The rise of DevOps has shown that agility and speed are key drivers for turning a business into a high-growth company. But as product managers, that’s not all we can take away from the DevOps culture. Those same methodologies that enable DevOps to function, such as having cross-functional teams and embracing a culture that embraces transparency, can also help product teams adopt experimentation.
The product cycle should be an ongoing opportunity to try new ideas, gather data, make changes and celebrate failure. Teams with an experimentation mindset are better-suited to accept these goals, knowing that they lead to learning and succeeding quickly. Yet, experimentation and developing innovative products will succeed only when there’s a foundation of transparency—and not just about financial data and company successes, though that certainly helps. Everyone on the team needs the freedom, insight and tooling to make big bets, as well as the accountability to see them through.
This is where DevOps comes in. Leaders at the C-suite and VP level need to apply DevOps systems to product development to stay agile. Here are three ways to do so:
Make Development a Collaborative Process
DevOps brings IT and engineers together to meet customer and business needs. Product development teams should adopt a similar cross-functional team culture to remove silos. When product managers, sales managers, success managers and developers have regular and open conversations about industry trends, customer requests and big successes, they’ll have more insights in the customer experience and product road map that can help each team be more effective. For example, sales managers interact with customers daily and bring a broad perspective about customer problems, while product managers can gauge whether the ideas align with the business goals and developers can assess whether ideas are feasible to implement.
At Optimizely, I encourage my team to brainstorm several big bet ideas on a quarterly basis and discuss whether these ideas are new offerings we need to build or buy or whether we can build on into our current offerings. This collaborative process gives the product, sales and developer teams insight into what other teams are thinking about and encourages all of the teams to put their heads together to experiment with new ideas. Recurring brainstorm sessions that incorporate recent trends will ensure the team stays agile.
We also have a collaborative product feedback process that allows go-to-market teams to suggest features to the product team at any time and have a conversation around the business benefits of feature delivery. This is accomplished with pods of product areas comprised of product, design, engineering, product marketing, success and sales. The members of the pod meet weekly at standups and biweekly at product reviews to ensure alignment between what is being built and what the go-to-market teams are hearing from customers and prospects.
Shop Around Your Proof of Concept and Be Ready to Course-Correct
Product development isn’t a one-and-done process. It requires building minimum viable product, collecting feedback and revising. At Optimizely, we try new ideas and first get feedback from our internal teams and around five trusted customers to start. We implement their feedback and updates before rolling the feature or product out with a slightly larger subset of beta customers, around 20 or 30. With even more feedback, we continue to improve and build on the product, rolling it out to larger and larger customer groups under beta before making it generally available.
As feedback is collected, it’s important to bring our cross-functional teams together to analyze the comments and bring their different perspectives, whether it be customer-centric or developer-focused. We have to be willing to accept the feedback we get and make changes based on it. A recent example is when we rolled out Optimizely X Experimentation, which was built with reusability in mind to overcome some of the issues of Optimizely Classic. While this was a worthwhile goal and customers wanted reusability, we ended up overcorrecting and having to build new workflows after the fact. These ended up looking more like Classic and were more user-friendly but less reusable across experiments.
Hire Product Managers who Prioritize Trust and Transparency
People underestimate the importance of getting along with your colleagues and building trust with them. That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree or have different approaches. It simply means you’ve established trust and open communication—and you’re open to hearing and considering these differing opinions. These two elements are key for staying agile and quickly adapting to industry trends. You often heard the phrase “strong opinion, weakly held” at Optimizely, which encourages lively debate.
At Optimizely, we evaluate trust and transparency by having engineers and marketers interview prospective product managers to make sure the candidate can build trust with different teams and see pain points and priorities from various perspectives. During the interview process, it’s equally important that people acknowledge their mistakes and are able to learn from them. If a candidate can’t think of a mistake or explain what they learned from one, they likely aren’t taking enough risks or reflecting on their failures. Opening up about failures creates trust that leads to better teamwork and ultimately better business decisions.
Ultimately, we can all take a page from the DevOps playbook to make trust and transparency a priority on our teams. Those who do will see new business ideas flourish and team members work in a more cohesive way.
About the Author / William Gradin
William Gradin is the VP of product management at Optimizely and is responsible for building the Experimentation Platform to help businesses boldly test their assumptions and respond more quickly to ever-changing market dynamics and customer expectations. Prior to joining Optimizely in 2015, Will worked in Product Management at Salesforce, where he owned the Platform teams for the Salesforce Communities product. Connect with him on LinkedIn.