startups · Clock9 min · 13 Jun 2022

Differences Between Project and Product Mindset in Software Development

Victor Lavrentyev

Victor Lavrentyev

Chief Information Officer

product and project difference
Illustration by Amir Kerr

There is a whole gamut of factors that can either make or break the development process. However, the majority of those factors revolve around one main thing — your product. 

Product thinking puts customer needs at the heart of software development and builds up value through real-time feedback. Its antagonist, the project-centered mindset, is more rigid and adamant. Project-first teams repeat the mantra of “on time, on budget, on scope” and religiously follow the project documentation.

But what augurs well for your company? Today, we’ll look at the difference between the project and product approaches as well as give you some battle-tested tips on building product-first teams.

What is a Product-Oriented Mindset?

Product-oriented development is a pragmatic and adaptive approach that prioritizes business needs, targets, and outcomes over timelines and estimates. Within this framework, the team puts all its effort into achieving the big final picture and delivering maximum value to the end user. At a high level, this thinking is a part of the Agile software development methodology.

When pushed to the extreme, the product mindset resembles noncommercial art. The artist is devoted to creating a masterpiece, not minding deadlines or the effort it takes. Similarly, the team may get caught up in iterations and product enhancements. Therefore, accurate deadlines can sometimes be hard to estimate in the product-first approach (at least up front).

What is a Project-Oriented Mindset?

A project-oriented mindset focuses on predefined deliverables and timelines. Its main goal is to finalize the software development on time, within budget, and with a preset scope. The team follows a well-documented project specification that lists deliverables and business needs. At a high level, this thinking is a part of the Waterfall software development methodology.

The extreme version of this approach is when the development team blindly follows the project specification. In this case, business objectives and user needs fade into the background, and the product may not align with the desired result. Project thinking means building and deploying features like a relay race.

Why are Businesses Choosing a Product Mindset over a Project Mindset?

According to Gartner, around 85% of organizations favor a product-centric application delivery model. The approach clicks with the ever-present need for quick delivery, digital business transformation, and the dominance of Agile methods.

plans for using a product-oriented approach.png
Source: Gartner

The product-friendly mindset is also the best friend for juggernauts like Slack, Google, and Apple. But it’s not the product itself that spawns this attitude. Instead, it’s a culture that embraces flexibility and supports change. 

Therefore, the main difference between the product and project mindsets is that the product-oriented one ushers in more agility, thus improving customer experiences. But that’s not the only benefit you get when elevating from project to product.

Lower development costs

Project-driven development relies on one-time phases with clear start and stop dates. The phases are largely governed by project documentation that outlines the system specs. It means that an unplanned feature change or modification rarely fits into the clear-cut project mindset. This, in turn, maximizes the risk of product irrelevance for the real user.

The product-oriented mindset lives off real-time user needs. According to Accenture, this methodology promotes an iterative software development process done in continuous and incremental loops. The team first plans the functionality and then enhances it based on user feedback. This reduces the need for redevelopment and delivers long-term savings.

High-quality product

When the entire team is focused on the product, its quality will inevitably increase. The product mindset also diverts developers’ attention to identifying valuable end-user experiences. User-centricity, continuous application enhancement, and the app’s end value as a landmark all contribute to creating impeccable solutions. Product success is measured based on the delivery of value to the user.

However, if the team members are panicking about deadlines, they tend to squeeze the maximum number of tasks within one development stage. Therefore, the project mindset doesn’t foster product excellence. Instead, deadlines and documentation take the lead.

More flexibility

The product-oriented development life cycle relies on the learn and improve principle. While the planning stage is also present, the team works their way up based on the stakeholders’ and users’ feedback. Therefore, deadlines do not dominate over the product value. The product approach is also open to changes and application enhancements.

Product story.png
Product story

Project-driven development, on the contrary, hinges on plan conformity and focuses on documenting the solution specs, overlooking the end-user needs. 

