There is no Step Two, or “What Comes After MVP?”

An incredible amount has been written about Agile and MVPs over the last 20 years, yet the majority focuses on the first step of a process, the output of which is stated to be a minimum viable product. This mismatch is likely a side effect of most literature being focused at organisations transitioning from out-dated practices and adopting something “new”[1]or desperately clinging on to the past in the case of SAFe – I’ll get to that article, eventually. There is much less writing dedicated on what to do when you’re up and running, with the general guidance being to reduce cycle times.

The conflation of process and product is confusing, often resulting with the view that if you simply “do agile” then the product will take care of itself. Often an MVP is the conclusion, with minimal discussion on what an MVP is outside of an expansion of the initialism. Let me give you an example.

About 5 years ago I was involved in a pitch to an academic publisher who wanted to completely rebuild their website. They made it clear in the tender that they did agile, and that they wanted to release the MVP alongside the celebration of the company’s birthday which kicked off on New Year’s Day.

My section in this pitch was to discuss this “MVP”, and I took the opportunity to lay some ground work.

  1. What does MVP mean to your business?
  2. What can you do without, or copy from the existing site (e.g. content)?
  3. Given your 1st January deadline, when do you actually expect to release the new site?
  4. What are you looking to achieve?

The answers were what you’d expect. MVP = Minimum Viable Product. Everything was to be new (code and content). To release a) when the fireworks went off at 00:00 on New Years Day, or b) over Christmas, as long as everything is finished. The aim of the project was to do the project, but any further “why” was elusive with no cohesive view shared, not even metrics.

Rather than doing agile, they had changed their terminology and kept everything else the same. MVP was the new word for a release, the solution was predefined (a complete lift-and-shift), and the scope was locked in. It’s waterfall, plain and simple.

In this instance there was no MVP, there was a project delivery. Even if delivery was managed through sprints, and some tweaks made based on stakeholder feedback, it still won’t have been an “MVP”.

Why? Because an MVP requires an hypothesis to test.

The purpose of an MVP is to find out if you’re right, as quickly and cheaply as possible. If there is no hypothesis, there is no product to access the minimum viability of.

I joined Safecall because they had a particular strategy they wanted to validate, and needed a Product Manager to shepherd it in[2]In the interest of full disclosure, this was started before I joined the business. I turned up towards the end of the initial delivery from an external supplier, but had been in post nearly 6 months … Continue reading. Would companies buy software from an expert provider with 20 years experience in whistleblowing services, but very little in building software?

Given the company’s lack of experience in the area, the last thing anyone would do is to write a cheque for several million quid to build a whistleblowing platform from scratch. As such, we used pre-existing products built to handle entities related to individuals within businesses to build our MVP. I also took the step early on to purposefully keep every page and interaction as simple as possible. Simple in this context means few screens, little conditional logic, and little fluff. For the first release, for the vast majority of Safecall clients, the platform operated as a secure means to receive and transfer confidential information, and little else.

We gathered feedback from existing clients who had been granted access to this new system, as well as through the sales process. The most common feedback was that “it’s a bit simple” – considering it isn’t “what are you doing, this is rubbish” I take this as a pretty big win. Over the last 2 years, the platform has become a core part of the service we provide and we have fleshed out some features, added some new ones based on new hypotheses, and reworked some areas where our previous assumptions were proven wrong, or we discovered unforeseen consequences. Ultimately, what we’ve proven is that, yes, companies will buy software from industry experts, and that it isn’t only “software companies” that can play this game.

An MVP is two things, it is a product, and a method of testing an hypothesis. In this sense MVPs are unlike any other part of the empirical, iterative nature of doing agile as it isn’t just a piece of research, it is also the thing you sell. In this sense, they are the most expensive way to ever prove whether you’re right or wrong.

The answer to “what comes after MVP?” is another hypothesis, one based off of the new data you have now been able to collect. This new hypothesis and new MVP can take many forms, from scamps to research aides to A/B tests, but your aim should always be to do just enough to clarify your assumptions, and test your hypothesis. Or, to put it another way:

Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.

And then you do it again.


