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Unless You Have a Steve Jobs, Customer Value Takes Work

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the most critical changes Agile practices have brought to the business world. We have seen some huge successes. It would be easy to ascribe those successes to Agile practice since those companies used them. Other factors could have been in play. The internet has created many new opportunities to do things that could not have been done before. Finding one of those opportunities could be just serendipity, and even weak execution wouldn’t have prevented success.

That idea has led me to believe that the most significant contribution of Agile practices is an almost maniacal focus on customer value. All the other outstanding contributions of Agile practice can speed up delivery, which is valuable, but getting the product right is the core.

I heard a story once that I have never been able to verify. As you may know, digital music formats like MP3 were around before portable players. The story, as told to me, is that an intern at Apple from the University of Michigan had cobbled together a portable device that played MP3s. He happened to be using it in an elevator when Steve Jobs stepped in. Steve was naturally curious about the awkward device. The student explained what he’d done.

The rest is history. Steve Jobs “came up with” the idea for the portable MP3 player, and the iPod was born. This device singlehandedly created what has led to the music distribution system of today.

Whether Jobs conceived the MP3 player out of whole cloth or was handed the idea by an intern is unimportant here. What is important is that Jobs could see what people wanted before they could. Having product vision like that is a rarity. If your organization has someone like that, consider yourself lucky and stay out of their way.

Most organizations don’t have a genius to rely on. They may have people who think they are geniuses, and that is the most dangerous problem to have. A genius has the vision to see what people want/need before they know it themselves. The rest of us have to do the work.

Doing the work of product discovery is costly, tedious, and time-consuming. Worse yet, there are so many shortcuts available that it is tempting to take them. Many organizations do. The result can be putting in vast amounts of effort to deliver limited or no value to the customer.

That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, the shortcuts work just fine. It is because they work sometimes that people avoid the hard work of product discovery. In my experience, great companies either have a genius, do product discovery work, or both!

Great companies continually deliver new customer value. They have a system for ensuring that what they create will be what customers want/need. They don’t leave that to chance. They gather feedback from large numbers of customers and potential customers. To whatever extent possible, they build feedback mechanisms into their system.

Great companies use hard evidence to make their decisions. When evidence is unavailable, they use quick, low-cost tactics to gather evidence before investing in new product capabilities. Do you rely on the “expertise” of your product leaders? Are they geniuses? How can you tell? Or are you doing the hard work of product discovery? If you’re not, you will only get it right sometimes. Your value-to-cost ratio will be smaller than it could be. Maybe that’s “good enough,” but it will never be great.

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