Change seems to be the only constant when it comes to software technology. Over the last ten years, microservices, cloud-based computing, augmented reality, blockchain, the Internet of Things, machine learning, and artificial intelligence have emerged — to name just a few new technologies. But as product people, we are often so busy with getting new and enhanced features delivered that we risk overlooking new tech trends and being overtaken by competitors. In this article, I share three tips that help you spot new and potentially disruptive technologies early on so you can take full advantage of those that will benefit your product.
🎧 You can listen to this article on my podcast: https://www.romanpichler.com/podcast/
Make Time to Keep up with Technology Trends
As new technologies come and go, it’s important for you — the person in charge of the product — to stay on top of the developments. You should be aware of new trends, be able to make an informed guess if they are likely to impact your market and product, and decide if a technology needs to be further investigated. This usually doesn’t require in-depth technical skills like being able to write code or understand how a specific machine learning framework is used. But you should take an interest in software technology, and you should have a basic understanding of how your product is currently built.
To make this more concrete, let me give you a specific recommendation: Spend at least 30 minutes per week on discovering new software trends and learning more about those that might affect your product. You can do this, for example, by reading technology newsletters, listening to tech podcasts, and talking to development team members, especially those that have a sound understanding of software architecture and technology.
Encourage Regular Technology Research and Experimentation
It’s not uncommon for me to see development teams who work flat out to enhance features and offer new ones. But if that’s all they do, if there is no time to explore new technologies, then you take a big risk: The development team members may not have the skills to take advantage of an emerging technology.
Say that a competitor product just started offering personalised recommendations, and you’d like to be able to do the same. You talk to the development team, and the team members suggest that machine learning is likely to be the right solution. But if nobody has had time to learn about the technology in general and research specific machine learning frameworks, you’re probably months away from offering a similar feature. Instead of giving your product the edge, you’ve been leapfrogged by a competitor — a situation you most certainly want to avoid.
It is therefore important that you give the development team members the necessary time to discover and explore new technologies, build prototypes, and understand if and how a technology is likely to benefit your product or possibly threaten it. As a rule of thumb, development teams should be able to spend at least one day per month on technology research and experimentation. The following four measures will help you with this.
- Gold cards: Development teams set aside time in a sprint for technology research and prototyping by adding dedicated, so called “golden” cards to the sprint backlog.
- Research sprints: You focus an entire sprint on technology exploration. You might vary the sprint length and possibly use a shorter, say, one-week iteration. This can be helpful to tackle a more complex challenge like researching and testing different machine learning frameworks.
- Hackathons, also referred to as hack days: People come together for one or more days to collaboratively explore new ideas and create prototypes. Facebook’s Like button was conceived in this way, for example.
- 20 percent rule: Developers can take up to one day a week to experiment with new ideas and acquire new skills. The Google Chrome browser and Gmail were created this way, for instance.
Use the approach that works best for your team and organisation. Be supportive and don’t expect that every experiment will be a success. Instead, be prepared to experience plenty of failures where the team learns that a technology is not useful for your product, at least not in the near future. See the exploration work as a way to future-proof your product and mitigate the risk of missing out on an opportunity. This will not only benefit your product. It will also have a positive impact on team morale and productivity.
Adapt the Product Strategy to Respond to New Technologies
Finally, you should systematically assess the impact of a new technology on the product strategy and determine if it has to be changed. A new technology might help you capture more market share, for example, and it might extend the life cycle of your product. Think about how smartphones have evolved over the years to stay desirable, for instance, by introducing AI-enabled virtual assistants and face recognition.
I recommend that you assess the strategic impact of a technology in the form of regular, collaborative product strategy reviews. Hold these workshops at least once every three months and invite development team members and key stakeholders to them. Answering the following four questions will help you understand if a strategy change is needed:
- Will the technology help you address an existing need in a better way? Or will it help you satisfy a new one?
- Will it better serve an existing target group, or will it help you reach out to a new market or market segment?
- Will the technology help you better differentiate your product? Will it help you create new standout features or strengthen existing ones?
- Will it affect the business goals? Will it, for instance, require a bigger investment and reduce profitability or will it increase revenue and drive down cost?
To correctly answer these questions, you must have spent the necessary time to scout new technology trends, and maybe more importantly, the development team members must have had the opportunity to carry out the relevant research and experimentation work.
Don’t forget that you want to play a proactive game where you respond to technology opportunities and threats early on — instead of being reactive and driven by what your competitors do.