1 or desperately clinging on to the past in the case of SAFe – I’ll get to that article, eventually
2 In the interest of full disclosure, this was started before I joined the business. I turned up towards the end of the initial delivery from an external supplier, but had been in post nearly 6 months by the time we’d made our first release in March 2019

Kill your product

Last time, I ended by summarising that to progress you need to quickly iterate, and threw in a link to the wiki page on Fail Fast. A couple of posts ago I was waxing lyrical about bass players, and ended saying “Print that 7″, and move on.“. The theme here is obvious:

  • Do something
  • Pay attention to what happens
  • Use your new knowledge to do the next thing

When speaking about doing agile, especially when migrating away from outdated methodologies, people often focus on the individual side of it, the most obvious being differences between Command-and-Control Project Management versus Servant-Leader facilitators.[1] Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, etc

But from a Product perspective, hubris is often king. We all know Product people who think they are the second coming, are absolutely indispensable, and have some sort of perfectly unique take.[2]Ed: You really want to open that door, huh? When you consider that an agile approach to Product requires you to run experiments and accept that you’ll make mistakes in order to learn, this is in direct conflict with corporate cultures which reward (perceived) perfectionism by way of arrogance, bravado, and the safe space afforded by feature-and-revenue led project plans. This can lead to people who have been moved in to Product positions[3]Often from previous “decision making” roles, such as a member of SLT, Programme Managers, Project Sponsors, etc as part of a transformation piece deciding that while everything else is changing, they don’t need to.[4]I’ll cover this in greater depth in a future post, for now let’s put a pin in this and move on, but do keep it in mind.

The other part is the wider side – what are others doing?

If you consider a market of similar software products, there will be multiple companies and competitors, each making changes and learning from successes and failures. While no one has perfect knowledge, other people making mistakes for you is extremely cost-effective. And much like how you will look to take advantage of your competitions’ weaknesses, they will do the same, as their aim is to take money out of your pocket and put it in theirs.

If you’re able to learn from the mistakes of others, as well as your own, and act on them quickly, then you’ll have a better chance at staying ahead.

To fully learn from these collective mistakes, Product needs to do something particularly painful, they need to go out with the intention of killing their product. They must view their creation through the lens of a competitor, and rather than make excuses, they must pick it apart, highlight its flaws, and ruthlessly remove them.

You need to get over your own bullshit, because if you don’t kill your product, someone will gladly do it for you.


1 Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, etc
2 Ed: You really want to open that door, huh?
3 Often from previous “decision making” roles, such as a member of SLT, Programme Managers, Project Sponsors, etc
4 I’ll cover this in greater depth in a future post, for now let’s put a pin in this and move on, but do keep it in mind.

Time to live

Businesses who conduct any form of software development are increasingly “doing agile“. Typically this means they’ve replaced traditional waterfall project management within their “IT department” to probably Scrum or SAFe[1]For the sake of brevity I’m skipping over why SAFe is a step backwards and only entrenches problems. That’ll need a post all to itself., within smaller and larger orgs respectively.

A few people will go on a course, and on return set up a Jira / VSTS board, book a morning meeting titled “Stand Up”, and the release schedule is changed from Quarterly to Fortnightly overnight. On the surface, this is a step in the right direction[2]It isn’t..

If agility is a concept restricted to just your technical teams, and not your business as a whole, then you’re not actually “doing agile”.

A conversation I routinely have with friends, (ex)colleagues, and the like, is about how tired they are because of the level of extra effort required to affect change within their organisations. This is across all shapes and sizes, big/small, paid/voluntary, public/private.

The conversation will eventually meander through two topics:

  • How long it takes to make a change – start to finish? From concept, to delivery, not just development.
  • How much resistance occurs along the way? Do they feel that it is their own personal determination that makes change happen, instead of something which is embraced?

Complaining about work and feeling helpless isn’t new, and given that it is the plot for three of the biggest films of 1999 I’m not pretending like this is some sort of revelation. However, the frequency of answers[3]My sample is self-selecting because this conversation doesn’t come up in relation to organisations where the answers are “no time at all”, and “very little” being “a long time, could easily be a year or more“, and, “oh, so so much, I’ve given up more times than I’ve failed, let alone succeeded” coupled with the clear frustration expressed is something which leads me to believe that while this isn’t by any means rare, or novel, it’s actually an accepted, expected and purposefully constructed scenario by the organisation itself.

This is often done under the presumption that enough approvals and controls will ensure certainty of two things:

  1. Nothing bad will happen
  2. Only good things will happen

A fundamental aspect of doing agile is embracing uncertainty. To embrace uncertainty you need to be able to make changes quickly, and learn from them.

To make changes quickly, individuals need to be empowered with authority and responsibility delegated. They must be able to make meaningful change without arbitrary approvals and sign off. Equally, they must be responsible for the impact of those changes. That responsibility must be against quantitative targets, not subjective opinions. If they fail, they fail – now learn from it, and try again.

If your organisation can only do things quickly when the house is on fire, and you use executive authority to bypass red tape, then you have systemic issues which need to be addressed. Because if they aren’t, then you better be absolutely right in every decision you make, otherwise you’ll lose to a competitor who can move faster than you and found out the mistake long ago.

It can’t be left up to the determination of individuals.


1 For the sake of brevity I’m skipping over why SAFe is a step backwards and only entrenches problems. That’ll need a post all to itself.
2 It isn’t.
3 My sample is self-selecting because this conversation doesn’t come up in relation to organisations where the answers are “no time at all”, and “very little”


We all try, in our own ways, to be perfect. But everyone makes mistakes.

