Editor’s note: This is the first of a multi-part series highlighting innovation stories within InVision’s Future of Work Leadership Forum, which brings together leaders across all industries to share their insights on how they transformed collaboration across teams and geographies.
Historically, most companies have been focused on speed, agility and getting functional products to market, then iterating those products in a way that not only closes bugs and gaps, but also expands features and reduces backlogs. Several buzz words have emerged from this Agile approach, including: Lean Agile, Lean UX and most of all, MVP (Minimum Viable Product).
The problem is, this approach limits the focus of teams on the customers, and introduces a dynamic of trade-offs, concessions and limitations based on development capacity and cycles rather than on the customers. And the impact is significant — we lose that customer promise quickly and almost effortlessly, reverting back to a data-driven approach that fits neatly into two week sprint cycles and deliveries.
Listening and learning from over 20 years of designing, developing and shipping hundreds of award-winning products, campaigns and experiences, I realized the most common measure of success was only achieved when customers love your product.
That gave birth to the conception that I needed to change both the language and approach of product development from MVP to MLP (Most Lovable Product). Following the MLP Framework ensures that all teams and levels within the company can embrace the goal of always putting the customer first. The rationale behind this is the means to foster a common collaborative purpose and goals around all customers (existing and new), and define a unified approach through vision, mission and principles that are easily understood, repeated and shared by everyone.
Here, I’ll take you through the core concepts behind creating MLPs — including the frameworks, challenges, and key activities along the way. I will also highlight how they’ve been transformative to the way Discovery+ has approached cross-functional collaboration, and as a result, rapid innovation.
The path to Most Lovable Products: A collaborative journey
Throughout my journey as an Executive Product and Design Leader, I have discovered there are many paths, and many definitions of success. However, what has become a common thread is the products that resonate most with customers typically have three vital qualities:
- They’re ones that they love
- Ones that are delightfully surprising
- Ones that speak directly to their core needs, emotions and aspirations
I worked nearly seven successful years for NBCUniversal designing and developing their entertainment products, while building the foundation for what ultimately became Peacock, when Discovery presented me with the opportunity and challenge: to not only build a global Product & Design organization from the ground up, but also develop and deliver Discovery+, the flagship product, plus 18 other branded network apps in record time.
My role and team’s mission for Discovery+ included conceptualizing, designing, building and launching the streaming service on 15 platforms, across 13 countries, and 11 languages around the world. Our goal was to not only make Discovery+ a success with customers around the world, but to also deliver a quality breakout streaming service in an extremely crowded and competitive space.
The challenge of change: The opportunity to bring everyone together with a shared focus
Like many companies, the perspectives and challenges were varied. There were disparate and siloed business units operating separately, and with different goals, content offerings, branding, marketing, and customers by region. The underlying absence of a cohesive vision and process would allow us to focus our efforts on the customers, and to unite our mission, purpose and ability to iterate through a set of common goals. This was a challenge that had eluded the company in prior years, and continued to vary by group and by team.
We honed in on three distinct tenets to bring the organization together:
- Collaboration is the key to our shared vision.
- Communication is critical to build trust and transparency.
- Customer Obsession is the foundation for our success.
Taking this approach not just within our organization, but across our global teams and business units, allowed us to create a winning opportunity. The results were clear:
- We designed, developed and launched Discovery+ in less than nine months(!)
- We scaled Discovery+ across 13 countries, 11 languages and 15 platforms in 12 months.
- We designed and delivered 14 new network branded products across 10 platforms
In just over 12 months, we developed and launched 15 successful MLPs that everyone in the company was proud of, invested in, and focused on delivering the best experiences for our customers around the world. Each includes a brand new design, UX, and product experience that allows customers to discover, enjoy and engage with content from 18 brands, live sports and kids content.
The MLP framework for successful products and happy customers
So how did we get here? As you can imagine, there were many challenges, roadblocks and land mines to be navigated every day — especially in a world where everyone is working across 10 different time zones, and completely remote. At the core, collaboration, communication and transparency were foundational to build trust, velocity and success. These key moments are outlined below to help shape a foundational approach for building MLPs within your organization.
However, before even getting to that outcome, we started with a loaded question:
How do you set yourself apart to create meaningful products that customers not only gravitate towards, but feel connected to as part of their everyday lives?
And followed with a significant challenge: Design, develop and deliver a successful world class streaming service into a crowded market as a competitive leader. Here’s how we approached that challenge:
Step 1: Set a clear mission and goals
Generally, and in most companies, this aspiration includes asking Product & Design Leaders to create magic and capture lightning in a bottle. Most companies believe they can be disruptors, game changers, and transformative players. However, most lack the leadership, the collaborative focus, and the gravitas to do the work, clear the noise, and to see it through. In order to achieve success with Discovery+, we decided to focus in on three key goals:
- No less than 20 million paying subscribers in the first 12 months.
- Expose the breadth and scope of a content library containing 60K+ episodes.
- Deliver a product that could easily scale, based on existing and future content.
Step 2: Get ahead of the challenges you’re bound to face
Establishing areas of focus is generally easy, rooted in core business goals and aspirations. However, achieving these goals is not always easy, and Product & Design teams must collaborate and work closely across the entire organization to truly understand what needs to change in order to deliver the best products for customers who may have deeply established opinions and behaviors. That said, there will be challenges. Here are some examples of common challenges that most organizations experience, no matter where they are at with organizational maturity:
- Customer Centered is a mindset, not a phrase. It takes a lot of work to shift your thinking to put the customer at the heart and soul of your products. Most of all, you need to talk to, listen to, and truly understand your customers to find that sweet spot.
