Product Discovery in Platform teams

For years, platform teams have been doing things very traditionally. Teams write a set of requirements, hand it over, and decide what to build. The platform teams get to it. Sometimes they are even told what to deliver, which is the perfect definition of not-empowered product teams. 

Why are platform product teams so in the shadows?

These teams usually work in isolation, far from the sunlight of the end-user, bringing a group of conditions you can be comfortable with. Or not. However, getting product management to your platform teams, and treating these platforms as a product, can improve things not only for how your teams work but also for the execution of your work. 

Platform teams usually face the following challenges:

  • Struggle to demonstrate value: it can be hard to show the impact of a platform product when it does not necessarily contribute to key business metrics.
  • Complexity: most of the platform teams are highly technical. And it is effortless to get lost in technicities and lose sight of the big picture.
  • Organisations treat the platform as a one-and-done activity: platform product managers should evangelise product management practices and make customers and stakeholders understand the platform as an evolving product that responds to feedback loops.

But what can you do to overcome these challenges? How do you ensure you build the right things?

Objectives for Platform Teams

Objectives and key results are widespread. In one way or another, most companies use OKRs to set goals with measurable results. OKRs enable you to track progress and create continuous alignment around those quantifiable goals. 

There might be companies without OKRs, but there should be a framework for managing goals and all the work contributing to them.

As mentioned in this previous article, there are three types of platform product teams:

  • Developer-focused infrastructure platform
  •  Data science and ML platforms
  •  Business capability platform

Each of these has specific customers within the business. 

Platform PMs should make sure the objectives of the platform product team contribute to their customers.

Platform product teams can set objectives following two different patterns: 

  • Shared objectives: this would be by sharing goals with the internal product teams that the platform enables. You can do this by trying to contribute to the same objective and defining your contribution, or by defining team objectives that contribute to the customer-facing team’s goals.
  •  Own objectives: there is also only in-platform work. This work contributes to the main metrics a platform team constantly tries to improve. Suppose you need a clearer view of what leading and lagging indicators you have in your platform. In that case, you should start by doing this, so you move from output to outcome-oriented. Having clear metrics is essential for understanding the platform’s contribution.

Product Discovery in Platform Product Teams

There are many ways of running product discovery. Its essence does not change for platform products. Platform product teams must align their continuous discovery efforts with their goals. Product discovery is the process through which we decide what to build.

There are many frameworks and techniques that are associated with product discovery, and most of them place the end customer throughout this process. 

As for other product teams, the primary purpose of running effective product discovery is to reduce uncertainty, as we find problems worth solving and solutions worth building (finding the right thing to build).

Platform product managers must identify opportunities and build a business case for them. How do you do that? These opportunities come from the process of continuous product discovery. Independently of the type of platform your team is responsible for, there might be different sources of customer insights. As mentioned in a previous post, platform teams could have three customer types: other product teams, data practitioners and the end-customers. These define your target for product discovery. 

  • Other product teams: you should know the opportunities they are trying to tackle. Discovering how the platform will contribute to these opportunities would be your best shot.
  • Data practitioners: align your discovery efforts towards the goals of data scientists, analysts and engineers.
  • End-customer: discover what problems you can solve right from the platform. 

These opportunities emerge from continuous product discovery. You can try understanding this through Continuous Product Discovery. Product discovery is a constant source of knowledge about the (end) customer. 

What is new here? That is precisely the beauty of this. There is nothing new. Platform product managers can run Discovery exactly as other product teams do

Only the customer and the nature of the problems change. You, Platform PM, should get as close as possible to the teams you influence. Suppose your platform is a business capability platform. In that case, you must also ensure you are close to the end customer, as customer-facing PMs do.

If you are far from the end customer, ask yourself what stops you from getting closer.

There are always strategic directions that a company considers. Therefore, you must start running product discovery in these strategic items with enough time to share your certainty with your internal customers before they even run product discovery. If you are pursuing the same goal, you must get ahead, so the platform’s execution becomes smooth. 

As with any other product, a Platform PM must build a valuable, usable, feasible and viable product. So, it would be best to minimise these risks during product discovery. 

Platform product teams use contracts to communicate the services we build with the products which consume them. When one of the ideas that aim to solve the problems in Discovery is transitioned to development, the first that should be communicated are the possible changes in the contracts, if any. Until then, you can still validate your assumptions about how well an idea can solve a problem without proposing a contract change.

Without getting much into details, as a Platform PM, you must ensure your team builds the right things with a robust discovery process. Be aware. Be present. 

Besides ensuring your team is solving the correct problems with the right solutions, there are things that you can start right away if you feel you do not know enough to discover new opportunities or what problems to solve:

  • Participate in strategic discussions with other product teams. Doing this will help you align your product strategy with the strategy of different product teams.  
  • Check their work regularly. What is next for them? What is coming later? Why are they focusing next on one opportunity rather than the other? How can the platform contribute to it?
  • Prioritise common problems. How common is the situation across different product teams? Which of these teams needs a solution more urgently? Which one can wait? How much does this problem align with the objectives set?
  • Be oil, no glue. Glue makes things rigid and static. Oil makes all the parts work smoothly. Create awareness about your priorities, what will enable other product teams, and how.

Are your platform teams running discovery? I am interested to understand how your platforms team operate. How do you define the value your platform delivers?

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