Successful Products: Lucky or Intentional?

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Is your product successful because you were lucky, or because you were methodical and intentional?

Do you want to build a plan where you are dependent on good fortune, or do you want to make your own “luck?” Both approaches work, but only one makes sense as an intention. Slide 3 of your presentation to a venture capitalist should not say “And then we get lucky!”

Product Success Is Not Easy

Saeed Khan wrote a critique recently, in On Product Management, of an article by Phil Meyers on the Tuned In blog. Phil’s article is an analysis of the pending re-organization at Starbucks, and the one quote that Saeed keyed in on was:

At the end of the day, its simple. Create a product or service that your buyers want to buy and the rest takes care of itself.

Saeed’s point is that it is not that easy. A lot of hard work goes into creating a successful product. And Saeed’s right.

Maybe Phil’s point is that the executive should not worry about the details, and trust in his team to do all the hard work. But he doesn’t really come out and say that, so we can’t really back him up on that front. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt anyway. There’s another point that Phil makes that is potentially disturbing:

Looking at metrics like average same day sales and products per square foot lead you down some strange paths. Schultz even admitted as much in a letter from the board about a year ago in which he worried about the company ‘losing its core’.

Yes, abandoning your goals to pursue your metrics is bad. But don’t abandon your metrics to pursue your goals – unless all you want to do is get lucky.

You might argue that a company like Animoto got lucky when their product spread virally within Facebook and their user base jumped from 25,000 to 700,000 users. But if you listen to the interview that Amber MacArthur did with co-founder Brad Jefferson, you will realize that it was only when they tweaked their product offering – a response to empirical analysis of product adoption metrics – did their success explode. I would argue that they made their luck by being intentional.

Empirical Processes

When you can perfectly model your business analytically, you can measure the inputs and know (with certainty) the outputs. As a college engineering student, I learned this. Real world processes can never be perfectly modeled analytically. As a professional engineer, I learned this too. Real world processes are empirical. The secret to great engineering is to apply analytics to those empirical processes to create disruptive innovation, and combine it with empirical controls that help you statistically predict the likely outputs. The answer is simply that neither analytics nor empiricism alone can help you achieve greatness.

Business processes are also empirical in nature. Even when you can devise an analytical model for the behavior of an isolated system, you have to acknowledge that no real world system is isolated. You have to expect unexpected inputs into the system. As Saeed points out, you have to apply analyses to make smart decisions when developing your process (or business model, or product). And what Phil appears to discount is that you also need to apply empirical measurements to your process (or business or product) to control the expected results.

Creating Successful Products Intentionally

This article proposes that there are two paths to product success. The first path is simple. Cross your fingers, then get lucky. The second path is harder. Be intentional.

  1. Identify your market (and therefore your customers and competition).
  2. Identify their problems, and select the ones you will solve.
  3. Create a product roadmap (aka a “plan”) to solve those problems.
  4. Design and implement solutions to the most valuable problems.
  5. Get feedback on your solutions.
  6. Incorporate your feedback into your plan (step 3) and repeat.
  7. Revisit your market (step 1) and the problems you choose to solve (step 2) and repeat.

Note: Step 7 should occasionally replace step 6, so that you stay focused on your market, and not just an out-of-date snapshot of what used to be important to your customers.

1. Identify Your Market

There are a lot of ways to pick a market to focus on. You can chase demographics – there sure will be a lot of retired people in the US thanks to the baby-boomers. You can go with what you know – years of paying attention to an industry presents ample opportunities to understand the market. You can create an entirely new – blue ocean – market by solving problems people don’t even realize they have until you offer a solution. Choosing a market is the subject of many books, not just an item in a list.

Once you choose a market, you need to segment the market into groups of people who share the same problems and who value solutions to those problems similarly. You can apply market research to improve your market segmentation.

2. Select The Problems You Will Solve

You use elicitation skills to identify the problems that your customers face. And when you have to address multiple market segments, you can prioritize the problems across those market segments.

