Season 1 Highlights: The Product Science Principles in Practice
We explain the concepts of evidence-based product strategy, continuous discovery and delivery, and the need for empowered teams as the core of a product strategy that works.
As we wrap up Season One of the Product Science Podcast, we want to highlight some of the amazing insights our guests have shared over the past 21 episodes using the Product Science Principles as a framework to put them into context for you.
In this episode, we’ll explain the concepts of evidence-based product strategy, continuous discovery and delivery, and the need for empowered teams as the core of a product strategy that works.
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- The Product Science Principles
- The Laura Klein Hypothesis: The Illusion of Certainty Is a Problem
- The Katelyn Bourgoin Hypothesis: You Can Talk to 300 Customers and Still Build the Wrong Thing
- The Teresa Torres Hypothesis: The Best Product Teams Continually Improve Both Their Product and Their Process
- The Christopher Lochhead Hypothesis: Legendary People, Products, and Companies Follow The Exponential Value of What Makes Them Different
- The Catherine Ulrich Hypothesis: High-Growth Product Leaders Stay Curious and Dive Into Their Fears
- The Marty Cagan Hypothesis: Surviving Success in High-Growth Startups Requires Great Product Leadership
- The Tommi Forsström Hypothesis: Great Product Management at Scale Involves No Big Teams, Just a Lot of Small Teams in One
- The Melissa Perri Hypothesis: Escaping the Build Trap Requires Transforming Product Management Processes From Top to Bottom
Quotes From This Episode
At it’s core, Product Science is about finding people’s pains and developing effective solutions for their problems with the products we build, the processes we use, and the organizations we create. -Holly Hester-Reilly
Small companies searching for product market fit end up skipping things like research, but if you do the research it actually all goes faster, because then you don't build a bunch of shit that nobody needs. - Laura Klein
A lot of the companies that I've worked with, they're very broad in who they're going after. And they haven't really determined what represents a customer that'd be a good fit customer versus a bad fit customer. – Katelyn Bourgoin
It's not just about continuously improving our products, it's about continuously improving our practices. - Teresa Torres
There's going to be a massive amount of losery along the way. Losery being a word we invented to make failure sound a lot more fun than it actually is. There's going to be massive, massive losery. - Christopher Lochhead
Half the time you should be adding immediate value to the organization and to others, and half the time you should be learning and growing. That's how you continue to perform at your absolute top gear in perpetuity. - Catherine Ulrich
Holly Hester-Reilly: We’re about to wrap up season one of the Product Science Podcast and I wanted to highlight some of the fantastic perspectives our guests have shared over the past 21 episodes and add a bit of Product Science framework to put it in context for you.
What is Product Science about? At H2R Product Science, we believe that there is a science to building high-growth products. We often hear people say it’s luck or intuition, but we think it’s more than that. We believe the startup founders and product leaders who have a good intuition are applying principles that everyone can learn. So we’re on a mission to spread the knowledge to innovators and entrepreneurs everywhere.
Over my decade-plus in tech startups, where I’ve been fortunate to apply the leading product management theories to dozens of product initiatives, I’ve developed Product Science: a theory for launching successful products, developing top teams, and building a sustainable, scaled organization.
People have more choices today than ever before, so product science focuses on creating experiences they want to be a part of. Our world changes fast, so product science relies on continuous feedback and rapid learning loops. At its core, product science is about finding people’s pains and developing effective solutions for their problems – with the products we build, the processes we use, and the organizations we create.
There are three key Product Science Principles which illustrate a model for successful, sustainable high growth. I’ve observed that when any one of these principles is not being practiced, growth slips and problems develop...but when you can keep all three going, magic happens. So what are the three principles, and how have they come across in the stories from our guests?
The first Product Principle is Evidence-Based Product Strategy. You want to understand your users, your market, the product, and feasibility, in order to make informed decisions about which growth opportunities to pursue.
