The Product Mindset

Written by Jason Scherschligt
On December 17, 2020
Product is enjoying a moment. Twenty years ago, when I first landed a job with the title of “Product manager, interactive media,” not many people even knew what the job was. (Confession: I may not have even known what the job was!). Now every smart company is building up teams of product pros, and product manager was ranked 4th on Glassdoor’s recent list of 10 Best Jobs in America. The reason for the rise of product management is clear: product skills help companies satisfy customers, win markets, and build their business.

Consultants and bloggers (yeah, I’m both) have sprung up to help leaders and teams get better at “doing product.” We product folks often talk about “having a product orientation,” “becoming product-led,” or “adopting the product mindset” — but to do that, you first need to understand what a product even is.

Product, defined

Let’s start by defining product. I define it broadly:

A product is a response to a human need or desire that confers benefit to both the recipient and the provider of the response.

So if a company makes a thing that satisfies a person’s need, and the person is willing to do something that benefits the company, like give them money, well, that thing is a product. In some cases, the product is obvious. I need to open a can of soup, the Acme Can Opener Company makes a device that does just that, so I pay Acme for its can opener, its product.  The product is what connects Acme’s mission — “we shall leave no can unopened” — to their customers’ need — “I’d like some soup, but gosh darn it, it’s sealed up in this can.”

Software, including websites and mobile apps, complicates this a bit. In a world where every type of interaction, from banking to dating, is intermediated by software, human needs and desires are often best met by a digital experience — so those digital experiences are products too, just like the physical items are.

As a thought experiment, imagine other human needs that the Acme Can Opener Company might identify and respond to. 

Category User need or desire Response that meets that need or desire — in other words, product
Commerce “I need to buy a can opener.” E-commerce website
Service “I need to repair my can opener.” Customer support knowledgebase, repair services, scheduling tools
Business-to-business “I’m a can opener dealer. I need to maintain my inventory.” Portals and other systems for B2B users
Customization and configuration “I’d like to monogram my can opener.” Customization app integrated with manufacturing systems
Community “I’d enjoy meeting other can opening enthusiasts.” Forums, personal profiles, messaging, networking tools

All of the systems and experiences that address these needs, solve these problems, or satisfy these desires are products, as much as the can opener itself is. And they require vision, planning, execution, and sustenance: all of it is product work, done by product managers and product teams.

In a world where every type of interaction is intermediated by software, human needs and desires are often met by a digital experience — so those digital experiences are products too, just like the physical items are.

Product as a mindset

Once we understand product, it’s easier to understand the product mindset. It’s an organization’s behaviors and structures that are oriented towards making, delivering, and supporting great products — which again, are responses to the needs of humans.

Here’s an list of some of the most important of these behaviors and structures.

  • A near obsession with understanding the people who use your products
  • Empathetically listening to and observing the behaviors and needs of customers​
  • Relentlessly delivering value​
  • Celebrating impact over celebrating output
  • Designing to solve problems​, not just as decoration
  • Accountabity to business goals​, even more than project plans
  • Organizing in cross-functional, relatively autonomous teams
  • Embracing, rather than resisting, change​

This mindset can supercharge business success. When you and your team adopt a product mindset, your priorities become clearer. Your organization understands its customers. You become more observant. You become more innovative. You become more aligned as a team. People become more satisfied. 

Building this product mindset isn’t easy — what is? — but it’s the hallmark of many great products and teams. Do this, and the world will be your oyster. Oh, and those oysters come in a can.

Can Opener The Product Mindset

Photo credits:

Rock cairn photo by Sean Stratton on Unsplash
Tablet photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash