I was reading with interest today Mary Jo Foley’s piece on Bill Gates’ biggest product regret. It was a rather obscure aspect of Windows Vista that never made it to market, WinFS. It was to revolutionize the desktop and server file system and likely make some classes of database products obsolete. WinFS never made it to market, but there were tons of early warnings. This got me thinking about a lot of products and features that either I saw while working in IBM or later as an analyst that failed. Some common aspects emerged that I think can provide early warning. In short, I believe there is a near-magic formula you can use during a vendor pitch to determine whether the amazing new feature or offering is vaporware and not worth your time.
I think there are three things that highlight a soon-to-be-failed offering: inconsistent or indistinct description, missing or missed milestones, and/or the lack of a defined proven team or project leadership.
The Emperor’s New Clothes: Poorly Defined Products
In the WinFS failure and my own experience, the most prevalent reason that a new product or feature doesn’t make it to market is because the folks that are building and promoting it don’t understand what it is they are doing. I think the cause is that whoever conceptualized the product is seen as brilliant and no one wants to admit they just don’t understand what they were asked to do. Each assumes everyone else does understand and doesn’t want to look like the dummy in the group, so they don’t ask for clarification. The end result is a failure.
The way to see this coming is that if you can’t understand what the product is or how it works, generally, that means the vendor’s reps don’t understand it either. Aand if they don’t understand it, then there is a good chance they are simply putting you at the end of a BS chain of folks trying to cover up the fact that no one has a clue what they are building. Yes, they can talk about how great and revolutionary the thing will be, but when it comes down to how the product or feature actually does what it does, they will lack consistency and try to cover up their apparent ignorance with technology terms, acronyms, and sweeping promises of the better world to come once the feature or product ships.
In short, they’ll look a lot like a student that has been called in front of a class to provide an overview of what they were supposed to have read the previous night when they didn’t actually do the reading. When you see this behavior, bet that the product won’t make it.
Lack of Progress
Successful products and features have measurable milestones that the product must go through to get out the door. Managers overseeing products that are failing will do lots of things to dodge these metrics, and one way is to avoid having milestones in the first place. The other is to keep moving them out. Products or features that either don’t have milestones or constantly miss them have a high probability of having capabilities cut (as other managers are brought in to get the product out), being incomplete or being unreliable (because they are forced to ship), or never shipping at all. Once you see either the lack of milestones or a constant trend to miss them, you are generally observing a failing project or product. It would be wise to keep your distance from it.
The lack of milestones means the product/project isn’t well managed, and missing milestones, at best, mean it wasn’t properly scoped. Both lead to disappointment for anyone that bet on the success of the resulting offering.
Inferior Product Team Equals Failure
I’ve seen this in a variety of companies and in high-profile government efforts. A bunch of people are brought together that either can’t or won’t work together, or collectively lack the skills and team cohesion to accomplish the project. Now, if you are free to interview the core teams, you could come to this conclusion, but this is seldom a real option. On the other hand, you can look for warning signs that can suggest that the needed team balance isn’t there and that failure will be the result.
One is a lack of an experienced core team. If the team leader is inexperienced, or if the team has been built by throwing people together from a variety of companies or divisions, the end result can’t be assured. A lot of times, new projects become dumping grounds for problem employees. When that happens, nothing is going out the door.
Too many superstars creates the opposite problem. You generally see this with high-profile Presidential efforts; you get too many “A” types on a project. Superstars are used to being stars and that means they expect to be the top donut in the box. When you team them with a bunch of others that have this same belief, the effort will degrade into a fight over who is the best donut and nothing will get done.
What you want to see is a team that has worked together before and can show a history of success, or at least a core element that has this aspect to it. By the way, if you see a new CEO come into a company and not build a core team loyal to them, you can generally bet successfully that they will fail as well.
Wrapping Up: Anger Equals Danger
The lack of an understandable definition, achieved milestones, and team balance are all indicators of a serious problem that will probably result in failure. There is one other that I’ve observed. That is when you push on the success of the product and the spokesperson/project leader gets angry. Anger generally is a defensive mechanism used to cover up a related weakness. If we are truly assured, we rarely get angry if challenged. Granted, anger can also just mean the person is having a bad day, but I’ve found over the years of being an auditor and project manager that if you hit anger, you’ve likely come close to a major problem. You just may not be able to determine for sure what it is yet.
So if you push on any of the areas I’ve described above and the person you are talking to gets angry and cuts you off, you’ll likely have found the offering wanting. You’d be well advised to choose an alternative and let one of your competitors who buys the offering discover what the real problem is. Frankly, if a vendor gets upset with you for asking questions, you should really consider another vendor.
It’s all about playing heads-up ball. Be careful out there.