The second key Product Science Principle is Continuous Discovery and Delivery. You want to work in small, cross-functional teams using design thinking, lean startup, and Agile software development. Focus on outcomes, not output, and continuously improving.
The third Product Science Principles is Empowered Teams. You need to set the vision, communicate the values, and then empower autonomous teams with the context and authority to make great decisions quickly.
In my time in high-growth tech startups, I’ve seen that the high-growth periods always have these three elements. Always. But when the elements start to slip, things start to change and a company that was once a high-growth company maybe becomes not so much. Challenges develop. Or with a company that hasn’t yet gone to high-growth, often we can go in, look at what they’re doing, and identify that one of these principles is not being practiced. And so, to give you a better picture of what I mean with these three Product Science Principles, I want to jump into the conversations we’ve had with guests and explore how they talk about these principles.
Alright, so how does evidence-based product strategy play into creating a high-growth product team and company? Let’s see what our guests have to say. One of my favorite about the importance of having an evidence-based product strategy comes from Laura Klein. Laura Klein was our guest in Episode 10, “The Laura Klein Hypothesis: The Illusion of Certainty is a Problem.” In that episode she shared:
Laura Klein: And I think a lot of times, especially at the very small companies that are searching for they’re really kind of searching for product market fit. Unfortunately, a lot of times they end up skipping things like research, which I’ve tried to explain that now if you do the research it actually all goes faster, because then you don’t build a bunch of shit that nobody needs. But that’s where they tend to cut. So that’s a big red flag for me at smaller companies. And it’s true. I mean, it’s hard like to do really good research, it does take time, and it’s not a thing that happens immediately. And it doesn’t necessarily happen in parallel, if you’ve got a little tiny team.
So that can be really tricky to kind of balance things and make sure that all of the right things are happening and that they’re all happening at the right time. And that people are building things and experimenting and trying things and pushing things out.
Holly: She also says, “It's hard to both have a huge vision of what you want to build and also figure out how to build each little piece of it in a way that delivers value, but also builds to that grander vision. It’s hard but important.”
Another great perspective on the importance of having an evidence-based product strategy comes from Katelyn Bourgoin. Katelyn was our guest in Episode 8, “The Katelyn Bourgoin Hypothesis: You Can Talk to 300 Customers and Still Build the Wrong Thing.” In that conversation, Katelyn shared with us the fatal mistake that she made as a founder of a tech startup and how she’s now learned to address it. Here’s what she had to say:
Katelyn: As I've experienced myself, that piece is part of what we were pretty good at. Like we knew who we wanted our customer's to be. We didn't build a good product for them but we knew who we wanted to be and we were really good at attracting them. But a lot of the companies that I've worked with, they're very broad in who they're going after. And they haven't really determined what represents a customer that'd be a good fit customer versus a bad fit customer. And so they end up spending a lot of time chasing bad fit customers and sales its selling bad fit customers. And they're getting into the product and then they're churning because they aren't a good fit for what the solution is. And so I would really encourage a lot of companies, that if you haven't had that conversation recently and if everybody on your team isn't crystal clear on what a good fit customer looks like then go back and redo that work. Because it's the ... Everything starts there. And your product should be designed for that customer.
And you should ... Your marketing's for that customer and your sales messages are for that customer. And if your not clear on what that is and your team isn't in alignment on who that is, then nothing else you do is going to be easy. It will always be hard. And so that's kind of like, if I had to give like words of wisdom it would be, everyone talks about being obsessed with the customer and the customer's needs. That's starts with knowing who they are. And it's really a lot of founders think they have that piece down. But if you talk to their teams, their teams don't know. Their teams are on a different page, their teams are running in a different direction.
And it's because often times founders hold so much information in their head, that they think they're constantly communicating and the messages aren't getting out to their team. And then when things are changing, team members don't know either.
