Change is the only constant in the modern technology-driven economy and organizations that want to stay competitive need to keep pace. This is especially true with embedded systems with the rapid escalation of technological advances.
Jama Software is an enterprise software company that helps organizations build and deliver complex products. I talked with Eric Winquist, CEO and co-founder, about how Jama is helping their clients address the challenges of rapid product delivery.
Wong: What do you identify as the key issues facing product development teams in the embedded space? What are the trends in product development in the embedded systems industry from your perspective?
Winquist: Product delivery has become critical to success and a competitive advantage for market leaders. Product delivery garners substantial executive attention, highlighting the strategic role that products hold in many organizations. It’s a cross-functional activity that spans executive management, sales, marketing, services, support, and operations in addition to the traditional product management, development, QA, IT, and release management functions.
In addition to the key issues that every embedded software and hardware company faces - speed to market, the demand for increased functionality in decreasing PCB real estate, maximizing yield and cost efficiencies - customers are more demanding in their requirements and more vocal in their feedback. Beyond that, as companies have spread product development out over different global sites and teams, often by customer or device group and sometimes in individual technology silos, we have found that there are additional issues created that lead to inefficiencies relating to time management, the duplication of effort work, communications across teams and groups, which all unnecessarily extend the product development cycle and add stresses to an organization.
Jama recently commissioned a broad industry-wide survey to help quantify exactly the challenges with product delivery. The study, conducted on behalf of Jama by Forrester, surveyed 150 senior business and IT professionals at enterprise organizations, 57% of which had more than 20,000 employees globally and a further 25% between 5,000 and 19,999. All had revenues of more than $1 billion per year. Around two thirds of the companies polled operate in the embedded space. Our research identified a number of ‘disrupters’ to the product delivery chain applicable
to the embedded software and hardware market.
The pace of innovation is rapid, paired with condensed cycle times and increased speed of delivery. Of the companies surveyed by Forrester, 70% release products at least quarterly, not surprising with the adoption of ‘down the line’ updates direct to devices. However, many companies are experiencing product development bottlenecks which can cause them to deliver late, the main barrier being issues with customer requirements, delayed decision-making, quality issues and a lack of resources. What we found interesting was delayed decisions were more prevalent as a cause of delay than lack of resources, indicating that product development teams have enough people, but they just aren’t working effectively together.
Organizations are increasingly complex. Geographic spread, increased product iterations and rapidly evolving customer specifications are changing the game faster than ever before to keep pace with technological advances driven by the end user demand for greater speed, functionality, processing power, connectivity, power management efficiency and lighter weight in the same or smaller footprint.
55% of the companies in our survey have at least 100 products in their portfolio, and 38% had in excess of 250. 61% have at least four teams working on one product, and
52% have at least six people on one team. That equates to at least 2400 people in an organization working on products. Geographically, 81% of companies polled have teams distributed across multiple sites, 30% of which have a time zone difference of at least seven hours.
A number of different stakeholder groups are involved in product development - Developers, Architects, Designers, Release Management and Operations, Project and Program Management, Quality Assurance and Product Management. Over 60% of the companies in our survey involved vendors in product development.
There is also a great deal of complicity when it comes to the processes used by product design teams. Some use the Agile platform, but not as many as we would have expected. . In fact, only 20% of our respondents are using Agile. 36% have stuck to their ‘pre-Agile’ traditional methods, while 19% use different processes for different teams.
What’s clear is that overcoming organizational complexity requires enterprise agility.
Alignment: The number one measure of success for embedded software and hardware manufacturers in the research is improved customer satisfaction, followed by revenue increase above projections, increased ROI or cost reduction. What is apparent is that there are still gaps between customer expectations and what is delivered by way of final product.
Looking at alignment, the biggest challenge relates to expectations. What the customer wants does not match what is delivered. The other biggest challenges are communication-relatWong: business doesn’t know how to market what was built or how to sell it to the customer. This is ultimately where we see a lot of failure – and again this is an issue of misalignment around the organization. The go-to-market teams need earlier insight and access to the context so they can frame useful conversations externally. Our research found that nearly 60% of companies felt that the expected and actual value of the product didn’t match, or that the value of the product was not communicated.
According to Forrester, almost half (48%) of all products fail to meet customer needs, even if they deliver something customers ask for. This indicates poor alignment with customers, and a significant communication gap. It’s our job as a business to understand what challenges customers face, what problems they are trying to solve.
