Finding Harmony in Product Development

Product ApproachProduct Strategy

Business leaders tend to think that launching a digital product is a linear set of events—a three-step process: strategize, build, and launch. And at one point, it was. Think back to when AOL used to ship CD-ROMs to your doorstep. They gathered requirements, designed the software, tested it, and shipped it to consumers. This “waterfall” approach to software development is still used today when it shouldn’t. Today’s consumers expect immediacy. If you’re not launching a new product version fast enough to keep up with your customer’s expectations, you’re already falling behind your competitors, and it’s only a matter of time before your customers move their loyalty elsewhere.

This is why it’s critical to reshape the way we think about launching successful products—from a linear process to a symphony. Our approach to building products successfully and our development disciplines allow the product to grow and adapt as the market and customer needs change.

Product Development is a Symphony

The days of shipping consumers software on CD-ROM discs and waiting for the money to roll in are over. Successful product development today is less of a linear process and more like a symphony, where strategy, development, and performance are sections of the orchestra. Each section plays simultaneously, as one group, to create a beautiful product.

To take our symphony metaphor even further, consider how musicians master their instruments. Practice—intentional time set aside to fail without consequence. That is how they try out new techniques and refine their skills. Intentional failure is baked into their job description, and it should be built into your product development approach as well.

Here is how each of the components of your “symphony” can play concurrently:

Symphony Section 1: Product Strategy

Far too many companies heavily invest in high-level strategy while undervaluing iterative improvement. This high-level strategy is often disconnected from its practical application, leaving questionable insights and no starting point. But this can be avoided.

The trick to conducting a successful practical product strategy is to get all stakeholders aligned and focused on defining outcomes, measuring success, and developing plans for iterative improvement. That’s all people representing the teams with a stake in the product’s development: research and design, engineering and quality, marketing and product, analysts and executives.

Align Stakeholders

Develop a shared perspective on what success looks like for the product, its users, and your company. There are a few ways to do this:

Envision the future. Are you trying to build a boat… or travel the world? Lay the groundwork for what your product should accomplish. Work backward from your ultimate goal by creating phases in your product’s life cycle. Share these phases and the long-term product vision with your teams, and empower them to contribute their expertise in bringing it to life.

Validate the approach. Get the product in front of users. Conduct customer interviews and tests as soon as possible. Set the expectation that change is inevitable, so stakeholders can be ready to adapt. Change is good, especially if it reduces the time it takes to reach successful outcomes.

Measure success. Define your product’s North Star: the key metric by which you can measure success. That metric can be enduring throughout all of the phases of your product, or it can change as the product and market evolve. The important things are that the stakeholders are aligned on what success looks like, know how each other will contribute to it, and have visibility into the progress toward that goal.

Create a roadmap based on outcomes.

Don’t lose your focus. Stay iterative and stay the course.

Keep realistic expectations. Many business leaders overestimate their product’s capabilities in its infancy. You will not see “hockey stick” growth from your product immediately. Like dieting or going to the gym, you must diligently work towards your goals with discipline to see a return. There are no shortcuts.

Resist “Shiny New Object Syndrome.” Sometimes, when a company doesn’t get a huge return immediately, they reflexively churn out new features. Keep improving your core offering instead. Bolster your foundation by investing in your core products and features before adding new ones.

Anticipate and welcome failure. Whether you’re an enterprise or a startup, build the expectation of failure into your strategy with opportunities to revisit and revise. Strive to build a strategy that can endure through tactical pivots. If you must, don’t be afraid to rethink your strategy.


Symphony Section 2: Product Performance

In today’s digital ecosystem, good performance analytics are vital. The insights you garner as users interact with your product’s features are your product’s nervous system. Without them, your products are brain-dead— you will never understand your users’ journey, what matters to them, or how you can improve.

It’s also important to note that unless you have stockpiles of good karma and unusually forgiving customers, the quality of your analytics and your ability to understand them determines the success of your products.

Conduct a data deep dive

To understand your customer, product, and the relationship between the two, you need high-quality mechanisms to capture accurate data and the skills to uncover actionable insights.

Get real about your relationship with data. Align stakeholders on the current state of your data—and where you want to be. Do you have the right people to gather and understand the data? Do you have a central source of truth, or is data scattered across the organization? How often are you truly using data to inform your decisions today?

Get to know your data. Make space in your roadmap to build or implement the capabilities that will bring data to your fingertips. Align on how metrics are calculated, develop a lexicon to foster good communication, and understand which metrics are important to your users (as opposed to vanity metrics that get published in articles.) Users don’t care about customer lifetime value, but they do care about how long it took them to onboard.