- Organizational challenges and “buy-ins”. Getting teams aligned on a singular focused vision, mission and goals; where they see their own success as part of the product and business success.
- Tension between old ways of thinking and new ways of operating. The ability to trust and take risks, to fail and learn, and ultimately to be flexible in your thinking while agile in your approach.
- Innovation can be small and gradual. The idea that innovation has to be a big “leapfrog” scenario is a myth. Small innovations over time can bring great value to customers, and broader transformative changes over time.
- Fear is the enemy of transformation and innovation. You must develop trust within your organization to create a fearless mentality that is supportive, aligned and collaborative. That means clear roles and accountability, plus the freedom to fail with focus, constantly adapt and evolve.
There are few organizations, whether they are startups or established, who do not experience these challenges at some point in building and delivering products that have value.
Step 3: When failure is not an option, collaboration is the key
We all know that it is easier to talk about a “fail and learn” culture, than to implement one consistently. Normally this approach is reserved for large product and tech companies, or startups that have the luxury of time and forgiveness to launch and improve. However, what happens when you are in neither of those scenarios, the stakes are incredibly high, and your launch window is incredibly small, crowded and complicated? Then add in the fact that in March 2020, the entire world went into lockdown amidst the global pandemic. Now, your teams are no longer able to meet face to face, collaborate in person, and work side by side.
Like most companies, we had our fair share of stumbles, slips and falls early on, including:
- An unrealistic product vision with enough features to create 25 different products.
- No clear mission to align stakeholders and teams to a singular focus and approach.
- The engineering resources, tools, and models to deliver quickly and consistently.
- Ensuring every team has a clear understanding of ownership and opportunities.
- Making it easy for people to collaborate, contribute, and communicate effectively.
The good news is that we were able to (and you can) adapt and adjust quickly. We needed to reset how we were going to approach our customers with a product that would break out of the noisy streaming space. It would require us to be Product & Design led, to really get at the heart and soul of our customers’ needs.
Step 4: Establish and focus on 5 key activities
Having seen this scenario play out before, and not having the luxury of time; we dedicated our efforts towards aligning all teams into a mission driven vision that was collaborative, inclusive, and focused on the most critical customer needs. This approach allowed us the ability to create, test and validate a successful MLP that could easily enter the crowded streaming market. Our five most important activities included:
- Defining our Vision, Mission and Guiding Principles to invest in setting successful foundations to deliver a customer obsessed product, while building cultural camaraderie and transformative change within the organization.
- Establishing our Heroes, Habits and Holograms through identifying key customer journeys, understanding their daily, weekly and weekend routines, and removing distractions that don’t generate the highest level of customer love.
- Developing Shared Goals, OKRs and KPIs to ensure each team had clarity of what is most important, and autonomy to execute via ownership and accountability.
- Democratization of Collaboration through a series of lean models and lightweight templates that empower teams with structure, and the ability to play to their strengths, increase velocity, and deliver against our shared customer goals.
- Aligning Measurement and Momentum was our final initiative that provides a framework for success, and the freedom to make decisions quickly by communicating through common tools, language and methods.
Investing in these activities across the entire organization, not just within product, design and tech, allowed us the ability to shape all conversations, goals and KPIs to focus on the customer, build a product that people love, and drive the success of the business forward.
Step 5: Refining the Processes to Amplify the Customer Value
Any framework is not effective with its first implementation. You must continue to refine, iterate and tailor the processes and mechanisms to support and strengthen all teams within your organization to be successful. Here are a few ways we were able to refine the processes:
- Collaborate directly with each team in smaller forums tailored towards their success.
- Spotlight strengths, accountabilities and commitments to the product experience.
- Standardize our systems, templates and communications to ensure owners are invested in the success of our customers and our products.
- Reinforce transparency and communications between teams with mechanisms to support new ideas, value weighting of feature backlogs, and product roadmaps.
Celebrate the wins and learn from the mistakes, while providing robust bi-weekly reviews, monthly executive updates, and company wide product showcases.
Always putting the customer first, while ensuring that every team member, at every level, is committed to providing value, allows us to focus decisions around what customers will love with the product, making it easier for existing and new members of our global teams.
Catching lightning in a bottle: What it takes to create a culture of collaboration
As one can imagine, the path to successfully executing on all of these goals, promises and commitments is no small feat. Getting there takes time. It takes a lot of hard work, and it takes an extreme amount of commitment and effort to achieve. You must invest in the right people, support and grow every level of your organization, and be both vigilant and calm to ensure that the right mindset is focused on the customer.
At each stage along the journey, collaboration, inclusion and diverse points of view are critical ingredients. This was a fundamental principle we instituted early in the process — by listening to, and trusting the voice of our customers. The foundations we established along each stage of the journey, allowed us to work in parallel through collaborative tools, measurements, and methods to accelerate our customer obsessed product. However, I believe the greater success came from changing the company culture through cross functional teamwork, and providing a framework for trust and transparency across our global teams and businesses.
In the end, collaboration and the ability to bring people together both remotely and in person; in large and small groups — created a shared vision, mission and mindset that was transparent, visible, actionable, and focused on delivering Most Lovable Products.
Shawn is the Former GVP Product and Design for Discovery+ | Discovery | NBCUniversal | Microsoft. His product and design career spans nearly three decades as a global leader and collaborator for some of the world's top brands. You can find him at the intersection of product, technology, and the imagination of the human spirit.