If you’re an entrepreneur growing a company, chances are you’ve formed a few technology partnerships. These early-stage partnerships are sometimes necessary to round out a technology offering, and in other instances they’re critical to top line growth. Yet there is a unifying thread running through all of these partnerships: Once the deal is signed, mission creep often does become an issue.
What is Mission Creep?
In the context of a technology partnership, mission creep is pretty easy to define. It happens whenever additional features or development sprints are added after an initial partnership has been solidified to execute a specific project.
What makes mission creep a pressing problem?
When you’re working with technology partners — especially new ones — mission creep is a problem for a variety of related reasons. First, the original project is likely to place significant demands on your team. So, any additional unplanned demands will detract your dev team from other important projects.
Second, new technology partnerships are a kind of testing ground for both parties involved. If startup X forges a partnership with established company Y, X will want to demonstrate a level of expertise and professionalism that will incentivize company Y to continue to support X’s endeavors. In many cases, these early partnerships are M&A interviews in which the established company is kicking the tires before buying the car.
There’s a third reason mission creep is a unique challenge for young technology companies. When a new partnership is forged, both parties have a theory about where the market is or where its going. In the broadest terms, technology partnerships (the good ones, anyway) are designed to help both parties join forces to more effectively exploit an opportunity in a specific market. For convenience, we’ll call this the “target opportunity.”
Unfortunately, sometimes one or more of the parties to a partnership is wrong about the target opportunity. Therefore, in cases where a mistake has been made about the target opportunity, mission creep causes both parties to waste resources at a clip that neither anticipated. Moreover, technology partnerships like this — where all parties to the partnership want to look like sophisticated operators in their respective domains — no one wants to admit big mistakes about the target opportunity. In other words, mission creep is particularly costly when it happens in a scenario where the target opportunity has been miscalculated.
How can mission creep be avoided?
Particle 41 has helped young tech companies define partnerships carefully so that mission creep is avoided. Based on our experience in a wide variety of industries, we recommend the following best practices:
1) Spend time clarifying shared goals: When you are forging a partnership, especially with a larger, more established technology company, we recommend spending a lot of time clarifying the high-level business goals of the relationship. We also highly recommend setting out these goals so that they can be used to push back on attempts to initiate mission creep after the partnership commences.
2) Openly communicate resource limitations: Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is critical to openly share the resource limitations of your startup when you’re negotiating any kind of technology partnership. By clearly articulating these limitations up-front, you’ll be able to hold firm when your dev team is asked by your partner to go beyond the original mandate.
3) Assign a partnership manager: When technology partnerships are forged, it’s very common for key engineers from both parties to manage most or all of the workflow. This is a good idea, but you should also assign a partnership manager. He or she should focus narrowly on making sure that your dev and product team is protected from unreasonable demands. In fact, if you assign a very numerate, thoughtful partnership manager you should be able to identify any longer-term challenges you might have working with a particular technology partner.
4) Approach problems with the right amount of empathy: If mission creep becomes an issue, it’s critical to have the right degree of empathy for your technology partner. All companies — every single one — work with imperfect information and must make big, expensive decisions without knowing all of the relevant variables. Keep this basic fact about building great technology in mind, because it will allow you to understand your technology partner’s professional aspirations even if you wind up pushing back against some of them.