The Backlog: Products and Workflows

Don’t ship the org chart, but your product teams should ship your customer’s workflows

I recently listened to the latest episode of Maggie Crowley’s excellent ‘Build’ podcast and she touched on a major product theme for 2021 that I’ve been discussing with my product team. The podcast topic was Top 5 Product Lessons for 2021 and the first product lesson was “Products are Workflows.” Here’s Maggie’s description of the lesson:

“The price of having small autonomous product teams is that you can lose track of the bigger picture [of your product suite] and get into the situation of solving point problems, and as a PM, unknowingly creating workflow issues for the user because those workflows happen outside of the domain of the team that you’re on.”

This lesson resonated so much with me because it is the fundamental challenge of building a compelling suite of seemingly interconnected products for customers. I emphasized compelling because it speaks to the explicit value proposition of the product and the implicit promise product teams make to customers (“this company created both of these different products, so they should work together for my benefit”) in order for them to adopt and use their products. I emphasized seemingly interconnected because while a company may have products that support different workflows, the product teams often build in silos, beholden to different internal KPIs or goals.


More importantly, when teams build in silos they 1) often don’t share a holistic view of the customer’s workflows and 2) often don’t understand why that’s a problem. When product teams share a holistic customer view, they understand where the gaps are between products, can work together to close those gaps, and build a suite of products that are more than the sum of its parts. That last part (“more than the sum of its parts”) is how you create unfair advantages versus your competition. That is how you create a product-based moat.

Why Some Product Teams Lack A Shared Customer View

I want to take a step back and discuss why a company’s product teams might not share a holistic view and understanding of their customers’ workflows. It’s typically a mix of different ways of working, products at different stages in their life cycle and lack of a unified product vision. Let’s tackle each of these issues. 

Different Ways of Working

As a company scales and grows, its product teams will be most impacted directly by their org leads in UX, Engineering Product. Depending on the leads’ approach to team development and focus, product teams will develop ways of working that are geared towards their specific org, product domain and a specific understanding of customer workflows. This in and of itself is not a problem; there’s a case to be made that this increases domain expertise and shipping cadence. 

Where this does become a problem is when a team's product impacts workflows (and product teams) beyond its domain. If the teams in question don’t have agreed upon ways of working and shared understanding of the customers’ workflows, issues like a lack of product accountability (eg. failure to maintain a shared product domain) and technical debt will inevitably affect the customer experience in a negative way. Product teams can avoid these issues by sharing their roadmaps internally, early and often, and instituting agreed upon ways of working that governs how each team collaborates on a shared product domain. 


Products at Different Stages in the Product Life Cycle 

A good and natural tension between products in a company’s product suite is their different stages in their product life cycle. It’s an organic forcing function for product teams to reassess how they work together to create a seamless user experience for customers’ workflows.

However, product teams need to proactively and collaboratively manage this tension. Different stages means differences in team resources, stakeholder buy-in and depth of product strategy and execution for each product. The major pitfalls here are not understanding these differences exist, how they impact the cohesiveness of the user experience and how to leverage the relative strengths of each product (eg. new product -> speed of learning, older product -> established trust with internal and external stakeholders) to overcome these challenges. 

Lack of a Unified Product Vision 

The final issue that makes it difficult to have a shared, holistic understanding of customer workflows across products is the lack of a unified product vision. When product teams lack a unified product vision, they tend to ship the org chart. A company’s products become disconnected from each other, there’s no longer any differentiating value from user multiple products and customers suffer for it. The product suite becomes an a la carte menu and customers seek better solutions to the workflow challenges elsewhere.

One of the great things about working at Shopify (sorry for the plug!) is the fact that our leadership has articulated a product vision for the company that is not only cohesive across product domains, but also highly flexible and fosters creativity.

At Shopify, we have a guiding mission, “Make commerce better for everyone”. Within that mission is a promise to our merchants (that’s what we call our customers) that we will build for their workflows that help them operate their businesses and grow. If there are moments when we don’t live up to that promise, we create opportunities for competitors to create products that do. In order to keep this promise, our product teams must constantly collaborate across product domains, especially where our merchants workflows don’t neatly fit into one domain.