Something I have seen software companies struggle with again and again is understanding the difference between product development and product launches. In order for a software product to not just work, but succeed, you need not just a product release, but a product launch.
The product launch, like Requirements, is one of the very few of the multitude of activities at a software company that a Product Manager owns outright.
Read on below for some thoughts about the effort to launch a software release.
A Release Is Not a Launch
Because the unique capability of software companies is making software, it is only natural that they focus on this ability. However, this focus is limited to creating a software release.
A software release consists of all the planning, designing, coding and testing activity that results in a new version of the product. The software release is the equivalent of producing a bunch of widgets on the production line.
But selling widgets to customers involved much more than merely building widgets and piling them up in bins as they come off the line. In the same way, selling software involves much more than a software release. It requires a software launch.
The software launch takes care of coordinating and completing all the activities beyond the software release that are needed in order to sell and support the software.
Hibernation and Activity
The effort to launch a product is focused on the date when a software release in completed. Often this effort is not year-round. The effort requires periods of activity leading up to the software release and following after, with periods of relative (or even total) inactivity when a release is not imminent.
The hibernation factor is one of the reasons why the product launch effort is so difficult. When no launch is needed for a while, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes back to his or her other business. Job duties relating to product launches are shelved and, quite often, gladly forgotten.
It can take some heavy shaking to wake up the product launch effort when the time comes.
Development Seasons and Hibernation
The length of your company’s development cycle will have a profound impact on how much hibernating your product launch effort engages in.
A product launch demands an absolute minimum of two months of preparation before a release, and one month afterward (and that’s painting a very simplistic picture of the whole effort). It’s likely to require three to four months before release and one or two months afterward.
If your product development cycle is three months long for each release, the product launch effort will be continuous. No hibernating. But if it’s six months, nine months, a year, or even eighteen months, there could be plenty of time to hibernate in between releases.
So the effort to build on past product launch knowledge and experience becomes increasingly difficult the longer the development cycle lasts. Your company can find itself without the internal memory, due to turnover and promotion, of how the previous launch was done.
Product Managers play a key role as keepers of those company memories.
When Spring Is Late In Coming
Product launch activity is dependent upon the product release. Therefore, if your company structures its development cycle so that release dates are allowed to slip, the product launch effort will be hampered accordingly.
It’s important to point out to the management team that the cost of slipped release dates is not limited to the lost opportunity to sell the newer product version. It impacts the productivity of everyone working on the launch effort.
Product Managers can help this situation by helping set expectations with the product launch team, asking that planning of individual efforts take into account that dates may slip.
The Quintessential Cross-Functional Team
The team of people needed to launch the product are the quintessential cross-functional team. They need to include virtually every function at the company from Finance to Sales to Marketing to Development to Professional Services.
While every function may need to participate a little, the level of effort and timing will vary widely from area to area. It helps if Product Management allows some flexibility in meeting attendance and participation requirements to let a department off the hook if there is nothing for them to contribute at a specific point. This makes people a little more enthusiastic about attending meetings and coordinating with other team members.
The planning effort for a product launch involves identifying a target date (the target release date) and counting backwards from that to understand when each component effort must start. If it takes two months to define, revise and approve updated marketing collateral, then the effort needs to start at least two months before D-Day. But if PR will involve a very specific two-day effort, the PR will be kicked off the week of the software release.
Regardless of the amount of work involved, all component efforts need to be identified, defined and planned well in advance, even if they are carried out close to the launch date.
The goal of a product launch is product readiness, that is, making sure that your entire company is ready to provide and service your newly developed product. All the pieces needed to market, sell, ship, and service the product must be put on a list and made ready.
Knowledge transfer is one of the most important components of product readiness for the whole company. And Product Managers have the key role of sizing, defining, and driving this. This usually includes delivering or helping to deliver training.
One important note: Don’t assume that even a small development team doesn’t need a knowledge transfer session as well. All members of the team should understand all the features, including the ones they didn’t work on themselves.
Marketing needs to make sure that all its activities reflect the new product. This includes positioning and messaging, collateral, trade show displays, sales presentations, PR efforts, communicating with analysts and investors and winning their hearts and minds over the new product. Much of the output from Marketing efforts can also be repurposed for knowledge transfer.
Sales needs to be prepared to sell the new capabilities, which requires training as well as updated sales tools like presentations or information on competitors.
It does you no good to have new product capabilities if the sales force isn’t selling them.
Support or customer care needs to be ready to answer questions about the new product capabilities, including installation and known problems. Service after the sale is going to be just as important in customer perceptions of the product quality as the actual capabilities developed in the release. This is a key distinction in perspective between a release and a launch.
All other services need to be ready as well, including implementation and training. It does no good to add capabilities if it turns out that trainers don’t know about them and never explain them to customers.
Other functions across the company need to be ready. This includes the people who provide sales contracts, invoices and billing, or who manage relationships with partners and sales channels.
Product Management is in the envious role of ensuring that the product launch effort is woken up at the right time, if it’s hibernating. Everyone needed for the effort must be reminded, called to meetings, and sometimes have their feet held to the fire when deadlines are approaching.
The goal is to have a product launch that is effective in marketing, selling, and supporting a profitable product. When it works, everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief until those lucky Product Managers need to wake everyone up for the next launch.
— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges