Improving the Business

April 5, 2009

There's doing things right, and then there is doing the right thing. This post is all about doing the right thing. And just how do you go about that, you ask?

Let me back up and explain that in addition to my regular management duties, I’ve been functioning as a product owner for what is now our tried-and-true, in-production, legacy system. The term product owner is in the Agile context, which is roughly equivalent to a product management role.

My job is to define and prioritize the product (feature) backlog, working with other members of our management team and our customer base to define what will provide value in the product. In Agile, a product owner is also the “single, wringable neck,” the person that is responsible for the success or failure of a product. In short, I’ve been challenged with keeping our product moving forward, defining the features that will keep our product relevant in the 21st century.

One thing is certain in these situations, and that is that customers will not provide strategic insight on where you need to take your product! We’ve seen many instances where customers can and will provide small improvements to our existing product, but where to go next from a strategic standpoint? Well, that’s our problem. Or mine, as the single wringagble neck.

Some components of the vision were easy. Since I’m in the software business, it wasn’t hard to be in tune with the technology trends that were influencing other products in the market. In addition, some requests for access to our system mirrored technology direction, like Web Services and browser-based, Internet access. We needed to open up our tightly-coupled system and expose interfaces.

I’ve always read business books, and I found two in particular to be very helpful. Between these books and a little thinking on my own, I was able to craft a five-year vision for our product that was well received.

I’ll discuss two books that helped me approach this problem:

Good to Great, © 2001 by Jim Collins

The Innovator’s Solution, © 2003 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation

Good to Great
From a product or services standpoint, this book outlined the “Hedgehog Concept,” meaning that for companies that want to become great, you need to ask yourself three important questions:
  • What can we be the best in the world at?
  • What drives our economic engine?
  • What are we deeply passionate about?
This book recommends that companies should not use technology as a primary means of igniting transformation. Instead, companies need to pioneer the application of selected technologies. Walgreens was used as an example of this.
If you recall, during the “dot com” boom, the notion that brick and mortar outlets were doomed to extinction. Wallgreens, as a traditional brick and mortar store was faced with significant pressure and lost 50% of their stock value.

In response, Wallgreens – who understood what truly drove their economic engine – assessed how the Internet could connect their convenience concept and profit per customer concept. Wallgreens determined that they could tie the Internet directly to their sophisticated inventory and distribution model, and ultimately to their convenience concept.

This resulted in the capability for customers to fill a prescription online, hop into their cars and drive up to a convenient (brick and mortar) drive-through window and pick up their prescription.

Great stuff! (No pun intended.)

The Innovator’s Solution
This book really lived up to its title, in my opinion. It offered a lot of great insight and perspective on the subject of innovative thinking.

First, when it comes to shaping a product or service geared towards a customer perspective, some really great advice that I took from this book:
  • Customers “hire” products to do specific “jobs.” Translation: A new product will succeed if it helps customers accomplish something more effectively and conveniently than what they are already trying to do. You should not force customers to “change jobs” just because your new product is available. If they weren’t trying to solve that problem before, they won’t change to solve that problem now.
  • Consider and target the circumstances that customers find themselves in, rather the targeting the customers themselves. This reinforces the point made above, but also speaks to another point about market research: Market research typically determines the size of opportunities, but does not understand the customer’s underlying circumstances, and it is the circumstances that a customer is in that are of vital importance.
An example that reinforced the notion of customers “hiring” a product for a specific purpose was a quick-service restaurant that wanted to improve its milkshake. An initial attempt was made to improve the milkshake by structuring everything around product and customer characteristics – traditional product and market research. However, this did nothing to improve sales or profits.

Using a circumstance-based approach, it was observed that there were morning and afternoon purchasers, and each was “hiring” the milkshake for very different jobs. The morning drinkers were commuters looking for a filling, easy breakfast. The afternoon consumers were parents with kids who needed a smaller shake, small because the parents wanted the kids to still be hungry at dinner. They also didn't want the kids to take too long drinking the shake.

Getting the Juices Flowing
Each book has a lot more to offer than the snippets that I’ve provided here, and these are definitely on my recommended reading list. I took the advice of these books, considered what our company was really all about, the circumstances that our customers were in, discussed this with a variety of people – and in the end was able to craft a five year vision that everyone in our company and customer base completely agreed with.

The beauty of this approach was that I shared the notions put forth in this post with others who helped to drive our product vision. The end result is one where I cannot take credit for all of the ideas in our vision, and I'm good with that. The participation resulted in a stronger vision and greater buy-in all the way around.

Of course, now everyone wants it yesterday!