Working on a product nobody seems to want

This entry was written as part of the Supporting Agile Adoption program, an Agile Alliance initiative dedicated to supporting organizations and their people in becoming more Agile.

We have seen Agile transformations being disrupted by the false belief that lacking a specified customer hinders your ability to use an Agile approach. With its explicit mention of customers in the Principles of the Agile Manifesto, Agile development typically focuses on customer needs and wants that are, in essence, business features only. If your product is about features that are considered by many as “non-exciting” (e.g. quality, risk aspects, or features based on new regulations), you might conclude that Agile is not for you.

In this article, we will provide reasons why Agile ways of working in a situation without specific customers can still produce good outcomes. After looking at the bigger picture, we will suggest a different perspective from which you will be able to address these kinds of features in a productive way.

Struggling with non-exciting features

Let’s start by exploring a scenario: A team has been working on a product for a long time in a traditional way. Then, an Agile transformation is done and the team starts focusing on the customer via the product owner. But Oh! There is no clear customer to talk to because the product is a kind of “non-functional requirement” product, such as a backend feature that almost no one will ever know about but it’s required by the government or a regulatory body. In other words, it’s essential for some reason, but its value is not easily recognized by many users, at least not at first glance.

An example scenario

Here is another, more elaborated example: Imagine you are working on a trading application for a bank, and there is a new regulation coming up. You have to adhere to it by the upcoming January 1st deadline. There will be a team with the task to implement these new regulations, and there will be a product owner (a trader) prioritizing the development. The product owner is biased toward creating value via business features that promise to create a return on investment by satisfying the customers, as that is the goal of the company and also their personal incentive.

Other than the stack of documents describing the new regulation, there is no specific customer, and hence, no direct customer feedback. And there is also no way to get feedback from the regulatory administration. As if this is not enough of a challenge already, the users of your system are more excited about business features. For them, regulatory features are one of those “non-functional requirements” and not something they are willing to directly pay for or spend time on. Yet, not adhering to new regulations means the bank might lose its license to operate in this kind of business. The bank absolutely must comply. And, of course, adhering to the regulation will serve society (typically, that is the idea for most new regulations anyway).

The regulation describes what needs to be achieved but not what the technical solution should look like. Therefore, creativity is needed to most efficiently embed the new regulation in your existing solution set. In addition, the regulation is also often in continuous flux because the legislators are exploring the ground of what needs to be accomplished at the same time as they’re defining the new rules. Therefore, it is necessary to be fast AND to be able to change your system up to the last moment (that is December 31st in our example above).

Note: These were just two examples of many. Maybe your “non-exciting” features focus on security (that everyone takes as a given but nobody wants to pay for) or on the regulations for technical infrastructure, as in the telecommunications or energy industries.

The challenge: A blurry customer perspective

As the feature is not exciting to the customer, you are experiencing a lack of customer feedback and interaction. Nobody is motivated to invest in these features because there is no apparent direct customer benefit, only a negative return if you do not invest. Or, in other words, the outcome of your work will not provide a positive business value, but a negative one if not present. How can you keep Agility alive in such a context with no specific customer in sight? Or is Agility maybe not the most suitable approach for such a case?

The Agile Manifesto tells us to adhere to the following principles:

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

These principles implicitly assume (or at least it is a common interpretation) that the customers are passionate about the product, and you can excite them with your development. Yet, as we have explored, for the non-exciting features there often are no specific customers to talk to. Not having such a clearly identified, unique, and “real” customer to talk to creates challenges. If there aren’t any specific customers to specify needs, it is also hard to understand what the required delivery value is or how you can create the advantage for the customer. Collaboration with the “business people” often doesn’t help either because they want to focus on the value-add of attractive business features and not “waste time” on the non-exciting features. For example, you might believe that “we can’t be Agile because we’re in a regulated environment and have no real customers.” Yet what is required is adopting an Agile approach to your context.

The features you’re focusing on are typically based on society’s expectations or needs. Societies are more difficult to address than consumers because the channel to the customer is blurrier: Society is represented by institutions, which makes the “customer” collaboration very formal, indirect, and potentially passionless. By examining these expectations with your insider perspective of the company, the solution you create might be based on group-think if you don’t get proper feedback from outside. This lack of accessible customers creates various challenges for the following different perspectives:

  • Individual and team perspectives: Looking at this situation first from an individual perspective, you might face the challenge that the value created is not admired because it isn’t visible. Therefore, the work of the team (or at times of the individuals working on these aspects) isn’t valued in the same way as “real” business features are valued and talked about. From the team’s point of view, there is no proper client/user to talk to. That makes it difficult to get feedback, to understand what to build, and to stay motivated because there is nobody you can excite with new “features.” The team might lack cohesion because it is often the customers’ needs that define a clear shared and motivational-driven purpose.
  • Enterprise perspective: From a company perspective, it might be also difficult to create and/or stay in business because, as mentioned, people won’t pay (extra) for the non-exciting features, although it is obvious that without these features nobody would buy the product either. Therefore, the company has to take a long-term perspective and can’t hope for quick wins (only for no losses). Typically a company gains reputation by offering “cooler” business features in the product than the competitors. Yet, for the non-exciting features, the company can most often only lose reputation and/or business by not providing them, so it is often regarded as a non-value add. In such a case, an enterprise usually will attempt to get out of this as cheaply as possible while doing what is strictly needed.

In summary, teams and individuals might face a motivation problem based on missing customer feedback. And enterprises face the problem of not having a return on investment while trying to satisfy customers and be socially responsible. 

Finding a lens to unblur the customer

The challenge of having only “blurry customers” needs to be addressed from the individual’s, the team’s, and the enterprise’s perspectives.

