Pulling a Car on Fire Out of a Ditch (in 5 Easy Steps)

Extending a lifeline to distressed startups

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Imagine a world …

Your team is barely on speaking terms. Mistrust has given way to DM-sniping in Slack. The CTO is interviewing with other companies. Developers are trying to stay out of the crossfire and keep their heads down. The CEO is much better at raising money than managing people. Your team pays lip-service to Agile but it’s more of an empty buzzword than a practice. The Office Manager is trying to improve morale with donuts but after the sugar high, the mood remains dark. The office vibe is toxic and your team has mentally checked out for Summer vacation. Meanwhile, customers are unhappy and your maintenance queue has long since buried any hope for new features.

Shipping successful software products is hard. Given that the odds against new companies succeeding are exceedingly high, and with so much going wrong, how could a prognosis here be anything but terminal? Well buck up, we’ve seen this movie before. We can fix this and get your team on the right path …

Step 1 — Just Stop.

Stop coding, stop designing, stop marketing, stop meeting, stop everything. Take a collective breath, go outside, go home. Picture in your mind, if you will, the cleanest of slates. Your team needs a full reset.

Ok, feel better? Good. Let’s move on …

Step 2 — Know ‘Why’

At this point your team probably sees all trees and no forest. There’s a marketing plan and a dusty roadmap no one looks at. The original product vision has splintered into shards of ideas that live primarily in the CEO’s head. The Development team is heading in 4 different directions at once.

To right this ship, everyone, from the top down, needs to know why they’re showing up to work each day. In practice, that means establishing collective agreement around a Product Vision. This provides a ‘North Star; a stake in the ground needed to reset momentum. It should be a brief statement (often in ‘Madlibform) that aligns the ‘why’ and ‘for whom’ for any product.

Why is this so critical? Because then you’ll know how a given project fits (or doesn’t) into a bigger picture. Think of the Product Vision as a frame and your features as paint on a canvas. Without the Vision to frame the work, you could end up scribbling on a wall.

Chances are you and your team already know what this Vision is. It’s likely that you’re more collectively in sync than you think. Once you’ve got the Product Vision established, you’re ready for step three …

Step 3 — Trust the Process

Now that you know what you’re building, why and for whom, it’s time to take a sledgehammer to the old way of doing things. Embrace creative destruction, select an internal tool no one likes for elimination - this can be fun. The bottom line is that the old regime is over and change has come. The goal is to free yourself from bad habits and baked-in assumptions.

Once the dust has settled from your app demolition derby, you’re ready to embrace the New Way.

For starters, software product development done right consists of a few essential best practices:

- Identify your customers. Get a clear sense of who they are, their wants & needs and motivations.

- ID your primary value proposition. What desired outcome does your product deliver for customers?

- Create your Product Roadmap. Where do you want to focus resources for the next 3 to 6 months.

- Identify Epics and Key Initiatives. What can you attach KPI’s to? What does an MVP look like for these?

- Break down Epics into user stories. What do your users need to be able to do and why?

- Setup your first Sprint. Come up with a menu of projects to choose from, select bite-sized portions and compile them into a two week development cycle.

Of course, these are just the basic contours. Within each item above there’s an undergirding methodology that requires disciplined adherence over an extended period of time. However, starting a transformation by taking these points into account should help give focus to your initial effort.

Note: as you follow The Process it’s important to avoid distractions. It’s easy to get derailed by the latest pain point. Remember that car still smoldering in a ditch? Things may need to get worse before they can get better.

Once you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a gold star. You’ve done the hardest part.

Step 4 — Rinse and Repeat

The first time through will be rocky. You’ll feel momentum in fits and starts. You’ll probably be doing things wrong initially but thats ok. Your success will require a relative act of faith that adopting the Process can (and will) turn things around. There’s always room for improvement (see Step 5) but you’ll never know what those improvements are without full buy-in in to make these changes habitual. Each stakeholder group (business, design, development) should not only be on board but actively support each other to stay on track.

To keep your team aligned, there’s a ritualized set of check-ins, planning sessions, retrospectives, and demos to employ. They provide a framework for active engagement that requires stakeholders’ regular participation. The net result should be streamlined operations and shared understanding around the product development process.

Step 5 — Never Stop Continuously Improving

Time to get Zen for a minute; ‘there is no destination, there is only the journey’. Does that mean you are a passive pebble in the riverbed of life? No way! You actively seek continuous improvement through process, tools, people, communication, and grit. If you’re doing it right, you’re learning something with every iteration. The key is to establish high signal-to-noise feedback loops that your team can act upon. That means relentless pursuit of efficiency. That means eliminating as much waste as possible. That means, most of all, engendering empathy with customers.

Does this sound like an approach your team would benefit from? Need a Product Lead to help guide the way? Let’s grab coffee.

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