Therefore, it’s critical to establish who is really talking to customers from the product development side. It could be your support team, your sales team, your social media team, your executives… it’s probably not the engineer, but the engineer might get a task to “create a red button.” But the button being red isn’t really going to solve the problem; the button needs to be a dropdown. If the engineer understood the purpose of the proposed feature, he/she could be empowered to solve that problem in an elegant way. This is why it is critical to keep those channels of communication open and give everyone involved the context to what is being built and why.
Summarizing the Forrester research yielded five key findings:
- Product teams often lack a clear understanding of customer needs. Unclear and changing requirements continue to plague product delivery. Not knowing what to build and not being able to get timely feedback on possible solutions results in delays and wasted time, effort, and money.
- Conflicting priorities caused by stakeholder disagreements put product delivery teams in an unfortunate bind. Lack of clarity about objectives, assumptions, and possible solutions leads to a lack of focus. Conflicting goals can derail the best of teams, leading to lackluster products. Without effective goal alignment, product delivery teams are caught in the middle without an effective way to resolve the conflict.
- Effective collaboration spans roles, teams, and geographies. Modern products are complex, requiring a wide variety of expertise to deliver successfully. The reality of the global marketplace means that co-located development is rare; globally distributed teams are increasingly commonplace.
- Unnecessary handoffs and delayed decisions reduce speed and impair quality. Rapid delivery is increasingly a competitive differentiator. Any delay in making decisions or obtaining feedback needlessly hampers product delivery. Removing communication obstacles increases delivery speed, which improves a company’s ability to meet customer needs.
- Delivering winning products requires unprecedented collaboration across diverse roles, spanning the organization from executives to operations and from marketing to quality assurance.
The over-arching issue was that nearly half of all products fail to meet customer needs in some way. What’s more, the business challenges delivering high-value products to market include pressure to get to market faster, growing organizational complexity and misalignment across teams.
Wong: Looking ahead, how can the issues and challenges highlighted be addressed throughout the product design chain?
Winquist: We’re looking at a paradigm shift in the approach to the product development cycle that is fully collaborative, with live data shared and accessible to all teams at all times, crossing time zones and geographic boundaries. The software used here is the key differentiator and an enabler. We call this transformation Modern Product Delivery. There’s an old way and a new way.
The old way: focus on the work itself – this is a project-centric mentality. Projects have timelines and an end. Successful product delivery requires you to implement a product-centric mentality, focused on the outcome, the deliverable of your value. We also frame this as a victim / victor perspective. If you see your company as a victim to disruption, to change, you will not succeed. Our customers in traditional industries saw disruption not as a threat but as an opportunity. They embrace, rather than manage, change.
Modern workforces collaborate, they communicate across departments and teams, they understand customer needs and they work together throughout the entire process.
The old way of sharing documents via email attachments and having meetings to discuss decisions – that doesn’t work when you need to move fast. Decision making needs to happen in real time and everyone impacted by that decision or change needs to find out about it immediately – where they work – if they are mobile or tied to their email box they still stay connected to the rest of the team in modern product delivery environments.
We’ve summarized the features of the ‘old way’ versus the ‘new way’ of product development as follows:
Focus on work
Focus on outcomes
Collaboration in context
Share only in meetings
Share early and often
We need to redefine product delivery if we want to stay relevant, stay innovative, remain profitable. We are going to need to change the way we work, to find ways to be faster, manage complexity so we can innovate and better understand our customers. The good news is that there are things that the embedded product design teams can focus on and start doing right now to evolve their processes.
Wong: Can you outline the key steps on how they could evolve their processes?
Define the Why - In addition to defining all the features and functions, take time to understand, define and share the why within your organization. Share why you prioritized this project and put the other one on hold. Why your customers need this feature, what problem does it solve for them? Most importantly define the business outcomes that you are hoping to achieve.
Your team members want to understand why and feel closer connected to the outcomes and bigger picture. When they understand, they get excited, they will give more discretionary effort, everyone does when they’re committed to a cause, we’re less likely to give up.
When you define the why, it makes you faster. You give your team context to make better decisions with less churn. There is always going to be missing information and questions, but if the product team understands the why and the outcomes we’re shooting for, they will make much better decisions when they fill in the gaps.
Focus on Core Business Value - For every initiative, find and hold true to the core business value. What do I mean by core business value? At Jama we refer to this as the ‘steel thread.’ This means the absolute, essential set of deliverables that is necessary to fully realize the idea and no more.
This may sound like MVP because that’s associated with the first iteration of a product. But the problem is that MVP is often associated with just the features so we use the term Steel Thread or CBV because it holds us accountable to something broader: the outcome and impact of the release. We want something more meaningful for our customer than “Was it functional?” We want to provide a better business outcome.
