Saturday, September 01, 2007

Product Planning : Vision first, not Feature first.

I believe that for a product to be successful, it is very important to get the product planning right. Product planning is the first activity when product team starts to think what to build for vNext or vNext+1 release.

Some people start this activity by listing down a list of features that they think they want to include for the next release. While feature list is important, I don't think that is the right way to start. Customer does not buy software product just because it has cool feature, but because the product itself has a compelling story that make them to be more productive.

Given the feature list, now the question is what features we should deliver for the next release to make it more compelling? Some people will look at their resource and time availability and pick a set of feature that can be delivered with that time frame. The problem with this approach is that your product may end up with a set of dis-integrated features and perceived as half baked.

So what you can do about it? Remember in the first paragraph: the product itself need to have a compelling story to tell for it to be attractive. You marketing guy need to be able to articulate a smooth flowing story to their customer where they can show how various features and functions can be used in a coherent way. To achieve this, you need to have a product vision.

Product vision describe what you want the product to be able to do for your customer and how far you want to take the product to. From the product vision, you derive a set of core values that deliver to that vision. Then you look at what features and functions are important in order to materialize the core values.

Product vision is important for the following aspects:

a) It allows you to articulate a simple message to your customer. Customer can clearly see what you are doing and be less confused.

b) Your customer can easily see whether what you deliver is align to what they want. Successful company treats their customer as their partner. They share vision, roadmap and progress with their customer so that they can engage in a stronger long term relationship and move forward together. As a customer, you don't just to pay money to get some products. You want to ensure your vendor is able to help you to be successful.

c) Product vision allows you to clearly identify the strength and short coming of your product. If give you a roadmap of what you should do next to improve the product in the future.

d) Product vision establishes a single view point for all people in the team. Whatever role your team member is in the product group, all of them are able to articulate the same message when asked. And more importantly, no people will be lost at direction.

e) It give you a focus point for not to be diverted by distraction. If there is a sudden market change, you can easily see whether the changes will actually affect you and what you can do to re-align your goal with the market.

f) It give you a base to prioritize you feature. Features and functions that do not fit to materialize the vision should be at low priority.

g) If your developers are faced with conflict and hard design decision, they can make the decision based on which materialize the vision better.

It is important that the product vision is spread as wide as possible so that everyone can march in the same direction. Product vision that is not shared by everybody in the team is as good as none. How can you be motivated and convinced if you don't know where you are going and what you are contributing to.

But what if you are a solution or consulting house? What if you are not building product, rather you build custom software or implement third party software product as solution to your customer? How does this apply to you?

In such cases, it is important you first understand their business problem, the environment they are operating under, what is their IT direction and what they hope to achieve from the solution. Then you derive a solution map that correspond to their business and IT goal. Your solution map consists of a set of milestones each with specific goal and deliverables and you deliver based on that promise. This approach can form a healthy strong and long term relationship with your customer because both have a common understanding and expectation as early as the project start. In case their business environment and competitive surface change, it allows you and your customer to easily re-prioritize each other goal and evolve the relationship without hurting each other benefits.

Business agility is the ability to adapt to changing business environment and accept the fact that change is part of the game. However, you can only change and understand the change impact if you have some sort of ground work to based upon for assessment. After all, how can you change course if you don't even know where you are heading. Product vision gives you this ground work.



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