From projects to products: A new perspective on product development

From Projects to Products - Part 2

We, as humans, don’t really like chaos. It’s messy and scary. We crave order in our lives, relationships, and the working world.

So, we fight back against chaos by applying energy. We take the randomness that is thousands of grains of sand on a beach and use our energy to build a neat and tidy sandcastle. But, entropy is relentless, and over time, the surf will wash our castle away, reducing it back to randomness. Regardless, we still have the need to build confidence over time and ensure we are moving in the right direction.

We see this battle in product development. A new idea is presented, and product teams put all of their energy into bringing that product to market. Along the way, they use the methods, tools, and strategies they’ve been taught to build those products. Sometimes everything works perfectly, and they can celebrate a success. But, other times, it seems other customer and competitive forces come along and knock down any sandcastles before they could even finish.

What went wrong in those cases? Could it be that the entire effort was a waste of energy from the start? No, not necessarily. Time is the real enemy: The methods, tools, and strategies they use to build their products delayed execution, limited their ability to react to feedback, and stymied effective decision-making. The product is released long after it’s outlived its relevancy. Or someone else beat them to the punch. Or it simply cost much more time and money than was originally budgeted.

It’s possible to achieve a different kind of order in product development, one that favors continuous delivery, fast and frequent feedback, and experimentation. To do this, you need to change your mindset, from project management toward product management.

Key attributes of project versus product management

Why traditional project management doesn’t work

The principles of traditional project management serve the human desire for order and certainty. When a business decides something is worth creating, they apply parameters to make that process orderly and predictable, with fixed budgets, fixed start and end dates, and organized handoffs.

However, this means pretending that it’s possible to be 100 percent certain that an idea is worth doing before you act on it. Project managers, technology teams, and business leaders spend a lot of time re-litigating the merits of a product idea: is it feasible? Is it viable? How long would it take to build? How much money do we need to invest?

These are good questions, but in a project-focused environment, this is really about building consensus within the group, so that everyone agrees this is the right idea to pursue before they embark on the long, arduous workflow that is traditional project management. Annual budgeting requires discrete timelines, predictable spending, and on-time delivery. But, consensus is slow, meaning it takes longer to deliver value and bring an idea to market.

Adopting a Product Mindset

On the other hand, product management is about discovering what customers really want and need, then applying a long-term investment strategy that favors testing and the gradual improvement of quality over time.

It means moving from an annual planning model to more regular “big room planning,” where everyone responsible for product delivery has an opportunity to plan collaboratively and discuss the different priorities and trade-offs based on demand from customers and the capacity to deliver. It means that rather than assess product demand on an annual basis, companies dynamically evaluate demand throughout the year, so they are always ready to pursue a product idea at the most opportunistic time.

Moving to a product-led approach also focuses work around customer satisfaction. Products are developed iteratively, with frequent experimentation and testing periods that provide the feedback needed to improve product quality along the way.

This model still offers order, but it means the business can focus less on scope reduction or time management, and more on the actual delivery of value to the customer.

Making the shift

Functionally, product management requires a shift in how ideas are financed, executed, and measured. It’s the difference between an upfront annual budget or continuous funding with frequent checkpoints to shift resources when appropriate. Or, the difference between a finite timeline or one that is assumed to be ongoing.

making the shift

Leaders can help their teams move from project to product management, but it requires changing certain behaviors with an eye toward improving speed, innovation, and customer-centricity.

Our next post in this blog series covers the five ways leaders need to shift their thinking in order to improve product development. You can learn everything you need in our thought paper, “Moving from Projects to Products.” Download the thought paper at this link.