Amongst the excitement of digital, product scalability risks are being forgotten

Digital excitement continues to gather speed. Ground breaking offerings across IaaS, PaaS, SaaS are being released in rapid succession with opportunities to optimise the existing and break into the new. Capitalising on these hyper-specialised offerings is viewed as one of the cornerstones of achieving the Digital Holy Grail, with benefits across customer experience, product growth and global customer reach. However, there is good evidence that a careful product strategy needs alignment with product. There is a growing trend of poor practices and conflating product scalability with the cloud infrastructure scalability. Although products can be flexibly scaled it does not mean they will be without strong intentional design. In reality a huge challenge is maintaining strong discipline and tight synchronisation between sales, product and engineering in order to maintain a system that keeps cost per unit low.

Looking under the hood at some products recently, I’m finding an increasing number of offerings built on the shaky foundations of technical debt caused by unrealistic turnaround times and inexperience. My prediction is that many of these products with high management overheads will ultimately be met with strong challenges in the coming years. At some point the business model will stop making sense. Even more scarily, due to the doubling down on digital, this could pose an existential threat to organisations. If companies are in luck, customers will be patient and will back off to allow features to slow down while platforms are rebuilt. In the worst (and most likely) case, companies will drop the many spinning plates required to service existing customers and aggressive achieve others.

It’s easy to see the point where mistakes start to creep in. In the initiation phase, investment is flowing and there is a generally accepted higher cost of sale and slower onboarding times during Discovery. What becomes easy to miss in decision-making is the remainder of the product iceberg; the entirety of the complex system, not just the visible parts, need to be streamlined to align to the the go-to-market strategy. The more units forecasted to be produced, the more each slip will task cost, and therefore the sleeker the system required. Therefore jumping straight into rapid acquisition without paying down technical debt (for at least high frequency processes) is a dangerous game.

Customer sales needs to be just ahead of the entire product offering and needs to be take into account a sensible upfront education & optimisation commitment. As a start, there need to be absolutely transparency and communication around KPIs such as onboarding times, feature release times and comprehensive management overheads spend details for big ticket items. Armed with the data, an Executive Committee (or equivalent) should be able to make responsible investment decisions to balance future costs and risks against potential earnings. Without a true picture of the scalability these details tend to be overlooked, and can lead to downward spiral to the point where either the business case ceases to make sense or the supporting teams ultimately burn out.