The problem with product: from output to impact

Hannah and David outline how organisations can shift their focus from more output to one of impact.

Green diamond shapes forming patterns on a black background.

The title ‘technology company’ is no longer reserved for those whose central product focuses on data or digital infrastructure. The ‘big tech’ names who thrived through 2020 – Peloton, Disney+, Amazon, Zoom, Klarna – all compete in very different markets. But what is it that they all have in common?

The recipe seems simple; to stay adaptable and competitive, technology and effective product management must be at the core of every organisation regardless of the sector. Whilst Google uses data analysis and prediction to improve its search results, Rolls Royce does so to improve its jet engines.

Large enterprises have known this for years. The shift towards digital transformation has seen large scale structural change with a focus on delivering output, faster. Innovation labs were the plat-du-jour of the twenty-teens, where start-up methods, post-its and deploying new technology could be safely siphoned off to a team in a WeWork office, where ideas could play without affecting or disturbing the wider parent company.

But if the transformation delivered what we’d hoped, how is it that so many organisations were unable to pivot quickly when faced with a global pandemic, or economic crisis, shortage of fuel, chips, or operational support? Where are the innovation labs now? If the twenty-teens taught us anything, it’s that more output doesn’t mean better if a business is delivering the wrong things. And that innovation withers on an expensive vine unless adoption is company wide.

So, how might organisations transform? Through a shift of focus; from more output to more impact.

Effective product management - with a focus on delivering value (customer) and impact (business) rather than a pipeline of features - is a defining characteristic of successful, product-led companies.

Despite the hundreds of books, courses and talks on the subject, teams are still operating in the dark, often working through lists of features far removed from the people they’re designing for.

Being product led is a shift in mindset; it’s optimising for the creation of value. That might mean:

This shift towards optimising for the creation of value happens at strategic, workstream, and organisational levels.

Crossing the chasm: from strategy to execution

A common anti-pattern is that of the client organisation who, having spent enormous sums with large consultancies, receive a blue-sky plan that on closer inspection contains little guidance on how to execute it. At worst this plan is entirely unfeasible.

Successfully crossing the chasm between strategy and delivery can be achieved by reducing the empty space between them through a collaborative approach to strategic planning.  

Rather than deliver a ‘plan’, take a ‘win-or-learn’ approach to swiftly put strategy and ideas to the test. Coordinate skills across specialisms, and work as one team to test, iterate and develop a robust product strategy into a working MVP. Work to build solutions focused on ensuring viability, feasibility, desirability all while prioritising impact.

By delivering in iterations, you build confidence in decision-making and the flexibility to pivot where needed. One health check it’s useful to perform is to see whether an engineer or designer working on, say a button, understand how it rolls up to the strategic goals of the business.

Overcoming obstacles: dedicated workstreams

Whilst often confused with ‘quicker’, optimising for faster outputs doesn’t mean ‘Agile’. Teams can be working fast but failing to move their target metric; the product or feature idea might be evidenced with a strong user need, but met with an underperforming solution.

Common culprits are:

Effective product management focuses on problems rather than solutions. Often, open-heart surgery is required to understand the root cause. Whilst it might sound like working backwards, a continued focus on the problem helps realise value faster. This approach affords perspective, promoting the recognition that the first idea is very rarely the best, whilst catching suboptimal ideas before too much is invested. This helps when following the path of continuous discovery, research, testing and improvement for the user, creating solutions that deliver customer value, loyalty and outcomes.

Embody the mantra: every low value feature we don't build is a win.

Transforming businesses: product coaching

Digital transformation saw the formation of product teams, typically from existing people in businesses. It’s not uncommon to see Product Managers assigned from departments such as marketing, project management, design, or engineering, to take on the mantle of product with little training or support.

This is no bad thing – to realise value, product managers must know the customer, the business, and what value really means to each. Existing talent with a demonstrated passion for making the business a success will likely make the best candidates, bringing with them a varied set of skills. But as a result, these product functions can be fragmented: they vary in maturity, lack a shared language, and differ in process across teams. The organisational structure might also mean that Product Managers are siloed into feature streams, where visibility of an overarching vision or strategy is blurred.

The saying goes that “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”. Product Management comes in many flavours, but supporting teams with shared standards, tools and the structure to thrive drives alignment around a common goal and empowers them to find opportunities for value beyond the next release. It unlocks the potential for innovation from their doomed labs and enables flexibility and adaptability in changing markets.

Harnessing customer centricity at the heart of product

We’ve long championed a customer-centric approach to problem solving. And we still do. Rather than replace, our approach to product-led thinking harnesses customer-centricity to guide solutions that customers will love, marrying this with technology and business viability to create value in the lives of customers and impact for your business.

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