5 Challenges to Moving from Projects to Product Focus

person running while working in a rush not looking ahead

As technology-enabled companies fall behind competitors, they are surprised by how fast their markets are changing, and they are being forced to realize how the way they work is holding them back. The reliable project-focused mindset that they have relied on for the last 25 years has become an anchor preventing them from keeping up with the market and their smaller, nimbler competitors. 

To survive, they are forced to move from a project to a product-focused mindset, but it is a significant transformation. To succeed, it is essential to have the right attitude when going through this complex process. 

What is a product-focused mindset? 

More established frameworks, such as the Scaled Agile Framework, define Agile Product Delivery as a “customer-centric approach to defining, building, and releasing a continuous flow of valuable products and services to customers and users.” This emphasizes the need to be customer-centric in all aspects of your definition and development of your technology solutions. It also requires a continuous flow of value to customers and users, enabling rapid feedback and learning as your teams build it. One of the most significant differences between a project-focused and a product-focused mindset is that you bring the work to established teams rather than reassemble project teams for each new project. 

An agile, iterative approach allows the teams to adapt and reinforce diverse aspects of the product throughout the production cycle, which gives the team a significant advantage over the more rigid process. 

Why would you want to move to a product-focused mindset? 

Our users and customers appreciate and understand innovative and effective products. The most significant benefit of moving to a product mindset is to be able to compete in a rapidly changing market. In addition, customer centricity and continuous flow of value also benefit us with four business outcomes: higher productivity, employee engagement, quality, and faster time to market. 

What are the most common hurdles when transitioning? 

Without the right mindset when pursuing this transition and even transformation, one will not succeed. Five common challenges could easily be avoided to help the project-to-product transition flow more smoothly. 

1. Traditional Project Teams 

The first challenge is assuming your current team structure of primarily IT resources will work. For a product team(s) to flow, you need to dedicate team members who are on the team permanently, so the team has a chance to get into a sustainable cadence. It also needs a cross-functional team that includes everyone required to define, build, and release value. Most importantly, the product owner is responsible for maintaining a prioritized backlog for the team and representing the customer as needed.  

Lastly, this product team or team-of-teams needs to be empowered to do their job, including most of the decisions necessary to deliver value. 

2. Project Budgeting 

The second challenge is assuming that our traditional project funding approach will work in a product-focused approach. In project-focused budgeting, we might determine the requirements, approve all the projects at the beginning of the year, and then set up a change control board to scrutinize scope schedule cost changes. It makes sense on paper, but by doing this, we are committed to the teams for the year and eliminate any opportunity to learn and change with the market.  

With a product-focused mindset, the budgeting focus is on the product goals, key metrics definition, and market fit. Their biggest concern is the outcome, and they want to deliver a product that fits the vision. 

The leadership should come together to approve the significant initiatives that align with the company’s strategic themes and the outcomes we are shooting for, not the more minor requests or projects and the detailed requirements. For those, the product teams should be funded to execute those based on business and architectural priority. This allows the teams to adjust to learning as they deliver throughout the year. 

3. Centralized and Prioritized Backlog 

Another challenge for a team in switching from a project to a product flow is not taking the time to get a clear, prioritized backlog of work. Without a single, visible backlog of prioritized work, it is easy for teams to get distracted by multiple priorities from different business owners or managers. 

When people think about the backlog, they often only think about business features, but these must include technical debt, architecture, technology evaluations, and new potential features. 

In a Product Delivery group, the Product Manager is responsible for synthesizing all the requests from the business owners, architects, and other stakeholders into a single visible and prioritized list allowing the teams in that Product area to have one clear set of priorities. 

4. Organize around Hierarchies  

Another challenge is how we are organized. We are often organized around departments, technologies, practice areas, or lines of business. This could be good for resource support and personal development, but it is likely only a subset of what it takes to create value in your organization for a customer. To address this, we need to organize our product into teams or “team-of-teams,” using all the cross-functional roles necessary to define, build and release the new iteration. This is also referred to as the value stream and will cross multiple departments or silos. 

5. No Vision or Roadmap 

The fifth challenge often encountered in a project-to-product transformation is the lack of a vision or roadmap to guide the teams. It is often assumed unnecessary because we did not need one before. You will end up somewhere without a vision or a roadmap, but it might not be where you want to go. The Product Manager is responsible for maintaining a visible vision and roadmap of where the product(s) should be in the future and how we plan on getting there. It is OK if it evolves as we learn and adjust to the marketplace, but our teams need our Product Managers continually communicate and keep us aligned on a shared vision and roadmap.  

Main takeaways

For technology-enabled companies to compete and be able to adjust to the market, they need to transform themselves from project to product-focused companies. This transformation is complex, and you must have the right mindset to address the challenges and succeed!  

We recommend the book Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework by: Mik Kersten to get an introduction to how the Flow Framework can present a new way of seeing, measuring, and managing software delivery. Hopefully, these five mentioned obstacles that may get in the form of transitioning to a product-focused workflow will help you subsist and have the right mindset through this complex process to keep up with the market and preclude falling behind your competitors.