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The Product Mindset No. 4: Let Them Eat Cake

Note: this post originally appeared on the Solution Design Group (SDG) website. SDG is an employee-owned, Minneapolis-based strategy, product, and technology consultancy. In 2020 I joined Solution Design Group, where I half my time consulting with organizations on product, experience, and strategy, and half my time building a killer product consulting practice for SDG. You can find this and other great posts at www.solutiondesign.com/insights.

For a clue about what a company or team (or a person or nation) values, just look at what it celebrates. After all, we celebrate things we’re proud of or things that are meaningful to us.

If you work in business or technology, you’re likely familiar with the rituals of celebrations in a workplace: donuts in the breakroom, a leader’s words of commendation, some small talk and standing around. In fact, the popular TV show The Office had a long-running gag about employees maneuvering for control of the Scranton branch’s influential Party Planning Committee. That joke wouldn’t have worked if we didn’t understand office celebrations.

While our time in offices has been sorely limited in recent months (Thanks, COVID!), think back to those workplace celebrations. What events do you celebrate in the office? Probably personnel moves like new hires, departures, and promotions, yes. Maybe a few personal events, like baby showers or significant birthdays.

But I’m guessing your workplace also celebrates major achievements in projects. The upgrade was finished, you shipped the release, the milestone was reached. So someone brought in a big box of bagels or picked up artisnal donuts at a hipster bakery. Maybe you all took off early and enjoyed a happy hour at a local tavern. Project managers and teams are well-conditioned to celebrate these project milestones. “Let’s all have cake in the break room!” “Why?” “Because the thing we were doing is done!”

Don’t just celebrate project achievements

Now, I’m not here to denigrate donuts, taverns, or cake. (Although, watch the carbs, people!) And celebrating achievements can certainly help a team’s motivation and cohesion. But when you celebrate the tasks you’ve completed or dates you’ve hit, you’re ignoring the real indicators of product excellence: user needs you’ve met, markets you’ve expanded, things you’ve learned, success you’ve built. A cake to honor a thing finished on time and on budget is a ritual of a project.Projects are a great way to organize resources or manage and sequence labor. I’ve known many wonderful project managers and benefitted from great project tools and resources.  But a project’s primary concern is inward: deliverables, schedule, budget. Customers don’t really care about the way we organize resources or manage and sequence labor. Our work breakdown structure is of little concern to the user. They are not delighted when your actuals matched your estimates. In too many cases, customers don’t even care about your project’s requirements, a nominee for the strangest word in tech.The uncomfortable truth: that artisnal donut with the real maple frosting might just be celebrating the wrong thing done well. So I prefer celebrating product successes. A product mindset, or a product orientation, looks differently at work worthy of celebration. While projects are a way of organizing labor & resources, product is primarily concerned with delivering meaningful responses to satisfy the needs of your users, and therefore with generating value that endures. And so teams with a product mindset celebrate progress towards that value.

The uncomfortable truth: that artisnal donut with the real maple frosting might just be celebrating the wrong thing done well.

Celebrating product success

With that in mind, try adding new rituals to your workplace celebrations. Here are some other things a product team might commemorate:

  • Something you learned. If you’ve uncovered meaningful new information about a market, or even learned something about your teammates that will help you work together, you’ve made progress towards a valuable product. That’s worth celebrating.
  • A change in your requirements or plans. This may sound crazy to project leaders, but a changed requirement usually means you know more about what your customer wants. And that’s worth celebrating.
  • New insights from customers. Did you visit a customer site? Did you bring users in and get their insights on your prototype? If so, you’ve likely learned something about your value hypothesis. And that’s worth celebrating.
  • A customer outcome. This is a big one. If your product solved a problem for a cohort of customers or improved the value exchanged between your business and your users, then the product is performing its essential role as a vehicle of value. And that’s worth celebrating.
  • Business milestones traced to product work. If you’ve crossed a threshold in customer satisfaction (“First month ever with more customers using the self-service online product than called the tech support hotline”) or sales and revenue (“Over $10 million in the product’s subscription sales in Q3”), and you can see how your product drove that achievement, well, that’s worth celebrating.

So yes, happy hours and cake in the breakroom are great little rituals of our professional lives. And donuts are undeniably delicious. But the next time you’re planning a team-building celebration, ask yourself, “Are we celebrating mere output, or meaningful outcomes?”  

Sparkling Cupcakes for a work celebration

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