fail fast

Act like a startup

I recently presented at the AOP Forum on secrets of product success.  Twenty minutes to get through sixty two slides was fun; part of me tells me I need to slow down, be more considered and reduce the messages I want to get across.  Another part of me just says meh!

I ended the presentation with the below takeaway slide that is worth replaying here.  I believe that product owners need to start thinking more like entrepreneurs and their seedling product ideas more like start ups.

Think big: Start with a big picture, a vision, where you want to get to. This should be unconstrained thinking, divergent thinking before converging on the specifics.

Start small: Easier said than done, but this is the getting to a minimum viable product.

Fail fast: Get stuff to market quickly, test with your consumers and be ready to fail. If you fail early you fail cheaply. Realise that you have customers, users who are already passionate advocates of your brand. Take them on the journey of development with you. You not assume that everything you need to take to your customers must be polished and perfect. Don’t underestimate the positivity than can be accrued by engaging users in the development process

Grow success: Do not see the end of the project as the end of road. Getting to a first release is only the first step. Successful product owners will be engaged in a virtuous cycle of continuous design and continuous delivery. They can come up with an idea, a new feature and get it in to production in hours, or days rather than months.

Innovation through the recession

Two men were running through the jungle chased by a lion.  One of them stopped, took off his backpack and took his trainers out.  The other man turned around. “Why are you putting your trainers on?” he asked, “They won’t make you run faster than the lion”. To which the man replied “I don’t need to run faster than the lion…”

In the current market conditions just blindly running won’t get you ahead of your competitors.  And standing still is not a sustainable option.  Those that succeed won’t be the ones that batten down the hatches and retreat to the trenches, history shows it will be those that continue to innovate and cultivate ideas.  During the 1990-91 recession, according to a Bain & Company study, twice as many companies leaped from the bottom of their industries to the top as did so in the years before and after.

“Even though we’re in an economic downturn, we’re in an innovation upturn” said Bill Gates at the time.

In the 1920’s Post and Kellogg’s went into the recession head to head. Post cut back, it reined in expenses and slashed advertising budget.  Kelloggs meanwhile maintained their marketing spend and pushed their newly launched product, Rice Krispies.  Today Kellogg’s are a household name.  Where are Post?

IT organisations are retreating to core, keeping the lights on and holding off any “non-essential’ projects, innovation included.  This is a shortsighted viewpoint, but not entirely unexpected.  With project life cycles taking so long, innovation traditionally takes significant investment and time to see results.  Modern lean and agile approaches to IT are a challenge to this entrenched view.  It is possible to innovate at speed.  It is possible to take an idea and turn it into something tangible in weeks rather than years.  Let’s start with the idea.  Where does it come from?  You could get the brightest minds from expensive management consultancy firms, but they take time. And in uncertain times, what do they really know? (I speak with experience having once been a customer strategy management consultant).  Alternatively you could harvest ideas from your customers.  That’s what IdeaStorm does for Dell.  And Mix does for Oracle (built by ThoughtWorks by the way). Don’t restrict this to your customers, building an internal ideas engine in the enterprise yields great results.

So once you’ve got the idea, how do you nurture it from a vision into a proposition that has legs?

Product innovation is all very well, but do you have the capability and the attitude to really do it?  In the current ecomomic climate, unless product innovation is in your DNA, chances are it will need to be accompanied by process innovation.  Why? Because most organisational processes are slow, cumbersome and hinder the agility required to really innovate.

In 2009, if there’s one thing that organizations need, it’s agility. Our economy and the business environment are a steady stream of ups, downs and rapid change; in such an environment, the ability to sense, respond and react are true survival skills!

At ThoughtWorks we do both these things for our clients all the time, helping them introduce aligity into the whole product development lifecycle; product innovation through process innovation.  It starts with helping them rapidly distill their vision into something concrete, then prirotising and estimating what is important before building it at speed with quality to get innovation to market; fail fast or succeed sooner.

Recession doesn’t make the market need disappear. Andrew Rezeghi in this great paper (which is abound with stories of companies who have innovated through recession) argues you should invest in your customers, now they need you most, loyalty hangs in the balance.  Whilst the market may be driving down prices, now is the time to focus on experience based differentiation.  How can you use digital channels to engage with your customers in new and compelling ways?  How can you harness social media and new interaction paradigms to delight and engage your customers?  Ho can you innovate at speed? Go beyond your product and grow roots for lifetime value when the good times return.

Innovation and funding in lean times

It’s budgeting time with many organisations putting together their budets for 2009. In the current climate IT is an easy target for cutting costs. Stories such as “no new non-core projects till 2010” and “no project that can’t demonstrate a postive ROI in 12 months” are abound. There is a risk that only focusing upon projects that keep the lights on will do longer term damage to the company. Seth Godin writes:

Wealth is created by productivity. Productive communities generate more of value.
Productivity comes from innovation.
Innovation comes from investment and change.

Annual budgeting cycles combined with inflexible development approaches preclude real innovation. It is hard to justify any cost, especially untested products that brings a burden of risk to the organisation.

There are two solutions that go hand in hand. Agile software development enables IT to release value from production earlier and more often than waterfall development. Rather than significant sunk cost in risky product innovation, it removes waste from the process and focuses upon delivery of working software that is of value to the business, taking the product to market at the earliest possible time.

