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Does Product Thinking Work in Large Organizations?

Ivana Ciric

Ivana Ciric

Practice Director, Product

May 26, 2021

Lessons learned from applying our approach

Many product builders are attracted to start-ups due to the fast pace of decision-making and execution, and the ownership of the product and the associated business results. Product thinking is a unified, end-to-end product development approach that combines key disciplines, mental models and methodologies to build better products that delight users and drive commercial impact. Many start-ups have product thinking in their DNA, but often in large organizations, the people closest to the users are removed from the critical decision-making processes because they do not own the value proposition. 

Through our work with dozens of large enterprises in financial services, automotive and social media, among others, we have discovered common patterns in applying the product thinking approach in these firms. Our partners in these large companies have been successful in championing product thinking even when facing typical barriers, such as

  • difficulties establishing a sense of collaboration in a product team due to large and complex organizational structures and rigid processes;
  • lack of experience with product discovery, which makes it hard to secure buy-in for the activities needed to make progress; and
  • complex business, architecture, security and regulatory requirements.

In this piece, we will share our key learnings from demonstrating the value of product thinking in large organizations, framed through the three core principles of the approach.

Unification: Product development teams unify as peers before the product.

Large organizations often have large and complex organizational structures and rigid processes, which can make it difficult to instill a sense of collaboration in a cross-disciplinary product team. 

The following can present hurdles in large organizations:

  • Teams do not report to the same manager, and department priorities vary.
  • It can be difficult to know the whole team working on one initiative.

What you can do:

  • Run a dedicated immersion phase with each team. This will help the team get to know each other and establish ways of working together, align on project goals, understand the organization’s context and gain deeper knowledge of the problem/product space.
  • Run focused workshops with each team, and have stakeholders act as observers to aid in buy-in.
  • Take time for team building, and develop a robust onboarding process as the team scales up.
  • Allocate time for team rituals, including daily standups, iteration planning and retros. Each product team will have unique challenges, and these rituals will allow each team to adapt and find the best way to collaborate.
  • Take time to communicate the value of the product development process to the teams you collaborate with and to your stakeholders. A focused immersion phase, team rituals and continuous iteration will help you identify the best way to communicate within your team and with your stakeholders.

Example: One of our large enterprise clients envisioned the development of a unifying platform that would enable their internal teams to take advantage of large quantities of data in order to make product predictions. The team members knew each other but had very different priorities. Connected’s product thinking workshop helped the client align on the product goals and gave the team a direction that would continue to serve as the product’s ‘north star’.

Non-Linear Progress: The team’s job is to capture, shape and deliver continual progress for both the user and the business.

Product discovery is not about Google searches and PowerPoints; it is about making progress towards potentially investing in delivering a product to the market. It eliminates waste by shaping ideas, identifying risks, testing hypotheses, prototyping concepts and quickly learning whether to keep or kill a product concept. 

The following can present hurdles in large organizations:

  • Teams and leadership in large, traditional organizations may lack product discovery experience, making it hard to obtain buy-in for the activities needed to progress.

What you can do:

  • Focus on making and communicating the connection between the organization’s strategic objectives and your team’s process.
  • Tie discovery work to processes already familiar to the company. There are many tools and frameworks for product discovery—use one that is appropriate for the organization’s comfort level and experience.
  • Start by working on what the team understands. In a traditional, execution-focused organization, it can be easier to secure buy-in for process changes. Process improvement (such as CI/CD) enables faster execution and discovery.
  • Find opportunities to build trust by making incremental changes, and use working code to demonstrate progress often.
  • Communication is critical for every step. Use the organization’s language to build a case for product discovery.

Example: In one of our large delivery projects, the client team was eager to see product progress even before the product goals were fully established and agreed upon. We worked with the client to understand their concerns in order to build a communication and demo plan. After we demonstrated a high-fidelity UI and showed incremental progress on the code, it became easier for the client to see the value of the product development process, including discovery. 

Living Systems: Software-powered products are living organisms that exist within complex ecosystems.

The following can present hurdles in large organizations:

  • In a large organization, the best solution may not be the best technical solution due to complex business, architecture, security and regulatory requirements. 
  • Operating in many different markets often means custom rules, which adds complexity to the product.
  • Complex processes contribute to the lack of agility to respond to market evolution after a product is launched. 

What you can do:

  • Leverage the immersion phase to know the key decision makers, and create regular communication cadences with them.
  • Design your software products with extensibility in mind so that components can be updated or replaced as needed. 
  • Build trust with your team and stakeholders through frequent delivery and communication. Your team rituals and CI/CD will help ensure that the work done is visible within the organization and that changes can be made quickly when necessary.

Example: In a project for a social media giant, we had worked from initial ideation through to the launch of their first software-powered hardware product. The product was designed for user needs, desires and tasks, but as with all other tools, the real-world usage of the product opened up new possibilities. After the launch, we worked with their team to evolve one of the product features. Our continuous discovery practice was applied to hear user stories and derive insights that were then applied to ongoing feature updates.

In the ideal application of the product thinking approach, the distinction between each of the principles—unification, non-linear progress and living systems—is small. Each has its own place, but as products are built, they mesh, dovetail and bleed into one another. Although large enterprises present unique challenges for product teams, including those related to collaboration, product discovery and complex requirements, you can work at the speed of a start-up while leveraging the benefits of your firm size. In our experience, product thinking is the key that unlocks speed and scale, keeping everyone focused on the most crucial metric: product impact. 

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