The Journey from Project-Centric to Product-Centric

Project-centric to product-centric. What does this journey look like for an organization? First, are you finding your business is more concerned with hitting project deadlines than actually creating great products that people love? This conundrum occurs more commonly than you’d think, and it often evolved from good intentions.

But just because everyone’s busy doesn’t mean they’re being truly productive. Extracting your organization from the endless race to complete one project after the next can do more than just give your engineers a breather. It offers everyone a chance to make sure those projects still make sense. Furthermore, teams can make sure that nothing material has changed since you started working on them. If these outcomes are missing, it might be time to start the transformation from project-centric to product-centric.

Project-centric vs. product-centric

A project-centric organization is all about getting things done. Projects get created, resources are marshaled, a schedule is set, and it’s off to execution.

Project-centric businesses are usually quite good at delivering things since projects boast well-defined goals, objectives, and timelines. But execution is only helpful if you’re building the right things.

In professional services or customization-oriented businesses where the customer’s always right, a project-centric mindset matches the challenge. But for a product-centric business, the goals shift to doing what’s right for the product itself.

Product centricity introduces agility into how businesses plan, staff, budget, prioritize, and execute. These firms have an unflagging belief that they’re building something important for an addressable market without compromising on their vision or principles. At the same time, these organizations realize they’re learning new things every day and those findings must continually inform their plans. The organization should match this philosophy, with strong product management and leadership guiding the way.

The problem with a project-centric mindset

There’s a lot to like about projects. They are by definition time-bound and have a limited scope. Good ones have clearly defined goals and objectives, often with measurable benchmarks for defining completion and success.

There’s a start date, a target for completion, milestones along the way, and a schedule that sets deadlines. When they take the form of a Gantt chart, there’s clear owners of each step, establishing baked-in accountability and transparency. Project managers assign tasks, balance resources, and provide handy status updates so all the stakeholders know how things are progressing.

But the very thing that makes projects so appealing also highlights their shortcomings. Projects are all about the “how,” the “when,” the “what,” and the “who,” but not the “why.” Progress and deliverables and timelines steal the spotlight as everyone focuses on execution. This is all wonderful IF you’re actually building the right things.

A project-centric approach makes a very big assumption… that the organization knows exactly what it needs to build. However, businesses rarely operate with that level of absolute certainty. Sure, some projects are no-brainers driven by overwhelming market demand, user feedback, or strategic customer relationships. But much of the time businesses are making educated guesses and strategic bets rather than investing in no-doubt, can’t-miss efforts.

In those cases, initiatives begin with a lot more ambiguity and unknowns. Market intelligence, feedback loops, and strategic goals can point us in a general direction. But we’re by no means prepared to lock in every detail at kick-off. Instead, the team must learn as they go along, testing hypotheses and iterating based on learnings. And that nebulous mushiness doesn’t mesh well when everyone’s taking a project-centric approach.

Market responsiveness can drive transformation

The genesis of a project may have come in response to market research, competitive intelligence, user feedback, or usability studies. However, in a project-centric environment those amazing sources of information get turned off once a project’s scope is set. But organizations can avoid this fate of helpless slavishness to project plans and schedules by introducing elements of product-centric thinking to their process.

By easing into things, organizations can avoid the sudden whiplash of changing approaches overnight and build out proof points to win over any skeptical holdouts with some early success stories. For example, even while retaining a project-based strategy for organizing resource allocation and execution, frequent checkpoints can be added to the process that allows the team to revisit their assumptions.

This includes factoring in any new findings from customers, prospects, and other market intelligence sources as well as any unexpected challenges or breakthroughs during implementation. In practice, that could look like swapping in a different feature based on customer demand, tapping into a newly-released API, or squeezing in some extra reporting and instrumentation because one of the project tasks didn’t take as long as expected.

The main focus and objectives of the project haven’t changed, but the end result will add more value for customers and optimize resource utilization. All this by accepting the obvious truth that things will and do change and ignoring that reality does a disservice to everyone working away designing, building, and testing things.

Mapping the organization to the mission

In a project-centric organization, the structure will prioritize optimizing resources for on-time, under-budget delivery. This often puts decision-making in the hands of PMOs or project leads that tap into a bullpen of technical and operational resources as needed.

This continual shuffle of team members and projects might be efficient at the moment and keep people energized about a new challenge, but it fails to develop subject matter expertise and strong team chemistry. It’s just a new batch of colleagues for every new project or a completely different type of assignment.

By reassembling the organization into teams based on specific products, a few key advantages arise. First, there’s consistency when people work with the same coworkers on the same products. They both learn how to work well with each other and can borrow from their shared experience instead of having to start from zero all the time.

But even more importantly, when people are on a product team versus a project team, there’s an opportunity to develop a sense of accountability and ownership for those products. And when people take pride in their work, they’re likely to do more than just the bare minimum and truly care about their customers’ experiences.

Stability breeds agility

While a product-centric organization may not have all the resource flexibility that a project-centric business could muster, product-centric are able to better react because of their more permanent teams. There are a few good reasons for this.

  • Product-focused teams have a deeper understanding of their market, their customers, and their competition. They can far more rapidly assess changing conditions and make data-based recommendations by leaning on their experience and expertise.
  • Product-centric businesses have a better pipeline for customer and user feedback, as well as a process for analyzing what’s received and escalating as needed.
  • Product-centric teams can make hard business decisions (such as delaying revenue or shrinking margins) because they “own” the product and P&L. There’s no such equivalent in a project-centric setup.
  • Goals and objectives extend beyond on-time and under-budget delivery. With a bigger picture, longer-term view, product teams can act strategically while still meeting corporate expectations.

Thanks to their holistic understanding and ownership of the product, these teams can be more agile in their actions. How much wiggle room and flexibility they have may differ from one team or company to the next, but there’s universal buy-in to adapting on the fly when the opportunity calls for it.

And because the team and product are so intertwined and familiar, they can assess the scope and impact of these adjustments and determine the best way to make them without disrupting other timelines and initiatives.

The next step in the project-centric to product-centric journey?

While product-centricity clearly has major advantages over a project-centric mindset, many don’t consider it the end-all, be-all approach. Those folks believe customer-centricity is the ultimate goal, where a product operating model exists as a framework for endlessly striving to satisfy customers.

But plenty of successful firms have found sustained success in the product-centric mode. Apple and Google made their fortunes and carved out huge chunks of market share thanks to their product-centric approaches. They simply believed they were making the best product and that customers would love it. In more recent years these firms, no longer led by singular visionaries have begun letting market forces drive them into a bit more customer centricity.

But perhaps no company better embodies product-centric thinking than Dyson. From vacuums and fans to haircare and headphones, the company simply dances to the beat of its own drummer. Confident that technical ingenuity and a beautiful design will win over enough customers despite their premium price points, Dyson continually pushed the envelope.

You can be sure that Dyson isn’t rushing products out before they’re fully ready or skimping on materials to squeeze things under budget. They have dedicated teams with deep expertise operating with a shared commitment to excellence. They might be undercut by copycats, but there’s no mistaking the product-centricity of Dyson.

Are you ready to transform your organization from project-centric to product-centric?