Why Most B2B Software Implementations Fail

Business-Success-FailureMy first job out of college was building, installing and implementing software that scheduled agents in a call center.  For it’s time, this was a state of the art application.  It took into account each agent’s skills, languages spoken, times available, shift preferences and even the kind of media they preferred to handle.  All of this was factored into a scheduling engine that analyzed, optimized and came up with a schedule that could increase a call center’s efficiency by 100% or more.  So imagine my surprise when the first request from most customers during an implementation was “show us how to enter our current schedule into your system and that’s it.”

Think about that for a second.  They just spent a considerable amount of money on a state of the art system that was easy to use and much faster than anything they had before; a system that could give them 100% better results, and what they asked it to do was maintain the status quo.  That’s sort of like me telling you “I have an app here that can help you get 100% healthier in under a week.  It will analyze your exercise and eating habits, look at your preferences and dislikes and then spit out an exercise and nutrition program that you’ll enjoy and fits into your schedule. This system is easy to use and will grow with you adapting to your needs.”  Now you take this system and use it for nothing more than tracking your weight.  Crazy, right?

Except this situation repeated itself at every single company and with every single product I’ve ever built.  Each and every time we sold the customer a highly advanced system that could take what they’re doing and optimize it for much better results, and the most common response was “just show me how to use your system to do what I’m doing today”.  In some cases there were valid reasons for a certain lack of flexibility, reasons like union contracts or government regulations, but even in these situations the lack of flexibility wasn’t complete.  Yet even these customers refused to optimize within the limited constraints they had.  Every where I went the status quo was always preferred, even when presented with a tool that could make life easier.

The result?  Software implementation that were barely used and customers that were disappointed with results that never measured up to the promises they heard during the sales process.

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Beware The Tiger Team: Why Special Project Teams Can Sometimes Backfire

Tiger Team: noun, a team of specialists in a particular field brought together to work on specific tasks.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before:

  • “This project is stalled, let’s put a team together to kick start it”
  • “Holy crap, we really need to improve our [department x], let’s get some folks on this right away!”
  • “Wow, how did the competition beat us to this?  We need to put together a tiger team right now to solve this!”

Ahh yes, the all hands on deck speech also known as the mating call of the tiger team.

But Shouldn’t We Fix These Problems Right Away?

Now don’t get me wrong, these are indeed big problems and you should definitely get your best minds on solving them right away.  A well assembled tiger team can cut through red tape, process issues and organizational inertia like a light saber through a storm trooper.  And yes, if you have a short term problem, by all means, put together a short term team to solve it.  Still, pause a second and answer this question for me:

Seriously, if the situation is so dire, how did you let it happen?  How could things have gotten this bad without anyone noticing or addressing them?  How did your team / division / department / company row so far up the proverbial creek that now you now need to call in a hit squad of your best people just to turn you around, build you a paddle and push you back into the water?  And here in lies the issue with tiger teams.

Solving The Root Problem

Tiger teams are sexy because they’re fun to put together and execute.  Get some cool people in a room, think up some awesome solutions, cut through the mess of red tape and get things DONE!  YES!  WE’RE SAVED!  And honestly, that’s actually true.  Tiger teams can and do save the day.  The problem though is that they’re so sexy and fun and effective that many times no one bothers thinking about why things went wrong in the first place.  Why should they, the tiger team has saved us!

Except constant tiger teams are like living in constant crisis mode.  Some people thrive on it but most will eventually burn out of the continuous ebb and flow of crisis followed by tiger team followed by yet another crisis.

Tiger teams are an effective tool in our management tool kit.  They’re also a good way to solve HALF the problem.  Tiger teams solve the short term problem, what they don’t do is solve the long term issue of how we got here in the first place.  For that we need something else, something I like to call, the Human Team.

The Human Team Sounds Lame!

Yah, it does.  Tiger sounds way better.  Humans are weak bags of pink flesh.  Tigers are 500lbs of deadly muscle and claws!  Tigers tear through barriers while humans cower behind them.  All true, but let me point something out to you.  Humans rule this world and tigers need protection from us to survive.  Know why?  Because tigers are animals that can’t adapt, can’t learn and can’t change their ways.  Humans do all those things, and that’s what the Human Team is all about.

Yes, get the tiger team in place to tear through the barriers and get the job done RIGHT NOW, but also put together a human team to analyze what got us in this mess in the first place.  Should we change our ways?  In what way?  What can we learn from this?  What can we do better?  What process needs to change?  What’s the long term solution here so we never end up in this sort of crisis again?

