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The New MVP: The Minimum Valuable Product

Sometimes the most powerful political tool is a product. Make sure you can ship.

Complete and total buy-in from all parties is a fantasy. When a technology decision gets made, it’s going to move forward because enough of the right people with the right level of control and power have moved that decision along. There’s always some consensus but complete support is rare.

When people reach out to us, the decision—to take Path B instead of A—has already been made. Now they just need to find the right partner. You’ve put your name and reputation behind the path you’ve decided to take. Within Postlight, we often say our job is to make our advocates look good. Hopefully they’ll get promoted on the other side of one of our projects. 

It takes inertia to get people to buy into a particular path. Sometimes it takes months to get consensus. On more than one occasion we’re actually helping our advocates build that consensus. A tangible project is nowhere in sight yet. We’re helping them and they’re helping others get there, inch by inch. 

Once you get that green light, it’s by no means unanimous. There’s still suspicion and second-guessing. This is inevitable because the political price to second-guess and cast doubt on the decisions of others is virtually free. It’s easy to heckle from the rafters, you’re not on the field. 

Regardless, let them chatter. A call has been made, the budget is cleared, we’re going forward with the project. At this point, product leaders and executives obsess over one fairly obvious goal: How do I release the best possible product that meets expectations? That’s actually the wrong question to ask. The better question to ask is this: How do I release a product that will delight a few and draw the envy of others?

Fast forward a few months. We’re well into the project now. It’s big and complicated. The requirements (really just a lot of notes tidied up into a document) were filed away months ago after many meetings with many stakeholders.

Now you’re about to release something. It’s a big leap and an anxious time. Are people going to use this thing? How do I get these seven (seven!) divisions to buy in? They’re each going to have their view on what’s right and what’s wrong. You can’t strong arm them to use it. You can campaign to the division heads to get their people on board. But let’s face it, those leaders are more loyal to their people than to you.

There’s a way to go about it that not only ensures adoption but turns your project into a benevolent political weapon:

  • Set expectations early. Tell everyone, not just your key stakeholders, when they’re going to have something in their hands to play with. Don’t share a 7-layer-cake Gantt chart with milestones. Just tell them when they’re going to get something to touch and use. 
  • Don’t wait too long. If you’re holed up in the factory for too long, people will start to wonder what’s going on. This will happen even if you didn’t miss your dates. Release something sooner. Pick a timeframe and prioritize requirements around what you can pull off in that first cut. Ship something.
  • Aim small(er). It’s a big endeavor that’ll take years. Carve out that minimum valuable product. What can make the biggest impact in that tight timeframe that you’ve established? What hurts the most for users? Oftentimes the bar isn’t that high. Stay away from the edge cases. 
  • Make a good product. At the risk of restating the obvious, release a tight product the first go-round. It should feel snappy and intuitive to use. You’re going to make changes but aim to leave an impression of something solid and of quality in people’s hands.

There is no more powerful political tool than releasing good software into people’s hands. You’ll find that the burden of consensus-building and campaigning is far lighter because the thing speaks for itself. It’s something you can draft behind to keep going.

Rinse and repeat. Done right and you’ll bank some political capital. You’ll need it along the way. Mistakes will be made and you will be blindsided by who-knows-what. Ideally you’ll string together a few wins that continuously impress people. Trust increases, anxiety decreases the temperature has gone down. What were once your customers will become part of your coalition, defending your product and mission because it is now their product and mission.

Rich Ziade is president of Postlight, a full-service digital product studio in New York City. Email him at [email protected].

Story published on Aug 14, 2019.