Use the 80/80 rule to crush your competition: you have to know WHICH 20% matters. #Lean #Agile

 In software, the 80/20 rule is a harsh reality.  It has two equally distressing parts:

  1. 80% of your feature set is common while 20% is unique. 
  2. 80% of your time going into creating 20% of the features

Part 1 should be a good thing – 80% of what you build will help all your customers.  Unfortunately, “unique” means that 20% of what you invest in will only help a fraction of your audience.  No problem you say? 

How do you know WHICH 20% is the unique part and which is the 80% common part?

Not knowing the 80 from the 20 is where Part 2 is particularly unkind.  Since you spend the majority of your investment on features for a narrow audience, you’d better get that pick your top features wisely.

The cold reality is that is that it’s not obvious which features are included in the 80% and which are in the 20%.  If you want to build a successful product, you need a way to pick the right features.

At most 50% of the features for a product are obvious in advance.

Let me explain using my last “next big thing” as an example.  I’m built a mobile sandwich application called sAndroidwich™.  Here are my product manager’s 10 features (in rank order):

  1. Bread (top)
  2. Bread (bottom)
  3. Bacon
  4. Romaine Lettuce
  5. Tomato
  6. Tuna
  7. Smoked Turkey
  8. Hummus
  9. Pepper Jack Cheese
  10. Cheddar Cheese (developers think Cheddar is easy if you already know Jack)

It’s pretty obvious that we’d identified BLT as our core market because everyone loves bacon, but what about the next 5 features?  Our product manager has 25 years of experience consuming sandwiches and swears that he knows this market inside and out.  Will these features put me into the top 3 social food apps?  You bet!  Call up Y Combinator, we’re going to IPO!

My potential feature list should have looked more like this:

  • Feature #            Features
  • 1-5                          Bread, Bread, Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato
  • 6-8                          Turkey Market: Turkey, Jack, Mustard
  • 9-11                       Beef Market: Beef, Cheddar, Mayo
  • 12-14                     Tuna Market: Tuna, Munster, Pickles
  • 15-16                     Veggie Market: Sprouts, Hummus

That’s 16 features even though I only have time for 10!  In addition to simply listing more features, I’ve also added market segments.  It’s important to remember that 80/20 rule also applies to features by market so features for 1 market may not help (or even hurt) sales in an adjacent market.

The challenge to picking features is that 50% of them are common to all users and their use is obvious while 30% of them are common to all users but you can’t distinguish them from the unique features.  I consider these to be “nonobvious common.”  You should take the time to list 160% of your potential features if you hope to find the real 80%.

To figure out the 30% nonobvious common features, you must accept that your own experience and bias clouds your judgment.

If you make the assumption that you can predict which of the features in the 80% and which are 20% then you will be wrong about 50% of your feature set!  If you accept that the second 50% of your features can only be discovered by customer interactions then you’re open to discovering the hidden 30% of common features.

Discovering this hidden 30% is critical to success because they are your market differentiation!

If you can find the hidden 30% then your competitor is probably handing you the golden goose.  In most cases, they are waiting while their engineering team is building the wrong features or focusing their 80% effort on the less critical 20% features.  This behavior ultimately causes feature fan out – which will have to wait for a future post.

BTW: sAndroidwich™ never made it into the top 10 apps – my team’s bias toward tuna and hummus (omega 3s AND delicious) meant that we missed the super-hot Beef and Jack market.   If only we’d shipped the BLT features (using Lean) then market tested and added incrementally, we may have been able to adjust before iSubpad and Po’Berry got all the users.

Won to End (1..N) Ranking

Or I can buy a new toothbrush in Newark

Our team had a breakthrough moment last week, we changed our MRD* into a prioritized (1 to N, no ties) list and immediately identified some artificial work grouping that would have jeopardized the whole release.  Within 5 minutes, we’d done more to rescue our release than the 4 weeks prior.

Working on a traditional MRD is packing to go on a vacation.  You’ve made great plans, you’ve read all the brochures, and you can visualize yourself on the sparkling white sand surrounded beach chair relaxing next to your partner under gently swaying palms. 

Paradise sounds great, but the cold fact of today is that you’re late for your flight and you have to pack everything into a single suit case. 

Remember the McCallister household in Home Alone?   They were so busy packing and rushing out that they left behind sweet defenseless Macaulay Culkin.  Treating an MRD like a suitcase makes you so focused on the little details and the deadlines that you and your team will likely miss the big picture.  And once you’ve started your team may not react to market changes because they’ve already packed their mental bags:  “honey, we can’t have dinner with the President tonight because you promised that we’d play tennis.”

Another frustration I have with MRDs is that they are classically adversarial.  “Why did you pack that?  If you’re bringing that yoga matt then I’ll need a polo helmet!”  The fault is not in the people, the very nature of the document creates antagonism because the document is considered a monolithic whole.

It does not have to be like this.

Creating product direction should be more like planning a road trip than preparing for a transoceanic flight.  We know where we want to go, the essential things we need and who’s in the car: that’s enough to get started.  We’ll discuss the roadmaps as we go so we can explore the interesting sites (“geysers, cool!”) and toss out the bone headed detritus (“infrared beachcombing metal detector?”) along the way.

It takes trust and discipline to free fall into this type of planning.

When my team ranked our traditional MRD items into a 1 to N list, the conversation immediately became more focused, birds began to sing, and we each lost 5 pounds.  Several things happened when we changed the list. 

First, we looked at the deliverable as a system, not just a collection of features.   “Yeah, mayo is not much good without the bread, keep those together”

Then we started talking about what the customer needed (not what we had to deliver).  “Rob, we know you like sweet hot banana peppers but those are really optional compared to slicing the bread.”

Finally, we found it much easier to compare items against each other (“yeah, the ham feature is more important than tofu move that higher” instead of “we can’t ship this product without both ham and tofu!”)

Once we had the list ranked, it was obvious to everyone which features were required for the release.   Our discussion focused on the top priorities and engineering was able to focus on the most import items first.