It feels like a perennial debate, the one that never goes away or even the one that got away, how to make sure we are always focused on what our colleagues and customers need from the things we do. It’s a debate that has been raging over the last week in my head and with some of my colleagues so I thought I would put my thoughts out there and see what this community made of it…

How do we move to a place where customer experience and a product mind set can lead the way in what we are trying to deliver and yet at the same time offer the digital team the control it feels it needs to ‘own’ delivery. I have seen it work well; a product mindset can ensure that the customer of the solution set you are building is truly at the centre of everything, but I have also seen it cause confusion and worry for those colleagues in the team who ‘simply’ want to build the solution at pace and get onto the next ‘thing’.

The best example of a product mindset in action for me is still the way in which NHS Leeds built its Electronic Health Record (EHR). The “four amigos” approach still rings true to me; sat together every Friday was the clinical sponsor of the development, the business analyst, the lead engineer and the delivery lead. Show and tell of what had been done this week was followed by and agreement about what was next and then a joint ‘button pressing’ of the go live of that set of code. Such collaboration and joint ownership inspired in some ways by the benefit the customer was getting weekly.

At Boots the product approach to the delivery of the Boots App was remarkable too. A product owner who was ‘professional’ in their role and therefore knew how to engage all aspects of the Boots business and could represent the customer in what was needed. The difference here though is that product owner was truly representing a broad church of people who wanted many different things form the Boots app every single moment of every single day. The product owner was a business person and led the collation of views for what should be delivered, how and when, they orchestrated the IT resources to build, test and deliver the solution and were hugely successful in making a step change in the way the app was used and the results it achieved.

If we can bring a real product mindset to what we are doing now across my new organisation then moving to a new outcome focus way of thinking everywhere in the business will be so much easier. To do this though is going to require some mental gymnastics and some change in how much ownership we (the digital team) insist on having of all that we do. It will also require one of the hardest things to do, a definition of our customers. To have a customer focus requires clarity on who the customer is; a bit like the NHS example above for me now this is complicated. We have two clear customers, our amazing colleagues who are trying to use the systems we deliver to support every one in need and ultimately the citizen who needs the services we offer everyday. In some ways we have an additional customer too, our leaders who are managing the organisation, they need our systems and our data to make the right decisions and steer this huge ship on its successful path.

Giving the voice of the customer enough credence and volume can be hard when they are such disparate cohorts of people. I think it is why the NHS has struggled for so long to see the benefits of digital transformation really land and why the role of the Chief Clinical Information Officer in healthcare is so impactful. The insight we can gain from the customer and through the creation of a customer definition will really help us ensure that everything we deliver is done so in ‘the right order’ and with an outcome and benefit at the heart of it. In retail the idea of a ‘critical friend’ or key user of the systems deployed for colleagues has grown up from things like ‘stores day’ initiatives where IT get out to the customer facing side of the business and see what the systems deployed are like to use at the sharp end. Having spent some time in a Job Centre and Service Centre I wonder if we need to do something similar and find a way to empower our business from the very front line to have an opinion on what digital can do for them, an opinion that we can listen to and apply to our own product mind set. Can we build a ‘key user’ or critical friend function into what we do when we structure for outcomes and look at what we need to do next to achieve this.

If we mean it when we say we want to structure for outcomes then we need to adopt a new way of facilitating co-creation of the digital vision and strategy. I know that is hard, particularly when recent experiences have left us feeling a little bit burnt by not being in control, but we need to find a way to react to what our business needs and at the same time be part of the multi-disciplinary team that is at the table having the conversations about how digital can offer answers to the tricky transformation requirements and questions.

What should and could we do to help build a vision for customer experience. As digital professionals this is an inherent skill we have but not one that easily bubbles to the top when business transformation colleagues think of digital leaders. We want to be at the forefront of value based delivery and we know this is achieved by hearing what the customer wants and needs and translating this into solutions, some that are in place already and some that may well need creating.

The communication of this is key, we need to be evangelical about the approach and the back log of solutions we need to create, we need to celebrate the backlog with our business teams and ensure that they have a loud voice in deciding the order in which we tackle the backlog against business benefit metrics.

When we get to the delivery of data modernisation this changed approach will enable us to move to a place where we have a new outlook on what our business needs; we have to be able to offer insight in one click and data products in a day because our business needs this agility to allow it to react to ever changing and flexing demand.

All of this though needs to be tempered against that inherent digital trait, “Optimism Bias”. A product mindset can temper this becoming overactive in all that we do because it focuses delivery on the reality of what our customer needs and hopefully gives us the opportunity to always consider the next best action and/or activity that will make a difference to what our customers and colleagues need and want. 

As i said in the introduction, my htoughts after a few days where this wa splaying on a few of our minds, always welcome to other peoples insights on this one…