Why product development is a relay, not a race
Nick Parminter, Founding Partner @ Class35
When we started life as a company in January 2018, one of the central theses was that the journey to get from strategic intent to live, adopted product is far too painful for clients. It takes many partners and lots of false starts, phases often don’t run in a coherent sequence and many of the most dangerous assumptions aren’t resolved from phase to phase — leading to some very high profile and expensive failures.
Nearly 6 years on, the landscape has changed a lot — hundreds of millions of M&A funding has further smashed digital, design and consulting disciplines together and created emboldened customer / growth / innovation capabilities within the industry’s incumbents, which in turn has led to a tangible shift in the way that businesses design, execute and procure against large digital programmes. At the same time, the understanding, acceptance and indoctrination of the more modern delivery methodologies has created a false sense of confidence and clarity.
The result of this all is that, all bluster removed, the task hasn’t got any easier for businesses looking to change. Whether a growth or efficiency agenda, many face a similar imperative — to understand the gap between what they do today and what customers expect of them, and to close it. And as much as the turnkey methodologies and sugar high tech solutions make that feel more comfortable, the reality has not changed — moving from understanding customer needs to adopted digital products (via building them) is still a process riddled with ambiguity, confusion and challenge. And there are still as many case studies of disaster as success.
At Class35, we’ve had an usual purview — spending half of our time with venture-backed scale ups to extend products and get them to market more effectively, and the other half with corporates trying to act with the same velocity and philosophy as the scale-ups nibbling at their lunch. This has taught us a lot about the challenges of the “broken pipe” or “painful relay” of getting from strategic intent to adopted product.
Here are 5 things we’ve learned:
- No room for generalists
The first obvious statement to make is that product development is a practical specialism. Having a theoretical understanding of how to build products, or having a generalist skill set are no substitute for lifecycles under the belt. As incumbents have perfected the model of training social sciences graduates for 3 weeks and selling them as digital programme specialists, there is an increasing premium for experienced talent. We’ve seen several digital product programmes flooded with generalist consultants trying to gnaw the problem to death, simply because they lack the experience to have an intuition on what needs to happen.
We’ve picked up a lot of broken programmes from this point — where a team of inexperienced consultants have made limited progress, but left a bloated programme structure in their wake. And we know from talking to our clients that the “don’t get fired for hiring x” mantra is wearing thin, as millions of pounds can easily buy not a lot more than well-documented excuses.
This has only strengthened our intended position of becoming “the ultimate ally” to clients working through these challenges — heavily motivated by countering the charlatan behaviour and superficial experience of incumbents, as we create a team and culture that puts integrity and practical experience over bluster.
2. It’s meant to be confusing and uncertain
The next observation has been the hardest-earned. There is huge uncertainty at all stages of product development. The nature of this uncertainty might change, but it is pretty consistent.
In formative stages, it is about understanding whether something is a good idea — whether it solves a need that people are willing to pay to solve, whether it is a better use of resources than sticking to an existing strategy, whether there is a realistic, achievable, commercial prize for doing it well. This is tough because, by nature, intuition and understanding of customers and markets plays as much of a role as data can. Balancing head and heart with an understanding of the business and market in question is often an iterative process of fact-finding, consensus building and validation.
At later stages, it is about simultaneously honouring the vision but being willing to be proven wrong, and to iterate quickly. As much as there is a growing understanding of the role of product management in various delivery methods, our experience is that this is still a process of bringing together many strands to make sure what’s built has the best chance of success. This is different in every product, market, customer group and business, and there is no canvas or methodology to solve that.
Finding people and teams that are comfortable in uncertainty is the biggest difference between businesses that make change happen and those that don’t. Many of the scale-ups that we work with feed off it, whilst some with bigger market positions to protect struggle. In my view, this is the biggest difference between organisations that are “product-led” and those that aren’t — conviction under uncertainty.
3. Confidence is beat to march to
The counterbalance to uncertainty is confidence. Like certainty, confidence can change shape throughout the journey from intent to live product, but it is ultimately the key to getting through the phases. Whilst many product development processes, particularly those punted by professional services incumbents, talk a lot about “definitions of done” and outputs at each stage of the product development process, it ultimately comes down to the confidence to proceed.
