Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Imagine the Enterprise: The Product Question

Here is a conversation in preparation: What have I learnt about Product Development through my years of hustle in my quest to build Education-to-Employment and Education-to-Enterprise pathways?

Three things, essentially.

1. Most Start-Ups fail because they over-engineer the product. 

It is the quest of perfect product that kills most start-ups. Of course, this is what Steven Gary Blank and the conversation around Lean Start-up is all about. 

However, I think this problem is not just about the cost, but about the culture it implicitly builds. One can argue that if the monies are available, costs of product development should not be a huge problem. 

But, even if product development is well resourced, too much focus on it creates a number of other fatal problems: 

First, it makes product introductions really slow, and makes the company fall behind in fast-moving markets. 

Second, and more crucially, this creates an inward-looking culture, where the feedback from clients and sales team are mostly ignored, and often products are built which no one wants to buy. 

And, finally, this creates a value asymmetry - the company's own estimation of the value of the product psychologically diverges from the value proposition seen by the customers.

2.  There are challenges of going Lean in Education

However, the popular alternative to this - going lean and developing products in iterative steps - is challenging in Education. This is because of regulatory as well as ethical considerations: Offering something which is sub-par will never meet the regulatory approval, and this may be plain unethical depending on what's on offer and how critically it can impact the learner.

In short, lean, minimum viable product and iterative development are alien to the conversations in education. People who work there will never be comfortable with these concepts. Someone told me that there can not be a 'half-cooked' curriculum, and she was surely right. Quality is the buzzword in education - whatever it means - and redundancy is the norm.

3. Who's in charge matters most

The Product Development question therefore needs to be re-framed in Education: It is not about going lean, but developing a model of market-responsive development. It is, as I tried to explain, a culture question.

So, it matters who is in charge. There are two kinds of people in any organisation leading product development, deciding what should be built and for whom. 

In technology organisations, this is always the Engineers' prerogative. The reasons are obvious: Technologies are complex! The market-responsiveness of tech industry somewhat comes through the people who work in user interface, an important but subordinate function. No wonder that over-building is a problem here, and Lean is the new mantra.

In contrast, in banks, too often, it is the sales people. In this world, the risk managers and quants people are crucial, but their important roles serve the sales imperative, rather than the opposite. Indeed, this is why banks drive over the edge, all too often some would say.

This two-cultures divide is seen as an East Coast-West Coast divide in America. But one should not forget the most iconic tech industry leaders were all salesmen extraordinaire: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos...

In Education, the regulatory imperative puts Educators in charge of curriculum development. This culture also rules the world I live in - a world of education innovation led by businesses - and the industry has its own penny-dropping moment and soul-searching about how to create more market responsive products. They can't bring themselves to be like bankers, and yet, over-engineering is killing too many businesses.

So, the answer  

The East Coast-West Coast, Banking vs Technology or Education, is of course a false divide. I used them as they make good illustrative points. Banks are heavily regulated, and technology industry is one working with least constraints, and in both worlds, lawyers call the shot. The point is to strike the balance between dishing out sub-par offerings and building extravagant monstrosities no one wants. In the education innovation context, the task is that much more complex: The customers still do not know what they want, and the regulators do not want to see beyond the rulebook. It is all too busy to build things utterly out of step, and make so with the misplaced confidence that this is going to be the thing which everyone wants to queue up to buy. 

My answer will be to have a marketing leadership of the product development process. The highly regulated environment ensures, in practise, that all products are at least built to a minimal level, and operates with an automatic aversion of risks. A marketing leadership of product development, sufficiently committed to long term health of the organisation and accountable for a broad range of performance goals (and not just revenue), should be ideal to strike the delicate balance that an innovative education company would really need. 


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