May 3, 2022

Best Practices Are the Worst Practice: Why Your Product Team Needs To Make Hard Calls, Not Follow Rules

By Scott Varho, senior vice president of product development at 3Pillar Global

The modern economy is fast-paced and unforgiving — and I’m not just talking about today’s unprecedented market volatility, emerging inflation woes or workforce disruption from the Great Resignation.

Every business must face these and many more uncertainties. But underlying these specific challenges is a greater and broader imperative: the need to become the kind of business that can respond to the challenges with agility, flexibility and effectiveness.

At this point, most business leaders know that means some measure of retooling to deliver stand-out digital products that generate ongoing revenue and secure lasting brand loyalty from today’s digital consumer. But countless companies who try to develop these products fail — even the ones that are initially successful.

And a big part of the reason why they fail is they believe the answers to all their toughest questions are already known. They think that if only their teams would follow “best practices,” they would be successful.

There’s just one problem: there’s no such thing as best practices for something as complex, unique and customer-specific as product development.

That’s not to say there aren’t better and worse practices. And there are certainly poor or weak practices! The term “best practices,” however, undermines the truth that your teams need to make really hard trade-off decisions every day, and need to know how to make them.

Best practices are (falsely) presented as recipes for quality that ensure your product will be secure, performant, scalable, and probably will never need to be reworked. It’s an appealing idea, because possessing such a recipe would mean inevitable and predictable success with no risk.

But all that best practices actually describe is how success can come from ideal circumstances. Do your teams work under ideal circumstances?

Inevitably, they don’t. And because they don’t, they have to face risks and make hard calls.

As a product leader, I’ve learned this lesson first-hand. It’s my job to get the best possible business outcomes and mitigate as many risks as possible with the limited capacity I have available to me. And working with that limited capacity to achieve outcomes has always meant making difficult decisions, often on the fly, with nothing but my judgment to guide me.

At times, that looked like rushing a feature to market to meet a key delivery date, and compromising on elements of my standard process to do so. At other times, that looked like sacrificing one feature entirely to make sure my teams had enough bandwidth to get other, more important features absolutely right.

There’s no rulebook and no recipe for making these kinds of decisions in response to shifting customer needs, workflow disruptions, competitive threats, events in the market, hiccups in the sales cycle, and more. But making hard decisions like these that advance your team towards a business outcome is how successful products get made and get delivered.

And here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how essential this or that product feature or aspect seems to you at first. Inevitably, you’ll have to make trade-offs to get the product made. That’s why empowering your team to do so is key. (For a deeper dive, you can also read our series on how to prioritize features)

Take security and scalability as a case in point. Almost everyone would say they want their digital product to be secure and scalable. But how secure and how scalable does your product actually need to be, given your specific circumstances? Maximizing scalability and security before your product even launches is almost always a waste of time, and not every product needs the same kind of attention to these factors anyway! A mobile banking app, for example, needs a different level of security and scalability than a news app.

In other words, the right question for your product is never “does this product need to be secure and scalable?” Instead, the right question is always, “What should we optimize for at this moment, given what we have and what we know and what we need right now?”

Asking and answering this latter question takes judgment. The best teams weigh decisions against what they know about the market, their current clients, the business context, and the short- and long-term ramifications to every trade-off.

A team that’s talking openly about these things is a good team, and there are no best practices for how to talk about them.

So how can you get your teams talking about them?

The ability to make good judgment calls can’t be taught or enforced. But you can set up your team talent to start making them by equipping them with high-quality market intelligence. If your product development teams are working with the right information — and if you’ve shown them how to get the information they need but don’t have — you can bet they’ll at least be aware of the trade-offs they may need to make. That’s the first, and most important step, to making them well.

So don’t try to give your teams best practices. Instead, give them what they need to make hard calls with high stakes. They’ll drive greater value, even in the face of unprecedented challenges. Because they will be prepared with more than just a recipe, they’ll have the ability to craft a dynamic success story.

Special thanks to these members of FORCE, 3Pillar’s expert network, for their contributions to this article.

FORCE is 3Pillar Global’s Thought Leadership Team comprised of technologists and industry experts offering their knowledge on important trends and topics in digital product development.