We fully embrace agile and iterative process, but it’s about entering into development with a strong viewpoint of what success looks like based on customer interviews, value testing, design reviews. We build with a very strong view of what outcomes the product should deliver.
Product development is all about negotiations and trade offs. You start with this beautiful idea of what you want to build, but the reality of what ultimately comes out at the end will require decisions and compromise. If you and your team have a clear understanding of the steel thread you can cut through discussions, trust that team members will make the right decisions and navigate through the technical complexities to obtain the business outcomes.
Reuse - When you are ready to start building, look around and see what you can reuse rather than reinvent. This is something we see frequently: teams within large companies recreating the wheel over and over and starting projects from scratch. If you can figure out ways to start sharing and reusing information not only are you faster – but it helps deal with product complexity.
Different versions of a Product often share 80-95% of the same IP. Companies we see leading the pack are finding ways to reuse their IP at many levels. Code reuse happened first, but now we see customers reusing design artifacts, specifications, test cases, content for data sheets and process information.
For example, we have a customer that launches satellites. They found that 70% of the planning doesn’t change from launch to launch. They now reuse all the launch manifest information, update with any new information they learn and improve every time. This frees them up to focus their energy on the features and services that differentiate them, the 30% that’s customized for each launch. The same goes for a semiconductor customer. They decreased their cycle time by creating a library of specifications that are reused to create new products, which provide them efficiency gains at each level.
Review Early and Often - This seems like a small one, but we’ve seen it often as the fastest path to dramatic improvements in quality and speed. I’m talking about reviewing early and often with a broad set of stakeholders. It’s important to move away from mind-numbing daylong meetings going over requirements line by line. At this point it’s too late to incorporate feedback and you are just looking for approval – switching that to lightweight, iterative reviews early and often to engage your team and stakeholders.
Draw people in early on, then transition to value testing, then design reviews, then more formal requirements reviews. The key is keeping these iterative and small.
Finally, Rethink Change - Change was a completely different beast 25 years ago. Back then we built products the same way we built buildings, following a traditional methodology. New ideas, information and change requests came in the form of memos and faxes. We read about the market and competitors in monthly magazines and the newspaper. Information was slow and infrequent. Today, there is no change, just a constant, never-ending flow of new information into your product team. The question is how can you and your team take advantage of this flow? How can you keep it from being disruptive?
First, you need modern tools. To take advantage of this constant flow, you need to adopt tools that are inherently social, so your team can share and discuss new information in the context of their work and in real time. The user experience matters, tools need to be designed for mobile for anytime anywhere access. Empower team members to make decisions. Take time to define clear decision-making responsibilities, but push decision making as far and wide as possible. Find ways to be faster than waiting for a bi-weekly status meeting or change control board.
To make sure good decisions are being made, link people to the work. Good decisions need context or situational awareness, an understanding of impact and a way to get input from others.
If you use traceability on your projects, rethink how you can use that information. It’s much more than just making sure you have a test case for every requirement. It’s a guide that tells you who is connected to who at any point in the project. It tells you who is impacted, and those that need to be brought together to make a key decision. It also connects you to the why. It’s a map that shows you who the people are that best understand or defined the core business value.
By providing context, strong relationships, and understanding the why, your teams will be able react to the new information more effectively for better outcomes.
Wong: in conclusion, what is your takeaway from the Forrester research, applicable to companies in the embedded space?
Winquist: The upshot of our experience in the market, which is the reason we started Jama in the first place, and is reinforced by the Forrester research, is that people are wary of change. Many organizations are still stuck in the old way of doing things. They focus on the project’s tasks and look for ways to stop or manage change. Progress can be slow; documents are sent via email attachments and there is a culture of having many meetings to discuss decisions.
We urge companies to transform business by shifting to the new way of working. Don’t think about how to manage or contain change; embrace it. Empower people to make decisions based on the new information they get every day. To make sure your product isn’t straying from your core business value, bring in stakeholders and provide context so that everyone understands what they’re building and why.
Modern product delivery can help you deliver customer satisfaction and think differently about how you approach the issue. The bottom line is that Product Delivery is a business issue; it cannot live in the development world and absolutely needs to be a strategic priority.
The biggest takeaway is that these challenges are solvable. Customers are transforming their businesses to innovate and out-compete. Change is happening in the enterprise. You can transform your business by rethinking product delivery. If you recognize that it’s a business process; products will not get built faster or better by throwing more technology resources at the development and product teams. You need to keep the customer at the forefront of every decision and you need to elevate Product Delivery as a top five strategic initiative. At the end of the day, your business builds value from what you deliver to the market, so there’s nothing much more important than doing this right.