It is standard Facebook practice to post-mortem rocky launches so we can learn from our mistakes. It is equally important to take some time to learn from our successes. Ten years ago we successfully launched the groups product and there were a few lessons I wrote down at the time. It is satisfying to see that the lessons are still relevant today.
Leading up to a launch there is a dramatic increase in visibility on the work of each member of the team. This is a great opportunity for everyone to show what they can do, but it also creates some pretty intense pressure. Imagine yourself in this situation: with 10 tasks to go you understand 9 of them perfectly but the last one is a little unclear. What do you choose to do?
Human instinct directs us to attack the tasks we understand first. That allows us to show clear and immediate progress. Unfortunately, experience has taught me this is exactly wrong. What happens, instead, is that it gives the team a false sense of progress. As a launch gets closer, the value of understanding the work that remains and all the risks associated increases dramatically because so many more people need to coordinate their efforts. Work on issues you don’t understand first because until you do, you don’t know where you really stand.
Done is Better than Perfect
A team that is just starting out has the luxury, perhaps even the responsibility, to explore the space of possible products and weigh each possible solution against the rest. As the product evolves the issues under consideration narrow in scope. At some point close to the launch the marginal benefit of continued discussion drops to very near zero for most issues, while the value of a solution that is already in place goes way up.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge decisions that we think are bad no matter where we are in the lifecycle; I’m saying we should make sure that we are looking out for the best interest of our users when we do it as opposed to our own egos. There comes a point where debate is pedantic and the right thing to do is build something even if everyone recognizes it may not be perfect. Once the product is live you can run tests to iterate and prove or disprove alternative approaches. Until then, you just need to make a decision and move on.
Be a Finisher
As teams begin to free themselves from intractable debate and focus on shipping they come to rely on one another much more heavily and also much more blindly. It is better to take on a small number of projects and own them 100% than to own a much larger set of projects and drive each to 95%. In the former case, your coworkers will know that you are reliable and not lose a second questioning your work. In the latter case, you will end up disappointing expectations and the entirety of your effort becomes suspect. Experience tells me that a lot of time will be wasted double checking the details. Furthermore, the realization that things aren’t 100% often only comes late in the game since progress looks steady. This is sure to bite you at the worst time. If you are overtaxed, communicate that and either set clear expectations for under delivery or, better, find someone who is eager for the opportunity to play an important role.
Shipping is a Feature
Famed chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry and Per Se fame among others, has a sign in all of his kitchens that reads simply, ”Sense of Urgency.” His goal isn’t to rush the chefs into serving food before it is ready but rather exhorting them to not waste time in the margins. We need to execute with the awareness that each moment we don’t ship is a lost opportunity to deliver value to our users. It is another day that our competitors can build products that encroach upon our opportunity. Individually those moments are marginal but they add up quickly.
The greatest change that occurs as a team gets closer to launch isn’t longer hours or increased pressure, it is the cadence at which work is done and the clarity with which priorities are applied. This is not something management can create but rather the property of a group of people who feed off of one another to achieve more than the sum of their individual contributions. This is what it feels like to launch a product.
(written in 2011, updated for 2021)