Responsibility #1: Adopt a Common Product Development Process

By Michael Colemere and Candianne Haacke

Product Development Process Advantages
 
In May of 2015, the 280 Group conducted a study to determine the biggest challenges facing product managers. Of 900 respondents, half said their teams do not use a consistent product development process. And 45% said product management skill levels vary greatly. These findings have huge implications, because organizations that do not use common processes face far more problems and challenges than those that do. Skill level consistency and overall effectiveness increase when a consistent process is used across teams. Product managers are much more likely to be viewed as leaders when a consistent process across teams is used.

It was New York Times best-selling author and Harvard Business School faculty member John P. Kotter who said, “When you create differences you need to be prepared to manage differences and managing differences takes energy.” The 280 Group survey shows that companies with teams using different processes experience more challenges. The biggest challenge is that product managers are tactical, not strategic. So, the question is whether or not organizations want to spend their energy addressing challenges or adopting a common product development strategy.

Product Development Process Flowchart
 
So, what does an effective common product development process look like? Management and development strategies and tactics used by product managers have evolved considerably throughout the digital age, varying considerably across organizations. Yet, since April of 2012, an unexpected organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has used a common product development process across more than 80 digital products ranging from websites like LDS.org (19 million average monthly visits), to mobile apps like Gospel Library App (3 million active monthly users), to documentaries like Meet the Mormons (cracked the box office Top 10).

It is not uncommon for organizations like the LDS Church to adopt a custom product development process (more than 35% of organizations do so, and most incorporate some aspects of Agile development). Their process of product development is cyclical and identifies the key outputs expected from each phase. The process is end-to-end, including ideate, define, plan, create, launch, and maintain. At each phase, there is a clear leader to maximize accountability and boost skill level consistency. Participants counsel together along the way as partners between sponsoring (or marketing) and service (or IT production) arms to reduce conflict and potential duplication.

Adopting a Common Process
 
It has taken the LDS Church several years to adopt a common product development strategy. Yet, they continue to see dramatic benefits in the form of: cost savings, reduced duplication, increased skill level (among product managers and team members alike), reduced time to launch, and higher-quality production — all while requiring fewer heroics. They are still striving to improve the working relationship between product management and production and engineering teams (a common sentiment shared among product managers).

By far, the most cited problem product managers report is with internal processes. Yet, the steps to develop a product from cradle to grave need not be complex. In fact, the simpler the better because a number of individuals will have to be trained before the process can actually become “common” and take hold across the institution. Instituting a common process across a large organization takes time and energy, but not nearly as much as the energy required managing differences. Adopt a common product development process and your organization will experience far fewer challenges than those who do not.