Productized Notes: Escaping the Build Trap by Melissa Perri

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Are you building what your customers want, or are you just building?

A lot of companies are building feature after feature, without stopping to validate what customers truly want and need. At Productized Conference 2018, Melissa Perri talked about “The Build Trap” and how to get out of it. This summary will help you to restructure your thinking on finding user value through experimentation to achieve business goals!

DON’T READ

To start off developing the concept of the build trap, Melissa tells about her first steps in product management. When Melissa first started in the profession, she was told that the job was to work with sales in the business. Melissa had to figure out what the requirements for the product should be. Then, she had to spec them all up in the documents and hand them off to the engineers. Melissa had a flair for it. She thought that she just got this right and she was a great product manager. All until she moved to work to another company in New York. There, she used the same method as at the previous company. So, she created a thirty pages long document and shipped it off to the development team in Nashville. Three weeks later, she got back the designs of the fully developed product that had nothing to do with what she had specified. Nobody read the document, it was 30 pages long.

That was a turning point in Melissa’s career. She started questioning what product management really meant.

“I questioned myself: “how do we get people to work better together?”

Melissa decided to burn all the specs and to go agile. They broke it up into work. Better collaboration and direct communication helped them to become the most productive team in the company.

EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED

It was not until her next project when Melissa realised that they were building the build trap.

Melissa’s team has built a multi-page portal that helped sellers to see how their business was going. After some time, Melissa noticed that almost no one was using the product. Why? The sellers didn’t care about 90% of the stuff that was on the platform, they found it useless for their profit.

“And again, now I’m starting to have a crisis. If I built everything they asked for, what is my job as a product manager?”

That is when Melissa realized that she was stuck in the build trap. When you collect all the data, do you actually focus on what that does for your customers? What kind of value do you actually provide for them?

A lot of companies are stuck in the bill trap today.

THE BUILD TRAP

But how did we actually get there?

Melissa thinks there’s a big misconception in companies about what value actually means. Values are hard to measure. Instead of measuring the actual value, companies tend to place proxies there. It’s wrong to think that the faster we code, the more money we make. Our products become a hodgepodge of complexity.

A lot of people think Agile is to be blamed for. People are looking for silver bullets to fix everything. What companies don’t realize is that scrum doesn’t have a brain. When you do agile or you do scrum, it’s not about what are the best products we could possibly build. It’s about how do we work better together to build that.

That is why we need great product management foundations to be successful.

The job of a product manager is to maximize value. You have customers on one side and you have businesses on the other. The customers have their problems and needs. And product managers need to fulfill these needs with products and services. It’s not until we take these problems away, that the customers realize the value. There is no inherent value in a feature that you ship until it solves a problem. In return they give you value in the form of money or data or whatever it is that the company runs on. That’s how we get business value. As a product manager, your job is to optimize this system and figure out how to produce the most value. Remember that solving big problems creates big value for businesses.

To get out of the build trap right, you have to create a product management organization that thrives on this.

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STRATEGY

How to create great strategies that enable product management?

Align yourself with a strategy that optimizes for value and communicates what you’re building. Look at the processes and optimize that to figure out what is the best product you can build.

As an example, Melissa brings up a story of the company that she worked with several years ago. It was a meal kit delivery service. This company shipped boxes to people’s homes. Those boxes had all the ingredients and the recipes for the food that they wanted to deliver. Melissa stepped in to help the team to achieve a very clear goal: to double acquisition.

The first goal was to figure out how to get in touch with the customers. The CTO of the company wanted to see a document with every field they intended to put on the home page, so he could build a back end.

“But that’s not a strategy. This is the wish list,” says Melissa. “I can’t tell you what we should build yet because we haven’t figured it out.”

Most companies believe that product strategies are wish lists of features.

Creating products is full of uncertainty. You need to take your time to explore and to do the research. Product strategy is not a plan. It has to be more of a framework. If you want to know more on this topic, Melissa advises reading the book of Stephen Bungay “The Art of Action.”

“Strategy is a deployable decision-making framework, enabling action to achieve desired outcomes, constrained by current capabilities, coherently aligned to the existing context.”
Stephen Bungay

Strategy is a framework that allows you to figure out where you are now, where do you want to go, and how do you connect those things and give people the room to explore.

VISION

Start with the vision in the first place. What’s the vision of the company? What’s the vision of where you want to go?

Break it down to:

  • How do you need to get there?
  • What’s the most important thing you need to do to get there?

All these are called challenges. Once you figure out your challenges, break them into the product goals and initiatives.

  • What things can you build with the product?
  • What problems can you tackle with the product to actually solve that?

If we think about the meal kit delivery company, their vision was to be the most convenient meal kit delivery on the market.

The job of a product leader is to provide the vision, the goals, and the guardrails.

