The Language of Product Success?

How scepticism of buzzwords and language can be a barrier to product success.


I was catching up with an old colleague of mine recently and chatting about work. He’s a Digital Veteran: a Programme Manager who has ‘permalanced’ at most of the agencies and big software houses in London over the last 15 years. Like most veterans, he’s an extreme sceptic when it comes to Shiny New Ideas and fads and takes what can be described as a ‘reserved’ approach to new methodologies in product and project management.

When I mentioned a challenge I was facing managing Product at a well known retail brand, he listened carefully and then recommended the following course of action:

  1. Chat to some of the brand’s customers about their shopping habits
  2. Quickly develop a basic version of an app that addresses the key customer needs identified
  3. Release said basic version
  4. Listen to the response from customers and continue to develop accordingly

When I pointed out to him that this was, more or less, an orthodox Lean Startup approach to product development his response was indignant: “Call it what you want. I call it the bleeding obvious.’

This neatly encapsulates a huge challenge that everyone faces when introducing a Shiny New ‘branded’ methodology into any organisation. People instinctively reject being pigeon-holed or badged and are suspicious of fads, even if the key tenets of what you are suggesting are very much in line with their own beliefs. Whether it’s Customer Success, Lean Startup, or Agile, those that evangelise new thinking often find that the terminology used quickly becomes damaged by overuse and ultimately becomes a barrier to adoption.

Bronwen Clune’s account of the reactions at Microsoft to the use of the term ‘MVP’ very much reflect my own experiences trying to sell the same idea to the editorial team of one of the UK’s oldest newspapers:

“When we said MVP people thought we were talking about creating ‘junk’. We couldn’t use that language and found we had to talk in a new way, one that they understood. The key term was “building bridges” between customers and companies. We talked about hypotheses in terms of “vision” and that started working. MVP became ‘hypotheses driven development.”

Many product people have encountered similar reactions and been obliged to adapt their language accordingly. Lean by any other name is still Lean. Advocating the use of data analysis to anticipate customer problems before they occur is an easier sell than demanding the wholesale adoption of Customer Success.By stripping away the baggage of buzzwords and evangelising for the principles and benefits instead, you are less likely to meet resistance from those who are instinctively averse to Shiny New Things.

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