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Breaking Out of a Feature Factory

Managing Expectations
Product
Strategy

28 April, 2021

Blaine Holt, Head of Product at HATCH, discusses how a lack of strategic direction got his team stuck in a feature factory mindset that had them building features for the sake of building.

Problem

We were in our early startup phase when we were working with our first customer. Though our goal of that time was to acquire multiple customers, our roadmap was dictated by a single -- our first -- customer. The lack of strategic direction made it hard for the team to say No, which meant we said Yes to many things. That approach sabotaged the efforts of the product development team, which was trying to come up with a solid strategy of how we could acquire new customers. We didn’t know if certain features would drive commercial value on a wider scale nor if customers would appreciate features they never had a chance to experience before.
 

The whole meandering gave rise to frustration growing across the team. When we finally decided that we should slow down or even pause to understand better where we were heading, some people on the team disagreed. At the same time, frustration was building with the customer too, who was not receiving clear messages and not getting what was requested.
 

Actions taken

We looked at all the information generated from market and customer research as we tried to identify some fundamental, tangible hypotheses that should drive our decision-making. Those hypotheses should help us overcome the “from 1 to n” problem, a problem that troubles product leaders across the industry. Instead of building for one customer, we should deliberate on hypotheses that would help us build features serving many more customers.
 

From there on, we would bring it down to a couple of simple things that, from a product perspective, we could easily test and drive the acquisition quickly. That required us to articulate a goal; to stack up some more acquisitions, we had to excite and entice the market. To do so we had to remove barriers we heard of in sales conversations while not focusing on removing barriers for the existing customer.
 

All those efforts should be crystallized in a compelling product story linking our product strategy with business goals and the overall business strategy. We presented our product story to the leadership team, explaining that having the story was critical for us to move forward. To bring people on board, I had to talk and convince internal stakeholders individually. I ensured to have the CEO stand behind the proposal before we would socialize it down to a wider team to collect feedback.
 

I would always start as high up the ladder as possible, which would get me the most relevant feedback and insight that I could later distill through different functions like Customer Success or Growth. Once people would see the evidence-backed proposal of why they should do some things and how the features play into a longer-term story, they would be willing to embrace it more eagerly. Also, by creating a strategic narrative as such, customer-facing teams were able to sell the story to customers and counteract their requirements.
 

Lessons learned

  • Get people engaged early in the hypothesis discussion. Instead of fixating on the one you think is the right one, introducing multiple variations or alternatives would be more beneficial. Go through multiple iterations of those hypotheses -- they have to be succinct and clear for people to grasp onto. If they are too complex, you will need to reduce them to something people can understand and hold on to.
  • It would be easier to get some people on board having them co-create some hypotheses rather than working on them alone and then sharing them (almost imposing your thoughts). Involving your senior leads can result in a more positive acceptance of your proposal.
  • Using evidence-based research rather than anecdotal evidence and articulating hypotheses based on information about the underlying problems will always beat subjective, personal accounts.
  • Frictions and disagreements will likely happen at some point. Creating a clear message around prioritization supported by the most senior people would help us communicate the story in a more effective way.
  • Frustration with frontline customers is often derived from the emotions that both customers and the internal teams have about the product. Manage those emotions wisely, by pointing to solid facts and well-conducted research. You will have to help them overcome emotional attachment if you want them on board.

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