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Q&A on the Book Fit for Purpose

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Key Takeaways

  • “Fit-for-purpose” is the very simple concept in which a product or service is adequate for the purpose for which the consumer selected the product.
  • Achieving fit-for-purpose in each context can be difficult. Business owners and creators of products and services need a system for understanding their customers’ “why.”
  • The F4P Framework includes guidance on: segmenting your market by customer purpose, determining the criteria customer’s use to make a selection amongst competitors, and a powerful call for action on metrics and KPIs.
  • The F4P Framework combines both narrative- and data-based approaches to sensing customer segments, their criteria and assessing fitness. Your company can use these to serve their customers better and to find the right customers to serve.
  • Understanding market segments defined by purpose and understanding customers’ fitness criteria should be among your business’ core strategic capabilities to ensure organizational alignment and long-term survivability of the business.

The book Fit for Purpose by David Anderson and Alexei Zheglov explores how companies can understand their customers and develop products that fit with the purpose(s) their customers have. It provides a framework to help you understand customers’ purposes, segment your market according to purpose, and manage the portfolio of products and services to create happy customers.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of the Fit for Purpose book.

InfoQ interviewed Anderson and Zheglov about how to better serve customer segments, what software teams can do to learn about their customers, what types of metrics we can use to measure fitness of products or services, and asked them for advice for long-term survivability of businesses.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

David Anderson: I don’t think people take new ideas seriously until there is a book as a reference. Books give legitimacy to concepts.

For me personally, I’m seen partly as an “author”. I hadn’t written an original book for seven years. You can’t be an author and not write. It was time!

Alexei Zheglov: Fitness for purpose became a hot topic for me in the last few years. It came up in my own business and in my clients’ businesses. I took the lead on developing these ideas into new practical guidance as well as applying them in my practice. It was important to publish these, because there was both novelty and pragmatism in them, as people told us through the dialogue at professional conferences and in client engagements. Fortunately, by the middle of the last year, we had enough proven results, advice, examples, and stories for this book.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Anderson: Fit for Purpose is for executives, strategic planners, product managers, product planners, portfolio managers, service designers, service delivery managers, and anyone who wants to understand better how to manage for long-term survival and profitability in the complex and volatile markets of the 21st Century.

Zheglov: David gave a very good list. I’d add the public sector to it: informed citizens and public servants. Our governments often have to decide to fund and design future services, that citizens will then select for some purpose. What determines if they are “fit for purpose”? We’ve got some stories, good and bad.

InfoQ: What is "fit for purpose"?

Anderson: “Fit-for-purpose” is the very simple concept that a product or service is adequate for the purpose for which the consumer selected it. The customer’s purpose may or may not be a purpose for which the creator intended the product or service. We investigate several variants in the book - fit for a purpose that was intended; not fit for the intended purpose; fit, but not for the intended purpose.

Zheglov: “Fit-for-purpose” is a simple concept indeed. But its embodiment in every specific context of some customer need or, well, purpose, can be quite far from obvious and very difficult to achieve. Customers’ purpose can itself be elusive. Customers also choose intuitively from their options. From the point of view of the business owner, or the creator of products or services, it would be useful to have some system for understanding customers’ purpose and criteria that matter in customer selection. We’ve developed such a system and incorporated it into our “fit for purpose” concept.

InfoQ: How can we use the fit-for-purpose framework to better serve customer segments?

Anderson: The “Fit-for-Purpose Framework” is the name for the collection of ideas, concepts and tools described in the book. Use of the framework will help you understand customers’ purposes and segment your market according to purpose. Further, it will help you identify the criteria that those customers use for selection - why they chose your product or service over another - and their thresholds for fitness against each criterion.

It’s about learning the features and functions your customers care about - in terms of selection - and the bar you have to measure against to produce acceptable capability or performance. The whole concept is predicated on the notion that fitness-for-purpose has a direct causation with customer satisfaction. Once you understand what people care about, and the threshold levels that represent “good enough”, then you can establish metrics and measures to drive improvement within your organization.

Zheglov: Indeed, the F4P Framework can reveal the fitness criteria so that we can see how we can improve our product or service as it is perceived by some customer segment. But serving a customer segment better is not the only possibility. Sometimes, the fitness criteria show we’re serving it well enough already. It may be important not to overserve the segment, particularly if the overserving may come at a high cost, open an opportunity for our competition, or have a side effect of turning off another valuable segment. In other cases, the segment may not be our target. It this case, we may switch it off altogether.

InfoQ: What's your view on using personas to build products or services that suit people's needs?

