Put Value Before Scope with a Product vs a Project Mindset

What is the mindset around development work at your organization? Do you approach work with a project or a product mentality? In development circles there is currently much conversation around shifting away from a project mentality to a product mindset. All these discussions might leave you wondering if you should lead a transition at your company. In our experience as software development consultants, we believe that using a product-based approach to development will help you be better prepared to address changes in the market. Let’s take a closer look at what these concepts mean, the benefits that could be gained by a product mindset and how to lead your company’s transition.

Project Mindset

Graphic displaying the thought process of a project mindset

While the development world has started shifting toward product thinking already, large enterprises can be slow to change and many still view development work as projects. What do we mean by having a “project mindset?” In this scenario, a product manager would think, “what are we going to build” and then think “how are we going to build that?” second. They would then ask for a budget for a specific set of development goals and defined deliverables. The project would be approved if the expected return beats the requested budget. In other words, someone sets the scope, budget, and timeline in advance and then a team is assembled to specifically build the scope, thus a project. In a project, success is defined by meeting the budget and schedule.

Working in a project-based way makes sense when work falls in typical and repeatable patterns. Think of building a house, the steps are relatively the same every time and the work that needs to be done is largely known upfront. However, in development work, it’s more often the case that more of the scope is unknown that known at the beginning. If you embrace that unknown, instead of trying to make predictions, the outcome of your software will be better for it.

Product Mindset

Graphic showing the thought process of a product mindset

Where a project mindset focuses on the output, or how much work is done, a product mindset shifts the focus to the outcome. In other words, in a product mindset you’re much more focused on whether what you’ve built is having the desired effect in the market.

A solution can meet budget, timeline, and agreed upon scope (the measures for success in project thinking), but if it isn’t serving the needs of users and therefore isn’t being adopted, would you really call that initiative a success? A product mindset would not and will help you avoid this scenario.

Beginning development work on a product would start with asking yourself, “why are we building something?” Answering this question will help establish the expected value of your solution. From there you can set a budget based on how much the desired outcome is worth to the company. Setting a timeline and scope can follow from there.

Product thinking measures success based on user adoption, retention and the revenue generated/costs saved per feature. Having a product mindset helps you keep the bigger picture in view to make sure that you’re staying focused on the product’s ultimate vision.

Working with a product’s outcome in mind often means that the scope will change over the course of development. This is a good thing. However, when scope changes the timeline and budget for the product could increase, but not always. Working in this way will ensure that each release is more valuable to its end users. Or maybe you’ll find that one release wasn’t valuable to users, but that gives you the knowledge you need to pivot until the software is valuable and saves wasted time, effort, and money in the long run.

Shifting to a Product Focus

Businesses still tend to have a project mentality around software development because of its association with being predictable and the belief that the more you know about scope up front, the more accurate your timelines and budgets will be. However, a strong Product Owner can do a lot to advance product thinking on his or her teams and throughout the organization.

In business, there will always be stakeholders who need to know a timeline and budget for software development work. When committing to a budget and timeline, you’ll need to make value-based judgements to adjust your scope to fit. We believe that this is a valuable strategy for working in a product way while keeping very real business concerns in mind as well.

Be a champion of product thinking throughout the organization, talk to others about the way you’d like to work and help them see the benefits of working in this way. Remind your team members about the vision of the product so they can remember that creating valuable software for the end users is the real goal, not just writing the most code the fastest.

Likewise remind stakeholders that product thinking doesn’t avoid budgeting, but rather puts money first by ensuring that what you build has a beneficial goal up front and that budget is based off that goal. So, when scope feels less predictable, they’ll remember that the chance of maximizing value for your dollars and achieving expected ROI increases with each scope adjustment.

Conclusions

Product thinking is the direction software development is headed. Shifting to this mindset won’t happen overnight and it will take an advocate to push it within your organization, but the change will lead to smoother projects with more valuable outcomes. When you present the value to be gained and the optimized return on investment, companies and developers alike should be willing to give product thinking a try.

Want to test out a product mindset with a team that’s already practicing it? Work with a high-performing team from Aptera on your next development initiative.

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Nikki Dent

Nikki Dent

Nikki is a technical copywriter for Aptera. With a bachelor’s degree in writing from Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., she has been honing her craft of marketing copywriting for the past seven years. In her role at Aptera, Nikki enjoys learning and writing about the technology and strategy at work across the company.

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