Sustaining product growth requires an objective view of why you are successful.

There is a narrative you have likely seen in the market, or experienced firsthand, over the past couple of years. A company establishes a new product or market that is showing incredible growth potential after an initial level of success. The market rewards it with funding or an IPO event. The company then hits a significant bump in the road such as an economic downturn, a disruptive competitor, or an inability to get to profitability with the product they brought to market. Analysts write articles about what went wrong and whether the product was a flash in the pan or has a sound business model and leadership team that can right the ship. The undertone of this analysis is often whether factors beyond their control led to the company’s initial success.

Every success story has at least a modicum of luck involved. Right time, right place, right opportunity, and right mix of people are all things that can have a significant impact and can fall outside of our control. I’m confident nearly every product team can point to one or two opportunities or situations that they didn’t anticipate or plan for that played a critical role in their success. In some cases, these situations caused them to course correct their strategy. In other cases, they bought the organization time to address critical gaps or issues in their execution. It is a failure to recognize the latter scenarios specifically that can prevent an organization from sustaining its initial success and becoming the next topic for the analysts.

The challenge in recognizing luck

Success may have come so quickly that you and your organization got caught up riding and navigating the wave without realizing it may have been significantly buoyed by some exceptional circumstances that will be difficult to sustain or repeat. This is a concern that can keep many leaders awake at night.

So how do you objectively assess the success your organization has experienced? It starts with an honest introspection with your team on how that success was realized. There are many capabilities required to launch and sustain a successful product and rarely does everything go according to plan. Some areas underachieve, some areas will perform as expected, and some may perform better than expected. It is actually the areas that perform better than expected that you need to closely examine if you want to sustain your success.

This is where I will go against the cliché and encourage you to absolutely look that gift horse in the mouth! You need to take the time to inspect and challenge why expectations are ever exceeded. You can’t do this on your own so it is important to cultivate a culture where everyone feels comfortable with sharing their own observations. 

This can be very challenging because even the best organizations will typically focus on two areas when it comes to introspection: rewarding success and addressing known issues. Both are appropriate and necessary, but the rewarding of success can be problematic because that tends to focus on the best aspects of the narrative which can overlook hidden shortcomings. As a leader, you need to encourage your team to speak up even if their own recognition is on the line when they believe heroics may not be enough to sustain the success. Without this introspection you could be lulled into a false sense of confidence in your capabilities and circumstances and make decisions and priorities accordingly.

Overlooking fortunate circumstances can lead to flawed decisions

As a hypothetical example, your two-year-old enterprise product might have achieved profitability in the last quarter based on record sales in Europe. This could lead you to believe that your European sales team has cracked the code on selling your product, leading you to invest in growing that team, along with the launch of a global training program to share their best practices and process with other sales teams. Alternatively, you could believe that it is validation for a product feature you fought to keep in the most recent release which leads to further investment in that product feature. Either way, you are making decisions based on a sustained growth pattern.

However, your sales increase could have been due to an EU regulatory requirement that went into effect this year and your product happens to affordably address the need (unbeknownst to you). In this scenario, all the proposed investment considerations would have been chasing false perceptions of your success. A better understanding of the circumstances (in this case from your customers) would likely make you a bit more cautious in betting on sustaining the growth or perhaps lead you to invest in identifying and augmenting the value your product can provide for other compliance scenarios. This illustrates how impactful a false assessment of your success can be if you don’t identify or understand the factors that may not be under your control.

Other scenarios that could be masking the effectiveness of your own capabilities could include:

  • A few strong individual team members that are covering up significant process gaps
  • Customer value that could be compromised by a pending feature that was delayed for other reasons
  • Viral social media inadvertently promoting your product
  • A competitor negatively impacted by a public relations issue

Unexpected events beyond your control are going to happen. They may work to your favor or against you, but neither situation should be dismissed. It is important to encourage your team to recognize the factors beyond your control and acknowledge when they may be masking issues in your strategy or execution. Celebrate your success but challenge the areas where results are exceeding expectations. Otherwise, you may overlook the barriers that prevent you from sustaining that success.

Next up: Don't let Product-centric success lead to Product obsession

Previous posts in the Series:

Driving Sustainable Business Growth through Product (aka Problem) Management

Are you a Product-centric company?  Should you be?