This is a challenge to the annual budgeting charade where line item projects compete for guessed amounts in return for notional value. (IT put crude guesses – not even estimates- against even cruder descriptions of required features from the business). A better model would be to take that of the venture capitalist, with different rounds of funding. Rather than allocating specific funds to specific projects, far better to ring fence budget for ‘product innovation’. Within this pool of cash projects compete with each other with a pitch for seed funding. Those that are successful go straight into agile development with sufficient funding for a first release (say three to four months). Getting to production (and to market- internal or external) will validate further funding or equally enable the business to make an informed decision and kill the idea – fail fast, fast cheap.

Innovation and the idea approval index

I’ve written in the past about organisations setting up test and learn capabilities, and how languages such as Ruby on Rails make this so much easier. Sadly, even with the best will in the world it is not unusual for these internal skunk works outfits to fail. Scott Berkun’s recent post gives a good reason why; they score highly on the Idea Approval Index where the higher the number, the harder the innovation is.

If you are going to be serious about test and learn it is essential to remove barriers to its success, and that means removing bands of bureaucracy and sign-off. Identify the number of approvals you assume will be required then plan how to eliminate them. What strategies can you put in place to keep stakeholders in the loop, but at a distance so they can’t kill the innovation before it’s given oxygen to breathe. Realise that what is being tested is a “beta” and market it as such. Give clear terms and conditions, use controlled environments (for example testing on staff within the internal network), anything to prevent it being subject to the usual legal / compliance / architectural constraints.

Unleashing innovation at speed

It sounds clichéd and old hat, but it is true. Truer now than ever before; the web is an enabler for new ideas. It provides you with the tools for disruptive innovation. Sadly for too many organisations it has become a hindrance.

A recurring theme with many organisations is the length of time it takes to take an idea to market. Especially in retail financial services, where you would expect lead times to be short it is not unusual for innovations to take a year to implement. This seems crazy, it’s not as if there is a physical product to manufactured.

So where are the hold ups? More often than not, they are rooted in the organisational structure. Innovative products often cross business boundaries; whilst customers only see the a single brand, different product teams only see what they are responsible for. They have own objectives that often conflict with other parts of the business; gaining agreement and consensus across all parties can often be a time consuming and painful experience that slows and often kills innovation.

Then there is the technology. Changes to systems have to be scheduled (along with every other request). Unproven ideas are put to the back of the queue. The business starts to perceive IT as a hindrance rather than an enabler and lines of conflict are drawn up.

Channel is the next hurdle to cross. Typically a face to face channel or telephony will be easiest, but getting something on the web? Now a new area of the business needs to be involved, the Internet Channel Team who interface between the business and IT. They’ve got to design web pages, get the creative done, produce requirements for technology to build (and schedule into deployment for which the dates are even further into the future), do usability testing… Long lead times are inevitable.

And then, before the innovation sees the light of day, someone new comes in to rationalise the product portfolio, the innovation doesn’t quite fit in with their new priorities and it is quietly ditched. This half hearted attempt at innovation has taken a year, cost in excess of a million and has come to nothing.

There has to be a better way.

There is. Do things at speed. You can start by sticking some amphetamines into ideation phase. Someone’s got an idea; identify who has a vested interest in it succeeding (or failing) and get them into a room to thrash it out. This doesn’t need to take long. Workshops are best limited to 90 minutes at a time (after that people get Blackberry withdrawal symptoms and loose interest). But if all the stakeholders are geographically dispersed, a structured day’s off-site might be the best solution. Avoid letting people dial in or video conference, this is one meeting where people have to be there in physical presence. Also avoid having too many people in the room, especially when forming ideas (there is a trade-off between having the right people and too many people to make the process unmanageable). Start with the users, the customers, the people whose lives will be changed by the idea. Scribble out personas -describe who they are, what their goals are, the perceptions of your company, of technology. Print out pictures of people that represent the personas, rip out photos from magazines, anything to bring them to life. As the idea takes shape, turn it into pictures. Draw out the customer experience. What would the persona do at each stage. Far better to do this than write it down in a document that can be open to interpretation. Illustrate the touch points. What does technology need to do. (Can we be pragmatic and use roller skate implementation rather than getting bogged down in an integration quagmire?)

Now is where it gets interesting. There once was a time when you would need to invest time and money into producing a heavyweight business model and business case for the innovation. You still need a business case, but at this stage it probably doesn’t need to be too robust; make some basic assumptions then test it. All too often business cases are built on flaky assumptions; build something quick, test it and get real data to build your models on. Again, this is about doing things at speed; a couple of weeks after the first workshop there is no reason why a small team of developers can’t be actually building something to bring the idea to life. So the team is using Ruby on Rails to build a proof of concept. There may be disquiet that this doesn’t fit into the current technology stack – doesn’t matter, it is a proof of concept. Six weeks later the proof of concept is done. It is not a static, prototype that demonstrates linear page flows, it is fully featured and fully functional. It can be usability tested (but more likely you were doing that on wire frames alongside the build). What then? In two months you’ve taken your idea and turned it into something tangible.

Why not put it into the market for real. Whilst IT might not want this Ruby “thing” on their stack, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible and can’t be done. Large organisations have a testing ground of consumers inside a secure environment – their staff. Use them to beta pilot the idea? Friendly customers are delighted to be part of product development – put it out to a small and selected group of customers, and have some smoke and mirrors processes to handle fulfilment. The objective is to prove the viability of the idea, get data to make informed decisions and make your collective mind up quickly. To fail fast or succeed cheaply.