marketing people work in different teams, report to different managers, have different objectives, sit in different buildings in different parts of the country or world. All that actively encourages the Us and Them approach. And, I am afraid to say, it is only natural. If I am a marketing guy and my objectives are linked to the product having all the features and being on the market in three months, I am hardly going to feel for the technology guy whose objectives usually involve only a vague reference to the product but do stress the need to deliver high quality and on time. His interests are almost in direct opposition to mine — in extreme, he wants the smallest possible scope and the longest possible time to deliver.
Fixing this requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses all main issues at once. It basically requires to bring product and delivery teams much much closer together both physically and organisationally. It is vital that the marketing people feel the pressure of delivery and appreciate what it takes to create the product they dreamt up. And the technology teams need to see and understand what constraints and challenges marketing has to put up with, how difficult is to successfully market and sell a new product and why certain things are more important than others. Whenever possible, the core individuals from all parts of the organisation need to feel the same level of personal attachment and commitment to the delivery of the product and need to recognise that other people’s problems are as important for the success of the product as their own.Past disappointments, ‘wish-lists’ and a lack of trust
As was said earlier, all these issues are mutually linked. Here’s an example of one that exists in most organisations and that usually leads to further aggravation of all the other issues. In the previous section I talked about how to fight the Us and Them mentality and how vital it is to get people together in all senses of that word. But how do you get yourself, as a marketing person to do that when a number of times in the past you have been bitterly disappointed by technology promising something and then delivering something else (late) or not delivering at all? This is again a notoriously widespread problem affecting especially larger organisations with projects that have long lead times. There is an embedded (sometimes stealth, sometimes openly expressed) distrust between technology and marketing that results in both parts of the organisation to effectively work against (or at best next to) as opposed to with each other. This very visibly manifests itself in what I call a with-list approach to product definition.
You will all recognise it, so I will outline the scenario only briefly. Imagine a product manager who is tasked to define a new product. From previous experience he knows that less than half of the requirements he comes up with will be accepted as feasible by technology and he also knows that delivery timelines for the rest of the requirements will be 30–50% longer than he needs. So, what does an experienced product manager do in such a situation? Well, he marks almost all requirements as mandatory (leaving out only those that he does not care about at all) and asks for a delivery time 30–50% shorter than it actually needs to be. And what does the responsible and experienced technology guy or project manager do when presented with such requirements? Well, he knows his stuff and he knows that requirements will change a few times, he knows that something else will come up and a different project will steal his resources. So he tries to plan for it. He does more or less what the marketing guy expected — extends the time-lines by 50% or more and declares that a number of mandatory requirements can’t be delivered at all or only much later. In the end, they both end up with a bad product that’s late and both feel dissatisfied with the result. Sounds familiar?
So how to get out of this vicious circle? How to establish mutual trust and avoid ‘wish lists’? There are many things that can and need to be done as not a single one of them is the magical cure on its own. Firstly, technology needs to be given the opportunity and, I hate to say this, sometimes more than once, to prove that it can deliver on time and in full. This opportunity needs to be created by senior management and by the marketing teams themselves by means to cooperating very closely with technology and accepting their assessment of what can be delivered when. Technology teams need to be given the opportunity to prove that they can deliver on time and in fullYes, marketing should still challenge technology to do more, but it must recognise when to stop. To be able to recognise that point, relationships based on trust and respect must be built (at least) among the key individuals in the overall team and the team needs to be empowered to govern itself without too much external interference. Technology will then have a chance (sometimes for the first time in many years) to prove itself. To demonstrate that it can do it. And through that to allow the marketing teams to plan better for the future as from then on, they will know what their delivery engine is able to achieve on a regular basis and how to use that knowledge to their benefit.
It is also worth pointing out though, that for this to work, there is duty on the side of technology as well. With trust comes also responsibility. Technology needs to look in a mirror and face its limitations, inefficiencies and shortcomings as now there is no hiding place, there is no excuse. Are we operating as efficiently and effectively as we can? Do we have the best people? Or have we rather been hiding our issues and justifying our problems by the endless fights with marketing?Too many or too powerful stakeholders
This is always a sensitive issue. We are talking about two, practically equally disruptive influences. One is about having too many people who attempt to influence the way the product looks like, how works, how it is developed or marketed. Frequently, these demands are mutually opposite and also one-sided following specific interests of each respective stakeholder. The delivery team is then torn between these opposing influences and while trying to please everybody they end up with an all-singing-all-dancing product that is way too complex, too costly and that takes twice as long to launch.
