Digital products and services are increasingly becoming a competitive necessity. However, a significant number of businesses today are faced with an unanticipated and very costly challenge.
Evaluating product ownership is a crucial component of your digital product strategy, and many companies don’t own their product at all. You might find this statement provocative or utterly ridiculous. Let me explain the hard reality behind this, and how it impacts organizations attempting to deliver innovative customer experiences, empower their employees and automate processes through the use of technology.
Digital Product Strategy: Defining Ownership
The first question we need to address is what owning your digital product or service means? And secondly, what are the characteristics of ownership?
Wikipedia defines ownership as: “The state or fact of exclusive rights and control over property, which may be an object, land/real estate or intellectual property. Ownership involves multiple rights, collectively referred to as title, which may be separated and held by different parties.”
By legal definition, most organizations would be able to confidently say that they legally own their digital product or service. However, we have to rethink what ownership means in practice, day-to-day in the context of digital products. The difference between the perception of ownership and reality within our organizations is more often than not very different. The following delineation provides a clear illustration of what this looks like.
Ownership is typically seen in terms of control. As the owner you have control of:
- The direction of the digital product or service, its features, and benefits.
- How it integrates into the business offering.
- Designing a best-in-class user experience.
- The business rules that govern the product.
- How data will flow in and out of the product.
- The source-code of the product.
- Third-party systems we will integrate with to enable our product and the business.
These examples of control assume that you are working in a best-case scenario. While we hope for the best it is rarely a true representation of what is really going on within our organizations or the marketplace. It is important to recognize there is already an abundance of factors that live outside of our control.
When building today’s leading products (platforms) it is imperative to ask yourself questions such as:
- What does control look like in a rapidly changing environment?
- How will the business be impacted when you have a change?
- What happens when there is a change in your team members?
- Will a third-party provider influence your ability to adapt or even deliver your product?
- What happens if you need to rapidly scale up?
Each of these examples can have a cascading effect.
Digital Product Strategy: Ramping Up and Moving Forward Quickly
One of many possible situations that exemplifies this cascading dynamic is customer enrollment into a monthly subscription service, providing access to a digital product. Your enrollment immediately grants personalized access, allowing the subscriber to begin using your online services. As part of this, you have carefully designed an onboarding process to ensure your customer has an optimal experience. It also introduces the customer care team that will provide outstanding, ongoing support.
Let’s expand on this scenario. You are the product manager assigned to a new product team and need to quickly get up to speed. Leadership has critical business goals that are dependent upon key milestones being achieved with your product and you need to get to work right away. You immerse yourself immediately into the work. Diving in to learn everything about the product, you request access to all available documentation. You are informed that the team follows an agile approach, and everything has been documented pursuant to best practices inline within the codebase.
Red flag! Who has control? Does everyone across the team and each function of the business have access to the necessary information to achieve the company’s goals? No. It’s locked in a format that is controlled by development. Is this their fault? No.
Next, you decide to schedule meetings with each person who has been working on the product to learn about their insights. Everyone has been working diligently, but you quickly realize that people have a different understanding of the goals and priorities. Consequently, your concerns grow. You know success is rooted in effectively moving forward quickly as one cohesive team.
In this common scenario critical institutional knowledge is locked away with key people, previous decisions are unclear and need to be revisited. In an extreme situation, let’s assume you need to scale the product, but in order to do so you will need to increase the size of your team internally, or with an external partner. The question of ownership begins to proliferate, becoming more complex and further potential complications and impacts begin to accumulate. The business owns the exclusive legal rights but the implications of losing control are escalating quickly.
The costs of losing control of your digital product
In today’s environment, industries are moving rapidly, business models are more complex, technology-driven shifts are common, and competition is getting tougher. And with soaring customer expectations, the impact of losing control needs to not only be understood, but managed as part of your digital product strategy. The impact of losing control can take several forms.
So what is the impact of a situation like the one above? You might find your team:
- Unable to take advantage of a new business opportunity.
- Incurring unintended design or technical debt as the team is working with an incomplete picture of the critical information necessary to do their best work.
- Performance (velocity) is significantly impacted as they spend more time in meetings, starting and stopping work, re-validating user and business requirements, leading to additional rework deliverables.
- Is over budget, unable to meet timelines with the resources that are available, and unable to manage expectations.
- Being confronted with completely re-platforming the product to regain control, and reach key goals that the business is dependent upon achieving.
Many organizations are taking this hit whether they can afford to take it or not. While in the short-term, it may appear as though there are efficiencies being gained. Possibly, reduced timelines for delivery, or the advantages of a larger feature set. Unfortunately, an expedited upcoming release with skipped steps has the potential of reducing the return on investment to zero.
Taking control back and owning your digital product
To regain control, or to never lose it in the first place, we must shift our thinking to embrace end-to-end knowledge management. Established in the ’90s, knowledge management is the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organization in the most effective manner to empower its people, processes, and support decision making.
There are several formats this may take. Each discipline on the product team needs to understand their integral role in ensuring this happens effectively. In many cases, the deliverables need to be an integrated part of a more complete and holistic picture. There may be a story you have to build. That story, and the resulting clarity that is generated from articulating it, can come in a multitude of forms. At a minimum, that story should address:
- The context for what the product is and the problem it solves
- The intended outcome(s) for its users.
- The business rules and why.
- The user flows and stories.
- The technology ecosystem.
- The business interdependencies.
- The functional requirements.
Ask yourself this question. Could I rebuild my product or service with the information I have? How much would it cost? How long would it take to do it again?
A company-wide mindset towards truly owning your digital products and services from the top down, empowers your team, permits you to stay focused on solving problems, and facilitates unearthing new insights and delivery of crucial new solutions. Organizations that are embracing this are more adept at being flexible, can move faster, are able to operate at greater scale, and increase their competitive edge.
Inquiring as to whether or not you genuinely own your product can be an invaluable exercise. It helps you look at your product and your service in a different way. It facilitates changes in the conversation around quality and roles. More importantly, understanding the importance of knowledge management and how it empowers people across the team and the organization should be seen as building strategic advantage for the business. It continues to promote sustainable performance. When we look at it from this perspective we are able to create alignment from leadership through to the product team. We are able to de-risk the business and continue to accelerate consistent improvements. Once this has been established, you can affirm that re-creating the product and service are attainable, then you truly do own it.