Big Talk And Small Steps: Implementing Strategy

By Jacques Murphy August 15, 2007

from PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES A Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software.

In many companies, the management team, Marketing, and Business Development are full of ideas about where to take your product. They come up with all sorts of potential applications for it, applications that would be competitive and profitable.

These ideas sound great, but they have to be implemented before they'll make any type of substantive difference in revenue or profits. And once your team attempts to implement new ideas, it meets lots of resistance from the technical folks who are charged with that task.

Yet not expanding your product, not finding new avenues for revenue, not making changes that increase profitability, will only hurt your product and the company over time. The market and the competition is busily striving to improve and gain market share against you. Inventing new strategies, and then implementing them successfully, is a requirement, not an option, to keep a company viable. If you're not moving ahead, you wind up falling behind.

As with all new strategies, the chances for failure are high. If you want your product to grow and succeed, you must learn how to make strategies and ideas a reality. Read on for a discussion of how to maximize your chances of success.

Brainstorming vs. Planning

Before you find yourself faced with the challenge of implementing new ideas and strategies, someone has to come up with them. This is usually the fun part.

Don't confuse brainstorming with planning. Brainstorming is the heady process of generating new ideas, kicking around alternatives, and challenging and polishing those ideas. After a good brainstorming phase, the results reflect a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual ideas proposed. And the people who have worked together to do the brainstorming feel inspired and satisfied.

But once you have generated ideas and debated strategies, you will need planning to make those ideas happen. Planning is the careful, matter-of-fact activity of thinking through all the steps you need to take to implement a strategy, and in what order. Your ideas are ready to implement only when there's a plan.

Possibility & Reality

And the first thing that should be on your plan is the effort to measure how those great sounding ideas will appeal to the market, how much money they're likely to bring in, and how profitable they'll be. It's time to do market research, as formally or as informally as your organization can afford. You'll want to run the ideas by some representative focus groups to determine whether they will sell (and for how much money), and to be able to forecast revenue.

As an outcome of figuring out what it will take to sell the new idea, you'll be able to figure out the cost – cost to develop, cost to market, cost to sell. That will allow you to forecast the potential profitability.

With a profitability forecast, you can compare an idea's potential money-making power to other ideas. Normally there's no shortage of good ideas. But often the good is the enemy of the best. You want to apply your company resources to working on the best ideas, not just the good ones. And in most cases, 'best' means most profitable, though there may be other considerations: sales appeal, matching a competitor's capability, coordinating your strategy with a partner's.

As an outcome of studying an idea's appeal in the market and potential profitability, you reach a point where you make a go/no-go decision. Some of the most profitable decisions you ever make are the ones to not move forward with an idea that's less than great.

It Won't Happen By Itself

For certain exuberant personality types, the kind that excel at generating new ideas, saying you'll do something is the equivalent of doing it. But it will never be more than idea on paper until you put in a lot of hard work to build it and make it succeed. If the management team doesn't support you, as the Product Manager, in taking the many concrete steps to make a good idea a reality, you're not going to get very far. This is especially true for those members of the team that control the technical resources such as programmers and consultants, who will build and deliver the new idea.

It also applies to the people who coach the sales force to sell the new idea and its benefits.

You may find yourself in the position of having to win over people who are key to the project's success.

New Verticals

New ideas and strategies to grow your product fall into different categories. One common and successful strategy is to expand into a new vertical market. Take your product's benefits and make them work well in a specific industry.

The kind of work you'll need to complete in order to implement a move to a vertical market is likely to focus on such things as:

  • Market research to clearly understand what prospects in the vertical want.
  • Marketing collateral and sales tools that describe your product's benefits from the perspectives of the new vertical.
  • Changes to the interface to reflect different terminology for the vertical.
  • Development of new features, particularly initially, may be a relatively limited part of the effort.

New Products and Services

New products and services, on the other hand, are likely to involve not only lots of market research and new collateral, but extensive development of new capabilities. The challenge in this case is trying to break new development into phases, starting out small and simple, and becoming more complex and sophisticated as appropriate with each product release.

One critical focus of market research for a new product is working with prospects to determine the minimum acceptable set of capabilities needed in order to gain a foothold in the market. That minimum set becomes your first version of the new product or service.

New Sales Channels

The effort for new sales channels, when they do not correspond to a specific new vertical, may focus on tailoring the message and capabilities to the complexity of the sale. You may need to create a simplified version of your product for telesales and eCommerce. Or, to support a high- end channel, you may need to create a highly configurable version that comes bundled with extensive consulting and services.

Get the Technical Leaders Engaged

In order to implement a big new product idea, you'll need to get the technical leaders engaged in the idea and its success. The key here is to develop a feeling of ownership among the managers and team leads of developers and consultants.

It is unlikely that the technical side of the house is going to be convinced by the bright and shiny ideas of the non-technical side. The best people to sell and explain the new idea are the technical managers, who have the credibility and the technical ability to interpret ideas correctly for implementation and delivery.

Form an Organizational Beachhead

The process of implementing a big new product idea or strategy consists of anchoring it throughout the Development and Professional Services organization. But even in the smallest of organizations, you are unlikely to succeed by trying to win the entire organization over at once.

Begin by developing champions with Development or Professional Services for your new idea or product. Carefully select those individuals who are leaders and who are open to new ideas.

Give the champions a new and very specific role to play in the effort. Call them Champions, for one. Make it clear that being a Champion is a step up in visibility and responsibility.

The role of the Champions is to implement organizational change from within Development or Professional Services. Technical functions are particularly resistant to change coming from non-technical people. The best way to sell and implement the change is from within.

We Can't Do That

One obstacle you're likely to encounter is a typical reaction: 'We can't do that!' What you're encountering is the fear, sometimes realistic and sometimes unfounded, on the part of developers and consultants that they don't have the skills to execute on the idea.

In order to succeed in implementing your new idea, you'll need to identify the gap in skills and figure out how to bring those skills into your organization. It is likely to be a mix of new hires, formal training, and informal coaching and development.

Creating a well defined pilot phase in your implementation is another way to refine and solidify the needed skills within your organization, and to create a smaller team within Development and Professional Services that can model the new skills and roll them out to the rest of their departments.

That Won't Work!

Then there's another common reaction when the beautiful idea first reaches the people who are asked to carry it out: 'That won't work!' Don't worry too much about this one. This is like an objection in a sale. It's an opportunity to help get someone closer to buying the idea.

With technical personalities, the 'That won't work!' reaction is not an obstacle at all, but a sign that a person is thinking through your idea and has come upon a weak area. When you get these reactions, dive right in to find out what the problem is, and then get your technical teammates engaged in devising a solution.

Let the Doers Take Ownership

Which brings us to a final thought. Good ideas from management and Marketing and Business Development often fail to get carried out because an idea is handed off with no expectation of input from those in charge of its execution.

From the get-go, expect the great idea coming from the Product Manager to be enriched, made more useful and practical, by the technical people who need to make it work. Get them excited and participating as early as possible, and make it clear that this is as much their baby as it is the brainchild of the management team.

Categories: Strategy Leadership
Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy tailors best practices in software product management to your company and products, creating competitive advantage through better product roadmaps, product requirements and product launches. Read more of his articles on this site or on productmanagementchallenges.com or via email at jacquesm@epix.net.

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