Projects vs Products

Craig Strong
Jul 19, 2015 · 3 min read
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This is a topic which has been bothering me for many years and I’ve often ran into working with companies adopting Agile and Lean practices. It’s not new and it will be around for many years ahead.

To many this might not seem significant, but this has a profound cultural affect on organisations creating digital products. So much so in fact, organisations are losing tens of millions of pounds far too often. Unlike projects, digital products are living things and should be treated as such. The traditional business and delivery model no longer applies to digital products.

Digital products are often born at the point where a project ends. Ironically this is where and when we begin to learn most about our customers needs. Projects at this point are measured successful or not, by the time, scope and cost of development and not necessarily the impact required. This is also the common point where businesses start their transition from delivery to Business As Usual (BAU) and deploy prescriptive support operation models, designed to support assumptions, with limited capabilities for feedback and change.

Let me ask you something, when was the last time you purchased a digital product and thought this was a one off transaction? I’m pretty confident that many if not all of you reading this, expect almost all your digital purchases to be updated regularly with enhanced or new features, provisioned and aligned to new operating systems being released and provide on going confidence through frequent releases from the vendor that security is always maintained. These expectations are aligned to emerging and evolving user behaviours and engagement models, where the best compete on user experience.

We no longer make transactions in the singular sense, we buy relationships with companies through digital products to satisfy our needs as customers. However, behind the scenes, many companies still fund and structure their digital products through the temporary notion of projects. This change from transaction to a relationship, coupled with the ever advance of technology means that the whole game has changed and those who position product over projects are much stronger for it. Companies who are slow to realise this, will be left behind or find themselves in decline as new competitors emerge.

Thinking of projects differently to support the living entities which are digital products, requires organisations to drastically change their culture. I’m not just referring to product teams adopting Agile, but entire organisations needing to change. Would you assemble a team to build a ship then launch it into the sea without a crew to navigate it. Of course not! Would you design a blueprint for any solution in uncharted territory. However that is what we often do with projects in organisations when launching digital products. Digital products are alive and capable to provide incredible insights to customer needs and emerging trends. They are not temporary.

Becoming a digital organisation isn’t about command and control project based methodologies, it’s also not about consuming tech or creating software alone. Its about developing regenerative cultures of enquiry, with the necessary skill to experiment and learn. It’s about creating cultures who are trusted and empowered to adapt and respond who follow goals and outcomes, not detailed plans or commands. It’s about developing relationships between functions which encourage bridges, not walls.

Ask yourself when you’re next confronted with these challenges, whether your measuring outputs or outcomes? How confident are you that your plans will work and if there is doubt what are the consequences of failure ? Is there a way you can iterate and learn to de-risk your idea.

Craig Strong, Author of The Lean Product Lifecycle – a playbook for making products people want.

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