Holly: Alright, so we’ve established that it’s important to have an evidence-based product strategy. That when you don’t, things all go slower because you don’t know where you're headed or why, and maybe it’s all too broad or just a shot in the dark.
So now let’s talk aobut the second Product Science Principle. The second Product Science Principle is Continuous Discovery and Delivery. What does it mean to be practicing continuous discovery and delivery? Well, it means that not only do you ship software regularly, but you also experiment. You do research. You talk to customers. You look at both qualitative and quantitative data, and it’s a habit, a practice you do time and time again. Many of our guests had things to say about this. One of my favorite guests on the topic of continuous product discovery is Teresa Torres. Teresa Torres was our guest in Episode Five, “The Teresa Torres Hypothesis: The Best Product Teams Continually Improve Both Their Product and Their Process.” Here’s what Teresa had to say about continuous product discovery and delivery:
Teresa: The first thing is, no matter who your audience is, you gonna always do more than you're doing today. I think this is a really important mindset. I mean, it is the continuous improvement mindset. It's not just about continuously improving our products, it's about continuously improving our practices. I mean, I think this is right out of the Agile Manifesto. And, I think, this is, no matter what you're doing today, you can always be doing more. You could always be getting ... Like I said, we make product decisions all day, every day, we really wanna be customer-centric, we wanna infuse as many of those decisions to the customer feedback, which means ... I look at it as, "Can we reduce our cycle time between customer touch points?" I have people say, "How many hours a month should I be talking to customers?" Wrong metric. Reduce the cycle time between touch points. You're reducing the time that you go without getting customer feedback.
What a product team that's shipping every week needs is, answers to their weekly questions. And that's, "How do we expose this feature in a way that makes sense to the customer? How should it work? What do we label things?" And there's lots of little questions that come up every single week that we wanna infuse with customer feedback.
And because we're making product decisions every day, I argue that in a minimum, a product team should be interviewing their customers every week. This is really hard for most teams. I think they are still working under a project mindset. Maybe they interview once a month, or once a quarter. They're interviewing half a dozen people for doing affinity mapping, they're creating research reports. That's not something you can do every week. I think the first thing is really reframing what we mean by interviewing, doing much smaller research activities, and maybe you're not doing a full blown hour long interview with a 40 questions discussion guide, but you're doing two or three, 15-minute conversations where you ask one question. And really helping teams understand this idea of continuous interviewing, and the benefit of continuous interviewing.
Holly: Another conversation that touched on a lot of great elements of product science, including how important continuous discovery and experimentation is, was our conversation with Christopher Lochhead. Christopher Lochhead was our guest in Episode 9, “The Christopher Lochhead Hypothesis: Legendary People, Products, and Companies Follow the Exponential Value of What Makes Them Different.” I just loved everything Christopher had to say and I love listening to him talk. I thought you might enjoy this highlight from that conversation, where he talks about how continuous experimentation involves “a massive amount of losery, and that’s OK, that’s part of it.”
Christopher Lochhead: the reward is the journey. The reward is the struggle. The reward is that you get to play, and so pick the game you want to play very carefully. Let me say it even more specifically. Start or join a company worthy of your talent.
Then the third thing I'd say is there's going to be a massive amount of losery along the way. Losery being a word we invented to make failure sound a lot more fun than it actually is. There's going to be massive, massive losery. It's going to fucking suck. It's going to suck like physical pain in your body, like wanting to cry, like can't even believe it, like, "Why am I doing this?" Ben Horowitz, the entrepreneur turned venture capitalist who wrote The Hard Thing About Hard Things, he's got a great quote, and I'll paraphrase. He says, "You know, when I was a startup CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours screaming, looking for my mommy." There's going to be that. You will feel like a failure. You will feel like a sack of shit on the floor, and nobody can put your Humpty Dumpty back together. That's going to happen, and it's going to happen many, many times.
