What’s sucking momentum from your product development journey

And what you can do about it

Radhika Dutt
Jun 14 · 5 min read

When I joined a large company to help the team redefine and relaunch their product, it was déjà vu for many of the team members. They had seen this movie before and had all the enthusiasm of going to see the reboot of Aquaman.

In the first go around before I joined, the team had enthusiastically embraced a new direction for the company that was centered on building a new product. But after long hours and burning many weekends, when the team finally released the product, it failed to get any traction with customers.

The team had been applying Lean and Agile and knew about the importance of failing fast. But the team’s morale was understandably affected and the momentum for the transformation had slowed.

You might have seen varying degrees of a loss of momentum after a major customer loss or a failed product feature. How do you recover and sustain the momentum on your product development journey?

The following are some of the most common reasons teams lose momentum:

1. “Our direction was unclear — we had many stakeholders with different requirements.”

In this case, the product had stakeholders from many different groups within the company. The sales team, for example, wanted one set of features to please current customers while the CEO was pushing for a different forward-looking direction. As a result, the team was busy doing a round robin of satisfying each of the stakeholders in turn. It was exhausting and in trying to satisfy all the stakeholders, the team didn’t feel like they had made much progress in any direction.

2. “We’re not sure where we went wrong.”

The team had seemingly done all the right things (been customer focused, applied Lean and Agile). So when the product flopped despite their best efforts, it wasn’t clear what went wrong. Was it an incorrect vision? Was it the strategy? What assumptions were incorrect? Without understanding this, it wasn’t clear why the next go around would work any better.

This quote from Burn After Reading captures the essence of “We have no idea what went wrong!”

3. “We had just changed direction, looks like we’re changing direction again”:

Each change of direction saps momentum from your project just as it would if you were driving. You have to brake just before the turn, then accelerate, then brake at the next turn, and so on. When you’re pivoting often, it becomes impossible to sustain momentum. If your product development journey looks like a drive down Lombard street in San Francisco (see below), you’re seeing symptoms of Pivotitis.

If changes to your product direction look like a drive down Lombard street you’re seeing symptoms of Pivotitis.

How do you avoid these common traps that sap your momentum? What can you do to sustain momentum even when you have to make hard decisions and learn from mistakes? Here are three things that helped us as we rebooted this project:

1. Communicate your vision and strategy to get buy-in across stakeholders:

It’s tempting to create a soundbite for a vision so it’s easy for everyone to remember. But it turns out that you need a detailed vision to have it catch on. It’s counterintuitive, but here’s why. Your vision should describe:

  • Whose world you want to change,
  • What their world looks like today,
  • Why that is unacceptable, and
  • How you plan to change their world.

You want your entire organization to be aligned on the important questions of Who, What, Why and How. A slogan just doesn’t capture this. Here are links to help you develop a compelling vision and product strategy.

2. Make your plan easy to debug:

Just as good software is easy to understand and debug, your translation of your vision into everyday activities should also be easy to debug. When you have defined the problem you’re setting out to solve (your vision) and articulated how you’re planning to solve the problem (your strategy), you can systematically translate that into a roadmap, execution and measurement. When you find that your results vary from what you expected, it lets you go back and figure out where you went wrong.

We were tackling a new, untapped market and we were aware of inherent issues with our user research and user testing. But by starting with a detailed vision and strategy we changed the sentiment of “We have no idea where we went wrong”. We held regular check-ins to see if our vision and strategy were still valid, where our assumptions could be wrong and what we were going to do next.

3. Invest in building product intuition within the team:

Pivots for this team often resulted from the loudest customer dictating what should be worked on each sprint. Even internal stakeholders occasionally triggered unintended pivots by sharing their views of which features were a high priority. Avoiding Pivotitis requires developing the team’s intuition for True North.

Start by aligning on your rationale for decision-making — decisions that seem intuitive to leaders can often seem arbitrary to the product team. When we make decisions or prioritize opportunities, we are intuitively evaluating whether something aligns with what we want to achieve (Vision) vs. adding too much risk (Sustainability). Use a visual approach to communicate your rationale for prioritization by plotting Vision fit (Y-axis) vs. Sustainability (X-axis).

This approach to prioritization helps you objectively discuss opportunities and why they help you achieve your vision vs. detract from it or how they contribute to business risk. When there’s a conflict, it helps you diagnose where you have a misalignment. Over time, this 2x2 matrix will become part of the organization’s “product intuition” — it will help you manage opportunities and requests that pull the team in different directions every day.

These are just a few ideas for sustaining momentum on large, complex projects with many unknowns. I’m looking forward to hearing how others are tackling similar problems at Pebbleroad’s breakfast event in July with Maish Nichani.

Share your ideas below! What has worked for you in sustaining momentum on large, complex projects? What were some challenges that you had to overcome?

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Product is a way of thinking. Radical Product is a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change — you can download the free Radical Product Toolkit, designed as a step-by-step guide to make it easy and practical to apply product thinking.

Radical Product

Join the global movement that's building vision-driven products (www.radicalproduct.com)

Radhika Dutt

Written by

Product leader and entrepreneur in the Boston area. Co-author of Radical Product, participated in 4 exits, 2 of which were companies I founded.

Radical Product

Join the global movement that's building vision-driven products (www.radicalproduct.com)

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