In a digital-first world product-led organisations are leading the way when it comes to innovation, customer acquisition and growth. Beyond adopting best practices in product management, product thinking requires a new way of doing business and intense customer focus. Whether you’re selling software or building and expanding your digital channels, adopting a product mindset can lead to better alignment, faster decision-making and better customer outcomes.
One way of accelerating your shift to product thinking is to develop and adopt product principles as a leadership and decision-making tool. These principles can help your organisation add structure without losing agility and will provide guidance at every stage of product development, from ideation and prototyping to designing and measuring.
What are product principles?
In order to develop product principles, it’s important to know how they differ from your organisation’s Values. Values are statements of what is important in your organisation. Principles should reflect these values but be more applicable to specific situations and decisions. Unlike value statements, effective product principles need to be easy to remember but also actionable i.e. they should tell your team how to act and make decisions. As an example, your organisation could have “Empathy” as a value. In the context of product design, this could translate into the principle “Work backwards from the customer.”
Product principles can be applied at three levels: product, team, and individual. Depending on what level they’re intended for and whether you’re applying them in customer success, product, sales or marketing functions, they can be adapted to be more context-specific. In this way, principles can be arranged hierarchically. You may have universally applicable principles which are supported by more context-specific principles.
As an example, software company Atlassian uses the principle “Build trust in every interaction” within their design system. To support this, they have more specific ‘tone and voice principles’ such as “Inform to build trust.” For content creators and writers, this principle means writing “as if you are a wizened member of the team” and being “open, humble, and warm.”
Overall, your product principles should be:
Based on your organisation’s values: Product principles should act as supporting pillars for your organisation’s values and never contradict your company mission or brand promise.
Specific and Actionable: They should provide a straightforward way to evaluate choices and make decisions in specific situations.
Distilled: Product principles need to reflect the organisation’s top-most priorities and help to make tradeoffs in situations where there are conflicting priorities.
Developing product principles
The first step of developing your product principles should be to examine your company mission and values. Just as your principles will be supporting pillars for your organisation’s values, your values are supporting pillars for your organisation’s mission. There’s no point in creating principles based on an outdated mission statement or values. Therefore, it’s important to ask whether your mission is a shared purpose across the organisation and whether it’s credible i.e. is there a clear explanation on how your organisation is achieving its mission?
Based on the results of the previous step, you should then be able to craft product principles by transforming and adapting values into actionable guidelines. The first draft of your principles can be tested in real-world decisions and refined based on their effectiveness as well as feedback from teams across different functions.
Once your principles are finalised in writing it’s time to socialise them. The first step is to find internal ‘catalysts’ and leaders from different functions who are able to help teams and individuals apply these principles in everyday decision-making. More tactically, this involves the creation of easily accessible slide decks and internal documents that are regularly shared with employees during onboarding and training.
Product principles are more than just a list of statements, but a management technique and decision-making tool that focuses on empowering your employees to make decisions for themselves over dictating or delegating decisions. Successfully applied, they can lead the better employee experiences, improved alignment and faster, more strategic decision making whilst accelerating your shift to becoming a product-led organisation.
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