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How to handle a botched release: Lessons to learn from the Coin backlash

No one wants to miss a major release date. Here's how to handle it if you do.

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Image: Nick Statt/CNET

I occasionally purchase Kickstarter-type products, where one pays in advance for a product that doesn't yet exist in a mass-market fashion. One of the products I'm most excited about is Coin, an electronic "transforming" credit card that purports to replace a wallet full of cards by switching the information on the magnetic stripe to represent each card.

The Coin team had been promising an end of summer release for nearly a year, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago was sticking to that date in its communications to early customers. That date suddenly changed, and the Coin team offered an extended beta for early purchasers, with a requirement to pay more money for the final product. After a significant backlash, Coin revised the terms of its new offer and also allowed customers to seek a refund.

Here's what can be learned from the situation that you can apply to your product and project releases.

Target success, but plan alternatives

A worst-case scenario for delivering toward a release date is presenting a wildly optimistic front until the very last moment, and then dramatically changing the story. You and your team lose significant credibility when everything goes from rainbows and unicorns to doom and gloom in the span of a day or two.

The opposite tack is equally ineffective, but communicating risks and setbacks also allows you to consider and collaboratively develop mitigation plans and alternatives should things go south. Always presenting an overly positive or negative front forces your hand; how can you discuss mitigation plans if everything is going swimmingly, and how can you prepare for a successful launch if bad news is the focus of every day?

Coin obviously forgot this rule, repeatedly sending highly positive updates and conveying nothing other than confidence about the summer release date. That was, of course, until the date was obviously going to be missed. Transitioning so dramatically from positive to negative created an understandable consumer backlash that might have been tempered a bit had more realistic news been shared earlier.

Beware the Hail Mary

The Hail Mary pass is a long pass made in American football with little chance of success. The term came from saying a prayer while making a last-second effort to save a game. I've been on several project teams where, as the date grows nearer, the team increasingly relies on a last-minute miracle, rather than a well-executed plan for success. Increasingly looking for a miracle is a sign that it's time to launch mitigation plans and start discussing alternatives, rather than the time to concoct increasingly desperate plans.

I have no inside knowledge of the Coin team, but their "apology letter" noted that they were only achieving an 85% success rate with their card swipes in a limited geography. A product that is expected to act like a credit card, and that fails almost one out of five times, obviously isn't ready for commercial release, and I can only imagine that the leadership team continued to pump out positive news as the engineering team tried increasingly desperate technical fixes.

Put yourself in the customer's shoes

As things start going south, it's tempting to consider all mitigations and alternatives from the perspective of the project team; however, without a customer or sponsor there would be no project. In many cases, the project team has been under the gun and working long, stressful hours. It may be tempting to lash out at those who have been subjecting us to these difficulties, forgetting that those same people essentially pay for our project. Rather than firing off communications that change dates in the heat of battle, take a moment to determine how the customer will interpret your revised plan and the alternatives you're presenting.

Conclusion

Most complex products, whether they're a new consumer technology like Coin or a more mundane enterprise software implementation, get only a limited number of chances to handle a botched release. Failing to develop a solid backup plan, relying on fate, or failing to communicate changing schedules in a manner that resonates with your customers only makes a bad situation worse.

Handled well, a botched release gives your team time to regroup and rise to the occasion. Handled poorly, a botched release may be the high point before your release descends into further chaos.

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Disclaimer: TechRepublic and CNET are CBS Interactive properties.

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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