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Continuous discovery & delivery: How to build industry redefining products

innovation
(Image credit: Image Credit: Fancycrave1 / Pixabay)

Rising competition fueled by technology innovation, ever-changing customer trends…the pressure to stand out from the crowd is growing for companies of all sizes. I believe that to create market-leading products and platforms, they need to change the way people live. 

But how can companies create products that stay ahead of the competition and really redefine industries?

First of all, ensure the strategy for your products and platforms accentuates your competitive advantage. 


Secondly, to build the right product, you need to set the right direction through the product discovery.

Lastly, companies must aim for constant innovation. The last couple of years have shown us that what was innovative and groundbreaking two or five years ago, might no longer cater to the needs of your customers. 

So innovate. Always

Make the switch from discovery to continuous discovery & delivery

There is a lot of talk about product discovery and how to achieve a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). But where many companies make a mistake is that they stop innovating the MVP after discovery. But the world and customer trends keep on changing, so should your digital product and platform. 

And this is where continuous discovery and delivery come in; it’s about constantly innovating, making changes to address user and market needs so that you never fall behind the customer - or the competition. 

If we look at the most famous products, Facebook, LinkedIn, iOS to name just a few, they don’t look or behave in the same way as they did last year, let alone 5 years ago. They never, ever, stop innovating. 

Why continuous discovery and delivery?

To illustrate the power of continuous discovery and deployment, let’s imagine a retail e-commerce platform. Here at Ciklum, I’ve worked with METRO Markets to build their B2B marketplace. 

We empowered our teams, enabling them to innovate. We gave them user journeys, OKRs to inspire and provide measurable targets, as well as access to real-time data showing how the product was being used. With these tools we could unleash their creativity. One of our teams was working on the product detail page. Part of their OKRs included a clear target - to support large transaction volumes - important as METRO Markets is a wholesale service. The first incarnation of the page, envisaged during discovery, was a very standard industry product detail page, similar to most retailers. 

Looking at live data, the team saw that customers were only buying one or two items, but METRO is a wholesaler. The idea was simple - if you buy in bulk, you get a discount. But that wasn’t obvious enough to the customer. The team suggested a feature showing customers they could save x amount of money even before choosing multiple products. The key was making it clear and simple to action in one click, so the buyer doesn’t need to put four products into the basket for the bulk discount to pop up. 

The team’s ability to constantly innovate and ship those changes to production paid off. As a result, the basket spend grew significantly. Simple, data-driven, changes can have a big impact. Multiply this up to hundreds of changes a day and it’s easy to see how you can stay ahead of the competition.

Four things you need need to enable continuous discovery  

Data. LIVE data. 

If you don’t know how your current product and features are performing, you can’t suggest any improvements. In the METRO Markets example, our teams had data live at their fingertips. Every single team had a screen above their desks so they could see the impact of their changes on end-users straight away - whether it’s more people coming in, usage peaks at different times, alternative customer journeys or higher/lower basket spend. So the team knew immediately what was working and what wasn’t. 

Objectives and key results 

Objectives and key results (OKRs) is a goal-setting framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes. Translated into real life, it meant the team working on the METRO Markets project had a bold vision of what they were trying to achieve and some really measurable targets - like growing the basket spend. It’s about using the right tools to empower your teams. 

How to get ideas into production at pace, while staying safe 

‘What if somebody comes with an idea that breaks the product or makes it even worse?’ 

If you’re asking this question, we suggest a different way of thinking: ‘What’s the risk of unleashing my team?’ The answer is very little, especially with appropriate automated checks and balances in place. 

Let’s say that what’s being proposed turns out to be what we call a ‘breaking change’. To prevent this impacting users, the change goes through a whole hoop of verifications, which means that red flags can be identified preventing the change from being deployed into production. In software engineering, we call this CI/CD - combined practices of continuous integration and continuous delivery. 

This ‘verification hoop’ means that if the team suggests a change, it goes through the automatic series of checks in under 30 minutes, providing the crucial feedback straight away. 

The other type of change is the one that customers don’t like. You might have introduced a change only to realize that it makes the customer experience worse, not better. Engineering is not just about the code; lots of the work is about coming up with hypotheses and testing them out. That’s why changes should first be tested on a smaller group of customers - e.g. 10 percent that can see the new feature. If it’s working well, you increase the percentage, and if it’s not working, you keep changing it until it’s ready to be rolled out to 100 percent of the population. 

Have you ever noticed a new LinkedIn feature on your account, whilst your colleagues claim to have never seen the feature for themselves? That’s because this is exactly what the social media giants do - test first, identify and fix issues, then implement fully. 

Keep changing at pace

We’ve covered innovation and shipping code safely to production. But there's a double-edged sword to this: how do you hit a deadline? We know that's a really important piece of competitive tension that you’ve got to get right within the delivery process. The solution lies in data analytics. I use Monte Carlo analysis that looks at the work that the teams have done and simulates the probability of delivering change by a deadline. In other words, using the Monte Carlo simulation can put a precise probability on hitting a deadline, even months into the future. Having this level of transparency helps open conversations not only with the product teams but also the board or investors. 

Three times yes to continuous discovery and delivery. 

Speed. By having those 1000s upon 1000s of compounded improvements to your digital products, you’ve got ahead by 1000 cuts to your competitors’ products - which means that you are moving ahead in the marketplace, leaving your competition lagging behind.

Empowering teams. Creating a culture that empowers innovation is a tough challenge and a topic on its own. Combining these tools and approaches allows companies to empower teams to not be afraid and come up with new ideas - without breaking anything. 

Staying ahead. Of both, customers and competition. 

So when do you stop innovating? 

The answer should be ‘never’. 

It’s worth saying the size of the team can typically be significantly smaller than it was during the product discovery and deployment. 

That doesn’t mean effort doesn’t tail off. Is Google really putting as much effort into improving Gmail today as they did 10 years ago? No. But is it still improving it? Yes.

So in the long run, having a team that constantly innovates your product doesn’t need to be a big red mark on the budget sheet, as in the end, the ROI is extremely high - the thousands of small innovations created by your teams will be compounded to create a game-changing product.

The legendary Nike Pegasus that has changed the lives of many runners came out in 1983 and has had more than 30 iterations since. This is what a product approach (vs project approach) really means; whether it’s an app, website, e-commerce or trainers. Don’t stop innovating.

Sam Rapley, SVP global delivery, Ciklum

Sam Rapley is SVP of global delivery at Ciklum. Sam is an experienced and highly motivated leader who has delivered several multi-million-pound, multi-award-winning digital transformation outcomes for Central Government. Sam loves working at pace and takes pride in understanding the needs of the user and working with his delivery teams at a detailed level, while also having a grasp of the big picture to improve delivery outcomes.