The past couple of months have been an interesting time at Palringo. A few times a year the offices converge on Newcastle for a “reset meeting” where we discuss our plans for the next 3-6 months, re-evaluate our current commitments, and scrap anything we no longer believe in.

The “Invite Centre” was originally conceived by Martin Rosinski approx. 6 months ago and presented at one of these meetings. I was tasked with making the largest user-facing project of 2013 (so far) a reality. The “Invite Centre” is how we plan to grow the Palringo community – and is heavily related to the Reputation and Achievements system I have detailed before. The “Invite Centre” would be the “big ticket item” for Palringo iOS v6.4 and Palringo Android v5.10.

Palringo iOS v6.4 was released on Monday 2nd Sept, 2013, our previous major release, Palringo iOS v6.2, was released on Monday 22nd July, 2013 – with a follow up bug-fix release, v6.2.1, on Monday 29th July.

Some background; all major releases will have up to 2 big ticket items – these are tasks that require a lot of development and testing time, and may not be apparent to the user. For v6.2 this was a transition to CoreData. A change of this scale will always result in bugs; the simple mantra of “the bigger the change, the more bugs there will be” always holds true. You can never test every combination, or find every bug – this is part and parcel of software development, and shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this – our game is to minimise issues, and begrudgingly accept that you’ll never eradicate every idiosyncrasy, and celebrate when you do finally manage to terminate that one little bastard that has been haunting you for months.

The need for v6.2.1 was apparent early on, both from the reports we were getting back from TestFlight – an iOS crash reporting system – and our in-app Support team. The scope for the bug-fix was defined, fixes found and made, and the update released 7 days later – an impressive feat, especially when taking in to account the Apple Review Process, and the time it takes to get an app reviewed.

For all parties, v6.2.1 was an improvement – but still had more issues than pre-6.2 releases. This is another issue with updating any core functionality for a piece of software. Once you get the big bugs out of the way, you spend years continually polishing the code, ensuring it is running as best as it can. This level of polish is not possible to replicate in a month, or two, when you have to change something significant.

The “Invite Centre” is getting closer, so we barrel on through, deciding not to make another bug-fix release.

Feedback from our Support Dept is that the users are living with the current issues that still arise in v6.2.1, which I incorrectly assume means they are happy. They are not.

This was my first mistake.

We continue, and as the week becomes two, and then three, the complaints from our Support Dept increase. It is already the 20th August, with v6.4 meant to be our “August Release”, there are minimal signs of submission soon.

A meeting is called and we – myself, the devs, and QA – detail the situation, explaining that we aren’t happy with the current state of v6.4 and the fixes we have included. We don’t believe the experience will be any better (“We’ve not so much fixed the bugs, as just moved them to other places.”) and that there are a number of known bugs. One of our external testers continually experiences this bug, but cannot find a way to reproduce, and neither can we when plugged in to the debugger. We diagnose this bug as being “severe but infrequent”, and decide that we can live with it. We agree, in part due to the ever increasingly vocal complaints from our users, that we would fix the high priority bugs, and submit the app in close to its current state, acknowledging it isn’t perfect, but will be better when make these fixes.

This was my second mistake.

Once we have made all the agreed fixes, we submit to Apple.

We spend the week between submission and release attempting to reproduce the “blank messages” bug (as it is now known), to no avail. The App is approved over the weekend – Apple didn’t find it either – and I wait for Support to confirm that nothing has happened over the weekend for them to insist on a delay.

While I’m waiting, we finally reproduce the bug. It only occurs under very specific conditions. Firstly, you had to have minimal memory available – which in Palringo happens if you are in many, many groups, receiving hundreds of messages a minute – and secondly you receive a message (group or PM) when not viewing the messages tab.

My choice is simple;

  • Pull the approved app, which we know is an improvement for most, and hope we can find a fix in a short enough window of time to please the community that are increasingly vocal in their complaints about v6.2.1, or,
  • We release, and bug fix if required.

It is my decision – and the fact we can now reproduce the bug does not matter. The submission passed our locks with us knowing the bug existed, without a caveat of “if we can reproduce, we’ll pull”. This is different to a bug you suddenly find before a release – that would cause a delay for at least as long as it took to triage. Fixing bugs is an on going aspect of software development, when you find out how to fix them is irrelevant, if you’ve decided that you are happy with said bug being present.

I release the app.

This was my third mistake.

It would ultimately transpire that 99% of our user base would not be affected by this bug, and that v6.4 is a noticeable improvement – but the 1% it does, it is a continually reoccurring nightmare.