Without the human, the tiger is going to do some damage but will eventually exhaust itself from constant fighting.  With it, it’s an short term solution that’s rarely needed but very effective when called upon.

5 Hiring Mistakes I’ve Made

Thinking I’d found a hidden gem – Hidden gems don’t exist, especially not in an industry as talent hungry as tech. If the candidate is in a dead end job, never held a job for more than 9 months or never made it past an entry level position, there’s a reason for that. Sure, everyone can make a career mistake or two, but ignoring a clear pattern is like dating a person who’s cheated on all their ex’es and thinking you’re going to be their one true love. No, you don’t need to have something like singlehandedly launching Facebook for me to hire you (Marc, if you’re reading this, we do have job openings) but you should have some successes on your resume, some promotions to show off and least a few wins to tell me about.

Gambling on a possible superstar – Sure, that kid without a lot of applicable experience could turn out great but they can also turn out really bad, and what are you going to do then? Your employees reflect on you and your choices will determine your career. Do you really want to stake your career on a gamble? Go for the sure(er) thing. It’s better to be consistently good than inconsistently amazing. Also, if you really like someone without a lot of applicable experience then find them an entry level position that doesn’t require a lot of experience. It’s better for both you and them.

Incorrectly set expectations – The worst thing you can do is lie to a prospect. Even if they end up accepting the job, you’re going to end up with someone who’s unhappy from day one. Be honest about both the challenges and the rewards. Set the stage correctly, tell them what you expect of them and what you want to see delivered day 1, 10 and 100. The candidate that hears that and wants to work for you is someone who will thrive in your environment. And if you’re having issues finding that candidate, you may want to consider some changes to your work environment…

Not asking requirements up front – You spend days and weeks trying to make sure a candidate is just right and when it comes time to talk numbers, they tell you about some requirement they have that’s completely unrealistic. Check out salary, work from home flexibility, start date, stock options, benefits and all the other requirements up front. It’s better to be disappointed at the first screening than after you’ve told your boss that you’ve found the perfect candidate.

Not getting a verbal yes to a verbal offer before going to a written one – Written offers take time and going back to see if you can up the salary makes you seem like a used car salesperson. Negotiate verbally up front, get that verbal yes and then put everything in writing. Again, way better than going to your boss and asking them to approve yet another offer letter.

How To Get A Job – Chapter 2

Reminder, part 1 is over here.

Before we depart on our grand job seeking adventure, let’s meet the cast:

The Hiring Manager – That’s the person you’re going to be working for. They’re usually very eager to make a hire because they’re understaffed and they need the help.  So they want someone to fill the role but they’re also very busy trying to do the role plus their own while also hiring. At the same time, they know that this person will reflect directly on them. That means they want someone who won’t make them look like an idiot. Your job with the hiring manager is to prove you can do the job well and you won’t embarrass them.  Also, never waste their time.

The Hiring Manager’s Boss – Every hiring manager has a boss who’s looking over their shoulder at their hiring decisions. This person won’t be directly involved in the day to day management of the team but they still want to be involved. In almost every case, this person wants the impossible. They want someone who will work hard, put in long hours, has an amazing pedigree, knows the market and the job before they’re even hired and will do all this for half the pay of anyone else. In other words, the impossible perfect candidate. You’re not that person, no one is. Which means the hiring manager’s boss will never say “hire them!” after your interview. That’s fine, you don’t need their approval. What you do need is a lack of a veto. That is, you need to make sure the hiring manager’s boss doesn’t say “don’t hire them” because that’s a death sentence. No hiring manager in the world goes up against their boss once they’ve made up their mind.

How do you do that? Mostly by impressing them with your skills and passion. Remember, they’re not going to dive into the details like your hiring manager. What they’re looking for is more of an impression of you as a person. So make sure you leave the impression of a hard working, incredibly passionate about the job and very knowledgeable candidate. We’ll talk more about how to do this later.

Hiring Manager’s Stakeholders – These are people who you will be working with day to day. So if you’re interviewing for a marketing job, these might be the other people on the marketing team, or someone on the sales team. Like the hiring manager’s boss, your main job here is to make sure they don’t veto you. You do that by making sure they feel good about working with you. Ask a lot of questions about how they do their job, finish every interview with a “so how does this position help you?” or something like that. Make them feel comfortable that you will make their job easier.

