Top-down vs. Bottom-up product development

We were discussing a new feature that involves building functionality that has never been done before. In order to design it, we relied on a few assumptions that are difficult to validate without actually building the product.

This reminded me of the fundamental differences between dogfood-style (bottom-up) vs vision driven (top-down) product development, and the companies that follow them: Google vs Apple, and how this approach defines how products are built.

Google has a strong bottom-up culture and believes in being extensively data driven. All the products that are built at google go through extensive number-crunching and analysis before (well, for the most part). It is very difficult for someone to justify a brand new product as there might not exist enough existing data to validate it.

Apple, on the other hand, is driven by vision. There is, of course, a lot of user research that happens to get to the vision, but they have repeatedly build new products which create a brand new market that never existed before. They have changed the company focus multiple times in a major way that it affects more than 50% of their revenue or users. It usually involves the high level teams define a clear product vision for the company, and everyone works towards executing on that path.

Creating something that is truly groundbreaking is extremely difficult to validate using existing data, so it relies on someone who has a clear foresight on what is going to be useful. It is very difficult to create something using iterative, data driven techniques that will change people’s behavior in a major way. It is, however, a great way to do incremental improvements to an existing product and get big results and can work quite well until someone ‘changes the game’. Top-down, vision driven strategy can refute the existing mindset to create something truly revolutionary, but it relies on a ‘leader’ to be able to analyze the data they have and define this clear ‘vision’.

Having a clear overall vision for a company also helps the teams to know what’s good and what’s bad, and they have a clear path that they can execute on and be highly successful. This vision has to be broad enough to cover global trends, but also sharp enough so it can actually be followed, and it is absolutely the most critical thing for the long term success of a company.

One can also argue that the difference is similar to a democracy vs dictatorship. On paper, under the ideal conditions, dictatorship based governance can be more efficient. However, its more prone to ‘rogue dictators’ which leads us to the belief that democracy is better in the long term.

In the end, getting the right vision is extremely difficult, but might be the biggest factor in determining long-term success of a company! As someone building new products, I always strive to have a very clear direction to where the product should go in the long term, and if the vision is right, the pieces will fit in automagically as its executed upon.

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