Letting go is the hardest thing

Tim Brown from IDEO gave the audience at his TED Talk a simple exercise. He asked the audience to draw a picture of the person sat next to them. He gave them a minute to do so. He then asked them to show their pictures. “Sorry” was the stock reaction as the sketches were revealed. They had an inhibition on showing their work. When it comes to creativity, as we move beyond childhood we take on board inhibitions and feel more uncomfortable sharing our creative efforts unless we perceive them to be ready or any good. Getting a visual designer to share her work in progress is a challenge. We fear what others will think if our “deliverable” is not ready, is not finished or polished. We fear setting expectations, we fear disappointing, we kill our creativity with fear.

So we are uncomfortable at letting others into our personal creative process. Now take this to the organisation, to the enterprise and creative genocide is abound. Like the Head of Digital who had 130 different stakeholders to socialise the Organisation’s new website designs with. Enter the HiPPO. The Highest Paid Person’s Point Of view. And with a few of those on board you get design by committee and design mediocrity. Or the client who refuses to engage with customers or end users in the early stages of the design process in fear of what they might think. A fear of setting expectations, a fear that their competitors might see what they are up to. Killing their creativity with fear.

Letting go is the hardest thing. But it can also pay great rewards.

On 27th October people coming out of arrivals at Heathrow airport were greeted by singers and dancers and general merriment. As an ad campaign for T-Mobile by Saatchi & Saatchi it was inspired, creative but not without risk. All the members of the public filmed had to sign a release form, agreeing to their being used in the ad. What if they didn’t? But they did. Whilst meticulously planned, the success of the ad is in the general public. T-Mobile got over any fear they may have had of the unknown and let go of the product to let the crowd create. It’s an uplifting piece, and successful too; their youTube page has had over 5.5 million views. And to the bottom line? The ad saw a 12% rise in sales the week after airing.

Is success best measured by tickboxes or delight?

Product owners get hung up on the features, a shopping list of requirements rather than considering what is actually important to their customers.

Imagine it is 2007, there is no Apple, you are a new entrant developing a product that will go head to head with Nokia’s flagship phone the N95. You are the product manager who is responsible for the success of the product. You are focused upon beating Nokia; you’ve made it your business to intimately know the N95, you can recite the list of features it has from memory. You have a meeting with your design team and they break the news. They tell you the spec they have come up with.

“Let me get this straight” you say. “You are telling me that the phone you are proposing we take to market will have no Card slot, no 3G, no Bluetooth (headset support only), no decent camera, no MMS, no video, no cut and paste, no secondary video camera, no radio, no GPS, no Java…”

“Yup” the team say.

How do you feel?

Ditch the feature list that you’ve fixated upon in your quest to beat your competitors flagship product?

Only the brave would avoid the tick box mentality and strive for feature parity as a minimum requirement. Would you really throw out 3G, GPS and a decent camera; the real innovations in the market place?

The first generation of iPhone was released in June 2007, three months after Nokia’s flagship handset the N95. On paper, when you compare the phone features side by side, it is a sorry looking list. As a product manager would you rather have the iPhone or the N95 on your resume?

Below and here [SlideShare] is the story in pictures.

Vision, passion and personal investment

Something that is common with the start-ups I’ve been involved with, and stories of entrepreneurialism you can read is the passion of those involved.  They have a drive and desire to succeed, backed by enthusiasm and belief for the product they are building.   More often than not, they are personally invested in the project; maybe it is a problem that they feel needs addressing (Dyson), or an opportunity in an industry they are familiar with. It almost always it goes beyond just a job, it is a hunger to bring change and make a difference.  They have a vision, it what drives them, yet they are willing adapt the original vision and move with agility as circumstances dictate.

FlickR started its life as a tool in a role playing game.  The game was not successful and ultimately shelved (fail fast) with the photo sharing capability being developed; the team realised where the value was rather than sticking to a failed big up front plan.  If you go back in time to 1999 and look at how google described itself:

Google Inc. was founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page to make it easier to find high-quality information on the web.

