Intended, unintended consequences
(Part 1 of this 2-part blog post here…)
Being product-led requires having the right culture and strategy across the organisation. It requires hard thinking as to what something is and does, who for, and what the derived benefits are.
However, thinking about products in and of themselves is still only half the story. Those products require going live — they require a launch. Whatever your flavour of product development methodology, it will be an interative development process where overlapping stakeholders and requirements are carefully managed against constraints such as time or cost.
Last time, I talked about oven chips as an example of when products have perhaps unintended, or at least less talked-about, positive consequences. In this article, I shall present a reverse scenario and to do so, we’ll need to go even further back in time.
In 1967, the Leyland motor company purchased its rival, Rover. The following year, the combined entity merged with another rival, BMH, to form the infamous British Leyland automotive conglomerate. The Rover P6 executive-class car had been a success. However, it was getting old and needed replacing.
The scheduled replacement, P8, was a product that was intended to have been even more successful.
Work began on the P8 prior to Rover being integrated into its new parent companies — twice over. This double-integration led to the P8 being delayed as the absorption of this and many other automotive businesses into BL was taking place. While the design was signed off in 1969, the car was delayed because of both this extensive corporate integration work and because the management had decided to launch another car first — the Range Rover. Launch was then scheduled to be around 1972.
The creation of BL had thrown up a whole load of internal cultural problems which would take years to resolve. Development of the P8 was suffering. Ironically, while this was happening, BL sister company Jaguar couldn’t make its XJ6 saloon quickly enough and there was a 2-year waiting list. If the P8 would have been launched in around 1970/71 as scheduled, then perhaps it could have picked up buyers who couldn’t wait for an XJ6 and instead went to rival manufacturers such as Ford and Vauxhall.
However, work continued on the P8 and things were looking good for a launch in 1972. The design was done and while it was undergoing a lot of internal scrutiny, it was at least moving forward and the P6 could finally be replaced.
The P8 team had booked a test site, MIRA in Nuneaton, to crash their prototype in order to examine the bodywork crumple zones and essentially ensure that the P8 would be safe to occupy and drive, and be compliant with relevant safety legislation.
Peter Wilson, an employee of engineering partner company AE Brico, told the story of what happened after the day at MIRA, in an interview with Jaguar World magazine.
“I arrived one morning to find a large group of engineers, all with long faces, surrounding a P8, which had been subjected to a 30mph frontal impact test at MIRA as part of its proving programme”, Peter recalled. “The reason for their consternation was all too obvious. Rather than the engine bay folding on impact, it was the front passenger compartment which had done so — it was a complete, utter and unexpected disaster. Hurried modifications were made and a further crash test carried out. The result, however, although showing a marginal improvement, was fundamentally the same.”
The summary of the P8 story is that the product was conceived, signed off, survived not one but two corporate mergers, withstood a number of internal challenges, and sustained considerable investment over a period of years. This is a product that sustained an incredible amount of internal rigour.
None of that mattered, when it was found that if the car hit a wall at 30mph, the front passenger may well be killed.
At this point, the product was scrapped entirely, with the incumbent P6 having to soldier on until a brand-new replacement was launched in 1976.
But this story is not really about the Rover P8. It’s about products.
It’s highly possible to take a product from conception to delivery without taking both a wide and deep view of both how and why that product is developed. Tasks and subtasks may be developed in isolation without having such a vista, and while that’s fine, people and teams must always be mindful of what they do in relation to the final result, and what that final result is — and how the customer experiences it.
The P8’s crash test failure could have been down to the design team not working through the implications of the structure. It could have been down to engineering, or it could have been down to assembly. Finance, strategy, quality… it could have been down to any of these one teams to prevent the crash test problem. But, when one part fails, everything else is taken down with it.
Product development is sometimes called a team sport, and it was certainly the case at BL where these “sports” had opposing teams — different car company subsidiaries who were not brought into a single over-arching culture.
In summary, products need, require, desire, and crave rigour. The Product Management discipline has come a long way since 1970 but unforeseen issues still pervade. The customer experience remains under constant threat by poor quality, silo mentality, and either an unwillingness or an inability to see the bigger picture — to be part of the product journey to the end and beyond, and to feel that one is on that journey.