Uncorking Product Bottlenecks

Product release stagnation

Have you and your team been iterating on the same product version for too long? Is your next release date an unknown? Is your continuous delivery constantly late? 

If so, it’s time to pitstop and take stock. You need to intervene before your “shipping fear” or “release anxiety” sets in. There are so many variables that influence and impact the release of a product, be it new or existing. 

Products can get stuck in the release funnel for many reasons, including:

  • key business stakeholders may not agree, may not communicate or may postpone decision-making relating to the product.
  • product managers may be over-baking the release with an abundance of features to the point where the agile framework is fracturing.
  • the design team may find it difficult to resolve the design to completion due to indecisiveness, conflicting feedback from different parties or from the focus being purely on UI and not on UX – which makes it difficult to know what is best for the user.
  • the list goes on..

All these factors can be the cause of product release stagnation, which has a negative impact on the business and team. Here are some tactics to loosen up your product development process towards continuous releasing. It’s not an exhaustive list (yet) but should give you some starting points to break the logjam.

1. Align stakeholders by facilitating a workshop

Key stakeholders not coming together and agreeing can be a major obstacle to progressing your product release. In this case, the best thing to do is to schedule a workshop (or two) with internal decision-makers with the objective of gaining consensus from the group.

Prepare in advance of the event by brainstorming what are the biggest barriers and/or gaps you are facing in releasing your product. Then, create appropriate activities that centre around these problem spaces which you will run as you facilitate the workshop.

Sticky notes on the wall of a workshop

Getting everyone in the same room is half the battle. The other half is active listening and facilitating your workshop towards stakeholder alignment. The output from the workshops will provide you with the buy-in and direction you need to get your product to market! Here is a good article with tips on facilitating workshops.

2. Reduce the amount of features in the release

Often product requirements and priorities emerge from multiple sources across the organisation, and start to build up. For example:

  • the Sales team demand a killer application they promised to customers (which doesn’t exist in the product yet).
  • the CEO demands some bleeding-edge technology that he saw a competitor tweet about.
  • other random vanity features requested by team members they want themselves without any data based evidence to support user demand.

The once lean and streamlined user interface is now bloated with elements as feature creep sets in. The scope of the MVP has evolved to be the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest, requiring feats of extreme diligence and endurance to conquer and succeed. Like a cake that has been left in the oven too long, the product specification has been over-baked – and not even one customer has had a taste yet.

In this instance, the best thing to do is reality check your release plan to make sure there is a realistic workload on everyone’s plate with the objective of releasing a version of the product you can measure.

person writing bucket list on book

If your backlog is impractically long based on your team-size and timeline then the project may be suffering from scope creep. Reevaluate priorities, work on the low-hanging fruit tasks and make sure everyone sticks to the plan. Agile should involve planning and sometimes the plan can be to go back one step. Vet and redirect new feature requests towards themes and epics in subsequent releases and make sure these are in synch with your roadmap. Some more tips on reducing feature creep can be found here.

3. Tighten up your design process

Sometimes, product bottle-necks may occur because the design never truly gets signed off. It’s important that designers have everything they need to take action and iterate on concepts and / or prototypes. Conflicting requirements from stakeholders need to be tackled head-on to clarify direction and specific attention needs to be paid to playing back feedback to stakeholders at design reviews before the meeting is over. 

This reduces the risk of ambiguity, misinterpretation, or omission on the designer’s part. This helps to define the scope of the subsequent iteration, ensures everyone is on the same page and provides a thorough snag list to refer to which acts as a catalyst to resolving the design.

Limiting the number of reviews can also help. Stakeholders may experience “critique fatigue” – especially when there are too many feedback sessions which repeatedly focus on the same aspects, again and again, without any resolution.

4. Validate product with real customers

Fear of failure can be a big obstacle to going live with your product to customers. The best way to sanity check your progress during the product development lifecycle, and to allay any worries, is to conduct a research study with your customers. 

If it’s an existing product, reach out to customers and invite them to evaluate your prototype or beta product. If it’s a new product, engage with customers to validate your concepts or paper prototypes. Listen to your customer’s feedback or watch how successful they are at completing tasks as users. 

An informal customer interview.

The insight unearthed will inspire and inform you of what to prioritise to ship as a usable and meaningful product. It will also reinvigorate your passion and belief in the product because you know you are closer to truly making customer’s happy based on their input.

For those of you new to the area here is an article I wrote about Getting started with Usability Testing.

Empower decision-making

Research in the UK uncovered that over half of CIOs regard agile development as “discredited” (53%), so, it’s super important that you don’t rest on your laurels pontificating what direction to go in for your next release. It’s time to take action or risk product release stagnation.

Empower diligent decision making by applying the following 4 approaches:

  • facilitate alignment workshops with stakeholders
  • reduce features
  • tighten up your design process
  • validate your progress with customers

In no time, you will notice improvements as your product development bottlenecks uncork and your product release process starts to flow better.

Séamus Byrne is an Innovation Champion based in Dublin, Ireland. He provides coaching and consultation services for business, product and software teams. If you need support with your product development, release management or design ops, get in touch with him via ProductStrategy.ie

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