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.
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.
Very impressive. Not sure I would have use for it now, but it’s pretty cool anyway. And it’s only 70 bucks. Hey, Leap, why don’t you send me a review unit?
…and still 9 days to go. They asked for a 100k and will get more than 100 times more and have become the most successful project in Kickstarter’s history. That’s a LOT of watches to make though. I hope they are geared up for it as the 65k+ backers will want their rewards soon.
Podcasts are fun. And there’s a ton of them out there so unless all you do is listening to podcasts, you need to be pretty picky. I started listening to podcasts several years ago as a way to keep up with the news in business and technology while traveling. In a week I would normally listen to 10 or 12 hours of podcasts while driving to and from the office.
On a regular basis, I listen to:
- Hypercritical hosted by John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin
- Build & Analyse hosted by Marco Arment and Dan Benjamin
- Back to Work hosted by Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin
- The Talkshow hosted by John Gruber and Dan Benjamin
- The Critical Path hosted by Horace Dediu and Dan Benjamin
- The Vergecast hosted by Josh Topolsky, Nilay Patel and Paul Miller
On top of that, I somewhat selectively listen to:
- After Dark hosted by Dan Benjamin
- The Art of Photography hosted by Ted Forbes
- Ihnatko’s Almanac hosted by Andy Ihnatko
- This American Life
- In our time hosted by Melwyn Bragg
- 5by5 Movie Specials hosted by Dan Benjamin
Many of these podcasts are on Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network. Dan has built 5by5 from ground up and managed to gather a great group of hosts whose voice is well respected in the on-line/web/technology community. I would therefore wholeheartedly recommend Dan’s podcasts to anyone who is interested in technology and news in on-line world.
Most of the podcasts I listen to last over an hour (some of them occasionally even over 2 hours) and while it is perfect for my listening pattern, it may does not work for everyone. And hour-long podcast may be quite difficult to follow when listened to in four of five short chunks over several days. But that’s all fair enough I guess. After all, as John Siracusa would surely agree, it is rarely possible to properly analyse any topic in less then half an hour;-)
Just a couple of days ago, Google announced their new future concept/vision/idea/hallucination that they call Google Glass. At this stage, as was nicely put by Joe Stracci it is not more than a “cool” video. What it does do though is showing Google’s thinking about how to become even more present in our daily lives.
In the initial announcement post, there are several somewhat confusing statements. My favourite one is:
We think technology should work for you—to be there when you need it and get out of your way when you don’t.
I seriously struggle to see how constant pop-up notification in front of my eyes mean “getting out of way”. Not only it is very distracting, but I can totally see this being quite dangerous (how about to check your Google+ notifications while driving?). But I also understand what is Google trying to do. It is trying to become fully integrated in people’s everyday activities, it’s trying to create a world where there is practically no escape from the on-line community. This sounds as much fun as Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that there’s concepts like public and private are mutually interchangeable. As we are the commodity Google is selling to advertisers, the more they know about who we meet, what we do, what we look at and where we are, the better for their ad-driven strategy. Now, if over 96% of my revenues were coming from adverts, I would probably also look for as many ways as possible to learn more about the people I am serving the adverts to. Which is exactly what Google has been doing for years (just read all the Ts&Cs for Gmail etc.).
The difference with Glass is that it takes this consumer behaviour monitoring (read: spying) to the next level. Glass is meant to break the last natural barriers that still limit the amount of stuff Google knows about us. No need to take your phone out of your pocket anymore. No need to unlock it or even to swipe to read notifications. Everything is instant, omnipresent and real-time. And bi-directional — from Google to us and from us to them. No escape from it. Luckily, we all know we are safe. Surely, we are safe because we can trust Google. Or have you forgotten about their Don’t be Evil strategy?
I have worked in several large telecom and SW corporations and have seen many roadmaps. Most of them were not worth more than the paper they were printed on.
A typical technology roadmap has the following characteristics:
- is ambitious to the point of being almost unrealistic (being ambitious sounds good to the stakeholders)
- spans over at least 24 months (‘surely, we must know where we want to be in two years’)
- tries to be too precise (‘we can do better than Q3 2013’)
- is visually meticulously designed and presented
The problem with most roadmaps is that they tend to assume a static world. A world where competitors don’t rapidly launch great products, where new rules and regulations don’t influence company’s ability to design and develop services as planned, a world where it is possible to know what’s going to happen in 12 months time and what the key priorities will look like then.