How to Avoid the Red Queen Effect in Software

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It should come as no surprise that business and competition go hand-in-hand. Selling goods and services isn’t as simple as having a great idea and waiting for customers to flock to your nest.

Unfortunately, traditional business environments are much more stressful. And your business model must account for organizations promoting similar products to your target market.

Keeping a competitive edge can be difficult, to say the least. In the race to get ahead, businesses often find themselves running in circles. This is called the red queen effect, and it can be a daunting obstacle for businesses trying to stay afloat.

Software start-ups especially struggle to align product and engineering teams in a way that leads to productive output while also keeping user needs close to heart.

Usually, this is a good sign that your engineering team has out-scaled your product team, and it’s time to reign things in.

To find out more about the red queen effect and how to overcome it, keep reading!

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What Is the Red Queen Effect?

The red queen effect, otherwise known as the red queen’s hypothesis or red queen’s race, maintains that evolution compels organisms to constantly adapt in order to survive. 

This idea is based on the enchanting story of Alice in Wonderland. Its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, finds Alice running alongside the Red Queen as fast as she feels she can go.

However, she stays in the same place, to which the Queen maintains, “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

In business, the same fundamental platitude rings true—complacency never prevails. While Alice tries her best to run faster and business leaders put their best ideas forward, in an ever-changing environment, this simply won’t do.

Business expansion and flowing revenue streams depend on more clever strategizing than the red queen’s race allows.

Yet startups that don’t know better often end up running in place because they are over-eager to beat the competition.

The Red Queen Effect in Software Engineering

In software startups, the presence of the red queen effect is always weighty.

Many tech companies that fall prey to the red queen effect are on the brink of innovative prowess and have just received a noteworthy investment from well-meaning venture capitalists.

But time-to-market (TTM) concerns and investor pressure demand accelerated movement. And the starting gun pressure of it all often leaves inexperienced start-ups feeling frenzied and rushed.

This is when things go awry. Product and engineering teams perform best when they maintain a harmonious balance.

The role of the product manager is to identify customer needs and guide the engineering team toward meeting business objectives. 

Along with a fully-fledged product team, the product manager will define the vision of the product. While this may sound mystical, the role is largely technical.

A high-performing product team should be able to prioritize the features that will effectively meet customer requirements while also supporting the capacity of the engineering team.

But if the product team is short-staffed and there’s a large project ahead with a slew of giddy engineers turning to a backlog for assignments, things start to fall apart.

Product managers, in turn, will attempt to pile on the labor, adding in tickets just to make sure engineers have something to do.

It should go without saying, but this is not the way forward. Really, it’s the red queen playing one of her little games, disrupting effective business strategy in the process.

What To Look Out For

The red queen effect generally leads to cutting a few too many corners just to get things done. To the naked eye, getting things done likely sounds like a win.

However, there are a few red flags that will reveal just how stuck product development really is, such as:

  • Gold plating, or constantly adding new features that don’t provide additional utility to the user;
  • A mismatch between engineering team goals and product team goals;
  • And negligence when it comes to validating new features

Customer satisfaction should be the biggest priority of the product team. But when a product team is expected to keep pace with an engineering team at odds, customer satisfaction tends to suffer.

At the very least, product teams will ensure that the backlog is always full. As a result, the development team may be shipping a lot of code, and metrics on the engineering end are up to par.

On the other hand, sales and marketing teams are struggling to find an equilibrium. The product looks great on the surface.

But without any practiced effort to keep up with the product roadmap, things fall short of where they need to be to reach the target market.

To add, it’s fairly common for an overwhelmed product team to disregard the validation stage of product development.

Product validation relies on customer feedback and data to make certain the product is meeting user needs. 

But faced with the fear of looming competitors and impatient investors, an understaffed product team will instead opt to incrementally up the ante with their products.

They will take to gold plating the product in question, adding shiny new features without much substance.

This may look like innovation, but in reality, it’s no different than losing the headphone jack on a flagship smartphone.

Too often, software startups are so concerned with pushing updates that they fail to see the bigger picture.

In other words, innovation isn’t innovation unless it’s strategic and addresses user issues.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Overcoming the red queen effect is no easy task, but it has to be done if you want a productive software engineering department.

As a startup, you have to stop trying to scale fast and focus instead on scaling well.

Both are possible, but only the latter will effectively bring your business out of the trenches. What does this mean in practice?

The key is to get organized.

Build your backlog early to define the scope of the project. Engage with customers and build a product roadmap that will account for user needs.

Staff with intention. You need enough product managers so that they can easily split their time between researching your customer base and executing on administrative product management tasks.

If you’re dealing with the issues highlighted above, this may very well mean hiring more product managers.

Get other people in the loop, or other departments, that is. Your security, support, and engineering teams can participate in the planning process and address issues directly as they arise.

Leave wiggle room for support and revision. Expect that not everything will go accordingly to plan so you need to make time for a design tweak here and there or new customer feedback.

Get Ahead of the Game

There’s no one answer fits all for winning the red queen’s race. But understanding where you lack and playing to your strengths plays a big role.

Cross-silo collaboration, strategic staffing, intermittent revisions, and early product road mapping are all useful tactics to keep product and engineering teams in harmony.

Building habits that align with your goals is crucial to supporting not only product development but business as a whole.

For more information on how engineering teams can scale responsibility, consult Trio today!

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With over 10 years of experience in software outsourcing, Alex has assisted in building high-performance teams before co-founding Trio with his partner Daniel. Today he enjoys helping people hire the best software developers from Latin America and writing great content on how to do that!
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