think

Build, measure, learn. Move fast and break things. These are guiding principals for many who build digital products. They place a premium on the short term, a cycle of building quickly, evaluating success and starting over. While such strategies help creators survive in the here and now, they don’t always ensure long-term success.

Let’s face it, it’s easy for life to be consumed by checking off a sea of pressing to-do list items. If you’re working solo or you’re part of a small team, scarce resources often make it even easier to get lost in short-term thinking and everyday tasks. Deep down, you know you should spend more time contemplating your product’s long-term direction, but just keeping things together is a full time job as is.

“If you complain that you don’t have enough time to do this, then that’s even more of a reason that it needs to be done — the reason you’re probably so busy now is because you haven’t devoted enough time to long-term planning,” says Jeff Lash, Service Director, of Product Management at Sirius Decisions.

Neglecting forward-looking thought means your competitors could eat away at your business, your product could go stale in the eyes of customers, or worse: you could wind up building yourself into a dead end. So, what can you do to avoid walking straight into extinction? Let’s take a look at a few tactics.

Awareness

As cliche as it is, admitting that you have a problem is the first step to solving it. Now that you know the trap of short-term thinking exists, you’re halfway to avoiding it.

Regularly set aside time to think of the future

Consistently set aside some time to check in on your long term goals, assess how things are going, and experiment. Not only is the frequency of these sessions important, but the amount of time you devote to them is too. Melissa Mandelbaum, Product Designer at Percolate, says taking a few hours to contemplate and brainstorm the future of a product is good for “fuzzy” ideas about the future, but it doesn’t provide ample time to “dig really deep and explore.”

Last year, the entire Percolate product design team took a month off from their product roadmap to dive into research projects. This might not be possible for most, but it can produce great results.

“The permission to think big, with a healthy allocation of time led to some very exciting longer term visions for the product,” Mandelbaum says. “This was by far one of the most interesting and exciting design experiences I’ve had to date. Aside from being fun, it was also entirely useful. Over the past six months, the product team has turned to the learnings from these research projects to help guide the roadmap. Although, the designers are now focused again on more short-medium term thinking, we design with a clearer longer term picture in mind.”

You might not be able to sacrifice a whole month, but the important thing is that you don’t consider thinking about the future a waste of time.

Work Backwards

Don’t think of your work as a snowball effect where you build upon small pieces towards a greater goal. Instead, take a cue from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and picture the long term goal and deconstruct what you need to reach it. Sure, this is more of a mental technique than anything else, but it helps you plan more wisely. Rather than building on the strengths and tools you already have, this approach encourages you to concentrate on those you’ll need.

“Eventually the existing skills will become outmoded. Working backwards … demands that we acquire new competencies and exercise new muscles, never mind how uncomfortable and awkward-feeling those first steps might be,” Bezos says.

Explore in Parallel

Always keep a side project or two going to explore your options and build new skills. If you’re fortunate enough to be working with a large team, empowering a small group to test ideas and work on experiments could provide the long-term thought you need.

Robert Brunner, a former Director of Industrial Design at Apple, coined the term “parallel design investigations” for groups performing a similar function. What’s more, Brunner often used consultants for these tasks, as they “want to build their portfolio and will compete to do the most interesting work.”

How do you keep yourself focused on the long-term vision of your products? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credit: Scott Smith, Flickr]

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