We get reports of users experiencing the bug every 4 minutes, that the app is unusable, that they need to downgrade. We cannot roll back the app – Apple don’t let you – and we can’t re-submit v6.2.1 due to the approval delay. We add text to the “What’s New” section of the App Store Description, telling high-usage users to not upgrade to this version of the app, as well as passing out the message in-app.

We start frantically fixing the bug. Either there is a problem in the locks, or, we made a mistake.

Release early, release often” is how we manage QA, nightly builds are increasingly common as we progress through the release cycle. Our bug-fix process barely differs from a standard cycle, and within a few hours we have a proposed fix and have pushed a beta release to our testers, with steps to re-create the situation. “Negative Testing” is some of the most time consuming software testing you can do – and is strongly related to the concept of proving a negative – and so all you can do is state that “these steps no longer seem to cause the problem(s)”. You can never really explicitly state the bug has be fixed.

I call a meeting Tuesday morning for Technical and QA, for 30 minutes we discuss just how we got here, why we are in the situation, have a full debrief, and discuss what we need to change. We have faith in our process, we admit, understand, and accept that the bug was misdiagnosed – we agree that, if we had to do it again, we would. We get back to work.

Our testers report back, things seem better…but different. We have new bugs. We apply yet more plasters, but it becomes clear that this is a fundamental issue with the framework.

The Technical Lead consults with me, and expresses his desire to rip out the back end, and completely re-implement the view. We decide that this is the best way forward.

A “functional but not pretty” beta is released with the old framework ripped out, and the stability improvements are apparent from the get go. A by product is that, because we removed the view completely, that specific bug can no longer exist.

Many more interim releases are made, and late Friday we make a final RC release to our beta team, and agree to submit to Apple in parallel. At the time of writing, we are awaiting approval.

So, what have I learnt?

  1. The balance between fixing bugs vs. new features is even more delicate that previously imagined; and it must be a balance, you cannot sacrifice one for the other.
  2. It is always better to delay something slightly, than make an action you cannot undo.
  3. Confirm your diagnosis of bugs is still true if presented with new evidence or data.
  4. If a bug is frequently encountered by one person, it will definitely be encountered by the many.
  5.  Everyone makes mistakes – but it is unforgivable to not learn from them.

Bookshelf I – Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think

After months of trying to finish off my Christmas Reading List – success eventually arriving in late February – I finally read “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis. For those that haven’t yet read it, ‘Abundance’ extols – to a manifestoesque degree – a new hybrid of ‘Philanthrocapitalism’ and ‘Technophilantropy’, promoting – and in many cases, providing convincing proof – that using technology a rising tide really can lift all boats.

Health Care (23andMe), Energy (Elon Musk’s SolarCity, et al), Food (Vertical Farms and hydroponics), Freedom of Speech and Association (Twitter, Facebook, etc – Palringo being a noted absence), and Micro-finance ( being just a few of the wide range of topics covered; ‘Abundance’ makes the claim that with a new way of thinking, with a focus on global rather than local solutions, and providing technology that stands to save us all, we may have the ability to not just provide food, water, and shelter to 9 billion people – but to provide these at a standard that would befit the average European today. This can be accomplished, ‘Abundance’ claims, by utilising the rate of growth associated with exponential technologies.

‘Abundance’ proposes a new model, based heavily on Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs‘ named – cunningly – the ‘Abundance Pyramid’. Each part of the book relates to each of the levels in the Pyramid and how existing companies are working towards providing each of the requirements. I won’t replicate the Pyramid in full here, however ‘Part 3: Building the Base of the Pyramid’ is focused on how to provide: Communication (via smartphones, and unfiltered universally accessible internet access); clean, reliable, and accessible water; and a sustainable food supply, with a heavy focus on GMOs.

While ‘Abundance’ does pay lip service to the potential problems that may arise with smarter technology, it is written – like any manifesto – from an optimistic view point, and largely downplays any of the potential problems. This is in stark contrast to ‘The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World‘, by Evgeny Morozov that extols the view that smarter technology, whilst providing many positives, also gives corrupt regimes access to very highly targeted data and that it is only a matter of time before these regimes utilise technology similar to that which runs Google’s AdSense platform for less-than-good purposes.

As the book progresses, Peter Diamandis’ influence becomes more prevalent, with many mentions of both his ‘Singularity University‘ and the ‘X-Prize‘ culminating in his belief that incentive prizes, like the X-Prize, are the only way to accelerate the progress that we are currently making. He very may well be correct, however the proof provided – there have, so far, only been 3 completed X-Prizes – seemed to be lacking for a statement of that calibre. However, given Dr Diamandis’ track record, I don’t expect him to be far off the mark.

Overall, the book is a very interesting read, highlighting some key areas, and has definitely challenged – and indeed changed – some of my previously held perceptions, and for that reason alone, I’d highly recommend it.