The Coordinator – This is usually an HR person but could also be an office manager. This person is in charge of screening your resume, which means they’re the gate keeper you need to get past if you even want an interview. Even after you get your interview, this person is still in charge of setting up follow up meetings, reminding the hiring manager that you’re waiting for an answer, putting an offer together and doing all the hard logistics work that no one else wants to do. Your goal is to show this person you have everything the hiring manager asked for in a candidate and also not to piss them off. The easiest way to not get a job is to annoy this person. They’ll make sure you never get another interview again. So learn their name, thank them nicely on every email and make sure they know you appreciate their hard work.

The Three Pillars of Roadmap Building

I’m in the middle of a roadmap exercise at the moment and it occurs to me that this is the most important project any product manager will ever do.  Sure, it’s important to write requirements and PRD’s, but those are side effects of your roadmap.  There will never be a more important task than deciding the high level projects your team will work on and the order in which you’ll bring them to life.

So what the heck does a roadmap need to do anyway?

Support Company Goals

Do you even know what those goals are?  Maybe it’s time for a little heart to heart with your CEO or general manager because you need to know in detail what the goals are or else your roadmap won’t support them.  Are you looking to get acquired?  Increase ASP?  Reduce churn?  Go after market share?  Increase profitability?  It’s probably some combination of these things but you and your CEO need to clearly articulate what your goals are for the quarter, year or multi year period for which you are building a roadmap.

Goals should be the first slide in your roadmap deck, with methods to achieve those goals being the second.  After all, a roadmap is meaningless without an explanation of why you’re planning the things you’re putting in these slides.

Address Revenue Killers

Revenue killers come in all shapes in sizes.  They could be that killer feature that the competition has and you don’t.  They could be a persistent source of customer complaint like slow performance that’s causing customers to churn.  They could even be things like a lack of an ecosystem or poor API’s that’s causing some of your deals to not close. 

Best source for these are going to be your sales people and your support people.  They’re the one who know why current deals aren’t closing and why current customers are thinking about leaving.  The problem is one of perspective.  Sales and support people are going to give you a lot of tactical detail “this customer left because they didn’t like feature A” or “this deal closed because competitor Z talked to them about feature 1”.  It’s going to be up to you to collect all this information so you can see the trends.

This is probably not a slide unless you have a very open minded management team and board of directors.  No one wants you to air dirty laundry in public and putting slides with titles like “why we lose deals” is a guaranteed way to start a really bad conversation.  However, even if you’re not going to put this on a slide, you should still have the information.  It’s going to come up when people ask you “why are we doing project A?” and the best way to answer that question is with solid data.  “Because we lost 20% of our deals last year to competitor 2 as a direct result of not having project A in place and I have the numbers and details here to show you if you’re interested” ends the conversation right there.

Provide The Next Big Thing

Addressing revenue killers is nice and all, but roadmaps are meant to be visionary.  They’re supposed to excite people and get them oriented behind a shared vision.  For that, you need more than just “we’re going to fix feature A and put in place feature B which our competitors already have”.  You need fresh new ideas and they need to be exciting.

What are those ideas?  That’s the part I can’t help you with.  These are different per industry.  Just remember that an exciting idea doesn’t have to be a huge project.  Sometimes little projects can still be exciting.  It all depends on how you position them and this is where you need to get your mind out of the engineering mindset and into the world of marketing.

Go talk to your marketing team.  Chat with them about market trends, announcements they’re seeing and press releases other companies are putting out.  Take a look at unrelated industries and what they’re talking about.  Read magazines and see what society in general is talking and what the hot topics of the moment are.  This is where your big ideas are going to come from, not from any bug or feature request tracking software you may have in house.

Sooner or later, you’re going to have that Eureka moment where you think to yourself “oh! what is we could…” and in fact, it may even be “wait!  We could do that and it would actually be really is if…” and that’s your big idea right there.

When you have those, put them in your roadmap in the same section as all those projects you have to address revenue killers.  However, the big new thing (or things) is what should have top billing.  It’s like a newspaper where the top story gets most of the page and the big picture.  The big new thing is the top story, everything else is a sideline.  Also, don’t get hung up in features.  Tell people enough so they understand what you’re building.  The rest can be found in the PRD.

The Big Picture

A roadmap really is a set of instructions for how to get from point A to point B.  The product manager’s job is to know where point A is, identify where point B should be and then draw a line between them.  Everything else is details.