In my last article, I talked about the problem where your product organization has been relegated to the role of a service organization, largely documenting the decisions and desires of others.  I must have struck a chord because I received a record number of comments, mostly from people that felt trapped in this very situation and were anxious to see if there’s hope for change.

In this article I want to share some of what I’ve learned in helping organizations to “regain their product mojo.”  Here are ten specific suggestions:

1. Demonstrate Customer Expertise.   As I mentioned in the previous article, everything starts by reconnecting with your customers.  And I’m not talking lip service.  You will know you’ve accomplished what you need to here when the product organization, and especially each product manager in that organization, is acknowledged across the company as the undisputed expert in your customers.

2. Create a Rapid Response Team.  This might sound tactical, but you can’t just say no to all the day-to-day operations of the business while you rush out to meet your customers, and do the rest of the items below.  As a product organization, you need a way to respond quickly to the pressing needs of the business, but without taking down your whole team.  My favorite technique for this is to establish a dedicated “rapid response team.”  This is usually a small team (a product manager, 2-3 engineers and a QA person would be typical) but they are there to jump on the urgent issues that invariably come up all the time – the ad sales guys bring in a new partner that needs something a little different; serious bugs that are discovered and must be fixed; marketing needs support for a new promotion; you get the idea.  The members of this team typically rotate out every 3-6 months or so, and it’s also worth noting that they often do frequent release cycles such as weekly.  But just having even a small dedicated team can substantially improve the organization’s responsiveness to the needs of the business and the customers, while providing some air cover to the rest of the organization.

3. Embrace User Experience Design.  If you want to create strong products, especially consumer Internet products, you’re going to have to get serious about user experience design.  You need designers that can provide you with strong designs that work, and you need the people and processes to get the evidence you need to make your case (see “data not opinions” below).

4. Design In Customer Acquisition.  Especially for those of you doing consumer Internet products, you simply must worry about customer acquisition from the start.  It used to be that we said that the product team did the product, and marketing was responsible for customer acquisition.  Not anymore.  Customer acquisition is too critical, too expensive, and too integrated into the product (or needs to be) to be left completely to others.  You’ll need to reach out to your marketing colleagues and pull them into the product process, and you’ll need to factor in customer acquisition considerations into all of your product and design work.

5. Collaborate With Developers.  If you want to create great products, you simply can’t afford to ignore your engineering colleagues.  In far too many organizations, there’s a big wall between the product managers and the developers.   These organizations are at a severe disadvantage.  Starting on day 1 of a project, you need to include both your designers and your lead developers.  Do whatever you have to do to ensure they are engaged and participating.

6. Mitigate Risks.  One of the biggest reasons that companies cease to innovate is that they are scared.  They’re scared of putting existing revenue at risk, or of damaging their brand, or of angering partners or customers.  A strong product organization must be good at mitigating these risks.  We do this with prototypes and user testing (to fail fast), and with split testing and product optimization (to improve fast) and both of these techniques are not exposed to the broad customer audience until we have the data we need.

7. Think Big.  You simply aren’t going to make a big difference for your company by just coming up with a bunch of random features.  Your company and your customers are looking to you for thought leadership.  They want you to paint a picture of the future and give them the confidence that it’s achievable.  Create a product strategy and communicate it with a visiontype.

8. Data Not Opinions.  When you’re working to build credibility in your organization, and trying to convince the company to be more aggressive and take more risks, you need to stop trying to convince by your words, and start bringing data.   And with company executives, the data that matters most comes straight from the mouths and actions of customers.  If you run into your CEO next week and tell him about the 7 customers you met with this week and what you learned, that will make an impact, especially if it’s on top of your learnings from dozens of others in the weeks prior.  User testing and split testing are both good techniques for quickly collecting this data.

9. involve Company Executives.  Your goal is not to get your company executives to leave you alone.  Your goal is to change the nature of the interaction.  You want to engage with your executives at least every week, sharing what you’ve learned last week, and what you are planning to test next week.  They don’t expect that all your ideas will be home runs.  But they do expect that you will be improving quickly, mitigating the risk of experimentation, and that you’ll be learning from your successes as well as your failures.

10. Evangelize.  Finally, it’s not enough to just do good work.  Especially in larger organizations, you have to evangelize.  You have to make sure others around the company understand what you’re doing, what you’re learning, why it’s important, and how they can help.  You can’t be shy.  The company is betting in large part on you.  They need to know you and understand what you’re trying to accomplish and why it’s important.  Good executives are not just betting on a market opportunity, they are betting on you.

Several of these topics warrant their own article, but hopefully this list will give you a sense of what you’ll need to do in order to reestablish your product organization as the thought leaders and customer champions that your company needs you to be.  Let me know how it goes.

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