Why do most product initiatives fizzle?

Why do most product initiatives fizzle?

Most new product initiatives don't fail, they fizzle out having little impact.

Think of the latest car design launches and ask yourself if it made a difference. The answer is often not really. It's not that it was a failure, it's more that it failed to fundamentally make something a lot better. How likely is it that you will see it as a must have product?

If in fact most of your future Technology Product Development will produce inferior outcomes, what can you do about it? Can you change the process perhaps?

Let's go through the chain of logic around what helps produce such miserable results. In the end I'll give you our approach to improve the success rate.

How do you market a pointless product?

Remember the new car model I asked you to think about before? What quality did it gain that was remarkable? I looked up random car models and came upon a Honda Civic. I've heard that they were good cars, but that was decades ago, it could have changed. When I see the latests model, and ask myself "What makes this model remarkable?", nothing springs to my mind. Perhaps the product just isn't aimed at me. And, yes, it is damned hard to make big leaps forwards.

But what is the alternative. If your product isn't remarkable how are you going to market it? Stand in the corner of the room and say "Hey, our product is pretty neat as well.."? While those with something real and interesting to show takes the center of the room, and people gather around to hear their story.

So you have to try your best to do great, especially when you pour millions into a new product revision. Tweaking the visual language of a car, or what that equates to for your product, doesn't cut it. You need to improve underlying fundamentals.

When your audience sees or hears about your new product you want some of them to think,

Brand is king or is it?

According to traditional business strategy the experience and quality of an individual product isn't high on the list of importance. Avoiding bad press is higher priority since it will hurt the "Brand". So the value is in how your overall business is perceived. There is of course a lot of merit to this view, but an alternate angle is on the rise.

With the rise of Social Media a couple of facts have changed

When you no longer control the messaging people receive about your product, you cannot bury the critical points and highlight superlative descriptions of your new "Totally Revamped Automotive Dream". Instead people will hear "Sure it's ok, takes you from A to B, but have you heard about this new e-Bike that also goes off-road, looks lots of fun!".

In such an environment you have to give your new product at least one exciting property that makes it worth mentioning.

Global Reach beats Local Monopoly

Newspapers used to be local monopolies distributing recent knowledge to local readers. Book shops used to be local outlets of knowledge bundles sold to local readers. Starbucks used to be a US-only proven Business Concept enabling people with savings to set up a profitable business. GoPro gained global reach by the excitement from videos posted on YouTube.

When information and product is accessible on a global scale, why should you pick the local option. Why not pick the Globally best option based on the opinions and feedback from thousands of customers that you can hear from directly?

If your product is hard to use, it adds friction to the users productivity and focus. It makes your product expensive to use, so when a global business with a more pleasurable experience comes along, they will eat your lunch.

The Best Dominates

The best dominates in a world of zero cost distribution. When you can spread your product to all corners of the world, quality products stand out against the noise of average products. A good way to think is to aim to make Remarkable products.

Consider some popular products, as stated in entrepreneur and tech investor Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One:

Even if we might disagree with some of the assertions, the idea of order of magnitude improvement is important. The implications are significant.

"Proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension."
-- Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Do 68% of Technology Projects fail?

According to widespread research, success in 68 percent of technology projects is "improbable". This is often described as 68% of projects fail. In my experience very few projects fail, perhaps 10%. The remaining 58% are kept running and serve as a template for future projects. This is probably why most Enterprise IT solutions are so terrible; They keep learning from failures. The observation should be:

Most new technology initiatives fail to produce a better product than before. Rather than try harder, businesses accept the decline. This is a cause for stagnating productivity.
-- Henrik Vendelbo

Or put in another way:

"Your organization probably does a lousy job setting up projects, which is why they fail.".
-- Michael Krigsman(ZDNet Columnist)

Findings from sampling 110 projects

The authors of the study concluded that better requirements and planning would lead to much better results. This makes me reflect on the requirement specifications I've seen on projects I've worked on.

Should you invest more in writing requirements?

In the past the approach to run a great business was instituting processes for reducing failure. Back then you would be advised to hire consultants for writing excellent requirements. While it surely creates benefits, I doubt that deals with the heart of the problem, or will indeed be good enough today.

As an example I spent 2 years leading a development effort for a Bank making a new trading website for professional use. They apparently spent a third of the total budget planning the project. It was a significant undertaking for them spanning 3+ years, costing millions. In all my time on the project I never saw the 200 page document produced as part by the consultants doing the planning.