How do you get there? In larger companies, you deploy this through a strategy deployment framework. You need to have your strategic intent. Define your business challenges and then break them down into protocols: product initiatives. What problems can we address to tackle the challenge from a product perspective?

Answering these questions can take up months. It’s continuous and always evolving.

ALIGNMENT

You need to get alignment around what’s your most important thing. As a leader, make sure that everybody is working on it.

Without that, you will see your teams going in motion, but not going anywhere.

Melissa states that it’s usually not about velocity. To escape the build trap, you have to drive high alignment through a good strategy framework. It should allow teams to make decisions. If you create a good strategy framework, you’re now giving teams autonomy on how to hit goals.

When Melissa first came to the meal kit delivery company, they had tons of ideas. They thought about changing their website design, rebranding the signup funnel, offering free trials etc.

But their customer list was not growing. Nobody knew what the problem was. They were just guessing in the air. And when you are guessing, you are not really being strategic about where you want to go. When they started to break down the sign up a funnel, they realized that people were falling off on one specific step. It was when they started to enter their address. They knew what the price was, they knew what the product was, they selected it. Now, they were falling off when they entered their address. That seemed to be weird.

For the company, it was hard to figure out what was the reason behind the customers’ move. They didn’t capture any of the emails or phone numbers.

Did it come down to the question: how to get this important information?

The solution came with the Qualaroo tool — a pop up that asked people who were about to fall off the website “what’s stopping you from signing up today?” Within one month they had thousands of responses. The majority of people said they couldn’t find the food menu on the website. This menu was hiding under the hamburger icon. So the problem was not in the offering itself. It was good food, it was a good offering. People simply couldn’t find the food. Melissa and her team iterated new versions of the website and solved the problem.

“By taking the time, understanding our users and really focusing on experimentation, we were able to do the best things for our user.”

PRODUCT KATA

Tools are useless if you don’t use them correctly. Being a product manager is all about sensing where you are. You can use the Product Kata to help you with that.

Keep going through the Product Kata until you understand the obstacles that stand between you and your goal. Learning is what reduces uncertainty around what products we build.

That’s really what you have to concentrate on the company. It’s absolutely critical to blend discovery and delivery together. Product organizations need to be set up in a certain way. They should enable the strategy and the process, so the two can work together. Build a culture around that.

“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”

To escape the build trap, you have to create a product-led organization that has the policies and practices to navigate uncertainty.

WHY PRODUCT-LED?

The sales-led organizations are a dangerous place to be in. In this organization, you are not being strategic. You’re being more reactive.

Another one is being visionary-led. It’s all based on somebody who envisions the idea. What happens if the person who leads the vision, goes away? How do you replace him/her?

Technology-led organizations are all about the cool tech. Technology-led organizations don’t work either because it’s hard to monetize or market it.

Being a product-led organization is about ruthlessly focusing on solving users problems to drive business value. It’s about optimizing those two pieces: how do I maximize business value? How do I maximize customer value?

It’s not about how many features we can ship. It’s about what goals do we actually hit at the end of the day. It’s experimental by nature. And it’s driven by continuous improvement.

Then, it becomes a place where leadership enables empowered decision-making throughout the levels. One key to being a product-led organisation is introducing the role of the Chief Product Officer. This executive person knows how to set the strategy to build the organizations and let the product work go.

PROCESS. STRATEGY. ORGANIZATION.

To sum up, when looking at the build trap, how do you figure out what you need? You need a process that helps you experiment.

How do you build the right thing for the users? You need an organization that actually supports that. We need an organization that really thrives with the leadership and at the same time gives us space to set things up in the right way. Once you have this strategy set up, you can make your process more experimental.

It’s important for product managers to embrace what their role is and understand that it’s about optimizing both business and customer value.

“The build trap is a very comfortable place to stay in, but it’s only up to you to really figure out how to get out of it.”

Tell your mates what you’ve learned from this article! Share it on Facebook and Twitter, tag @ProductizedConf, #productized

Hand-drawn Sketch of Melissa Perri’s talk:

Watch Melissa Perri’s PRODUCTIZED talk:

Access Melissa Perri’s presentation on SlideShare

About Melissa Perri

Melissa Perri is the CEO of Produx Labs, a consulting and coaching firm that helps organizations become product-led. Melissa specializes in adding the missing pieces to many Agile transformations: training the product teams and consulting on strategy, structure, and process. A frequent speaker, Melissa has had the pleasure of addressing audiences in over 20 different countries. Melissa is currently writing about her experiences for O’Reilly in the book, Escaping the Build Trap, due out in 2018.

About Productized Conference

Productized Conference 2019 is our fifth conference in Lisbon gathering thought-leaders on Product Thinking, Product Management, and User Experience pros on November 21–22. Want to be a part of Productized community? Get your Early Bird tickets 🎯

Check out the video recap from our last edition.

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26–27 November 2020 | Online Workshops starting on July. Conversations and trainings around Product Management, Design Thinking, and Product Design.

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