Product Mindset

What is a Product Mindset?

A product mindset is nothing more than a single-minded focus on creating meaningful value for customers before all else. The Scrum Guide 2020 defines a product as “a vehicle to deliver value. It has a clear boundary, known stakeholders, and well-defined users or customers.” It can be a designed physical object, a service, or a more abstract offering.  

A product mindset, therefore, means having a better understanding of stakeholder requirements, in order to deliver increments of value faster, that meet or exceed user needs

Common elements of a product mindset include:

  • Defining your customers (and all stakeholders)
  • Beginning with user needs
  • Focusing on needs to drive the solution
  • Getting continuous feedback from users 
  • Placing outcomes before output – but manage both!
  • Enabling solution free discovery
  • Aligning your organization with products  
Product Mindset
Product Mindset Elements

What Are the Benefits of a Product Mindset?

A product mindset is important because it enables your company to deliver greater value to users – and value that continues to improve, while boosting your productivity and innovation.

The benefits of a product mindset include:

  • Improved customer satisfaction
  • Better execution on your ”North Star”
  • Higher overall business value coming from your teams
  • Faster delivery of incremental value to customers
  • More adaptable teams focused on business value 

Who Needs a Product Mindset?

A product mindset is for everyone in your organization, from the c-suite to the individual contributor. Some organizations teach it to everyone, not only to product teams but to HR and Finance as well. It is not the sole job of Product Owners or Product Managers; it is also for a much wider set within your ecosystem. The product mindset approach is about creating business outcomes and that applies to everyone in the organization. 

A product mindset that cascades throughout your organization allows you to excel at managing change, and focus like a laser beam on customer needs, and this is the focus required in our digital economy, whether you’re the vice president of a large corporation, or the first employee of a startup.

A product mindset is for everyone since it encourages everyone in your organization to question assumptions, to ask how a job can be done better, and to innovate with customers and business value in mind.

How Do You Implement a Product Mindset?

A mindset, by definition, is not a process or set of procedures that you can take off the shelf and implement. It’s not a tool or a technique. It is broader than that. It involves cultural change and a change in perspective. However, some steps that most organizations take include:

  1. Defining your “North Star”  
  2. Defining your stakeholders (broader than just users)
  3. Having roles such as “product manager” or “product owners”
  4. Designing an intake process for customer requirements
  5. Creating opportunities to continuously validate the solution with stakeholders

Transforming from a project mindset to a product mindset requires some subtle shifts. Consider the following before and after scenarios:

Product Mindset Improvements
Product Mindset Improvements (Before and After)

To further illustrate this shift, imagine a digital product team that knows its technology, knows the features it must develop, and has the ability to create excellent designs. This product development team has superb project management skills and a tight dashboard of metrics. It makes use of selected scrum methodologies, for example managing the backlog, and creating a minimum viable product (MVP). It has everything in place bust is deficient with respect to its product mindset. What can that team expect?

Such a software development team cannot comprehend customer problems and needs in a rich way and in their full context. Since this team has little contact with customers it struggles to create meaningful personas or user stories. It is isolated from the larger context both in terms of its customers and in terms of the internal product portfolio. Such a team leaves the opportunity to deliver customer value and optimize functionality on the table. It will fail to take advantage of synergies between products; and it is unlikely to realize the full business value of its new offering. It might deliver a great product, but it may not be the right product. 

Fostering a Product Mindset

Since a product mindset is a product of cultural change you cannot implement it off-the-shelf, senior leaders must foster and cultivate it. Here’re are some of the steps you can take to begin this process: 

  1. Understand your stakeholders and their needs.
    Stakeholders include customers, of course, but the list does not end there. It may also include partners, suppliers, or other product teams. Often teams do not have a clear sense of who their stakeholders are, let alone what they need. You need a thorough inventory of who is involved before you can understand their needs and the solutions that will meet those needs.
      
  2. Identify and uncover needs from your stakeholders and especially your core customer group.
    You need to get close to all of your stakeholders and especially your core customer groups. This may involve customer visits, interviews, or other research methods that are open-ended and allow you to understand not only what your customers say they need, but also what they really need (they’re not necessarily the same thing).
     