Holly: One more insight around continuous discovery and delivery. This one comes from Catherine Ulrich, a mentor of mine and our guest on Episode 17, “The Catherine Ulrich Hypothesis: High-Growth Product Leaders Stay Curious and Dive Into Their Fears.” Catherine and I had a great conversation about driving organizational change and performing in your top gear for as long as possible. And here’s what Catherine has to say about the importance of continuously learning.
Catherine: My biggest lesson is basically get out of yourself and keep learning. That's my biggest thing. I think half of the time you should be adding value, immediate value to the organization and to others. And half of the time you should be learning and growing. That was my insight of how you continue to form at your absolute top gear in perpetuity. It's okay to go through waves in your life but you need to, that's what you should be striving for. There's so many resources now for how you do that. But that's easier than ever from great podcast, to great books to online courses to cold calling and reaching out to people on Linkedin you've never talked to, just to have a random conversation.
Holly: And now on to the final Product Science Hypothesis: Empowered Teams. What do I mean by “empowered teams?” I mean that you as the product leader create an organization in which your teams understand the context and the mission, they know their role in it and have the tools and resources to move forward without constantly being caught up in dependencies and things that bog down their momentum. So I want to share some of my favorite quotes about creating that kind of environment, and these came from some of the really experiened product leaders that we got to talk to.
First off, I couldn’t do a highlight episode without sharing quotes from Marty Cagan. Marty joined us in the very first episode for “The Marty Cagan Hypothesis: Surviving Success in High-Growth Startups Requires Great Product Leadership.” One of the things he said in that episode that he’s also been talking about lately in talks he’s giving around the world is that it’s not that you need less management with Agile, it’s that you need better management. Here’s what Marty has to say about developing empowered teams:
Marty Cagan: Recently, I started emphasizing the distinction too between the leaders and the managers because I have to spend time with both. And even though they're often the same people, the responsibilities are very different for each of those. So, well like we were saying, if it's a startup, startups I don't want to make it sound easy you know this firsthand, they're not easy, but there are a lot more things that are straightforward, like we know what we're here to do. It's not that hard for everybody to be on the same page, but in growth stage that becomes very hard actually to make sure that let's say you have 15 product teams, on the order of about 30, 40, 50 engineers and that's now a lot harder to keep them all going in the same direction.
And so I have to work with the leaders on really articulating the vision and the strategy. I also have to work because now, you need to coordinate. You've got maybe 15 product managers and 10 or so designers and you've got all these engineers and you need to make sure that they are all contributing to a much larger whole. And that requires very active management. And that's actually, if I had to pick one area, it's the people managers, especially the people managers, the product managers, designers and engineers that are often where things fall apart first. If those people aren't strong, then you end up with a well as you know product teams are really only as good as their product manager. And so the person responsible for making sure you have capable product managers for each of the teams is that director of product management.
And so we have to make sure that that person is actually doing that. Hiring the right people, coaching them to competence and making sure the teams are doing what they need to do. That takes very active management. This is sort of always, nothing I just said is really new. I'd say that one of the things that changed though is agile, which is I'm a big advocate for, don't get me wrong, but agile left the misconception in a lot of people's minds that management needs to just back off and chill out. And that couldn't really be more wrong. And I try to tell people it's not that you need less management with agile, you need better management with agile. And so I do spend a lot of my time with the managers on that is helping them become a strong actual people manager.
Holly: I think there were a lot of great nuggets about developing an organization with empowered teams where product managers can thrive in the episode with Tommi Forsström. Tommi was our guest in Episode 6, “The Tommi Forsström Hypothesis: Great Product Management at Scale Involves No Big Teams, Just a Lot of Small Teams in One.” Here’s what Tommi had to say about designing about designing a product organization for that autonomy at scale:
Tommi Forsström: You can't just trust word of mouth and a couple of pretty slides here and there to carry the mission, it has something that not only you can narrow to a person sitting in front of you, but you trust that that person can then tell 10 people who can then tell 10 people, and that message will stay the same.
