The Folly of Inside-Out Product Thinking

Inside out jacket

Inside out just doesn’t fit right

Ever run into this deductive reasoning?

  1. Customers like our existing products and our company
  2. We are building a new product that reflects the priorities of a company executive
  3. Therefore, customers will like our new product

It’s a clear violation of the First Law of Product: Customers decide what products they like, not companies.

Inside-out thinking is a situation where the wrong reasons are applied to decide which products are to be developed:

  • That market is so big, let’s build something for it
  • My intuition says this is the next big thing
  • This new product will position our company for what is important to us

Those reasons are actually not entirely out of the question for success either. The things that define truly inside-out thinking are (i) an impulse guided by a “we need” , not a “the customer needs” mentality; and (ii) skipping customer validation or ignoring troubling feedback from customers during validation. When you see those two dynamics at play, you’ve left the realm of sophisticated decision-making. You’re in the land of gambling with shareholders’ money. Sure, some inside-out products will succeed. But that’s analogous to saying that some lottery ticket holders win too. It’s a sucker’s bet.

Inside-out thinking is a pervasive thing. I came across this table in Gerry McGovern’s book, The Stranger’s Long Neck. McGovern surveyed  SMB users of a website Microsoft runs – Pinpoint – that helps find IT solutions built on Microsoft technologies. The SMBs were asked what their top tasks were when they visited Pinpoint. McGovern then did something interesting: he asked the Microsoft team what they thought users’ top tasks were.

The table below outlines the results:

Customer Microsoft
Internet security Customer relationship management
Backup and recovery Internet marketing
Security Network management
Desktop support Sales/lead generation
Data/document management Billing

That’s a stark difference between what users value and what Microsoft thought they did. Or perhaps what Microsoft wished users valued. As McGovern notes, “And just like every other organization on the planet, what Microsoft wants is not always what the customer wants.”

This isn’t to pick on Microsoft; it really is the case at companies everywhere. Microsoft just happens to have been open enough to share their own experience here.

You can recognize it when it happens. Here are the Top 3 signs of inside-out thinking:

  • The spreadsheet says it will be big!
  • I don’t need customer validation, they don’t know what they want anyway
  • The Board/CEO/other senior executive is pressuring us to do this

Inside-out thinking is poor decision-making, it’s a bet with terrible odds, and wastes resources. Tough to understand how we can be so methodical with other operations in the organization and still go seat-of-the-pants in this area.

Update: I hadn’t seen his tweet at the time I published this post, but Box founder/CEO Aaron Levie offers another consequence of inside-out thinking here:

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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The Product Manager is the Chief Customer Development Officer

If pressed, what would you say is the secret to product success? Certainly there are a number of things that go into making and selling products. Prioritization, design, manufacturing frameworks, marketing, service, cost of production, etc. Each of these elements needs to be optimized, and there are people, practices and tools that do just that.

Despite rigor in much of the product process, there’s still too high a failure rate for products. I’ll bet you’ve seen this in your own company: proposed products that received a lot of internal resources only to be killed off, or that launched and didn’t hit the mark with customers. As you can see, there’s a story to it:

Product development success and failure

Consider that first panel for a moment. A third of launched products fail. That doesn’t include the projects that were killed before launch. 32% of development resources are spent on products that get scrapped or fail in the market. To put that in perspective, imagine similar levels of failure in other venues:

  • We  miscalculated 32% of the accounting entries
  • 32% of our inventory purchases were wasted
  • Our marketing initiatives fail to sell anything or raise brand awareness 32% of the time
  • 32% of our manufacturing capacity is chronically unavailable

Those levels of performance would be unacceptable in companies. Yet they’re considered part of the ‘art’ of innovation when it comes to product. The cost of doing business. Which is pretty sweet if you’re a product person…

OK, forget that. Let’s assume rational, ambitious people want to do better.

