A Conversation With Don Fotsch on Continuous Product Design as a Core Business Process

August 25, 2020 By: Christine Tran

In this Q&A, I talked to Don Fotsch, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Greyscale AI, which is bringing inspection-as-a-service, including cloud-based capabilities, to the food inspection industry. 

Don recently joined Quantum Metric’s advisory board, drawing from decades of building great teams and products at Apple, PayPal, and Express Scripts.

On Continuous Product Design, who embodies it, what it looks like

Christine: Don, you joined Quantum Metric’s growth advisory board recently and were drawn to a concept we introduced earlier this year, Continuous Product Design. Tell us about your initial reactions to it.

Don: When I first heard about Continuous Product Design from your CEO Mario Ciabarra, it was very self-descriptive. 

If you look at what Apple and Amazon do as a team, their ability to learn, iterate, and respond is, in many cases, faster than anybody else out there, particularly at scale. My favorite example is every time they put out a major release of iOS for the iPhone, for example, it’s not like they ship it and it’s perfect. There usually ends up being a few issues, sometimes nasty ones. But by the time I find the issue, there’s a patch and a date it’s going to be delivered. 

They’re so good at not only releasing new compelling things, but instrumenting that experience in such a way that, as I like to say, they have “ears all over the experience.” They’re listening to employee usage or listening to customer usage. I’m sure they’ve got great analytics, and those keep improving.

When you understand that in addition to good talent, the great companies—particularly at scale—have this common attribute: They are incredibly responsive to customer signals and they’re highly iterative with the experience. If you understand that as a core competency, coupled with great talent, you can change the world in some amazing ways.

Why Continuous Product Design matters

Christine: We agree that companies like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix embody Continuous Product Design. Some leaders might say, “Well, we’re never going to be like them.” Why should every business leader care about Continuous Product Design?

Don: When I think of Continuous Product Design, I think of two questions that every CEO would want to have a confident answer to before they go to bed every night. One of those questions is: “Are the things I’m spending money on the right things?” The corollary to which is: “Am I missing opportunities to invest in something important?”

When you have Continuous Product Design, the customer experience is properly instrumented so you can ask the five W’s—all the way down to get an answer of what’s actually going on, for example, in a payment flow, e-commerce flow, insurance signup flow, etc. 

As a CEO or product leader, I want to be able to say, “I have confidence when we’re operating this way—that we’re going after the right next work that’s most valuable to our customers.” That’s a big deal. 

Continuous Product Design as a core business process 

Christine: That’s a fantastic way to describe Continuous Product Design. Can you elaborate further on what this looks like in real life? 

Don: Within any business, you ask, “What is the process through which the experience for our customers gets better? Is that a core process in our company?” I don’t know anyone who says no. Then you ask, “OK. It’s that we’re continually improving the product, right?” They say yes. You say, “OK. So the core process for improving value delivered to customers—that is what we’re going to call Continuous Product Design.”

If you think about it in that context: Is there a company that delivers a product or a service where the continued improvement of that product or service isn’t a core process in the company? The answer is it doesn’t exist, because in order to survive, let alone thrive, you need predictable delivery of improvement of your core product. This is a necessary condition for success. It’s not the only thing; there are still other things. But if you have everything else right, and you’ve got this wrong, you’re dead.

So why don’t we say clearly: “Continually improving our product or service is important to our business. Let’s create a team around that, because we’re going to keep improving that for a long time. That’s a really important part of the experience for our customers.” Well, you would just naturally figure that out in the process of the Continuous Product Design approach.

Christine: When you say “let’s create a team around that,” it sounds very much like the evolution from a project to product culture that many big companies are undertaking. Can you expand on that?

Don: You can talk to any leader for two minutes and know that they don’t have dedicated product teams. You can talk to them for one more minute and determine that they would significantly improve the productivity of their development spend if they just had a few product teams on the most important parts of their overall offering. 

For example, if you go to many big companies, they’re not product-focused yet. Everything’s a project, and they treat developers as if they’re bricklayers. They say, “Oh, this team over here needs some development.” So they grab some developers, throw them in, and off they go. They probably don’t know anything about the code.

And then two years from now, they need to do an improvement on that product. Since they don’t have a product team, they say: “Oh, we have another project. Go make that thing better.” In this model, they don’t have the efficiency and benefit of having dedicated teams doing Continuous Product Design or quick iterations.

When you have more of a project focus, the best math says that you’re getting about 15 cents in value for every dollar invested. When you have Continuous Product Design dedicated teams, like at Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, your productivity is closer to like 80%. Now why is that? Because they have dedicated teams and the dedicated teams know the code.

What’s needed for Continuous Product Design success

Christine: How do teams and leaders foster the right environment to support a core process like Continuous Product Design?

Don: In my experience with an organization of, say, more than 50 people, there are three necessary conditions for change to move at a pace that won’t frustrate your best people. Those requirements are: 

Number one, the CEO has to personally believe in driving it. You need the most senior person to fundamentally believe in what you’re doing. Number two is you need a culture that values integrity and transparency. The last thing — which I found most often missing and core to the loss of traction — is you have to pay people for what you want them to do. It turns out that humans are pretty predictable. One of the things we’re predictable about is we tend to do the work that we’re paid for. If you pay people to do nothing, eventually, they’ll get really good at doing nothing. They’ll get so good at it that they will resist change.

Don, we appreciate your insights and are so glad to have you on the Quantum Metric advisory board.

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