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The digital revolution is upon us. Everywhere one looks products are being upgraded with IT smarts. My bathroom scale, for example, tells me how much I weigh, but also tells me my body fat percentage and my heart rate. Naturally, it communicates an ongoing record of my measurements via Wi-Fi to a cloud-based application. I can keep track of my record in the company’s mobile application.

But it does even more. It will broadcast my readings on social media to my friends, family, and followers. I’ll bet you’re laughing at that last one—TMI, right? For some people, it may even raise significant privacy concerns. However, famed magician Penn Jillette credits the social media capabilities of his scale with saving his life.

My scale is a perfect example of how someone took an age-old boring product and re-envisioned it for today’s users. IT functionality is key to the bathroom scale 2.0, and it’s not just slapped on. Once you use the scale, you see how information technology is woven through the entire product and its ongoing use, and how the company rethought the product from the ground up to fashion it as ready for the digital age.

As a senior IT executive, your job—your charter—is dramatically different than it was five years ago. Today’s IT organization is expected to contribute as an equal partner to creating your company’s product or service 2.0. And you need to be ready to meet that challenge. Here are three ways to work with your business side to create awesome digital products.

Marry your product manager

Traditionally, the relationship between development and operations has been characterized as “throw it over the wall.” In most traditional companies, the first wall is the one between product management and IT. The project manager writes up an MRD (market requirements document) and forwards it to IT, which figures out what’s necessary to support the requirements and sets off to build what it understands as necessary. That causes three problems:

  1. It fosters an “us vs. them” mentality (and we’ve seen how well those kind of relationships work within IT!).

  2. Worse, it slows down the pace of product development and delivery, which is a recipe for disaster in today’s economy.

  3. Worst of all, it hinders collaboration between two groups that should be working together to ideate what the company’s products or services could be.

One way Silicon Valley companies cultivate collaboration is to co-locate product managers and product teams. This enables constant interaction, informal conversations, and rapid dissemination of important market feedback. You could do a lot worse than propose something like this. In any case, you need to figure out how to get out of the MRD world and into the Lean Enterprise world.  

Know your customer

In my recent piece on mobile applications, I mentioned design thinking, an emerging discipline that provides a range of tools to explore customer needs and goals. Design thinking involves stepping back from your assumptions about why a customer is buying your product or service, which can reveal surprising facts. 

Clayton Christensen, the famed creator of the concept of disruptive innovation, refers to this process as identifying the job the customer is hiring the product to do. As an example of the surprises this process can turn up, his firm worked with a fast food chain to identify new product opportunities, revenue streams, and so on. One puzzling thing they encountered was that a large percentage of sales of their dessert shakes were made in the morning. Who has dessert at breakfast time? What they discovered was that customers bought them just before starting their morning drive. The shake served as a distraction (and a little gift) to help them endure a boring commute.

This points out an important fact about understanding customer needs: They won’t always be related to product functionality. Convenience, rather than functionality per se, can be just as strong a customer buying motivation. One of the main drivers of Amazon Web Services adoption early on was the fact that it allowed users to bypass “the department of no,” a.k.a. central IT.

Experiment and validate

A third technique to help you succeed in the new digital world is to leverage fast experimentation via quick prototypes and user trials. This is the mantra of the Lean Startup and is sometimes called “fail fast.” The idea is that learning from real customer use trumps product decisions based on abstract speculation. In short, put something out there quickly and find out if it’s something customers really want. 

Fail fast poses enormous challenges to IT organizations steeped in a risk-averse, waterfall culture. But it’s unavoidable. I recently worked with an auto company that had outsourced the back-end operations of its in-car applications. This resulted in a best-case update cycle of six weeks, which is deadly given that cars represent perhaps the biggest market battleground of the next decade. The car company was frantically trying to figure out how to accelerate its release cycle and recognized it needed to do things differently.

Simply stated, the experiment and validate approach—critical in a digital enterprise—requires a rethinking of IT processes, practices, and metrics. DevOps—or whatever you want to call your automated development and deployment process—is table stakes for this world. If you don’t have a way to go from checking in a code change to end users experiencing that code change without anyone performing a manual task, you aren’t ready for a fail fast environment.

But DevOps, on its own, is not sufficient. If you’re experimenting with a new product feature or a different way of using your product, you almost certainly don’t want to expose it to your entire customer base. You need a mechanism to test the new offering with a subset of customers. You might get a few users to try out a quick-and-dirty stand-alone application. Or you might opt for A/B testing, where the majority of users of an application see the current version and perhaps 1 or 2 percent are directed toward the new functionality. Feature flags are a common technique to achieve this but require improvements to your build, deployment, and load-balancing practices so you can ensure that just a portion of application users encounter the new functionality.

Learn from success

In the digital world, it's not enough to have top-notch technical talent. It's not enough to have visionary product managers. Success in building a truly digital enterprise requires deep collaboration between IT and business departments, and mutual solution creation. Of course, this is very difficult to achieve, and few companies manage to do it well, but drawing on the lessons of successful Silicon Valley companies can help you meet the challenge. 

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