Nothing there about browsers or phone operating systems or word processors or spreadsheets.  Twelve years to go from a search engine to the Google we know today.  Place that lens over most enterprises and how have they managed to adapt to the changing world?  I know of several enterprise projects that are three plus years in, (that’s a quarter of Google’s life) and have still yet to start delivering value.  You don’t get that with start-ups, or places where vision, passion and personal investment drive the product strategy (thinking Apple and Steve Jobs for example).

I’ll lay the fault at Enterprise Culture.  Silo thinking and career progression through the ranks.  So an individual is personally invested in delivering documentation that specifies the system.  When she delivers these she is done.  What happens next is someone else’s problem.  Reward is rarely for delivering the overall vision, why should it?  How often do all stakeholders involved in a project have a strong grasp of the what’s and why’s of what they are doing?  They are only rewarded on the how they deliver the fragment that they are responsible for.

When IT becomes a supplier rather than a partner, no-one has ultimate responsibility for delivering a coherent holistic vision, it becomes a contractual relationship rather than a passionate obsession.  Funding projects is all to often a charade and a nonsense.  The business submit their funding requests (a line item for a potential project) for the forthcoming financial year in the autumn / winter.  Budgets are finalised in the Spring with the new financial year and months have elapsed due to internal budgetting and accounting formalities rather than the ability to respond to the market.  Contrast that with the start up model with seed funding to get started and if the projects shows viability second round funding follows.  If the project is not viable it is suffocated before wasting cash.  (There are interesting perspectives on this leaner model at Beyond Budgetting).

I wonder if in these lean times we are going to start seeing lean thinking applied to enterprises and a start-up culture being nurtured.  There is certainly a growing interest in agile, beyond the practitioners and from C level executives.  But agility in software development is only the first step.  To be really successful it needs to spread through the whole organisation, not just paying lip-service to the word “agile”, but devolving responsibility to individuals and collaborative, cross-organisation teams who can share the vision, passion and are personally invested in getting the right quality products to market at speed.

About a successful project that was a failiure

On time, on budget, to the scope that was agreed from the outset of development.  A successful project?  Well no actually.  It was a complete failure.

Here is a story about an insurance company with a number of differnet products sold through intermediaries.  Whilst the intermediaries were good at selling single insurance products, they weren’t so good at cross-selling or up-selling other products.  Focus groups with the intermediaries revealed that they didn’t know about all the other types of insurance available through the company.

What if the intermediaries could have a portal where they could access all our insurance products in the same place with customer alerts and sales support prompts identifying further selling opportunities?

From this initial idea a benefits case was pulled together consisting of a product definition and financial projections.  In pulling together the benefits case, the potential revenue uplift numbers surprised everyone.  Signing off the benefits case on the new Intermediary Portal was duly signed off, and the product definition was handed over to IT to build.

Being an agile IT shop, the business and developers sat down together and got their heads around the product definition.  It soon became clear that the challenge was one of “single sign-on”.  Each of the insurance products offered were on a different legacy application that required the intermediaries to sign-on with different credentials.  To bring them all together in a single portal was far harder than the simple problem that the initial product definition suggested.

In pulling together the benefits case, a rough estimate had been supplied by IT. Now it was an in-flight project with an initial list of stories, it became clear that they had significantly under-estimated.   Of the twenty different products that the business wanted on the portal, for the budget the business had set aside would deliver barely four products.

With new estimates a release plan was drawn up.  Release one would deliver single sign-on across four products identified by the business as being most profitable.  All the  sales support tools were de-scoped and scheduled for a third release with the second release delivering single sign-on for the remaining products.

Development started, the business stakeholders worked closely with the developers and the First Release of the Intermediary Portal went live with congratulations all round.  Funding for the next release was lined up depending upon the success of the first release.  But that success never came, take-up was less than expected and the cross and up-selling never materialised.

