Principles of a Product-led Approach

14 Mar 2019 by Scott Middleton

Product. As part of the tech community then you’ve probably already said the word “product” today. You’re co-workers have likely said it a few times over the week. Your job may even have product your job title. But, how often do you step back to consider what it actually means?

What does it mean when you say “oh, Google is a product company but XYZ Telco is not”?

Understanding what this means, really stripping it back to first principles will help you build better products.

I regularly find myself in situations with experienced and inexperienced product people trying to hash out the best way to approach something. Often what is missing from the discussion are some fundamentals to start from.

This post aims to provide those fundamentals.

What defines a product-oriented approach?

Google’s Apigee provides a whitepaper outlining the three fundamental principles of a product oriented approach. The three principles Google puts forward are almost perfect. They are:

  1. An outside-in approach
  2. Rapid, early validation of new ideas
  3. Mature through iteration

However, there is one more principle that is missing. This next principle is added because too many companies don’t give this next principle attention and struggle to achieve good results let alone outstanding results. The principle to add is:

  1. Disciplined prioritisation

I’ll define each of these in more detail below.

Outside-in Approach

Taking an outside-in approach means you start every discussion and every decision with your customers and users first.

This is about deeply understanding their world, from their point of view.

You need to be careful not to take an inside-out approach and project your point of view onto them and their world because of what you want them to do.

This sounds easy but is much harder in practice.

Often, I see product teams start with the customer first but then as, work on the product gets underway, the customer or user is forgotten and the team gets lost in requirements and technical decisions.

Keep your customers involved as regularly as possible and refer back to your customers needs.

Frameworks like Personas and Jobs to Be Done help keep ensure an outside-in approach.

The next two principles can also help you not lose your outside-in perspective.

Rapid, early validation of new ideas

A product-oriented approach means rapid, early validation of new ideas – new features, new products, new services.

This means developing hypotheses about what you believe will work and then putting these to the test, quickly. These experiments are best when they’re focused on the customer.

Quick here means in a matter of days or weeks at the most.

The best teams I see at applying this have no sacred cows, they’re willing to experiment with anything.

This provides you with a way to manage risk. If you’re developing your hypothesis right, know your assumptions and your outside-in focused then you’ll be quickly dealing with key risks.

The Lean Startup and Four Steps to Epiphany are good methodologies for helping further understand this principle of a product-oriented approach.

Mature through iteration

Ideas are then matured through iteration. Teams taking a product-oriented approach are continually improving the product, sometimes adding, sometimes removing.

This means shifting away from delivering on fixed requirements over a medium-to-long-term time frame. Instead it means prioritising themes over the long-run but otherwise aiming to deliver real value in the next 4-6 iterations.

Sometimes finance can struggle with iteration, especially in more traditional companies that have been running projects. You can overcome this by funding a number of iterations instead of a fixed set of requirements.

Agile and it’s enterprise version SAFE (Scaled Agile Framework) are frameworks and methodologies you can apply for this aspect of product.

Disciplined prioritisation

With tasks, features and requirements becoming more fluid under a product-oriented approach, the need for disciplined prioritisation becomes essential.

Focusing on a high impact tasks will unlock the best results.

Due to the rapid iterations, disciplined prioritisation often gets unintentionally forgotten. Teams see prioritisation as dragging a few tasks up and down in a project management tool but disciplined prioritisation is so much more than that.

Disciplined prioritisation takes an outside-in approach that considers, at the very least, complexity, impact, real data and timeframe/speed. Ideally it also takes advantage of one of the many frameworks for prioritisation.

Want a quick start to disciplined prioritisation? Overwhelmed by frameworks? Read Terem’s quick start guide for people prioritising in a hurry.

Disciplined prioritisation gives guidance to the rapid iteration, it helps the speed of learning increase and the magnitude of results multiply.

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