Charlie and the Feature Factory

Everything on this roadmap is a feature, even I start looking like one!

Sharpwitted Present: Charlie and the Feature Factory. How to spot if you are a Product Manager in a Feature Factory Company and what to do if that is that case

This article is a product take on the classical hit novel Charlie and the chocolate factory by Roald Dahl, but with a twist. No, not a twister, but a twist. To be quite candid, don’t expect a sweet as candy, nicely sugar coated, article, but get ready for the horrors of the Feature Factory.

Welcome to the Feature Factory

Come one, come all, welcome to the feature factory. A place of …well, you will find out yourself.

There you are, you just landed the golden ticket to your new Product job, and are thrilled to get going on a new exciting journey. You heard so many great things about the company and the interview process was a blast.

Starting your journey, you are working with Mr Wonka. A few weeks in, you ask Mr. Wonka how the Business and Product work together. Mr. Wonka tells you.

Mr. Wonka: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.” Charlie Bucket: “What happened?” Mr. Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”

He tells you the company has changed over time, with the company now focussing on meeting every request of its customers, putting the Oompa Loompas under tremendous pressure.

Your pink glasses fall and you then release, you don’t find yourself in the place you thought it was. You find yourself in a feature factory. The place you heard about and hoped never to have to witness.

So what is a feature factory? 

A feature factory is a company that is more interested in pushing out features, than it is in understanding and solving the real problems that are behind the feature requests. 

The reasoning is that delivering what customers request, is making customers happy and as a result brings in new sales.

Delivering outputs is prioritized over delivering outcomes. The aim is to keep pushing out a number of features in a predictable and consistent way. The roadmaps are typically showing the exact commitments over time.

The problem with a Product operating in a Feature Factory

Sad Oompa Loompa's in the Feature Factory, showcasing the impact of a Feature Factory on Team Morale

Feature factories (in general) don’t become feature factories intentionally. They become them over time, as a result of executives wanting to see more frequent product updates and hard commitments, a company culture where success is measured by delivering an initiative over the impact it has on users, or where sales is leading and pressures the organization to deliver new features to bring in leads and close deals.

Delivering that what your customers ask in a predictable, consistent and efficient way sounds like a winning approach.

Is it though?

The Reason of Being Problem

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”

An organization and a product need a reason for being, view on now and what it pursues to be in the future and the problems it aims to solve. It needs this focal point to align and inspire everyone, to ensure all are working towards a single strategic direction. 

Organizations workings as a feature factory typical lose their strategic reason for being. 

Building and releasing features are not a means to a strategic end. It is not a realistic dream that inspires and gets people to rally behind.

The Problem problem

“I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child. I want a good sensible loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious candy-making secrets-while I am still alive.”

Feature factories focus on delivering what the customers think it wants, instead of understanding and solving for the underlying problem and uncovering the actual need. 

This often results in features being used only for a short time, only by a small fraction of the target group, or not even at all. 

The Scaling problem

“‘We must hurry!’ said Mr. Wonka. ‘We have so much time and so little to do! No! Wait! Strike that! Reverse it!‘”

Understanding the expected outcome, technology solutions for it, to realize the outcome. Technology, focuses on delivering Reliable, Secure and Scalable solutions.

The Feature factory mainly focussing on (arguably) desirability and viability, feasibility is given less attention #youllfigureitout. On top of that there is the additional time pressure of commitments to be delivered and with these companies trying to deliver multiple features at once, there is limited oversight on the maintenance of them.

The result? The product often becomes difficult to use, is over-engineered, and reliability and scalability are compromised.

The Morale problem

“Mr. Bucket was the only person in the family with a job. He worked in a toothpaste factory, where he sat all day long at a bench and screwed the little caps onto the tops of the tubes of toothpaste after the tubes had been filled.”

If it is not that a company will be known for its many useless features, it will eventually be known as a none inspiring company to the workforce. 

With the focus on releasing features, micromanagement is lurking its ugly head around the corner.

Products in feature factories tend to be bloated, buggy, facing recurring problems, and bringing minimum venue to a larger target group, lowering the enthusiasm of developers.

In addition, feature factories tend to mix up teams constantly, which makes it increasingly difficult to build and maintain relationships and rhythm. 

What to do

All is not lost if you find yourself in a feature factory. There can be an opportunity to shift the company to focus on outcomes, create stable teams, develop iterative and go further on fewer. 

Some steps help you on the way:

Find allies in the company who feel the same.

If a whole group says the apple is blue, and you are the only one seeing the red apple, you are in for a humongous challenge. Talk to stakeholders in the company, over a cup of coffee or in a 1:1, and get a sense of their perception. If the perception is similar to yours, try and get them on board to drive the change together. 

Try finding out why management feels meeting feature expectations is important, and challenge the validity of this belief.

Show them the problem, but not the solution. Say what now?! Yep, I said it. The first thing you want to do for someone to change their mindset, is to make them care deeply about the problem, so they say “We should do something about this”. Up till that point, there is a good chance no solution will be accepted, which in return will drain your energy.

Show and tell

To make them see the problem, you have to ask tons of “show and tell” questions. What I mean with this is that you want to have someone realize themselves. If data shows some features are barely used, ask “why do you think our customers are not using these features”, “what did we do to validate customers didn’t just want, but really needed this feature”, “how much did these features costs us”, etc. 

If you manage well, there is a good chance the company will stop caring about the solution, and will start caring about the problem first.

When you don’t find yourself in a good position as an outcome of the evaluation, there is absolutely no shame in moving on to a next opportunity, which hopefully is the chocolate factory you can show your greatness!

Mr. Wonka: You can’t run a chocolate factory with a family hanging over you like an old, dead goose. No offense.

Signing-off

Klaas Hermans for Sharpwitted.ninja.

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