Out of the office now!

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Take a step back

Or: no matter how early you start testing, it’s always too late.

„No plan survives the first contact with the enemy” – Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke (aka “Moltke, the Elder”, 1800 – 1891)

With this sentence, von Moltke wanted to express that he only thinks it is possible and makes sense to plan the beginning of a military campaign but not its progression. The progression of a campaign is not predictable because there are too many unknown but relevant influences in the game. His statement contains 2 important aspects:

  • First, the statement itself: NO plan survives the first contact with the enemy. Let’s not fool ourselves to be the exception.
  • Second, the expression of the complex environment: We do not know what will happen due to the complex nature of the battlefield.

We can transfer both aspects to the area of product design and development:

  • No product, however well planned and analyzed, survives contact with its destination market, because
  • We never know enough about our targeted clients and their lives and the derived market needs (which are roughly as complex as von Moltkes’ battlegrounds).
Von Moltke in Berlin

Von Moltke in Berlin Tiergarten, source: wikipedia, CC license

This again takes me to the known, but often ignored fact that we can never leave the office early enough for some in-place research and (in)validation, with the goal to increase our knowledge and to decrease the risk of our product launch. The more we understand our market (especially on a qualitative level), the more we have a hunch of what is expected and desired and the better our product will fit the market by solving the right problems in the right way.

I want to mention 3 typical situations to clarify the point:

  • We already know a solution to a problem
  • We are looking for a valid solution to a relevant problem.
  • We are looking for a relevant problem, we can solve, where the solution will be our product.

Strongly solution-minded or technically driven environments

The first and second cases are quite common but nonetheless in extreme danger to miss the clients needs. It is common in established companies that are already close to plateauing and to hitting the Innovators Dilemma. A different but similar dangerous case is a technically driven company stumbling upon a solution by chance or from a mere technology standpoint, mostly in form of a technical solution. The pattern is that someone saw a great product and wants to have a subset of its features in his own product or that someone discovered a great tool, technology, gadget that he needs on his platform. In both cases we have to deal with a high level of bias towards a known solution on the one hand. And in both cases the main question is, if the solution actually solves any relevant client problem. And this will be hard to find out, as obviously some people already invested some brains into this obvious solution. And some highly political meetings are already spent with some enthusiasm and some games being played. It is now easy, but it does not help, to paint a nice and colorful picture of this solution. What we do is, that we rather come up with some business model canvas (or an A3) and extract from it the essentials of the mechanics of why we actually think the solution might work on the market. And now we go out of the office and do research to find if the underlying, essential problem is prevalent and relevant out there. Do we really find this problem that we solved in exactly the flavor that was made up? Sometime we cannot even find a similar problem – the whole thing existed only in our minds. Sometimes we need to completely reframe the intended solution again and again to be able to rediscover the attached problem in the real world – but then it might not really match. This may be disappointing. But it is much more disappointing even, to start building the whole thing only to then discover that no one needs the product. There you go: another useless product or feature down the drain – another waste of time.

The research we do here, buys as relevant information as cheap as possible before any huge investment is done and before energy and resources are wasted. Not everybody likes the insights we generate – but the approach is as lean as you can get.

Startups or new products

The third case is about bringing a completely new product to the market. Startups e.g. try to discover completely new problems and to come up with highly scalable solutions for these problems. They are either oriented on problems they experienced themselves (easier, at least valid for themselves) or try to methodically find other hard problems (harder, try to find and validate problems). Smart companies are relentlessly learning on the market and then innovating as we described in this blog. They either want to live long or want to guarantee growth. What’s happening here is best described by Roger L. Martin as the knowledge funnel: Companies have a hunch of a problem to solve and try to find a solution for the problem. In the beginning this is hard work and can only done by directed trial and error. The companies try to get closer to a simple solution first by heuristics. This way, the problem and ways of solving it are better understood and finally, if you are lucky or have worked hard enough you find an algorithm, a recipe that solves the problem at hand. The market and the problem are understood and decoded, a repeatable, reliable solution exits and can now be exploited and scaled to a high degree. To get to heaven you need to die. To solve problems in this manner, you need to step back again and again. It is a dirty and gory secret, few want to talk about but it is the work that needs to be done. In hindsight it looks easy. But when you are in the middle of it, you sometimes feel desperation. But the reward is huge.

The Knowledge Funnel

The Knowledge Funnel

When being in the middle of exploring the market and the possible product, the questions you need to ask while stepping back are: Is the problem relevant? Do I hit the needs of a large enough niche? The smaller the niche you are targeting for, the more pressing the question if the need is deep enough. Are the basic needs, archaic needs even? Will serving these needs trigger that your product will be bought? Which other needs are close? Are there other groups around with similar needs I could serve? This analysis helps us then to derive the valid product through all its stages.

Achieving depth of understanding

In every case we build a solid base for the understanding of validity in our given context. Sometimes we need to go back to the very beginning to get a rooted system. And when we are at the very beginning, we sometimes go as far to send out an interviewer who doesn’t have a clue about our intended solution. She then can help us to get insights beyond our own biases, which of course exist, because we already invested in a solution. The deeper and more basic the research, the better we have a chance to derive a great product that also deeply satisfies the needs we identified. And this depth, in the best case triggers enthusiasm in the client. But without the required depth, everything we will come up with are shortsighted gimmicks. And the required depth can not be achieved in a vacuum, in a meeting room without input from the outside. For this we need to mingle, observe, understand the people we design a product for and their lives.

But shouldn’t we be quick and agile?

But doesn’t this take ages? Yes, it does take time! But you can learn how to do it quickly. And what does it help, in the end, to deliver stuff rather than a product, however agile our methods may be? Continuous deployment and fast feedback cycles do help us to turn a somehow working product into a great product iteration by iteration. But the seeds are in the deep understanding of the problem and the users context. And this needs time and space. As Will Evans says:

Agile is served fast, not good


When did you take a step back the last time?

Of course, we are all “on demand” guys, impatient and on the edge all of the time. And the non-linear nature of taking steps back is draining our very own reservoir of patience to the last drop often (and guess what it will do to the patience of your management!). But if you think of it, product design only takes up about 10% of the product cost, but commits around 90% of the product cost (Yvon Chouinard). That’s worth a second thought.

And remember: The closer you started to what you think is the solution, the more worthwhile but the harder it is to take the step back and to fight the demons of our biases which are now really deep, as we already think we saw the promised land … which might have just been nothing but a mirage.

If you hesitate to believe me, have a look at a second opinion by Ari Tanninen in his great slide deck Design Up Front is Back.

Have fun taking a step back yesterday, and more often and earlier!

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