The Build Trap: How can Product Managers Escape It by Melissa Perri
What is the build trap? How do teams fall into it? What can product managers do to escape it?
These are just a few of the questions that Melissa Perri, a product consultant and the author of Escaping the Build Trap, discusses in her presentation she delivered at the Product Drive Summit powered by Userpilot a few weeks ago.
Would you like to learn a bit more? Let’s get right into it.
- The build trap is a situation when the team focuses on shipping features that don’t drive value for the customer and for the business.
- Teams fall into the build trap when there’s no alignment between the product vision and the work of the development team.
- One of the reasons teams focus too much on the outputs and not enough on the outcomes is that the latter are more difficult to measure. Measuring how many features you release and how quickly is much easier.
- To escape the build trap, teams need the right strategy, processes and organizational structures.
- Strategy is a framework that allows teams to make informed and independent decisions.
- Product strategy is made up of product vision, which is a long-term goal, and strategic intents, which are the business challenges that your team is facing.
- Strategy needs to be aligned with product initiatives. These are the product problems that can help you achieve your goals.
- You can solve each of the problems in many ways. Melissa Perri calls them options.
- To choose the right options, you need to conduct user research and experiments. Otherwise, the effectiveness of the decisions will depend purely on luck.
- The key difficulty that many teams face is choosing the right frameworks and tools for their jobs to be done.
- Product Kata is a framework that helps teams discover the right solutions and ensure alignment between the organizational goals, product vision, strategy, and specific product features.
- For the processes to be effective, there needs to be the right structure to support them. Your organization needs to have the right policies and practices.
- The final element necessary to escape the build trap is the right mindset of the product team. They need to be ready to challenge their existing ways of working and embrace the uncertainty that is an inherent part of building products that users find valuable.
- Curious how Userpilot can help you escape the build trap? Book the demo!
What is the build trap?
What’s product value?
There’s no inherent value in the product itself. Products deliver value only when they solve real user problems or satisfy their desires. Adding new features doesn’t increase the value. And no customer value means no business value.
What’s more, adding more and more features may actually reduce the value of the product. Such products are often complex and difficult to maintain. From a user perspective, they are also overcomplicated and hard to use.
How do teams fall into the build trap?
Organizations, however, often forget about this value exchange system and that’s how they fall into the build trap.
How does it happen?
In short, measuring how successful the product is at driving value for the customers is difficult.
That is why teams are often assessed not by the impact their work makes, but by their velocity. The more features they produce, the more successful the senior stakeholders believe they are. That’s also what they get rewarded for.
To achieve the right delivery pace, such teams work hard on streamlining their processes, not building the right functionality. And they keep adding more and more items to the backlog.
Excessive focus on quantity rather than the quality of the features, or the outputs rather than the outcomes of their work is the reason for failure.
How do you escape the build trap?
To escape the build trap, the product manager needs three main ingredients. The strategy, the process, and the organization. What do these all mean?
Product strategy is not a wishlist of features that you want to build or a Gantt chart with the timelines for when each of them will be released.
Such an approach to developing product strategy doesn’t recognize the fact that creating new products involves a lot of uncertainty.
What is product strategy then?
In her presentation, Melissa Peri quotes the definition by Stephen Bungay, the author of the Art of Action:
“Strategy is a deployable decision-making framework, enabling action to achieve desired outcomes and constrained by current capabilities, coherently aligned to the existing context”
Let’s focus on the most important parts of the definition.
First, it’s a decision-making framework and not a plan. It allows teams to make independent decisions, but it doesn’t tell them what to do.
Next, it’s oriented towards desired outcomes. By outcomes, we mean the impact that the product makes or the positive change that it brings to the customer’s life.
Strategy, vision, and strategic intent alignment
The business strategy consists of the business vision and strategic intent.
The business vision is the long-term goal for the product and the organization or how you imagine them in 5-10 years’ time. The focus is on the value you would like to deliver to the customers – the outcomes.
An example of a vision that Melissa Perri gives is:
“In five years, our company will be the meal kit with the most choices and convenience in the market.”
The vision is owned by the CEO and the Senior Leadership.
Strategic intent is the business challenges that stand in the way of realizing the vision. Going up or down the market or an overseas expansion could be examples of actions to tackle such challenges.
