Promises slay innovation. Lack of predictability diminishes sales. How should you deal with that?
I love encouraging teams to embrace the unknown and uncover opportunities to innovate. At the same time, sales pressures for predictability. How can they close deals if they don’t know what they can promise?
I may not have the exact answer, but I have some helpful insights. The first part is:
Build products customers want to buy, not the ones you need to sell.
It’s a subtle line between push and pull. You don’t want to struggle all the time acquiring new customers; you want them to knock at your door.
In a B2B business model, this challenge increases. Potentially, the sales team strives to close deals to reach their metrics. Eventually, potential customers will say, “I can close the deal if you get me this feature.” The answer to this question is a matter of creating an ordinary product or a great one.
The more promises you make, the less scalable your product becomes.
Let me elaborate on how you can balance embracing the unknown and predictability.
Clarity on Your Target Audience
The first part of finding the balance is understanding your target audience. Without that, discussions become abstract. Not everyone cares about your future product plans; some only care about what you can offer out of the box.
How can you understand your audience? Try answering the following questions:
- Does your product bring a disruptive or incremental innovation?
- What does your audience value most, being the first or convenience?
- How comfortable are your potential customers using something nobody else has used?
The more your answers are to the first portion of each question, the more your customers are fine with the unknown. They’d be willing to face unpredictable outcomes in exchange for exclusivity. Yet, the other side needs evidence that someone else is already using it and is satisfied with the results. They also want a complete product experience because convenience matters most to them.
To make it easier, you can use the adoption curve. This understanding is fundamental to comprehend the level of predictability you need.
Side note: be mindful of your audience. If you’re targeting early adopters, invest your whole time into it because trying to bring the early majority to your product will waste your time.
Empowerment Doesn’t Mean Messing Around
Can empowered teams do whatever they want?
They’re self-organizing, autonomous, and highly skilled professionals. Does that mean they do what they think is right? What’s your opinion?
I often face annoying misunderstandings about it. Let me be blunt:
Businesses aren’t playgrounds. Teams have to create value and help the business achieve its goals.
You may disagree with me on this one, but empowered teams cannot do whatever they want. They can solve whichever problem they like if it contributes to reaching desired business outcomes.
I’d see a meaningful way of working as follows:
- Leadership sets direction and objectives
- Product teams collaborate closely with leadership to craft a valuable strategy
- Product teams continuously discover problems and prioritize which ones help them reach business objectives
- Product teams and leadership align on worthy problems to solve and make that transparent to the entire organization
- Product teams can solve problems however they want as long as it remains inside business constraints
- Customers benefit from delightful solutions as often as possible
- Sales and satisfaction go up, and everyone is happy
Alright, but how precisely can you show the upcoming problems to your customers and leads? This is generally a trap, but you’ve got to solve the two points I mentioned—clarity on the audience and understanding of the accountability of empowered teams.
Keep Promises on Solving Problems
Let me start this section by telling you what kind of predictability will lead you into dangerous pitfalls:
- No predictability at all: Teams shout out loud. We’re Agile. We embrace the unknown and cannot tell you what you’ll get.
- Yearly Gantt Illusional Chart: Someone defines everything happening for the whole year. Clear features delivered by when.
- Sales Promises: The roadmap is shaped according to customers’ wishes, and the goal is to keep the promises to close deals.
If you’re facing any of the above, you’ve got something to reflect on. You have opportunities to improve and focus on the right things.
The more predictable your roadmap is, the less empowered you can be.
The more dogmatic you are, the less support you get.
As with everything in life, extremes are often a bad option. That’s why we need to find the balance.
Now, let me share something that will help you find the right balance:
- Collaboration: Empowered teams are not special business units that work in a vacuum. The best teams I’ve seen worked closely with many departments. They functioned as a team and were aligned with each other.
- Goals: Set clear directions and adapt your actions towards that. This is related to Vision and Goals, with Vision being far in the future, somewhere around five to ten years, and Goals representing steps to get there.
- Problems: Strive to identify problems customers care about. Such problems should occur often enough to a relevant number of people. When you solve them, customers will find you.
- Transparency: Ensure stakeholders know which problems you aim to solve and support you. This enables you to progress. Depending on your business, you need to share your roadmaps with customers and leads to create trust.
So now what? How predictable should you be? Simplicity is your best ally.
My favorite roadmap format is called Now-Next-Later, also known as Lean Roadmap. Note it doesn’t have timelines. It simply shows what we’re working on now, what we intend to work on shortly, and what is destined for the future.
This roadmap format doesn’t make promises but clarifies what’s going on, given the current knowledge. It may change as the team learns on the journey. The critical aspect is to have the items related to the Vision and Goals.
“People want guidance, not rhetoric; they need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it.” - Howard Schultz, Starbucks
It’s too naïve to think you cannot give any predictability. Businesses are complex, and you need to deal with them whether you want to or not. The choice is between trapping yourself or gaining support.
When you opt for a feature roadmap, I’m afraid pointless discussions await you.
When you agree on problems you want to tackle and relate them to goals, you can export more support on getting this done.
It’s your job to find significant problems and figure out how to craft an outstanding solution that drives value.
Trying to run away from the predictability discussion won’t do you any good. But facing reality and coming up with a mindful approach will give you what you need to solve what matters most: making customers’ lives better.
“It’s not the tools you have faith in. Tools are just tools — they work or they don’t work. It’s the people you have faith in or not. - Steve Jobs