What works? Survey says…

In a survey of B2B firms, people were asked to identify the causes of failed products. The top answer was ‘lack of market analysis’. As in, did the market have the need, did the feature address it if so, and did it do so better than competing products? The next answer was that the ‘product didn’t satisfy customer needs’. There’s a pattern here.

Flip the analysis…what are the top success factors? All three  are specifically rooted in understanding customer needs:

  1. Product directed at customer needs
  2. Staying close to the customer
  3. Product adds value to the customer

Notice that pattern again? Products that succeed are designed and developed with customer insight.

Factors that make customer involvement successful

Researchers in Sweden conducted an analysis of firms’ product development efforts, classifying the products as successful or not successful. They tracked these product outcomes against the types of interactions the firms have with customers. Note they tracked product development efforts as incremental innovation. They separately tracked radical innovations as well.

For incremental innovation – i.e. the daily work of product managers – they were able to identify three factors that separated successful products from the rest. Factors that affected the “absorptive capacity” of the company to assimilate customer needs.

Engagement frequencyEngagement frequency: The more often a company communicates with customers, the more successful were it product releases. Communication can be oriented toward understanding needs, or for feedback on design iterations.

Two-way directionTwo-way communication: The nature of the communication dictates its value. If the company does all the talking, it’s not going to learn much. The more the communication is a dialogue, the better the outcome for the product.

Needs in contextNeeds in context: The more the insight is captured as part of a broader view of the activity, the better that insight is. Top insight is gathered as the customer experiences using the product. It’s also valuable to understand the why for insight. If the suggestion or need is in isolation, it can be hard to understand the core need.

Now, who is in charge of getting this insight?

Chief Customer Development Officer

Think about this. For marketing, it’s clear who owns that activity, and you can see processes, systems, people and priorities for it. Same goes for manufacturing / development. And design. And supply chain management. And distribution. And financial analysis. And human resources. And so on…

But where are the comparable processes and people dedicated to understanding the customers’ needs? Who plumbs the jobs-to-be-done and analyzes the key outcomes customers are seeking? The work of understanding customer needs, in one sense, is everybody’s responsibility. It’s what makes the company grow. But if something is everybody’s responsibility, it’s really nobody’s responsibility.

It’s an important question, because the degree to which one stays close to the customer is a primary basis of success or failure in product development. As a function, what would you call this work? Customer Needs Whisperer? Voice of the Customer-ologist? Actually, Steve Blank has it covered with customer development:

Before any of the traditional functions of selling and marketing can happen, the company has to prove a market could exist, verify someone would pay real dollars for the solutions the company envisions, and then go out and create the market. These testing, learning and discovery activities are at the heart of what makes a startup unique, and they are what make Customer Development so different from the Product Development process

Steve Blank, The Four Steps to the Epiphany

While Steve Blank’s excellent book is targeted at entrepreneurs who need to do the hard work of validating an idea, the mindset underlying customer development is well-suited for the need to stay close to customers. Hence, the notion of the Chief Customer Development Officer. And the product management team sits at ground zero in the customer development activity.

What distinguishes customer development from the current mentality in most companies? Cribbing from a Jack London quote:

You can’t wait for customer insight to come to you. You have to go after it with a club.

This is a change in mindset for many. Be proactive in understanding customers. Make communicating with customers a meaningful percentage of the weekly schedule. Don’t settle for inbound inquiries. Or only focus groups on an already-designed product. Or quarterly customer council meetings. Really own the customer development activity.

It’s worth it, as here are five concrete benefits of employing the customer development mindset:

  1. Develop understanding of what success looks like for the customer
  2. Customer becomes invested in the success of the product
  3. Elevate customers’ awareness of what’s coming
  4. Discover opportunities for growth due to underserved JTBD
  5. Reduce uncertainty due to lack of information

You only get these by being a proactive customer development officer.  In a future post, I’ll examine the different ways engage customers in the product development process. Because there are many.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.