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26 Aug 2021

How to Apply Product Thinking to Your Entire Organization

Product Strategy

Product thinking puts the product at the forefront of the business. It is a mindset that is built on driving business value through solving customer problems.

Applying product thinking to your organization doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a habit and mindset. This means having an ongoing and collective effort.

It can be challenging to know where to start, especially if your organization, team or stakeholders are new to this approach.

Here are four key steps to shift your whole organization towards thinking in products:

  1. Identify the problems you want to solve with product thinking

  2. Start experimenting small

  3. Adapt and document what works

  4. Get buy-in from key stakeholders, including leadership


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What is product thinking?

Product thinking focusses on solving problems that matter to the users of your product.

Companies that apply product thinking to their whole organization are often referred to as product-led companies.

When companies are product-led, teams are in service of the product. In these companies, product success is the focal point. This focus on the product is not led solely by product managers, but also by designers, engineers, marketeers and other disciplines.

Practically speaking, thinking in products usually plays out by asking these key questions:

  • What problem(s) do we need to solve for users?

  • What is our strategy for best solving this user problem?

  • How will we know we’ve solved it? (ie. setting goals and metrics)

  • What solutions (features) can we build to solve this problem?

What is not product thinking?

Product thinking can be a little abstract until you see it in practice. It can help to dispel some common misconceptions about product thinking. Being product-led does not mean:

  • That all decisions lie with product

  • That product is more important than other practices within the business (e.g. engineering, marketing, sales or design).

In other words, product thinking is not about hierarchy or power lying with the product team. It’s about a business creating value through its products.

Successful product-led businesses do not rest the business's entire success on product management. They understand the value of other practices and their leadership within the business. In these organizations, different disciplines take a leading role depending on the stages of the product and business. For example, in a discovery phase, design will play a critical role. At a launch phase, you may have the  best new product or feature to put out into the world. But marketing is likely to be indispensable to your team achieving success at this stage.

Why is product thinking important?

Product thinking creates value for organizations. Being product-led helps you focus on the things that matter. It helps you and your team understand the user experience from the point of view of a product as a whole, not just the features that make up the product.

Ultimately, it’s a competitive advantage for the whole business.

Product thinking  means you are more likely to avoid becoming a feature factory, or falling into what Melissa Perri refers to as “the build trap”.

...if you’re not product-led, what are you? Many companies are, instead, led by sales, visionaries, or technology. All of these ways of organizing can land you in the build trap. - Melissa Perri, Escaping The Build Trap

Here are some examples of product thinking at play:

  • A designer approaches each design decision through the lens of the customer they are solving for. Together with the product manager, they focus on real user problems and reduce the risk of building something nobody wants.

  • Engineering and product collaborate together to make trade-offs that are best for the product and business. They aren’t driven by the latest and coolest technologies. Rather,  they focus on using technology to support a product that creates value for customers.

  • A marketing team would love a juicy feature to build a campaign around. But rather than request “marketable features” they look at it the other way around. The marketing team look for opportunities to tell compelling stories about product features that solve real problems.

Organizations that think in products approach problem solving collaboratively. Rather than maintain silos, they seek to break down the barriers between the business and their products.

How can you apply product thinking to your organization?

Does product thinking sound nice yet? I hope so!

How can you start building this culture? Approach this challenge in the same way as you would product development. Look at the problems/needs you want to solve. Then start with small experiments, learn from them, and iterate.

1. Identify the problems you want to solve

Adopting a new approach to improve the success of your business is attractive. Make sure you know what problems you want to solve. Otherwise it will be very difficult to identify small actions to make progress.

First, figure out what you’re trying to solve. Collect examples of how these challenges are causing waste or lack of direction, for instance. Clear problems statements keep you on track and help reduce the risk of promoting an approach that comes across as baseless and gimmicky to stakeholders.

These could be challenges like:

  • Our teams are thinking in features, not in products

  • We are focussing on the wrong problems

  • Our team doesn’t know what success looks like

  • Our product is beautiful but it is not meaningful to solving a user problem

  • We’re too sales-led

  • Our decisions are not supported by data

Why are you and your team interested in product thinking? What problems will it solve for you to transition to a new mindset and ways of working? Get clear on these areas early on to keep focus.

2. Start with small-scale experiments

There’s no silver bullet to thinking in products across your organization. Being product-led requires practice over time that enables a culture shift. To become product-led, you need to put it into action.

Start small. Get really good at being product-led in smaller settings. Experiment and try things with your team. This way, you can start demonstrating value in a smaller setting before tackling your wider organization. 

Starting small can also encourage product-thinking champions in your team who can help you introduce this mindset across your organization.

Here are some things you can start testing out with your team/disciplines to get started:

Encourage and demonstrate inquiry in your team. Do this by:

  • Leveraging existing insights and data to guide product decisions

  • Getting curious about data. If the data’s not there, look for new opportunities to gather data to inform your decisions.

  • Getting user feedback in the process of building products

  • Approaching your initiatives as hypotheses

  • Identifying assumptions

  • Asking “why” in discussions to get to the bottom of why and how product decisions are being made

Encourage and demonstrate a learning mindset. Do this by:

  • Treat your work with a beginner’s mindset and incorporate learning objectives to everything you do.

  • Becoming experiment-led and breaking work down into small chunks

  • Solving problems cross functionally, rather than being silo-ed

Think in outcomes. Do this by:

  • Translating features into outcomes when discussing product initiatives in your team

  • Setting clear goals and metrics to measure success

3. Adapt and document what works

There is no “right” process. Good processes have commonalities, but each team and organisation have their own goals and user problems to solve. This means that a good process doesn’t look identical across all businesses.

Look for good practices online to help inform your approach. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time. Plenty of businesses have built product-first cultures and have documented it all along the way.

But also keep in mind that you will need to adapt approaches and habits to your specific situation. Try things out with your team and see what sticks. Think critically about what practices will work well for your team and how you can adapt them to you.

I also recommend documenting as much of your learnings as you can. This will help you share best practice with others in your business as you optimise.

4. Get buy-in from key stakeholders, including leadership

Applying product to your entire organization is not a one (wo)man job.

If you’re a leader in a large organisation, start to socialise product thinking with other members of the leadership team. Show your peers how this approach can benefit them and the whole business. Encourage them to observe some of the experiments your teams have run. Showing and telling is way more effective than process explained in words. Look for opportunities to demonstrate product thinking at a small scale.

If you’re a product manager, start demonstrating your learning to your Head of Product, CPO or whoever leads your product practice. Share your learning with other product managers, designers and engineers.

A word of caution for product managers who work in businesses without product leadership, or very new to product management. Implementing a product approach in  requires sustained effort and time.

The level of effort required will depend on the size of your business and where you’re starting from.

Are you an in individual contributor with day to day product responsibilities? Then it’s critical that you find allies and champions (e.g. fellow product managers) especially at the leadership level (e.g. your CEO, a Head of Design).

This isn’t about whether you’re up for the challenge or not. It's about acknowledging that cultural change requires networks and both bottom up and top down effort.

Always be learning

The power of product thinking is that it drives your business to spend time and money on the things that really matter.

Becoming product-led is an ongoing process. It takes continued team effort and the job is never done.

Approach product thinking with a learning mindset. Some things may not land at first and that’s okay! Get feedback from your team and stakeholders...always be learning!

Hilary Johnson

Hilary Johnson

Product Lead | Growth Advisor @ ustwo Freelance
Hilary loves leading healthy and productive teams that collectively deliver product impact. Hilary is currently working with ustwo and The Body Coach to help people achieve their fitness goals....more
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