I hesitated as my mouth hung open a bit. A senior leader in a development organization had just asked, “Why is product important?”
We’d been discussing an evolution in thinking in our industry – the movement from being process-focused to being progress-focused and now the need to be product-focused. He innocently asked the question as he attempted to process the idea that what we build is more important than how quickly and efficiently we build it.
For me as a coach and a former product manager, the question was akin to “Why do we have to breathe?”
I replied, “So we know whether or not we are building the right thing at the right time.” My answer wasn’t the best. If I could have that moment back, I’d tell a story.
Video on Demand
Back in 2000, I landed my first gig out of college at Unisys. We were building a video on demand system that used Unisys servers to stream movies to set-top boxes via cable provider networks. The tech was solid, and it showed well. There was just one catch; we couldn’t sell it.
As a group of cynical developers, we blamed the company’s lack of legit sales and marketing. I didn’t know this then, but we also lacked something called product management. Had we had a product management practice, the real problem would have been uncovered sooner and cheaper.
There was a market condition keeping our innovative product from being viable for sale. Hollywood wouldn’t release any content for streaming. Pirating platforms like Napster were running wild at the time, and movie houses saw no way to monetize streaming video. In fact, they feared streaming video would lead to nothing but the theft of their assets.
Long story short, our product failed in the market. Late in 2002, after spending millions of dollars in R&D, Unisys pulled the plug on video on demand. Our product missed, and we all came incredibly close to losing our jobs not because we failed to build but because we failed to build the right thing at the right time.
As product builders, leaders, and coaches, we must challenge ourselves to look beyond progress to product. Let’s take the time to verify, to learn, and to adjust.
If my team at Unisys had done that, at worst we would have saved the company millions of dollars and at best I’d be streaming Unisys today instead of Netflix as I type this post.