“Now you’re done, right?”
I was mentioning Direct to a client yesterday and I got the title question back. Nothing left to create, right?
Did Someone Say Gobstopper?
For those who aren’t in the startup world, the idea of a product and/or feature pipeline can be confusing. What’s left to do? That sort of response is both good and bad; it’s good from the side that says it’s a startup’s job to hide or remove complexity; “make the hard stuff look simple”. On the flip-side though, if your customers don’t realize they have more problems to solve, more pain to remove, what does that mean for your customer validation? The reality is that both perspectives are needed and each helps make your product, platform, or even small business better. The number of tasks and items that come out of those approaches is, for all intents, never-ending.
Today, Tomorrow, Next Week, Next Month
When you look at your entrepreneurial to-do list, priorities matter. If you have a feature or bug that customers are clamoring for, you probably need to spend the time to create or fix that (though not always; perhaps I’ll blog about that decision another time).
After the “house on fire” stuff, what then? The features, bug fixes, and direction form a pipeline. That list of things to create, do, and describe also needs to be prioritized. Some tasks take a long time to complete. Others have dependencies; you can’t do one thing until other things are complete. Some look too far into the future; are you sure it’s the right thing to do and that your customers not only need it but would be willing to pay for it?
This is where the logical categorization of “today”, “tomorrow”, “next week”, and “next month” come in. Look at the things you need to do; what is immediately required? That’s a “today”, even if it takes you several calendar days to accomplish. What do you already know is important enough to be next? That gets described as “tomorrow”. Straightforward, right?
The Siren Song of Next Week, Next Month
These two categories are just as easy, right? Wrong! The further into the future you look, the harder it is to know the right things to be doing. If you’re a software developer or a product creator, each of which often have large lead-times from inception to release, there is a tendency to bake in as many possible options “just in case”. This, quite simply, is bad. Why? Because the further into the future (in terms of changes, not strictly time) you go, the less customer confirmation/validation you have to support expressing the effort. The more you take on faith that you’re doing the right thing the greater your chances of failing. Steve Jobs famously pilfered the quote about skating to where the hockey puck would be rather than where it is now and even Apple had to admit some of those predictions were wrong (beautiful-but-crazy Cube, I’m looking at you!)
You probably don’t have the resources Apple had at time in their success so wasting the time, effort, and cash on directions that haven’t been validated is risky at best. That’s why you capture those ideas that you think you want to work on and put them in the week, month buckets. Acknowledge that you think you want to work on them. Recognize that you think they will be worth spending the resources. Between “today” and “next week/month” do what you can to prove that your suspicions are correct, that there is a market, demand, and timeliness to whatever it is.
Kill Your Children Softly (or, “How I learned to love da’ bomb”)
So, I started off talking about the misconception that one feature release could ever constitute “being done”. I’ve been blathering on about priorities and lists ever since. They’re really two sides of the same coin. Urgent and important are two related but different characteristics that you can use to figure out “when” you should tackle any given task and whether you should at all.
This only works if you’re genuine about wanting it to. You have to be willing to kill your children, that is, put off or kill entirely features or services or benefits that don’t stand up to scrutiny or aren’t otherwise justified by your existing or target markets. You have to be willing to invest in the things that customers tell you they want. You have to be willing to explode some bomb creativity in service of “today” and know that if you really want some of “next week” and “next month” to come to pass, intelligently choose the risk you’re taking.
“Done” Is Often A Four-Letter Word
Take the risk, though. Do your best to predict an iPhone or a Facebook instead of a MySpace or a G4 Cube. Know that despite all your efforts, “next week” and “next month” will have flops but that’s just part of the puzzle. Ultimately, when people ask you if you’re done or when you’ll finish, just smile and confidently answer, “Probably never. There are too many changes the world needs,” then get back to “today” and “tomorrow”.