The proposition to the intermediaries as delivered was flawed; the portal had to be all or nothing, single sign-on across four unrelated products was not compelling to them.  There was no sales support.  The intermediaries thought “so what?”  IT had delivered on the business requirements yet the project was deemed a failure.

This story tells a striking lesson. The project failure was due to a lack of joined-up thinking.  The business and IT both had followed their processes and done the right thing.  The business had identified an opportunity, built a benefits case and had this signed off.  IT had run a model agile project with close engagement with the business.  However whilst both stages of the process were locally optimised, they were done in isolation of each other.  Once the (development) train had left the station both sides were committed to delivering the product portal.  No-one returned to the business case, no-one went back to the end users, the intermediaries and asked whether the cut down scope for the first release would actually be of value to them.  More importantly, IT were engaged too late in the process.  The business had settled on an IT solution to the problem without engaging IT.  Had IT been party to the ideation and visioning process they would have been able to raise the risk of the project complexity earlier on.  Indeed they could have killed the project before it started.

Returning to the initial problem; “intermediaries weren’t so good at cross-selling or up-selling other products… Focus groups with the intermediaries revealed that they didn’t know about all the other types of insurance available through the company.”  The problem didn’t need a portal solution. The issue was one of awareness; almost certainly an off-line marketing campaign would have delivered a greater ROI without the need for IT to build the wrong product.

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.

Are you managing expectations beyond the team?

There’s this idea called the Disconfirmation of expectations theory that states that having unrealistically high expectations from the adoption of a new IT application will result in lower levels of realised benefits.  Get customers excited about a new product and fail to deliver on it and you will have unsatisfied customers.  And unsatisfied customers are unlikely to use the product to its full advantage.

There is a risk with products developed using agile approaches that they fail to deliver on their initial promise.  The immediate stakeholders know that the product will evolve incrementally, but is this true of the broader audience? Are they aware of the intended regular heartbeat of delivery or are they expecting a fully featured product at the first release.  How are you managing expectations beyond the immediate product team?

Be wary of what you say early on.  Creating a vision is essential but be mindful of how this is communicated. Early demos, proof of concepts, prototypes, wireframes often show a vision of the end goal, several releases into the future.  Words are easily forgotten, explaining that this is an end goal vision is not enough, you must show a vision of what the cut-down product for the first release is and ensure it is appropriately communicated.

Expectations work both ways, it is easy for the business to tell IT their requirements and assume they will be developed in their entireity in one go.  Similarly it is easy for agile developers to expect the business to understand their incremental approach to delivery. The key to success is effective change management; identifying all stakeholders (both core and peripheral) and create a culture of agility that goes beyond the immediate project team.  In a large organisation that maintains more traditional approaches, agile projects must be supported by a well designed communication plan that builds the relationship between both IT and the business. Identify whose life will be touched by the product and develop a strategy for communicating to them.  This doesn’t mean “they can see what is going on on the project Wiki” this means someone taking responsilibity for listening, engaging and evangelising on the product, the project and its goals.

How long does it take to start. I mean really start?

Let’s assume that you are not bought into the whole agile thing.  That doesn’t mean you can’t look at your IT organisation and identify waste and fat in the process.  How long does it take from the business having an idea and requesting IT to build something to the developers actually starting to code?

This seems to be common: The initial ‘idea’ is fed into the PMO team, it is documented with a high level scope, rough business case and napkin estimate of +/- 100%.  Elapsed time (i.e. the time from the first email or conversation requesting the requirement through to the initial scope document being circulated and approved): two weeks, value added time (i.e. the time actually spent thinking, doing or deciding); two hours.  The project, having gained approval in principle, is then prioritised.  Some organisations actively monitor thier project protfolio, others do it annually, with the business having to put in project requests when the budgets are set.  Mid-cycle and the project is unlikely to take off.

