Achieving Product Velocity – What Is It and How to Achieve It

🚀 ACCELERATE 2023: Virtual Summit for Product Leaders by Dragonboat
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Osama Bedier: It’s a pleasure to be here and look forward to talking to all of you. I’m going to start with, what is product velocity? Well, first it’s important to point out why velocity and not speed, because a lot of people get those confused. In physics… It comes from physics. In physics, velocity is speed plus direction. Probably, if you’ve built products for a while, you’ve already been part of a project that you felt has gone nowhere in your career. If not, it’s probably the best way to learn. But you can go really fast in a circle and get nowhere. So that’s speed. Velocity means you have a very keen understanding of the direction that you’re going, and then you’re making progress in that direction. You’re going fast in that direction.

In product development, that direction or destination required… Knowing that direction requires having a destination in mind or having an outcome. So building towards an outcome. A lot of, especially engineering organizations, some of the best engineering organizations in fact, end up just building an amazing engineering muscle. But the direction is, it’s unclear where you want to go, so you end up building for the sake of building. Amazing things sometimes come out of that, but you’re not really making progress towards the direction. So an outcome in the product world means usually an amazing product. It’s important to understand that that’s not about effort. Like you can put a lot of effort going really fast and not towards an amazing product. So what is an amazing product?

Well, most of you can think of an amazing product that you own or want to have. Just think about that. What is the best product that you own right now or that you want right now? It’s often the best product because it exceeds expectations. It’s exceeded. When you bought it, you didn’t expect all the things that came with it. So a good product meets your expectations. An amazing product exceeds your expectations. And the only way to get there is those building it, loving the problem. I’m sure you’ve heard, love the problem, not the solution. And that is often why we end up building a lot of… Or putting a lot of effort to get nowhere. Obsessing over a solution. We’re getting stuck on a solution versus obsessing about what is that problem or opportunity you want to address. And also, having that outcome in mind, that destination usually means how do you know when you’re there?

You got to put that in some metric or numbers, and a lot of organizations forget about that part. I’ll know it when I see it, or something along those lines. Even if that’s true, you still have to set an expectation of what you think it looks like to be able to communicate it because you can’t communicate thought unfortunately, not yet anyway. So you have to be able to communicate it. Most amazing efforts take more than one person, often lots of people, and that means you have to put that destination in terms others can understand. And then finally, customer expectations. So exceeding customer expectations. The customer component in that is the most difficult part because that is always changing and in fact, always increasing because of competition, because of the industry, because consumers are in and of themselves becoming builders. They’re getting so many tool sets to these days. A lot of organic building and creation, especially with all the no-code tools. So that’s raising expectations significantly.

And that means often you have to come up with a solution that’s 10 times better. That’s where that 10x comes from, 10 times better than the market. It’s got to be so significantly better to overcome the inertia in the market leader. So product velocity is about getting to an outcome of an amazing product much better than anybody else. 

So how do you get there? Well, over the last 25 years of building things, I’ve come up with a bit of a formula. And that’s along the lines of thinking big, building small, measuring often, and failing fast. None of these in and of themselves I’d imagine are groundbreaking, but that idea of truly committing to that approach I’ve found rare. Thinking big. Imagining or understanding what is 10 times better actually mean? Having a picture in your eyes, so you can communicate and inspire others. 

Developing a strategy around it, which I think strategy is I think often overlooked real strategy. What are the three or four steps that you’re going to get there? It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong because if something worthwhile, likely nobody else has ever done it. But you have to have a starting strategy so you can keep fixing it if it’s wrong. But what are the three or four steps you have to be able to communicate strategy for it to be as effective, just like vision? So what are the three or four steps? And those are serial steps that can’t be paralyzed. 

And then you have to hire for that vision, build a culture around that vision, so that you’re not solely relying on process. And that culture often revolves around passionate people, people passionate, just as passionate as you about the outcome you want to create that 10x outcome you want to bring about. So that’s thinking big. Building small. 

Once you have that strategy, you have to focus on one of the steps in that strategy until you complete it. And you can’t get distracted by all the things that come your way, all of the bright, shiny objects that will try to get you off of that focus. Then you have to focus that team on craftsmanship. So not just building or getting to that outcome for the step in the strategy but doing it to the best possible way. Because if you don’t, if your foundation is broken, if your early steps into strategy are bad or not done well enough, that will impact your lofty aspirations. You can’t go very far. And so craftsmanship, making sure you’re getting the quality.

And then measuring often. If you know that outcome and you’ve figured out how you’re going to measure that outcome, then comparing that to expectations and course correcting. Finally, failing fast. Not being afraid to fail. In fact, if it’s a worthwhile thing, you’ll often fail. So getting comfortable with failing, getting to that failure as fast as possible, not getting stuck on trying to prove you’re right, others on the team proving they’re right, but failing fast. Meaning learning from it and moving on. 

So let me just recap real quick. Just key takeaways. Velocity is not about speed. You need direction. That direction is an outcome that you have in mind that you can communicate and in a way that inspires others. You could break it down to the steps in your strategy. You obsess over that problem. In fact, understand it better than anybody else. And then think big, build small, measure often, and fail fast. I’m going to stop there and open it up for questions.

Christina Lau (Host): Great. Thanks so much, Osama. We do have a couple questions trickling in. So someone in the chat I think was asking, did you mean strategy as in steps in a plan or choices?

