The five levels of Product Excellence maturity
As the pace of the market accelerates and customer expectations evolve, it has never been more important for companies to build excellent products and get them to market faster. But what exactly is an excellent product?
Excellent products are products that people use and love. They solve real problems by catering to users’ needs. We’ve learned that the product teams behind excellent products tend to do things differently, focusing their work around the three pillars of Product Excellence:
- Deep user insights
- A clear product strategy
- An inspiring roadmap
To help product organizations understand where they are on their path to making excellent products, we’ve developed the Product Excellence maturity model – a framework that helps product teams develop the foundations they need to build customer-centric products.
There are five Product Excellence maturity levels, describing the full spectrum of organizations, from inexperienced through to Product Excellence masters. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Level 1: Intuition-driven
At Level 1, product managers dream of innovation but fail to seek enough input from the market, resulting in products that don’t reflect users’ needs. In the rare cases where teams find product-market fit, it is often through blind luck that they must work to sustain.
At this stage, there is no formalized product vision, product strategy, or prioritization frameworks. Without a North Star, it’s easy to get sucked into short-term thinking and quick wins that fail to move the company forward.
As product decisions are made on the whims of founders or product leaders without any context or shared documentation, product managers spend extra time setting and resetting expectations for cross-functional teams. To put it plainly, no one understands the why behind major product decisions.
Level 2: Introducing process
At Level 2, product teams begin to build elementary processes to understand users and make small efforts to align the company.
Organizations at this level understand that they need to interface with users. They have basic processes for talking to customers and recording feature requests, but they still analyze inputs at face value rather than digging deeper into the underlying needs.
Additionally, due to a lack of a formal system to gather and synthesize product feedback from diverse sources, there is no real collaboration between the product team and customer-facing teams. As a result, valuable insights slip through the cracks.
Because the product team works in a silo, there is a fundamental disconnect between product objectives, overall company strategy, and the broader organization. And while there may be some effort to prioritize features, frameworks usually don’t go beyond quantifying value vs. effort.
A lack of clear objectives is apparent in the roadmap. Long-term goals remain private or undocumented, leaving much of the organization unaccountable for their contributions to the product. Necessary dependencies are missed, launches are delayed, and product leadership does not have access to information on why the product team is heading in one direction instead of another.
Level 3: Listening to customers
While product managers start talking to users at Level 2, Level 3 is where they start listening.
Level-3 product organizations capture feedback from diverse touchpoints such as email, support tickets, and user research, and work to uncover real-world pain points and needs. These insights then inform product vision and strategy.
Now, PMs are learning how to ask the right probing questions and are beginning to document and pass on necessary context to relevant stakeholders. They approach customer conversations with enough patience to ask why. Instead of rushing through conversations, biasing users with leading questions, and skipping over the uncomfortable silences that users need to consider more profound topics, PMs sit back and listen.
Still, there is potential for decision paralysis due to information overload. Product managers don’t yet understand how to systematically comb through the vast quantity of available data and prioritize their work around broad themes and objectives.
While objectives at Level 3 are customer-centric, they lack the refinement of an experienced product researcher. More importantly, there is no segmentation present, making it difficult to target different use cases and specific users.
At this stage, teams have clear and achievable KPIs to measure progress. And whether it’s in the form of a shared release plan or a roadmap, the product development process is transparent to everyone. That said, the roadmap still focuses on outputs rather than outcomes, which leads to a lack of context around how product work impacts the bottom line.
Level 4: Aligned on user needs
At Level 4, product teams have a deep understanding of customers and a clearly documented product vision and strategy. Every product decision is tracked against a defined set of goals and backed up with robust customer research.
In Level-4 organizations, each member of the product team has the experience and training they need to conduct valuable product discovery and user interviews. The team is empowered to ask better questions, and there are rigorous processes in place to validate potential solutions.
All features going into production are prioritized based on real needs and aligned top-down as well as bottom-up. Everyone on the product team holds themselves accountable for their role in the product. Product objectives tie to broader business outcomes and goals, and the entire product team moves collectively towards the company North Star.
For the first time, product roadmaps simultaneously communicate why some ideas are prioritized over others. All this is codified in a living document – one that shifts and evolves with changing customer and business needs.
Level 5: A thriving product culture
Level 5 is the pinnacle of Product Excellence maturity. Companies that reach this stage have achieved a deep understanding of customer needs. This makes it easy for the team to execute on individual tasks autonomously and moves the entire organization toward the North Star vision.
At Level 5, product teams have built a scalable culture around gathering insights across the company. Everyone – not just the product team – is a stakeholder in the product and understands their role in the product development process.
All team members share product ownership and can provide valuable insights on an individual level, pulling in the requisite data and context to inform decisions. Insight from customer interviews and data underlies every conversation about the product. Finally, the entire organization understands the why behind the product roadmap and rallies around it. Even better, they keep themselves accountable for staying updated.
Plotting your path to Product Excellence
It is worth spending some time to assess where your organization currently falls on the Product Excellence maturity model. By understanding what you are already doing well and the areas you need to improve, you can plot your path towards Product Excellence.
The age or stage of your organization isn’t necessarily an indicator of its level of Product Excellence maturity. Although it’s unlikely that a startup would already be at Level 5, it’s not impossible. Likewise, there are more than a few enterprises that may find themselves performing at the lowest stages.
Ultimately, the best product teams and organizations operate with a high degree of unity and cohesion, regardless of their size. Everyone shares deep user insights, knowledge of product strategy, and alignment around execution. Teams that realize this will be well on their way to achieving Level 5 of Product Excellence maturity.