Product excellence defined

Product excellence is the name of an approach to product management that emphasizes getting the right products to market faster through deep user insight, a clear product strategy, and coherent roadmap. Its name derives from the end goal shared by product managers who strive to make products that matter – products that make a difference in the work, and lives, of users.

Unlike product management of the past that emphasized optimizing the delivery of software through Agile methodologies, product excellence places special emphasis on building the right features in the right way. It aims to deliver features that directly target user needs, and do so in less time. That means less effort is wasted working on features users don’t really need, and users get more value in less time. You’ll know you’re on the right track when users are downright delighted by your product – what it can do for them, and how it makes them feel along the way.

Product excellence is the logical extension of trends like Lean product development, product discovery, and human-centered design, each of which have stressed important principles and mindsets for product teams, but fall short of encapsulating all that is required for product managers to lead their organizations towards long-term success. For example, a product manager can be experienced in Lean and Agile methodologies, have a deep understanding of user needs, and fine-tuned processes for delivering products to market. But unless she proactively rallies the rest of their organization around her plans, she risks losing buy-in from key stakeholders (each with priorities of their own). Meanwhile product managers may be getting out of the building and conducting research on ideas they already have, but unless they develop systems for harnessing a steady stream of market inputs arriving from colleagues on the frontlines (sales, support, customer success, marketing) they’ll likely miss out on key new opportunities.

On the path toward product excellence, product management gives way to product leadership. This route is not for the faint of heart, but it’s the only way to go if you aim to create widely-admired products and lead your company toward lasting business success.

Product excellence or bust

While throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks may have been enough to survive in the past that’s no longer the case. The pace of the market has accelerated dramatically. With today’s ecosystem of cloud infrastructure, modular platforms, and SaaS solutions, new entrants enter the market overnight and reach thousands of users and millions in revenue in months, not years or decades. Shipping new features fast and iterating toward success is still too slow. And while this approach may result in satisfactory features over time, they tend to be patches that incidentally solve a user problem, rather than optimal solutions that address underlying user needs.

With competitors nipping at your heals, can you really afford to send your developers off to work on a feature for three weeks, or three months, if you haven’t thoroughly explored the nature of the user need it will be addressing?

Customers have evolved as well. These days they expect a personalized user experience that’s tailored directly to their needs. You have Apple, Amazon, and Uber to thank for that. Even business customers of b2b products expect a consumer-like experience, and if you don’t offer it to them, someone else soon will. In other words, HipChat seemed great until along came Slack.

As business continues to grow more personal, there will be an increasing number of customer conversations to draw insights from. Does your team have a system for drawing insights from the messages your colleagues on sales, support, and customer success exchange with customers? When it comes to customer retention, relationships matter more than ever, and the product team is on the hook for keeping the customer community engaged. The more you can show customers where your product is headed (and how their inputs have been incorporated) the more customers will stick around for the long haul.

It’s never been more important to get the right products to market, faster.

The three pillars of product excellence

Through conversations with thousands of product managers, we’ve discovered the ones who are most successful share three areas of mastery:

  • Deep user insight
  • Clear product strategy
  • Coherent roadmap

Companies who master these three pillars are well on their way to building truly excellent products.

The three pillars of product excellence
The three pillars of product excellence

Let’s take a closer look at each.

Deep User Insight

The entire product team has a deep understanding of what users really need.

The best product teams develop systems for funneling a steady stream of user feedback back to the product team. Whether generated from sales calls, support tickets, or formal user research, they store these insights in a central repository, accessible to all.

Deep user insight
Deep user insight

Product managers, designers, or dedicated researchers interview users about their needs before feature prioritization even takes place. Solution ideas are prototyped and tested along the way, to validate feature ideas while minimizing the risk of wasted effort. Feature usage is monitored after launch, and qualitative insights are collected to inform future enhancements.

In the top organizations, colleagues from across the organization are equipped with a better understanding of user needs, helping them excel in their work – whether that’s prioritizing, designing, developing, promoting, supporting, or selling.

Clear Product Strategy

The entire organization is aligned around key strategic objectives.

With so many competing priorities and different stakeholders to please, it’s easy to get stuck in a reactive mindset – putting out one fire and then the next, impulsively adopting the hottest tech trends, or going tit for tat with competitors.