Use data to evolve your product. Build iteratively to enhance the user experience. Observe your user’s behavior through analytics to see what features customers use most. Create cohorts to identify common behaviors, and develop a perspective on how and why users migrate between cohorts. Is there an opportunity to improve user experience and increase efficiency? Enhancements like so are more cost-effective ways to reach your goals than investing in new features. Last but certainly not least, understand how user behaviors and feature utilization impact revenue.


Symphony Section 3: Product Development

In the outdated, linear product lifecycle, product development comes last. Executives and marketers are anxious to get their products to market. Delivery teams are pressured to scramble to define, design, and build features fast—and often, disconnected from the value proposition.

Organizations will also exhaust their budgets on massive development efforts… with no idea how to bring the product to market. Or worse, the product is launched only to have enthusiasm (and funding) fizzle out at the first sign of lackluster performance.

Close the Feedback Loop

To avoid these pitfalls, we must connect product strategy and performance to development from the very first bar of the symphony.

Give engineering a place at the table. It’s insane that engineering decisions get made without a single engineer in the room. Give engineers a space alongside marketing, finance, and strategy for a balanced and realistic perspective. And don’t treat engineers like salespeople. Delivery targets should be grounded in data, not motivational quotas.

Vision casting with design. Give designers the freedom to think big and cast a vision the team can rally behind. It’s one thing to bring everyone together to talk about the vision, but there is no replacement for being able to visualize that vision together. Allow your team to think far into the future and conceptualize how customers will use your products years from now – then, in the next step, work backward from those concepts to deliver the highest value features first.

The trick here is balance. Cast a big vision while acknowledging you have lots to learn with every iteration. Make design a part of the learning process and give the latitude to adapt the design direction accordingly.

MVP vs MLP. Minimum Viable Product should not be synonymous with “Version 1.0”. Apply the MVP mindset to every version you release to the market. Each version should feel valuable to users and deliver the value for which it was designed. All too often, “viability” is sacrificed in favor of speed to market, and the product’s performance is lackluster.

Instead, embrace MLP: Minimum Lovable Product. Products stripped down to their bare bones won’t be embraced by their users—or perform well against target objectives.

Bring It All Together

Thomas Edison created countless light bulbs before finding one that worked. Success requires iteration. This is true not only for product success but also for team success. Google found that the biggest key to building effective teams was by creating psychological safety. Just as products need time and space to fail, so do people.

When teams fear failure, they don’t take risks necessary to drive innovation. When the expectation is that every move must be successful “or else,” responsibility is avoided, and deliverables become a game of hot potato. Teams are more successful when people can ask questions, take risks, make mistakes, or challenge the status quo without fearing embarrassment or punishment.

Break Down Barriers to Success

There is only one type of failure that is truly unfruitful: a siloed organization. The good news is that by bringing product strategy, development, and performance together, this is nearly impossible

Start somewhere. Anywhere. Because all sections of the “orchestra” play simultaneously, it doesn’t matter where you start. Some teams need to start by evaluating existing product data. Others will strategize how to capitalize on new opportunities. That’s fine. The important thing is to start.

Know how to bring your capabilities together. Make teams responsible for sharing lessons learned and use them as a springboard for iterative progress. Create the expectation that teams will fail, and that failure is part of the process.

Create a check-in process for product updates. Keep teams aligned on a cadence and goals framework (KPIs/OKRs) for tracking progress. Have every product team provide an update for their area, covering what they’ve done if it worked, and what they’re doing next. These three things create a healthy product approach that incorporates accountability for past efforts, analysis of the current state, and transparency on future plans and strategies.

Use performance and development to inform strategy. When companies view product development as a linear process, the logical place to start is strategy. But the strategy doesn’t end with a proof of concept or product launch. When working iteratively, allow discoveries to influence the strategy. The market changes a little each day, and the best strategy is one that can keep up.

Get real about expectations. Last but not least, keep realistic expectations when building iteratively. The first version of a product will never match the ultimate vision of success you’re imagining. Remember that, as any musician will tell you, practice makes progress, not perfect.


Start the Journey to Synchronicity

Conducting the “symphony” of product development after years of operating in silos is no easy task for enterprises. Yet, with some fine-tuning and lots of practice, your assemblage of experts will become a unified orchestra, where each section compliments the others. For your next product launch, give strategy, performance, and development each a seat at the table from the beginning. With more opportunities to learn and pivot, you’ll wind up with products that truly resonate.

Picture of Jason LeBlanc

Jason LeBlanc is a Product Manager & Strategy Consultant at Dialexa. Jason began his tech career early in college when he founded his first company and discovered his talent for user experience and design. Today, Jason is an accomplished leader in building product management and design teams, scaling products to millions of users, and advising clients across multiple industries to do the same with their products. At Dialexa, Jason focuses his energy on empowering his teams to be effective product leaders as we build amazing solutions for our clients.
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