Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

When People Kill Good Products

People Kill Good Products.

That's right. Good products don't get ruined by circumstances or the “market”. They get trashed by people, usually long before actual launch.

It's sad but true. I'm not talking about the obvious mistakes. The classic ones, such as a serious defect or taking too long to get to market, often become predictable. With time a company can reduce these errors and eliminate bad product caused by them.

The bigger problem is the people in an organization who seem hell bent on insuring that innovation never see the light of day. Why do they do this? I don't know. It's the kind of thing I've never been able to understand in over twenty five years of product development. I don't get them but I can identify them. It's easier to recognize behavior than to explain. Here are the most common types of product killer. They all have one thing in common – the tendency to obstruct progress and trash ideas that are not their own.

The Prove Its!

These are the folks who have to have everything validated to the nth degree (where n is a very large number). Nothing satisfies them. They come in two flavors – the Prove the Impossibles and the Prove the Unknowns. The Prove the Impossibles always seem to ask for some form of proof that is simply impossible to obtain. These are the folks who demand that you show them 100 customers who want a feature when you only have 10 customers using the product. My favorite is where someone says – and I'm not making this up – that you show them some number of people willing to place orders for something that doesn't exist yet. This is chief in my pantheon of impossible situations. Who will order a product that hasn't been designed and built yet? No one and the Prove Its know this.

A subtype of the Prove the Impossible is the Outer Limits. These folks will ask for some form of validation that is possible to obtain but for which there are no resources. For example “Perhaps of you could survey 5000 people we could get the information we want?” Well since there is no budget or personnel for a survey of that magnitude and they know it, it's just an attempt to stop forward progress. Most of the time, these so-called “reasonable requests” are not at all reasonable.

Another form of Prove It is the Prove the Unknowns. They insist that you prove things that defy logic since you can't prove what you don't know, only what you do. They know this of course but that's not their point. One of my favorites – and I'm not making this up – is “can you prove someone else isn't working on this too?” Of course not! I might know that someone is working on it but not that they are not working on it. Just because we don't know that someone isn't doing something doesn't mean that they aren't. Only that we don't know. Another one “Can you be sure that there won't be a different technology that does this in six months?” How can I unless I can predict the future. That's why we know this is not a real question. It's only designed to obstruct.

The Irrelevants

This is a true story. I couldn't make this up if I tried. In a design review for a military radar system, an engineer asked “If the ship is hit with a nuclear weapon, will the software reset?” What?! Even as a very young engineer, I was struck by how silly this seemed. Silly because it was completely irrelevant. That's one of my favorite forms of obstruction – focusing on something that doesn't matter as if it does. It slows everyone down as they scramble to put aside an objection that has no right being raised. I find The Irrelevants especially irksome because they not only obstruct but also annoy. Most of the time they walk around with the type of smug expression that drives people nuts.

A fairly insidious form of irrelevancy is make outliers seem important. You talk to 100 customers about a feature. 99 love it and 1 doesn't. Truth be told, that one hates your sales guy but you can't say that. The fact that your meeting opened with a 30 minute diatribe outlining all the things he hates about the company starting with your tie is not important to The Irrelevants. Nope, the one person who will never buy from you again anyway (we told the sales guy not to date his daughter but did he listen?) is given the same credence as the 99. The fact that those 99 wanted to have you over for dinner after hearing your great idea doesn't seem to matter. So, you spend a month trying to dilute the nasty comments of one customer with an ax to grind. The Irrelevants love the first guy and hate the 99 others.

By the way, the answer to “will a nuclear blast reset the software” was “I don't know but it will probably reset the operator.” I loved that response.

The Ignorants

These folks are my Room 101. We are talking about the Pointy Haired Boss types who insist on commenting on something they know nothing about. Think about the engineer who tells sales and marketing what customers really want when they have never met a customer in their lives. Or the salesperson who tells a bunch of programmers that something is just a SMOP (simple matter of programming). You can see it coming when they start their sentences with “I don't see why we can't just...” The "just" is the keyword here.

There is a difference between the Ignorants and the Truly Ignorants. The latter are sad but well meaning. They are trying to be helpful but out of their league. The Ignorants are trying to demean. By being dismissive of ideas they kill them. Another indicator that there is an Ignorant in the room is how they resist explanations. The Truly Ignorant will listen patiently even if they don't understand a word you are saying. They are suffering because they want to understand and be helpful but can't. Be kind to the Truly Ignorants. The Ignorants on the other hand don't want an explanation. They want something and explanations get in the way of them getting it. These folks will dismiss explanations with a Dogbert like wave of the hand and a hearty “Bah!”

A combination of an Ignorant and an Irrelevant are the “Sky is falling” types. They fill up the discussion with both the ignorant and irrelevant points designed to paint a picture of the end of the world. If you are talking about Global Warming or Nuclear War, a certain amount of that attitude is to be expected. When the subject at hand is a new laptop then the Chicken Little routine is an indication that you have an Ignorant Irrelevant in your midst.

I still can't figure out these people. Is it a power thing? Feelings of inadequacy? Hubris? I don't know and stopped caring awhile back. What I do know is that when you encounter these folks they need to be neutralized quickly before they destroy a perfectly good product initiative.

Of course, once they wreck a good product, they will point to that as an example of the type of failure to be avoided. Bizzaro logic for sure but quite effective. If you run into these people stop them be for it is too late. Otherwise, a perfectly good and innocent product may die or be crippled. And you don't want that on your conscience, do you?

No comments: