“Every company in the world will tell you they are customer-driven. They’ll believe in the principle. They’ll even have framed posters on the wall about it. […] But I’ve learned that none of that means anything unless you actually make the structural decisions to ensure it.”David Cancel

Here’s how to diagnose a product organization and evaluate its belief in customer-centricity…

If you’re not yet inside the organization—maybe you are considering a job or you’re about to start—then you can learn about the internal dynamics by asking questions like:

  • How does the team decide what to build?
  • Can you walk me through a recent mission and talk through the decision-making process?
  • How does [ Company ] measure success?
  • How does the product team measure success?

Hesitations, diversions, and fuzzy or dismissive answers will tell you a lot about the company’s internal decision-making process, or at least, their openness to talk about it.

Evaluating Your Product Organization

If you are already working in the product organization, or if it’s your business, evaluate:

  • Company focus: When a company lacks focus, meetings run longer and decisions get delayed, people get frustrated not having a clear strategy, and teams have different, sometimes conflicting, definitions of success. How focused is the organization?
  • Decision-making effectiveness: What’s the general theme behind decision-making? Are most decisions made on the basis of logic or emotions? How many people get involved in decisions? Are subject-matter experts asked to contribute? Who gets final say? How do decisions map back to assumptions? How is the team learning from past decisions?
  • Outputs vs outcomes: Are teams more focused on problems or solutions? How are new features and improvements evaluated? How much work is put into delivering outputs? People innately want to think in terms of outputs (deliverables). It’s easier to plan your work if you are thinking in terms of outputs. But if you’re truly being customer-centric, you should be managing to outcomes.
  • Collaboration effectiveness: How much collaboration is there between teams? Does the product backlog get influenced by the work of non-product teams? Do the sales, marketing, customer support, and customer success teams feel included in the product work? Do teams get their own goals or are goals shared across teams?
  • Source of the voice-of-the-customer: Who ‘owns’ the customer relationship? How is empathy developed throughout the team? Is feedback first-hand, second-hand, or third-hand? Are sales, customer success, or customer support staff perceived as the voice-of-the-customer? Companies too often think that because sales teams are close to the customers, they know what customers want—but it’s not always the case.
  • Source of innovations: What’s preventing someone in the organization from proposing a new project? A new feature? How much red tape is there? Are the employees’ ideas solicited and evaluated? Can teams influence the backlog? How much ego is involved in the ideation process?
  • Psychological safety: Can people speak their minds freely? Can they raise objections? Can they make mistakes without fearing punishment or loss of status? How comfortable are team members with sharing bad news with management? Do team members tend to withhold information? Is there a network for people to learn from one another? Information should always flow up in product organizations. There’s usually a reason when it doesn’t.
  • Company culture: What are some companies that teams and management respect and want to emulate? What are some of the distinctive traits of those companies? How much alignment is there between what executives say, and what they do? What behaviors get people promoted? What behaviors get people fired? What attributes tend to be valued above others? Cost? Speed? Quality?
  • Openness to change: Are executives supportive of changes and experimentation? How hard is it for you to try something new? For your team? For the organization? How long does it take to be able to try something new? How many people need to get involved?

Asking these questions will help you get some clarity around the issues that your team or the entire product organization may be facing. They should help you pinpoint some of the factors that may be limiting the adoption of customer-centric strategies internally.

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This post in an excerpt from Solving Product. If you enjoyed the content, you'll love the new book. You can download the first 3 chapters here →.

Categories: Common Challenges