Fast Company

Overcome Your Launch Challenges With Confidence

Lack of confidence has never been a problem for my 10-year-old neighbor Tom. In Tom's mind, he can do anything and he can do it better than anyone. A few years ago when Tom was small, he told the life guard that he was ready for his deep water test. The only issue was that Tom did not know how to swim. Tom jumped in the pool and soon had to be rescued by the life guard. His overconfidence in his swimming ability almost got him in big trouble.

This phenomenon is not limited to young boys and swimming pools.

Ask most product managers and program managers how their new product introduction is going and they often will answer "great".

And yet, most product launches are late and most new product introductions fail to meet expectations.

Product managers and program managers aren't deliberately misleading people. On paper they do the right things. They use Microsoft Project, develop a list of tasks, assign owners and conduct regular launch meetings. Yet, something is missing.

You know how the launch review meetings often go. Everyone rushes in breathlessly at the last minute. The general consensus is "let's get this reporting session over with quickly so we can get back to work. We have so much to do." The team members report on their action items in a roundtable format and then leave as quickly as they come in. Things seem to be moving along nicely. That is until they don't.

I instruct launch leaders to end each review meeting with a set of simple questions. Amazingly, these questions uncover critical issues in a non-threatening way.

The questions are:

• On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, how confident are you that you will be able to hit the launch date?

• On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that the group will be able to hit the launch date?

• What reasons are influencing your confidence scores?

Often the product manager's optimism isn't shared by other members of the launch team. Usually, the reasons that reduce the team members' confidence were never on the product manager's radar screen so he or she does not think to ask about them.

Recently, at the end of a launch meeting at one of my clients, I went around the room and asked the confidence question of each member of the team. It was a month before the launch and it was the first time they were ever asked these questions. Everyone was shocked (especially the product manager) when the scores ranged between 2 and 3. This normally routine meeting then got very interesting as we sought to explore the reasons for the team's low confidence and what we could do about it. It turned out that there was no way the launch date would be hit and we made contingency plans.

As a pioneer of the LED lighting revolution, Philips Color Kinetics has been illuminating landmarks around the globe for over 12 years.

By most measures they are best in class. Brian Bernstein, Director of Product Management makes the following observation. "We strive to remain world class at introducing new products. We find asking people to rate their level of confidence in their ability to hit a date can be a powerful tool to uncover hidden obstacles. This approach forces people to think about the launch in way that makes them confront reality. The confidence question enables the team to get an accurate assessment of the true feelings of the group regarding the launch and allow them to plan accordingly."

LoJack Corporation is the premier worldwide provider of tracking and recovery systems. LoJack recently developed SafetyNet by LoJack http://www.lojack.com/safetynet/ which is a system used by public safety agencies to search and rescue people with cognitive conditions (such as Autism or Alzheimer's) who wander or get lost.

Like PCK, LoJack learned that asking the Confidence Questions is a valuable aid in managing a new product introduction. Scott Yewell, SafetyNet Product Manager, states "asking an individual about their confidence in a launch date allows them to open up. The entire team wants the launch to succeed so it can be hard for individuals to air concerns. But when everyone gets a chance to express their level of confidence, and also support it with their role specific or general concerns, it is much easier for the product manager to assess and address the real risks to a program."

Whether you are about to take a swimming test or launch a major new product, it is vital that you have an accurate assessment of your readiness to move forward. Asking directly about organizational confidence can be a powerful way to avoid tragic mistakes.

And by the way, after his swimming test, Tom agreed to take swimming lessons and is now a strong swimmer.

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