Every entrepreneur has a goal to build a well respected brand, company culture and amazing team around awesome products. Seasoned entrepreneurs know a strong product portfolio is not enough, however, and long-term success can only be assured with a strong product pipeline.
Developing and maintaining a product pipeline is not as simple as simply coming up with new ideas in a few brainstorming sessions. Successful product-focused businesses, both business to business and business to consumer, approach product planning and development with a well executed framework that is part of the company's overall strategic plan.
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Matthew Smith has years of product-development experience, most recently as the vice president of product management for Movable Ink, a company that pioneered the application of contextual experiences to email. Smith shares the four strategic steps he has used to build great product-focused organizations.
1. Create a strong, clear and flexible road map.
Great product-focused organizations have a short-term (12 months), mid-term (24 months) and long-term (36 months and beyond) vision as to where they want to go and how to get there. This unified view, or "north star," is what guides all product-development decisions the company makes. Product-focused organizations recognize the importance of focus and getting all internal team members on the same page.
While this north star is important, product teams should and need to be flexible within that plan — the quickly evolving nature of our digital world demands it.
2. Conduct user research and product discovery.
Deciding on your vision is just the start. Companies also need to constantly validate their plans with users. Luckily, with social media and our hyper-connected world, we can regularly engage with customers to test and better understand how and why customers use products. Companies also need to recognize the difference between a new and repeat customer and their differing behaviors that change over time.
Ultimately, the goal is to understand the problems and commonalities among all customers. To accomplish this, your product team should be asking these simple questions:
- What problem are we solving?
- For whom are we solving this problem?
- How does solving this problem fundamentally move our business forward?
- Does this fit into the long-term strategy?
Great product teams spend 80 percent of their time understanding, challenging and validating every assumption they have with customer feedback and adjusting their strategies accordingly.
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3. Test, measure and understand.
All companies generate product ideas. Great companies, however, know how to vet, cultivate and nurture the best ideas. They also understand that ideas can and will come from throughout the organization, from the founder to a salesperson to a client. A vast majority of these products will never make it past the idea stage, but they all add value by potentially giving birth to future iterations.
The product ideas that do survive the vetting process are then tested and measured. To test product features and designs, product teams create minimally-viable-product (MVP) prototypes, or early versions of the product with only the most valuable features, to get into the hands of trusted clients for feedback. To test successfully, it is important to get qualitative and quantitative feedback quickly so you can adjust and iterate or shelve the idea altogether.
Remember as well that it is just as important for great product-focused organizations to know why a product test failed as much as why it succeeded.
4. Communicate regularly and transparently.
Feedback cannot be effectively used to vet or improve upon a product idea unless the entire organization has constant, consistent and honest communication, both internally and externally.
Internally, make sure all organization team members know and understand the process outlined above. This allows everyone in the company, not just the product team, to understand how products are vetted, developed and iterated. Make sure customer support is synced with the product team so all members are ready and able to answer incoming questions.
Externally, keep customers in the loop and let them know immediately when a change is coming or when a change has been made. Most important, ease your customers into something new, by clearly communicating the added value for them (not just the value for your business).
Very few companies do not rely on a product pipeline. Coca Cola is one example — although even it releases new flavors from time to time. For all other product companies, having and executing a well-planned product-development strategy is not only key for long-term success, but also long-term survival.
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