Interestingly, even having a single major/strong stakeholder who has the sole authority to drive product shape, form and function could be troublesome. Compared to the previously discussed case, this is usually a better setup, because it allows the delivery team to focus on what really matters. Also making key decisions tends to be faster and more responsive to changing conditions. Nonetheless, in some instances, exactly because of the fact that one person is in a position of power, in a position to decide anything and everything, it can lead to a certain paralysis in the team. This paralysis is the result from an ongoing flow of changes, tweaks, modifications and other destabilising factors which the team is trying to respond to as best as it can, but because there is nobody else who can easily get the project back on track and set limits on what and when can and should be done, they struggle. It is fair to say though, that a strong delivery team and a single visionary leader/stakeholder has repeatedly proven to be an extremely effective setup for successful delivery of great products.Conclusion
Delivery is hard. Did I say that already? Oh yes, I did. But it’s true.
Unfortunately, having the best project managers, scrum masters, developers, product and marketing managers is not enough. Even with the best team you may still end up with a delayed delivery of a poor product IF you fail to create the right conditions for your team to succeed. A team can strive only if you allow it to. And effectively dealing with the four key challenges of delivery is a good start.
For July 2012, StatCounter pegged Chrome’s global market share at 33.8 percent, up from 32.8 percent in June and from 22.1 percent in July 2011. According to StatCounter’s data, IE remains strong with a 32 percent share, while Firefox is steadily losing ground and currently hovering around 23.7 percent. Apple’s Safari browser comes in fourth with a 7.1 percent worldwide market share.
Google has done it. And they have done it by rapidly and continuously developing a browser from nothing. And by making it fast and offering it on all main platforms. I remember how four years ago I installed the first beta and was amazed how much faster than IE it was. Microsoft’s innovation cycle on 18+ months simply could not keep up with Google’s machine. And let’s face it — Chrome is a way better browser than IE is. Hands down. In fact I will go as far as saying that a good chunk of IE’s current share is in fact because of large corporations forcing their employees to use it. Well, let’s see if IE10 can revert this trend… I remain skeptical.
In the second part of this mini series, I thought I would share the story behind a photograph I took earlier this summer in Dorset, UK. It was taken near Lulworth Cove in a beautiful rock formation called the Stair Hole. You can see it on the map below on the left from the Cove.
I have never been to Dorset before, but I have seen many pictures from this part of England and felt that this is a great place for landscape photographers. So when an opportunity arose and my friend Martin (also an avid photographer) came to visit us here in the UK, we quickly packed our gear and went south to Dorset for a little photo trip. As we lodged in Lulworth Cove Inn it was impossible not to notice Stair Hole immediately. It very impressive and beautiful at the same time. There is a footpath leading around it, but to really appreciate its beauty I believe you need to get down. It can be pretty slippery on a wet day and there are no ‘official’ access routes or paths, but if you are careful you can get to the bottom safely and quickly.
We spent good two or three ours in and around the Hole — it is a nirvana for landscape photographers — but shooting in the Stair Hole is not easy. This place is rocky and slippery so it’s very easy to drop your kit accidentally and you need a rather wide lens (I used my Tokina 11–16 f/2.8) if you want to capture it in its entirety or even if you want to show the spatial relations between its different parts. We were lucky enough that the weather was really good and so we could afford to wait for a good light and spend a good amount of time capturing this beauty. As you can imagine we both took a number of pictures there, but this particular photograph was taken towards the end of the day when the sun was already relatively low:
On one hand I was really glad that the sun was already low enough to create that dramatic contrast on the rock formation on the left, but it also meant that the exposure was difficult as the whole right side of the scene was more or less in the shadow. I also knew that capturing the sea splashing against the rock in the centre requires a relatively short exposure time. So I set up my tripod, composed the scene, took a few sample shots and then I stood there, remote release in my hand, eyes fixed on the rock in the centre and waited for the moment when both the sun and the sea will be ‘just right’. In total it took about ten shots to get it right and I did have to dodge and burn parts of the image later on in post processing to compensate for the limited exposure range the chip in my D300 can offer and to allow the darker parts of the rocks to become visible.
In the end, from the many photographs I took in there I chose this one. In this photograph I have tried to capture the contrast between the sea that is fluid and dynamic and the solid, age-old rocks. And in my eyes this picture shows both the drama as well as the unique and quite a solitary atmosphere you feel when you are in the ‘Hole’.
And here are the tech details for the nerds:
- Lens: Tokina 11–16 f/2.8 + Lee ND 0.9 grad filter (courtesy of Martin)
- Focal length: 14 mm
- Shutter speed: 1/60 sec
- Aperture: f/9
- ISO: 320