3. Create a Product Roadmap

Once you’ve prioritized the problems you are going to solve, create a product roadmap. Your product roadmap should show the problems you are solving, and the order in which you will solve them. When you define sequencing, you also must define your approach to scheduling product releases.

4. Design and Implement Solutions

There are two keys to successful execution of the plan you built with your product roadmap. First – use rolling-wave planning to define near-term details and long term vagaries. Second – make sure you have continuous integration as a key component to managing quality throughout the process, instead of checking quality at the end (or even worse – ignoring quality).

5. Get Feedback on Your Solutions

This is half of why agile (when done right) works [Can you believe the discussion over the last year on this article is up to 27 comments?!]. Feedback is not just something you get when sharing a prototype with stakeholders. Feedback is also something you must get as part an incremental release methodology.

You can even measure the ROI of your designs, and incorporate feedback at the design level.

6. Incorporate Feedback Into Your Plan

There’s no point in gathering feedback if your organization and your process are organized to resist changes to the plan. Contrary to what the Standish Group’s CHAOS study has always implied [and we’ve made this implicit mistake too], release schedules are not the primary measure of project success. In a fantastic article at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, Scott Ambler points out that in his survey results, almost two thirds of professionals find that doing the right thing is more important than meeting a project schedule.

Schedule: 61.3 percent of respondents said that it is more important to deliver a system when it is ready to be shipped than to deliver it on time.

Do the right thing. If the right thing involves changing the schedule, that doesn’t make it wrong. What makes this work is the fact that you are getting feedback early and often. It is a risk mitigation strategy, designed to reduce the possibility that you will create an unsuccessful product. It is not a strategy designed to keep your project on schedule no matter how mis-aligned you are to your market.

7. Revisit What You Are Doing And Why

If step 6 is small-scale course correction, this is large-scale course correction. You may discover that solving a big problem for your customers exposes a new “biggest” problem that wasn’t there before. By revisiting step 2, you can choose to tackle or ignore those newly discovered problems.

You may also discover that by leveraging your investments to date, you dramatically improve the ROI of solving problems in another valuable market segment. This is because even if solutions to those problems have the same value, solutions to those problems now have much lower costs (for you). By revisiting step 1, you give yourself the opportunity to best manage your strategy, your resources, and your plans.

Conclusion

Product Success may have an element of luck, but you should never plan to hit the lottery. Be intentional in what you will do, and a good plan, executed well and adapting to change, will get you there.

5 thoughts on “Successful Products: Lucky or Intentional?

  1. Scott,

    Good stuff. Love your seven steps … they are very closely aligned to what we found and documented in Tuned In. The thing about creating the kind of product success that was really stunning to us is what you are hitting at. So many folks do think that it’s largely luck, better funding or simply a great market giving rise to lots of successes. We found the opposite. You call it intentional, we call it getting tuned in. It’s a process that any of us can execute to create success but it does require a shift in perspective and where you spend your time.

    As for simplicity of making that shift, well that’s a double edge sword. It IS hard work but most folks make it a whole lot harder than it really should be because they focus on the wrong things. The steps you outline are the right things because they connect what you are building to a real problem that buyers will pay money to solve. We see far too often folks ‘chasing outcomes’ vs. creating more value for their buyers. They use metrics to reverse engineer a strategy that says things like ‘we should add more product in a channel’ (or in Starbucks case in every single square foot of the store!). And they do this without ever stopping to ask if this made sense to the customers they want to satisfy.

    At the end of the day, that’s the perspective that creates problems for companies and the ‘simplicity’ we found over and over again as we studied companies was that those who were successful refused to fall into that trap. Might sound overly simplistic but staying focusing on what buyers want trumps other activities if you want to create a breakout winner or a business that sustains success.

    Keep up the good work.

    Phil

  2. Phil,

    Thanks for the comment and praise, and for your original article. And welcome to Tyner Blain!

    Great points about people getting lost in the weeds and focusing on the yardstick instead of on the goal.

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