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Article January 30th, 2024

by Jon Stephens, Global Chief Product Officer

Diverse and balanced product teams make better decisions

Delivering products customers want and businesses need, doesn’t sound too hard. Yet, businesses repeatedly find that their investments in products, digital or otherwise, fail to deliver value. Who remembers Google Glass, the Amazon Fire Phone, Meta’s expensive Metaverse repositioning, or the fumble that was Pepsi Crystal? These more high-profile failures at least get the dubious honor of appearing in the fascinating Museum of Failure, but most will be consigned to history as costly corporate failures that leave nothing but scars on product team memories and the resumes of accountable executives. So now the question: How can you deliver the products that your customers want and your business needs? 

The mantra of ‘failing fast’ has often been wrongly used as an excuse to deliver something, anything, as quickly as possible using the logic “we’ll pivot later”. But then it’s too late. The budget and confidence are gone, momentum is stuttering, and the world has moved on.  

While many reasons exist for product failure and lack of value, some of the most common reasons we see are that customers didn’t want to use the product, or the commercial viability was not proven quickly enough to secure investment to continue product development.  

This article is the second part of Nortal’s 3-part customer value series. If you missed our first article on how to ensure your digital product’s success, you can read it here

Product team diversity

The major causes of almost all these failures can be reduced to two key issues. The first is that there is a lack of diversity in the teams building and launching products. A lack of diversity creates blind spots and increases the chance of team or individual biases negatively affecting decision-making. The most common blind spots and biases lead to incorrect assumptions about what customers value the most and the viability of commercial models.  

Having a diverse team means going beyond paying lip service to ‘multi-functional teams’. The number and size of these blind spots and biases must be proactively identified and deliberately worked on. When this happens, it is more likely the product will be a success.   

In product teams, diversity can be thought of in terms of three interlinked, but different things: 

  1. Skills 
  2. Knowledge 
  3. Thinking 

Traditional indicators of team diversity such as male-to-female ratios, age, racial background and career histories only impact product success if they improve diversity of skills, thinking and knowledge.

A successful product team needs a wide range of ‘soft skills’, such as teamwork, communication and creativity, and ‘craft skills’ such as understanding customers, product design, technical architecture and commercial modeling. Knowledge is about understanding the relevant industry or business domain, as well as relevant tools, practices, legal and compliance issues and what has worked or failed before and why. Thinking is about cognitive diversity – how people think and the mental models they use to process information and communicate. This one often gets overlooked, with most teams being formed based on skills and knowledge alone. The issue gets compounded as people tend to like working with others who think like them and form their teams accordingly, something that sociologists call homophily. 

The importance of diversity becomes even more apparent when we think about the strengths and weaknesses of typical product team roles: software engineers and architects are brilliant problem solvers and builders, but they often jump to solutions too quickly without understanding the problem or customer well enough. Designers have great empathy and can uncover what customers really value, but they can spend too long in discovery and divergent thinking mode. Business leads know the commercial landscape, but often don’t understand the technical complexities well enough to make good decisions. When product teams are not diverse enough, they lack some of these strengths and they can’t compensate effectively enough for the weaknesses. This is the path to poor product ROI. 

As an example, one of our clients had created a prototype of a dashboard to identify defects in its manufacturing processes. The first version of the prototype was based on a single business stakeholder’s view of the requirements, which were delivered straight to a technical team for implementation. It didn’t solve the most important business problems and wasn’t tailored enough for different users. Nortal was asked to help fix the problems. After carefully putting together a diverse team of a product manager, designers, technologists and business stakeholders the next version of the prototype got everyone excited and quickly began creating value by more quickly eliminating defects. This success is now being scaled to other factories globally. 

Product team balance

The second big issue is that, even if there is enough diversity in the team, the balance between these different types of skills, knowledge and thinking can be wrong (they are unbalanced). A lack of balance also leads to products that customers don’t want and that do not generate the required commercial return for businesses. 

There are two types of balance critical in successful product teams: 

  1. Time 
  2. Power 

Even with the most agile product development processes, products move through phases of discovery, design, development and launching/scaling over time. We often see diversity in teams if you look at them on paper, but the balance across time is wrong. For example, designers are often brought in too late to really influence the big decisions in product strategy or the roadmap. Yet designers have a really important role to play in the early phases of a product. Without them some aspects of customer desirability are not explored early enough or in great enough depth and the resulting product is not something customers want. 

The second is about power. This is about how decisions are made in product teams. Even if the team is a diverse one right from the start, the balance of power in decision-making is one-sided. We see this when business stakeholders hold all the power – the product team is not empowered to find the best way of hitting objectives or solving a defined problem. This results in an overly complex product, or one which isn’t technically efficient or adaptable as corners are cut to meet business stakeholder deadlines.  

When there is poor psychological safety in a team this power imbalance can become amplified with some team members afraid to speak up or thinking that they will be ignored if they do. After a high-profile failure, there is almost always someone who saw the issues but did nothing about them. This is a failure of balance in the team and is a problem for leaders, not the fault of the individuals in the team. 

The root cause of many innovation failures can be traced back to time and power imbalance. A former client was a leading global payments provider. Business stakeholders decided that they would create their own version of PayPal. Technologists or designers were not involved in this early decision and consequently the technical complexity led to a $200m+ project expense. The product was not one which any customers really needed – they had PayPal and many other options to solve similar problems already. 

Getting it right

To create successful products the right decisions need to be made throughout the project – decisions about what problems to solve, what features and stories to prioritize and how to deliver. A team with diverse skills, knowledge and thinking, and with a balance of power throughout the project, makes better decisions. And not just one better decision, but many, with those better decisions compounding throughout the delivery process to create massively increased value post product launch.  

Many businesses get lost in detailed requirements and in trying to get products to market as quickly as possible. It’s all too easy to lose focus on the thing that creates product success above everything else – the people. All our product teams take a diverse and balanced approach, continually assessing how to improve. And it all starts from the very first kick-off meeting. 

Purple data

Read on in our Customer Value series

Nortal’s global Product & Customer Experience team have crafted a 3-part series on how to create products customers want and your business needs. To read on to the next part of the series, click below.

Supercharge the influence of design to create better products

Learn more about Nortal’s Product & Customer Experience capability below.

Product and Experience

Jon Stephens

Chief Product Officer at Nortal

Jon is responsible for Product and Customer Experience at Nortal. He has spent the past 20 years shaping and delivering complex product and experience-led transformation and innovation programmes for global clients such as AstraZeneca, Virgin Atlantic, Vodafone, Sky and the UK government.

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