About a year and a half ago, I had a conversation with Rob Wiley, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met about business and product development strategy. He not only graciously shared how he created value for companies such as Salesforce, Emma, and Ford, but also became one of our advisors at Boardable.

The company was just getting up and running, and at the time, I held a split role between Boardable and my former company, SmallBox. In my conversation with Rob, he said something about product development strategy that has stuck with me ever since.

“It’s all about the questions,” he said.

Why Asking Questions Drives Product Development Strategy

Rob encouraged me to really dial in our driving questions, and then let the answers steer the business. After our meeting, I put together a list of our driving questions and then published them in the office. Below is a selection from that list circa mid-2017:

  • Who is our ideal customer?
  • What is the most important problem they need help solving?
  • What talent and/or resources do we need to succeed?
  • How can we profitably deliver amazing customer service?

Those questions could apply to any business. This convinces me that the best product development strategy for most firms is to ditch assumptions and remain curious. As we discovered, every answer reveals another tier of questions. With every tier, we got closer to understanding our customers’ pain.

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For instance, Boardable is a SaaS product that simplifies managing boards of directors. We established that our ideal customer, community nonprofits, needed help improving board engagement. So we then asked, “What does an engaged board member look like?” This led us to a series of answers. Engaged board members:

  • Prepare for and contribute to meetings.
  • Follow up on what they say they are going to do.
  • Donate, fundraise, and evangelize their nonprofit.

Every Question Reveals an Answer, Every Answer a More Specific Question

New product development strategy relies on iteration, so it makes sense that each of our above answers revealed another layer of questions. For example, “How might we help board members better prepare for meetings?” We could even get more specific: “How might we help community nonprofits better prepare their board members for meetings?”

As you can see, the answers to these ground-level questions become the innovation levers in your product development strategy. For us at Boardable, that meant adding features and functionality to help board members better prepare for board meetings. In fact, much of our current work on a mobile app focuses on meeting preparation.

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You cannot get to the right questions (or answers) without talking directly to your customers and watching how they use your product. Their input often reveals subtle but critical nuances that can push an idea (an “answer”) from good to great. There is, however, a danger here.

Why Your Product Development Strategy Must Emphasize Talking to Customers

I’ve come to see my role as CEO of a product business as a seeker of answers to increasingly specific questions. It’s a fascinating journey, similar in many ways to a spiritual journey: study and reflection revealing new insights. But the weird thing about spiritual journeys is that they can make us too internally focused when the point is to connect more deeply with the world outside of us.

Let me explain how that relates to your product development strategy.

We had a hypothesis around the Boardable app that we should display shortened content for board members. We felt confident this was the right direction—until we presented the idea to some customers.

They reacted with mild horror. Responses such as, “Seems like more work for us,” and, “Seems like it would let them off the hook for doing the reading,” pushed us to consider how we might split the difference between the admin and board member experiences.

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Without that feedback, we might have launched something that antagonized the people we need to be our champions. No matter how well you know your customer, don’t assume you know them so well that can make decisions for them. Ask, don’t assume.

What About the Role of Vision in Product Planning and Development Strategy?

As Henry Ford famously stated, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” To build a truly revolutionary product, you must be willing to risk investing in something completely new. It is the role of leadership to manage that tension between the big vision and the customer’s voice.

But in the end, your customers make the call. If your vision creates a product they won’t buy, then you almost certainly failed to ask the right questions and truly listen to the answers, even if … no, especially when they weren’t what you wanted them to be. After all, we wouldn’t be talking about Henry Ford if he hadn’t sold that Model T to customers wanting a faster horse.

Wondering how to develop a new product strategy? Or more specifically, where to start applying this approach to your business? I suggest at the top. Start with the most obvious questions you can ask. It might start with, “What are we selling?” Even a question that big and broad may push you into new realms of clarity.

Then, as you answer those big starting questions, more specific questions will reveal themselves, seeking even more specific answers. Assuming you have a viable product worth selling, these questions and their respective answers will lead the way to growth. 

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