Small Changes Can Have a Big Effect

It’s important that every product team have a North Star – the ultimate vision and goal for what you hope to achieve with your product. Every decision should be weighed against whether or not it aligns with and helps the team reach said North Star. Unfortunately, this can often lead to enormous undertakings in the hopes of reaching our final destination as quickly as possible. When instead, we’d often be better suited to make small incremental changes that in aggregate can have a massive effect.

When trying to establish a new personal habit, the common advice is to start small and build a foundation. Focus on lots of little wins in order to build a positive feedback loop. If after multiple attempts you’re unable to positively enact change, only then does it make sense to make drastic changes. The same advice holds true for product development. Figure out what your product currently does well, or what your foundation is, and then begin mapping out small quick wins to build on your success and keep you headed in the direction of your North Star.

It can be very tempting to build an amazing new feature – the one that you just know in your heart of hearts is going to change the trajectory of the business. During my time at CoachUp (prior to my move into a fulltime product role) we had a few instances where people were convinced that a certain feature was all we needed to 10x the business. Unfortunately, nothing that we’ve built has had that effect. This is not to say that these ‘business changers’ were all failures; some did move the needle in the right direction and they were all learning experiences – but we didn’t suddenly start printing money once they went live.

Instead, we had the most success when we focused on smaller wins that improved the core CoachUp experience; e.g. finding, booking and training with a coach. This aligns with our North Star of making it easy and accessible for anyone to train with a private coach and increase their athletic confidence. These small wins add up – one particular success was when we improved the response time of our coaches to client inquiries by over 50% without making any huge changes or launching any new features. By making small tweaks over several weeks, we were able to move our KPIs up and to the right drastically. Now this is not to say that we didn’t build large new features or that you should avoid building large new features entirely, but rather it’s important to do so for the right reasons and that you have an iterative approach for implementation, allowing you to learn and adjust accordingly.

The large scale attempts to launch a completely new product or to try something that deviates from what has worked previously can come later, once the company is more of a scaleup and less of a startup. At that point, you’ll have the luxury to take moonshots, without sacrificing survivability – in the earlier days though, you don’t have the resources to afford whiffing on a large development investment. The only time it might make sense is if small improvements aren’t enough to get you to your next round of funding, and a Hail Mary is your only option.

A hockey stick style growth curve, when zoomed in on any particular area doesn’t look like much, but sustained improvement over time can add up to a whole lot. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will you achieve your full product vision overnight. But if you keep iterating, improving and learning you might get there eventually – just remember there are no shortcuts and ‘overnight’ successes are rarely, if ever, the reality.