The Perils of Partial Credit
Rewarding yourself for almost hitting the mark is usually a good thing. But it can be deadly in product development.
Remember bluebooks? Most of us encountered the thin blue writing pamphlets at some point in our college career, usually in the context of an essay test. We can remember back to sitting in a classroom, staring down at that awful little book. If we were lucky, the question referred to something we had read the night before. In that case, it was only a question of time as to whether we’d be able to answer the problem adequately. In the worst case, the professor asked us something that was so far outside our realm of understanding that we couldn’t even understand the question. In those cases, the strategy was clear: write like hell and hope for partial credit. With any luck, somewhere in the pages and pages of rambling screed would be enough of an answer to warrant a few precious points.
Things haven’t changed a whole lot since college. Today, the test is a new product opportunity, and the question is what people are willing to pay for. If we’re well prepared, we might have a few insights about what people want. Unfortunately, too many companies still rely on a bluebook strategy – the belief that if they just try enough things, and provide enough features, somewhere in what they offer will be the scattered strands of a reasonable value proposition.
Bluebook strategy is most prevalent in high tech. Whether it’s been set-top boxes, personal assistants, information appliances or wireless web services, companies have burned their fingers, offering whiz-bang devices that did a million possible things, but few things that people actually needed. Any fears of feature creep were set aside by the desire to just get something out there and see what worked. Apple’s Newton PDA had a myriad of features, but it took the more limited Palm Pilot to offer something that people wanted.
In part, high tech industry’s reliance on bluebook strategy stems from the premium that it places on quick time to market and rapid incremental improvement. The belief is that faster development times allow teams a chance to get something into the market, get feedback, and quickly make improvements for the next rev. That can be a great strategy when the area of exploration is well known. If we understand that we’re designing a word-processor, we may be able to experiment with new options in successive versions. If we don’t even know that people want a word processor, rapid development may amount to running quickly up a ladder that’s leaning against the wrong wall.
A more troublesome reason for bluebook strategies may lie in the fact that otherwise sophisticated leaders of technology businesses are often neophytes in the art of understanding customers. I know too many tech executives who shrug their shoulders and sigh about how you just can’t predict what customers will want, and that there’s no point in trying.
Bluebook strategy can prove even more inappropriate outside of high-tech. That’s because it presumes that we’ll get to follow on quickly with a second version, and that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the cost of developing a new model is prohibitive. Other times, the results of your test may damage your market position. Putting out multiple versions or feature sets to see what works is a fine way to develop a website. It may even be a decent model for a consumer electronics product. It’s an ungainly way to design an airport. And it’s a scary way to develop pharmaceuticals. The author strongly advises against any drug company that seeks to beta-test different formulae on customers and then make more of the pills that don’t kill anyone.
Such thinking may fly in the face of the “fail fast, fail early” school of thought. However, I’m not arguing against prototyping, rapid development or an intelligent approach to version planning. Any product development plan is doomed to fail if it insists on waiting for perfection. I merely suggest that waiting for the market to tell you what you did right is no substitute for doing some legwork and thinking up front. In reality, great products often do less, not more. Failure, in turn, teaches you nothing if you had no idea of what you were seeking to learn.
Few positive things can be said about a downturn in the economy, but it may serve to bring things back into perspective. Maybe it’s not so crazy to be profitable. Maybe we should offer legitimate value to customers. And maybe success has more to do with delivering only what’s desirable, and not just what’s possible.