Go Ahead, Be a Flake

…It’s better than being a time waster.

I’m going to pull a number completely out of you-know-where and estimate that a full 20% of time in software companies is wasted on completing tasks to avoid the appearance of flakiness.

Product managers are pretty guilty of this, but they’re by no means the only offenders (and when product managers do this, it’s often because of a corporate culture that encourages it, such as bonuses being dependent on the % of your features that are completed and released.)

Here’s what happens:

  • a need is identified – a new feature, a bug report, an inefficiency
  • requirements are written and agreed upon
  • work begins

– but then something happens.

Maybe further customer interviews reveal that the new feature isn’t really that valuable after all.  Maybe watching your usage metrics shows that the bug – as much as it may irk you – is not affecting your customers’ use of the product.  Maybe that improved database query really isn’t needed at current usage levels.

Whatever the reason, the conclusion should be clear: we should stop working on this.

But we don’t.

“We should just finish it – It’s bad for engineers’ morale to have a half-finished feature sitting around.”  No — it’s worse for morale to have a fully-finished feature released but still just sitting around (and probably cluttering up the UI and generating more customer support costs.)

“We may as well do it now even though we don’t need it yet.” No — when you DO need it, it’s almost certain that your needs will have changed and this thing you built months ago will need more hacking to shape it into a still barely workable solution.

“We shouldn’t interrupt development ‘flow’ to start on something totally different.”  No — ‘flow’ is not valuable by itself!  There’s no sense in building the wrong thing fast.

These all boil down to: I thought this was important -> If I admit that it isn’t, I will lose credibility and look like a flake.

And don’t do the weaselly version, either, where you silently lower the priority on tasks and hope people will forget about them.

Make an announcement: “We are no longer working on X.  Here’s why: we thought it was going to solve Problem Y, but [it actually won't/problem Y isn't actually much of a problem/it will, but problem Z came out of nowhere and we've got to tackle that.]  I’m sorry that we already invested time in this, but I’d rather change course than have us waste more time on something that is not needed.”

I say, flake proudly.  Don’t keep working on dumb stuff.

13 Responses to “Go Ahead, Be a Flake”

giffc:

Yah, let the sunk cost stay sunk and don't make the hole deeper.

Yesterday I was writing about a different but similar feeling, where you know a portion of your product sucks, but you have to leave it be no matter how strong the urge to “make it right” might be.

Ccrandell:

Great blog post. Cindy, you hit the nail on the head. Part of the problem is a lack of traceability. If you don't know where the requirement came from (customer, partner, internal or general public) and its priority, then all requirements are equal. A lack of traceability results in a lack of alignment between execution and company and product strategy. Traceabiliy and transparency are key to not wasting time. Agile helps by developing in sprints that can be more aligned to what is important and generates value. I agree – no more weaselly version. Point back to the requirement source, if it hasn't be validated to move the customer satisfaction or revenue needle – don't do it for the sake of doing it. Product managers and developers don't have that kind of time. http://www.accept360.com/blog/?p=465

Ccrandell:

Great blog post. Cindy, you hit the nail on the head. Part of the problem is a lack of traceability. If you don't know where the requirement came from (customer, partner, internal or general public) and its priority, then all requirements are equal. A lack of traceability results in a lack of alignment between execution and company and product strategy. Traceabiliy and transparency are key to not wasting time. Agile helps by developing in sprints that can be more aligned to what is important and generates value. I agree – no more weaselly version. Point back to the requirement source, if it hasn't be validated to move the customer satisfaction or revenue needle – don't do it for the sake of doing it. Product managers and developers don't have that kind of time. http://www.accept360.com/blog/?p=465

cindyalvarez:

Yes – there's probably another blog post waiting to be written about how to distinguish between types of “things that suck” and which ones you actually need to fix.

Leaders: Being Flaky Is Better Than Wasting Everyone’s Time | SHOUTing GORIlla:

[...] Alvarez is the product manager for KISSmetrics. This post was originally published on her blog, and it is re-published here with [...]

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[...] Alvarez is the product manager for KISSmetrics. This post was originally published on her blog, and it is re-published here with [...]

Gabriel Gunderson:

I got a long history of flakiness backing me up.

petenixey:

You bring up good points, Cindy. I think it helps to treat product as a tactic rather than the end itself and not to confuse long-range planning with long range specs.

Working in very small batches helps tremendously it's far harder to “switch course” than to never have set long range specific tactics in the first place.

Leaders: Being Flaky Is Better Than Wasting Everyone’s Time | TechsZone:

[...] Alvarez is the product manager for KISSmetrics. This post was originally published on her blog, and it is re-published here with [...]

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Nicole:

This has happened to us a few times and I always sit around feeling guilty for not following up on these things. Your philosophy will help lessen that guilt!

Abc:

I have a different and perhaps opposite observation. I have seen SEVERAL projects (not products) start without enough clarity and down the lane one of the following happens. Either the progress is hampered due to infeasibility or the project is shown as complete with minimum (but not useful) functionality.  The project remains a vestige and lies around for ages with no cleanup. Subsequent people are scared to touch the project as they are not sure what it can affect and where. It just remains there for ever.

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