TBM 21/52: Building Stuff to Close Deals

How do I push back on requests from sales to build stuff to close deals?

I get this question often, and I'd like to share a summary of my standard response.

You need two things to push back on these requests. First, you need a compelling product strategy. By compelling, I mean that the whole organization can connect to it, and believe in it. Second, you need a track record observable impact. And not only short-term impact. Rather, you need the ability to link work to medium to long-term, sustainable impact. These linkages will never be 100% certain, so I guess you need a third thing: faith.

If you do not provide (and inspire) those things, someone will fill the void. You end up outsourcing them to other people. In other words, it is on you to provide a counter-narrative. Cash-in-hand, a deal, a logo, is pretty darn compelling.

How do you counteract that narrative?

A big trap I fell into in the past was trying to provide a rational response. I would dig into the cost of complexity, opportunity costs, and context switching. I'd try to address the "but other customers will want this" fallacy. I'd address the wicked loop of added complexity, technical debt, and reactivity. All to no avail. To believe in that stuff, you need to have lived the repercussions. I've never swayed someone who hasn't lived it. And have swayed plenty people who have, but that is preaching to the converted.

From an old blog post of mine:

How much does a new feature cost?

  • Opportunity costs across all disciplines

  • Cost to implement feature (engineering, UX, product)

  • Cost to implement incremental improvements (engineering, UX, product)

  • Cost to deliver feature (processing, storage, monitoring)

  • Cost to train people internally to sell the feature

  • Cost to train people internally to support the feature

  • Cost to market the feature to existing customers

  • Cost to market the feature to new customers

  • Coordination costs across all teams

  • Cost to document and train users/customers on new feature

  • Cost to maintain that extra documentation

  • Cost to train engineers on more complex codebase

  • Cost of slower engineering, caused by increased system complexity and maintenance

  • Cost to hire more resources to account for slower engineering

  • Cost of reduced flexibility, caused by increased system complexity and maintenance

  • Cost of maintaining system usability as system broadens

  • … until the feature reaches end-of-life (unless you retire it)

It is all true, but that doesn't matter. Disregard it. It has never persuaded anyone who it needed to persuade.

OK. So we have to have a product strategy people believe in. We need an impact narrative and track record. And we need faith. Where should one start?

In an ideal world, it would be faith, product strategy, measurement.


In my experience, both product strategy confidence and faith take a while. It'll be a journey. You can't manufacture it. Start that work, by all means. But it takes time.

Which leaves us with the impact narrative and track record. Most companies believe measurement is way harder than it is. They are looking for 100% certainty over gradually reducing uncertainty. They rationalize that in "industry X" it is too hard. By ignoring it altogether, they are ceding the narrative.

Don't! Even basic counts can counteract the narrative about what is working and what isn't. A basic driver tree (a graph of related variables) can go a long way towards establishing a narrative. Periodic learning reviews to discuss past efforts are extremely powerful. The fact that only 1% of customers are using X, and that the assumption that other companies would adopt it fell flat...is a useful point of reflection.

Even in a HIPPO-driven, sales-driven feature-factory, counting and reflection can go a long way. At a minimum to help us reflect on decision quality.

To summarize:

  • You need strategy, faith, and an impact story

  • The rational approach where you highlight the cost of features doesn't work

  • Work on all three, but get a foundation of measurement in place. You will need it anyway. "We're not ready" is not an excuse.

To close, I'll always remember my friend in sales remarking about his new job (where he stayed for almost six years):

At almost every company I've been at, I ended up future-selling the roadmap. But now, at [xxxxx], I refer to the last year of innovation.

That's your goal! Put your pride to the side and make it happen.