Find the forcing function!



I’ve hijacked this term from mathematics for use first as a product manager, now as a mentor. In math it’s restricted to a time dependent process, but in startups there are several other processes where it applies.

Inside the Venture

Two enemies of the product manager are scope creep and thrashing, two related problems. In scope creep engineers who want to get their favorite feature into the product, no matter what, and marketers who insist customers must have feature x both contribute to uncontrolled growth in a project’s scope after its spec has been set and the project has begun.

Thrashing is a computer science term referring to a computer’s performance degrading or failing due to constant paging – constantly switching data from memory to disk excluding application processing. But again I’ve taken that term to be used in project or product management when the team is constantly going back and forth on some feature or major aspect of the project, unable to finalize a decision, which ends up paralyzing the product development process.

Finally, the product manager’s biggest issue is missing deadlines – commonly known in software development by the euphemistic term “schedule slippage.” So how do you fight scope creep, thrashing, and schedule slippage?

Outside the Venture

One of the biggest problems startups have is creating a sense of urgency in other companies they are doing business with, usually ones that are more established and wield greater market power.

My most common experience with this is with investors. VCs never say “no,”, but getting them to “yes” can be very time-consuming and frustrating. Without a forcing function, if they have some interest in your venture, they will sit on the sidelines and observe your progress. Are you hitting milestones? Growing your customer base? And otherwise reducing risk? That’s what they want to see and they will wait until they do and even longer.

The other classic problem is getting partners to move to action: to deliver on a service or part or come through on a marketing or distribution agreement.

Competition or the threat thereof can be a great forcing function for getting investors to move. Most investors hate losing deals; they are extremely competitive. And competition is also market validation. So don’t settle for a single interested investor or even a single term sheet. Competition not only creates a sense of urgency, it can also drive valuation. Competition is also classically used within large, established firms in marketing, where ad agencies and other service firms have to compete for the firm’s business. Don’t forgo this forcing function just because you are a startup.

In general

J.D. Meier has a great post on his Sources of Insight blog entitled Forcing Functions – How to Make Action Happen.

Here’s how he defines forcing function:

A Forcing Function is any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result.

By putting a Forcing Function in place, you create motivation for taking action, whether it’s to meet a deadline or to respond to social pressure.

If you have areas in your life that you’re finding inertia, try adding some Forcing Functions to get better results.

Here are his examples of forcing functions:

Where I differ from J.D. is my focus is on apply forcing function on others, not myself!

This is a great list. I’d just be a bit more specific about events and meetings. Public facing events like conferences and trade shows are great forcing functions, as those dates virtually never slip and the cost of not showing up can be very high. So setting schedules around shows where marketing plans to have a company presence is a great forcing function for product development schedules. But there are also internal events, one of the best ones being Board of Directors meetings. Another is an all-hands meeting. Your team doesn’t want to miss a scheduled demo for the Board or the entire company, that is for sure!

One of the major forcing functions is peer pressure. Software engineers and other creative talent are particularly prone to be subject to the assessments of their peers. So making sure your projects goals, especially milestones and most importantly ship dates are publicized throughout your venture – just having written goals is necessary, but not sufficient. Used diplomatically and subtly, peer pressure can be one of the most effective forcing functions. But used in a heavy handed way it can backfire on you. So be careful.

Budgets are another great forcing function.  Budgets don’t just have to be about money, they can be about resources of any kind. The threat of losing an engineer to another project can light a fire under a development team, just like the threat of running out of marketing funds can galvanize a marketing team.

Time and money are two of the most important resources in any firm. But if not strictly defined and controlled they won’t help you as forcing functions, so make sure they are tightly boxed-in from the get-go.

So whether you are trying to get a product shipped or an investor to offer a term sheet or a vendor to deliver a need part on time, dip into your toolbox of forcing functions. But remember, a forcing function is often most effective if it’s carefully thought out and applied before a project starts – not applied post facto.

Forcing functions can help turn activities into results. That’s key to success in your startup.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: