Monday, May 24, 2010

The Knothole Conundrum

In marketing – especially product marketing - we every now and again run into a conflict between what is and what should be when it comes to product releases.

Perhaps it happens when development slips the schedule on a specific feature, or perhaps Marketing wants to pull in the announcement to hit a specific date coinciding with a trade show or other event. Maybe you’ve just got wind of a competitor planning to pull the rug out from under you…whatever the cause, occasionally someone will say, “Well, we can still launch on time as long as we clearly document this ‘temporary’ constraint.”

I call this classic release challenge the Knothole Conundrum.

This type of ‘x+y+z feature will work, but only if a-b constraint are in place’ constraint is often a dicey and dangerous slope - and it’s also a very common situation. In my 30 odd years doing this work, I’ve seen it play out over 100 times. No company is immune. Hardware vs software doesn’t matter. Grizzled old-timers and newly minted MBAs have all run afoul of the conundrum. Sometimes they sail through the bumpy water and launch Valhalla with no one the wiser, sometimes the knothole snares them into a vortex of Homerian epictatude…forcing more than a few launch captains down with their ship…

Nobody wants to look bad – or point fingers - or even admit there may be anything amiss in constraining a release - so the complexity is often systemically downplayed.

In a perfect world, if everybody does exactly the right thing, this sort of constrained feature release looks ok on paper, but we don’t market in a perfect world, do we? Your field is dealing with thousands of distractions everyday, so it’s inevitable that wires will get crossed – and when they do, all kinds of product manager bits and pieces hit the fan.

More than likely, the field mistakenly positions the new release ignoring the constraint, setting up a customer expectation that can’t be immediately met by the new ‘slightly-constrained’ product, resulting in pushed sales, expensive on-site expert intervention, frustrated customers, and risk to company reputation.

It is difficult to stand up during a launch prep process and scream at the field - Hey, pay attention! Danger here! Especially, when at the same time you are telling the outside world that the new product or release is just what the doctor ordered.

This problem gets worse with scale. The likelihood of fragging one of your reps or partners goes up as the distance between you and your field and partner set expands. The mitigation cost and reputation risk if something does go wrong increases exponentially as the installed base expands.

Since its a systemic issue, I believe the solution must also be systemic, often requiring attention to process, organization, power and political issues.

A few suggestions:

1) Insist on sacrosanct MRD/PRD process - with strong and empowered marketing and sales representation. There must be an honest and open discussion of the risks faced by releasing anything less than whole product. Marketing and sales need to assert that this type of knothole positioning and config limits are dangerous and should be considered a last resort requiring significant and open debate prior to commitment. The quality team needs a place at this table, as does the customer service and professional services teams who are likely to be called in to ‘clean up’ if the constrained launch creates a toxic spill somewhere

2) Honestly face and consider the dozens of alternatives to 'X+Y+Z but only if A-B' constrained release. Perhaps if we take our eye off the calendar and time clock for a minute, we’ll realize that a slip in the release schedule to get a whole product out rather than rush a constrained one, won’t kill us. In all my years – every time I’ve heard, “the window of opportunity is slamming shut” it wasn’t. There was always more time to get it done right. If you can’t concede my point here, ponder this truism, “More time will always mystically become available to fix it if we rush and get it wrong”. Maybe it’s worth prioritizing more dev resources to get the complete product out on time – if in this case 9 engineers can actually make a baby in one month. My point is, do not just accept that the knothole is the way to go. It is certainly the easiest – for the Ivory Tower, anyway. However, it is often not the right thing to do when you consider all the risks, dependences, and real costs.

3) Open/improved Sales Engineer communication in the launch process. If you do decide the constrained product route is required, then get the SE’s on board early and scream danger at them with a megaphone.

4) Start the launch message development process with the worst case audience in mind. You all know what I mean – there is one particular sales person or small group of them that are the most at risk from constrained product launches. Ironically, they are probably your most successful on-the-ball reps. They push everything to the limit, and when they see an opportunity to close a deal with the new product, the limited constraints you so diligently documented will often get lost in the rush to revenue. God luv ‘em. But as your prepping for the constrained launch make sure the the team asks themselves how they will make sure all these ‘special’ reps and their teams hear and understand the limitations. Don’t leave it up to the documentation to tell the story, or you’ll soon be muttering, “But the constraint was as clear as day, right there in the release notes!” just like a thousand frustrated product managers before you…

5) If it is necessary to move forward with one of these knothole releases, put some safeguards in the order process. Review orders for 'knothole compliance' until your complex ‘X+Y+Z as long as A+B’ config rule is lifted. Acknowledge that no matter what or how well the rule communicated, somebody will screw this up. Demand that some safeguard against it is put at the end of the process flow. No one will want to do this because its hard. What usually happens (and can't/shouldn't…ever) is that all the compliance responsibility is put on the field. If you allow this, expect vicious finger pointing when the whole mess breaks down.

And, finally, take some solace from knowing you are not the first or last to face the dreaded Knothole Conundrum…

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