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Should You Focus on Product Development Strategy, not Planning, to Empower Your Product Teams?

Should You Focus on Product Development Strategy, not Planning, to Empower Your Product Teams?

  • Leadership /
  • Podcast /
  • Product Strategy /

Recently Jonathon Hensley, CEO of Emerge, sat down with Erin May and John Henry Forster, hosts of the Awkward Silences podcast. They geeked out on all things UX research, product development strategy, and the craft of understanding people to build better products and businesses. Here is an excerpt from the conversation; scroll down to listen to the full episode.


The Difference Between Product Development Strategy and Planning

“A vision without a plan is a daydream, but a plan without a vision is a nightmare.” ~ Anonymous

It is really important to have a clear understanding about the difference between product strategy and planning. This is one of the big gotchas, and it’s also one of the traps right now, under the current circumstances. Planning gives us something concrete, it feels tangible, its actionable. Planning is being confused for strategy. It gives us a false sense of security. Until you actually know what you’re planning, and you have a clear vision and strategic plan, that security is really based on a bunch of false assumptions. By not getting anchored to planning that is to inevitably change, we are actually liberating teams and organizations to stay focused on the right things.

Strategy can be boiled down to: What’s the problem we’re going to solve? Why is it worth solving? And making sure that we have a clear understanding of the outcome we want to produce. That’s really what strategy is all about. There’s a million things that we can do. But why are we focused on these things? That is really the anchor of strategy. When we get into planning, it is very tactical. It’s scheduling and resource allocations. How are we going to solve this problem? It gets confused with strategy.

Product Strategy becomes a Northstar. It is the value we need to create. We give that product strategy to teams, they become empowered to solve the problem in the best way, because they’re the research experts. They’re the design experts. They’re the engineers that know how to create these things. And we shift our organization when we do that from being delivery focused to being outcome focused. 

I think the best organizations that I see revisit strategy. Product development strategy is not something that’s done and then forgotten and put it up on a shelf. It’s something where they come back and ask themselves: Is the problem we’re solving, is it still a relevant problem to our customer? Do they adapt? Or do they need to pivot? There is no such thing as over-communicating. If you stay clear on those things in your strategy, then you can really refocus. This is the value that our customers need. And that’s going to be really important. Researchers are in this beautiful place right now to be the tip of the spear for organizations to understand and start to look at that through another lens. 

I think the most important thing right now… to anybody doing research, your work has never been more important. When things are going great organizations can easily say: “we’ll do that later,” but when things are tough, the risk tolerance is low, and good insight that is actionable, that gives us perspective on our customers, new ways of looking at a problem are absolutely essential. For those people out there doing research: continue to do that really important work and realize that you have one of the most powerful voices right now in helping develop alignment within your organization.


The Impact of Bias in Research

When we talk about research, that can be interpreted in many different ways depending on somebody’s level of experience and expertise. How do you approach that research? Why would you do that? How do I design this kind of experience?  Shared understanding unlocks your ability to really focus on the right things, it allows you to effectively make better decisions. You’ll drive more effective collaboration and your speed of delivery will continuously increase. 

“It’s very difficult for some teams to come into the process and remove their own cognitive bias or understanding of something that can also be influenced by other team members’ functions, the organization, the sponsors, or shared stakeholders in that research. It’s really important to come into these things removing that bias and really doing objective research. Somebody in a leadership role may have a great idea…with a bias in place. You go out to validate your assumption or your idea versus really trying to understand the deeper rooted problem that you might be solving.

Researchers and designers have an incredible opportunity that isn’t discussed that often. They should be one of the key voices and champions of building common language and understanding. They have this incredible role of being this bridge between the internal and the external parts of the organization. By nature, they have this inclination of curiosity, about wanting to remove bias from the process and bring those raw insights into the organization. 

This is an incredible opportunity to bring in a deeper understanding of the power of empathy for people doing research. Bring those cross functional teams to the forefront of the research process and invite them to participate. When you do that, you can build an incredible level of alignment and you’re also educating them. You’re exposing them to the information where you can have a really meaningful conversation. Sometimes researchers are sent out into the world to get information, come back, and give a report. But it’s hard to capture all of the contextual information and develop a really comprehensive understanding of empathy. By bringing in people at all levels of the organization to participate is incredibly powerful. By participating in research, you develop empathy, you develop an understanding, you start to break down those biases and those assumptions, and you start to create a different framework.


Individual Level of Alignment is Integral in Success

Organizations talk about people as their most important part of their organization. They talk about how it differentiates them all the time. But so often the work is left incomplete to really connect with people at an individual level.  I think individual alignment is a shared responsibility.  Why are we creating this product? What is the product development strategy? What kind of impact do we want to have? Are we really clear about the problem we’re trying to solve? These are things that come out of our expertise of doing the work. But leaders also have to do their part. They have to have a Northstar. We know what we’re trying to create. And, we’re committed to solving this problem. That helps people understand where they fit, and how they can contribute.

If you understand how you can make a difference, research shows that job satisfaction goes up, employee engagement goes up, and our ability to problem solve is increased because we’re focused on navigating the process and putting our energy, in most rewarding ways, into really developing solutions that are better. It also respects individuals at a much higher level. You can show them: we’ve got clarity here. That clarity allows us to really come together and collaborate. This is something that so many people, especially now, are really looking to do more effectively. You get an amplification effect when you have alignment. There is an urgency that people have now for change, or to adapt, or pivot their product or their service.

There is urgency to be busy to show value or to create change. People want to speed up, but they need to slow down in order to move faster. They need to make sure that they are aligned, so that they can be working collectively to make a much more significant contribution.

Listen to the entire podcast:

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