Establishing an Enterprise Product Discipline

An enterprise will never be great at product until there is an intent and commitment to be across the entire company. A product discipline needs to be as important as any other discipline.

Creating a product discipline isn’t as challenging as it might appear, but it isn’t easy either. Most enterprises have become structured to be efficient and effective at components of product, but not necessarily product holistically. Enterprises have an overabundance of methodologies, processes, and tools to make them more efficient and effective at components of product, yet bad products still get created that don’t add value for customers/users and don’t drive the desired outcomes for the enterprise.

Bad products still get created for many reasons, but one of the primary reasons is no one truly owns a product. The current enterprise products that have the potential to be innovative and disruptive often don’t have true product ownership and therefore, true product management. Project Sponsors and Champions are not Product Owners and Managers. Project Managers aren’t either. Project Sponsors and Project Managers aren’t bad roles, they just aren’t enough to do product well. A Product Owner as part of the Agile development methodology doesn’t go far enough. An Agile Product Owner is focused on delivery and deployment of the product, which is important, but not holistic enough.

In addition to a lack of product ownership and management, enterprises build products in their own image and for their own business reasons, not for the benefit and value of customers/users. Enterprises won’t be good, let alone great, at product until the customer/user is at the center of all new product decisions and actions.

An enterprise’s ability to engage intimately and iteratively with customers/users is what separates good products from great and successful products. Most enterprises have good design and development functions now, so building technically sound and visually appealing products should be a given. But, it isn’t enough. Great and successful products are a bridge between solving a problem customers/users care about and an enterprise’s business outcomes. Enterprises that are driven by their own needs and outcomes are destined to not be great at product.

So, how can an enterprise change to get better at product?

Appoint a Chief Product Officer (CPO). This role exists alongside the other high-level C roles like CIO, CMO, COO, and CFO. The role reports to the CEO or President. It is that important. The CPO’s team collaborates with the other disciplines in the company, but they do not report to IT, marketing, or any other discipline. If anything, the other disciplines become service organizations to the product team.

The Chief Product Officer builds and leads a product ownership and management team. The product team owns product. Not IT, not marketing, not operations, not lines of business. Product owns product. You need a product discipline because you need a team who’s sole mission is to build a bridge between what the enterprise’s objectives are and what customers/users want and value. Without this intentional focus, enterprises shouldn’t expect to build great products that customers/users love.

A product team provides the ability to focus on identifying, understanding, and solving high-value problems. One of the primary reasons startups are typically better at product than enterprises is because a startup focuses on one, high-value problem and they are all-in on solving that problem in a way customers/users care about. Enterprises frequently identify lots of problems and opportunities, but rarely get laser focused on deeply understanding and solving any one of them. Startups are also customer/user centric because of resource constraints. A startup’s outcomes are inexorably linked to customers/users, especially early on, so customer/user centricity exists by necessity as much as the startups desire to do it. The most successful startups (best product builders) understand this and are intentional about and understand the value of being customer/user centric.

The goal is not for enterprises to pretend to be startup-like to become great at product and innovative. Enterprises have complexities startups don’t. However, enterprises can be great at product and innovation by having the intentional customer/user focus and disciplined execution that startups have. Establishing a product team at an enterprise accomplishes this.

Thanks to Brett Buchanan for contributing to this post.

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