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By Jeff Wing
August 7, 2016
“Shut up and listen.”
This is not a shouted directive in the middle of a heated discussion, but the guiding philosophy of Procore Technologies’ innovation model.
Procore’s cloud-based project management solution for the construction industry presently dominates the market, not so much because its software developers are far-seeing brainiacs from another dimension (though they may be), but because of the customer-centric innovation model noted above.
“I would say at least 90% of the things that we build come from customer suggestions,“ Procore Product Manager Tim Weyel says. “That's the way we want it. It’s what sets Procore apart. We're not making assumptions about the solutions that people need; we're actually going into the field and talking to them.“
For Procore, staying relevant means racing ahead, and that is all about letting the client drive. After all, the client owns the vehicle, the journey, and the destination. Procore is just drawing the map. Not that it’s easy to render a landscape as one is driving at great speed across it. This is where the brainiacs come in. But first comes the client's approach. The process may begin with the conversational approach of a General Contractor (GC), who in the course of a regularly scheduled phone chat comes forward with a “pain point”, a problem that really needs solving.
“Typically, the customer is on a call with their CSM (Customer Success Manager), “ Weyel says. “And the customer says, ‘Hey, I have this problem. Can you help me out with it?’ Our CSM says, ‘Of course I'll help you out with that!’
The Procore developers then take the stated problem, form an innovation scrum around it and start tossing ideas around. Once the development team zeroes in on a strategy and takes the definitive reins on the new product or modification, the process becomes more formalized. Weyel spells it out.
“We'll start a discovery phase. That’s when the Product Manager and the UX (user interface) Designer and probably the Lead Developer set up phone calls with the originating client, to see what their specific thoughts are, to find out exactly how the client would like the thing to behave.”
As soon as the client’s idea has definable legs, the development and UX teams throw themselves onto what is, in effect, a highly engineered dogpile. While the UX folks are busily devising mockups and prototypes based on input from the development (dev) and engineering teams, the dev team begins building the very basic foundation onto which they will meticulously add the component features, layer upon exacting layer.
As the new product is built out in stages, each stage is rolled out as a sort of discrete product release, until over a short period of time the whole enchilada has been made available. So to speak.
Weyel suggests this process of incremental release is more than just a byproduct of the dev process. It is a combination of product caretaking and ongoing service to the client.
“It helps us keep our technical debt in check by doing it in these small increments. It also allows us to continually deliver value by releasing something tool by tool, or feature by feature, instead of waiting for everything to be done and then throwing it out there. This way the client sees immediately that you’re working on the problem, and that the process is continual. You're fixing things. You're making it better. You're improving experience.”
Sometimes finding the solution means battling your way downfield. Will the Procore developers make it to the goal? Yep. But getting there can require some acrobatic twists and turns and side trips – and the ingenuity to make the solution feel as elegant as a straight line.
Now, there have long been industry processes for getting the needs of “the market” into a product’s evolution. A focus group may be carefully convened and the various viewpoints and responses analyzed to form an action plan. Or a Needs Assessment may be distributed to the market sector and the (typically limited) survey responses gathered into a forward-looking product strategy. And then there is the Procore Ask:
“So, is this thing doing everything you want it to?”
The client is at the center of Procore’s innovation fusion-reaction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Innovation Lab. Weyel explains the concept.
“An innovation lab is a two to three-day workshop where we bring in anywhere from three to five clients. An entire development team sits in a conference room with them for four hours each day, and the clients talk about problems they have on the jobsite and in the field; and they all start to brainstorm solutions. The dev team will actually create mockups or prototypes during this whole process and bring them to the client the next day to get more feedback and refine the solution.”
Whoa. That’s giving the client a lot of responsibility, isn’t it?
“The client just absolutely loves seeing that,” Weyel says. “And it's great for our developers in particular to hear the challenges the clients are facing––without a filter, without any translation. Just hearing directly from a person struggling to find a solution.”
Given Procore’s position and growth in the construction software marketplace, it may surprise some to learn that the all-important innovation process at the company is so…conversational? Shouldn’t something as mission-critical as product innovation be driven by…I don’t know…an algorithm or a committee or something? Weyel gets serious.
“You need to keep that one-to-one communication with the client there or you're going to start to lose valuable feedback. When you try to automate things, or put them through filters –– “
He pauses, looking for the words, then breaks into a sudden grin.
“Look, the fewer hands a great idea passes through, the less you're going to lose. That’s the biggest secret to Procore’s success.”
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