Legendary Product Development

“Brand will not save you, marketing will not save you, and account control will not save you. It’s the products.”
– Marc Andreessen

I believe there is a recipe for winning in product development. It requires a delicate balance between pragmatism in planning, efficient execution, and the ability to see around corners (into the future). I’ve written this post to share some ideas on how to become legendary in product development.


Idea #1: Usage First

Products must be built with a ‘usage first’ mindset. Clients need to be attracted to products by their experience with the product. Clients should be begging for more, because they are so delighted with the experience and outcomes. If you build great products, clients will tell each other. The best way to make a product available for usage is through demos, freemium versions, downloads, and easy access via the cloud.

“The people with really great products never say they’re great. They don’t have to. Show, don’t tell..” – Unknown

“In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts. If I build a great product or service, my customers will tell each other.” – Jeff Bezos

Idea #2: Simplicity and Design

Although this is related to Idea #1 and is in fact a pre-requisite to #1, it has some subtle differences. This is about tapping into how a client feels when they use your product. Do they find it shockingly simple, yet highly functional, leading to an ‘ah-hah’ moment? They should.

I read once that people don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves. When you’re trying to win customers, are you listing the attributes of a product or can you vividly describe how it will improve their lives? Clients will be attracted to the latter.

“Taking a design-centric approach to product development is becoming the default. Designers, at last, have their seat at the table.”- Unknown

Idea #3 Speed, Accountability, And Relentless Execution

Speed drives exponential improvements and outcomes in any organization. If you complete a task in 1 hour, instead of 1 day, your mean time to a positive outcome is 500% faster. In product development, accelerating cycle times is an under-estimated force in determining winners and losers.

Pixar has a company principle that states, “We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. “

That principle really resonates with me. A product organization has to break down its own barriers, to achieve its potential.

“Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.” – Charles Schulz

Idea #4: Open Source

Open source is one the most important phenomena in enterprise software. Legendary product teams will shift their approach to an overt embrace and incorporation of open source into their product development processes. The best business model in software today is utilizing open source and effectively surrounding it with proprietary solutions and features. This drives the cycle time improvements alluded to above.

“There are no silver bullets for this, only lead bullets.” – Ben Horowitz

Idea #5: Product Management

Product management, and its interplay with development, is a critical function in a product organization. Development must work with product management to develop forward-looking, client-based insights, and use that insight to push clients faster than they may normally want to move. If you want to learn about product management and how product development should play a role, I recommend 2 things: 1) read every Annual Report and 2) read “Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager” (you can find it on the web).

Great product organizations obsess over feedback and ideas from all constituents. They prefer feedback that challenges their views, instead of reinforcing their views. That enables you to reach the best answer as an organization.

“If you’re doing things right, something will always be a little bit broken.” – Unknown

Idea #6: D-Teams

I believe legendary product development teams need D-teams in the organization. The D stands for Disruption. The role of the D-teams is to disrupt from within. D-teams assess what the organization is working on, identify opportunities, rapidly assemble a team and disrupt. This type of competitive fire will makes the whole team better.

Idea #7: Resources

One of the most common refrains in every organization today is, “We don’t have enough resources.” Or, “We know what to do, but don’t have the time or money.”
This is a choice, not an issue. If something does not have the right resourcing, it is because the organization is choosing that. If you are asking for resources and not getting them, its because you have not prepared a convincing argument. Sometimes, this means you have to
“Take the Horse off The Chart”.

“Deciding what not to do, is as important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

Idea #8: Client Satisfaction

Quality is the taste you leave in a client’s mouth. Most organizations underestimate the negative impact of quality on their business. Its underestimated because it’s hard to quantify. Clients no longer have to buy inferior goods and services since information and alternatives are so easy to obtain. It’s that simple.

“What can a sales person say to somebody to get them to buy a product that they already use every day if they don’t like it? Nothing.” -Larry Ellison

Idea #9: Clients, Developers, and Users

Some product development organizations spend most of their time focused internally. Some take a reprieve from that and think about clients (which is great). But clients are only one of the three constituents that should drive thinking and behavior. Product development organizations will live and die by how they treat, communicate with, and interact with their constituents. They are:

  1. Clients
  2. Developers
  3. Users

They are all equally important.

How do you make it easy for each of them to work with your products and with you? The organization should obsess over answering that question. With each new product idea, you must be able to articulate the “must have” experience and the target of that experience (clients, users, or developers), before debating how and why a product or feature would be useful. This requires a rigorous process for identifying the most passionate stakeholders and getting their unstructured feedback.

Idea #10: At the Service of the Sales Team

If a product development team spends all their time in the field, then they lose focus on developing outstanding products. On the other hand, a product development team cannot build outstanding products without an intimate understanding of clients, developers, and users. This is the paradox that every product development team faces. It is incumbent upon each team to figure out how to balance this, with a priority placed on being at the service of sales and constituents.

“The key is not spending time, but in investing it.’ –Stephen Covey

Idea #11: Innovation on the Edge

You cannot be a leader in innovation without dedicating resources to explore and try things that, by definition, are likely to fail. In strategy speak; this would be a Horizon 3 project.

There are many other areas to explore. Identifying the important waves to ride is important. It’s equally important to actually ride the wave (i.e. execute on it).

“If you only do things where you know the answer in advance, your company goes away.” –Jeff Bezos

Idea #12: Product Releases

Per Benedict Evans, there is a distinct pattern in Apple’s product releases and announcements. In almost every case, they are sure to have:

  • Cool, incremental improvements, which cater to existing users
  • ‘Tent-pole’ features, which become focus points for marketing campaigns
  • Fundamental strategic moves that widen the moat around their competitive advantage

This is a very thoughtful approach to product releases. Every organization can learn something from this.

Leading in product development is much more about culture, than it is about management and hierarchy. At times, management and hierarchy encumber product development teams. Sometimes the best way to understand how you need to change is by looking at companies or organizations on the other end of the spectrum. GitHub is one of those companies. GitHub has no managers. The sole focus of the organizational design is on developer productivity.

Steve Jobs once said, ‘you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy.” There is latent talent and creativity in every development organization.
Being Legendary is about finding a way to unleash that talent.

Reference: Legendary Product Development from our JCG partner Rob Thomas at the Rob’s Blog blog.
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