Clear product strategy
Clear product strategy

That’s why the most effective product organizations prioritize around clear business objectives. Rather than haphazardly swinging from one feature to the next, they tend to work on initiatives that unify the entire team’s efforts around achieving some measurable objective, before moving on to another.

These objectives may relate to solving the needs of specific types of users or market segments. Or, they may relate to driving growth, competitive differentiation, regulatory compliance, security or any number of other goals that would help the business succeed in the mid-to-long-term. In the latter case, they may even directly support organization-wide OKRs, or priorities set by leadership that direct every team’s efforts.

Whether the goal is to drive user acquisition or improve platform reliability, everyone working on the product knows why their work is important – why it matters.

Coherent Product Roadmap

Everyone across the organization is invested in a common vision for the product.

True product leaders ensure that, in their companies, product management is not a black box. They know that everyone across the organization works to support the product, and they’re all invested in its success. They cherish the responsibility not just to share the plan, but rally everyone around a common vision for where the product is headed, and why.

Coherent product roadmap
Coherent product roadmap

For them, product roadmaps are not static documents of what features will be delivered when. They’re dynamic visualizations (closely linked to their product plans) that help communicate the outcomes the product team is working towards, and how they support the organization’s overarching goals.

If some roadmap decisions are hard for certain stakeholders to swallow (after all, their jobs may be on the line!) they understand the rationale behind tough trade-offs product managers had to make. The business context and user insights behind each decision are always on hand, so everyone can buy in on a decision, even if they don’t personally agree with it.

How to begin pursuing product excellence

As you set off on your journey toward product excellence, stop to celebrate the things that your organization already does well today!

Of course, it’s likely there are also areas for growth. It will be a major advantage to identify them right away.

Many organizations with strengths in some areas but weaknesses in others fall into one of the categories below. See if any sound familiar to you.

Sales-led organizations

Does your organization share a deep understanding of user needs and where the product is headed, but lack a clear product strategy? This is known as a sales-led organization, and it’s liable to be distracted by the needs of big deals, demanding customers, competitive pressures, and hot trends along the way.

Where a sales-led organization falls on the pillars
Where a sales-led organization falls on the pillars

Overheard at sales-led organizations:

  • I know we said we were going to focus on X but HugeCo is willing to sign on for a $2M deal if we ship Y by next month!
  • Blockchain’s heating up. We’ve got to get in on it before it’s too late.
  • Competitor Z just launched this feature… We need it too!

Product excellence requires a clear strategy, and that means knowing when to say no to “specials” or features that only serve a small set of customers. Even if large deals are at stake, you may stand to lose far more in the long-term by ignoring your target market segment. Rather than bloating your product with features that only a small segment will use (and always require more maintenance costs than initially expected), focus on the overlap in needs experienced by your target users. Likewise, resist the urge to be swayed to and fro by external pressures in the market. Industry trends come and go, and just because a competitor shipped some feature doesn’t mean it was a wise choice… they could be kicking themselves at this very moment!

Engineering-led organizations

Does your organization focus on strategy, technology, and execution at the expense of developing a deep understanding of user needs? Engineering-led organizations must remember that great technology and execution will only get you so far if you’re not solving real problems for real users.

Where an engineering-led organization falls on the pillars
Where an engineering-led organization falls on the pillars

Overheard at engineering-led organizations:

  • If I waste time talking with customers, they’ll just ask for a faster horse. We’re the product experts. We know what to build.
  • You’d have me go interview 10 users and then generalize for 100,000 others? We just need to execute and monitor the usage data.
  • You hear about that new framework? Sounds cool. Let’s use it!

Product excellence requires deep user insight and a consideration of user needs at every turn. Anyone who appeals to the myth of the “lone wolf product genius” to justify not talking to users risks wasting weeks or months (even years!) of their team’s time building features no one really needs. When you interview users, it will necessarily be a sample of your entire user base so do your research ahead of time to pick users who are members of your target market and a good representative of your target user! The recurring themes that arise after talking to 3, 5, 10, or 15 users will provide assurance that there’s great value in talking to just a few users rather than none at all. Still, nothing beats a scalable system that allows you to collect ideas, feedback, and requests from customers and colleagues on an ongoing basis, so insights are always on hand for every product prioritization and design decision!

Product-led organizations

Are you both strategic and customer-driven, but make all your decisions behind closed doors? Product-led organizations may be making the right choices, but risk being undercut by colleagues who lack key context around how such decisions are being made. Without a coherent roadmap, flagging morale and poor alignment across teams cause dysfunction and slow the organization’s progress to a crawl.

Where an engineering-led organization falls on the pillars
Where a product-led organization falls on the pillars

Overheard at product-led organizations:

  • I don’t expect our sales team to understand our prioritization decisions. They need to stop blaming the product and close more deals.
  • Product managers specify the feature. Engineering executes. End of story.
  • We tried roadmapping but it was all just false promises since things change so fast.

Product excellence requires a coherent roadmap that aligns your organization around where your product is headed and why. When product managers make prioritization decisions behind closed doors or toss requirements over the wall to engineering, they opt to manage rather than to lead. By contrast, product managers who pursue transparency realize it takes courage to allow others an inside look at your prioritization process, but it pays off – investing colleagues in ways that could never be accomplished with a closed-door approach.

Concerned that transparency means committing to shipping certain features by certain dates? Not at all, and doing so is often unrealistic given the level of uncertainty we all operate in. Agile methodologies address uncertainty by acknowledging that plans will change along the way. That’s why rather focusing on shipping features by certain dates, the best roadmaps are strategic in nature. They show what goals and outcomes will be achieved over broader timeframes, and how they fit into the overarching product vision.

The path to product excellence

For each of the three pillars described above, where does your organization fall today? Use the guidelines below to identify your strengths and areas for improvement.

The five stages of product excellenceThe five stages of product excellence
The five stages of product excellence

Deep User Insight

1. I know it all: Perceived customer insight comes from the product manager’s individual beliefs, but isn’t validated in any way – impacted heavily by emotional factors and recency bias.
 
2. Product team talks to customers: Product manager collects feature requests but overlooks underlying needs – only seeks to validate solution ideas, not understanding of problems they’re solving.
 
3. Product team listens to customers: Product manager listens to customers and strives to discover real customer insights by uncovering underlying needs, but they overestimate their ability to do so and make incorrect assumptions.
 
4. Product team understands customers: Product manager gains deep customer insights and understands underlying needs by diligently consolidating user feedback, carrying out user research, and surfacing their findings during feature prioritization and design.
5. Everyone understands customers: Everyone at the company, not just the product team, has access to user insights. Everyone intimately understands what matters to customers and why, so is empowered to do right by the customer when prioritizing, designing, developing, marketing, supporting, and selling.

Clear product strategy

1. I trust my gut: No formalized product strategy or prioritization framework. Decisions are made ad-hoc in the product manager’s head.
2. Product team has a simple prioritization framework: Product manager’s product strategy is based on a simple prioritization model – value by complexity, or even some criteria, but objectives aren’t clearly defined.
3. Product team adheres to a full prioritization framework, but lacks strategic clarity: Strategy is based on a prioritization model but the objectives are based on lagging indicators (e.g. revenue, churn) – missing a clear definition of target segment and actionable metrics.
4. Product team has a clear product strategy and prioritization framework: Product manager’s product strategy is based on a prioritization model with clearly defined objectives reflecting an understanding of customer segmentation, key user needs, and actionable metrics aligned with the objective.
5. Everyone at the company has full clarity around the product strategy and objectives: Everyone at the company, not just the product team, has full clarity around the product strategy, objective, actionable metrics, and what targets to achieve.

Coherent roadmap

1. I tell you what to do: The product manager tosses requirements over the wall to engineering while sharing limited context as to why features are being built.
2. Product team has a basic roadmap: There is a roadmap that gets created ad-hoc on a periodic basis, but it isn’t shared outside the circle of decision makers, and it frequently changes.
3. Product team has a shared solution roadmap: Product manager maintains a shared roadmap, but the roadmap lacks context around the strategy. Only products/features are shown but they “why” and “for whom” is missing.
4. Product team has a coherent roadmap that reflects customer insights and product strategy: Products manager has a shared, coherent roadmap that reflects the product strategy and deep customer insights. There is a clear answer to “why this”, “for whom”, and “why now” for every product/feature/outcome.
5. Everyone at the company is aligned around a coherent product roadmap: Everyone at the company knows what’s on the roadmap and why. They can contribute feedback and ideas on an ongoing basis. All feel like their input is valued.

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