And that requires a ridiculous amount of simplification. It has to be a point that you can just hammer and hammer, and hammer on over and over again. And usually whenever you see groups of people rallied together in executing a successful and magically aligned ways, it really comes from a sense of focus that what are we exactly doing? Who are we doing it for? Why does it matter? Why are we different? And if those points aren't hit in a very unambiguous way, part of the game will already have been lost.
In order to do that and in order to achieve what Facebook and Spotify, and whoever who are doing autonomous yet aligned teams at scale have done. Which is really design the entire organization, the entire tech stack, the entire product architecture, everything in support of that. And that's tough when you have to design teams that don't have to be synchronously dependent on each other. That allows for asynchronous dependencies, that allows for internal product suites but not like internal product offerings over internal service organizations where whenever you're trying to create value, you're always dependent on a dozen teams to deliver. So that's hard and it gets really hard to enable autonomous value creation.
Holly: Another great conversation about creating environments with empowered teams was the conversation with Melissa Perri. Melissa joined us in Episode 12, “The Melissa Perri Hypothesis: Escaping the Build Trap Requires Transforming Product Management Processes From Top to Bottom.” Melissa loves to think about marrying the big picture and small details together in a well-designed product management organization, here’s what she has to say about it.
Melissa: My goal is not just to teach people how to do great product management, but it's to get organizations set up really to do great product management. I want people to make the products. So with that goal in mind, I thought, well, if I want people to make good products, it's not just working with the team. I got to go work with leadership. So I started changing the way that I approached engagements where I started working with leadership as well and I dive into that and we'd start training the teams and then I started looking at the strategy and I realize like leaders have absolutely no idea how to make a strategy. They don't know how to deploy it. They don't know what a good product strategy looks like. They don't know how to anchor it to the vision.
And the strategy piece became like 99% of the problems of all the companies I worked with. Nobody was really doing the work to pull together a cohesive strategy, that pointed the teams in the right direction. I'm not talking about like a plan that's like, here's the features you want to build. But like literally a strategy of, when we grow up as a company, this is where we want to be, and that's enterprise too. I had companies making billions of dollars and I'd go and ask the teams like, "What are you working on? Why are you working on this?" And what they were saying was completely different than what leadership was saying. Nobody was aligned.
And so I started doing a lot more strategy work. So then I started looking at the book and I said, I can write a book on how to do good product processes, but a lot of people have done that already. What I want to do is write a book on how to get an entire product management organization working top to bottom. So how do you build that bridge between what people are doing on a day to day basis, talking to customers, experimenting with what you have to do at a leadership level, which has really set the strategy, enable people to be more autonomous by deploying it well, track the right goals, understand how your team works, set the right processes and policies so people can go talk to customers, that's a big one.
The book became more of a, what does a good product organization look like? How does that help you escape the build trap? Because I believe fundamentally that's the number one thing causing those people to be in the build trap. And then how do you set that up for you? Like what are the components you need and how do you set that up?
Holly: Wow, I just love everything those guests had to say about building high-growth products, teams, and companies. I hope you did, too. And I hope you’ve enjoyed the whole season, Season 1 of the Product Science Podcast. I’ve certainly learned a lot, and gotten a lot of joy and solidarity from talking to other people who are doing this hard work. If you want more great insights like the ones shared in this episode, you can visit h2rproductscience.com/challenges to download the five common challenges to making evidence-based product decisions and how to overcome them. We’ll use the great insights from the guests of Product Science Podcast Season One to talk through ways that you can make a change in your organization, wherever it is at right now. So I hope you’ll go and check that out and get ready for the Fall, where I’ll be kicking off Season 2 with interviews including Janna Bastow of ProdPad, Thor Ernstsson of Alpha, and even Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media. I can’t wait. Subscribe so you don’t miss it. We’ll be back in the Fall. Have a fantastic summer—keep learning.
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