  3. Have designated Product Managers with a clear responsibility to gather requirements.
    Product Managers are responsible for filtering customer needs back to the product team. This is their unique responsibility, although the entire team, and those beyond the team, also need exposure to customers and an understanding of their needs. However, it is essential to have Product Managers who represent stakeholders to the product team, and champion their perspective.
     
  4. Have an intake process.
    An intake process is a transparent way for product leaders to take in new requests and act on them. The intake process acts as a conduit for processing and prioritizing stakeholder feedback. If feedback appears here and there throughout the development process, the result can be incoherence and lack of direction. A formal intake process, led by a senior person who encompasses marketing and technical capabilities, is the special sauce that can make the difference in creating solutions customers love.
      
  5. Have a process for gathering feedback and sharing progress with stakeholders during the development process.
    The product mindset implies ongoing contact with stakeholders. It’s not a matter of gathering customer feedback and then disappearing to develop your product. You need an ongoing cycle where the team can share demos or other artifacts with stakeholders as the development of the new solution unfolds. Ideally, your product development process enables you to receive iterative feedback throughout the development cycle.
  6. Have a clear understanding of your product portfolio.
    More than just a product roadmap, you need a comprehensive product strategy that takes into account your entire product portfolio. A portfolio view will reveal to you the value streams that your solution will support at the strategic level.

A Defined Intake Process: The Secret Sauce

We find that having a well-defined intake process for customer feedback is an opportunity many organizations are missing when it comes to fostering a company-wide product mindset. Many companies are careful to collect stakeholder requirements but do not have a single channel for communicating this feedback to the team and other internal parties. 

A well-defined intake process: 

  • Clarifies how the team requests, accepts, and prioritizes work
  • Helps avoid injecting work via a back-channel
  • Has a single plan of record
  • Sets realistic expectations for stakeholders
  • Provides a transparent view of the priorities of stakeholder’s needs 

This process requires a relatively senior leader to manage it. This is often a General Manager, or someone senior to the Product Manager. While the Product Manager represents the stakeholder perspective on the team, the intake process channels this perspective, along with general managers input, into a stream of work that becomes actionable for a project team. It prevents the team from becoming overwhelmed by too much feedback, and keeps its priorities in line and in view.

A Product Mindset and Portfolio Management

Product portfolio management is essential to a product mindset because it encompasses the entire set of solutions your company offers to its stakeholders. Any new solution cannot be divorced from this context. Your product portfolio forms the context in which you are offering new solutions and new technologies. 

Product portfolio management answers these questions:

  • Which programs deserve the biggest investment?
  • How should we allocate our R&D and Marketing budgets?
  • What should be our product mix?
    • Incremental improvements to core products
    • Adjacent markets
    • New-to-the-world products
  • How should we shift to faster growing markets?
  • How can we capture greater market share?

Although product portfolios help you manage a market basket of potential new product development activities, they also help you to make sense of how an individual product fits into the overall strategy. They enable you to understand products in relationship to one another and to understand them in terms of risk/return, and this is where they have great value in fostering a product mindset. A product mindset means that you do not invest in a single product in isolation. Thus, a product portfolio view helps you leverage your product platforms to determine the very best solution for your stakeholders.

Product Mindset: In a Nutshell

It is often said that a product mindset means focusing on outcomes and not output. The truth is that you must focus on both. The real shift that comes with a product mindset is from solutions developed once for all, in isolation, to solutions developed with the whole context – inside and outside your organization – in mind. It means focusing on business needs and business values rather than features or technologies alone. And it involves everyone in your organization. A product mindset is not a “one and done” approach; it involves plans for continued support over many releases to ensure stakeholder’s outcomes are realized.

With a product mindset you never say, “we’re doing it this way, because that’s how we do things.” Rather, it encourages people, throughout your organization, to focus on questioning assumptions, asking “why ” (at least five times); and understanding all stakeholders and their needs at a profound level. It’s not just for the product manager or the development team. A product mindset is a cultural shift. And that means it’s for everybody.