January 07, 2010

New features and new markets

I haven't been posting much anywhere recently, just been in very productive heads down mode. (Holidays can be awesome for this.) But I'm coming up for air and said this yesterday: "what if we approached creating new features like we approached entering new markets?"[1]

It was in direct response to this article from Tim Bray, Doing It Wrong. The "it" in this case is enterprise systems, and the piece is worth a few minutes of your time, and the comments are a good indicator of the tensions he's talking about. I think it goes past the typical whinging of a whippersnapper making fun of big systems, boasting he can get one done in a few weekends while belittling the its developers as 20th century nimrods.

There can be a lot of infrastructure behind developing features -- documents for requirements, planning, design, roadmapping; meetings to gain consensus on all these; staging meetings during this bring different organization layers together to chime in. (This doesn't scratch the surface at some organizations.)

We assume these are all necessary -- for predictability, to get feedback and input, to best reflect the organization as a whole and benefit from institutional memory, to let the sales organization whet the appetites of customers and channels and allow those groups their own planning cycles.

But what if all we're doing in this process is delaying until the very end the only part that really matters? Putting something in front of customers and figuring out what works by having them use it, and doing that again and again until we nail it.

When you enter a new market you know you're ignorant.[2] So you know you have to work with customers to figure out what it is you're building. You know you have to run lots of ideas past them, and a depressingly large number of those ideas will stink. But you're relying on them to sort the wheat from the chaff. In a sense you're completely dependent on these customers, because the potential is there to wildly oversteer past them and fail entirely.[3]

So, how is that different in kind than developing new features? Are you really that independent from your customers that you can get some ideas from them, go off and develop something, then hand them a 'finished' feature and expect it to work? Is your product team in touch with your customers, or are they relying on bullet points from a slide deck delivered by a biased speaker to just the PMs?

It's certainly different in scope, but I think that getting a sufficient number of features sufficiently wrong over time will kill your product just as dead, even though you can't oversteer as much with a single release.

And before you object that this sort of product development is impossible, that it costs too much and that it has too dramatic an impact on your organization, ask yourself: what are the costs of little failure after little failure? Or what are the costs of your customers being disappointed? Or of your developers working on fix after fix to a 'finished' product because it didn't meet what the customer had in mind?

[1] No, I am not normally that cryptic.

[2] Beware, I am speaking from vast experience, having worked on a team that brought an existing product to a single new market.

[3] I think you can mitigate some of this by bringing domain experts on your team, among other actions. But you have to make sure they're really good or you're sunk, because their experience may be hugely different than your target and your day-to-day exposure to that will permanently impair your view of the domain.

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