4 strategies that foster collaborative product development

Broadly speaking, product development within corporations focuses either on providing value for external users (building B2B or B2C products) or to internal users (business support products). The majority of articles we read outline how to build, launch, and pivot products sold just to external businesses or to end consumers. After all, most of us probably have committed The Lean Startup to memory, can recite the methodology’s core principles, and typically think of the method only in terms of building commercial products.

But no matter the product type, the methodology’s feedback loop applies. Fruitful development requires close, careful collaboration across the entire company. Though building business software for internal use might sound like a process best left to the company’s tech wizards, its success actually requires tight internal teamwork among every business unit that will be affected by the solution.

The product team must first begin with a problem statement — 'Our order processing system is too clunky, and we can’t handle more customers because of it' — and then work vigorously across departments to understand the opportunity in front of them. Would solving this problem help generate more revenue? Would it reduce employees’ stress? Having answered those, the team can then create a value hypothesis: 'If we optimise the order processing system, we’ll be able to handle 30 per cent more orders without increasing our staff size.'

Finally, the team can complete an engineering design process to determine what to build. In the end, the goal is to create a solution that addresses the problem statement, satisfies the value hypothesis, and ultimately gets adopted — criteria that can’t be met without close, careful collaboration among stakeholders.

Failure to collaborate

When product development teams fail to collaborate with other business units, they often end up creating solutions that don’t reach their full potential. As end users adopt the software, new complaints inevitably crop up, and companies find themselves back at square one.

Even if teams do make concerted efforts to collaborate, it’s easy to go about it the wrong way. For starters, it can be tempting to put too much weight into one person’s feedback — whether it’s because he has the loudest voice in the room or the biggest paycheck.

It’s also easy to become overly focused on fixing one specific part of a process instead of viewing it holistically. For example, if 'step three' of the order processing system is where things become too clunky, it may seem logical to devote all your effort toward improving that specific step. However, it’s likely that 'step three' is broken because of issues occurring earlier in the chain — a place where, if improved, real value exists.

What’s more, product teams often try to equally please every business unit impacted by the issue they seek to solve. While this is a fair route to take, it’s worth noting that not all complaints are created equal, and treating them as such can water down the value of almost any solution.

Encouraging successful collaboration

Clearly, fostering successful collaboration across multiple business units during a product development cycle takes a lot of effort and tact, as well as a good, clear strategy. These four techniques will send your company in the right direction:

1. Experience the pain you seek to cure

Asking a diverse range of employees for feedback may be a great way to gain useful insights into particular pain points and workflow inefficiencies, but nothing will give your product team a clearer picture than experiencing these issues firsthand. Schedule time for them to shadow people from across the business, and immerse them in the problems they’re tasked with solving.

2. Understand the entire chain (not just the broken link)

As mentioned earlier, it’s key to focus on more than only the broken link of your chain. Continuing with the 'clunky order processing system' example, it would be wise for that product team to follow an order from its very first entry point into the system all the way through to its last breath. By taking this holistic journey, the team will understand the complete context of the problem, and it will be able to create true solutions — not just temporary Band-Aids.

3. Build paper prototypes

Schedule ongoing interviews where the team presents and discusses paper prototypes of the solution with all affected departments. Whether they are hand-drawn or digitally mocked up, this will get the solution in front of as many people as possible while unlocking valuable product feedback from key stakeholders. Many great tools are on the market that can help make gathering this feedback a breeze.

4. Implement story mapping

Bring contributors together from different business units, and put them through a collaborative story mapping exercise in which they identify the exact features they need in order to succeed at their jobs. Compile and distribute the results, but don’t identify which departments said what. This exercise will engage business units, force them to see the process through their colleagues’ eyes, and provide your product team with key directional validation.

Building internal software requires product teams to navigate years of broken processes, internal politics, and people resistant to change. Throughout the project, it’s imperative to ensure that the team’s efforts remain in line with the entire company’s vision — and the best (and only) way to push through these roadblocks is by closely collaborating with every department that has skin in the game.

Joe Ryan is the COO of Skookum