Let your team fail

Let your team fail

Leaders need to create an environment for exploration and experimentation – and set up teams for failure, says David Gill, CPO at Schibsted in Finland. This is how companies working with tech will survive.

Our users’ expectations and needs grow every day. What was a relevant solution yesterday can suddenly be considered outdated and ripe for disruption today. There is just one problem: across consumer technology companies, most of the improvements we put in front of our users are completely useless. Various internal benchmarks and academic studies show that even among the world’s strongest technology companies, many of the changes made to their products do not deliver value to users. As measured through user behaviour and metrics, most new functionality isn’t used and some even lead to lower user engagement. You have probably been in this situation yourself: your favourite app suddenly changes, introduces meaningless new features, or even messes up the navigation.

So, how do you avoid these well-intentioned but wasteful missed opportunities? How do we lower the risk of spending our time and energy building features that no user will ever use? And on the other hand, how can we speed up our ability to quickly identify the most pressing problem to be solved for our users, and determine the solution that best solves this problem?

We need to set up our teams for failure. They need to fail a lot, ideally many times a week. Why? Let’s remember the data: even the most user-centric, smart and well-equipped product teams will ship a lot of improvements that do not solve any relevant problem well enough. Only one out of four ideas will positively move the needle, at least in its first iteration. That means three out of four ideas should not have been built in the first place!

Since we do not have a magic crystal ball to know which three ideas will not work, we simply must test them out for ourselves. This means that the best teams in product development are the ones that work through and discard the bad ideas the quickest. The teams that creatively and efficiently spend the least time determining that a certain idea will fail to meet user needs, are the teams that ship the most meaningful improvements. As you might have guessed, failures and critical learnings are almost as important as finally shipping that one improvement that really moves the needle.

The right environment is crucial

For our leaders, this means providing the right environment for teams tasked to tackle this hard and time-consuming journey of exploration and experimentation. By studying some of the most successful technology companies in the world and reflecting on my own experiences, there are some key enablers that need to be in place for your teams to have the user-centric, strategically relevant impact of our dreams:

1. Focus on outcome

Set goals based on the outcomes you want to achieve, not the functionality you want to build. As tempting it might be for a leader to measure progress in tangible feature releases (we built something! I can see it on the app!), it’s incredibly important that the teams are instead empowered to achieve positive user and business outcomes as measured by metrics. This recognises the fact that the first idea/feature will probably not work, while also giving the team the freedom to decide on solutions while also boosting the responsibility of delivering results.

2. Open atmosphere

Psychological safety: many leaders know that a key trait of any successful team is the degree of psychological safety they feel when interacting with each other. This basically means having permission to speak your mind with your colleagues without any fear of repercussions or judg­ment. This is hard to establish, possibly even harder to achieve remotely, but it’s a critical foundation if you want your team to reap the benefits of being diverse and cross-functional.

3. Product discovery

Get really good at product discovery. Product discovery is the art and science of finding out which problems are most worth solving and whether the proposed solution will work. It’s a series of techniques ranging from user interviews, surveys, prototyping and design validation, technical feasibility, competitor benchmark and other types of experimentation. This requires both time, skills, empathy and patience. I have yet to see a company doing enough product discovery.

4. A clear strategy

Develop a clear vision and strategy. So, it’s super hard to figure out what to build. And it needs quite a bit of time-consuming product discovery. How do we avoid the pitfall of straying too far from the purpose and mission of the company? How do we avoid the teams coming up with all kinds of ideas that make the totality of your product look like Frankenstein’s monster? The answer is through serious strategic immersion between leaders and the team. It’s not enough to share a fancy slide in a company all-hands a few times a year. The strategy needs to be discussed, questioned and familiarised with everyone in the team until the strategic direction of the company is understood. And most importantly, it needs to be clear how each individual team will contribute to this strategy.

5. Time and focus

Give enough time and focus. We know that successful product development is high in complexity and low in predictability. The process is messy and requires both creativity and resilience. It also requires investment in learnings and development, and that the teams reflect often and deeply on how they can improve their ways of working together. This means that overworked or stretched teams will have a much harder time achieving this tough task. Ensuring that they have enough support and slack in their agendas is fundamental for their success.

Product development is a tricky business. It requires talented and motivated people, strong leadership, a curious company culture, sharp strategy, patience and a bit of luck. However, it can also breed team engagement, happy users and positive business outcomes. And you know what? Much of the above isn’t exclusive to product development. Almost all the work we do these days has the same high degree of complexity, which makes these five tips applicable to your entire organisation!

David Gill

David Gill
Chief Product Officer, Schibsted Marketplaces Finland
Years in Schibsted: 10