Remember the good ole’ days, the days of the dot.coms? People didn’t just build software. They set out to build the best transformational software ever.
Development groups held meetings that never had action items and talked excitedly about how they were going to apply cutting edge technologies. They didn’t plan to upgrade the existing software (when there was any existing software). They planned to tear up the code and throw it in the trash, and replace it with a whole new set of code, built from the ground up to be technically awesome.
And it all was going to take two years, at least, but you could be sure they were going to do it right!
But the luckiest programmer of all was the one whose project was officially designated “Research”. He got to sit in an office by himself all day, and work without deadlines. His project was to build a user interface that took the form of a life-size hologram of Princess Leia, who functioned using self-learning neural-networked artificial intelligence with fuzzy logic and speech recognition.
Imagine how amazed the market for warehouse software was going to be when all inventory transfers could be conducted by speaking to Princess Leia, who would carry out your commands, and even supply helpful recommendations on how you could work more efficiently.
(Like I really want to hear yet another opinion about how I should do my job!)
Well, that was a time when the rallying cry could easily have been “Reality be damned!” But reality reared its ugly head, and here’s the reality for software companies of all sizes, just like it was long before the dot.coms:
It’s hard, hard work to improve your product. And your first priority is to make sure you bring enough money in through new sales and maintenance fees to keep afloat. That means that many times, your company must dedicate its resources to whatever it has successfully sold. Some of those great ideas are going to have to wait.
Yes, if you did things differently, you’d be better off in the long term. But there isn’t going to be a long term if you don’t survive in the short term.
And that means doing whatever you can sell.
But this leads to a product direction that wanders all over the map, including one-off cul-de-sacs and reversals of direction. It’s an unfortunate but necessary situation.
So what can a Product Manager do to shepherd the product towards improvements that continue to push it in the best direction long-term, when it’s vital to build based on the short term? Read on for some ideas.
You Can’t Hold Back the Ocean
There’s no use fighting it. A company’s gotta do what a company’s gotta do to survive. That means selling some of those features that seem pointless to you as the Product Manager, but apparently are exactly what that big prospect is insisting on. And so the team has promised the feature, and resources who could be working on standard functionality will build another one-off.
Trying to fight the trend won’t lead to success. However, as Product Manager, you are in a unique position to help the product benefit from the situation.
Build Today, Mine It Tomorrow
Stand back and let the teams build the customizations and quirky features. But then, the key is to systematically dig through all customization work and mine it for future value to the product.
Note: It’s already pretty good when a quirky feature winds up as a customization rather than going straight into the standard product, but take the same approach in both cases.
Panning For Gold
There are gold nuggets out there to be had for the taking, but expect to sift through a lot of gravel to find them. That’s okay. You may find a lot of dross before you locate a gold nugget or two. But those nuggets are, well, gold. Look for good ideas that have promise and appeal for the larger market. These features can bring in money again and again.
Feature Review Team
Found a review team whose mission is to review all custom and one-off work and determine its appropriateness for incorporation into the standard product.
This team plays a critical role, one that much of the company may not appreciate. So give it a powerful title, for example: Product Task Force, Feature Discovery Team, or Feature Productivity Team. It will be a signal to others of the team’s importance.
The team should be led by a Product Manager, and meet regularly to look for patterns and trends in customization and one-off work. Review each item and make comparisons with features built for other customers.
Schedule individuals who worked on a feature to appear before the team to determine the answer to such questions as:
- How closely does the feature adhere to our standard architecture?
- If there are deviations, how long would it take to bring the code to standard?
- If there are similar features, which one should be used as the base for incorporation into the standard product?
- Are there gaps in this feature? Is something missing that would make it appealing to a wide market?
This is a continuous effort, and results of the team’s work should be reported to the company’s management team, so that they understand its value to the product and the company.
Productize Selected Features
Once a feature has been selected for the standard product, it’s time to productize it. In this case, it’s a case of considering the following issues:
- Standards. Make the feature adhere to the technical and other standards for the product. This may require not only changes to the underlying code but also modification of the user interface.
- Flexibility. The goal is to build in flexibility so that the feature can be used by customers with a variety of differing requirements without having to customize the feature. For example, make the feature configurable by admin users to work in a variety of ways.
Educate the Sales Force
There’s no sense thinking you can make the sales force only sell the standard product if the creation of a one-off feature leads to a sales contract. But you can improve things.
Set up a regular forum for educating the sales force on the features of the standard product, and how prospects could use them to their advantage, even if they don’t know they could. You can cut down on a certain portion of “distraction sales” that include features that pull the product off of its desired course.
This information can be provided in newsletters, regular emails, or simply every darn time you’re on the phone with each sales rep, depending upon what has been set up at your company for sales force training.
To make repeat sales of one-off features, make sure that you get the word out on each feature with potential appeal to other customers and prospects. Help the sales force identify prospects for the feature, and help them understand exactly what it does and what it can do.
In this situation, you as the Product Manager will have to do the heavy lifting. It’s only natural that busy sales reps are going to promise whatever they can sell.
Inform the Customer Base
Here’s an area where you can speak directly with your prospects and try to sell them the way you want on features and how to utilize your product. By cross-selling some of these golden nuggets to the customer base, you can get a better return on the effort that was put into creating them as one-offs.
The Voice of the Street
Somewhere in this article is the assumption that a Product Manager’s intention for a product – based on input from Marketing and senior management that looks at profitable market niches and clean product messages – is the “right” way to go. However, it’s very easy to dream up new functionality but hard to do extensive, unbiased research to determine how much the market needs it.
Perhaps these one-offs and quirky customizations are the market’s way of talking to you, the “voice of the street”. The key is to scrutinize these requests to find patterns and trends that you can satisfy with your product.
What’s the Real Goal Here?
It would be nice if the real goal were building the Great Product. But in large companies and small, the goals in today’s economy are revenue, profitability, and survival.
While this means that your product has to include whatever a sales rep has successfully sold this week, you can still manage the product to turn a perversion experience into a conversion experience. Mine those features and convert them into solid sales appeal.
This way, when your head hits the pillow every night, you can go to sleep at peace with yourself and the direction of the product.
— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges