One of the big advantages that startups have is that there aren’t many people.

As companies get larger (even a little bit larger), one of the very common consequences is that decisions become group activities. Stakeholders pop up
from every direction. The notion of ownership gets diluted down to consensus builder. The objective moves from coming up with something great, to coming up with something that doesn’t get you fired.

And the result very often is that product innovation largely grinds to a halt.

There is no question that in larger companies there really are many stakeholders, and they really must be taken into account, as there is much more riding on your decisions than in a startup. But many companies struggle because they don’t know how to manage the stakeholders yet still make progress and innovate.

In this note I want to spell out the technique that I use to overcome this all too common problem.

But first, the key for every product discovery effort is to identify the three key people – the product manager, the user experience lead, and the product development lead. These are the three minds that must collaborate closely to solve problems in new and useful ways.

The product manager plays the lead role and brings to the table the knowledge of the functionality required, and is responsible for making sure the product has value.

The user experience lead represents the user’s behavior and mental model, and works to ensure the result is something that users can figure out.

And the product development lead brings to the table deep knowledge about what is possible, and is responsible for ensuring that the product that is defined is something that can actually be delivered.

Lots of other people are going to want to join your little party. Once in a while you may decide to include a guest or two, but it is absolutely critical that you keep this team small. You simply won’t innovate in a large group setting. This is not just a brainstorming session. You will be working through literally hundreds of small and large decisions, and your progress will slow to a crawl if you don’t have that small group of smart, empowered people.

It also doesn’t mean that your small group doesn’t have help. You have the resources of the company available to you as you need it. The most common resources are from the user experience extended team: especially prototyping, user research, visual designer, and user testing help. But you may need to go talk to legal about a sensitive issue, or the analytics people about how something is used today, or maybe you will talk to someone in site security about something you are nervous about.

The key is that your core team is empowered. Empowered to represent the stakeholders and to make decisions. But this doesn’t mean that you are given a blank check. You will have to review your decisions with the various stakeholders and make adjustments where necessary.

This is where I need to drill down to explain what I mean.

Each of the three members of your core product discovery team represent many different stakeholders:

The product manager as the overall product owner typically represents the business owner, company executives, sales, marketing, product marketing, legal, finance and customer support.

The user experience lead is very often an interaction designer but depending on the project may come from one of the other design areas, but in any case must represent interaction design, visual design, user research, usability engineering and often content/editorial.

The product development lead is very often from the architecture team or a lead engineer, but again, depending on the project may come from one of the other areas of product development, and must represent architecture, engineering, test automation, site operations, and site security.

For this model to work, the three members of the product discovery team really do need to be entrusted to give their best efforts while keeping in mind the needs of their stakeholders. But in truth it’s not that long of a leash. Your product discovery team still need to be able to show what you have come up with and are proposing before the product is actually built. This is one of the benefits of creating a prototype. You can show this prototype to any or all of their stakeholders so that they can see the reason for the decisions and what exactly is being proposed.

Often there is still some back and forth as stakeholders balance their issues against the potential of the product, but I can only tell you that the nature of the discussion is completely different when stakeholders can see the vision in a clickable prototype versus just talked about in the abstract or in some form of paper spec.

Moving to this model does require a little bit of a leap of faith. Management and stakeholders have to be willing to entrust you to represent their interests instead of being personally involved at the level they may be used to.

But the notion of a small group of talented and motivated people has always been key to coming up with great products. It is the basic ingredients of a startup, and you need to make sure you continue this as your company grows if you want to continue to create products that matter.

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