Closer collaboration between stakeholders and developers

A project-centered approach distances the development team from the client. Instead of communicating value and impediments, the team reports status and spending. The entire project sticks to the predefined plan, sprints, and customer requirements identified early in the process. 

Product teams, on the other hand, maintain a stable and continuous rapport with the stakeholders. This philosophy emphasizes closer collaboration and information sharing between stakeholders and team members to ensure better alignment. This knowledge-sharing wheel, in turn, allows for quick decision-making and pivots throughout the process. The team acts and plans iterations based on stakeholders’ feedback.

collaboration in a product team.png
Collaboration between stakeholders and developers in a product-oriented team

How Can You Build a Product-Oriented Team?

A product-first attitude cannot be developed overnight. Product-oriented development teams look at the full picture to understand the outcome of the development process, instead of focusing on their input. Product-centricity is a shared company culture that is pronounced in all processes. 

Below, we’ve collected some best practices that will help you make the shift from project to product.

Establish alignment between business and IT

Product-centricity, first and foremost, requires direct involvement and communication that comes from both sides. It’s not unilateral reporting or inanimate specifications that connect developers and stakeholders. It’s keeping communication lines open so that both parties can articulate their vision and come up with a shared solution idea.

To set up a viable communication loop, your development team should include product-centric roles that bridge business and technology. A typical makeup may include a product manager and business analysts as well as tech leads and DevOps architects. While the first two are responsible for the business component in the development process, tech leads and DevOps architects are behind the technical side of the process. 

Give more enablement to your development team

It may seem that developers are people of solitude that build solutions in strict compliance with layouts and assigned tasks. However, the difference between the product and project approaches in software engineering is that product teams get a say in defining the right technological approach.

Developing a value-packed solution presupposes technological choices that influence the way a component or module is built. To make the right choice, a software engineer should know first-hand the overriding goals of the product.

Moreover, the developer can and should introduce valuable changes into the solution design and system documentation. These changes can help the team to achieve the goals more effectively through:

  • Reduced development time and costs;
  • Improved system performance and resource requirements;
  • Increased architectural flexibility for product enhancement;
  • Minimized bottlenecks, and more.

From estimates to value

In his book Project to Product, Mik Kirsten describes the Flow framework that is designed to measure and manage software delivery in a different, product-based way. The author suggests embracing faster feedback loops and structuring the process according to product value streams. Thus, the flow should be distributed between features, defects, risks, and debts. The team should adapt to and act on those four components, instead of following an upfront project plan.

While it’s not necessary to adopt this exact flow, the Flow framework illustrates the beacon of product-oriented teams: value. Delivery and value should radiate in all directions through demos, visualizations, and brainstorms to reinforce the product-backed vision. 

Embrace the change

Having a product mentality also includes a change-ready attitude. The product gets continuous improvements done in iterations until the solution is polished to a tee. Every iteration introduces changes to the scope of a product and results in creative alternatives and new scenarios. Therefore, small experiments with incremental goals should become a routine for your product-oriented team.

However, your team shouldn’t stick to frequent and never-ending change requests. Any change should be validated and verified by the key specialists and aligned with the rest of the development process. 

We recommend accumulating change requests in a backlog and grouping them by purpose. This way, the team can review each change, based on the architecture, business goals, audience, and UX, to seamlessly integrate it into the solution.

Promote domain expertise

Project thinking encourages exchangeable talent that moves from project to project. Teams might be formed at random based on a member’s availability. Conversely, product philosophy fosters dedicated teams that own the end-to-end development process and are hired for long-term collaboration. 

Persistent teams are stable entities that acquire domain expertise and skill horizontally. This, in turn, leads to a better understanding of the domain market and objectives, thus contributing to a valuable solution.

Strengthen Agile and DevOps adoption

Great software delivery is a constant loop, not a linear process. Product-focused development teams employ Agile best practices to enable continuous deployment and accelerate velocity. The latter is courtesy of the DevOps methodology that is seamlessly embedded into the product mindset. 