For the product with the vision above, the strategic intent would be doubling the acquisition of new customers and maintaining retention by (year).
The challenges are not limited to the product team but encompass all parts of the business. That’s why strategic intent is also the domain of senior leadership.
For the strategy to be effective, the vision and the strategic intent need to be aligned.
Business strategy drives product initiatives and options
Once you have the vision and strategic intent aligned, you start looking at specific product problems. If solved, these problems could help you tackle business challenges. It’s only now that you are starting to look at outputs.
Such product problems are called product initiatives. This is the responsibility of the product leadership team.
An example of a product initiative could be, “increasing conversion rate across all platforms by X% by end of Q2.”
The final piece that needs to be aligned is the options. These are specific solutions to product problems. That’s where the product development teams play the key role.
Why is the alignment of the vision, strategic intent, product initiatives, and options?
In short, it is necessary that all the team teams in the organization work towards the same goals.
Without high-level alignment, the teams would be swimming in different directions. Needless to say, that won’t bring them any closer to achieving the desired outcomes.
How do you develop your product strategy? How do you choose the options that will best address the product problems and as a result will also address the business challenges?
Experimentation is the answer.
As mentioned, creating new products is full of uncertainty. Your product team members, the stakeholders, or the senior leadership may have lots of ideas. However, no matter how brilliant they may seem, there’s no guarantee that they will work.
The only way to find it out is through experimentation.
However, to be able to conduct successful experiments, you need the right processes and tools.
The key stress in the definition is on the word right. There are plenty of amazing tools and frameworks out there and they have the potential to revolutionize the way you work.
However, this happens only when you choose the right tools for the task your want to achieve. Blowing most of your budget on the latest tools won’t help if you don’t use them correctly at the right time.
Product Kata is a framework that guides teams through the discovery process. It helps them ensure alignment between all key factors necessary for effective strategy deployment.
During the Planning phase, the team focuses on the product vision and goals. That’s when the senior leaders set the overarching KPIs or OKRs.
They also look into current user behavior patterns that affect the realization of the product vision and achieving the desired outcomes.
Finally, they single out the first small goal that will bring them closer to achieving the goals.
Experimentation in Product Kata
When the Planning stage is over, the product team conducts user research and starts looking at different options to help them achieve the outcomes.
What’s the best way to conduct user research?
Next, you can follow this up with user interviews to get a deeper understanding of their pain points.
Apart from arranging chats with your users, ask for insights from your sales and customer success teams. They interact with your users regularly and have access to lots of anecdotal data.
Talking with customers often proves very productive. It doesn’t just tell you how they feel about the product. They can also be a great source of ideas that would have never occurred to any of your team members.
Once you have some ideas, it’s time to validate them through experimentation.
In Escaping the Build Trap, Melissa introduces a few of her favorite testing techniques like the concierge service or the Wizard of Oz. Both of them require manual work and are not scalable, but allow teams to test ideas on budget.
To make the process productive, teams need to set up a good discovery/delivery cadence.
As the team goes through each stage of Product Kata, they learn and learning is the only way to reduce the uncertainty involved in product development.
Organization is the third key factor that’s necessary for teams to be able to escape the build trap.
Without them, your team is going to hit one roadblock after another and will not have the autonomy to make independent decisions.
What are the characteristics of great product organizations?
To start with, they’re easy to scale because they grow through software products, and not unrepeatable processes.
Next, they are driven by solving customer problems and are outcome- not output-oriented.
What’s more, great organizations embrace experimentation and are committed to continuous improvement.
Finally, in such organizations, teams feel empowered to make independent decisions at all levels.
To be able to put all three elements in place, your organization needs the right people who will embrace the change and new ways of building products.
This shouldn’t be taken for granted. Why?
Let’s be honest. Staying in the build trap is comfortable. There’s no uncertainty, no second guessing, and limited risk of ‘failure’. There are clear and very tangible objectives. You hit them, and you get your quarterly or annual bonus. Job done.
However, this results in unsustainable products that don’t drive business value. And that may mean job redundancies in the not-so-distant future.
Teams fall into the build trap when there is too much focus on delivering features that are not aligned with the overall business objectives and don’t deliver value to the customers.
To escape the trap, you need the right product strategy, processes, and the organization that supports them. And of course, you need the right people on your team.
If you would like to learn how Userpilot can help you escape the build trap, book the demo!