Agile · Communication · Product management · Simplicity

Simplicity and saying ‘no’

Having already posted my two-part blog on the Agile principle of simplicity I now find myself in the position of offering my third posting on this topic.  And of course the third piece of my two-part blog has me thinking about my favorite four-part trilogy (check it out: http://amzn.to/10lCbUS).  Here I want to focus on the implications of one part of this Agile principle: “Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.”  A crucial part of maximizing the amount of work not done is learning when and how to say no.  And like all the other aspects of pursuing true simplicity, saying no is rarely easy.

I don’t know about where you work, but the firm in which I am a product owner has a strong culture of ‘yes’ – core to our company DNA is a commitment to thrilling clients by doing all that we can to provide outstanding advisory and technology solutions.  We hate to settle for ‘good enough’ when we know what the best possible solution should be, and we function like a hungry start-up eager to seize every opportunity to cement customer loyalty and grab market share.  Much of our growth has come from saying yes to client requests even before we know exactly how we will meet them – and then working incredibly hard to exceed client expectations.  We want to do everything we can to help everyone we meet.

There are a lot of benefits to this approach.  Our willingness to say yes so often means that we hear about emerging client needs very early, allowing us time to assess the market and dig into the details about problems our clients are encountering in their daily business.  This kind of data can help inform our product development choices in the future.  Our company reputation as a firm that listens to our clients’ pain also helps us both in discovering potential opportunities and in introducing new features to clients; they know we listen when they have problems or questions and so they are willing to trust us when we want to introduce new or different functionality in our products.  Finally, our quick willingness to say yes and to work incredibly hard to provide outstanding solutions to every problem our clients come across has meant that we have developed some industry-leading solutions that our competitors have had a hard time catching up with.  We hear voices from the market every day and so we are often able to discern what ‘the next big thing’ will be and get ahead of other companies with outstanding product and service offerings.  There are a lot of benefits to saying yes so often.

But there is also another side to this issue (of course it’s not that simple).  With this attitude at the heart of our corporate culture, how can we say no to a client’s request, a prospect’s inquiry, or a sales team member’s promise – why would we even want to?  When we have conditioned our clients to expect us to be helpful no matter what their question, and when we have trained our own advisory team to pursue every possible avenue toward solving the problems clients and prospects bring to us, how do we begin to see ‘no’ as a legitimate answer – in some cases even a better answer than ‘yes’ would be?  How can we figure out the right time to say ‘yes’ to an individual client request and when these requests would be distracting?  From my perspective, the key is to think strategically rather than reactively; our best path forward involves steadfastly pursuing a market-driven strategy rather than responding to the myriad one-off requests generated from individual interactions with clients and prospects.

OK, time for another disclaimer before I go on.  I freely admit that the idea of being ‘strategic’ instead of ‘reactive’ is easier for me to propose since I am less often on the ‘front lines’ of these questions.  I doubt many people would suggest that being reactive is better than being strategic, but in the daily grind of trying to thrill our clients and win over prospects it can be far more difficult to hold to this principle.  As I’ve tried to make clear many times in this blog, I understand and even welcome the tension between discerning real market needs that we ought to respond to proactively and being pulled in too many different directions by individual requests that don’t truly reflect a pervasive and painful market need.  I know there is an important element of balance here in finding the right times to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in specific situations, and I fully understand that the best way to find the strategic path to developing and supporting sustainable and scalable solutions involves real collaboration among our advisory team, sales team, development team, and product management team.  Sorting through this complexity in the midst of the busy pace of daily work is rarely straight-forward, but having a company full of people all eager to thrill our clients puts us in a good position to struggle toward good solutions.  Now back to our regularly scheduled program…

Real simplicity, the art of maximizing the amount of work not done, requires three types of strategic thinking.  First of all, it is crucial to think strategically about marketing.  We are not realistically trying to build a solution that solves every problem for every person; we want to focus our marketing on the identified segments that have a specific, pervasive, urgent problem that they will pay us to help them solve.  We also need to think strategically about product development.  Again, we don’t want to invest in building reactive solutions to isolated problems; instead we want to follow a well-constructed product roadmap that addresses highly valued problems in a way that can be leveraged across multiple clients.  Finally, we need to think strategically about product support, creating one solution that satisfies many potential clients rather than making custom solutions to each new problem.  The greater the number of custom and manual solutions we say ‘yes’ to the fewer resources we have available to invest in creating scalable solutions that help many clients – and that means we will start having to say ‘no’ not for strategic reasons but simply because we have run out of capacity to help.

The only way to fully and deeply say ‘yes’ to some things is to learn when to say ‘no’ to others – or at least to say ‘not now’ when these opportunities don’t fit the current product plan.  As we listen to the voice of the market and as our technology and our team evolves we may have the chance to pursue things later that we pass on for now.  A commitment to simplicity means focusing on what matters most, maximizing the investment we can make in strategic places by maximizing the amount of effort not spent on distracting pursuits – no matter how attractive they may appear.  For a company used to saying ‘yes’ most of the time, it can feel scary and potentially costly to start saying ‘no’ to some things.  But thinking strategically helps give us a framework for knowing when to pursue some opportunities and why to pass on or at least postpone others.  The choice comes not from thinking we know better than our clients, nor from pursuing money-making ventures that aren’t part of our company vision; instead it comes from applying strategic thinking and conscious evaluation to each request we get and every idea we come up with ourselves.  This mindset enables us to invest heavily in the right places, even as our Agile approach allows us to respond to new market information as we gather it.  This is at the heart of Agile simplicity, but of course in truth it’s not that simple.

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