Note: this post originally appeared on the Solution Design Group (SDG) website. SDG is an employee-owned, Minneapolis-based strategy, product, and technology consultancy. In 2020 I joined Solution Design Group, where I half my time consulting with organizations on product, experience, and strategy, and half my time building a killer product consulting practice for SDG. You can find this and other great posts at www.solutiondesign.com/insights.
“I understand agile is about accounting for uncertainty by breaking work into small chunks and releasing product as things are completed,” said the CEO. “But as we work with customers, our business needs to deal with dates and dollars, not story points and sprints.” And then came the kicker: “We can’t operate a business if we can’t make and keep any commitments.”
These were the words of a talented CEO of an innovative growth-stage B2B technology firm I’ve worked with, reflecting a very real concern of business leaders. This CEO and his colleagues work with major multinational customers, and the nature of their business involves long business cycles with dramatic seasonal effects — in an industry where certain functionality needs to be available at a certain time of year or you might as well wait another year to deliver it. They sell many months or even years in advance, and their customers are making significant buying decisions based on expectations of functionality they’d like available in the future.
This CEO and his leadership team were interested in strengthening their product management and discovery approaches and agile development methods, and they understood that learning and adapting were essential to delivering great products. I’d been consulting with them for a few months, helping them employ foundational principles of agile product development and value-driven product management. Over those few months I’d worked with them to declare a strategic product vision, reframe product roadmaps from lists of features to opportunities to deliver value, conduct user research with some of my research colleagues from SDG, and re-organize their product development teams. We’d even had a little book club-style discussion on Melissa Perri’s excellent book Escaping the Build Trap. It was a productive and successful engagement, but we got tripped up when we worked on removing some specific features from future time horizons.
“Let’s not commit to these features yet,” I advised. “There may be higher priority problems. Beware of the build trap, remember.”
But in this case, the CEO and his sales leaders resisted. They couldn’t just tell major customers that they didn’t yet know if and when they would deliver these high-profile features, the CEO explained.
And he was right.
This CEO’s business isn’t unique. Many companies want to adopt processes (agility, leanness) that enable them to respond more nimbly to market needs — but they also need to be able to set expectations and keep the promises they make to the market. Otherwise, they may lose valued customers and struggle to win new ones.
Product guru Marty Cagan, of the Silicon Valley Product Group, uses the lovely phrase “high-integrity commitments” to refer to the expectations that businesses must establish and keep. Cagan deftly describes the situation like this:
“There are always certain cases where we need the team to make what is called a high-integrity commitment…In all businesses there are occasional situations where something important must be delivered by a specific deadline date…So a key condition to moving to empowered teams is that the teams are able to provide dates and deliverables when necessary, and further, not just the low-integrity dates of the roadmap era (because we really had very little understanding of what was being committed to), but dates the leaders can count on.”
Source: Silicon Valley Product Group, https://svpg.com/team-objectives-commitments/
Here Cagan recognizes that commitments to dates and deliverables may be critical to producing a successful product and operating a successful business. Some product purists might resist this ethos — after all, aren’t we trying to deliver value, not hit dates? — but the reality is inescapable: businesses can rarely survive without being able to tell customers about functionality to come, especially in B2B, enterprise software. And that requires even the most agile, adaptable product team to make — and keep — commitments.
Keys to Commitments
How can product teams improve at making and keeping these high-integrity commitments, while retaining flexibility necessary to discover and deliver a high-quality product? Here are some keys.
1. Feature commitments should be rare and precious
While yes, we sometimes do need to commit to a feature by a date, I must be clear: make these commitments only when they’re truly warranted to build the business and win your market. Most of your product planning and development should be focused on uncovering value and adapting as you learn. Commitments to features by dates should be rare and precious.
2. Build trusting, communicative relationships with colleagues in other parts of the business
This sounds squishy, but it’s a foundation of product commitments. Sales and product teams will be more comfortable making high-integrity commitments if they trust each other and assume they each mean well.
Sales, hear this: product makers (engineering, UX, research) don’t want to derail a business or discourage sales; they just don’t want to commit to making something that isn’t yet understood. Before you make a commitment to a customer, confirm with Product that this commitment can be met, and seek to understand what other work might be sacrificed to meet it.
And Product teams, hear this: Sales or Marketing doesn’t want to put product makers in an impossible situation; they just want to be able to go to market with some confidence that what they’re selling is what will be shipped. When you share a roadmap with your Sales brethren, clarify what’s relatively certain, and identify what’s less clear. Otherwise, Sales may presume either that all of it is set in stone, or that all of it is equally uncertain.
An attitude of trust, team alignment, and safety is essential to building a good team. If your team doesn’t have this foundation of trust and positive intent, we suggest simple exercises where teams list what we believe to be true about our coworkers and use these to surface biases, beliefs, and concerns.
3. Separate product discovery from development
To make and keep commitments with confidence, many teams find it helpful to separate product discovery work (“what should we deliver”) from delivery work (“how should we deliver it?”). There are many models and frameworks for this, like Double-Diamond models, or Dual-track processes. Depending on your team, your maturity, and your business, some may be better suited for you than others. But no matter what method you select, adequate space for discovery enables product teams to explore options and uncover solutions that can help them make commitments. Instead of demanding that product teams declare whether they can meet a commitment to functionality immediately, the savvy sales team will give that product team time to do enough discovery work. After all, that discovery work is what enables the product team to understand the problem and opportunity enough to make a commitment.
4. Reframe priorities and commitments to focus on problems you’ll solve, not features you’ll ship
Customers rarely want a feature; they want their needs satisfied or their problems solved. So if possible rather than committing to a feature, commit to tackling a problem. This is still a commitment, but you’ll have more flexibility to deliver a strong solution, rather than the solution your customer prescribed. Your product will be stronger because of it.
Product leaders — even good, caring ones — can be tempted to retreat to the immaculate realm of product in theory, where design and discovery are showered with love and budget, while sales and revenue are the dirty concerns of the mercenaries in the bizdev and sales departments. Resist this temptation. A product only exists in the messy space between your business and your customers. That business is built by sweat and toil, and it requires those customers to spend their money. So sales commitments are among the most important conversations your business has with its customers. The smart product leader recognizes this; the smarter product leader embraces this.