The DevOps practice allows for more frequent and meaningful deployments. Thus, 76% of DevOps adopters leverage the approach to enable faster development cycles. At the same time, 61% say DevOps practices helped them produce higher-quality deliverables.

Value customer-centricity 

According to CIO, 95% of CIOs think that their role goes beyond traditional IT responsibilities, with customer experience topping the priorities. The same goes for product-oriented teams, in which the focus should be switched from the system to the customer. 

Your entire development roadmap is guided by customer feedback, customer journey mapping, and data analytics as opposed to system capabilities and limitations. Customer-centricity will help the team gain a greater perspective about the product from a consumer’s standpoint, thus making it loaded with end value.

To sum up, we’ve listed the milestones of shifting from project to product:

FromTo

Seclusion

Isolated teams with assigned responsibilities that work according to predetermined specifications

Inclusion

Dedicated teams directly engaged in the planning process that suggest new solution ideas

 

Output

Activity-based value

Outcome

Result-based value

System

The development process prioritizes system needs

Customer

The development process prioritizes customer needs

Sequential

The product is delivered at the late stages of development

 

Flexible

The software lifecycle is divided into small iterations, each delivering a new feature or product enhancement at the end of the iteration

How to Hire for a Product Mindset

Traditionally, teams work in silos, each managing a specific part of the software development lifecycle. The product-oriented approach aligns your team structure to create clear ownership and a reporting hierarchy that connects project and product.

Below, we’ve identified the main job roles present in a product-oriented team.

Product owner 

This specialist is responsible for the product value. Product owners focus on product thinking and make sure the solution is aligned with the needs of the business and its customers. They are a single point of contact representing customer requirements and expectations in the product backlog.

Business analyst

Just like product owners, business analysts, or BAs, represent the product side of the development process. BAs are solely responsible for bridging the gap between technology and business through eliciting, analyzing, and validating business requirements. The latter will lay the foundation for technical specifications.

Project manager 

Project managers stand on the other side of the process and guard the project’s deadlines. They are in charge of managing the development process and tying it to specific timelines and deliverables.

Quality assurance engineers

Being commonly associated with bug fixes, quality assurance (QA) specialists also act as the first real users. They make sure the final product meets the predetermined business requirements and supports the user journey. QAs dive deep into the business logic of the product and have business analysts on speed dial to better understand the business value of the solution. They also make sure the final solution is pixel-perfect and defect-free.

UX/UI designers

These product-oriented experts transform a business idea into a user-friendly and aesthetic interface. UX/UI designers also ensure the usability of the solution and its seamless user flow. They are guided by their creativity regardless of the project’s deadlines. Therefore, UX/UI designers should validate their vision with the development team to deliver the product on time.

Development team

Your development team should also merge the two sides of the development process: project and product. A typical setup may include:

  • A tech lead or software architect promotes the product vision and develops the big picture of the process. They are responsible for establishing the high-level system architecture to ensure a stable foundation for the future solution.
  • DevOps engineers introduce processes, tools, and approaches to support the development flow and facilitate deployments. They promote agility and optimize delivery through continuous integration and delivery.
  • The team lead is the senior team developer responsible for a specific application module or the application in general. They work closely with the tech lead to make technological decisions.
  • Developers or software engineers are directly involved in the development process. They apply their tech expertise to design and develop a solution. Developers report to the team lead and can make low-level technological decisions.

As you see, a product-oriented team structure should still include project-motivated roles to make sure deadlines and deliverables are not compromised.

Get the Best of the Two Worlds

Acting on products over projects doesn’t mean you should simply overlook the deadlines or bail on system requirements. Instead, product thinking is born at the intersection of value streams and predictability. Being product-first also means putting user experience first and nurturing the synergy between IT and the business.

Elevating to a product mindset and collaborating with a product development partner helps set up product-centric teams focused on high-quality digital solutions that make a difference. Contact us to start your product transformation.

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