Missing an engineering release date can be a symptom of a larger problem

I was in a board meeting last week reviewing a product release schedule for the next year.  I was extremely concerned that we missed the last release, and as we dug in deeper what we saw were a few features scattered throughout the schedule tied to deals that were just closed.  Now this would not be a big deal if these requirements were market-driven features that were necessary for a number of customers.  However, the big concern was that most of these requirements were one-off features for specific customers that were just closed in the earlier quarter.  So while engineering missed the release date for the product and should be held accountable, this analysis points to a much deeper issue and is a great example of how all of the various groups and functions in a company need to work together as a team.

My first thought was that if we continued on this path we would never have a product that met market needs.  There would be no way that the engineering team could execute against its development schedule with a number of one-off requests.  So we asked management to analyze the problem and report back to the board.  The first place to look was product management to determine whether these customer requirements were one-off adjustments or features that were significant market needs that product management did not identify.  The other place to look was sales to determine if sales reps were selling what we didn’t have and promising the world to close deals.  As you may know, a healthy tension between sales and product management will always exist.  Sales will always want any and every feature to close that big deal and product management should only want features that will address broader market needs.

After a week, management reported back to the board and determined that the problem eminated from sales.  More specifically, it was pretty clear that the sales reps were not properly trained or equipped to sell the product.  When not armed with the knowledge and sales tools to properly sell, it was quite easy for the reps to get derailed during sales presentations, flail when addressing customer objections to the product, and agree to add one-off features to close a deal.  To address this problem, management presented a plan to get the sales reps properly trained, equipped, and managed.  In addition, management would have to play an ongoing role stressing the importance of closing the right deals and walking away from the wrong deals.  So the next time engineering misses a release date, make sure you understand why because most it is a symptom of a much larger problem.

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