In the world today, it’s no longer efficient or effective for a Product Manager in any company to devote months of time, effort, and expense in designing and developing new products or new product features. The market moves faster than that, and even in traditionally slower markets like B2B customers are increasingly exposed to the world of apps and SaaS solutions — which sets expectations for how technology as a whole works. These expectations bleed into the workplace, and workers who previously simply accepted technology as part of the drudgery of their jobs are increasingly vocal about solutions that no longer meet their needs. Combining those expectations with an open market where initial costs to launch products are constantly decreasing through the use of cloud solutions and free open-source technologies, and any company or Product Manager who sits on their laurels and continues to work in a business-as-usual world will find themselves significantly challenged as the market and their users change around them.
Fortunately, there are many approaches that even an old-school Product Manager can adopt to increase their throughput on validating new ideas, testing new solutions, and generally ensuring that they’re being proactive in their market approach and not simply reactive to the changes happening around them. The key component of any such approach is to accept uncertainty, and to test your ideas, problems, and solutions as quickly, cheaply, and often as possible — with the understanding that many of these ideas might fail. However, without testing new ideas, you’ll either invest too much time, money, and effort into the wrong things…or you’ll never bring those challenging and inventive ideas to market, since you’ll never have the data to convince those who are unsure of the direction you wish to pursue.
Thus, your focus should be on failing fast, failing cheap, and failing often.
The first principle to embrace is that of failing quickly — the faster you invalidate and idea that misses the mark, the faster you can pivot your thinking to another approach. There’s more to failing fast than just doing it quickly, though — there’s also the idea of creating something that can be failed quickly, rather than something that takes a lot of time and effort to build, only to find out that it doesn’t quite meet the need you thought it did. A lot of times, there’s a ton of effort put into creating an actual “product” or an MVP that will be used to “test” and idea. While this is certainly Lean thinking — do the minimum amount necessary to create a product to test your hypothesis — it may not always be a “fail fast” approach.
When you’re considering ideas or solutions, try to think of the quickest, easiest way to test your hypothesis without building anything. Can you interview members of your target market first? Can you collect data from publicly-available (or even paid gate) sources? Can you do some initial paper or electronic wireframing that you can run by people who understand your market to confirm what you want to do? All of these things are essential tools to a “fail fast” mindset — and none of them require you to understand or write any code whatsoever.
And, since failing fast naturally means failing early, that segues into the next principle…
A corollary of failing fast is failing cheaply — first, by nature of failing an idea earlier in the process, you’re saving money. The sooner you can invalidate an idea, the less time, money, and effort you will have spent on it. However, there are other conditions to meet when failing cheaply, the most important of which is carefully budgeting your own time, effort, and money to ensure that you’re only doing what’s absolutely necessary. In today’s service economy, there are literally hundreds of websites that allow you to test your product ideas either for free or for a very small amount of money. If you’re in a B2C world, there’s absolutely no excuse not to explore some of these offerings to confirm initial product hypotheses as cheaply as possible.
Another avenue of failing cheaply is to use those resources and opportunities that are already available to you. If you have a services team within your organization, consult with them. Support team? Run your ideas by them before you start building them. Customers? Tag along on sales and account management calls or visits and make sure they set aside come face time with your actual customers or prospects for product-specific sessions. Online forums, discussion boards, email groups…all of these are inexpensive, pre-existing options for invalidating your thoughts and concepts before you spend a single dime of development effort on your ideas.
Finally, and perhaps the hardest principle to internalize, is the idea of failing your ideas often. Not all ideas are good. Not all ideas solve problems; and those that do don’t necessarily do it in the best or marketable way. No matter how smart you are, no matter how much market knowledge you have, and no matter how much data you collect, you’re likely to be wrong more often than right. And that’s a scary thing to accept — but along with that humility comes freedom. You are not your ideas; you are your successes. And, by first accepting that your ideas will be wrong more often than they’ll be right, you’ll have significantly greater impact when you land upon those ideas that are right. Your successes will reach peaks that you’d never have thought, because your delivery is no longer watered down by mediocre ideas — rather, you’re pursuing only those ideas that deliver the greatest value. And you have the data to back it up.
There’s little more frustrating that having an idea that you know is great, but being unable to proceed with it because you can’t convince others of its greatness. But, by adopting a data-driven, fail fast/cheap/often process, you’ll wind up not only pursuing only the best ideas, but by attempting to fail them fast/cheap/often, you’ll have collected the necessary data to demonstrate to others that what you want to do is valuable to others in the market — you’ll have hard data, anecdotal data, customer comments and statements; everything that you need to convince others in the company that you’re idea actually is a great one. Just like a scientific theory, if it can’t be disproven by repeated experiments, it simply must be true.
Paul Maurer says
Good article. The corollary to this is to ensure that management (or partners, investors, co-founders, etc.) are supportive of multiple fails in a short period of time. Too often, failures are deemed indicative of poor performance, insufficient research, or misguided efforts. Failure should be accepted and lauded as opportunities to improve long-term product quality.
The Clever PM says
Absolutely – a healthy modern culture sees experimentation (and the necessary “failures” it produces) as a way of saving money, rather than a way of wasting it. Building a testing-based product culture is pretty much essential to almost any business nowadays — even those with entrenched technologies are seeing smaller, nimbler startups nipping at their heels and bringing in millions of what is essentially R&D money.