Product Management

trouble in the middle of the room

I have this big color laser printer. You know the kind – its about the size of a large old fashioned tv set, and about as heavy. Its sitting in the middle of my office. On the floor. Its been there for over a month. Its in a spot where I actually have to walk around it to answer the phone, or to get on my elliptical trainer, and I makes it difficult to pace the way I prefer when on conference calls.

So why is it still there? Cause I don’t really know what to do with it. I don’t want this giant to take up the space where my current printer is. Its too nice to get rid of. I don’t feel like taking the 15 minutes to hook it up.

This is exactly the kind of thing that happens in most product development cycles. These problems. That everyone knows about, but doesn’t exactly know what to do about.

And there’s the opportunity right there to make the difference between good and great. Find those things littered around the floor. Sometimes they are UI issues. Sometimes its a feature that’s lacking. Or the fact that the customer research says everyone wants green and you have blue. Or the fact that the licensing isn’t (and won’t be) in place. Don’t ignore them. Make it an absolute virtue to say – hey look everyone – theres this stupid printer in the middle of the @*#&^@ floor.

You may catch some heat, at first. In some companies I’ve worked for, the pressure to ignore these things gets greater as you go up the hierarchy (I’ve never been able to understand this, and its one reason I find consulting to suit me). But ultimately, if you can be part of a team, that will never pass a printer in the middle of the floor without deciding what to do about it and then doing it, you will do great things.

The Virtues of Looking for Trouble

Rarely do products fail for reasons that were not known and predicted by at least someone on the team. Frequently we find that these concerns were glossed over because, for a variety of (often compelling) reasons, bad news was not welcome at the meeting.

How does one seek out trouble? The short answer is that anyplace there is vagueness, worry, or unexpected or disconfirming information, it should be a high priority to check it out. But often this does not happen.

What are the reasons? There are 3 main reasons, and many minor ones.

Here are the biggies:

1. Passionate belief in the product such that disconfirming information is ignored or explained away without serious consideration. This is a common reaction to market research results that do not meet expectations.

2. Management pressure. There are organizations (believe it or not!) where the culture simply does not admit bad news. Blame is rampant and fierce, and no reasonable person wants to be hit with it.

3. The need for speed – sometimes there’s just so much going on that the team just puts its concerns on the back burner to be dealt with “eventually”.

The remedies

1. Sophistication

Its important that the team be infused with an appreciation of the value of trouble seeking. That trouble managed eary can make a product better, faster and more profitable. It supports and maximizes success. Trouble managed late is simply firefighting. It is beating off failure rather than actively pursuing success.

2. Humility

Sometimes we all make mistakes. Accept it as inevitable, accept mistakes as part of a creative, fast moving, accept it as a virtue. Learn that the wisest and smartest and most successful person is the one who is able to coolly evaluate their current status in order to go further.

3. Shared Trust and Respect

A team that has a deep, shared sense of trust and respect will find it easy to bring problems to the table and get great solutions. Teams that lack these traits make it awkward to bring problems into focus, or admit (gasp!) mistakes, or make the price of this a big pile of blame. So problems remain hidden.
When you believe your team is good, dedicated and focused, you know that they bring problems to the table to get the fastest, smartest solution that the full team can deliver. A good team rewards bad news found early.