I was recently lucky meet and to sit in on a seminar given by Johan Skullman, former officer and head of product development for the Swedish armed forces. Johan was describing the complexity of requirements that need to be considered when using equipment in extreme conditions. He is a world renowned expert in this field and now, after more than 30 years experience in the Swedish army, provides advice and support to a range of Scandinavian manufacturers of clothing and survival equipment. What struck me most about Johan’s talk was the fact that the principles he has developed for testing and improving equipment are extremely applicable for any product development process.
Survival in extreme conditions is all about planning, preparing, being pragmatic and positive. Well, in any case, these are the themes I have adapted from the seminar after further contemplation and reflection, but, before I come on to this, I want to share an extraordinarily powerful message Johan had about product effectiveness; and it is this:
“Even when you believe you have developed a product which you believe to be 100% effective, be prepared this will only be the case for a split second. “
In Johan’s field this means, for example, an item of clothing designed to prevent water penetration in extreme weather may easily be the wrong thing to wear if conditions change. Sometimes, it can be better to wear a garment that will get wet, but will dry quickly and doesn’t become an extra piece of luggage to carry. In the pursuit of excellence, I believe many product managers have a tendency to produce solutions that work perfectly for a given situation or environment but are consequently rigid and inflexible. Sometimes, they may be better advised to develop products which may not be absolutely perfect but which can be used in a broader range of settings.
In my own field, enterprise computing, this is extremely applicable. Since the mid-90’s I’ve witnessed and, hopefully, facilitated a move away from what we call “stove pipe” solutions towards software systems that can be used in a wider variety of situations. By introducing APIs (application programming interfaces), breaking down monolithic systems into functional components and installing a never-ending list of configuration variables and tables, we continue to pursue the mantra of “flexible, scalable, modular open”. It reminded me of speech given by Dr. Kenan Sahin when I worked for Kenan Systems in the late 90’s: “It is as important to consider how easy it is to remove a piece of software, as it is to install it”. I guess, even then, we had recognised the principal of not trying to create a “panacea product” – it was certainly an interesting philosophy to share and explain to potential customers….
So in the pursuit of brevity and to help encourage you to read this article to its conclusion, I have prepared a table to explain how principles of survival equipment design and use, can be applied to the computer industry:
|Planning||Awareness of conditions, thinking ahead of the situation. Using, for example, a layered system of clothing or having a number of tools rather than a single multi-tool.Understand that you won’t simply go out tomorrow and (literally) climb a mountain, build your knowledge, experience and skills to take on greater challenges.||Consider the lifetime challenges of the product you are evaluating, understand where you are willing to make sacrifices e.g. performance vs. flexibility vs. functionality vs. cost.A “big bang” approach to change carries many risks, break down your processes into manageable steps (various methodologies are available) and manage risk sensibly.|
|Preparation||If you need to light a fire in wet conditions – don’t learn on the job. Practise beforehand, so that when you need to use your skills for real, you will be confident and prepared.Look after your equipment, if your boots get muddy they will need a thorough clean to prevent their deterioration. Check your equipment regularly – it’s better for you to find any problems before you leave the house than when your survival depends on it.||How will your system work in real life? Include your user community in development and testing and implementation of systems – better ownership of systems encourages successful projects.Anticipate failure – implement a DR (disaster recovery) plan AND test it.Schedule routine maintenance and upgrades – don’t wait until they become critical.|
|Pragmatism||Sometimes you will get wet and sometimes you’ll get muddy. Occasionally, a tent pole might break or a jacket could spring a leak.The less complex a piece of equipment is – the easier it may be to use and maintain. For example, adding a wax finish to clothing (and, only where it’s needed) is something that can be repeated when necessary and allowed to wear of when expedient – which may prove better than an expensive pre-treated fabric which has a finite life-expectancy.||If a product solves your business issue, is it important if it looks nice? Is it necessary to buy a “top of the range” brand if a lower cost solution provides a better ROI (return on investment)?Think about the processes around a system – do they all need to be fully automated or is it worth allowing for some flexibility by, for example, enabling users to manually schedule operations?|
|Positivity||You may be dependent on your equipment for survival but maintaining a positive attitude is just as important. Having skills, experience and confidence in your equipment will empower you to be successful.Use your previous experience as a foundation that you can build on – sharing experiences with others will foster a culture of learning and improving continuously.||Having a happy an engaged user community is at the heart of any successful product. Developing a culture of sharing, learning and improving will enable you to build this kind of community.Learn from others, treat suggestions and “war stories” with the respect they deserve. Learn from mistakes – with every crisis comes the ability to adapt, develop and improve for next time.|
In particular, I am a huge fan of user community fostering – having learnt at the school of “marketing is making sure you’ve got what the customer wants, sales is making sure they want what you’ve got” I believe the best products and solutions require plenty of real-life input. Johan describes a lot of companies in the survival and tactical gear industry as having “bullshit marketing”, a strategy designed to bamboozle potential customers with features and technology they never knew they needed.
Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest.
I will apologise to Johan, in advance, for clearly not doing his speech justice – let’s face it, I’ve only been developing software products for 20 years – so I’m a relative junior! In my defence I can show that I have taken his advice to heart – as soon as I got back from Derbyshire I gave my muddy boots a good dose of TLC!
In conclusion, before you go shopping for your next application – beware of “bullshit marketing” and apply some wilderness survival tactics to your decision process!