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Becoming Product Led

Recently I was asked how I would go about moving an organisation to being Product Led; when agile and user centric design are equally new to the company, or when agile has not delivered in the way that was expected.

Before diving into the how, I think it’s worth first considering the what and they why.

What do we mean by being ‘product led’?

A product led approach is where your product experience is the central focus of your organisation. Within the public sector we incorporate user centric design into our products to ensure that we deliver real value by:š

  • Taking an outside-in perspective (starting with user needs)š;
  • Rapid, early validation of ideas (testing early and often); š
  • Maturing through iteration (based on user feedback)š and
  • Disciplined prioritisation (using quantitative and qualitative data) to deliver value.

Is this not just another name for agile?

This is a question that comes up regularly; and in my opinion, no it’s not. Agile is a delivery methodology; being product led is wider than that. it’s the wrapper that sits above and surrounds the delivery approach you use. It comes ‘before’ you decide on which delivery methodology you will use; and continues long after. It’s your culture and ways of working. The two can often go hand in hand; but if agile is the how, product is the what and the why.

Why is being product led important?

šWell, by moving to a product led approach we allow the organisation to link their outputs to their customer needs and ensuring they align to their organisational capabilities and strategy. šIt also allows organisations to focus on their customers needs and understand their users perspectivesš. By understanding and focusing on user needs it allows organisations to deliver value faster, making it quicker and easier for organisations to learn from what has gone well (and what hasn’t)š which in turn makes cheaper and faster to address any issues or risksš. It also makes it easier for organisations to spot opportunities for innovation and growth.

How do you move your organisation to being product led?

First things first, a culture that empowers the asking of questions and testing of hypothesis is essential for innovation. But to allow that to happen, organisations need senior leaders who understand and support their teams to work in this way. The appropriate ,light weight/ adaptable, governance and funding approvals processes being in place are critical to enable product innovation and empower delivery teams.

The second element that’s key is having the right data. Good product orientation depends on having access to quality data; what are our current metrics? Where are our current pain points? Do we understand our current costs? What products/ services have the highest demand? etc. This data enables us to make quality decisions and measure our progress our successes.

Thirdly, we need to have clearly articulated strategy/vision for the organisation; what is our USP (Unique Selling Proposition)? What do we want to achieve? What are our goals? What value are we looking to add? What do we want to be different in 5/10 years from now?

To develop that strategy/vision, we need to have a clear understanding about our users and stakeholders. Who are we developing these products for? Who are our stakeholders? How are we engaging with them? What do they need from us?

Finally, once we’ve got the strategy, the vision, an understanding of our user needs and a set of hypothesis we want to test; we need a healthy delivery approach, with skilled teams in place to enable us to test our ideas and deliver that value. As we’ve said previously, to be product centric we need to be able to design services that are based on user needs, so that we can test regularly with our users to ensure we understand, and are meeting, those needs.

What are the sign of a good product led culture?

  • You are regularly engaging with the users; working to understand their needs and iterating your approach and services based on their feedback.
  • Your culture empowers and encourages people to ask questions. “Why are we doing this?”; “Who are we doing this for”, “Is anyone else already doing this?”, “What will happen if we don’t do this {now)?”, “What have we learnt from our previous failures/successes?”
  • Your teams are working collaboratively, policy and operations teams working hand in hand with tech/digital teams; to ensure you’re delivering value.
  • You’re considering and testing multiple options at each stage; looking for innovative solutions, and working to understand which options will best meet your users needs and add the most value.
  • Linked to the above; You’re testing regularly, being willing to ‘throw away’ what doesn’t work and refine your ideas based on what does work.
  • You’re delivering value early and often.
Prioritising the backlog

Which comes first, the Product Manager, or the product culture?

If you don’t have any trained product people, can you begin to move to a product led culture, or must you hire the product people first? This is the chicken and the egg question. For many organisations, especially those already using agile delivery methodologies or engaged in digital transformation; they may have already sunk a lot of time and money into delivery, and pausing their work whilst they change their culture and hire a load of skilled product folk just isn’t going to work; but, you can begin to move towards a product led approach without hiring a load of Product Managers. Whilst having experience product folk can definitely help, you probably have lots of folks in the organisation who are already over half way there and just need some help on that road.

One stumbling block many organisations fall over on their move to a product led approach is the difference between focusing on outcomes, rather than outputs or features.

An output is a product or service that you create; an outcome is the problem that you solve with that product. A feature is something a product or service does, whereas a benefit is what customers actually need. If we go straight to developing features, we could be making decisions based on untested assumptions. 

There are 5 steps to ensure you’re delivering outcomes that add value and deliver benefits vs. focusing on features that simply deliver an output:š

  • State the Problemš – what are we trying to solve/change?
  • Gather User Data – have we understood the problem correctly?
  • Set Concrete Goals and Define Success Criteria – what would success look like? š
  • Develop Hypothesis – how could we best solve this problem? š
  • Test Multiple Ideas – does this actually solve the problem?

When you’re trying to identify the right problem to fix, look at existing data from previous field studiescompetitive analysisanalytics, and feedback from customer support. Use a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to ensure you have understood your user needs, and their behaviours.  Then analyse the information, spot any gaps, and perform any additional research required to help you verify the hypothesis you have developed when trying to decide how you could solve the problem your users are facing.

They key element to being product led is understanding the problem you are trying to fix and focusing on the value you will deliver for your users by fixing it. It’s about not making assumptions you know what your users want, but by engaging with your users to understand what they need. It’s about spotting gaps and opportunities to innovate and add value, rather than simply building from or replacing what already exists. It’s about focusing on delivering that value early and often.