Moving Faster with a Product Mindset
In 2007, the movie I Am Legend featured a memorable scene in which Will Smith’s character, the only human in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan populated by vampires, pretends to rent a movie from an abandoned video store, attempting to inject some normalcy into the wasteland he now call home.
Today, just over a decade later, the scene feels a bit like an artefact. Smith is still fighting monsters but on smaller screens, and far from being the quintessence of normal life, video stores are almost extinct, replaced by streaming services and mobile downloads. We’re willing to bet that few people settling into theaters back then would have guessed so much would change so quickly — not just in entertainment but across most of society:
- As shopping and social activities have moved online, malls (many of which housed the theaters with those I Am Legend screenings) are closing in large numbers.
- Car ownership has grown increasingly optional due not only to ride-sharing but also an app economy that’s made existing public transportation infrastructure more convenient and usable.
- Financial management is becoming more likely to occur on a device than in a bank branch.
- We went from typing at our devices to swiping and touching their screens — and now, we’re increasingly talking to them too.
- Rather than setting alarms or straining to finish the millionth email of the day, some of us have begun to rely on machine intelligence to remind us when to leave or to suggest the right phrase.
The examples could go on, but they all add up to the same idea: today’s economy is being impacted by several large-scale tech disruptions simultaneously, which means it’s moving and evolving faster than ever. Businesses that want to survive, let alone compete, have to do the same.
Obviously, accelerating a business is easier said than done. Many enterprises have spent mightily on digital transformation initiatives in recent years, and not all of them have seen the results they’ve wanted.
In our experience working with large enterprises on their digital transformation initiatives, we’ve seen that the companies that move fastest typically don’t just invest in technology projects — they leverage technology with a product mindset.
What is the IT Product Mindset?
To understand the IT product mindset, it’s useful to start with its opposite — the project mindset.
The project mindset is present in some form or another at most businesses. Enterprises will always embark on projects, but the potential problem with a dominant project mindset is that projects start and stop. They are discrete, and if they evolve, those evolutions arrive in big, monolithic chunks. Projects are fine — but if the project mindset rules over software development, the business might not be.
In this way of operating, project managers generally move on when the project is over. They often work under governance models that make project requirements difficult to change once they’ve been collected. Their work is often judged by completion, and if there is a post-mortem to discuss how the project was received, it’s often to inform future work, not to update the original project.
This IT mindset was tenable when enterprises had the luxury of moving relatively cautiously and deliberately, but it can’t keep pace with today’s economy. Companies that want to move faster will find it increasingly difficult to bolt a bunch of small, discrete technology projects onto the existing business and create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Evolution didn’t just sew wings onto dinosaurs — it evolved some of them into birds in a continuous feedback cycle. Businesses must evolve similarly — but much, much faster. Nature’s feedback loops can span millennia, but those in today’s digital economies are measured in hours, minutes, and even fractions of a second.
All of this is to say, real digital transformation isn’t about the number of projects a company completes. Rather, it’s about whether an enterprise harnesses technology to continuously and iteratively evolve how the business operates and how it delivers value to customers and partners. It’s not about an app or a new digital channel — it’s about technology becoming indistinguishable from the business because technology continually enables different ways of operating.
Compared to legacy project-minded approaches, this idea of perpetual agility and evolution is a fundamentally different mindset — a product mindset.
Yes, product-minded businesses still complete IT projects, but rather than moving in large, centrally-managed teams, they rely more on smaller “two pizza” teams. Each of these teams is continuously responsible for something crucial to the business, granted the governance autonomy to move quickly and independently, and able collaborate with other teams’ work via application programming interfaces, or APIs.
Among many impacts, having these smaller, more agile teams can mean that many things that might have once been neglected projects within a huge, lumbering legacy application are now products continually managed, maintained, and improved by small, nimble groups. The perspective within these teams isn’t driven by completing projects and moving on to new ones — it’s driven by collecting data about releases, then iterating on them or scaling them down as appropriate.
In the past, for example, creating an API would have been a project that connected systems within a single application. Today, that API should be maintained by a product team focused on making that API easy for developers to use, opening it up to be leveraged in many apps.
The product mindset, in other words, turns the API from a systems integration project to a digital asset that can provide ongoing value. It’s the difference between end users having navigational capabilities in a few applications and end users having navigational capabilities in many apps plus new industries, such as ridesharing, that were nurtured on publicly available mapping API products.
Tips to Move Faster and Instill an IT Product Mindset
Businesses looking to implement an IT product mindset and begin evolving faster should focus on three core tenets:
- Outside-in thinking: The product mindset is customer-driven and obsessed with improving the customer experience. Inside-out thinkers derive strategies largely from internal intuition and the resources that IT says are already available. Outside-in thinkers starts by asking what the customer needs, then building strategies from there. Because customer preference never stands still, an outside-in perspective is constantly evolving and hungry for new data.
- Minimum viable products: Project-minded companies often over-optimize their releases, potentially wasting time and resources on edge use cases before testing whether the core idea is even viable. Product-minded companies emphasize minimum viable products (MVPs) so they can get an idea to market quickly, begin understanding how users are interacting with releases, then use this understanding to make improvements.
- Iteration: As the above tenets note, the IT product mindset is focused on improving customer experiences through iteration. This requires increasingly diverse forms of intelligence, from “soft” data collected via direct interaction with customers to “hard” data collected at the API layer to machine learning algorithms that help automate the improvement of products. In today’s economy, companies must be data-driven to move fast with confidence.
Remember: it’s not Just About the Technology
When we talk about technology evolving the business, we mean the whole business.
Think about the ripple effect from those small teams wementioned. These teams are generally necessary if a business wants to move fast, but to support them, the company may have to change its governance and operational processes, decentralizing them so that data is still protected but more autonomy exists within individual teams. It may need to change its technology infrastructure to ensure these teams can move independent of one another, without one team’s work creating dependencies that slow down another’s. And it may need to change metrics and incentives processes that were focused on completion to those that encourage analysis and iteration.
Moving fast is inextricable from digital transformation, and “digital” is inextricable from the entire business. It’s all connected — and in many ways, it starts by shifting from a project-minded approach to a product-minded one.