Stop talking about the solution, make people care about the underlying problem
Imagine you just joined a company, and you’re all excited to start as a Product Owner. During the interview process, you became inspired and energized by all the stories you heard. Everyone you interviewed painted a pretty picture of a mature company with a great product, blessed with a leadership team at the top of their game. You can’t wait to seize the opportunity to help make a difference!
A few weeks into your new job, reality starts settling in, and the first clouds begin to appear. You realize your Product Owner job is boring. Nobody really cares if what you’re building makes a difference for the customer. The company motto seems to be ‘Build and Forget’.
There are just two things that people in the company care about:
- When will it be done?
- How will it work precisely?
Your job boils down to one thing: how good are you at keeping promises. Do your forecasts match reality? As a consequence, your primary responsibility becomes to promise as little as possible. Under-promising creates room to make your predictions fit with the reality of complex, uncertain, and unpredictable work. You’re no longer a Product Owner, you are there to make sure the Feature Factory keeps churning swiftly and reliably.
Stakeholders believe meeting expectations is vital because they believe all proposed features are guaranteed to deliver value. When you are sure all features on the roadmap are valuable, the main challenge becomes to get them out of the door quickly and consistently. This is where the Feature Factory mentality creeps in. The main focus becomes increasing the output of the Feature Factory.
As a Product Owner, you know the biggest challenge isn’t getting a feature out as expected or delivering it on time. It is to make sure that what you’re building makes a difference. Features should result in better outcomes for your customers, ultimately improving their lives in some way. Who cares if it isn’t delivered on time or working precisely as specified, what matters is that your customer cares deeply about what you’ve built.
To make the difference between outputs (features) and outcomes (value for customer/business) even more clear, imagine you’re overweight and you want to lose weight. You sporadically go to the gym. You believe that you will lose weight by going to the gym more often, so you decide to hit the machines every day. You focus on increasing your output. After 6 months of going to the gym each day, you still haven’t lost weight. You did produce a different outcome: you’re much fitter. But you didn’t achieve what you set out to attain: to lose weight.
You first need to make sure the output produces the outcome you want to achieve, otherwise scaling it up won’t lead to the desired results.
For new features, value (outcome) uncertainty is high and way more critical than timeline uncertainty. When you and your stakeholders are not on the same page about this, you will be forced to drone on about timelines and minutiae of features. It’s all output because your stakeholders believe the outcome is already in the pocket. As a result, you will spend more time talking to your stakeholders than your customers.
How do you get your stakeholders on the same page about what matters most?
I’ve never been afraid to speak up. Early in my career, I struggled with convincing other people to adopt my solutions. I would talk to my manager and say something along the lines of:”We have problem X, we should do Y to fix it”.
I always thought my manager would be extremely pleased. Not only did I make her aware of a problem, but I also handed over the solution on a silver platter! My approach generated mixed results. If the manager agreed it was indeed a problem, then my strategy would generally be quite successful. However, if my manager and me disagreed on the issue, or the magnitude of the problem, she wouldn’t care no matter the solution I presented.
The mistake I made was to intertwine problems and solutions. You should never do this. The trick is to make the audience care deeply about the problem you are presenting. Once the problem grabs their attention and their mind drifts away to think:”We should do something about this!”, that’s the moment you’ve got them. Next thing you know, they will ask you the following question:”What do you think we should do to fix this?”
Once these words are uttered, it becomes easy. Everybody is on the same page and in the same boat. We, instead of just you, have a problem that needs to be fixed. You might not end up with the same solution you had initially envisioned, but who cares about that! Now everybody is motivated to help figure out how to fix the problem.
How does this relate to helping a company beat the Feature Factory?
When your stakeholders believe that features are guaranteed to deliver value, the Feature Factory model makes perfect sense. You just need to get it out of the door swiftly, with sufficient quality.
To fight the Feature Factory, you need to plant seeds of doubt. You need to make your stakeholders question the validity of this belief. Show your stakeholders for past features that were delivered:
- How often are features in our product used by customers?
- Why are customers using some of our popular features? Why are they not using some of our least popular functionalities? Talk to your customers to better understand what is going on. Some features are rarely used, but still vital. There might be valuable lessons to extract, which you can use to stress why doing more research before building something is necessary.
- How much do these under-used features cost? Think about: support costs, maintenance costs, infrastructure costs, dependency costs, marketing costs, and so on. Show how these features are like parasites that just drain money and don’t pay their dues.
- What is the opportunity cost for having built these under-used features?
By answering the following questions, you can create awareness about the problem. But that’s not enough. You need to bridge the gap to the C-level. Make powerful stakeholders care about the issue at hand by speaking their language. Connect the ghost features to numbers that determine their bonuses and the success of the company.
When you show the impact of feature adoption on the bottom line, you will have their attention and make them care about the problem. Your stakeholders understand a lot of money is left on the table with the current way of working. Now they will start thinking, what can we do about it?
This is your cue to start talking about the solution to beating the Feature Factory. Explain why it’s important to shift away all this focus on meeting timelines and delivering features to please stakeholders. Let’s start listening to our customers instead of our stakeholders. We should first worry about figuring out how we can make sure we are delivering value to our customers. Only when we have reasonable success with that, is it the right moment to start scaling up the speed of delivery.
Convince your stakeholders to stop worrying if we’re going fast enough, until we know we’re going in the right direction.