Let’s assume PMO agree the value of the project, next step is high level design.  Analysts capture high level requirements, ascertain what the business really wants and refine the business case further.  IT puts some high level estimates against the requirements, with a +/- 80% confidence.  Elapsed time: eight weeks.  Value added time two weeks.  With a refined business case to take to PMO or the steering commitee all that has changed now is that we have some more detail and a guess on what it might cost.  We are ten weeks down the road and we still have not made a decision whether the project will commence.  This due dilligence is notionally about reducing risk and keeping costs in check, but in reality, what value has been added?

Now it is time for detailed design.  Another (elapsed time) eight weeks of analysis, drilling down into the requirements.  Documentation follows workshops, only now the specification is no longer speaking the language of the business.  Use cases, UML, it’s all getting slightly technical and the business are not really sure what they are reviewing.  Let’s call it another couple of weeks of actual value that is added.

Eighteen weeks elapsed time, countless meetings, momentum and still no decision on whether project will start, let alone a line of code being written.  But the business case is really taking shape and IT have got the estimates down to a 20% confidence limit.

The project gets the go-ahead, but it is not yet time to start coding.  Technical design needs to take place, four weeks of architects architecting and documenting the spec.  Six months has elapsed (of which maybe a month was actually doing stuff that positively contributed to the success of the delivery) and finally the developers start writing code.

What value did that six months deliver?  Requirements, design, business and estimates.  Yet we all know that the requirements will change, and with that the business case.  The estimates will be way out, but we’ll justify the process of estimation because they would have been right it the requirements hadn’t change during the build…

Knocking the process is easy.  What’s the alternative? Start with a burning desire to release something of value at the earliest responsible moment.  Get the business in the same room as the analysts and the architects and get them to articulate their vision.  Use personas and more importantly scenarios and customer journeys to drive out the business vision.  Ask the analyst to capture the business intents on index cards.  Lots of whiteboarding, visualisation and pictures to inform the thinking.  Don’t dwell on the detail, this is about capturing the intent of the system, what are the desired outcomes that it will deliver, how will it impact the lives of all the people who will touch it.  Next step is to prioritise these outcomes.  Collate these into the minimum set that would make a coherent and compelling product that you could go to market with.  For the business case make basic assumptions on the revenue that this feature set will deliver (or what costs it will save) and ask the architects and developers in the room to do some high level estimates.  The whole process should take no more than a week (you could get a first cut done in a couple of days) and there is your initial business case.  If we accept that estimates are little better than guesses and things will change anyway, if we have an initial realisable goal that we have demonstrated will deliver value, why not go straight into development.  By actually ‘doing’ you will minimise risks that you can only predict on paper, and value will be delivered so much quicker, indeed you should be able to have something to market, generating revenue in the same timescales that you otherwise spent planning and analysing.  And if you still want to do waterfall, you’ve got a smaller number of requirements to analyse and design for, again, delivering value sooner.

Design vision

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you don’t need to do any design when you adopt Agile.  Agile development strives to deliver business value early and often, focusing on getting working software to market as soon as possible rather than dwelling in documentation and ‘analysis paralysis’.  But let’s be clear, “business value” and “working software” are not the same thing.  You can quite easily get something into production that fails to generate revenue, decrease costs or whatever other yardstick you use for ‘value’.  What differentiates the two of them is design.  I don’t mean big up front design that details all the features and provides a concrete spec, I mean a design vision that articulates what the product goals are and a roadmap for getting there.  And what is a design vision?  A short statement of intent is a good place to start, and soon after a user interface mocked up in pen and ink.  It is cheap and easy and helps bridge the path from idea to execution.

What is the story?

One of the problems with IT development is that it is tactical and piecemeal in its approach. Functionality is added in response to competitor or broader market activity. Expect to see an increasing number of brands doing something ‘social’ (and tactical) on the web, but don’t expect these new initiatives to be (strategic) seamlessly integrated into the existing digital channel offering.

