How to break out of ‘business as usual’ for product success

A well-established digital product is a wonderful thing.

When you’ve put the work into growing a healthy user base who’re getting value from your offering and have a solid product team smashing through their to-do lists, you’re in an enviable place.

Processes are on point, teams are collaborating well together and you’re turning a decent profit 🙌

It could be tempting to just maintain the equilibrium and consider it a job well done.

Unfortunately, this frequently leads to missed opportunities.

Too much BAU work can limit the vision of the team and lead to the team fixing symptoms rather than root causes, exposing the business to strategic risks.

Guy Gershoni
Strategic and Heuristic IT Management

Business as usual vs. brand new business

We’ve come across a lot of mature products over our many years in UX, and can sadly say with some authority that the world is full of perfectly good products that are stagnating in ‘business as usual’ mode.

Working away steadily on something that’s as optimised as it’s possible to be is all well and good until there’s a need to unlock the next level of growth.

And when that growth is spurred by the arrival of a zippy new interloper in the sector, there’s no time to waste.

The BAU business’s new rivals are smaller, smarter, hungrier and more agile. They have none of the baggage and fear of change an established product has.

An incoming product’s bets are cheap. If they hit the jackpot with a new feature that captivates users, they’ll leave established platforms who aren’t innovating for dust.

Why is breaking from business as usual hard?

Why do many established products find it so difficult to take the leap and do something different?

Well, let’s dig a bit into the baggage and fear we’ve mentioned above to understand better. It’s all about the perceived risk of changing.

Product risk

First up comes a risk of change being time-consuming and expensive from a product point of view. A year-long development cycle for a version II that never sees the light of release does happen, sadly. 😲

Technical debt – the work needed tomorrow in order to overcome today’s shortcuts – is real, and can make change cumbersome.

User risk

With an established platform comes an existing user base with similarly established expectations. They are the product’s lifeblood, keeping it going (and envied by competing platforms), but as they grow in number can represent a bigger setback if things go wrong.

Changing things too dramatically whilst still serving them is tricky. Miss the mark and you could drive them into the signup flow of the rival platform that’s prompted the whole exercise.

Cultural risk

The most nuanced – and probably the most significant – risk is that product teams often find the idea of large-scale change alarming.

UX design and product in general is all about small iterations. The established platforms that have made it this far are the ones where teams have got good at quickly iterating to meet the needs of users.

This is good product strategy, and something we love ourselves as a UX agency, but it’s not conducive to a big step change.
Suggesting something big and new feels like going against the grain of what’s made the product successful, and so there’s a natural tension.

On a more basic level, there’s a lot of comfort in the familiar, and in ticking tasks off the to-do list.

How to break out of business as usual

Alas, there is no silver bullet for product innovation, and there’s also no one size fits all solution.

We’ll suggest a few actionable techniques that we’ve seen used to great effect, but it’s also important to make a judgement based on your own organisation and industry as to which are most likely to be useful.

Technique #1: Innovation stream

This method involves seconding a portion of your product team away from maintaining the core product and setting them loose to work on something innovative as an internal startup.

Away from the constraint of their business as usual tasks, they’re likely to become more comfortable with uncertainty and get some valuable practice in at trying new things.

Everyone feels more creative when working on something entirely different from their day-to-day, without any immediate expectations.

A lightweight, and even lower risk variation on the same theme, would be to run a hack day. For very traditional and complex organisations, or those with a modest innovation budget but an appetite to try things out, this could be a perfect gentle start.

The drawback of these activities, though, is that this work isn’t directly contributing to movement on the actual product.

Good ideas could end up being nothing more than an interesting diversion if steps for taking them forward to production aren’t put in place.

Technique #2: Team development

Another softer technique to deploy is investing in a product team’s ability to generate bold new ideas.

Upping their aptitude for workshopping and strategic thinking in order to take a longer-term view, but without removing any key players, is a way to shape a confident crew. The likelihood of changing their BAU mindsets along the way is odds-on.

Team development is never a risky bet. Ending up with a skilled, engaged team is pretty great in and of itself.

Technique #3: ‘Just do it’

Sometimes you just have to dive in at the deep end and jolt the priority areas of a product out of business as usual.

Xero is a great example of a huge organisation with a complex product taking the ‘just do it’ approach.

Areas of the accounting platform are updated to have a different look and feel to other parts as the heavy lifting goes on behind the scenes.

We make changes ‘under the hood’ of Xero every single day…as we focus more heavily on this work, you may notice that some of our products are updated with a fresh new look. It’s a sign that our teams are working hard to upgrade the underlying technology.

Anna Curzon
CPO, Xero

The resulting ‘Frankenproduct’ helps to tackle the complexity of change and get things done more rapidly than waiting for a whole roll out; so long as product teams can deal with not maintaining absolute consistency.

The risk of alienating users isn’t as great when using this method either, as some of the product’s old familiar parts will still be there.

For all the slightly whingey comments on the CPO’s article quoted above, Xero reported 29% revenue growth in their last annual report.

Users don’t seem to be fleeing in horror. 😉

Technique #4: The vision piece

Full disclosure, this is our favourite method of helping organisations break out of business as usual. It probably shows!

Presenting a vision of the core product, but in its future, radically upgraded form can be phenomenally powerful.

New flows, revised UI and plenty to delight are the order of the day here.

We’ve seen this work yield total C-suite buy-in and budget sign off, an excited and motivated team, and the ability to start building a plan to bring it to life right away.

Our vision work helped smart lab innovators Automata show what their platform was capable of ⚡️

Read article

There are so many benefits to showing the dream in this way.

For a start, costs are predictable, timelines are specific and risks are low since nothing is being built at this stage.

Working on a vision is focused on the real, core product – unlike the innovation stream mentioned above, but since it’s not undertaken ‘live’ – like the ‘just do it’ model – users won’t be any the wiser (and can’t get annoyed by anything).

That being said, a product vision can be used to show to users to get feedback and show where the product might go (or just to test that it’s right).

It’s not obligatory to hide this work from users if there’s a benefit to bringing them on the journey.

There is also a more obvious lead-in to delivering what’s been seen, and way less possibility of any good work being left by the wayside, again as is risked with an innovation stream.

The key takeaway

We know how tough it is for product teams to take the plunge and break away from the security of BAU. Being hard-wired for iteration and incremental change isn’t something we expect anyone to unpick overnight.

However, with new challengers appearing on the horizon all the time, it’s never been more important for established digital products to take calculated risks for survival.

There comes a point when fixing the existing isn’t going to be enough to keep users from jumping ship, however established your platform.

Organisations need to show they’re serious about product innovation if they want to outgrow the competition.

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