I'm pretty sure the planning didn't involve,

In addition to doing good planning you have to engage across the organisation to turn everyone into key contributors. If they don't have a heartfelt goal they will probably come up with their own goals, which probably will not suit the product.

A common default goal for Engineers that I've seen countless times, which shows up with the project goals fail to excite is, to make "General Purpose Technology Solution". Other professions have their own default goals.

So lets give you a plan of attack, drumroll ...

1. Focus on a Great Product

A well crafted product is done by knowledgable and skilled workers. No person can hold all the important details needed to make a great product in their head. The details need to be spread among all team members together with the understanding of why they are important.

In Technology we talk about being a craftsman as an achievement. A craftsman cares about quality and finish, about what the product is used for, about how it is used, about the material and about using the best tools to make it. A craftsman cannot work in an assembly line disconnected from the full product.

The problem with having a planning team making a specification upfront is that it is all captured in documents. It is up to people later to read those documents and comprehend details and intention, whether those documents are understandable or not. Few management consultants learn much about the art of writing or teaching, so those documents are not going to be good means of communication.

To make a great product you need to go beyond clear requirements.

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
― Steve Jobs

2. Collaborate across Marketing, Management & Product

Many if not most of the projects I've worked on for big companies started out with the Development Team, Tester and UI Designer having a limited understanding of what we were building and why. It makes sense that you figure out a lot of "what" as you go along, but the why needs to be clear and important. It is quite demotivating to work on something that doesn't really matter to the organisation.

I don't recall seeing sketches (called Rought Prototypes) done in collaboration with actual Stakeholders, but I'm sure that it would make for a more engaged and productive team. By starting product initiatives with a design sprint you build prototypes to cover the central user experience. In weeks following the sprint we will normally work to broaden the coverage of prototypes and build interactive prototypes to verify important interaction perspectives.

If necessary a UI designer dedicated to the project can create the visual language and screen detail for the project.

Marketing is rarely involved in product development. This is a great shame as they should have an understanding of the audience your product is sold to. Since the person buying and the person using may be different, or in different mindsets, the view of the Customer will differ between Design and Marketing. All the same collaborating with Marketing leads to a better product that is a better experience and easier to understand and adopt.

3. Close Collaboration for Product Lifetime

Lean Startup. Lean Development. Iteration. There are many names for the notion that human beings are dominated by the daily context. Even if you have the best possible 200 page specification of what we will be building over the next 4 years, your team will struggle to figure out what to do today and why not one of the other 1000 things that would matter.

Competent people have a vast amount of instinctive competence that they let out in a stimulating environment. The goal should be to create a stimulating environment and join together the right people. Once you have the first environment you can create an output that seeds the next environment. Or to put it plainly if you create a group of people that will be making the product from day one, and transition people in and out of the group as the project progresses, you will end up with a great product in the end. We just figure it out when we are surrounded with inpriring input and and happy to inspire new team members that show knowledge and competence.

In the end the requirements should be communicated in a qualitative and human way, and the humans will do the right thing.

Bet on producing outlier success

Seen as a whole for the organisation consider the projects you will be doing in the next 5 years. If one of theme is so well liked that it takes over the market, as it happened for Den Danske Bank that now dominates Mobile Payments in Denmark, how would that affect your overall business.

You can try to improve the lowest or median success rate, or you can aim to make some projects so successful that they lift the average greatly. You should aim to create success outliers and forgive the projects that try their best.

We hand you a team with a product well on the way

Our approach is based on decades of development and design experience on the ground at technology projects. Our customers usually has a motivated management that want to embrace our crazy world of social media, smartphones, and existing products/customers/organisation.

Design Thinking is a great framework for making solid products, but somebody needs to be there every day to push the ball forward until it starts rolling. This is why we join the project while you are just starting to decide what you are making, and leave it with your internal development team when they show their first internal version.

This way the right people have ownership of the product(your people that have to keep it running) and the right people seed what qualities the product must have(Decisionmakers and top doers in your company). We are there to help guide the birth of your new product.

We help push for clear,

As designers we try to give people better habits through the products we make. Good habits are the foundation of success. We think it's the best sort of goal we can have.

What now?

If you think this made sense we would be happy to help your products along in whatever way possible. We like to work on interesting projects, so if you have one please consider reaching out to us to discuss it. We will be at Web Summit in Lisbon November 6-9, 2017. Hope to see you there.

Further reading,