In the earliest stages, this is about shaping and quantifying the potential for an idea in general terms, and being very clear in the assumptions that underpin that confidence, as well as an understanding of “what needs to be true” for that scenario to be realistic. At later stages, including deciding on readiness to push a product live, it is about understanding whether the product is good enough.
The quantum and source of confidence varies a lot by organisation, sometimes even stakeholder. Getting from idea to adoption within existing businesses (unlike start-ups) is ultimately down to moving through the gears by maintaining confidence throughout the journey from idea to concept to product to live — at each stage doing enough to progress (or deciding not to).
4. Multi-party working is tough
When it comes to standing up teams to deliver a product, most businesses will outsource at some point. Whether it is a capability thing, or a capacity thing, or a risk and accountability thing. The challenge here is that often the process of procuring third parties is at odds with the optimal product development pathway — it can require a prematurely detailed understanding of scope, an unhelpful view towards what should be an acceptable level of change, and a slightly longer commercial and time commitment than there would be if done internally.
This is exasperated by multi-party working. It is quite common for larger programmes to be sliced up into lots and handed out to different suppliers. We’ve been in this situation several times now, and it is very hard to get right. Combining lots of different parties, with slightly different cultural biases, vocabularies and sometimes competing commercial objectives can create pretty serious headwinds on programmes.
The only counter that I’ve seen work here is commercial transparency and protection for each party, to prevent commercial motives impacting delivery (i.e. predatory behaviour), and very strong product and programme ownership, diffusing debate and centering energy around movement towardds the ultimate objective. It is also about creating space to be honest — often programme gossip and whatever appears in programme decks are at odds, and the gossip is usually the version of the truth — good programmes create a governance structure that is flexible enough to close that gap.
5. Nailing the transitions is key
We use the analogy of a running relay a lot, when we think about the task of getting from idea to adoption. At the heart of every product development process is the idea — the kernel of a programme that balances customer, commercial and organisational needs. Our job as partners to our clients is to safely transition this idea through the phases to get to commercial success. This doesn’t mean being blinkered to any external feedback or discovery that impacts the perceived up-side or complexity of doing something (see above point on ‘confidence’) but it does mean balancing a forensic focus on the outcome sought, and the immediate activities to get there.
This analogy works for us because, like in relay races, the transitions between phases is where programmes most commonly go wrong. Getting from a strategy to a shaped product is hard — it requires trading an often theoretical and inside-out view for a more practical and outside-in view, which is often open to resistance. Getting from a shaped product and investment case into a programme is tough because it often requires a translation of value levers into a granular enough form to inform the inevitable “horse trading” of features and fidelity that happens in delivering a product. Getting from a built product to commercial success is tough because it often requires transitioning from thinking in terms of function to thinking about buyer journeys, messaging and intended product behaviour.
In our experience, these problematic transition points also represent the natural seamlines that exist within the industry. There are companies that are happy upstream writing heavy slides about a product strategy, there are companies happy building products, and there are companies happy getting new products out to market with well thought through messages and buyer journeys — but there aren’t many that can do it all end-to-end.
A product partner, end-to-end
Since we formed as a group nearly 6 years ago, we’ve been trying to address this challenge for our clients. We’ve been through several product lifecycles — with FTSE100 & S&P500 clients, down to newly-minted start-ups, and everything in between — and our resolve to reinforce around the transitions has only strengthened.
It has shaped our hiring — as we bring in people with experience across the full lifecycle, whether through agency, consultancy or their own startup experience.
It has shaped how we approach people development — as we try to train a team of specialist relay runners.
It has shaped our approach — as we resolve to approach every challenge on its merits and not to pretend that there is a pre-shaped methodology for getting everything done.
It has shaped our culture — as we focus on creating an environment that creates enough safety and support to work through the natural uncertainty and occasional tension in our work.
If you are interested in joining our relay or want us to run yours for you, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.