Osama Bedier: Both. Steps in a plan, yeah. A strategy is a macro plan, but it’s really, if I want to get to the moon or if I want to get to Mars, let’s say that’s the vision. That’s how we’re thinking big. Breaking that down into three or four steps. Any effort worth doing, especially the biggest ones. Often the problem is you think about the outcome and then only the first step. And it’s not very inspiring when people feel like they’re following you off a cliff. And so you have to actually fill in the rest of what you… To your best ability, understand those steps are. So yes, at a high-level of the plan. But you’re also making intelligent choices in that plan. And that’s why you have to obsess over that problem and how to solve it 10 times better so that it’s a plan that feels credible to the team following it.

Christina Lau (Host): Great. And then another question is what processes have you found most effective in accelerating product velocity without sacrificing quality?

Osama Bedier: This is going to surprise a bit of people. In the early part of my career, I felt process was the most important thing. And in fact, I spent a lot of time as a product… Three or four years as a project manager in my career. It served me greatly in terms of execution and especially the focus part, but I’d say the majority of process helps you bring focus. The multiplier is that you build a culture around people being passionate to get there and solve for all the tiny things along the way that come up that are unexpected. And I’d say the whole idea of the agile development methodology is about being flexible in dealing with unexpected challenges along the way. Just think about the last three or four years, think about all of the plans in Q1 of 2020 that had to change because of the pandemic. Nobody ever had the pandemic in their plans. But I’d say half of the startups I invested in failed. The half that didn’t was because they had a culture and a process that was built to adjust quickly to whatever comes their way.

Christina Lau (Host): All right. Then we’ve got two questions around, I think… So what are some measures and OKRs you’ve found work well for product velocity?

Osama Bedier: I’m going to try to stay out of the tactical. Yes, they’re all the tactical ones around how many stories per sprint and the like. Unfortunately, I’d say when you do a retrospective, even the best products in the world find that between 50 and 80% of the work they did was unnecessary. And the worst products, 99 to 100% of the work was unnecessary. So the most important part I believe now is find the unnecessary work early before you start doing it and get it out of the system. I can’t underscore that enough. And you’ll never be able to root all of it out, but it is the majority of your work, I promise you. And so find as much of it as early as possible and get it out of the way.

Christina Lau (Host): And then we’ve got time for a couple more questions here. So someone in the chat asked, when you’re setting up your strategy, how do you look at the tactical hurdles to be able to get to the final outcome?

Osama Bedier: The tactical hurdles. I guess, I’ll assume those are things like efforts being bigger than I expected, requirements not being as clear and so on. There’s nothing that makes up for every single person on the team being able to visualize the outcome that you’re trying to bring about because it makes up for all of the other gaps in the system. And there will always be many. I’ve never seen a team or an effort that has the perfection in every part. Getting everybody on the same page, getting everyone moving in the same direction, getting everyone understanding what the outcome or problem to be solved, allows everyone. Not just one person playing safety net, identifying every missing task or what have you, but it invests everyone in getting to the destination and helping get there faster. And that means everybody will identify the risks that you’ll encounter upfront. 

Also, don’t get stuck on the past. Don’t get stuck on the mistakes. Again, this idea of failing fast. The best teams I’ve been a part of actually appreciate identifying issues, learning from them, and then figuring out how to not avoid them… How to not encounter them again. Because most of the problems in a bad project or something that’s going slow is repeated mistakes.

Christina Lau (Host): Thanks, Osama. And let’s see, maybe one or two more. So Christy said, “Love the point about focusing on problems and not solutions.” She wants to know what are some ways to get colleagues to start thinking about problems versus focusing on the solutions?

Osama Bedier: Yeah. Unfortunately, this is a rewiring that I had to do early, and it’s something that you have to practice. And the best way to practice is keep asking why. If you don’t understand why you’re being asked to do something or if you feel like people on your team don’t understand what you’re asking them to do, then you have a huge communication problem and people don’t understand the problem. They’re just blindly doing what they’re asking you to do… Or what you’re asking them to do. And in this day and age, it’s impossible to get to a great product by just giving everybody orders and hoping it all comes together. I always imagine the Chunnel, the underwater path between France and the UK. Those are two sides, two teams that have to meet in the middle. Otherwise, you don’t get an outcome. They started drilling from both sides and they have to meet in the middle. If they don’t, it’s catastrophic. Think about when you have any more than one team. And in many organizations, even startups, you have 5, 6, 8, 10 teams, they’re all coming together in the middle somewhere. And if you don’t constantly communicate and course correct in addition to all the measuring upfront. If you look at the history of how they built it, there are lots of mistakes along the way. If you don’t constantly course correct and communicate and understand that the goal is to meet in the middle somewhere, no matter where that middle is, then you’re likely to encounter some catastrophes.

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Osama Bedier is the President of GoDaddy Commerce, as well as an expert on Product Velocity. In his talk at ACCELERATE 2023, he challenges the notion that speed alone equates to progress. True velocity means moving fast towards a specific outcome, not merely spinning in circles at breakneck speed.

Osama also revealed that a substantial 80% of work is often unnecessary. The real key is to identify this unnecessary work early in the process to avoid wasted efforts.

Watch Osama’s session on-demand now, and learn what product velocity is and how to achieve it.

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