Successful product development demands control of many factors, of which transparency, timing, and trust are the most crucial
There is a dirty secret that we in the product development business don’t often discuss: our careers will be riddled with failure. The simple truth is that creating new things in the world, and having them adopted at a scale that moves the needle, is incredibly difficult. Success demands positive outcomes of dozens of variables, many of which are outside of our own sphere of control.
The daily toil of product development surrounds identifying these variables and acting upon them to increase the chances of positive results. We plan, we lobby, we research, we prototype, and we work like banshees to bend that existing Newtonian vector in the direction envisioned by our stakeholders.
Recent experiences have led me to define what I see as the three most pivotal factors to any product development exercise. There are hundreds of candidates, to be sure. But in my work of late, the three most crucial have been transparency, timing, and trust.
Spoiler Alert: we don’t know all the answers at the beginning of the project. By its very nature, product development consists of pushing into previously unexplored territory. While it might come as a surprise, there are organizations within which this most basic notion is considered politically unacceptable. How the hell you gonna win at exploring if leadership considers being lost a firing offense??
How many times have you heard this exchange during your own career?
“But I thought you said you could figure it out in three weeks.”
“So why isn’t it figured out yet?”
“Because it turned out to be harder than we thought.”
“Why didn’t you know how hard it would be?”
“Because nobody has ever done it before.”
FREEZE RIGHT THERE. If your firm doesn’t have the organizational, political, and cultural infrastructure in place to manage this conversation in a way that keeps progress moving forward in a controlled fashion, you have no business being in the business of product development. Quit while you’re ahead.
If your firm doesn’t have the organizational, political, and cultural infrastructure in place to manage this conversation in a way that keeps progress moving forward in a controlled fashion, you have no business being in the business of product development
In order for product development to progress in a safe manner, both those engaged in the initiative and the leaders it serves must have a clear, shared understanding about what is known, what is unknown, and the guardrails within which exploration will be executed. This is the operational transparency of product development.
Product development isn’t a free-for-all with somebody else’s money. Methodologies like Waterfall and Agile provide proven structure to help control the variables associated with making something new in the world. The key to all of this is creating transparency for the controls, associated thresholds, and progress along the way. We do not not know the entire path. But we can walk it carefully, together, so as not to fall off the edge.
When transparency is lost, resources up and down the chain of command begin hiding reality from the larger group. The team hides its risk from leadership. Leadership hides its awareness of changing market conditions from the team. Devs hide their coding challenges from Testers. Project Managers hide growing constraints from the rest of the team. In all cases, progress slows to a crawl or screeches to a halt.
The universe is a chaotic place. Humans add to that chaos with their ever-changing interests, desires, and fears. All of which are compounded by social forces when many humans are aggregated into any sort of group. In an environment like this, successfully bringing a new product to market [whether that market be internal or external to the firm] can look like returning a long kickoff all the way to the end zone in a high school football game: Dodge, weave, cross, spin, stumble, lunge, roll.
The windows of opportunity that justify the cost to construct a new product will not remain open forever. In my own experience, they are all forever closing.
- The competition beats you to the supermarket shelf
- Corporate leadership turns over and has a different set of priorities
- A chosen technology reveals fundamental change in its offering
- A global pandemic completely alters the context of social interaction
We are all always working on borrowed time. Not only does this recognition fuel the passion for progress over perfection — a personal mantra of mine — but it also creates an acceptance that the foundation undergirding the initiative is on the move, as well.
We are all always working on borrowed time
Most enterprises aren’t made of money, and our teams burn cash just for rolling-in every morning and sitting down to work. All involved must acknowledge that there are hard physical limits to the amount of time — and therefore cost — that the enterprise can afford to invest in any specific initiative. It is imperative that the team and leadership work together to maximize the utility of every day worked and every feature delivered. Just this week, a new client said to me, “[you have produced so much in just a few short weeks!]” I just shrugged and replied, “Life is short. We go fast.”
It is the responsibility of the enterprise to be constantly checking its approved model against both development progress and current market conditions. When conditions change, the initiative must flex to match. Sometimes that means refactoring previous build objects, sometimes crashing for an immediate launch, and sometimes it means that abandoning the initiative on the 3-yard-line is exactly the right decision to make.
Production is a factory — where all key variables are understood, controlled, and compressed into a universally-understood process. An assembly line wherein raw materials are delivered to each workstation with just-in-time efficiency as the product rolls forward through each phase of construction.
Product development, in contrast, is a wooly mess. Even in a situation with seasoned experts, with known technologies, and existing processes. Even then — nobody has ever before assembled THESE technologies in THIS way, in service of OUR process. Those variables represent real risk if not adequately appreciated.
Tangling with those many variables requires expertise from across disciplines, departments, business units, and firms. All of those players shoulder the same risk of failure. Each brings to the table not only their experiences and work ethic, but also the courage to operate in an environment fraught with professional danger. And the most powerful assets they have to depend upon are each other.
Product development teams get tight in a hurry, and the trust formed between those resources becomes the very scaffolding within which the products are constructed. Same goes for the bonds between the team and leadership. Leaders have to believe that the team is focusing every day to make the best possible decisions for the product and enterprise, maximizing the authority they have been granted. Similarly, the team needs to viscerally understand that leadership recognizes the risks it has absorbed and has its back.
Product development teams get tight in a hurry, and the trust formed between those resources becomes the very scaffolding within which the products are constructed
When these bonds of trust erode, whether horizontally across the team or vertically up/down the chain of command, the initiative is in jeopardy. I have seen resources and stakeholders, alike, imperil themselves in an effort to paper-over gaps in trust through their own effort and force of will. While these gestures are laudable, they rarely succeed. Once trust is lost, communication breaks down and the entire initiative begins hydroplaning.
Generation and Maintenance
Put away your Gantt charts and story points. These aren’t problems that Confluence, Asana, and Visio can solve. These three key Ts can only be developed through kickass communications and commitment.
All other things being equal, this would be easy. We’re humans and we do this every day. But business can be like a tilt-a-whirl, exerting forces and pressures that we do not foresee and are ill-equipped to withstand. Exhaustion sets in, nerves get raw, politics take hold, and even the most magnanimous resources drop into a defensive crouch. Product development can be scary stuff, particularly in the clutch
Business can be like a tilt-a-whirl, exerting forces and pressures that we do not foresee and are ill-equipped to withstand
Sharp product developers understand the importance of generating goodwill around these factors, and the value of stockpiling it for future consumption. Whether because it was never generated in the first place, or what was originally established was subsequently squandered through a lack of maintenance, the initiative that loses transparency, timing, and trust is doomed to failure.
Should you find yourself in this unenviable situation, however, all is not lost. Humans are incredibly resilient creatures, and the depth of our desire to collaborate in support of a larger goal is nearly boundless. As with so much of life, the most important part of solving these problems is admitting that they exist. Infrastructure and expectations can be recalibrated to better build and maintain the norms that engender and support these factors. Doing so will have a massive positive impact on your initiative, and the enterprise as a whole.
Next time you begin to feel your program sliding sideways underneath you, gather the team and leadership together to have a frank conversation about transparency, timing, and trust. I can almost guarantee you’ll find the root cause lurking in there, and be well-positioned to get back on track.