Schibsted is proud to have some of the strongest talents in the Nordics. A significant part of this lovely group of people is responsible for improving our products and technology solutions to serve our readers, users and customers in the best possible way. We are around 100 product & technology colleagues in Schibsted Suomi who work tirelessly to accomplish this.
There is just one problem: across consumer technology companies, most of the improvements we put in front of our users are completely useless. Various studies claim that between 30-80% (!) of new functionality built by the world’s strongest technology companies do not deliver value to users. As measured through user behavior and metrics, a majority of new functionality isn’t used and some even lead to less user engagement. You have probably been in this situation yourself: your favorite app suddenly changing, introducing meaningless new features or messing up the navigation.
Probability is against us
So how do we as Schibsted avoid these well-intentioned but wasteful missed opportunities? How do we lower the risk of spending our time and energy building features that no user will ever use? On the contrary, how can we speed up our ability to quickly identify a) the most pressing problem to be solved for our users, and b) what solution best solves this problem?
We need to set up our teams for failure. They need to fail a lot, ideally many times a week. Why? Let’s remember the data: even the most user-centric, smart and well-equipped product teams will ship a lot of improvements that do not solve any relevant problem well enough. Only 1 out of 4 ideas will positively move the needle, at least in its first iteration. That means 3 out of 4 ideas should not have been built in the first place.
The most (discarded) bad ideas win
What does this mean in practice for our teams? Since we do not have a magic crystal to know which 4 ideas will not work, we simply have to test them out for ourselves. This means that the best teams in product development are the ones that work through and discard the bad ideas the quickest. The teams that creatively and efficiently spend the least time to determine that a certain idea will fail to meet user needs, are the team that ships the most meaningful improvements. As you might have guessed, failures are critical learnings and almost as important as finally shipping that one improvement that really moves the needle.
What does this mean in practice for our leaders? How can they provide the environment for the teams tasked with tackling this hard and time-consuming journey of exploration and experimentation? By studying some of the most successful technology companies in the world and reflecting on my own experiences, these are the enablers that need to be in place for your teams to have that user-centric, strategically relevant impact we all dream of:
- Set goals based on the outcomes you want to achieve, not the functionality you want to build. As tempting it might be for a leader to measure progress in tangible feature releases (we built something! I can see it on the app!), it’s incredibly important that the teams are instead empowered to achieve positive user and business outcomes as measured by metrics. This recognises the fact that the first idea/feature will probably not work, while giving the team both the freedom to decide on solutions while also amping up the responsibility of delivering results
- Establish psychological safety. Many leaders know that a key trait of any successful team is the degree of psychological safety when interacting with each other. This basically means the permission to speak your mind with your colleagues without any fear of repercussions or judgment. This is hard work to establish, possibly even harder to achieve remotely, but a foundation if you want your team to yield the benefits of being diverse and cross-functional.
- Get really good at product discovery. Product discovery is the art and science of finding out either what problems are most worth solving, and if the proposed solution will work. It’s a series of techniques ranging from user interviews, surveys, prototyping and design validation, technical feasibility, competitor benchmark, and other types of experimentation. This requires both time, skills, empathy and patience. I have never seen a company doing enough product discovery.
- Develop a clear vision and strategy. OK, so it’s super hard to figure out what to build. And it needs lots of time-consuming product discovery. How do we avoid the pitfall of straying too far from the purpose and mission of the company? How do we avoid the teams coming up with all kinds of ideas that make the totality of your product look like Frankenstein’s monster? Through serious strategic immersion between leaders and the team. It is not enough to share a fancy slide in a company all-hands a few times a year. The strategy needs to be discussed, questions, familiarised with by everyone in the team. Until the strategic direction of the company is understood, and most importantly how an individual team will contribute to this strategy, the alignment and quality of the team’s work will struggle.
- Give enough time and focus. This is another tricky one. So we know that successful product development is high in complexity and low on predictability. The process is messy and unpredictable, requiring both creativity and resilience. It also requires investment in learnings & development and that the teams retrospect often and deeply on how they can improve their ways of working together. This means that overworked or stretched teams will have a much harder time achieving this hard task. Ensuring they have enough support and slack in the agenda is fundamental for their success.
In summary, product development is a hell of a tricky business. It requires talented and motivated people, strong leadership, a curious company culture, sharp strategy, patience and a bit of luck. However, it also breeds team engagement, happy users and positive business outcomes. And you know what, much of the above isn’t exclusive to product development. Almost all of the work we do these days has the same degree of complexity. These five things are applicable to your entire organisation!
At Schibsted Suomi we have challenged ourselves to apply this thinking to our organisation since joining forces between Tori, Oikotie & Rakentaja last year. We’ve had lots of failures, learnings and wins. We are the first ones to admit that everything of the above is many times easier said than done. That being said, we are very excited to be on this journey and it has made us more optimistic about our product development work than ever before.
CPO @ Schibsted Suomi