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Clarity of Goals: The Most Important Element of Product Success

The unpleasant reality today is that 80% of new products fail. In fact, botched products are so common, the Law of Market Failure states: Most new products will fail in the market, even when they are competently executed. Pretty discouraging, right? However, it's not all bad news. Development teams can defy these odds and stack the deck in their favor by improving collaboration across teams. In my view, it's disjointed communication — not the inherent complexity of the products themselves — that contributes to most products going off the tracks.  

Many people in the industry — including leaders from leading tech companies like Google — understand a major problem in the product delivery cycle today is Failure of Premise. This occurs when the wrong product is built from the beginning. A person or team can have a compelling idea, but one of two problems arise when the full vision is not effectively communicated to the development team. The first problem is a product is delivered that is different from the concept because the initial idea was lost in translation. The second problem is the product doesn't match the customer need because it wasn't developed with "real world" use case top of mind.

For today's sophisticated products, development teams make thousands of decisions over the course of the product delivery lifecycle. If each decision is even slightly misinformed, a snowball effect happens when an entire team collectively creates massive gaps of understanding, which are apparent in the final product. This is particularly problematic when developers get into a sprint because it becomes easy to focus on the trees and lose sight of the forest. So, as they progress in their work, developers run the risk of drifting away from accomplishing the actual experience defined for the customer. Collaboration can offer a guiding light to prevent these scrum teams from going down the proverbial rabbit hole. By providing a framework for developers to continually check in as design and technical decisions are made, they can feel more confident about remaining aligned with the initial product vision.

Fundamental collaboration problems that lead to Failure of Premise can be addressed by refocusing developers on the core business value. That is to say, "How will this product really move the needle for customers?" This is a sharp contrast to the traditional approach of assigning development teams to build a discrete feature in isolation. Developers are more effective when then can easily move from their sprint level tasks up to the broader themes and collaborate with peers, product managers, and other stakeholders. Effective teams are focused on breaking down communication barriers and providing deeper, richer context about the product across the lifecycle. At our company, we call this collective, unwavering focus on the premise of any product "the steel thread."

Translating the initial concept into a shared vision for every person on the development team has a cascading effect. It's no surprise that developers are more engaged and invested in the product when they are accountable for something bigger than a particular feature. In my experience, developers want to do much more than write lines of code; they care about critical aspects such as creating a positive user experience or driving better customer adoption. When a person can see exactly how their work is part of the broader business strategy, they feel empowered and take more ownership for the final product. Providing a rich collaboration environment for work is a very different experience than being copied on an email going to a large group. In the latter scenario, individuals feel they are just one of dozens or even hundreds of individual contributors and their actions don't really matter.

Changing your approach to product delivery to emphasize the steel thread is more than just using the latest collaboration software, it's really about making a significant cultural shift. Here are ways to improve collaboration across the development team in order to deliver products that will succeed in the market:

  • Get outside the silo: Working in a disconnected development team ultimately results in alignment problems in the product. Collaboration streams with similar constructs as those used in social networking foster more communication among teams, so each developer can make more-informed decisions about their contribution to the final product.
  • Focus more on the intended experience: Developers should shift their mindset and no longer think about their contribution from the standpoint of developing a specific feature, but rather aim for the user experience they will deliver. Teams can accomplish this by communicating a single vision broadly, giving everyone from the requirements definition team to final test group the same purpose or touchstone as they navigate development of the product.
  • Identify the experts: Seek information and experts to make decisions based on fact, not potentially incorrect assumptions. Advanced collaboration systems make information searchable and increase transparency across the entire product lifecycle. When developers understand how upstream decisions affect them, they can avoid time-consuming "rework" on a product and also avoid rehashing decisions made earlier in the cycle.

New approaches to collaboration present a great opportunity for improving the odds of successful product delivery. It's about creating a common vision and adopting a new way of working that increases alignment at every stage of the development process, fosters better decision making, spurs innovation, and increases engagement in the product delivery process. However, the most important reason for seeking improved collaboration is — ultimately — it increases the likelihood of getting things right the first time.

Eric Winquist has nearly 20 years of experience working with product delivery and development teams. He is the CEO of Jama Software, a product delivery platform that helps companies bring complex products to market. You can follow Eric at @portlanderic

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