This piecemeal approach extends to larger initiatives as well. In refreshing the website or developing new digital channels such as mobile and TV, IT will typically build out features and functionality prioritised upon their perceived individual business value regardless of what the sum value of the proposed release is. (Focusing all your effort of building functionality that delivers to your bottom line will seldom be as successful as you predict if it is not supported by features that meet the customers needs).

So when it comes to thinking about new features and functionality, where’s the best place to start? I’d suggest collaboratively, thinking around the customer. Collaboration is important to ensure that everyone starts with the same vision. It needs to be shared it with the broader audience, the product teams, IT; anyone whose day to life life will be touched by the project when it starts. I’d argue that you cannot start this soon enough. You don’t need to spend time doing analysis, interviewing all stakeholders individually, coming up with a document that is circulated and reviewed and re-written (with all the delays and waste that such a process incurs). Start the process getting all those stakeholders off-site for an afternoon and get the thoughts out on the table.

Commence with a presentation that introduces thinking in terms of customers and customer journeys. The below SlideShare presentation does this for the airline industry, addressing a new customer experience across channels. I acknowledge that it is pretty simple and doesn’t touch on half the ideas that airline executives may have. That is the point, it is just enough to get people thinking about different customer types and their touchpoints without getting bogged down in detail. This is what we want the participants of the off-site to share.

[slideshare id=912224&doc=airline-deck1-1231817842408345-3&w=425]

Once we’ve been through the presentation we break out into small groups a, each taking an individual customer (or persona) and build up a story; a day in the life of… (It is important not to forget the internal users of the system). These breakouts last 15-20 minutes with ten minutes for the team to play back their findings. As they build out a richer picture of the customer interactions they are asked to sketch out what the user interfaces may look like. The process is rapid, intense and iterative, but always focussing upon the customer journey; how will the customer realise their goals. When the teams tell their stories an analyst captures the essence of the requirements on index cards. The final exercise is to lay all these cards on the table and ask the team to group them into similar areas then prioritise them according to their perceived importance. In an afternoon you will have achieved four things. Firstly, you will have captured a vision for the new product in less than a day, with all stakeholders understanding not only the vision itself, but also the process that developed it and the concerns and issues that different parts of the business have with it. Secondly you will have an initial prioritised roadmap for its development. This will change, but it is a good strawman to circulate. Thirdly you will have introduced all the stakeholders together – projects succeed or fail based upon the strength of relationships and getting people engaged from the start will go a long way to creating shared ownership. And finally you will have generated energy, engagement and traction; to do the business case and to get the project started, recognising that just one part of the business having a vision is not going to bring it to the life that they dream.

Where’s the vision

Experience suggests that a project without a vision is like a rudderless ship. A clear vision from the start is essential to the success of a project. It is like the corporate mission statement. It is not the project objectives (objectives are generally SMART – you shouldn’t be looking to measure the vision), rather an articulation of how the end goal of the project will touch the lives of it’s ultimate recipients; the customer or the user. What the project will do for them (not the business, not for IT, but the customer, consumer or user).

The first step then is to get the vision agreed on. Luke Hohmann’s innovation games such as product in a box are a good way of distilling the vision. Next step is to keep it live and visible. Don’t just have it buried away in the project Wiki, but have it stuck on the walls where the team work. And then use it as a frame of reference when those difficult questions arise around scope and priorities.

Why is this important? (Via Leisa Reichelt), Peter Merholz shows how Google started out with a vision for their calendar.

The vision…

The google calendar vision

And what it meant for the product when it went to market…

Google didn’t start with a bunch of features of functionality (“Drop dead simple to get information into the calendar” – that’s hardly a requirement any BA would be proud of), but by having this vision, a statement of what the product would mean to the end user, and referrring back to it when scope or design decisions had to be made, they ensured that the end product delivered real quantifiable value.

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