Customer Focus Driven Project Management


Imagine that you are managing the project to make the ‘drill bit’ which is used to drill holes. Product management has spent hours of research and analysis to provide you the functional spec that describes the strength, width, and depth of bit.

Using some of the best project management philosophies, you have come up with a way of improving the functionality, and has also innovated a new alloy to make the most awesome drill bit. Now, you pop the question to your product management team as to what is the new market size for this ‘Awesome Drill Bit’? There is no market to drill bit. There has been never a market for the drill bit. There is only a market for ‘holes’.

This is customer focus in my perspective. Customers may have several needs, but they typically have a single problem. In this case the customer’s problem is to drill hole, and there is a huge market for it. There is hardly any market for the customer’s needs or requirements as they may be different for different customers.

Although it is assumed that understanding the customer’s problem is the job of marketing or product management, the customer focus approach of building products helps the overall organization achieve its goal. Without the understanding about drilling a hole, project management may design the most aesthetic bit, which is probably hidden all the time or over-spec the product.

Attributes for a customer focus driven project management:

  • Defining the customer/ customer group
  • Understanding the value-chain of the organization in terms of sell-deploy-support
  • Knowing the customer user-experience at a systemic level
  • Understanding the use-case of the product
  • Knowing the problem to be solved and mapping the needs towards the solution
  • Changing the process to learn problem solving rather than requirements

Three years ago when we were building the mobile web browser, we gathered many requirements to make a great iPhone browser. We conducted competitive analysis of hundreds of browsers and apps to gather requirements, and even conducted focus-group interviews. After few months into the project, when we wanted to build the browser based on differentiation alone, we defined the customer’s problem to put ‘Adobe Flash’ on iPhone that both Apple and Adobe were not able to solve. We were able to successfully build the technology around the ecosystem and solved thecustomer’s problem.

Amazon.com is an e-commerce powerhouse and is known for its customer focus. The project team at Amazon has this principle of leaving an empty chair in every meeting designated for customer. It sounds creepy at first, but is a great way to make sure that everyone has a customer perspective. This alone can help the project management team think at a systemic level.

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