Anderson: I’ve been a fan of personas since the late 90’s when Alan Cooper’s book, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” was published. I was actively using personas on the first FDD (Feature-driven Development) project at UOB (United Overseas Bank) in Singapore during that time. Afterward, I introduced it at Nokia in 2000 and published some articles about it along with an extensive interview with Alan Cooper. So I am a fan!

However, personas are actually just part of Cooper’s methodology for interaction design called Goal-directed Design (GDD). The core concept is that all users have a goal. Personas should be developed for each goal. The designer should then seek to enable the user to achieve the goal.

It’s important to realize that our book, and the Fit-for-Purpose Framework isn’t directly a tool for usability and user experience design. The F4P Framework is a tool for business success, marketing, strategy, and market research.

The alignment between F4P Framework and GDD is that Cooper advocated all personas should be developed around a single goal, while typically companies, still 20 years later, are designing personas around market segments. The segmentation is usually based on traditional demographics and Cooper advocated this was wrong, outdated and flawed. A “purpose” in the F4P Framework and a “goal” in GDD are essentially the same thing. So use of the F4P Framework in strategic planning and marketing will help properly align market segmentation enabling designers to use personas properly, as Cooper intended.

Zheglov: If you want to use personas, the F4P Framework will help you get personas right! You will avoid the dangerous substitution of purpose with demographic categories, which is the mistake we see many companies make.

This mistake is far from limited to the software industry. I just came home from a business trip to Florida. I flew on a well-known airline, which divides itself into two brands, one for business travel and one for leisure. My destination was served by the “leisure” brand, because it was in Florida! Never mind Florida is also the third-largest state and home to many large corporate offices. The airline’s service would’ve probably suited me fine if I was going to the beach. But it was designed -- and quite thoroughly implemented, with various rules for the airlines employees to follow -- to be a poor fit for my actual purpose.

InfoQ: What can software teams do to learn about the customers of their software?

Zheglov: Software teams can learn that all choices, even subtle ones, about software architecture, design, the development process, practices, and team working agreements can have profound effects on the fitness of their product from the customer’s point of view. Understanding their customers, their different purposes, and their fitness criteria can therefore inform choices of team composition, work agreements, practices, and so on. Choices that are great in the context of one customer purpose can prove unfit or suboptimal in others. Therefore, it also helps not to have a preconceived notion of proper process solution or methodology and not to judge the existing one. By exploring fit-for-purpose, companies can also learn that time-in-process matters almost universally. But the key determinant of time-in-process is not the team performance, but how various teams, groups and departments of the company interact with each other. This realization can stimulate the acts of leadership needed for improvement. We’re confident that fit-for-purpose will help companies achieve unity of purpose -- when teams and individuals make many decisions autonomously, but these decisions align with the common strategy.

Anderson: It’s important to have a definition for “customer”. Customers are the people who actually select your product and service and pay for it. Customers and users are not equivalents. In the book, our character Neeta buys pizza for her development team and for her children. She isn’t the consumer of the pizza, she’s the person who selected the restaurant and placed the order.

So, the F4P Framework is designed to help anyone in professional services, including software developers, understand why someone selects them, and what that someone cares about in terms of design, implementation and service delivery. This becomes particularly important in an internal supply situation where the service provider, such as software development, is a monopoly supplier. The F4P Framework will help software developers understand what they need to be focused on, in order to create happy customers for their service. These people are probably referred to as “business owners”, “product managers”, “stakeholders” or by some other similar term. The end user of the software is less directly important, with respect to the F4P Framework, where it is the software developers asking “who is our customer, and what do they expect?” For example, the customer and stakeholders may be the senior executives of the bank, and the banking regulatory authority. What they expect is updates delivered and functioning in production on or before the deadline for new rules to commence. When the entire business is asking of its consumers, “who are our consumers and what do they expect (of our software)?”, then the consumer who makes the purchasing decision becomes the focus of analysis.

InfoQ: What types of metrics can we use to measure fitness of products or services?

Anderson: I think one of, if not the most important, lessons from the book is that you don’t know what metrics matter until you understand the customer’s purpose and their selection criteria and thresholds for each criterion. The metrics that matter are the fitness criteria used for selection. We suggest these become the “key performance indicators” or KPIs. There are, however, commonly recurring fitness criteria - delivery time, quality (both functional and non-functional), conformance to safety of regulatory requirements, and perhaps price (but in relational to the levels of the other three).

