One of the many legacies of Steve Jobs was his annual product launch keynotes. It was (and still is, to a certain extent) at these events where Apple would showcase its latest innovations designed to make customers more successful and revolutionize communication, computing, and creativity.
These keynotes were the culmination of years of work and preparation. They were intended as the last step in the launch of a product that had been secretly developed and was now being revealed for the first time. Apple’s hope was that this would be enough to send products flying off the shelf. And, in most cases, it worked.
However, the majority of us don’t work at Apple.
Our companies don’t hold flashy keynotes to launch new products. At best we might publish a press release. And, perhaps most importantly, our products don’t naturally fly off the shelves just because we launched them.
In fact, launching fully built, production-ready products and services is a huge risk for our organizations. What if no one buys them? Worse, what if no one even tries them? The impact from such a failure would often be significant for the company.
But what if we could reduce the risk of these launches early, at the very beginning of a new project?
What if we could reduce the risk of failure by first thinking through the challenges we might face, the ways we might overcome them, the customer needs we need to satisfy, how we might satisfy them and what success might look like if we accomplish all of that?
Well, we can.
We can do that by drawing inspiration from another tech giant, Amazon. One technique popularized by the retail giant is The Future Press Release.
What Is “The Future Press Release” Technique?
Designed for customer-facing “product” teams — teams that create a product or service to be consumed by either B2C or B2B customers regardless of whether it’s a digital or physical product or service this technique is a valuable exercise that forces teams to consider the value of the thing you’re making for your intended audience BEFORE you start working on it. With this technique, the product teams focus on working backwards to write the successful story of their product before they start working on it.
Why do they do this?
The thought behind this process is that if the teams can’t tell a compelling story about the product, the problem it solves and how it succeeded in terms that could be published in a newspaper and understood by the majority of the public, then the concepts they’re considering are too complicated.
It also forces the team to start with the customer—again, working backwards—rather than a set of features. It forces the team to understand the purpose of the work they’re doing rather than just the construction and delivery aspects.
Emulating The Technique
There have been many articles written about Amazon’s “working backward” process, and I recently used many of them as inspiration while leading a room of 300 engineers working on a new connectivity solution for a large telecom company.
However, the “Future Press Release” templates I found were largely identical and, while effective, failed to meet two key components of this conversation that I believe are critical to the success of new digital ventures:
The templates lacked a focus on outcomes. Outcomes are the measurable changes in customer behavior that tell us we’ve delivered something of value, designed and implemented it well and that it solves a real need for a real customer.
The templates lacked a discussion of the collaboration challenges the team needed to overcome— they say no man is an island. Similarly, no team is an island. The projects we work on don’t see the light of day without contact from legal, marketing, brand, risk, compliance and multiple other teams.
I set out to iterate on the templates and add in the missing components.
An Adaptation Of Amazon’s “Press Release” Approach To Plan Customer-Centric Projects By Working Backwards
Here’s my adaptations to Amazon’s “Press Release” approach, which I’ve designed to help you plan customer-centric projects. Use these questions to guide you through the approach:
1. What did you ship?
What is the name of the product and what does it do? Can you explain it in layman’s terms? What is the scope of the project and how does it work?
2. What customer problems does it solve?
This is one of the key components I wanted to clarify in my iteration of this technique. What does this new product help your users or customers do better? More quickly or efficiently? How does it make THEM more successful? This is key to building a customer-centric solution that actually delivers value.
Remember that this is not a listing of features. Your customers don’t want to hear something like “calendar integration” in this section but rather, “Allows users to never miss another meeting regardless of where that meeting information can be found.”
3. How do you know the problem solved those problems?
This is the other piece that was missing in the original versions of this tool. What measurable changes in customer behavior have you observed to indicate that you have indeed solved the problem for your customers and that they love this product?
A great way to get the team thinking about this question now, rather than after your launch, is by asking them, “If we build and launch the best product, what will our users be doing differently than they are today?”
4. What business benefit has been achieved?
Now that our customers are successful, how has that translated into business benefits? Are we making more money? Have we reduced our costs? Is it easier to acquire new customers? In other words, why do we as businesses care about this product?
5. Internal quote from someone involved or invested in this project and its success.
Provide a quote that focuses on how this project improved the customer experience and why the business took it on. This should come from someone involved in the process and invest in its success.
6. Provide a customer quote sharing how this new product made them more successful or helped them achieve something.
Make sure to note who the customer is (the type of user or customer) and what role the product plays in their life and how their life has been improved with this new service.
Remember, again, that while they can certainly mention specific features, customers find value in attaining a personal benefit like having more free time to spend with family, impress the boss or save money.
7. How did the team work together to achieve these results? What challenges did the team overcome to make the product successful?
This is another of my additions. Teams inevitably have to overcome challenges— technical, legal, production, process, etc. What did your team have to do to be successful?
Try to predict the challenges the teams face today to achieving the kind of success you’ve imagined for this product. What would get in the way? How will you collaborate across different groups? Locations? Meet legal requirements? Etc.
8. Provide a call to action.
Now that you’ve made a strong case for all the components of your work, tell people what you want them to do next. For example, “Download it here!” or “Sign up for a free trial on our website.”
How To Put The “Working Backwards” Approach To Good Use
The final step in the working backwards process is putting it all together in a narrative that is compelling and most importantly one that you and the team believe.
If nothing else, remember: If you can’t tell a story that you believe you won’t convince anyone else.
This will take some iteration and you’ll struggle at first to put the narrative together. Take your early drafts outside of the team and show them to a few colleagues. Get that feedback and iterate until you get to a press release that is not only compelling but can be clearly understood by a broad range of the non-technical public.
Final Thoughts On Working Backwards
The goal of working backwards is to ensure we’re always thinking about the customer first. It’s risky and costly to launch products customers don’t want. The Future Press Release process helps teams envision what that end goal might look like, clearly define success in a customer-centric way and begin to consider some of the collaboration challenges they’ll need to overcome to be successful.
With these additions, I believe this approach is even more powerful as it forces us to clearly define our measures of success as changes in customer behavior while challenging the team to build the kind of collaboration they’ll need to succeed today rather than in the future.
Comment and share—I’d love to hear how it works for you.