The individual’s and team’s perspectives

First, let’s remember WHY individuals and teams want to have customer interaction. We want it for three main reasons:

  1. We want to know what the (expressed or unexpressed) needs are.
  2. We want to get feedback on whether we are succeeding in satisfying those needs.
  3. We, as individuals and teams, derive our purpose and value-add and thus our motivation from these two points above.

The first aspect is clear and usually stated in regulations for many non-exciting features. Thus, in the scenarios of struggling with non-exciting features described above, we mostly need to find ways to realize the second aspect, which is how to get feedback. It is foremost a learning journey. You would ideally go on this journey TOGETHER with the customer, but if that is not possible, you can still do it–either in collaboration with the institutions representing society/the customer or at least on your own. Having no “physical” customers is no reason for your Agile transformation to be disrupted; Agile approaches are also effective in this context.

For example, feedback doesn’t come from the customer solely but also from the technology, tests, collaboration, or integration–and this feedback also helps to lower the risk of developing the wrong feature. Therefore, even without direct access to the customer, it is pivotal to get frequent feedback in order to mitigate risk.

Related to the third point above, for some people, Agile development without an accessible customer is not seen as motivating enough. Luckily, people are motivated by different things. While some people get energy from developing innovative new things, others have a passion for making sure that operations and current solution-sets work smoothly. For example, they like cleaning up things, adhering to useful/rational guidelines, and serving society. (See also Belbin Team Inventory.)

We should realize that especially in today’s world, many people are motivated by working on adding to society by collaborating with institutions. They love their job for more abstract causes. Therefore, involve those types of people on the team (including leaders, of course).

Additionally, you can increase motivation by emphasizing the importance and the purpose of the societal cause. Verbalize, communicate, and promote this purpose passionately.

The enterprise perspective

Let us reiterate WHY an enterprise needs customer interaction. It is needed for the following reasons:

  1. As Peter Drucker said, “The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” (The Purpose of a Business is to create and keep a customer –
  2. Increase your market opportunities by exploring what kind of (other) business would be valuable and possible with the customer.
  3. Create an (early) return on investment.

Return on Investment (ROI) is important for the company in order to exist. And the company’s existence is based on its ability to satisfy customer needs. Thus, ROI is a consequence of satisfying customers, not a purpose of its own. And from this perspective, implementing non-exciting features like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance, for example, becomes of key importance, as not doing so might jeopardize the entire business.

In the example of GDPR above, the customer is blurry because you create value for society at large and not a specific client. So the challenge is that you aren’t working in a business-to-customer or business-to-business context as you normally do but in a “business-to-society” environment. Where you usually have a contract that you negotiate, you now have a legal regulation that is not negotiable. So how do you know you are developing the right thing without receiving any direct feedback? You still need to understand the emotions in society surrounding this issue as this will enable you to understand its real value (or, rather, refine your understanding of its value). Your options for value creation are now the following:

  • Internalize that the value is based on “survival.” It is a socially-added value for mitigating the risk, safety, and security of everyone. There is a threat that arises if the non-exciting features are not implemented; the enterprise could even lose its license to operate.
  • Have discipline in creating a solid value proposition and business model. Just because nobody sees it is not an excuse to be unprofessional. Don’t skip creating a solid value proposition just because there seems to be no positive business case. Instead, use this value proposition for creating a marketing strategy and internal motivation.
  • Help managers to see the non-exciting features from a different perspective. Show them that non-exciting features have a marketing power of their own. The marketing power is in reputation, brand value, and ethical business conduct.
  • Use your marketing strategy internally so people can take moral pride in how their activity contributes to society.
  • Create different personas to make “the customers” less blurry and a bit more real for the engineers that will develop the solutions. To enable this creation of personas, ensure that you talk to various groups to make up for the unavailability of a concrete client.

Related to this are business attitudes. You do not just sell a product. Business attitude is about being a trustworthy partner for your customers. It is about showing that you share your customers’ values and that you are doing good for society. For example, brand management is an effort to radiate that “inner” attitude to the market and customers. Therefore, instead of hesitantly complying with regulatory or non-exciting features, it is more productive to embrace them by emphasizing the higher (potentially ethical) values and the greater good that is achieved by implementing those non-exciting features. This makes your company more attractive to customers and eventually leads to a better ROI. Remember, you can also achieve a better ROI by improving your reputation in society. This long-term ROI has an impact on the whole enterprise and not only on the specific product you are working on.

Call to action

When confronted with the task of implementing non-exciting features, there is a better response than just a “we have to do it whether we like it or not” attitude. As we have explored, there are indeed much better responses.

Creating value is the basis of a successful business. When the customer perspective gets blurry, for example, when the customer is the society at large, it imposes challenges to working in an Agile way. First of all, an Agile approach is needed as you are creating value in a context of uncertainty. Secondly, one challenge is motivation, another is how to get feedback. In fact, an Agile approach can address both: providing feedback by using small increments and motivating by involving people who are passionate about serving society.

For better success you need to change your attitude and reframe your thinking: Instead of pushing back on non-exciting features, embrace them as an opportunity to serve society and consequently increase your (social) ROI.

So how could you reframe your thinking? Customer trust is also fundamental to sustainable sales. Customers need to trust a company and its actions. And if your company fails to understand that, the market will force you to because people are becoming more and more aware of non-exciting features;  reputation is increasingly important.

So, in summary, working on “non-exciting” features is actually exciting because you are taking responsibility for society. Passion for non-exciting features is based on protecting society by, for example, being compliant from a medical, technical, environmental, or financial perspective. In other words, when you regard regulations as a waste of time, you are missing the point. It is time for all of us to embrace this potential and help create a fairer society while simultaneously increasing our ROI.

This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They may not represent the opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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