What To Build Next

· March 10, 2021

Working on a team that provides a product or a service means deciding, regularly, what to do next.

There are a lot of ways of framing the decision on whether something is a good investment - from general concepts like tieing in to company OKRs to hard financial measures like IRR. Those all presume a fairly high level of knowledge on whats going to happen. That can be difficult enough for a project that is offered to the market, but can be far harder for teams which serve internal customers.

Even if you can evaluate the relative return of a project, how should you pick which ones to consider? I think there are really three areas in which to source those ideas, with most people defaulting to a mix of any two - my contention is that to be maximally effective you need to intentionally consider all three. They are:

  1. Product vision.
  2. Customer experience.
  3. Reading the tea-leaves.

Product vision is based around the idea of deciding what the best product would be. A lot of very, very successful companies are product driven - Apple with its design aesthetic and focus on what the user should want, or Google with its engineering focus on what can be done. They both set out from an idea of what could be true in the world, and rely on finding a way to match that to their customer’s needs.

Customer experience is based on looking at the customers the group already has, and trying to eke a series of gains out of that. This is also the core modus operandi of some very big businesses, particularly retailers like Walmart and Costco. The rough idea of Walmart is a container - what actually ends up on the shelves is driven by looking at customers and trying to squeeze everything possible to give them more of what they want.

Reading the tea-leaves means anticipating a change and building for that change. Product and customer driven companies almost always do this to varying degrees as well, but it can be a strategy in and of itself: Berkshire Hathaway is an example of a huge business that has repeatedly had its direction set by changes in the market and regulations. On a more cohesive front, Netflix has been remarkable not in having uniquie streaming technology or by always having the strongest content, but in consistently making strategic shifts ahead of everyone else.

My experience with teams leads me to believe that there is some natural oscilation between these poles. New teams often start from a visionary leader - someone says “this is what we’re going to do”, even though they do not know how to get there. After achieving success with this there is often a period of thrashing around; people looking for the Next Big Thing. That usually leads to a growing level of customer frustration, triggering a period of focusing on customer experience and the customer’s day to day journey.

Its useful to keep these thoughts when planning and sourcing project ideas. If everything is coming from customers - bug reports, feedback, complaints and so on - then open up a space to think broadly about what the product or service would look like if you were building it from scratch, for example. If the team are entirely in their own heads dreaming up huge product visions, get them to sit with the folks that use their stuff to hear and see their challenges and processes. And if the team is entirely focused on whats in front of them, do a bigger scan of the environemnt - what changes are coming down the pipe? What will be true in 1, 5, and 10 years?

With that context set, you’ll be in a better position to spot the themes and patterns that cross between these buckets, and make choices that feel both grounded in need and connected to the future.