Major technological advancements used to occur every decade. Now, they happen nearly every year, as we’ve seen with rapid transitions in mobile from 3G to 5G, as well as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and real-time analytics. At the same time, there’s a wave of massive spending on digital transformation as companies shift from legacy ways of doing business to digital approaches for almost everything. Everyone is now in the software business. Speed in product and service innovation is the new norm.
Faster, Not Better
The problem is that most companies are building faster, but not better. Product failure rates continue to be high across the board. Startups fail at a rate of over 70%. The consumer product failure rate is 90% or higher. Big successful companies like Google and Facebook have spent massive amounts on failed products.
Even our attempts to improve may inadvertently make it worse. For example, Agile is a development methodology, yet it’s very hard to scale. It sucks product managers into being taskmasters, where they miss the business perspective and the “long” view. Similarly, iterative development and lean techniques are great if you start close to the right solution. Otherwise, you’re continuously iterating without reaching the destination the market requires. The pressure to iterate faster, often without seeing anticipated results, places enormous stress on product teams and bottom lines.
The rapid pace of innovation and digital transformation isn’t (yet) supported by the right processes, systems and tools to help people plan effectively and build better products. Product leaders are overwhelmed and often don’t standardize on processes that would reduce their burden while incorporating best practices. Instead, product teams rely on a hodgepodge of tools, including spreadsheets and project management and roadmap tools. As a result, many product plans rely on the intuition and opinions of a few people or simplistic measures to affirm what’s in them. Some management tools only offer limited metrics that don’t help you plan better or innovate — and input from a select group of existing customers that don’t adequately reflect what the potential market might want.
Many companies say they are “customer-first.” It sounds great in theory, but in practice, if you’re relying on your customers to drive what you do next, you’re missing out on opportunities to attract new customers. To grow your customer base, you must figure out what the larger market of prospects who have yet to buy from you needs before they consider becoming customers.
Validate And Align Plans
How can we deliver better products, faster? Adopt an alignment-seeking approach to product planning. Gather the right input to validate what goes into your product plans as a part of your planning process — before spending a single dollar on development. Use what you learn to make better decisions about what will be in your next release or on your road map. If you collect the right information as part of the process, you can determine what features are “most wanted” by existing customers and the broader market, as well as what features are likely to deliver the greatest impact.
Who has time for that, you say? Product leaders and managers are frequently juggling many responsibilities and tasks, so gathering input to validate plans falls by the wayside. Taking the time to validate ultimately saves both time and stress, as, in my experience, product plans backed by sufficient data are more likely to gain approval and are, therefore, more likely to result in future product success. Validation should be a consistent part of the product process — it enables product managers to make better, lower-risk product decisions.
There are three keys to aligning product plans with data to build more successful products:
1. Align Product Plans With Business Objectives: What are your key company metrics? Revenue? Customer satisfaction? New customer acquisition? Your product plans need to explicitly show how they support those objectives. How, exactly, does what you’re going to build help increase revenue — and by how much? What features in the plan will increase customer satisfaction, and by what measure?
2. Align Plans With Data From Key Stakeholders: Ask stakeholders to weigh in on what they think is most important, then incorporate their input into your plans. Gather input from internal stakeholders: executives, sales, support, marketing and engineering. Gather input from customers — and from partners, if they are a key part of your business. Line up the data from different stakeholders and share it, so everyone sees the tradeoffs and understands what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and when.
3. Align Product Plans With Market Needs: What problem does your product solve? What needs does it address? Look for ways to validate market needs for what you’re planning to build. There may be research available that demonstrates the need, or competitive offerings gaining market traction. Test designs and prototypes with target customers. Run surveys using your own prospect list (your marketing team can help with this) to determine the most compelling needs and most desirable capabilities. Executives are more willing to invest in product plans backed by sufficient market data.
Increasing The Odds Of Product Success
When your product plans align with business objectives and market needs — and have stakeholder support — they’re more likely to result in the delivery of successful products, at least in my experience. The best product process incorporates sufficient validation to support the difficult decisions that product managers and leaders make. There are many positive outcomes for a validated, aligned product plan, including the following:
• Executives see and believe the data, so they approve the plan and invest in your product.
• Engineering is confident they’re building the right things.
• Marketing and sales know what matters most to target customers and prospects.
• Customers and prospects get new products and features they want.
• Revenue grows.
Simplistic metrics systems might make you think you are on the right course, but in reality, they only mask the real challenges of product decision making. The only way to build better products is to plan better. Make validation and alignment an integral part of your product planning process. If you do, everyone wins.