Be Appropriately Lazy

When I talk to established teams about how to interview existing customers, someone always asks how to follow up on each specific customer’s feedback and requests.

My recommendation is: Don’t.

Don’t ticket individual customers’ feedback as you would a bug. Don’t prioritize, triage, and close out with detailed resolved or wontfix comments.

Why? Because that’s a pain in the ass. And it’s sufficiently time-consuming that you’ll find yourself — consciously or unconsciously — dreading talking to customers. Talking to customers — the thing that should be a daily or at least weekly habit — will become a chore that you procrastinate on.

Would customers prefer that you follow up with them personally? Of course. Will some be downright annoyed that you don’t. Of course.

But they’ll be a lot more peeved if you aren’t learning enough from enough customers to better solve their problems.

This doesn’t mean you should ask for your customers’ time and then leave their comments unacknowledged. It just means you should follow up wisely.

Be appropriately lazy: every month or quarter, write up a summary of what you’ve learned from your customers and how you’re going to take action on what you heard. Bcc it to everyone who took the time to talk with you. Or write a blog post serving the same purpose, and take a few seconds to explicitly point customers to it.

This allows you to close the loop in a scalable way. It keeps the marginal cost of talking to more customers low – after all, once you write that summary email, it takes essentially the same amount of time to send it out to 20 customers as it would to send to 10.

Sure, the actual interview time to talk to 10 additional customers adds up – but the conversations are the rewarding part. That’s where you uncover insights and identify opportunities.  The follow-up part is what most people dread. So stop dreading and start being (just) lazy (enough).

If you fail to plan to fail, you plan to fail

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

-Benjamin Franklin

If Ben Franklin were running a company today, I think he’d have added a couple words to his quote.

He was a pretty smart guy, and I’m sure he’d recognize that nowadays, planning is not enough.  Planning alone doesn’t prevent mistakes or reduce risk – not in an environment where technology, customer capabilities, customer expectations, and your competition are all constantly changing.

What saves your bacon when everything keeps changing around you, is your ability to recover and adapt.  Your ability, in other words, to fail, quickly learn from that experience, adapt, and keep going.

How do teams build that ability to fail-and-recover?  By planning small, low-stress opportunities to fail.  Managers, you need to be letting your teams make mistakes. Control the stakes and the resources spent, sure. But don’t step in and prevent small failures from happening.  Don’t be a helicopter boss.

A few weeks ago, I was working with a small team to explore a problem area in our product. We started by digging into the problem, forming hypotheses, and devising an MVP to test that hypothesis.  And there I gave them a 2-week deadline and stepped away (conveniently, I had some travel).

A few days into my absence, I realized the team had almost certainly been overly ambitious in the scope of what they wanted to do (all 4 of them were committed to other projects so I knew they wouldn’t have much time to dedicate to this one).  I almost started firing off messages to point this out and nudge them to rethink scope — and then I stopped.

At the end of the two weeks, they hadn’t finished what they planned to.  Hadn’t come close, even. But it was a really good opportunity to ask, “Why not?” I emphasized, “I’m not looking to blame anyone, but I’m curious why we didn’t come close to what we wanted to get done.”

Didn’t account for competing priorities. Didn’t plan out dependencies. And now that they thought of it, their MVP wasn’t actually all that ‘M’.  Should’ve thought smaller and nimbler.

I didn’t have to provide those answers. And it wouldn’t have done much good if I had. Making the mistakes yourself is when they stick.

Somewhat inadvertently, I’d planned a failure – a small, memorable one that hopefully will innoculate us against bigger time-wastes.