Zheglov: Time to market will certainly be among those metrics. We also call it lead time, because – ask two questions, “when do we need it?” and “when should we start?” – one of these moments precedes (leads) the other by this much. We differentiate several characteristics of time: duration, predictability, timeliness. For companies whose products or services have a short shelf life and companies facing lots of regulatory demand, predictability and timeliness are usually very important capabilities to have. In the SaaS context, there will likely be a number of functional (does your product have this feature?) and non-functional fitness criteria. The latter will include various “-ilities” (number of concurrent users, latency, mean time to repair or between failures, etc.) and may be hard to achieve. There may be several conformance criteria as well.

However, “the metrics universe is vast already and it continues to expand!” Companies are already drowning in data and metrics. As David said, it is crucial to understand the customer’s purpose first. Then make sure you measure the relatively few fitness criteria your customers use, consciously or not, for selection. Furthermore, the fitness criteria and their  threshold values will be different in different market segments. Therefore, it’s important to assess fit-for-purpose not only in the aggregate, but separately for each segment.

InfoQ: What's your advice for long-term survivability of businesses?

Zheglov: Businesses take risks every day. Therefore, to survive over the long term, it is necessary that the risk of ruin, a catastrophic failure, be very small, preferably zero. A long-surviving business must be robust. Take the risks you can measure, manage the risks you take. Interestingly, part of the knowledge we developed about fit-for-purpose is about what you could pursue instead of pursuing fit-for-purpose. For example, a company could exploit its monopoly position. Or it could establish a loyalty point scheme to lock the customers in. Or it could raise lots of capital and use it to underprice fitter competitors until they drop out. What do all these and several other possible approaches have in common? They’re all fragile. And time breaks down the fragile.

Imagine a large bank that may be somewhat worried today about fintech startups. For each of these fintechs, there’s a market segment, defined by purpose – and this is an important distinction- by purpose and not by geography or demographics (see the earlier Q&A about personas). The startup aims to serve this segment, hitting their fitness criteria perfectly. Fit-for-purpose offers opportunities for the large bank, too. These opportunities are in finding such segments continually and exploiting them by delivering fit-for-purpose products or services. Multiple segments and fit-for-purpose offerings then form a diversified, robust portfolio of products and services.

Anderson: The thesis is simple: business survivability comes from having happy customers who select your products or services again and again. However, the landscape is always changing. It is very complex. Customers and other stakeholders change their opinions and tastes or their purposes change, as they grow and their life circumstances change. Ultimately, the entire identity of a business can be at risk and its survival at stake because a new technology obviates the need for the existing solutions.

Alexei gives a good answer. It highlights the breadth, depth and richness of the topic. We found that we couldn’t document everything we know about business survivability or fitness-for-purpose in a single volume, so we plan a trilogy of books on Business Survivability of which Fit-for-Purpose is the first. How to stay fit-for-purpose in the face of nimble insurgents as Alexei describes in fintech will be a key focus of the second book. It is important to know how to stay fit-for-purpose as the external conditions change - as customer tastes and expectations change, as regulations change, as market segments come and go.

Beyond that strategic planners and business owners need to know how to survive disruptive, discontinuous innovation or significant regulatory changes. Leaders need to avoid traps in their company’s culture that mean they will fail to bridge across to a new generation of products and services that meet the expectation of a new generation of customers. Nokia’s failure in the smartphone market is an example that was avoidable. Often the identity or self-image of a business is a major factor in its failure. The sociology and culture of a business can be engineered. Culture is a product of values and actions. A culture that is too conformist can lead to catastrophic failures known as “group think errors.” Errors like these occurred at Nokia and at Royal Bank of Scotland. There is a lot to be said about culture and leadership. The idea of a leader as a social engineer - someone who can lead an identity change, a shift in values, a change of culture - what we call “Level 6 Leadership!”

About the Book Authors

David J Anderson is an innovator in management thinking for 21st Century businesses. He is chairman of Lean Kanban Inc., a training, consulting, events, and publishing business, making new ideas accessible to managers across the globe. He has more than 30 years’ experience in the high-technology industry, starting with games in the early 1980’s. He worked at IBM, Sprint, Motorola, and Microsoft, as well as a number of startup businesses. He is the pioneer of both the Kanban Method and Enterprise Services Planning. Follow Anderson on Twitter at @f4p_dja.

Alexei Zheglov is a management consultant based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He was first educated as a mathematician and a software engineer. Then, for many long years, he experienced how modern companies run into all kinds of problems when they try to produce and deliver complex intellectual products or professional services to customers. Nowadays, Zheglov brings pragmatic, actionable guidance to such companies so that they can do better. He does it by running his own consulting and training business, serving a variety of clients, each with their own meaning of “fit-for-purpose.” Follow Zheglov on Twitter at @az1.

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