Product Marty Cagan

Product Discovery in Established Companies

Much has been written about how to do product discovery in startups, by me and many other people.   There are many challenges for startups, most importantly, survival.  But one of the real advantages from a product point of view is that there’s no legacy to drag along, there’s no revenue to preserve, and there’s no reputation to safeguard.  This allows us to move very quickly and take significant risks without much downside.

However, once your product develops to the point that it can sustain a viable business (congratulations!), you now actually have something to lose and it’s not surprising that some of the dynamics need to change.  The purpose of this note is to highlight these differences and to describe how the techniques are modified.

Others have been writing about how to apply these techniques in enterprises as well, but on the whole I have not been impressed with the advice.  Too often, the suggestion is to essentially carve out a protected team and provide them some air cover so they can go off and “innovate.”  What does this say about the people not on these special teams?  What does this say about the company’s existing products?  And even when something does get some traction, how well do you think the existing product teams will accept this learning?  These are some of the reasons why I’m generally not an advocate of so-called “corporate innovation labs” either.

I have long argued that the techniques of Product Discovery and MVP and rapid test and learn absolutely apply to established companies and not just startups.   Indeed, the best product companies –  including Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Netflix, are great examples where this innovation is institutionalized.  In these companies, innovation is not something that just a few people get permission to pursue; it is the responsibility of all product teams.

But before I go any further, I want to emphasize the most important point for technology companies: If you stop moving forward you will die.  Maybe not immediately, but sure enough, if all you do is optimize your existing solutions, and you stop innovating, it is only a matter of time before you are someone else’s lunch.

So to me it is a non-negotiable that we simply must continue to move our products forward, and deliver increased value to our customers.  That said, we need to do this in a responsible way.  This really means two big things:

1. Protect Revenue and Brand

The company has built a reputation and has earned revenue, and it is the job of the product teams to do product discovery in ways that protect this reputation and this revenue.  We’ve got more techniques than ever to do this, including many techniques for creating very low-cost and low-risk MVP Tests, and for proving things work with minimal investment and limited exposure, we love Live-Data Prototypes and A/B Testing Frameworks.  See Product Discovery with Live-Data Prototypes.

Many things do not pose a risk to brand or revenue, but for the things that do, we utilize techniques to mitigate this risk.  Most of the time an A/B test with 1% or less of the customers exposed is fine for this.  Sometimes we need to be even more conservative and we’ll do an invitation-only live-data test.  Or we’ll utilize our Customer Development Program customers that are under NDA.  Or any number of other techniques in the same spirit of test and learn in a responsible way.

2. Protect Employees and Customers

In addition to protecting revenue and brand, we also need to protect our employees and our customers.  If our customer service, professional services, or sales staff are blind-sided by constant change, they can’t do their jobs.  Similarly, customers that feel like your product is a moving target that they have to constantly relearn won’t be happy customers for long.

This is why we use Gentle Deployment Techniques including assessing customer impact.  Even though this may seem counter-intuitive, continuous deployment is actually a very powerful gentle deployment technique and, when used properly along with customer impact assessment, it is a powerful tool for good.  See Assessing Customer Impact.

Again, most changes and tests are non-issues, but it is our responsibility to be proactive with customers and employees and sensitive to change.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not arguing that innovating in established companies is easy.  It’s not.  But it’s not because product discovery and lean techniques are not suitable.  They are absolutely critical to consistently delivering increased value to customers.  There are broader issues in established companies that typically undermine innovation.  For a list of them, see Top 10 Reasons for Weak Product.

If you are at an established company, know that you absolutely must move aggressively to continuously improve your product, well beyond small optimizations, but you also must do this product work in ways that product brand and revenue, and protect your employees and your customers.