Thursday, May 25, 2006

counterpoint: marketing vs schrodinger's cat

It's one thing to see the problem that everyone else sees. It is entirely another to spot the problem that exists but isn't acknowledged openly. Except the line between known and unknown - solved and unsolved - isn't clear.

The problem I have is that every time I think I've found something novel, I find myself wondering, is it real? Is solving this problem going to make a difference to anyone? Well, enough of a difference worth paying for?

Or does the act of looking for a problem to solve in fact create the problem? Am I inventing problems based on what I know of my ability to solve problems? Does the presence of the hammer in my pocket make everything that sticks up look like a nail?

Kids roll down hills to alter their consciousness - product managers do the same by asking leading questions like, "Seen any good products lately" or "You seem to be scratching your leg quite a lot, do you have scabies?" Because we need to find things that haven't been found yet. That's what we do.

So we go out and look for kooky new problems to solve. And when we think we've found them, those of us possessed of Mad Pursuasive Skillz go back to the shop and convince developers to write code to solve the problem. Which, children, is how software is born.

(How it is shipped is a story for another day)

And here is where it gets difficult.

  • Sometimes you can go with your gut when deciding if the problem is real. Sometimes you need a small fortune's worth of market validation to decide for you.
  • Then you have to figure out if you need to build the whole thing to get paid, or only a part.
  • Then comes the competing interests of different early adopter customers, each of whom wants to turn you into their private development shop dedicated to fixing their unique flavor of the problem you solve first.
  • Then you have to consider whether or not solving this problem keeps you from solving other problems that you really should be solving first.
  • Then you have to decide if your approach to solving this problem is unique, adds value, and gives you a market advantage that's sustainable.

By this time, you've quit your job and started a hotdog stand.

Everyone in software marketing (product management and product marketing alike) likes to think that they've got an eye for novelty - for spotting novel problems and coming up with novel solutions.

The sad fact is that we don't talk to enough people who aren't paid to talk to us. We gather two datapoints and draw a line (to show a trend), then we add a third datapoint to prove we're right, or a fourth if the third doesn't work out quite right.

Cruel, but true. We gather Schrodinger's Requirements, which are based on interactions with two customers whose problems may or may not reflect a market trend, and whose validity cannot be determined. Only the odds of the requirement being valid or invalid can be estimated.

The only answer is to talk to more people. More input = more better. Because hope isn't a valid planning strategy.

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