Thursday, December 04, 2008

Product development doesn't sound well with Democracy

Today I wanted to take few minutes to write about something obvious (kind of...) but very difficult to apply in companies, especially big ones. Product development needs to be based on users' insights to meet a demand and reach a good level of satisfaction, but it should be excluding democracy!

First for the ones that don't know what Product development is, let's define it quickly:

"Creation of products with new or different characteristics that offer new or additional benefits to the customer. It may involve modification of an existing product or
its presentation, or formulation of an entirely new product that satisfies a newly defined customer want or market niche."
Business dictionary

"The overall process of strategy, organization, concept generation, product and marketing plan creation and evaluation, and commercialization of a new product"

I'm not very satisfied by those definitions actually, so let's try to do mine.
Product Development is a
sub part of Product Management,
Product Development is taking concepts and ideas to real experience (I mean real product or feature). In terms of task, a product development manager takes a value proposition and design the experience that deliver the expected value to the users. He has to write a Product Requirements Document and to evangelise it. Then he follows the production to make sure that what is released is 100% inline with the value proposition. 

Then a good product could be define as a product that delivers a good level of satisfaction in line with his specific value proposition. Just that! Nothing more! And that's what is difficult to do!

Because value proposition is formalised by a sentence that should remain the same  forever or at least be evolving very slowly with years. In opposition to this, users and colleagues formalise their demand differently with a slightly different balance of concerns about things that are not initially core to deliver your value proposition.

The execution of an idea has to be done rigorously with the minimum of distraction. Once you have insights of users, a product development manager should almost act as a dictator. He is the guard ensuring that the execution reflects perfectly the value proposition in every details.

Here is a good quote about this problem from Jeff Lash:
"However, product development is not a democracy. There is no voting, and if there was, not everyone would get a vote, and not all votes would be equal. While it may be tempting to structure an open process by which stakeholders have the opportunity to provide input and are given a level playing field, this is really an illusion and a disservice to the product manager. If everyone gets an equal vote, then why have a product manager at all? All you would need is someone to tally the votes."

Should a Product Manager act as a dictator in a company?
WoW that's probably hard for lot of people, but some of them succeed to do it right:
Steve Jobs as a great example is leading is product strategy and product development very closely. By this fact, it's probably very frustrating for his employees to work at Apple cause they must have a limited impact on product strategy. But at the end of the day, a product needs a clear long term direction that is reflected in every details, the more people are involved in product strategy decision, the less clear and durable strategy is likely to be.
I don't really know any exception to this. Maybe you do? 

Jeff is also saying:
"Product managers are responsible for what the product should do; do not attempt to absolve yourself from that responsibility by pushing decision-making back on to the product development team or a wider group. Good product managers are able to get input from all of the relevant players and use that information as basis for decisions. Not everyone will agree with your decisions all of the time, but if you do your job well, your decisions should be understood and respected."

And I would probably agree on everything except this :
"Product managers are responsible for what the product should do"
I think Product managers are responsible for what the product was, is and will be actually doing

The bigger the company is, the more charismatic the product manager needs to be!
Don't get me wrong, there is really cool product managers in start-ups but doing a good product in a start-up is an easy task compare to do it at Yahoo!, Google or
Ebay. (Please scope this sentence to Product Management, and forget about Finance issues). I would like to be in a start-up to stop having to argue all the times and take a clear lead. It would be so much easier!

Dave McDowell, one of my boss at Yahoo! told me one year ago: " there are many "true" ", he's right, each decision has its reasons that somehow may be logic, but I think there is only one relevant decision. And it's difficult to demonstrate it to everybody before actually be looking at results. When I'm not charismatic enough to do my job that well, I start to act as an hidden dictator, I enforce things without approval and to be able to show facts. You might think it's dangerous... Yes maybe, but if you can't take any risk, why being in business?

If there are too many deciders in your company, what about externalising Product Development?
Hum... If you need Product Strategy Consulting, you probably don't have the right product manager in your team. But there are more companies than good product managers, so consulting firms will probably have their place forever. Externalising the product development to one consultant (a product strategist) could be actually good to work on a totally new concept, but ask him to lead your Engineering and User Interface Design teams, to work in your office and talk to your users. If he's not directly involve in your actual production, the result is likely to be very disappointing even if the initial concept was the most relevant one.
Concepts, ideas are what you dream of, the product is what you are.
(This sentence is debatable depending of the industry so consider the branding as part of the product) 
Users don't dream forever! Someone has to be responsible of closing the gap and keep closing it during years.
Ideas are cool, but they are not real. If they don't get real, they are worth nothing.

Hope you enjoyed this one.